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?