No-one is more surprised than me to find self-published fiction forming a fairly regular part of my online book-scouting. The experience of reading Matt Ingwalson’s Owl and Raccoon novellas was quite transformative in my perception of this stream of literature, and recently stumbling into Robert innes’ prolific and entertaining output only strengthens my intention to keep digging.
Several candidates had presented themselves this time around, including The Play of Light and Shadow (2004) by Barry Ergang, but TomCat got to it before me, and The Patricide (2016) by Kim Ekemar, but Aidan ran an eye through that one first. Not that I’m averse to reviewing something already reviewed elsewhere — quite the reverse, else no-one is going to be able to talk about it — and both those works sound very interesting indeed and shall feature in this series in due course, but with so much self-published fiction coming onto the market every week it’s nice to turn the light on someone not yet examined by our coterie. All of which brings us to The Murder of Nora Winters (2016) by Robert Trainor.
Robert Trainor is another prolific self-published author, with several titles to his name across something of a spread of genres. I’ll be honest, even had he not written an impossible crime I’d’ve been somewhat intrigued by the following in his author bio:
What I am attempting to do in my books, besides writing entertaining and original plots, is to present themes and dilemmas that are thought provoking and don’t have any easy, simplistic answers. I do my very best to fairly present both sides of an issue–such as having a negative character express my own personal views, while a more positive character will express intelligent opposition to those views. All of this occurs, of course, in relation to the plots that are contained in the books, which are intended to mirror or illustrate the underlying philosophy.
I mean, that’s a pretty interesting stall to set out from the very beginning. From a scan of his synopses this would appear to be his only impossible crime story to date, and quite a doozy it sounds:
On Christmas morning, Nora Winters is found shot to death in her bedroom. … The police are completely baffled by the case because it has all the elements of a classic locked-room murder mystery. The only door to the room has a deadbolt and two sliding steel bolts that are fully engaged; the two windows are securely locked from the inside of the room; and after an extensive and thorough investigation, no hidden panels in the floor, walls, or ceiling can be found. Sure, Nora Winters might have let her killer into her bedroom, but how did he leave? And the gun…the very puzzling position of the gun. Why had it been left behind two books at the far end of the room?
So, does it deliver? Yeah, on balance I’d say it does. Trainor isn’t the Second Coming of Carr, but he proposes an interesting problem, sets it up efficiently and cleanly, investigates it thoroughly, and disposes of it with a certain measure of gumption that never quite veers into sophistry and remains therefore pleasingly workable. It’s not fully fair play, some of the characterisation and narration is a little fusty, and there’s one key issue with it overall that I shall come to further on down, but I enjoyed this and would not dissuade anyone who’s interested in reading it.
“Tell me more!”
It starts with as classical a framing of GAD as ever framed anything: the Winters clan gathered together on Christmas Eve, with everyone given ample reason to detest matriarch Nora, diagnosed with “acute schizophrenia” and off her meds, who seems to be attempting to insult the world at large. She objects to eldest child Kenneth borrowing money for his business undertakings, is prone to “ill-tempered, bigoted displays” of displeasure regarding the sexual orientation of second child Eileen, disapproves of the 17 year-old Alyssa whose burgeoning womanhood is seen as “advertising for a hot and steamy role in some gross sexual flick”, and considers youngest Jimmy to be a deplorable waste of space who spends all his time playing violent video games (although the notion that “surfing the internet” is never going to “bring in a lot of money” goes oddly unchallenged in an age of people managing entire careers online…). And as for patriarch Chad, well he’s no saint — there’s the small matter of that affair he had six years ago — but the constant negativity and divisiveness of his wife has left him with the slim hope that her suicidal tendencies soon stop being mere expressions of intent and she’ll “finally [take] the plunge with a huge bottle of pills”.
A cheery bunch.
Things will come to a head this Christmas Eve, however: things will be said, violence will be encountered, and the majority of the household will decamp to a motel for the night after refusing to stay under the same roof as Nora for any longer. And they will return the following day to find police on hand and the situation as described above in full swing: Nora has been shot in her bedroom, yet the windows and doors are all locked, the gun is placed in an impossible position, and there’s no sign of anyone else ever having been in the room…
I’ve gotta be honest, it’s here that we encounter my biggest difficulties with this book. The first is the sheer number of times the physical situation is repeated verbatim — I didn’t count, but we’re told on at least five occasions that, no, recoil from the gun could not be used to account for the position in which it is found, and that the position of the body would only make sense if she’d been sitting backwards on the chair, and that the bolts in the door were both shot and far too stiff to manipulate from outside, and that…it gets a little wearing. Easily the most frustrating part of this is how at Easter — some three months after the murder — one of the Winters children will still need to ask their father about the precise position of the gun in the murder of their mother for which they are one of the prime suspects. Still, I’m going to put this down to an editing oversight, and not really hold it against the book — but, man, if someone proof-read this and didn’t mention it to Trainor then he needs new proof-readers (not least because one of the characters undergoes a sudden name change late on…).
My second, final, and biggest problem comes with the difficulty Trainor has in describing physical space. Now, I love a locked room murder that takes the time to make the immediate geography clear — I’d argue that’s the one thing a locked room story must do, in fact, so as to obviate any accusations of shenanigans — but on two separate occasions Trainor fumbles the explanation of what’s going on where for different reasons. The first is in the description of Nora’s room, which is pedantic to the inch and slows everything to a crawl and becomes suddenly painstaking and pain-causing with the precision of what was where and why. A diagram would have been perfect, both saving a lot of time and precluding the oddly finicky writing that suddenly comes to the fore here. The second time is in the final solution, which fails to include a key detail — I went back and checked — and only becomes apparent because of something else said while the explanation is being talked through. As I say, this solution is not fair — there’s one piece of information you don’t have, which is a shame — and precisely how workable it is would be gigantically improved by that diagram mentioned above (hilariously — and I’m not making this up, I promise — this is because the physical situation of the room itself, the one that’s been described five times already, is not actually described with sufficient detail in key regards).
“Tell me more!”
But, look, both these problems are workable in the setting. If anything, I highlight them precisely because of how much I enjoyed this, and to have little things of this ilk derail an otherwise strong attempt in this subgenre is needlessly frustrating. Let’s be very clear: a lot of what’s here is good. And rather than just make that as a vague promise, I’ll go through a few of my favourite features:
The run-up to the murder leaves a lot of scope for interpretation in classic GAD style. The attentive reader will have a lovely time trying to decide what they’ve been shown and what actually happened, one smart piece of writing in particular.
There’s a sort-of false solution that is resolved in an uncommon and — honestly — slightly weird way, but it was not the resolution I’d been expecting and it’s always fun to have your expectations undercut. It comes a bit out of nowhere, but I enjoyed the non-standard way Trainor explores and then disregards it.
I don’t want to say too much about Irene Knight, but she’s wonderful and I want a 30 book series about her right now. Y’hear me, Trainor? Right now!!
The idea of a detective being so flummoxed that they search for “solutions to locked-room mysteries” online in order to find some answer to the conundrum they’re facing is a (possibly unintentional) update of Matt Duncan reading Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935) while trying to figure out the murder in Nine Times Nine (1940), and I’m nerdy enough to relish that alone.
All told, this is an imperfect but extremely game swing at the toughest task going, and Robert Trainor deserves respect for doing it and himself justice. Interestingly, he considers it only the fourteenth-best of his 20-some books to date, and if any of those others feature Miss Knight I’ll pick them up right now. For the time being I’m restricting my self-published reading to impossible crimes, but there’s easily enough promise here for me to check out the unreliable narrator crime novel Trainor mentions in the afterword (I don’t know which one that is, alas). He’s an author I’d snap up if another impossibility came our way, however, and if this has been floating on your radar I advise that you snap it up and see how much you agree or otherwise. Between Trainor and Robert Innes, these Adventures just got a whole lot more interesting.