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.