The intention had been to bring you another episode of the Men Who Explain Miracles podcast today, but first Plan A failed, then Plan B failed, and the need for a Plan C was unanticipated. And so let us return to the self-published world with a dead butler in a locked room…
To begin, it’s worth acknowledging that this is to the best of my memory the first Turkish fiction — hell, the first Turkish anything — I’ve read. Self-publishing has enabled vast numbers of people to get their narrative efforts out to an audience, and it’s great to see it also enabling people to cross language barriers with the help of willing translators and (in this case) proof-readers. The difficulty with translated works, however, is that unless you have a Lucia Graves, a John Pugmire, a Ho-Ling Wong, or any of the other excellent translators out there in your corner the willingness of your translator can sometimes come in inverse proportion to their suitability.
Which is to say, this translation is terrible. Don’t misunderstand, I acknowledge that Orgün Sarıtaş’s English is infinitely superior to my Turkish, but the whole of this novella is written in a tense-jumbled off-kilter phraseology that makes reading it possible only because one’s brain must wrangle with a mere 15,000 words rather than anything longer:
Robertson was a man in his late 50s; he always dressed in a stylish way and he was like those people who always have their temperament under control and act calmly. But when it’s needed he could be so agile. I myself witnessed with my own eyes to his agility, like he was 30 years old. Today, he didn’t seem any different. He was standing there calm as usual with his elegant choice of clothes. I was standing front of the table when he started to speak with same tranquility and determined voice.
I have no desire to come across as mocking or facetious, but when the whole story is this distractingly parsed it obviously makes the events themselves difficult to lose yourself in. And it’s a double hindrance in a narrative when the description of physical things might well be particularly important to the plot and yet the reader can make neither head nor tail of what is being described:
After finishing my work at the study room, I glanced around one more time and decided to check the door lock. There wasn’t anything unusual. It was so heavy that it was impossible for it to stand upright when I lift it. Just that moment I felt slight protuberance with my hand. Normally it was almost invisible, but if you look carefully you could see the pinhole at the point of the hook bolt of the door stand up.
And so to murder.
“‘Bout bloody time…”
The story is told by a nameless narrator, a junior private investigator working for Mr. Bee. One day, their landlord — and seemingly the landlord of a lot of businesses and properties in the area — Mr. Robertson confides in them that a string of burglaries have taken place in properties he oversees, the thief always taking away valuable antiques. Since no houses not in possession of such valuable items have been broken into, the implication is that someone close to Robertson is using his files (or something, it’s very implicit) to learn which houses contain valuables and so are worth targeting. Can Bee & Co learn the identity of the responsible party on the hush? Such information leaking would, naturally, be bad for business…
That investigation is passed over pretty quickly in the narrative — Öztürk proving fairly taciturn where things not directly impacting the plot are concerned — since there is little result from Bee and his assistant, and then a new matter seizes the attention: Robertson comes home one afternoon to find his butler Tim dead in the study, the door and window to the room both locked, and Tim having apparently been struck on the head. Whodunnit? Whydunnit? Howdunnit?
If it seems a little over-familiar, the crime scene is at least enriched by a couple of nice touches, mainly of the freshwater vertebrate kind: one wall of the study is a huge floor-to-ceiling fish tank, and a pond of poisoned fish outside the study window is an early clue. Fairly quickly, and for no discernible reason, suspicion begins to stalk around Robertson’s wife and three local business-owners: florist May, barista Lucy, and — duh-duh-duuuhhhhh — chocolatier Tim. From here, a moderately complex (and bonkers) web of intermingled motives, relationships, passions, and events will emerge, tying everyone into a plot that really needs about a) 10,000 more words and b) a lot more clarity in its telling. I very good job is tried here, especially in involving everyone in a sort of round-robin of suspicion and accusation, but, man, it is not helped by the sheer badness of the translation and the sudden lurches into impassioned dialogue. To give you a quick idea of how difficult it is to keep things straight: I’m writing this review about 15 minutes after having finished the book, and I’m not actually sure — in a novella with six named characters — that the barista is actually called Lucy.
Additionally, the impossible crime is baffling, and not in the good way (that description above, incidentally, is key to the whole thing, so good luck…). I think I get the method engaged, but, like…why? Leave the door unlocked, leave the entire damn house wide open, and it’s an infinitely more confounding crime. The impossiblisation of this murder seems to be done purely as a way of providing a piece of physical evidence which is used to catch the killer, implying that they dressed the scene up in that way purely so as to emblazon it with signs of their own guilt. Even the most ambivalent — maybe spoilers — accidental murderer wouldn’t be that…hell, it’s so poorly-conceived a piece of reasoning I can’t even come up with a suitable adjective. And there may be an explanation for all this, but I’m damned if I could find it while also trying to navigate Dalian nightmare-scape of what was suposed to be happening.
And unfortunately, even the bits that are clear can veer into incomprehensibility at times — the whole dead fish thing is…what is that?! Who would [REDACTED] a [REDACTED] in a fish pond, for pity’s sake? And with that out of the way, it just becomes far too difficult to follow: why is there a teapot? And, frankly, just what the hell is going on in the final 8% of this narrative? There are six named characters in this thing, and I have no idea who actually did what to whom and why and who’s sleeping with who and why they framed someone and then removed chocolates hoping to frame them for framing someone else… Seriously, what the smeg is going on??!!?!
So. Yes. This is very difficult to recommend. It is, in fact, the first Kindle books I’ve returned in about 6 years of ownership for quality reasons — a shame, because were the prose readable I think there’s something here to like. The plot certainly appears to cram in a fair amount of cross and double-cross, and it’s lovely to see more than just the central locked room murder going on, but I fear many people would read this and conflate its poor translation with it being a bad book. Hell, even I — as someone who wishes to see the very best in it — do not recommend that you buy and read it, because you’ll end up feeling like a Luddite with a lightbulb: sure, it probably works, but how and am I supposed to like this?
No, of course, we can’t all employ professional translators, but when the proof-reader is named in the front of the book and they apparently approved this text…well, you have to start wondering if people are really on your side in these things (and it’s not the first time this has happened in these self-published works, either). Alas, the reader finds themself lost in a sort of ever-deepening gloaming, and anyone who sticks around for the ending will need several balls of wool and a clear wall in their room to pin bits of paper to. A shame, as I say, because this could be good underneath it all. But I really do not encourage you to try to find out if that’s the case.
Unless you can read Turkish, of course, and are able to track down the original. Then I’d love to know what it’s like.