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:
14 thoughts on “#389: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Confessional (2016) by Robert Innes”
Sounds like the series might be worth a look. Thanks for the heads-up
The entire purpose of this undertaking was to unearth some unheralded decent self-published stuff, and Innes is certainly on his way to being very good indeed. I’m quite chuffed to’ve stumbled upon something so promising so quickly, to be honest!
I chuckled a few times reading some of the parts you quoted so I could conceive of myself checking it out at some point…
Coupled with that good turn of phrase is the ability to wind together a few plot elements — not everything, but a few when it really matters — in a way that classic mystery fans are going to enjoy. Here’s hoping more of the same follows.
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I read the first one after your review and though it was often clunky with an implausible murder method I did like the sense of humanity and certain touches, such as Blake’s handling of a certain part of the case being realistically criticised. Good to know the series is improving – might give this another try.
The method of the first one…yeah, it really comes out of nowhere; and as I said in my review, I can see what he’s trying to do, but it would be a big ask for anyone to sell that too realisitically. This is an improvement, no doubt, even iit’s still not quite the full package. But I’m actually pretty excited to read further, Innes is doing very good stuff here.
Sounds promising and an improvement on the first title, which you were somewhat hesitant to recommend to me. So, is this one safe for me to consume? I want to give Robert Innes a shot.
The above caveats apply, but this is definitely more your kind of thing than Untouchable would be. The slight vagueness over the method aside, this is pretty strong; I’m hopeful they’ll get better from here, though, so it really depends how much of a rush you’re in…
You certainly got my interest with this writer. I looked at the other titles in this series and they’re all impossible crimes, which get more interesting as you go down the list: hooded murderers who can seemingly walk on water, a car impossibly vanishing into thin air during a high-speed chase and a doctor is drowned while alone and stuck in an elevator!
I wonder if you can read this series out-of-order, because I want to sample Ripples or Flatline.
I’m never going to keep my promise to spread out my locked room reading, am I?
One thing to consider is that the killers in the first one are named fairly prominently herein. Might not always be the case, though — I guess there’s only one way to find out. Well, two.
It’s quite exciting to have someone emerge who is committed to the impossible crime AND prolific with it, I agree. No need to diversify when the pickings are so rich!
Add my name to the list of people who are intrigued, probably sufficiently to order them. Thanks for bringing news of them to us!
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I will agree with you that CONFESSIONAL is an immense improvement over the first episode (I can’t call it a novel or even a novella). Harmschapel is more alive, the characters are more varied in age and personality and I didn’t feel as if I was reading a soap opera with a meager mystery element added as in UNTOUCHABLE. The village wasn’t a miserable place populated with nothing but damaged people with loads of emotional baggage caught in abusive relationships. This actually started to feel like a real detective story with a real investigation by a team who collaborated. However, I was disappointed with how this one played out and the mess of an ending.
For me Innes’ biggest flaw as a writer is his largely naive and youthful worldview. Everyone was obsessed with dating and playing on Tinder and jumping into bed with one another. This is even extended to the inclusion of the randy “middle-aged” landlady Jacqueline who flirts with every man she sets eyes on. Why wasn’t at least one person happy with being single and alone and secure in their job? Maybe that person is Inspector Royale who hardly appears in these stories anyway. No one thought about real life matters of substance or focussed on their jobs first. It’s amazing anything gets done in the Harmschapel police station with all the filling in of crossword puzzles, playing with dating apps, and giggling over internet photos of prospective dinner (or bed) companions.
The mystery plot may be improved, but the finale is both melodramatically ridiculous and literally impossible. Apart from the cliche use of a talking villain who explains everything and the absurd motivations for the murders, there is a blatant disregard (or perhaps ignorance) for an activity that takes place at the end of every Catholic mass. That this is overlooked completely destroys the plot. Because Innes does not know this ritual occurs three of the deaths as they happened in the book are literally impossible, especially the “accidental” murder of Daryl. And by “literally impossible” I mean that they could never have happened as described. (I can email you what Innes chose to ignore or was not aware of, if you like.) Then that Act of God final twist reminded me of the absurd endings in the mystery novels of Lee Thayer, a writer no one reads anymore for obvious reasons. The ending basically ruins the entire book and nullifies all good aspects previously thought out in the mystery plot.
Onto RIPPLES and then skipping ahead to SKELETONS, the fourth book I bought, and then I’m afraid I’m done with Innes. I have no interest in reading any more other than what I bought. OH! Next time I’m going to give an “alright” count for each book. That’ll add a bit of fun.
I’ll confess to being curious as to that aspect of Catholic mass — I was raised CofE and so spotted nothing!
I’m glad we can agree there’s an improvement, and I reckon you’ll see the jump again with Ripples. Skeletons I can’t comment on as I’ve not got there yet, but I was impressed with how Ripples advanced again on the flaws you raise with Confessional. Who knows, maybe you’ll become a fan yet 😀