The appeal of detective fiction and impossible crime novels for me is their potential for elegance, for taking something that seems utterly baffling and rendering it clear through intelligent deployment of a few key ideas. This achieved peak density during the Golden Age, which is why that era earned that sobriquet, and it feels like it’s been downhill ever since.
Sure, there have been more than a handful of excellent puzzle plot and/or impossible crime novels in more modern times — most, it feels, written on foreign shores and brought to us by Locked Room International — but the general trend of modern authors is to confuse complexity with intelligence. And, because complexity only gets you so far, and because it takes intelligence to wrap things up with the tidiness of, say, The Madman’s Room (1990, tr. 2017), the plots of your modern swipes at this sort of endeavour typically end up sprawling and then boringly fixating on tiny details like a drunk who has dropped a box of screws. Which brings us to Angel Killer (2014), the originally self-published debut of illusionist Andrew Mayne.
Professional magicians and impossible crimes have a somewhat notable history when it comes to writing fiction. Henning Nelms, as Hake Talbot, gave us the by-no-means-bad The Hangman’s Handyman (1942) and then followed it with one of the genre’s best efforts in Rim of the Pit (1944) before vanishing in a puff of potential; Clayton Rawson’s Great Merlini stories are full of invention (along with their often-thwarted ambition as the word count increases) and contain a handful of solid gold classics, not least of which is ‘Off the Face of the Earth’ (1949); and Bruce Elliot wrote an underappreciated gem in the form of You’ll Die Laughing (1945) — a book to which I could add maybe three paragraphs and make a legitimate classic. The dark arts of written misdirection — of planning what to show while preparing something else — go hand-in-hand with stage magic, and it’s no surprise that these two careers should mesh so beautifully. So there’s a definite precedent here for Mayne to be set up well for an entertaining stab at the Grandest Game in the World.
But you have to counter that with the fact that he’s writing in a time where elegance counts for very little, and spectacle is more important than the delicate weave of a legitimately intelligent plot. And thus it’s no surprise that what emerges is a red hot mess.
For clarity’s sake, let’s establish the text under discussion: Angel Killer was self-published in 2012, but the copyright page of my 2015 Faber & Faber paperback calls that a “slightly different form” and so I have read the 2014 edit of that book. Just, as I say, so we’re clear what I’m critiquing here. Also, in order to appreciate why this falls so flat with me, I’m deciding right now that there will be spoilers in the following — I’ll warn you so that you can avoid them if you wish, but, honestly, I can’t recommend that you spend any time and/or money on this book. Read this review instead and be done with it.
It frustrates me to say that because the first haf is, on balance, pretty good. Sure, there are problems — we’ll get to those — but it’s not without potential, and displays some very smart thinking in how it fills in its canvas. The essential setup sees FBI agent Jessica Blackwood called in to help interpret a crime scene where a body has appeared in what must at first glance be impossible circumstances: a woman, dead for some two years from multiple stab wounds and an autopsy, having clawed her way out of her coffin and climbed through two meters of solid earth, suffocating just as she reaches the surface. The reason for Blackwood’s involvement? She’s the third generation of a family of highly-regarded stage magicians, and was herself a magician of no small repute before turning her back on the profession to join law enforcement. If this situation isn’t genuine, and it’s to be hoped it isn’t, then Blackwood herself may well be uniquely placed to help see through the smoke and mirrors.
As conceits go, it’s a good one, and Mayne writes rather well:
“Can you pull a card from behind my ear, or make all the aces come to the top of a deck of cards?”
It’s an odd question. “Yes. Of course.”
“If I sent that deck of cards to the forensic lab, what would they tell me?”
I understand what he’s saying. Maybe they’d find a few fingerprints and creases, but that’s not enough. The real answers are in the mind of the magician. In other hands, those cards are just thick pieces of paper.
So our body presents “a complete illusion”: the earth is tightly packed and has not been recently disturbed by anything so crude as a spade, the coffin proves to be empty, and several levels of forensic analysis match the DNA of the body with that of the older, expected body.
Just as everyone is adapting to this conundrum, a second, more baffling event occurs: the appearance on an isolated beach of what is to all appearances a plane that went missing over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945, complete with a pilot whose fingerprints match those of the man who was flying the plane when it vanished. Honestly, at this point I was very excited — Mayne has a good handle on allowing characters to speculate reasonably intelligently about what they see and how certain illusions could be created, and there are no immediate answers for either of these quasi-impossibilities (are they fully impossible? For some reason my mind doesn’t want to say they are…). But, well, this is where the problems that have been gently roweling in the background begin to emerge, and this point, where the plane is discovered, represents the apotheosis of the novel as a whole. And from here, the drop is a steep one.
Where to start? Firstly, I suppose, there’s the issue that every other character except Blackwood is simply a man in a suit who either doesn’t believe in her and then does or who she thinks doesn’t believe in her and then does. Yeah, they have names, and now I think of it there’s a redheaded woman in there, too, but don’t worry about distinguishing between them. Early promise, like her new boss being likened wonderfully to “a medieval bishop [who] points out the person guilty of evil deeds against the church and sends them out to the courtyard to be stood atop a pile of logs and set on fire”, fade almost immediately and everyone else becomes a vague blur against which Blackwood thinks and realises and — ye gods, we’ll get to this — tells a lot of stories about her past in the middle of dramatic scenes. Now, I’m not the most ardent student of character in thrillers, but when you don’t know who anyone is and it makes no difference, well, what you have there is a problem.
Also, the magic. Inevitably, there’s a lot of discussion about magic, and we see (Great Merlini-esque) certain smaller tricks being utilised and sometimes explained — Blackwood making a card bearing the results of a baseball game that’s just finished appear in a box that’s been locked in a safe overnight, for one — and at every single explanation Maybe manages to make things so confusing that you wish he hadn’t bothered. That card appearance is agonising, and I need to go into a moderate amount of detail here to illustrate why; my apologies, but it’s important in understanding how such a promising book falls so hard. So, new paragraph…
The box has been locked away all the previous night and someone else has been in possession of an envelope containing the key the whole time. Blackwood asks for the result of the game that’s finished, and the key and the box are given to her and she unlocks the box and hands it to a guy to open. Inside is an envelope. He opens the envelope, and inside is the card bearing the score. It’s a great trick. The explanation? The card is curled, and Blackwood had rolled it up and put it in the end of the key before putting the key in the lock…except, when did she write on it, how did she get it sealed in an envelope, and how did no-one notice a rolled up envelope sticking out of the key? Mayne tries to lampshade this by having someone query it, and they’re brushed off and we move on, for it never to be explained. Equally, the writing is so poor that we’re only told the card is curled, not the envelope the card was in — leading to me reading this passage about three times to work out how the card was put into the key and then, once dropped in the box, somehow sealed inside a flat envelope. My conclusion? Awful, awful writing.
The same thing happens later when discussing a planned illusion of Houdini’s, and in some of the frequent and lengthy interruptions concerning Blackwood’s own magical career. Maybe there’s some element of hesitation on Mayne’s part when it comes to revealing tricks of the trade, but if you’re so reluctant to reveal the workings of magic tricks then, hey, maybe don’t write a book with magic tricks at its core. The couple of tricks that’s aren’t explained — a man leaping out over a nineteenth-floor balcony and vanishing in mid-air, for example — are left unaddressed purely to provide cool moments that leave you speculating, and honestly I think I prefer that to the complete non-explanations we do get. It’s not even that seeing behind the curtain renders any trick mundane; it’s that the explanation doesn’t even work in the situation as described. A reluctance to share trade secrets, or awful writing? You decide…
And then…well, then we need to talk about Damian.
Hairy Aaron, Damian. It seems no modern thriller can be written without the deus ex machina that is some Mysterious Stranger in the protagonist’s life. The most outright hilariously bad example of this I’d read prior to Angel Killer was in Painkiller (2016) by N.J. Fountain, but Mayne outdoes that to such an extent that if someone told me the sole purpose of writing this book was to provide a more bullshit plot-forrader I’d probably believe them. Damian is a multiple personality-adopting possible psychopath who happens to be in love with Blackwood and pops up whenever the plot stumbles into a blind corner. Can’t work out how our killer is selecting his victims? Damian appears, and points to a face-matching website. Can’t convince the owner of that website to allow the FBI to look at his servers? Sent two different people, including Blackwood, to try to convince him and they both fail? Damian buys the business off the owner and immediately lays it all open for them. Can’t work out why the third body doesn’t contain a clue indicating the location or nature of the next crime as the first two did? Cue Damian with a bit of handy religious philosophy. No exaggeration: Every. Single. Time. Oh, and spoilers above. Spoilers.
The Friend of the Protagonist Who Does Stuff They Can’t has a rich history in modern crime fiction — see Hawk in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, the wonderful Joe Pike in Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole series, Windsor Horne Lockwood III in Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books, the hitmen Angel and Louis in the Charlie Parker saga by John Connolly, the technicolour psychopathy of Bubba in the Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro cycle by Dennis Lehane…I could go on. Essentially, these characters are the modern evolution of the amateur detective or morally-flexible P.I. of classic GAD-era stories who was free to operate in a way the police were not: to make moral decisions that the Law would find reprehensible, to address a crime and accuse the guilty without the need for formal authority or concerns over jurisdiction. A move towards a more ‘realistic’ bent in crime fiction has seen the ‘character with multiple freedoms’ move over to become the sidekick, and for their remit to shift into rather more morally foggy areas, but the essential relationship is still the same.
Crucially, however, those characters did have some sort of relationship with the protagonists/police, and crucially they were there to aid the plot. Sure, Joe Pike in particular started out like manna from Heaven for the deus ex brigade, but this in part was because in the early 1980s when the likes of he and Hawk were appearing the genre was starting to edge away from the more cynical bent of the 1960s and 70s which had seen the conglomeration of these previously distinct roles: the moral hero who also gets his hand dirty — cf. Dirty Harry, Travis McGee, the fading brutalist misogyny of Mike Hammer — which is why the likes of Jacks Reacher and Bauer struck such a chord as genre throwbacks. The genre has been through this cycle several times, and the two sides of the character coin always had some kind of relationship or understanding that allowed to operate in some sort of symbiotic, mutually-advantageous manner.
Here, Damian simply helps because Mayne doesn’t know how to plot. Sure, Damian is…madly in love with Blackwood or something — no other explanation apparently needed — but without Damian there is no plot. He’s omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnidespotic in how easily every hurdle falls before him, stooping and bowing and apologising as it backs out of the way and quietly erases all memory of itself from existence. Even genetics aren’t beyond him, since he’s able to hide his true identity from Blackwood by ensuring she never gets his fingerprints to run through any computers. How does he do this? By “putting super glue over his fingerprints”. Huh, okay. Except then he also “manually etch[es fake fingerprints] in with the tip of a pin” — even perfectly recreating the fingerprints of William Shatner at one point, as Blackwood discovers when she thinks she’s managed to collect his prints clandestinely.
“Oh, fuck off…”
Damian exists because without Damian there is no book (although, upon reflection, that mightn’t be a bad thing). Much like John Verdon, Mayne does the Forces of Law and Order no favours in how dolt-headed he depicts them to be — it takes an agonisingly long time for anyone to consider that the body in the grave that looks exactly like the woman buried there and has the same DNA as the woman buried there might be [oh, SPOILERS, I guess, if you care] her twin. Sure, the crime scene is a surprise and all, but we are a long way into the book before this occurs to anyone. And, well, how that features into the scheme overall isn’t ever really explained, because the only explanation you get for that opening impossibility is “He dug the coffin up six months ago and replaced it empty, then killed her twin and put her there…”. That’s it. That’s the masterplan. And it doesn’t even answer questions like how the earth around her is undisturbed since, last time I checked, if you want to half-bury someone in the ground you need to dig out some earth to make space for them. Nor does anyone address the simple fact that, if the body had burrowed its way out of the grave, the earth beneath the surface not be undisturbed — it would be churned up by the person climbing through it. Nope, instead we need that to go unconsidered so that people can start going on about religion or something because of how gullible they are. Or something.
And, while we’re here, the killer’s overall scheme is hilarious. Full spoilers, this is what our killer achieves in this book:
Finds the genetically identical unknown twin sister of an adopted murder victim; digs up the murder victim with no-one noticing a disturbed grave, then, six months later, wounds the sister in the same manner as the murder victim and buries her in a coffin to asphyxiate her. Digs her up, half-buries her at the orignal grave site, somehow filled with chemicals or explosives so the body is burned at the convenient moment beyond medical usefulness. Puts sand in the coffin because he has already…
…found — using, uh, vectors and things — a plane that vanished and sank somewhere around Bermuda 70 years ago, which he uses special inflation ring to bring it to the surface. Via a face-matching website, he finds (and somehow physically locates) a man who is a) virtually identical to the original pilot and b) about to leave the country so his wife can be decoyed with text messages into thinking he’s still alive. Also, he somehow swaps the record card of the original pilot’s fingerprints so they have this decoy’s fingerprints on them (this is never really covered beyond being a possible explanation). Puts man in plane and deposit it on a beach, which seems easy to do on your own. Leaves a feather as the next clue. Because he also…
…hires a Ukrainian woman over the internet to come to the US and smile at a camera on the observation deck of the Empire State Building at a precise moment. Uses a laser to generate a flash on the camera at that exact moment and, with split second timing, gets the woman to step into the camera’s blind spot to give the impression she disappeared. At the same time, a mile away in Times Square, he drops an identically-dressed body (with feathers stuck on it) out the back of a moving car while possibly (again, never addressed) simultaneously setting off some sort of air cannon and somehow (never addressed) creating a divot in the ground so it sounds and looks as if the body fell from a great height…all while ensuring that the eyeline of the corpse is pointing with millimetric accuracy towards a distant town so that the eyeline can be overlaid on a map of the United States and lead people directly to that town. Because, in all of this, he…
…ensures that the locations of each crime when joined up on said map form a pentagram — honestly, this is the bit I have the hardest time believing — one corner of which is his own staging/practice area for these various acts (alas, we’re never told how he practised raising the sunken plane). And, with this going on, he…
…befriends a 16 year-old girl (while at a Church Camp he definitely had the time to attend) who will be the victim of the fourth murder, but by this point even he isn’t sure what he’s doing and why, so she gets saved despite being a dumbass and he, having gone out of his way to provide this perfect map that points at the precise point where he can be found, sort of sits around — despite talking to this girl on the phone and her telling him that she’s been picked up by the Feds, who he’s been watching and knows are looking for him — and waits for them to arrest him. Maybe there’s more to this bit, I’ll admit to skipping quite liberally by this point. Like, clearly Mayne doesn’t care, so why should I?
See? It’s all complexity and absolutely no elegance. None. And why does he go to all this effort? What’s his motive for this alarmingly unattainable series of actions? We’re. Never. Told. There’s some vague hint that there’s something bigger going on in the background and that this is only the beginning, but honestly…this book doesn’t even wrap up its own plotlines. It’s spectacle, spectacle, spectacle, spectacle, and no payoff. Like a magician talking and talking about how he’s going to perform some amazing trick and then walking off-stage halfway through.
And, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have such a problem with this — it would be a fun, throwaway nonsense of a thriller — if it embraced the craziness of its setup and just went all-out for maximum OTT cacophony of spills and bonkers possibilities. But it’s so damn po-faced and so sedentary in how it doles out its various elements that it’s ever given the chance to kick loose. When you’re 85% of the way through your book and your main character is still stopping the action stone dead to relate yet another story about what it was like growing up with two magic-obsessed generations above her and pointing out yet again how difficult life has been for her because in everything she’s done she’s been a woman in a man’s world, and such an attractive woman at that — good grief, has she (or rather, has Mayne) mentioned how attractive she is? — and this reminds her of that time she was six and watching her grandfather perform on a stage in Fulton, Missourizzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…weren’t you, like, chasing a serial killer a minute ago? Oh, actually, that’s devolved into complete bullshit — on second thoughts, tell me more about the magic show.
And the ending of this thrill-laced serial killer hunt is such a damp squib that not only do we get a Big Dramatic Scene in which Blackwood must sit for — no, you’re not misreading this — “twelve hours by [myself] in the dark without moving” (which is described as “difficult” — it’s the first line of chapter 50 if you wish to witness this world-record-setting understatement for yourself) lest she set off motion sensors, there’s also a 30 page finale where, the killer caught with minimal fanfare, she’s kidnapped by some rando and…eventually, after more flashbacks and the disinterested relation of some family memories…saved in a manner that adds nothing but is probably just a trailer for the second book. Also, “chomping at the bit” is not an expression that currently exists in the English language. Come on Faber, shame on you.
This is a bad book. Mayne is possibly a very talented magician, and has some highly prestigious collaborators (and David Blaine) on his CV, but he is no novelist, and would have been discouraged from putting this out, I feel, were his name not known in some other circle. I realise now that I’ve written almost 4,000 words about this without pause, but this sort of lazy, cynical, senseless, ill-conceived trash does no-one any favours. It wants to bowl you over with its scale and rigour — to give you something previously unseen in terms of magnitude and complexity — and I should commend that ambition, but there’s a reason this sort of fiction is difficult to write. Magic may rely on the principles of doing more than your audience expects and of selling one thing but offering another, but the nature of this sort of ‘intelligent’ thriller requires you to actually sell what you offer: something that looks brilliant and is brilliant. For a novel by a magician that has its magician protagonist repeatedly state how people fail to suspect the simplest explanations to blatantly ignore that advice is the worst kind of failure.
Henning Nelms, Clayton Rawson, and Bruce Elliot understood it, and made a great success of it as a result — they showed you the frantically-kicking legs below the surface of the water, and then calmly revealed the peaceful swan gliding above. By contrast, Mayne wants you to be amazed by the chaos of the paddle steamer’s blades and then to take you by the hand through the internal combustion engine without being able to explain any more than where you put the oil in. It does the impossible crime, self-published fiction, puzzle plotting, the modern ‘thriller’, and the joy and mystery of magic no favours at all, and — beyond a perverse desire for self-abnegation — I can find no single reason to commend it to you at all, and can’t even be bothered to come up with a pithy final line. Hopefully the 4,000 words above put you sufficiently in the picture.
As a complete aside, what was the last genuinely intelligent thriller you read? Wait, let me rephrase that: what was the most recently published genuinely intelligent thriller you read? I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just curious. Mine was probably False Memory (1999) by Dean Koontz — a legitimately brilliant book full of intelligent characters and some startling thrills. If anyone has anything great they’d recommend, let me know.
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