I’d promised TomCat that I’d attempt to find a quality modern locked room mystery this week, but the book I was going to look at — Lord Darcyverse continuation novel Ten Little Wizards (1988) by Michael Kurland — has (miraculously…?) vanished. So instead, here’s a revival of another occasional series: a selective pick through some self-published impossible crime stories in search of the gold that doubtless exists there somewhere.
Untouchable (2016) is the first in a series that currently runs to five volumes featuring newly-relocated Detective Sergeant Blake Harte. Abandoning the bustle of Manchester following the end of a relationship, he finds himself in the quaint Heartbeat-esque surrounds of Harmschapel just in time for a seemingly impossible murder to occur: a man locked alone in a secure shed (abandon every hope, all ye who seek gaps in the walls), a shot rings out, and the door is opened to reveal a fresh corpse. CCTV shows no-one nearby except someone who is provably innocent, so who- and howdunnit?
Now, I can’t deny that this has flaws. It is, especially in the resolution of its impossible murder, a problematic piece of work. But there’s also something quite promising at the heart of this that I have to confess has me more interested in Innes’ other self-published novellas than I feel I should be. In many ways, Innes is clearly feeling his way as a writer here — most of the framing here is rather heavy on familiarity (we open with Harte lost down county lanes in search of his new home, and have the whole “he wakes up in the morning and bangs his head on the low ceiling” routine), and his grammar is a little distracting at times — but there is also some wonderfully dry humour, like prising information from a reluctant interview subject being akin to “trying to ask a teenager to do the washing up”, or the following when Blake meets his superior for the first time:
“Inspector Royale.” The man said, shaking Blake’s hand. “Welcome aboard. Found the place alright, then?”
“Sir.” Replied Blake. He had never understood why anyone asked that question to people standing right in front of them.
Oh, yeah, we should address the dialogue attribution thing, just for disclosure. Where in the middle of action the dialogue is typically ended with a comma and then a lower case attribution, Innes tends to put a full stop as if starting a new sentence. So, that second paragraph above should begin:
“Sir,” replied Blake. He had never…
I don’t love this, but at least his dialogue sounds like words that real people would say to each other, so it’s not super distracting once you get used to it. And I really do think Innes deserves some extra credit for telling his story in as efficient a way as possible — this novella is (you’re informed at the start) 33,000 words, and Innes ain’t hanging around just to pad his word-count. You get backstory, new house, flirty landlady, new colleagues (a suitably diverse bunch), murder, investigation, a few personal asides, resolution, and then…
Well, we’ll come to “and then” in due course.
The murder and the investigation are, for my money, reasonably well-handled, and hit a few grace notes for the enthusiast. We get the good old “investigator fancies the chief suspect” motif (and the suspect fancies him right back…), since Harrison Baxter is under suspicion for the murder of his abusive boyfriend, and a moderate puzzle element creeps into the setup as things progress, with a couple of nice little reversals come the ending that show a slightly tighter plot than might have been expected and bode well for future instalments. It’s all hewn out of the sort of things people would do, and plays well off the different tensions within both the Baxter household and the team of investigators trying to unpick it all. Sure, it’s not James Ellroy, but you’ve definitely read worse attempts at this.
No mud shall be slung today.
So it’s with regret that I have to tell you that the answers offered are a bit of a shame. The “how” of Daniel Donaldson’s murder is…look, I can completely see what Innes was trying to do. I really can. From a certain perspective, his method is bloody brilliant and deserves credit for the…if not originality (this could be argued as a mash-up of two methods from different yet well-known sources) then at least the linking of two similar ideas. It’s smart. But, dude, it is neither realistic nor practicable, or at least there’s no reason to believe it is since it’s not prepared for in any way. There’s no such thing as a clue in there at all…but, in fairness, that must be at least partly down to the clewing for such an outcome being, like, hard. You can’t even guess at it because the necessary description isn’t there, and in order to keep it as a surprise Innes resorts to a certain amount of “Blake read the report and suddenly saw how the thing was done…” non-declaration, but that was the one real chance to provide a hint as to the workings. It’s difficult to recommend, because it really does come out of nowhere in a way that’s difficult to defend beyond its potential.
As to the “why” and the need for this to be an impossible murder…well, 50% of the motive is superb, and 50% doesn’t work at all until you realise one of the plot developments that Innes hides pretty well and how closely these things interweave. This is part of why I can’t just dismiss Innes out of hand, because the guy really does have something good here; no, this won’t be the best thing I read this year, it’s not even the best of my Adventures in Self-Publishing, but the promise displayed gives me hope that at some point he’s going to pull it all together a bit more convincingly and write if not quite a masterpiece then at least something that’ll be worthy of the time and money of most people.
See, because that dangling “and then” from above comes into play at the end, and it just makes this a bit more accomplished for me. I don’t know how to get into it without spoiling it — it’s not a twist or any sort of narrative shock, more just something that shows a fidelity to his characters that I admire quite hugely. He could tell his story and round up on an entirely understandable note, but instead we get a wrinkle that nudges this more towards the sort of universe I’d return to. And someone who is clearly in the early days of trying their hand at this making such a mature decision elevates it as an undertaking to something that displays a keen insight behind the failings on display. And I will take that — hell, I want to see that in these AiSP, and so while I can’t recommend this unconditionally, I possess the next in this series and have high hopes for Innes in the long run.