Prior to reading Robert Innes’ work I honestly did believe that there was quality content out there in this non-trad route (and I was right) but after more than a few low quality samples of this stream — a fair portion of which I opted not to write about on this blog, since it seemed self-defeating to my intended aim — I remained less optimistic about finding it.
And then the promising-but-flawed Untouchable (2016) popped up in my Amazon recommendations, and its follow-up Confessional (2017) showed a significant improvement in character, plot, and prose, and suddenly there was something to get a little bit excited about. Because, see, he’d already written six books by then, and they all seemed to be impossible crimes, and he’d also somehow managed to keep up a publication rate of four novellas per year. Well, c’mon, it would be a hard heart indeed that wasn’t even a tiny bit curious. So I persevered with this AiSP not least because it would give me an excuse to keep reading Innes, and, well, it’s turning out pretty well so far, I’d say.
Flatline (2018) is the sixth entry in this now ten-strong series, and opens with nurse Kelsey Richards being driven home by her partner Joe Tilsley late one night — both are drunk, and when Joe collides with a woman on the road into the village of Harmschapel they make the decision to leave her dead by the side of the road rather than face the consequences. Jump forward a few hours short of a full year later, and Kelsey and Joe are both still working in the same hospital, with Kelsey in particular sagging under the lade of having kept the hit-and-run a secret for the last year, and unbeknownst to them some retribution has been waiting in the wings for this very anniversary. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you wish to look at it — on Kelsey’s ward is a certain DS Blake Harte awaiting an operation for appendicitis…and with little else to occupy him he has plenty of time to mull over the mysterious hit-and-run he’d been investigating that’s now lingered unsolved for a full year…
Before too long, everything goes a little I Know What You Did Last Summer (take your pick from 1973 or 1997, depending on how cool you want to think people will think you are): at the hour of the hit-and-run ominous bells chime out from the hospital’s PA system, and Kelsey receives an ominous message from a masked individual calling themselves The Watcher and promising some sort of vengeance. Couple this with some arguments he overheard when sneaking a quick vape in the toilet, and Blake’s investigative instincts begin to go into overdrive, much to the despair of his boyfriend Harrison — surely one of the more long-suffering partners in crime fiction — who wants Blake to simply rest up and get better.
Just look at these happy bastards…
What I especially appreciate about Innes’ writing in comparison, say, to the (admittedly only one) J.R. Ellis I’ve read is how propulsive his narratives tend to be. Sure, there are some hilariously awkward sentences — I can’t choose my favourite between “He was greatly missed after his fatal stroke in his office chair” (the dirty beggar…) and “Kelsey ran into the locker room and immediately threw her head into the sink” (no-one comments on her acephalous appearance for the rest of the narrative…) — but he gets on with the story, manages to work in the incident necessary on the way to the crime, and has a good eye for the occasional wry humour in the situations Blake confronts, such as the startling inanity of the daytime TV that’s all he has to distract himself:
[H]e now had the knowledge of how to produce the perfect tiramisu [and] how to brighten up his drainpipe with left over Christmas decorations.
In short order we get the various ward staff who each have a moment to be suspicious or suspiciously friendly, a couple of comedy hospital porters, the tensions between Blake and Harrison…and then we’re onto the impossible drowning.
The drowning sees the victim enter a lift (that’s an elevator if you’re from the US) in view of a witness and descend a couple of floors…only for the lift to get stuck and require the porters to prise open the doors. Once this is complete, taking up about 20 or so minutes, the sole occupant of the lift is found bone dry on the outside yet dead from fluid entering his lungs as if he were drowned. A small point in the statement of the problem had me reaching for a solution, but since that’s cleared up a bit later I then had to semi-dismiss it (a clue won’t hurt, since I was wrong: it had to with The Watcher using a voice-distorter…) and wait to see what played out. And what does play out is…sort of brilliant. People tend to throw around names like Carr and Hoch when talking about genuinely insightful impossibilities, and with good reason, but this reminded me most of all of Arthur Porges: it’s a very clever deployment of an obscure principle that you’d have to read up on to convince yourself of, and you’ll never guess it from the foregoing narrative…but hot damn isn’t it ever clever. Is it original? Honestly, it could well be. And that alone deserves kudos, in this increasingly-crowded field.
If I have one complaint besides the lack of fair play, it’s that I was a little disappointed when Blake is able to force himself out of bed post-surgery to be involved in the investigation: I was looking forward, Rear Window-style, to him somehow Armchair Detecting it from the confines of his hospital bed, maybe with those comedy porters deployed as his Grace Kelly (also, with Porges in mind, this could be a slight hangover from Cyriack Skinner Grey…). As it turns out there’s not much actual investigating to do, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; the second half of the narrative builds in a dual-threaded complexity in the way Innes has been capable of doing ever since that first foray into impossibilities, showing that there’s more to him than just the ability to make something baffling by withholding clues: his plots are actually pretty tightly wound, which bodes well for the two non-impossible books he’s put out so far, The Hung Jury (2018) and Poison Pen (2018).
From a classic detection perspective, there’s an aspect of the Crusader Detective in Harte that feels like the blend of British self-effacing educated gentleman who simply happens to be good at this sort of thing and American “down these mean streets”-driven evangelical tough guy who’s the only one capable of looking into the abyss without blinking:
“I want to be the one that solves it. It’s not ego, Harrison, it’s never been about that. But when I’m out there stopping these people from committing the sort of atrocities we come across, I feel like I’ve got a purpose. It makes me feel like I’m helping people.”
In truth this may be no different from the standard motivation offered up by many a protagonist in modern crime writing; I don’t read enough to know. But, attached as it is to the classic idea of the impossible crime, it reminds me of some sort of genre fusion that’s trying to pull the best out of both schools. This could also come from the fact that Innes’ use of setting and atmosphere has improved, too: the hospital being neatly communicated without needing to veer into pornographic levels of detail, and the fact that he plays up the horror movie motifs of the core idea with a good sense of escalating panic on the part of the affected. That these considerations are neatly woven in for a more modern audience while also throwing in a smart impossibility for genre nerds is among the main reasons I continue to enjoy this series so much. Indeed, I’m so eager to read the next title Skeletons (2018) — and, if I’m honest, to get through more of my ever-growing pile of self-published impossible crime fiction — that I’ll probably return to these Adventures in August (assuming I don’t take the month off).
Next month, however, we dive back into Adey…
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The locked room-trick found a new variation on an old principle of the impossible crime story often employed by such luminaries as John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch and Paul Halter. You have to wonder why nobody else had come up with this idea before and miraculous drowning in the closed elevator was strengthened by the cussedness of all things general. A well-done impossible crime with a Carrian touch.
The Blake Harte Mysteries by Robert Innes:
1. Untouchable (2016)
2. Confessional (2017)
3. Ripples (2017)
4. Reach (2017)
5. Spotlight (2017)
6. Flatline (2018)
7. Skeletons (2018)
8. Touch (2018)
9. Atmosphere (2018)
10. Harte (2019)
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.