Two months after reading Untouchable (2016), the first of Robert Innes’ now six-strong series of self-published impossible mysteries, I’m back with the second instalment. This time around, parishioners keep having heart attacks in the confession booth of the small Catholic church in the (aptly named, it must be said) village of Harmschapel. “I think the only suspects you have so far are high cholesterol and God,” DS Blake Harte is told at one point — or is something more sinister going on?
So, where to start?
This is definitely an improvement on Untouchable, with Innes clearly more confident in his scene-setting, his character interactions, and the general structure of events. We’re most certainly in modern crime story territory here — meaning a lot of time is spent with the various lives and dealings of the core cast, especially in the third quarter, which dilutes the focus on the investigation somewhat — but the fact that Innes isn’t desperate to drag this out to hideous length (it’s around 40,000 words and zips by in under a couple of hours) is very pleasing. His integration of personal and plot elements isn’t perfect, they tend to flocculate in alternating chapters, but it’s still a very enjoyable time.
And the central puzzle is a good one: why do people keep dropping dead in the confessional? If they’re being murdered, what links them? Is their god displeased with them? Harte has his own ideas in that direction:
“Out of all those billions of people, I find it hard to believe that He would specifically choose three in Harmschapel to rain His wrath upon. The people in this village have enough difficulty getting their bins collected.”
Which brings me to one of the great strengths of these two novellas: Innes’ wry turn of phrase, never too clever or too polished, and feeling instead like the sort of dry wit and humour people naturally bring to their jobs and surroundings:
“Oh come on, Matti.” Blake grinned “You never seen an episode of Midsomer Murders?”
“Well, yeah…but whenever I’ve seen it, it’s had people being murdered by candlesticks or spanners. One woman got squashed by a big wheel of cheese?”
I like these people, even if I don’t delight in every single aspect of their lives — part of me is always impatient to be getting on with the, y’know, plot — but Innes has done a good job of giving a bit of internal life to his setting. Not many self-published authors manage this, and he should be applauded for it.
Ah, I wondered where you lot had gotten to.
So, how’s that plot, then? Well, both good and bad.
The good: the core idea for these murders is solid, and the explanation of the circumstances that lead to the final death is quietly fabulous in a couple of small ways. You won’t call it in advance — there’s still nothing in the way of clewing, we’ll come to that — but there are ostensibly three suspects to choose between and they’re all given exposure and consideration enough that no-one obviously jumps out to my eye. When the murder method is revealed, too, there are two elements that are superbly developed, one of which results in that quietly fabulous set of circumstances around the final victim. As I said before with Untouchable, Innes has a much tighter hold on certain aspects of his plotting than I think most people would expect, and there are fewer contortions to suddenly make a thing work last minute than most big-deal published authors result to these days (at least in my reading of some of them, anyway). As a central impossibility plot, it all works in a very workable and believable way.
However, the bad: as with Untouchable, Innes again fumbles his essential explanation for how the mechanics of the deaths are achieved. You’re told the method, but the precise workings are…sort of implied rather than explicitly told, and, dude, you need to explicitly spell out these sorts of things in this subgenre. It could be made to work with an extra line or two here or there, but that’s very much me doing the work that is squarely the author’s job — someone else would be fully justified in reading this and coming away decidedly irritated that there’s no clear, definitive explanation given. It doesn’t exactly decimate the credibility of the work he’s done elsewhere, but it’s a shame that the chance is within his grasp and he doesn’t take it more confidently. Also, as mentioned above, there are also zero clues, reducing this to something you watch playing out rather than playing along with, but that will be more of a problem to some people than others. After all, House was essentially a detective show that 98% of its audience didn’t have the specialised knowledge to play along with, and that was huge, so what do I know?
So, look. I’m enthusiastic about Robert Innes’ writing, because there’s an improvement in overall quality here from his first novella that shows someone at a nascent stage of a writing career coming to grips with a still very complex machine in the impossible crime. His settings are great, his ideas enjoyable, his core schemes inventive, and his heart absolutely in the right place. I do believe that somewhere along the way he will write a very, very good impossible crime plot, and I sincerely look forward to continuing this series so that I can chart his inevitable improvements and bring the good news of the breakthrough to you when I see it, but at present — while I certainly don’t dissuade you from reading these two — I’d advise that he’s not quite there on this evidence, and some patience will be required for those of us tuning in now.
I said it before, and I stand by it here: Blake Harte will return…
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing: