Well, c’mon, as if I’m going to do a month of self-published impossible crime fiction posts and not feature Robert Innes. Spotlight (2017) is the fifth of currently nine Blake Harte mysteries, all built around impossible crimes, and this time there are two impossibilities to contend with.
Well, okay, no, technically there are three impossibilities, but we’ll get to that in due course…
One of the joys of the classic GAD writer, I’m sure, was not having to worry too much about the internal lives of their sleuths and various hangers-on. Sure, Della Street was in love with Perry Mason, but pick up any book in that 80-odd instalment series and the two of them are unrequiting just as fully at every turn; Gervase Fen, Gideon Fell, and other detectives who didn’t share those initials all have wives in their respective canons…but there was never a point where their sleuthing put a strain on the marriage (indeed, both vanish without a trace…though not in any sort of ‘impossible crime’ manner), or the patter of tiny feet resulted in them mulling over the sustainability or wisdom of a life spent hunting out killers. Book after book, these people could by-and-large find themselves in a situation where an ingenious and nefarious murderer/forger/thief would elude them for 80,000 words and then capitulate due to their own hubris or the detective’s deductive brilliance…then the page would be ripped from the typewriter and the next case begun in earnest with nary a backwards glance.
The modern audience, however, derides such fakery, and so the modern author must include some human angle — the victims should be rounded before being sliced, the community complete before being torn asunder. I’m not dismissing this out of hand, it’s always important to have a sense of the setting in which a story takes place, but there’s a tendency in a lot of the (relatively small amount of) modern fiction I read for the setting to become the story and the ‘story’ to become the background.
And once an author starts introducing elements of the personal lives of their sleuths, they don’t then suddenly get to just stop in book 6 because they’ve put them through the mill so much and sort of done everything — readers would notice, and doubtless complain — but to keep introducing drama after drama makes their books something akin to a soap opera and, seventeen entries into your Baker Solves a Murder opus, you have a huge amount of backstory to cover and address in order to clear a path for the Case of the Lethal Lamington. The trick, one supposes, is a soupçon here, a drizzle there, a sprinkling of external difficulties, and that way you don’t get readers writing to you because in volume 6 Sarah said she’d never been to Greece but then in a flashback in volume 12 she recalls a lovely holiday she had on Skopelos with Yusuf and there’s no way she’d lie about it because in volume 7 she got upset when Alain lied about his ex-girlfriend who turned out to be the killer based on the cat hairs on her jumper but then in volume 14 Alain says he is allergic to cats and whyzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
So, that Robert Innes — yes, this is going somewhere — uses this fifth entry in his Blake Harte series to ring a couple of changes in what we know about the character so far is quite a bold move. It’s fair to say that the personal elements predominate in Spotlight, but after two fairly plot-dense entries in Ripples (2017) and Reach (2017) you can’t begrudge him that, and in fact the ‘new’ backstory for Blake works pretty seamlessly.
Change is also afoot professionally as well as personally. Following the regime reshuffle at the end of Reach, we not only have a new Top Cop, we also have in this volume an external specialist investigator brought in to help in the guise of Detective Alec Woolf. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the old ‘shake things up by bringing in a new detective’ trope, since it’s usually little more than a chance to bask in the brilliance of a character we already presume is pretty brilliant — see, off the top of my head, The Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie and The Eight of Swords (1934) by John Dickson Carr — and so ends up feeling rather self-serving. Indeed, the only times I can think of it being done particularly interestingly are when Christianna Brand clashed Cockrill and Charlesworth in Death of Jezebel (1948) and, perhaps most notably, the appearance — the first appearance, I hasten to add — of the late Rik Mayall as D.I. Gideon Pryke in the Jonathan Creek episode ‘Black Canary’ (1999).
The tendency to heighten the esteem of one’s series character by throwing into the mix a boorish, oafish, dense, comically wrong foil seems a bit…lazy (see — by which I mean don’t see — the Jonathan Creek episode ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ (2014), which fails to learn from the success of its previous ventures and takes an oh-so-painfulhilarious swipe at Sherlock). It’s not like we need convincing of the virtues of the protagonist; if we do, the author has not protagonisted well up to that point and so we probably don’t care anyway (and, bluntly, looking good next to a complete arsehole is something most people can manage and so compliments no-one). On a more narratively relevant point, it also bothers me when this new detective is brought in as a result of their esteem elsewhere and turns out to be terrible at what they do — raising the question of how they ever achieved such esteem in the first place. I get that the bishop in The Eight of Swords is an amateur, he’s allowed to be useless, but it’s frequently the case that our protagonist end up more hampered than helped, I suppose because it raises extra narrative tension when they have to pull things out of the fire at the last moment…as if they were ever going to fail in the first place. Can’t two competent professionals meet, initially antagonise, and then learn to value and work with the strengths of the other? Hell, that’s more or less the plot of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the last time I checked people seemed to enjoy that as a concept.
So I’m sorry to say that the boorish, oafish, slightly pervy Woolf added little to the experience of this book for me, even if his utilisation at about the two-thirds mark is interesting in how little it tries to hide about his flaws (and the bit with the sunglasses is genius). He and Blake knock off each other, no-one else likes him, only the Top Brass are impressed and that’s because they don’t see what he’s really like…it’s all here and, while Innes is a good writer and makes it all fly past with increasing narrative confidence, it felt a little rote and was for me among the least successful of the threads thus far explored in this series.
“Thank-you for that mini discourse on the use of a secondary sleuth in crime fiction,” you’re doubtless thinking, “it was very interesting and raised some excellent points. Now what about the bloody impossible crimes?”. Yes, indeed.
“Vera, come back! He’s getting to it now…”
The impossibilities herein run thus: the first is a story told by Woolf about a murder he solved involving a woman found stabbed in a locked room with no weapon in situ. You’re told the answer immediately, and it’s handled neatly, but with the sort of familiar old trick that is bizarrely rolled out every so often like it’s a surprise — there was a story in EQMM last year that did this exact thing — and I should make it clear here that Innes isn’t trying to do anything surprising here beyond showing that something can appear confounding but actually be explained rather simply indeed. To a certain extent it also establishes Woolf’s bona fides, telling us that he knows his stuff from an investigative perspective, but it’s a shame that we don’t get to see anything of the like, perhaps requiring more nouse, from him again. I get that there’s only so much one can introduce into a shorter narrative, and the joy of Innes’ books for me lies at least partly in how he isn’t one to simply cram in scenes simply for a larger word count, but, well, see above for my thoughts regarding this.
The second impossibility is a humdinger in appearance: the vanishing of a car travelling at speed through a narrow tunnel, with Blake and Woolf giving chase in their own car mere yards behind. The lead car negotiates a blind corner, and when the policemen follow mere seconds later there’s no sign of the car in the tunnel, nor on the straight road ahead, and the narrowness of the tunnel precludes any chance of the lead car having doubled-back in the darkness to sneak past them. There’s a nice piece of clewing early on that hints at one aspect of the solution here and is very neatly hidden, but there’s a reason I say this is a humdinger in appearance…and that’s because I’m not entirely sure the solution would work. It’s the sort of effect that very much comes from the situation the characters are in, and as such depends a lot on how you read it — meaning, you won’t from the comfort of your armchair (or the discomfort of your commute) necessarily be able to believe this is feasible. I’m sorry, Rob — we’re Twitter friends, and he’s been very generous in humouring me through quite a few exchanges of messages, so I’m pretty sure he’ll read this — I love ya, but I didn’t believe this one. It’s a…distance thing, among others.
However, the third impossibility, a dead body in a locked room, maybe or maybe not a suicide (reasons point to ‘not’), is — and this isn’t really the best word for it, I’m aware — beautiful. It’s not complex in manner, but as a piece of narrative, as a piece of character work, and as a result of everything that has come before, it has a perfectly-shaped answer that fits with quiet brilliance into the confines of the tight plot Innes has created around it, answering some questions in a very satisfactory manner. It has a nicely apt origin, too, since I’m pretty sure I know where the inspiration came from, and I applaud this use of that idea here. Very, very good work.
Well, hello, there. How have you all been?
I’m not going to fault the man’s ambition — I’d much rather he set challenging aims than repeat doddering old “the string was wrapped around the handle of the bolt and pulled once the door was shut”-style gumpf — and it’s wonderful to see his commitment to the impossible crime continue in such a non-standard, creative manner. I’d suggest, however, that you come to this more for the world-expanding and the pacing than the core problem, but at least there’s a lovely little sting of sorts to go out with in that third impossibility. And, frankly, in his next book Flatline (2018) a man drowns in a lift, so even if this had nothing to recommend it — and that’s very much not the case — I’m hardly going to stop here…!
It’s normally here that I list my Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing, but since the list is getting pretty lengthy (and liable only to get significantly longer) I have instead created a dedicated page, where from now on you will be able to find all the links to my reviews of self-published impossible crime fiction. It can be accessed at any time from the link in the header bar of the blog, and every time a review appears on the blog I’ll add a link there so it’s easy to keep track of them all.
One of just many changes and additions to The Invisible Event that I’ve been planning for ages and haven’t had the time to get to. Expect others…eventually.