Had I gotten round to this sooner, it may have qualified as a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat attempt, but TomCat has already read this one and so really all that remained was to see if I was equally underwhelmed by it.
And, to deal with that first, no, I certainly wasn’t underwhelmed — my reaction to such a muddled, clunky, narratively moribund mess as this could never be so disinterested as merely ‘underwhelmed’. I’m going to go out on a limb and call this the worst professionally-published book I’ve read in…man, such a long time; hell, given my increasingly-positive experiences with self-published authors like Matt Ingwalson, Robert Innes, and Robert Trainor, this book almost makes an argument for circumventing the trad publishing routes and going your own way anyway, because if this was read, edited, approved, and published by people who are paid to do such things then, friend, you are better off on your own.
I need to talk about this book, and so I am going to have to spoil it in the foregoing. This approach is usually taken by the lazy reviewer out of spite, but I simply must talk through the various decisions herein to make sense of them, and I can’t do that without specifics. So I apologise if reverting to spoilers here ruins your anticipation of this book — I mean, I don’t consider it worth reading on any level, but fair warning here that spoilers loom ahead. Back out now or forever hold your peace.
“Sorry, who are you again?”
The Sinister Student (2016) is the fourth — remember that, it becomes important later — in a series of historical mysteries featuring C. S. “Jack” Lewis (yes, he of Narnia fame) as an amateur detective, encountering impossible murders here, there, everywhere, and other places as well. In this volume, Lewis must not only deal with the decapitation of a student in his locked college bedroom, but also the vanishment of the student’s dead, the stealing of the pages from a valuable edition of Paradise Lost, and the attentions of a History student called David Bracken who seems overly keen to buttonhole both Lewis and fellow Oxford don J.R.R. Tolkein on the subject of their literary endeavours, despite neither of them being especially renowned in fiction-writing circles (Tolkein is at this stage still reading the first draft of The Hobbit at Lewis’ literary gatherings). And he will do all of this while also using every opportunity to veer suddenly into discussions about Christianity and the notion of faith, god, and all manner of other related subjects which in no way pertain to the conversations that precede them.
To confront the faith issue first, it’s not that I have a problem with what is ostensibly sold as a novel of detection being used as a carrier wave for theology — and, frankly, it’s what Tolkein and Lewis would talk about, anyway — it’s that I’d estimate some 70 or 80 pages of this 262 page novel are devoted to the ham-fisted shoving of theology into conversations without it ever once touching the plot. And, to add insult to whiplash, the handbrake turns taken into the manner of Christianity and its representations would leave Vin Diesel’s stunt driver struggling to follow:
The horrific scene I had witnessed in Willesden’s room kept flashing back upon what Wordsworth would have called my ‘inward eye’. In particular, I kept seeing all that blood.
“Death is a horrible business,” I muttered grimly.
Warnie chipped in to say, “Anyone who’d been in the trenches would agree with you, my boy.”
“And that’s why,” I said, turning to face Jack, “it’s so appalling that Christianity has as its chief symbol something that spells death — an instrument of execution.”
And it’s not even like the conversations are that perceptive or interesting, or develop in any way. Our narrator Tom Morris is as dense on the subject as Tolkein and Lewis are condescending — nearly a third of the book is Morris going “But Jesus died on the cross!” and Lewis going “Well, yes, that’s the point” in a verbose and tedious fashion. These two deserve each other, but I’m not sure what the rest of have done wrong that we must bear witness to it.
We move, then, to Paradise Lost, or The Case of the Missing Milton as Morris calls it.
This is surely here purely to — perhaps ironically, which I guarantee isn’t intentional — add some pages, since the setup, investigation, and resolution of this strand is devoid of points of interest or even smart clewing, diverting esoterica, historical curios, or research-fabulous info-dumping. Someone cuts the pages out of an old copy of the book, and through a sort of narrative sheepshank Lewis finds himself not at all accused of the act. It’s established quickly that no suspicion falls on Lewis, and so (be…cause of this…somehow…?) Lewis’ brother Warnie decides to clear his name (I…think…?) by finding out who did do it. This involves an afternoon going around bookbinders in Oxford, asking who would be able to bind old, loose pages into an old set of covers, until one goes “Yeah, I could do that” and turns out to have been in cahoots with…someone mentioned elsewhere somehow, I think…to do precisely that.
Not pictured: C.S. Lewis’ brother
Also, you know how the entirety of Paradise Lost revolves around, like, the Christian faith and the intersection of god-like power and imperfect beings and the screw ups that result? To “justifie the wayes of God to men”? And how it raises issues around the nature of an observed faith, and the symbols used to observe such beliefs? And you remember — I mentioned it above — at least part of the discussions Lewis and Morris have about faith are centred around these very themes? Well, you’ll be delighted to hear that no parallels are ever drawn, nor allusions made, nor — for all the contrivance on display — anything contrived to even vaguely waft the notion of observed religious activities or the choice of iconography as a means of communication of ideals somewhere approximately in the vicinity of these two threads. Fuck me, for all the squandered, ignored, or unrealised potential this offered up it might as well have been a first edition of The Beano.
Which didn’t appear until 1938, two years after the setting of this book, you say? Well, that’s not the problem you may suspect it is. But more on that later.
The impossible crime shows some promise, but it all gets swept away by too much mishandling of the idea, a staggering lack of eye for detail or consistency, and an explanation so hilariously poor that I almost want to petition the publishers to put in a disclaimer along the lines of WARNING: THIS IS IN NO WAY INDICATIVE OF THE QUALITY OF LITERATURE AVAILABLE IN THIS SUBGENRE.
In brief: Auberon Willesden is found in his rooms one morning, both beheaded and headless, with the windows shut and locked and the door bolted on the inside. We are also told this about the scene:
There was a great pool of blood across the floor — pints and pints of blood.
Now, I’m going to spoil this murder in the next paragraph, so get out now if you really want to read this pure.
He is killed, it…let’s go with “transpires”, by the don who has the room above him who spread a story about a ghost appearing in the garden, induced Willesden to stick his head out of the window to catch a sight of said ghost, and dropped what is essentially a guillotine blade down the outside of the building to decapitate him. So far, so how-many-people-actually-stick-their-head-and-neck-fully-out-of-an–open-window-to-look-at-something-below-and-in-front-of-them-surely-you’d-just-open-the-window-and-look-down-into-the-garden. Now, problem the first: as TomCat alluded, there would also be blood on the wall where he was standing when beheaded, but despite two visits to the scene of the crime there’s never any mention of this. Problem the second: you want to know how a beheaded man managed to close and lock his window, don’t you? I can’t find the quote when it’s encountered for the first time, but from the explanation at the end we have this:
“[Y]ou know what these windows are like, Jack — if you push them up with your right hand, you can latch them in the open position. So why didn’t Willesden do that in the middle of the night, on the night he died?”
“Because…you need to use your right hand to do that, and Willesden was left-handed.”
Now. You’d think, given the importance of this in the overall “locked room” elemt of the plot, that this would be explained further — an example given of why it was impossible to do right-handed, rather than merely a statement, say, or some description or even diagram of the window lock workings and the reason for their latching shut. But, well, no. We do, at another point, thankfully get a line-by-line drawing of that most unpicturable of shapes the triangle so that the notion of the Trinity can be driven home, but if you want any elucidation regarding the handedness of this window, or how it slams and locks on account of it, then you can go fish. And this is doubly, probably triply, irritating because I’ve read books where the window-sealing mechanism is important in this way, and they’ve managed to communicate it without being hideously verbose, or without simply waving a hand (which one I don’t know) in front of your face and hoping you won’t ask any awkward questions. This. Is. Cheap. Lazy. Stupid. Writing. And as something which forms the central focus of the book — hairy Aaron, it’s the reason for the title — Richards should be embarrassed that this is all he can offer.
It’s not too far away from simply going “Well, if it was a Wednesday then this wouldn’t have been a problem” without explaining what’s different about a Wednesday, or explaining the vanishing of footprints in the middle of a snowy field by having your sleuth say “Well, once I knew he’d once been to a Barry Manilow performance it was clear how it was done — he had hairy feet”. And never mentioning it again.
And the problems don’t stop there. Richards also simply doesn’t know how clues work. Throughout the novel mention is made of deer found in a public park with their throats cut, and it is revealed come the end that Lewis realised this was our murderous don climbing trees to drop his homemade blade onto the animals below to check its efficacy. Seems legit, except for one thing: if you drop a guillotine blade onto a deer from above, you know what gets cut? Here’s a clue: it’s not the throat, and being told that a deer was found with it’s throat cut would not cause you to link these two ideas. And when our murderer is also linked with the murder of the book-stealer because of pure surmise that neither the reader nor Lewis has any reason to spout or believe, you can feel the joins creaking and the whole thing tumbling under the inability to sufficiently give each aspect of the plot enough attention. And as to the motive, you have to question the validity of any detective novel that allows someone to say “[The victim] was responsible for killing my wife in a car crash” and, like, not immediately become to main suspect, or even provoke a reaction much beyond a half-hearted “Well, how about that? The world’s a small place, innit?”.
And so we come to David Bracken. David Bracken, who is especially eager to meet Lewis and Tolkein. David Bracken, who refers to The Hobbit as Tolkein’s “first book about hobbits”. David Bracken, who steps out of his closed wardrobe claiming to have simply gone in there to look for some clothes. David Bracken, into whose wardrobe Tom Morris steps and finds himself falling into a white-tiled room from which there is no escape, only to pass out, come to moments later in Bracken’s room, and track down Lewis and Tolkein only to be told that he’s been missing for over an hour.
Yes, David Bracken is a time-traveler. His wardrobe is a time machine. No, I’m not joking.
No, I’m really not joking.
Four books in to a series of historical mysteries, it’s already pretty clear from the foregoing that Kel Richards doesn’t really have the wherewithal to write this kind of book, and then he dumps his entire premise anyway by cartwheeling into the sort of territory Connie Willis would revel in, just from the wrong end. Clearly this is the end of the series, because there’s (no doubt deliberately) no coming back from this — in the same way that I don’t see how Marvel can continue to put out films after Ant-Man imbued their much-vaunted universe with the ability to make literally anything huge or tiny as needed, with the only difference being that Marvel have the brass neck (or, indeed, pecuniary incentivisation) to do it. I don’t even have the energy to go into all the things that are so horrible about it, not least of which is Lewis’ blithe claim that he and Tolkein have such a blasé reaction to the revelation on account of their faith opening them up to wider potentials in the world (or something — again, I’m not scouring the book for the quote). Good grief, there’s enough problematical reasoning in that statement alone for another 2,000 words, but you have lives to get on with and I feel I should really stop here before my keyboard melts.
Somehow, someone, somewhere might have something positive to say about this, but I hope Richards gets out of the genre and stays out of it. That someone actually published this amazes me, and it has about it the stink of a contract fulfilled and gratefully put behind the parties on both sides. Which is all well and good, but asking us to pay £9 to read how disinterested Kel Richards became in his own idea is brazen at best and close to knowing mendacity at worst. But, well, since Richards wanted to write about C.S. Lewis and religion at once, I suppose it’s not like there was any other medium he could have adopted than that of the detective novel, right? After all, It’s not like Lewis himself ever used fiction, allegory, epistle-based narratives, or any of the other myriad options available to a writer of talent to do that, is it?
22 thoughts on “#455: With Reiterated Crimes He Might Heap on Himself Damnation – Failure (Holy) Writ Large in The Sinister Student (2016) by Kel Richards”
I think that’s what is referred to as taking one for the team.
One? ONE??!! No, sir, this is taking five or six for the team, and requiring the team to buy me some apology flowers and give me a week off in sympathy.
Surely he cannot explain the trick like that, I mean what the hell is that cheeky line about left-handednss supposed to accomplish. Makes literally no sense 😛
I know, I know — I promsie I’m not deliberately excluding anything purely to make my point more compelling, that is the explanation you get. If I can face it, I’ll find the part in the text when the window is first referred to in those terms, too, and relate that, but it’s about as clear and provides about as much elucidation.
And yet we get nearly two pages of a triangle being drawn line-by-line and shaded in (there are four diagrams showing this — four diagrams!!) because the notion of the Holy Trnity is obviously so complex next to the explanation of how a window locks and allows solidly 60% of what occurs in the text to actually happen the way it does.
This is…I would honestly think someone had to be exaggerating if I wasn’t the one telling you about it.
Muddied genre-flipping, poor clueing, ham-fisted proselytizing. . . at least you were kind enough to not spoil a third-tier Christie by pointing out the similarities to that ludicrous impossibility! I’d say, “Poor you,” JJ, but we know how much you revel in all this suffering! At least . . . WE all revel in it. 😝
Were it not for this blog and the abiliy to get this all off my brain, I think this book might have broken me for reading in the genre for a little while. Like, I would probably have needed a couple of weeks to just binge on some 600+ page SF and/or whatever non-fiction is currently on my TBR. I am very grateful to anyone who reads the above. since it’s part of the process of putting this whole sorry affair to bed.
And as if I’d drag the name of anyone even naguely worthwhile into this caterwauling shambles of a story (I don’t think it qualifies for the honourific “novel”) by pointing out the similarities it shares with something others might have enjoyed. Good grief, that might result in someone actually deciding to read this, and then I’d feel guilty.
Know this: if it sounds like another book in anyway way, shape, or form, that other book is better.
My review is a glowing endorsement compared to yours, but you’re not entirely wrong and the main problem with the series is Richards using it as a pulpit to propagate his faith. And when he wasn’t giving sermons, using C.S. Lewis as a vessel, the detective story elements were usually poorly handled. Or shoved aside for stuff like the time traveler.
Nonetheless, I still believe the locked room trick had potential and would have been perfect for a Grand Guignol-type of impossible crime story. All it needed was a good writer and competent plotter.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and call this the worst professionally-published book I’ve read in…man, such a long time”
The Sinister Student is still a masterpiece compared to David Marsh’s Dead Box.
All it needed was a good writer and competent plotter.
Publishers need to employ someone whose job it is to decide whether the tanlet of the author is up to the situation explored in their book; and when it isn’t, the publisher must take that idea off that author like a parent snatching a knife from a baby, and then put it aside for when someone more trustworthy comes along. This is how we reinstate the reputation of detective fiction!
Xavier, are you with me?!
Hm. Now you have me panting to read David Marsh’s Dead Box . . . Is it really as bad as that? Sounds fun (albeit rather artificial) from the blurb.
“Is it really as bad as that?”
You have no idea. It’s the kind of a bad that can only be experienced, not described.
Alas, it’s something like £12 to buy, and while I remain curious as to quite how bad it can be, I’m also fond of not throwing money away in such a cavalier fashion. I shall cling to the faint hope — if that’s the right word — of ever finding it at a (significantly) reduced price, or else just hope that it makes it into the supplementary volume to Adey that LRI are compiling at the moment.
Aaargh! You have me itching to read this . . . thing!
Tell you what, let’s see if we can find 10 other interested people and get everyone to put in £1 each… 🤣
£1? That sounds a bit expensive.
For all my dislike of C S Lewis, he did say that if someone has a vocation (eg: writing), it’s their Christian duty to do it well (debates on how well he lived up to this notwithstanding). This is just… wow. Seriously, how much lack of care must it take to produce that deer-with-their-throats-cut screw-up?
And if this is the fourth in a series of Christian apologetics wearing unconvincing papier mache masks of detective stories, shouldn’t as basic a concept as the Trinity have come earlier? Not that it sounds like the author is any good at arguing in favour of his religion either…
Like, I don’t know enough how how books come into being, but Iassume there’s a proof-readng process and an editing process, during both of which someone reads the book, right? So Richards, his proof-reader(s), and his editor(s) are equally culpable here. And it’s even worse, I think, if one of them did spot it but then couldn’t be arsed to correct it since it plays such a crucial role in the plot (well, “crucial” is maybe an overstatement given the complete absence of detection…but it’s not easy to fix without reworking everything — since it’s supposed to be the killer trialling his murder contraption — or excluding it altogether). Whichever way round it happened, some people still thought this product or their services were worth paying good money for. Any money.
And, ha, you make a fabulous point about the lasteness of the Trinity coming up. Still, Tom Morris is such a dunce in all matter religion that I can well believe the first three books are Lewis slowly and boringly explaining to him how it’s not possible to see God but you still know he’s there, while Morris keeps walking into glass windows or being overcome by invisible gas and no-one realises how that might help as an analogy.
Just think, all this time I’ve been avoiding these because of the British Library copycat covers, when I could have been avoiding them because they’re terrible. Thank you for your sacrifice!
Well, yes, the aphorism “Don’t judge a book by the fact of its rip-off cover” doesn’t seem quite so apposite now, does it?
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That locked-room solution sounds like it’s “borrowed” from a much better story by G.K. Chesterton (probably shouldn’t say which one, to avoid spoilers). Too bad Richards didn’t pick up a few tips from Chesterton about how to write mystery stories with religious themes!
Y’know what’s weird? The theology is sooo awkwardly crammed in, the Father Brown comparison didn’t even occur to me. I may not be a fan of Chesterton’s verbosity, but I cannot deny that he weaves his themes much more elegantly than this, to the extent that they don’t even seem like the same topic.
Richard’s books are published by Marylebone House, an imprint of SPCK, publisher of Church history and theology books. On the MH website I found a mission statement which includes this pithy statement: “We’re interested in novels exploring themes such as doubt, faith, brokenness and love that will appeal to those hungry for perceptive, compassionate writing about human experience.” But that’s just code for theologically based fiction. Take a look at the writers they publish, their backgrounds and the content of their books. Richards bio on an Amazon page hawking his brief series of mysteries featuring G. K. Chesterton (surprise!) as a sleuth : “Kel Richards is a prolific and popular Australian author, who has penned more than 25 Christian books in fiction and other genres. He is the chairman of the Anglican Media Council and holds various other roles in the Sydney Anglican Diocese.” All of his books have been released by Christian publishers. His genre writing (he has a horror novel with religious messages, too
— 505 pages of it!) clearly is used as a platform for proselytizing and no doubt much preaching to the choir.
As a Mary Robert Rineharts heroine might lament: “Had I but known…”
Five hundred and five pages?! I am…weirdly curious about that Christian-themed horror novel!
And, given the clear lack of editorial interest in this — and the obvious bias in favour of publishing it purely on account of the Christian content — this is really nothing more than glorified self-publishing, right, rather like Hal White’s Mysteries of Reverend Dean? And yet, wooo, some of the people who have featured in my own occasional Adventures in that area put this to shame…