I’m not entirely sure how I came across this title, but I picked it up because the blurb promises…well read it for yourself:
Hugo Marston’s friend Paul Rogers dies unexpectedly in a locked room at the American Library in Paris. The police conclude that Rogers died of natural causes, but Hugo is certain mischief is afoot.
There’s more to it than that, but that’s your motivating factor here in essence: friend of protagonist dead in a locked room. Count me in. Except — while we’re not exactly in Cruel is the Night (2013) by Karo Hämäläinen territory for misleadification — it’s a little bit dishonest to mention the locked room because, in truth, its lockedness is entirely incidental. There’s no denying that the room is locked, but with a key, and moreover with a key that’s accessible to practically anyone who wants it. Were the room not locked, nothing would change; the adjective is somewhat misleading — you might as well say he died in a pink room or an ex-giraffe storeroom or a room with a scent of begonias in the air…each of these might also be the case here, and each would have about the same impact.
Fortunately — or not, depending on your perspective, and it is for me since I was reading this in my on-going search for quality locked room mysteries for my fellow obsessive TomCat — a sort-of-impossible angle does rear its head in the death of Paul Rogers: curare is detected in his system but, as any GAD fan knows, curare is only lethal if it enters the bloodstream, and there’s not a wound anywhere on Rogers’ body that would allow for entry of the poison into his vascular system. Much is made of Rogers having a bottle of water with him in the room, leading to concerns that this might emerge as a ripoff of Carter Dickson’s The Red Widow Murders (1935) which equally killed a man alone in a room by utilising a poison that…well, possible spoilers? Anyway, Pryor doesn’t steal Carr’s solution, but what he replaces it with is, uhm, different. I can’t say it’s good, I can’t say it’s bad, all I’m willing to commit to is that it is not the same solution as Carter Dickson, a.k.a. John Dickson Carr used in a very similar situation for his novel The Red Widow Murders (1935).
To be as fair to this book as possible — and it needs it — I can see that Mark Pryor is trying to write a sort of updated version of the classic GAD detective plot, setting it in a world of texting and CCTV where certain classic tropes don’t really hold any sway or relevance. And thereby hangs the tale: it feels like someone trying to do service to a classic form of story that only really works during a specific period in history but without having to do all that pesky research to set it in the past. And so we fall between some rather crucial stools: back-date this by maybe 50-some years and it would work much better (goddamn, thinking it through now I realise just how much better this almost verbatim text would work in the 1950-60s), and Pryor’s heart is absolutely in the right place in that regard. The problem is that in modern Paris — you know it’s Paris because every so often someone says something in French, and the Eiffel Tower is mentioned easily 20 times — this is anachronistic and never really asseverates its place as one thing or the other. It’s Dan Brownish enough to capture some eyes, Harlan Cobenish to the degree that Dark Hidden Secrets Come to Light, and third-tier puzzly enough that the undiscerning will claim it’s brilliant and tightly constructed, but by failing to commit to one thing or the other it simply ends up lacking the courage of its own convictions.
I feel a little bit bad tearing this down, because I wanted to like it, I really did, but I think it benefits the reading public best of all if some construction can be given to the criticism when flaws are as prevalent as they are here. So…
Firstly, our protagonist Hugo Marston is clearly the amateur detective dragged kicking, screaming, and confused about professional responsibility into the present. Ostensibly, he’s head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris, but for what one assumes to be a fairly high-level job he’s rarely, y’know, doing it. This entire book gives him completely free rein to involve himself — without anything approaching a professional request or directive — in investigating the death of someone he knew personally which at first glance has no reason to be suspected as a murder. Indeed, several deaths follow, and we’re not really given to understand that any of them are murders until very late on (and the way that’s done…oooo, we’re coming back to that), but Marston is there all the way, in at every crime scene, kept in the loop on every development, without it really seeming to be his job. So here are the first two stools: Marston has a job that would technically allow him to be involved, but this never really falls under the remit of his job. The U.S. embassy feels very insecure while he’s out concerning himself with other stuff.
And this becomes a problem when, late on, Marston’s suspicions about the deaths require him to travel to Dieppe to investigate a…something. This is one of many egregious cases where Pryor withholds so much information from you — like what he’s looking into, the contents of the files he’s reading, and crucially why the head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris is treated in somewhere not Paris as an equal in law enforcement. A hand is waved at jurisdiction, but mainly because it’s so great at how jurisdiction suddenly doesn’t seem to matter to these regional policemen. Were Marston divested of his official status, and given a nebulous pre- or mid-Cold War responsibility in France, it could be made to work in the late 1950s to 1960s: Marston’s involvement in this — and how others are willing (or in need of coercion) when looking the other way becomes plot convenient — would work much more smoothly.
The other problem with Marston, and something no change of era could fix, is how desperate the book is for you to like him. There are a number of instances where Marston does something that any normal human being would do, and time is taken to praise him for being such a stand up guy. Possibly the most brain-numbingly stupid one comes towards the end when Marston is kidnapped at gunpoint by the perpetrator of these killings — er, is that they turn out to be killings a spoiler? — who says that Marston’s girlfriend has already been kidnapped, is in the trunk of the car the killer wishes Marston to get into, and will be harmed if Marston does not comply. Marston gets in the car, the “girlfriend in the trunk” thing turns out to be a ruse, and then the killer says:
“[Y]ou probably think I’m being insincere, but the fact you didn’t take a chance with her life, that was admirable.”
Woo, go Hugo Marston! Who didn’t run away and leave his girlfriend to be killed by a mass murderer! What an awesome guy!
My favourite example of his brilliance — and I promise this will be the last one — occurs when Marston actually goes into work and is sitting in his office thinking about the murders (no embassy business that day, you’ll be unsurprised to learn) while eating a croissant (France!). His secretary walks in and we’re told:
She frowned at the croissant crumbs on his desk, but didn’t offer to clean them up. Not her bailiwick, as Hugo well knew.
So, and forgive my pedantry but the English language is pretty well designed for a number of purposes, if it’s not her bailiwick — she is a secretary, after all, performing a series of tasks pretty well understood by a vast majority of, like, people ever — and Hugo knows it’s not her responsibility to clean up after the recalcitrant five year-old he apparently is, why “but didn’t offer to clean them up”? Surely “and didn’t offer” makes more sense. Is it because we’re supposed to be impressed that Hugo Marston is aware that his secretary is not a cleaner? Or that he’s woke enough not to see cleaning up a purely women’s work? Or is it bad writing? The reader may decide for themself.
I was going to write about the bit where Marston applies Holmes-esque logical deduction to the man waiting on his table when he’s out to dinner with friends, but as easy as it is to unpick the total absence of logic therein — and, fine, he admits they’re lucky guesses, but, good heavens, with that much luck he should be a professional gambler — it’s probably quicker to make the point by looking at how even on a basic level the logic in the plotting falls down.
The quickest example of this is the utilisation of Marston’s roommate/co-worker/friend Tom Green, who has a convenient grab-bag of ex-Special Forces skills that extend to whatever the plot requires: clandestine entrance to the eponymous librarian to spend all night watching for a suspected murderer? Check. Convenient tracking down of an elderly ex-actress whose fame and rumoured activities during the Second World War have resulted in her seeking sanctuary in a secluded care home? Not a problem.
“Do you know which cottage is hers?”
“Let’s just say that I found her here thanks to Tom.”
“Which means you know which cottage is hers, and probably which side of the bed she sleeps on.”
“The man has his uses.”
Tom is Robert Crais’ Joe Pike, or Windsor Horne Lockwood III from Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels — the shortcut through a tricky bit of plotting so that we can get to the next bit of the plot without needing to think about it too much. The difference is, I’d argue, that Pike and Win only got boring after their authors spent a decade or so leaning too heavily on them. Tom Green gets dull after about three pages of a) Marston going on about how good he is, b) Tom in no way appearing like someone who would have these skills, and c) Tom spending almost every moment on the page veering bipolar-ly between brash confidence and slightly creepy lusting after one half of the maybe bisexual female friends who come to Paris to visit them. And in a more narratively problematic way, Tom obviates the need for their to be any rigour or construction behind any of the reasoning herein.
Because elements of the plot need to be glossed over, the principles of common sense or thoroughness also get cast aside, and the book conflates “there’s no way to explain this and so I’ll just say it happened” and “I don’t want to explain this (yet) so we’ll ignore the obvious explanation staring us in the face”. To wit: after Marston forces his way into the home of Isabelle Severin, the aforementioned actress, now in her 90s, and is quite justifiably ejected by the furious staff of the establishment, he is accused of visiting her a second time when a second breach of her privacy is reported. In this second case he is innocent, and cannot begin to think who might be responsible. Despite being visited by two friends, one of who is obsessed with Isabelle Severin’s role in the war, wishes to interview her in the hope of being able to write a book on the subject, and has recently been very secretive around her partner who hasn’t seen her for a day or two and does not know where she is. Yeah, gee, let’s all wonder who could possibly be responsible for crashing Isabelle Severin’s place after Hugo Marston went there and told this woman where it was…
Elsewhere, things that sound good aren’t encouraged to be dwelt upon because they actually make no sense if you pick them apart: a woman using a knife that she carries for personal protection to slash the tyres of a car — seriously, have you ever tried slashing the tyres of a car? Or the discovery of a musical score that Marston simply says come the end of things “Well, this obviously has some sort of code in it — good luck working it out!” and walks away without, like, proving it. And this example contains possibly the best non-explanation I’ve yet encountered in fiction:
“But musical notes are only A through G, ” she said.
“Right. So she used either the French or the German method. The French…” He held up a hand. “Anyway, now isn’t the time or the place to go into how each one worked, it can get a little complicated. You’ll have to research it, and take the time to decode any message…”
Thanks for coming, don’t let the door hit you on the arse on the way out…!
And come the end, when everything’s tied up, there just seems to be no point to the event behind it all. It spoils nothing to say that people are being killed because, for various reason, they pose a risk where the exposure of a Big Secret is concerned. I get that, and the way some of the victims stumble into the Big Secret Reveal are inventive and cleverly considered. What makes no sense, and what I can’t remember seeing addressed, is the reason for that Big Secret in the first place. Fine, a person did a thing and wishes to cover it up; so, like, why did they do that thing to begin with? Again, backdated to the 1950s you could put a great contextual spin on this — you really could, it would be hilariously easy — but here it’s almost like they did that thing and walked away rubbing their hands and thinking “Well, in 30 years I’ll be able to kill some dudes who might find out about this…”.
The real shame of these flaws is that there are snatches of Pryor actually being a damn fine writer. Take, for instance:
As he walked, Hugo instinctively patted his pockets when the packs of tourists passed him, wary not of them but of the lone vendors tracking them like prey, their hungry eyes roaming over the groups, looking for a score. Their selfie sticks and shiny trinkets made them seem like fishermen trying to lure in willing customers, but in Hugo’s mind they were more like the predators you’d see circling the water holes in Africa, practiced at spotting the week, those least wedded to their cash — the gullible and the gaudy-minded.
There’s scope here for a far better book, even with the disappointingly-unfathomable impossible poisoning solution, and it does make one wonder at the decisions Pryor made in the creation of this milieu. This is not the first book in the series, and so it’s doubtless a result of the decisions made earlier on in his career, but for someone who it feels wants to write a novel of detection and intrigue he’s notably short on detection and circumvents most of the intrigue. File under “Fiction: Missed opportunities”.
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: