Over at AhSweetMysteryBlog, my good friend Brad is frequently heard to rue how he has — at the tender age of 27 — already read pretty much every single author with a large back catalogue who is likely to interest him, and how even in these GAD-reprint rich times it is unlikely that few if any such authors will emerge to capture his interest.
It is, in many ways, the lament of the GAD obsessive: everyone’s dead, they’re all dead, oh my god there’s blood everywhere someone help me…er, I mean that the authors we read are closed and known quantities, output fixed and done, and the modern world seems largely unconcerned with producing anything of the ilk that interests us. Unless you somehow find The Girl Who’s A Woman With Amnesia In A Place On A Phone Call With Her Husband Who Is Lying And They’re Not Married Plus A Fashionable Medical Condition to be your thing, you currently strike out on a fairly regular basis.
It was partly in acknowledgement of this prevailing trend in modern crime fiction that I started these Adventures in Self-Publishing two years ago. Sure, publishing houses didn’t seem too interested in impossible crimes and the sort of creative plotting that piques in my interest, but that didn’t mean no-one was writing that kind of thing. Maybe there was still good stuff making it to market in the new streams that had opened up in recent years. I haven’t exactly been tearing through self-published works in that time — this being my eighth in two years, I’m averaging about one every three months — but equally I wanted to ensure that I was reading stuff which was likely to be, well, good. Those of you following along at home (hello, Mum) will know this hasn’t always been the case, but looking through the titles listed at the bottom of this post I’d definitely say it’s been a more positive experience than a negative one.
Gleeps, I’m going on. My apologies.
My essential point is that the above combination of circumstances has brought me to the door of Robert Innes, self-publishing author of some ten novellas to date, at least eight of which — those in the Blake Harte series, I don’t know about the two Gold & Silver books yet — deal with impossible crimes. Now, no, this is not the 70-strong catalogue for which Brad pines, but crucially Robert Innes is not yet dead, writes at a quite impressively productive rate, and has improved so much over these opening three stories that there’s even more basis to be excited about what he may have gone on to produce since then. In reviewing the previous two books in this series, I advised a little caution before diving in: they’re promising but problematic, and it was to be hoped that Innes was learning a great deal from completing them. Well he has, and it really shows in this third entry.
Ripples (2017) is easily the strongest of the three so far, with some very, very good clewing — goddamn, there’s one especially good clue — and a superb clarity in most of the areas that matter.
A few minor caveats before we begin: just be aware that this book names the killer in the first in the series, Untouchable (2016), and refers to the killer in Confessional (2016) in such a way as to leave you in no doubt who it is once you start reading that book. If such matters concern you, start at the beginning of the series and know that you’re doing it pure. There’s no criticism here — it’s really rather unavoidable that these references be made, given how the series has developed — I bring it up for the simple reason that some people like to know about spoilers for previous books in a series.
The essential plot of this entry, however, runs thus: Blake Harte and will they/won’t they crush Harrison Baxter end up at a new spa hotel in the Lake District for a week’s rest and relaxation. Given events of the last two books, it’s understandable that they’d want to get away from Harmschapel for a while, and if it gives them the chance to figure out their feelings for each other, more’s the better. The spa is run by Rupert and Polly Urquhart, with snide input from Rupert’s older brother Duncan who seems keen to have the enterprise fail for reasons of his own. To add to these internal tensions, the house and grounds are also the centre of a decades-long feud between the Urquhart and Lomax families, made more complex by Polly herself being a Lomax who is now viewed as a traitor by her clannish kin for hopping the fence to bed down with the enemy.
And all is not plain sailing at the spa: a hooded figure is often seen in the grounds following acts of vandalism ranging from destruction of property to the killing of animals. Suspicion, of course, falls on the Lomaxes, but despite repeated calls to the local police — who just happen to be Blake’s old Force — no blame can be attached to anyone. This situation seems set to continue until one evening when Blake, Harrison, and a handful of other guests witness this hooded figure walking out into the middle of a lake in the grounds and stabbing Duncan to death as he sits fishing in a rowing boat. Oh, and by walking out into the middle of the lake I mean as in, like, on the surface of the water.
I’ll be perfectly honest: the build-up to this one seemed a little slow to me, but the moment the crime is witnessed stands in such stark contrast to the everyday issues that have been presented to that point — awkwardness over feelings towards someone, embarrassment at the confronting some aspect of one’s past, etc — that it falls with a beautifully aghast horror right in the middle of what is a nicely-established scene of anticipated domesticity. I was going to quote some lines from the event here, but I actually don’t want to spoil the surprise of how thunderingly brilliant it feels to be confronted with a definite impossibility in such an unexpected setting (even though, yes, as the reader you know it’s coming). Blake is on the scene relatively quickly, though not before the hooded figure disappears, and is able to ascertain that no supports are hidden under the water…so howdunnit?
It’s a lovely little problem, and I had a vague idea of how it might have been accomplished — in fact, I had two, one of them embarrassingly stupid — but I couldn’t see one key piece of the puzzle. The more I read, the more I looked for any indication that the thing I needed was there…and come the explanation at the end it’s made very clear that in fact it was explicitly mentioned at a key point, and I simply sailed right past it. Boy, did I feel like an idiot. And I couldn’t be more thrilled! To see Innes develop the confidence to drop a clue like this right in front of you — this is what detective fiction is about, and something that, for my tastes, was missing from the first two books. It’s true that elsewhere he needlessly withholds another minor piece of information until almost the last minute, but as to the major principle at work here, I can’t fault him. It’s brazen, hilariously good fun, and superbly worked into the prose. Others may spot it, and good luck to them, but I very much enjoyed being misled.
If I have one issue with his method — and I do — it’s an element of, let’s say, timing. would it be possible for the [REDACTED] to have [REDACTED] so quickly? It’s a tricky one, because the explanation around it has to be necessarily unexplicit, but I’d love to pick Innes’ brain over this at some point. And, hey, when it comes to problematical timing…well, that’s a difficulty shared with The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr, Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand, and countless other masterpieces, so Innes is keeping good company in this regard. I’m just…I just think this stuff through too much, okay? There’s not much else in my life, so let me have these moments of nerdery. Please?
The ‘how’, of course, is only half of the equation (well, a third, I suppose) and in all three books, Innes really has excelled in another key concept of his impossibilities; I’ll let Blake explain it:
“[T]here weren’t any supports for that hooded man to walk across when I looked in the lake a few minutes after the murder. And even if there were, why? That’s what I don’t get about any of this. Why would you go to the trouble of setting up some massive illusion like that, where you know you’ve got people watching you? Wouldn’t it be far easier to just stab him in the back in his room or something?”
Yes, the ‘how’ is always nice to have explained seamlessly, but the ‘why’ is a key one that it’s easy to overlook (Dan and I keep talking about doing a podcast episode on the whys of impossible crimes because it’s such a fascinating topic, but we’re still ironing out the details). The scheme here is possibly a bit insane, but, meh, who cares when it’s this much fun and tied into such a good background so tightly?
Away from the plotting, it’s also lovely to see Innes’ writing coming on in leaps and bounds. Inevitably, this taking place in Blake’s old stomping grounds, he comes face-to-face with people from his past — some of them welcome, some of them not. And it’s actually pretty effortless how Innes gives these encounters a sense of weight, of these people actually knowing each other, without having to resort to the sort of horrible exposition-heavy dialogue dumps that some authors lean into. Y’know what I mean, that sort of “Well, well, well, Blake Harte. I haven’t seen you since three years ago when you were wearing a red tie and punched me — your senior office by two grades at the time — in the nose because of a thing I said and I had you forcibly removed and you’ve carried a grudge against me ever since!” horribleness that pervades the lower echelons of writing. Whether Blake views these people favourably or otherwise, the meetings, the reactions, the conversations all fit into the idiom we’re sold, and it’s lovely to see.
Equally, there’s a sensitivity that manages to avoid tempting mawkishness when Blake is roped in to break the news of Duncan’s murder to his terminally ill mother, and captures something really quite wonderful in this:
Now she had turned, Harrison could make out her facial features better. She was looking at Blake with what looked like concern and trepidation, but Harrison couldn’t help but wonder if this was an expression that had been on her skeletal face so regularly over the years, with doctors constantly giving her bad news about her health, that it was one that had become stuck permanently.
So, yeah, I loved this, and I’m delighted to see Innes achieve the improvement I foresaw in his writing when I read Untouchable earlier this year. Obviously as a result of this I now hold him to a higher standard and expect him to be at least this good going forward, and I’m even more excited to dive into the remaining Blake Harte mysteries and see what else his fertile imagination has cooked up. However, patience, patience; I don’t want to run out of good stuff too quickly now, do I?