In my experience, self-published impossible crime fiction doesn’t produce much in the way of short story collections. Sure, Raymond Knight Read has put out a few, but I’m in no rush to jump back on that horse again…
However, beyond simply its existence, what makes this collection of five impossible crime tales additionally interesting is the criteria under which they were produced, which Sharath Komarraju explains in the very brief introduction:
In 2017, I resolved to write and publish five brand new stories every month. … Each month’s stories will be linked together by a genre, theme, or common setting. This month features five locked room mysteries set in the riverine village of Amaravati.
So, yeah, there’s one in the eye for those of us struggling to complete even one impossible crime story after ten years: these were all written in the same month. So, with yet more evidence that I lack the fundamental talent to be an author, let’s dive in.
First up, ‘The Strange Confession’ sees Sub-Inspector Venkat Reddy call on Krishna Shastri, head priest of the Kali temple of Amaravati, for the first time in two years since Shastri helped him out on a case that lead to his promotion. The reason? Why, a baffling murder, of course!
“The facts of the case are quite simple … Two men spend the night in the same room, locked from the inside. In the morning, one of them discovers that the other is dead. Nine time out of ten, you would say the survivor is the murderer. Yes?”
And yet Reddy can’t quite believe that Bhaskar Rao would deliberately poison a servant who has been with him for decades, despite Rao taking strong sleeping medication for a while now that has resulted in several lapses in his memory and so being unwilling to say that he isn’t responsible. The setup is nicely unambiguous — firmly bolted doors and closed windows, no other openings into the room — and the simplicity of the plot when it comes out is compact and shows at least one piece of superb psychology. It’s not exactly complicated, but that’s no bad thing, even if you could quibble about one character being startlingly content to be left in the dark on a key matter.
The religious nature of the character of Krishna Shastri will inevitably draw Father brown comparisons, and it’s pleasing to see Komarraju write intelligently about faith without going full-blown Kel Richards in his desire to wedge in ham-handed theology:
“I believe in god, I do. I believe in all forms of god, the ones we see and the ones we don’t. But I also believe that every man you meet — even the most pious, the most moral, the most good — is capable of killing. You said that every man is born with a certain amount of good in his heart. I see it differently. it is the bad in a man’s heart, the downright lousy, that I keep a lookout for. And it surfaces, every now and then. Nothing you can do about it.”
Additionally, Shastri’s concern that you pray for a murderer’s soul while having secured the wringing of his neck is handled with grace and subtlety, and this balance of various ingredients make a strong opening that won’t exactly baffle while also showing no small talent in these areas.
“Do go on…”
See if the setup of ‘The Red Dot’ sounds familiar: a young man wishes to marry a young lady, and is called by her father to a meeting in the old man’s study with the door bolted on the inside. They talk, share a drink, and the younger man passes out and…
“When he came to consciousness again, the room was exactly as it had been before he was knocked out. Only now, to his side lay Narasimhachari’s body, on his stomach, a knife driven through his back, right between the shoulder blades. … Almost immediately after he woke up and felt the knife, there was a banging on the door…”
Yup, it’s The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson, a setup we’ve also seen Paul Halter take on in ‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010), and the only real flaw in Komarraju’s take is that the…object…needed might or might not be deployable in that way and we have to take his word for it that it is. The motive here is impressively dark, however, and the slight discrepancies in narrative — the knife at one point is small like a pickpocket would use, then at another the blade pierced all the way through to the front of the victim’s body — are more than made up for by some very good writing.
Lovely moments like Shastri holding his breath on the malodorous public bus they take to the crime scene “but the stink was so bad that it seemed to creep under his skin”, or someone’s face turning “a faint shade of blue, like it had just been drained of all good blood”, and the various accoutrements of the setting — the bad roads, the subtle background information on the setup of a household — are handled lightly and intelligently, and it’s lovely to see. Also feeling rather apposite, or perhaps simply uncommon, is the blackened name of the chief suspect — having wangled his way out of a couple of murder charges before, how has he now found himself facing so stark a guilt that he denies? Possibly underwhelming in result, but not without its merits.
‘The Empty Tape’ is interesting for its jumping back to 1995 to allow the use of an obsolete technology — the eponymous tape being a VHS found in the video player of the room where the matriarch of a family has been found poisoned — and also in telling us that Reddy was stationed in Amaravati from 1991 to 1998, therefore supplying an approximate time period to these tales.
During my stint I saw the very worst of what man could inflict on another man, and let me tell you, no ghost or ghoul or long-dead soul ever outdoes what we do to each other.
It’s interesting to consider that but for the tape in this tale and, possibly, the…object…in the previous ones, these stories could actually take place in almost any era that had motorised transport. And even then, motors could be replace by horses without doing too much damage to the workings of each crime. There’s that universality of solution that bodes well for this type of story — I’m a huge fan of new approaches and thinking in my modern impossible crimes, but I’m possibly even more delighted if someone in the 21st century comes up with a novel and insightful method that would be equally as understood, and as lethal, back in the 1920s.
There’s a side-rant here entitled ‘Has Modern Technology Killed the Impossible Crime?’ but I shall not get distracted…
This story sees a woman go to bed, demand a drink from the household servant be left outside her room, and then be discovered dead behind the locked door of her room in the morning. It’s a simple trick, and conveniently goes to plan where several hitched could be foreseen and easily intrude, but it is enriched by the intervention of rolling blackouts to provide a clue that would have otherwise gone astray. And while I’m not entirely sure that a “dead rock” is any more inactive than a live one, this is again well-written and rounded out nicely once more by the cultural touches which are all too uncommon in this subgenre. Not baffling, but well handled.
Title story ‘The Boy Who Played Rama’ is arguably the only real duff in this collection, which is a shame because the setup is possibly the most interesting. Out electioneering, a politician sitting in the front row of a play depicting the childhood of the Lord Rama is shot by the title character and dies on the spot. Not so mysterious, except that the young man playing Rama has only toy arrows in his bow that are “made from the softest rubber you could ever feel” and the arrow, hitting the politician in the chest, couldn’t have left even a mark upon him. The solution is convenient in the extreme, and it’s difficult to know therefore whether the intended result was the victim’s death, but there’s an interesting notion of a perfect crime here, especially when it comes to motive and that old Golden Age standfast, justice. But as an impossibility, and as a piece of ingenuity, it falls flat.
Again, it’s the cultural touchstones around the central mystery that really strike home: when a couple have not just one baby girl but then, a couple of years later, a second one the father is told by the others in the village that “he must have lied a lot in his past life to deserve such a fate in this one” — an observation made neither in celebration nor in condemnation in the story, and an interestingly casual reminder of the occasional cultural obsession with patriarchal lineage. There’s an argument that this might be a parallel thread to run alongside how past acts rear their head in the present, as becomes relevant in that central death, but I’ll leave that for others to agree or disagree with as they see fit.
Somewhat more amusing is the notion that Shenkat Reddy himself is responsible in some way for the wave of bizarre murders that only seem to have washed up on the shores of Amaravarti with his arrival, in the same way that baffling or complex murder cases would follow the likes of Gideon Fell, Inspector Cockrill, and Gervase Fen from pillar to post:
“Do you know we never saw a single suspicious death in all our lives, until you came by on your cycle that morning … It is as if you’ve brought them along with you.”
It’s not an original observation — Detective Inspector Humphrey Master made a vocation of being very voluble about it every time he stumped up the stairs to the Old Man’s office, and Leo Bruce had great fun poking it in the ribs in Case for Three Detectives (1936) — but to see it addressed here, even with a straight face, feels like the sort of throwback to the Golden Age that I always appreciate.
“Any of those ribs going spare…?”
The final story of the lot is possibly the best.
“What would you do,” said Venkat Reddy, “if a man enters a jeep alive and exits it dead? … [T]he driver could not have done it. The vehicle was moving all along. And the man is clean. No record. No motive. Nothing. But for the circumstance, no one would have ever suspected him.”
So runs ‘Twice Over’, in which a landlord gets in the back of his jeep to be driven to a town some thirty kilometres away, and upon arrival at his destination “there is a knife driven through the man’s chest” and the doctor they’re visiting is able to assert that “death seemed to have occurred some time in the last twenty minutes”. Some simple mathematics shows that the jeep could not have stopped at any point for the driver to have committed the crime — though, slightly annoyingly, the top speed of the vehicle is given as two different values, the second of which makes it all too possible, but we can assume that’s an editorial oversight — and since no mention is made of open windows we must assume they’re not the answer.
It’s far from original, and contains perhaps one slight stretch of action — the correction of the…thing that gets corrected bugs me because, a) it seems weird that anyone would mention it, and b) it seems weirder that no-one would notice — but there’s an increased complexity here that bodes superbly for Komarraju’s plotting in this subgenre in future should he ever return to it (Komarraju appears to have “done a Porges” and diversified into a staggering range of stories and styles…wonderful, because the man can write very well indeed, but we need more short story impossible crime specialists — so you all need to go a buy a copy of this so that he;’s encouraged to return to the fold). Yes, the interchangeable use of “bath” and “shower” raises a question that can’t be addressed (the former is the only way it makes sense…) but this is a very good use of a familiar idea, and I would love to see more of this kind of thing in future.
“They’ve gone, now give us the ribs…”
So, in summary, this is an interesting collection that does good work playing the grandest game in the world and is worth the time of anyone with an interest in the undoable done. Komarraju writes well, plots intelligently, and imbues familiar concepts with a freshness that’s not entirely down to the unusual cultural milieu. The stories are available as this collection of five, or can alternatively be bought separately on Kindle, and if you wanted to buy one to try I’d probably rank them accordingly:
1. ‘Twice Over’
2. ‘The Strange Confession’
3. ‘The Red Dot’
4. ‘The Empty Tape’
5. ‘The Boy Who Played Rama’
And, hey, if this is what he can produce in a single month, man do I feel bad about my own literary efforts. One of these days I’ll write that vanishing and reappearing house story, one of these days…
More Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.