When might a self-published novel not be a self-published novel? That’s the quandary I face with J.R. Ellis’ third book, Murder at Redmire Hall (2018). See, it’s technically published by Thomas & Mercer, but they’re simply an imprint of Amazon Publishing and the line between what’s different about this and simply uploading it to Amazon oneself gets blurrier the more you look at it.
However, I consider it viable for my Adventures in Self-Publishing partly on account of this blurredness — it’s not taken a trad route to reach its audience, that at least seems clear — and partly because it does not read like a book that’s had a professional editor look over it in any detail. While an author can occasionally get a little too close to their manuscript, trying to keep too many pieces in mind while writing it and moving everything into place, there’s no way any editor worth their salt should allow simple, awkward repetition of the likes of…
It sounded so preposterous that they were unsure whether or not it was a joke. Redmire was famous for his practical jokes. There were one or two stifled giggles among some of the slightly tipsy women.
“Is this one of your jokes, Viv?”
…through even the first pass, never mind all the way to publishing.
So, it is allowed into the self-published pile — in the sense that it’s non-traditional in its provenance, and that no-one who should be earning money as an editor has cast an eye over it. And, let’s make it clear in case anyone has reason to doubt this, I’m by no means dismissing it purely on account of such a label. Hell, if you’re mixing with the likes of James Scott Byrnside, Matt Ingwalson, and Robert Innes then the standard being set is very high indeed. So, how does Ellis stack up?
Honestly, not that well.
This was brought to my attention by regular commenter Jonathan, who offered the following tantalising possibility:
As for the resolution of the locked-room conundrum – all I will say is that the solution may very well be original within the oeuvre of English impossible crime writing.
So let’s deal with that first. Independent of the quality of the book, I can reveal that the solution is not original in the English-language impossible crime. There’s a book talked about on this very site more than a couple of times which does pretty much the exact same thing, and did it several decades prior to this. Not that a lack of originality is anything to hold against a solution — hell, most of the classics are repeating each other to some degree — but that other book also does it with a great deal more style, and significantly less wasted space and repetition. The essential idea here has a good short story’s content to it, and through restatement, awkwardly-paced scenes of ‘character’, and molasses slow pacing draaaaaags it out over nine long, dull chapters which contain virtually no detection, very little in the way of clues, and wraps it up with our detective relishing his “Poirot moment” by gathering the suspects together and going through each of the, like, eleven people who aren’t guilty one by one like it’s the finale of a TV talent show.
I’m doing this out of order, and — perhaps ironically — could be accused of drawing it out, but that’s because I want to be clear how much this book fails on just about every front. It sounds interesting at the start, and I don’t want you to get your hopes up only to have them dashed in the way I did. The prologue sounds very interesting: our outlandish, extravagant Lord Redmire “constantly switch[ing] his attention from one all-consuming interest to another” until he happens upon magic and performs the following illusion in front of several guests:
“You will see me disappear completely from a locked room, which you may examine before and after my disappearance. I will then reappear in the same room. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I will disappear from the room for a second time and materialise outside the same room.”
He duly does: sitting them outside a study while he is locked inside, the door is opened by an associate after about 15 seconds only for the room to be empty, then everyone leaves, the door is opened again, and he’s inside, then he disappears again and appears outside the room while they’re all investigating it for a third time. And if my repeating that seems to fly hilariously in the face of the castigation I’ve just offered on account of the repetition here, it’s a deliberate ploy because that details of the trick are repeated four times before the end of the second chapter. This repetition is due to the trick itself being repeated — arguably rendering the prologue pointless — by that Lord Redmire (he of the lions)’s son (he of the fast cars, etc) several decades later, the knowledge since lost and somehow rediscovered so that the second Lord Redmire can perform it live in front of television cameras as a way of generating interest in his estate.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell us how you rediscovered these secrets?”
“No,” Redmire smiled. “That would be telling.”
The cameras roll, guests are amazed as the door to the room is opened to reveal that Redmire has disappeared, and then aghast as the door is opened to show his having reappeared…with a knife in his back that, they quickly determine, was not part of the plan.
And so…howdunnit? Thankfully, DCI Jim Oldroyd and DS Stephanie Johnson are on hand, initially to have simply given the trick an element of validity but now to conduct a murder investigation. See? It sounds pretty good — I love the idea of someone being forced into this sort of stunt to raise money, and the notion of a trick going wrong will always bring me out in shivers at the memory of that halfway point of Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie when the lights come up to reveal…a similar result (I read that one quite early, and it had a profound effect upon my young mind). The idea of an illusion being forgotten, and the knowledge having to be tracked down before the killer eliminates anyone else who knows how it was done, is great — it’s a veritable petri-dish of germs of possibility, and one set in an olde country pile to boot…but, hairy Aaron, doesn’t it ever fail to spring to life.
A huuuuuge part of the narrative is spent with the archetypes Lord Redmire seemed to stuff his family with — the Ex-Wife and Her New Fella, the Spoiled Child, the Sensible And Boringly Uptight Brother, the Ex-Mistress and Her new Squeeze who’s also the Disgruntled Ex-Business Partner — which makes you appreciate how well a good writer uses an archetype to lull you into false security about them. Here, they’re just dull, sit around having painfully on-the-nose conversations, and couldn’t have murdered him anyway since every single one of them was sat with a crowd in front of live TV cameras. “Oooo,” you go, “like The Problem of the Green Capsule?” — yes. Like that book, but without the insight to use the precise thing that makes it so difficult for these people to be involved to actually involve them in the crime. Like that book, but robbed of incident, or any interesting characters, or any clever ideas, or any wit, wisdom, or worthwhile conceits. Like that book, but its exact opposite in any regard you’d care to name.
Indeed, given that the murderer had to be in the room to kill him the list of suspects should shorten dramatically on the spot, and here again is another problem: there’s nowhere near enough misdirection or playing with clues or possibilities to go around. This would, as I’ve said (but it bears repeating…and, yes, I know I’m repeating myself), make an entertaining short story, because it’s transparent, poorly clewed, nowhere close to as rigorous as it thinks (there are three other solutions I could suggest, one of which would require virtually no amendments to the existing plan — and, in fact, I’m tempted to add it to my own impossible crime novel that will never get written), and any attempt to given the police characters and suspects alike any internal life falls so flat that it would actually be improved by just ripping out all the ‘personal’ details by the roots (but then it wouldn’t be novel length…). If you have read it, I suggest reading the first chapter, and then jumping straight to the last chapter, because nothing in between matters (even the two other deaths…). But don’t read it. Instead, read the book that did this exact same thing with far more interesting everything in the 1940s, because while that book isn’t perfect it is a far more enjoyable and worthy read.
“You still haven’t told us the title, dickhead…”
I might sound angry about this, but I’m really not. I’m just resigned. The absence of any demonstrable understanding of the genre here — and in a third novel, too, by which point you’d hope something would have been learned — is exhausting. The editing is terrible, which I may have forgotten to mention so I want to get in now. The writing is recapitulatory. The characters do not exist. And the scheme at the heart of it all makes no sense. So don’t read this book, don’t let this be the way you get to learn about a pretty decent locked room idea and so have something actually noteworthy ruined along the way. Instead, read this book, which is a far better time, and you can thank me afterwards.
And Jonathan, you and I should talk… 😆
The Yorkshire Murder Mysteries by J.R. Ellis:
1. The Quartet Murders (2017)
2. The Body in the Dales (2018)
3. The Murder at Redmire Hall (2018)
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.
18 thoughts on “#537: Adventures in Self-Publishing – The Murder at Redmire Hall (2018) by J.R. Ellis”
As far as I’m aware, Thomas & Mercer offers its authors an advance against royalties and has an editorial department — in other words, it’s in all important respects a conventional publisher. To be honest, i don’t see anything wrong with the “jokes” extract you cite: yes, the word jokes appears three times, but the second instance is a deliberate echo of the first and the third is in a line of dialogue. I’d have been tempted, with my copyeditor hat on, to think about tweaking that line of dialogue a bit, but I’d have by no means thought it essential.
the owner who follows him “has not been exactly careful with money” citing “fast cars, partying and womanising” — very much the antithesis of a spendthrift
Um, strikes me as the very definition of a spendthrift.
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Thanks, John, it’s remarkably difficult to glean that sort of information from their website — I did some reading based on what they say and couldn’t see any evidence of that sort of setup. Still not entirely sure it’s significantly different enough to self-publishing, though; still sounds a little like “send us a book, we’ll design you a cover” and the royalties are simply a result of being part of the most profitable company on the planet at present.
The example about jokes I quote has “they were unsure whether or not it was a joke” followed in the next line by someone asking whether or not it’s a joke — which seems hilariously redundant to me. These things are always a matter of taste, I don’t deny, but alongside the various other examples I could have drawn it was simply the most compact.
As for spendthrift…yeah, I’m an idiot 🙂 Clearly I had another word in mind, and allowed my frustration to get the better of me. Dammit! Now the question is, do I leave this in for everyone to point and laugh at or do I take it out and preserve the dignity of the English language. Thanks for picking up on it either way, heaven alone knows what I was thinking…
I’ve opted to take out the “spendthrift” thing because it hardly seems fair to present as a criticism against a book something that’s simply a matter of my own ignorance/confusion. Much obliged for having it pointed out early on — many thanks.
I believe it’s the case that T&M pay advances and genuinely select which books to publish. Publishers’ Weekly seems to think it’s an orthodox publisher.
Huh, that is interesting. From their website it appears to be one step removed from a self-publishing setup with loose hints at editorial staff and a lot of emphasis put on making you a cover. Or maybe that’s just the impression I took away when I couldn’t be entirely certain what they were offering. Ah, well, that’s yet another mistake in this post; though in fairness this book does read like a poorly-edited self-published novel; hilarious to think that more than a few actual self-published works display a keener sense of pacing and editorial control than this.
I get even more curious to try another of his books the more I learn. I wonder if he just topped out on ideas for this third one and the second one is actually fabulous and superbly edited…but this one was beyond salvage and so comes off poorly by comparison.
Okay, I’ll put it on the list 🙂
Too bad this one doesn’t play out – there’s nothing better than an impossibility of the past being repeated years (preferably generations) later. It’s that classic mystery presented in books like Hag’s Nook, The Madman’s Room, or The Red Widow Murders:
1. How was the impossibility in the past pulled off?
2. How did someone in the present day figure it out?
3. Even better, how did a third party understand the impossibility enough to disrupt its recreation?
In principle, like with all essentially good ideas, this is a passable short story simply dragged kicking and screaming out into novel-length. The key idea is fundamentally decent, and I’d be interested to learn whether Ellis got the inspiration from somewhere else or thought he was writing something original, because in many ways it’s a simple enough situation — other solutions could be offered quite easily — and in others it could be seen as perceptive and inventive. Alas, whichever it is, too much padding and a molasses-slow pace as a result kill this for me. Though the idea is interesting enough in theory that I’m not against reading one of Ellis’ other books…
A quick trip to Abebooks reveals… no copies of the other book you mention. Another one to keep my eye out for…
It’s a current Ramble House issue, so can be found at their usual portals.
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Ah, I haven’t read the earlier novel, and so wouldn’t have managed to spot the un-originality of the main trick. 😅 The “original” novel is quite obscure – and so whether Ellis was inspired by it remains, I suppose, a moot point?
I’ve seen this trick played out at a much larger scale in a mystery novel that isn’t written – and hasn’t been translated – in English. If it ever gets translated – maybe I should warn you. That novel was quite (but not very) impressive – but then again you might not want to take my recommendation too seriously. 😅
I’d still be curious to see what you make of Kindaichi’s “Headless Samurai” though.
Oh, I’m not suggesting that Ellis stole it from Elliott — though, given that he took 80% of his name from Elliott it seems like it might have happened… — I just feel Elliott did a far better job and would prefer that book spoil this one rather than vice versa (I feel the same about the short story that recycles the method From Sealed Room Murder by Rupert Penny). It’s a good trick, I have no objection to it in principle, and would happily read that Japanese novel if it makes it across the language barrier provided it’s an overall good book.
Mind you, I’m so unpredictable with what others have enjoyed who’s to say what I’m likely to think is a good book these days? Curse my uncooperative nature!
I’ll drop a hint: not Japanese! 😅
Ha, sorry; I totally thought you’d said before that it was a Japanese mystery.
Wait? Are you two talking about The Headless Samurai from the Kindaichi series? It was translated and published by TokyoPop in the early or mid 2000s, but prices of secondhand copies are very steep. However, it’s one of the few stories by Kanari that’s actually worth reading.
I’m keen for JJ to be reading “Headless Samurai” – and yes, I’ve attempted to persuade him to read the TokyoPop English translation. And so I’m glad that you (TomCat) endorse the recommendation too. 😊
But my comment about not being a Japanese novel refers to the novel that shares a similar trick to “Redmire Hall”. 😅
Well, I shan’t give further spoilers for fear that it receives an English translation! ☺️
We can but hope!