I’m fortunate to have the freedom of reading books purely because I enjoy them. Following my nose through several decades of murder and mayhem has brought me to — among other things — the Golden Age and impossible crimes, and both offer more than enough depth and breadth to keep me entertained for many years to come.
When I started these Adventures in Self-Publishing a couple of years ago, I did so with the legitimate intention of tracking down quality books which had taken a non-trad route to market and were consequently being overlooked in favour of whatever Hefty Author Advance Hardcover was being handed out for free to bloggers and reviewers. There was, however, no guarantee that I’d actually enjoy any of the self-published work I’d find. As with ‘traditional’ books, the good stuff is doubtless out there, it’s more a question of whether a lone reader will be able to find it amidst what is becoming a market increasingly crowded with cheap, poor-quality offerings. So the discovery of Robert Innes’ series of self-published impossible crime novellas featuring DS Blake Harte is something I am phenomenally grateful to have encountered. Reach (2017) is the fourth in a series that currently runs to 8 titles, with a ninth due sometime in the near future, which, since I’m intending to feature these as alternate titles in this AiSP series, guarantees I’ll persevere with at least another 10 self-published works, by which time Innes will have written three more, and this will swiftly devolve into the blogging equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.
Yes, I know it’s a myth; do not, as they say, “@ me”.
The joy of someone writing such tightly-focussed stories in such a short space of time is seeing them make improvements from one volume to the next. Innes has improved the sufficiency of his clue-dropping over these first four books, and his plots — which actually started out pretty tight to begin with in Untouchable (2016) — have become generally much more focused and less episodic. For structure, this fourth entry is probably the best yet, as even while the method is a little transparent he still manages to work in threads trailing away from (or, indeed, towards) the solution which show a very canny operator at work. We don’t want him to peak just yet, obviously, there are still another 30 or 40 years of stories we want from him yet — y’hear me, Rob? — but it takes no small amount of talent to work a new wrinkle into this method, which Gideon Fell mentioned in chapter 17 of The Hollow Man way back when in 1935.
We have more than just an impossible murder, however; there’s also the delightfully noirish framing device — The Police Officer Summoned to Prison By A Notorious Criminal They Put Away So That More Crimes Can Be Threatened. I know the capitalising there looks like sarcasm, but it’s a trope I honestly love, and something I don’t experience enough in GAD (good grief, GAD novels rarely admitted that anything went on inside a prison…there were too many village fetes to organise for anything to be happening in a prison). The several decades of murder and mayhem I mentioned up top — all fictional, I hasten to add — included a handful of thrillerish takes on this opening, and there’s something about it that tickles me immensely (I even seem to remember enjoying a Patricia Cornwell book which employed this idea, and, man, did I not enjoy Patricia Cornwell’s books…). And so we begin with the convicted killer Thomas ‘Jack’ Frost summoning Blake to prison and, in true megalomaniac style, warning out intrepid copper that Kerry Nightingale, who would have been Frost’s sixth victim but for Blake’s intervention seven years ago, will be dead before the end of the week.
This is followed up by a second threat of unknown provenance, leading to a madcap rush to Nightingale’s apartment where Blake finds her…absolutely fine. At his own insistence, he and the building’s security officer spend the night sat outside Nightingale’s door and in the morning…well, what do you think? The poor woman is found strangled, the killer somehow achieving ingress and egress in apparently no time at all through either the locked doors of her penthouse balcony, or the locked front door Blake and a witness were parked in front of, adding the complication of therefore also being invisible. Take your pick, both are equally impossible.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the Forth Bridge is a myth…
So fabulous is the pacing of this that I honestly failed to consider the method until I was quite a long way through. Apart from the matter of miscommunication between two of Blake’s subordinates who are in a relationship, this is again a very impressively constructed tale, with surprisingly less fat on its bones than you might expect. One aspect in particular I failed to catch for relevance until it was spelled out, and it’s a palmary piece of wider-world consideration that also serves as an excellent hidden-in-plain-sight clue. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I even give this a pass for the dreaded words r________ c_________ turning up as part of the explanation, something that usually turns me right off. As with Ripples (2017), you have a mixture of explicit clewing and broad implications, meaning that it’s not strictly fair-play, but you’re told enough that the method will be inferable before the end, and the way the crime is achieved — while, yes, apparent to the seasoned reader — plays very smartly with expectations.
We also have here Innes’ best character work outside his core coppers and Blake’s boyfriend Harrison thus far achieved in the series. Frost might be a bit of a cliché, but you’ve still got to execute the clichés correctly as an author, and there’s a compelling and intelligent aspect to him in the couple of scenes he’s on-page which Innes handles very well indeed. Equally, certain parts of the plot are seen from the perspective of the security guard Jamie Salford, and while it would be equally possible to dismiss him as the result of failed machismo, attitude, and arrogance drawn together by gravity, Innes never falls into the trap of rendering him simply a one-note beefcake who does most of his thinking with his smaller head. I’m also delighted to see that narrative consistency is maintained in chapters where, say, Jamie and Blake cross paths: if we start seeing things from Jamie’s perspective, we stay with Jamie’s perspective even after Blake leaves — too many times, even in professionally-published fiction, I’ve seen a shifting of perspectives mid-paragraph and it’s one of the things I hate the most ever. But without the overview of a professional editor, Innes is smart enough to avoid this potential pitfall, and it makes me happy to see.
There are quibbles — I’m not sure that thing with Simon would work, for one, nor that Blake wouldn’t know who Simon was, come to that — but equally this again represents Innes making good progress on what has come before. If you want to hold against him that he recycles an old method here in stark contrast to the sometimes over-reaching ambition of the first three novellas in this series, well, fine, but he’d hardly be the first to do this and the story as a whole is about so much more than simply that core baffling death. If we apply the oft-debated Periods of Ellery Queen framing to the Blake Harte stories, Untouchable (2016) was Period 1, Confessional (2016) was Period 2, and Ripples and Reach are solidly Period 3. And that rate of progress is not to be sniffed at. I mean, dude, imagine what he’ll be up to 30 years from now…