Thirteen people — a publisher and his two grown children, a newspaper editor, a retired General and his wife, a career politician and his bodyguard, a scientist, a lawyer, two servants, and our Everyman narrator — on a houseboat in the Louisiana bayou, intent on a few days of fishing, swimming, and relaxation. Though, naturally, the worries of everyday life never really vanish: a threat against the state Governor hangs over his head, as does his professional association with the scientist, which seems a little strained. With just enough time to get complacent, tragedy strikes, and then there were twelve. And then there were eleven…
I’ve been very eager to read this ever since TomCat’s favourite locked room novels list got me looking into the subgenre in any depth, and Puzzle Doctor was kind enough to lend me his copy — making this a sort of Avengers-style team-up without the egos or the need to be in the same room. That the novel wears its pulp stylings so garishly on its sleeve — if you’ve lost an exclamation mark or an ellipsis recently, it may have wandered into this book to be amongst its kin — is part of its joy, and yet the fact that it never quite feels as if it escapes those trappings in any meaningful way is one of its saddest failures. Maybe it’s the constant repetition of who everyone is and how possible they were to be the killer making it feel like a work that was previously serialised, or maybe it’s the way that the answers to some of the conundra herein are simply “Yup, that thing you suggested 200 pages back”…somehow, this underwhelmed me even as it delighted.
There is much to delight in along the way, however. Whoever W. Shepard Pleasants was, he (I’m going with he — to be explained later) had a great turn of phrase that marks out the best pulp writers in his talent to be both dreamlike (“Mosquitoes were buzzing a morning carol, welcoming the light”) and steel-nosed (“We were to place one of ourselves apart; to stamp him as a monster worthy of the hangman’s noose. Rightly or wrongly, it was a decision which stabbed at the heart of each man among us”) with equal efficiency. Once the first murder is committed, and the denizens of the Terrapin find themselves stranded a long way from safety and with no prospect of help coming, Pleasants has moments in which a situation is boiled down beautifully, and with a better editor this would be a far brisker and more striking read.
In the best pulp traditions, the characters don’t really compel themselves as individuals, though it’s surprisingly easy to keep this not-tiny cast distinct: the men are men, the women are to be kept clear of any unpleasantness lest they indulge in embarrassing fantods (hence Pleasants is possessed of either a Y chromosome or a preternaturally parodic mindset), and the servants…well, we’ll get to the servants. They’re generally a smart bunch — for the most part the confusion that results from the various inexplicable murders is dealt with through intelligent speculation — just a bit too garrulous for my liking. First a man is stabbed in a boat in a manner that would “require the miraculous ability to throw [a knife] in circles” and, for a bunch of amateurs who deride their own ability to solve the thing, a huge amount of very clever reasoning is done. Each successive theory blows previous ones to smithereens, and a picture is built up of possible clues and approaches…even though one, having been demonstrated as flawed, is bizarrely returned to again and again for a reason I’m not entirely sure about.
Then a man is stabbed with a knife that was driven into the deck of the boat and could not have been pulled out by mere human strength…and again there’s a lot of talk, mainly about how impossible it would be (and the solution here is…gee-whizz, what a let down). Of the other deaths, the only one worth discussing is the man pulled (or pushed…) from the deck of the boat by an invisible force with several witness within striking distance and, thankfully, that one’s close enough to the end of the book that it’s not pored over too much (and, hoo, is it a doozy — pure, unadulterated crazy, likely to split readers right down the middle). Things never really drag as such, but equally there are these lulls, these longeurs, between Events where it just feels like Men are collecting in Groups in order that they might Discuss Things.
And by Men, I obviously exclude the two servants, because this is the 1930s and they’re African-American and Chinese and treated with about as much restraint as you’d expect. While there’s nothing vituperative in the presentation of them as people — indeed, both are brave, loyal, and only too willing to help in their own ways — there’s a large amount of discomfort to be gleaned not just from the liberal sprinkling of n-words and c-words, but also the phonetic dialogue (“You get stlength back, flish get um stlenght back”, etc) and sweeping generalisations like “Perhaps I’ve been fooled, but it’s contrary to all that I know of the negro race. They go berserk and kill, but they do not plot murder with such consummate cunning and daring”. There’s an element of almost meta-investigation of this when Needle, the African-American butler, reflects how fortunate he is that one clue points away from him or he’d likely just be blamed and that would be the end of it, but there’s by no means enough commentary of this ilk to excuse what some will find to be very uncomfortable reading.
This apes the British class consciousness of this era reasonably well, too, with the bodyguard Paul Green typified as “a man who was well-born” but “hasn’t amounted to anything”, and the wonderfully snobbish observation at dinner time that “for a man who occupied the post of personal bodyguard [he] was conducting himself quietly, and in good taste”. So maybe Pleasants is simply giving us an unvarnished look at the attitudes of the well-to-do in the Southern states at the start of that decade…it certainly all appears guileless enough, and it’s hardly alone in any of these attitudes. Enough unusual contemporary phrases filter through — most notably that the culprit when unmasked is said to have “builded a great law-breaking machine” in the shape of the gang they head up — that there’s never any doubt you’re reading a period piece, but that doesn’t lessen the bluntness of seeing unpleasant language used so freely, and your response to this will, of course, depend on what you’re willing to accept in your old fiction.
And so this was a fun read, and contains a couple of incidents of very clever clewing and one of the craziest murder methods yet put on paper, but in its repetition and the casual admission of some of its answers it betrays the roots it has no intention of outgrowing and so falls short of true excellence. If Pleasants never wrote anything else, he at least contributed something unique to the annals of impossible crime novels, but this is one you’re advised to snatch up only if you can find it for a sensible price. I’m grateful to both TomCat and Puzzle Doctor for bringing this to my attention and providing me with the opportunity to check it out, but other, richer, fare is out there that I’d advise even the moderately curious get to first.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: The first, the killing of Lacroix is… not very impossible, really, apart from nobody spotting the killer doing it. There is a lovely bit of cluing to the killer, but you have to wonder why SPOILER waits so long before sorting things out. The second is a nice set up, with the guests deciding to prevent the murder weapon from being deployed again by hammering it into the deck, sword-in-the-stone style, but despite its immovability, it is indeed deployed as a weapon. Again, clever and clued but nobody noticed? How big is this boat again? And the final death, as a victim is dragged overboard by an unseen force is… original, I suppose. You could also say mind-blowingly stupid and unlikely to work, but it is at least something different.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: I also appreciated the sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach Pleasants took to his plot, turning nearly every character into a detective after one of them remarked that they forgot to bring a detective along for the trip and showcasing an understanding of proper clueing and fair play – which made the revelation of the murderer a bizarre surprise. Pleasants showed a lot of creativity with now overly familiar themes that I did not expect him to pin the murders on a standard character for this role, but that’s exactly what happened and one has to wonder whether that was bad writing or clever misdirection in retrospect?