The English language is a funny thing. Take for instance Chris McGeorge’s debut novel Guess Who (2018) which, revolving as it did around a group of people solving a mystery while locked in a room, was marketed as a ‘locked room mystery’ when that is a phrase which has already had another meaning for well over a century.
So his second novel, Now You See Me (2019), sounding more like an actual impossible crime didn’t necessarily mean anything. Therefore, before we go any further, let’s get this straight: yes, I suppose this does qualify as an impossible crime. The synopsis is readily available online, and doesn’t really communicate the setup especially well, so I’ll take the summary of the core puzzle as offered by one of the characters in the book:
“Standedge Canal Tunnel. For all intents an purposes a straight line. Point A to Point B. The Standedge Five and Matthew and the dog enter Point A in their boat, there’s nowhere to go except Point B. But somehow — the Standedge Five go somewhere else. Against everything, Matthew and the dog come out the other side without the others. You start asking around, and you’ll hear a lot of theories. But I’ve never heard a single one that I believe. They are gone, but there’s no way they can be.”
So, yeah, that’s moderately impossible: six people enter the 5 kilometer tunnel, one emerges (the dog doesn’t matter and is soon forgotten…like, completely) having been found beaten and bloody in the boat and with a convenient lack of memory about what happened. The tunnel is searched by police diving teams, the surrounding land is combed, no sign is found of these five young men and women — they have vanished into thin air. Colour me intrigued, given as I am rather partial to an impossible crime.
This is, however, a book with a great many problems, quite a few of them editorial — someone at Orion clearly thinks that “to change tact” is a thing, oh for the days of linguistic matters being overseen by professionals who knew how the language worked — but mostly structural and content-based. Part of the reason I started this Reading Modern Impossible Crime Novels and Pretending It’s for TomCat‘s Benefit series was because I anticipated that my forays into this morass of modern crime writing might need some outside motivation to sustain me. But in the course of this book I’ve given up, and have now adapted to the futility of hope, instead making a Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo Card against which I shall measure anything I read which fits that idiom. Here it is:
Before we go any further, a plea: if there’s a public library in your vicinity, please use it. I was able to reserve this book for £1, and if you think that’s a ridiculous expense then consider the sheer range of services those places offer — you may only think of it as a building that lends books, but that simply shows how lucky you and I are to view it’s role so simply. A series of small contributions over the course of the year — it’s still free to borrow books, the reservation is all that I’m charged for at mine — could make a difference to someone who really needs the services they provide. And authors still benefit financially when you borrow a library book. And if none of that appeals to you, consider this: I would’ve had to spend around £7 on this if I bought it, and it’s really not a good book at all. Everyone likes saving money, so at least consider your library from a pecuniary perspective if nothing else.
So, this loose amalgamation of serendipity and coincidence masquerading as a novel kicks off when Robin Ferringham receives a phone call from Matthew McConnell, ‘the boy who lived’ in the situation above, who is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his friends. Never mind that this can’t be how phone calls from prisons work — surely you can’t just phone up anyone, this kind of thing must go through at least three levels of checks I’d’ve thought — he claims to’ve spoken to Robin’s wife Samantha on the night she disappeared three years ago, and that she told him (Matthew) that Robin was someone to get in touch with if he (Matthew) ever needed any help. Quite why she did this no-one can say, the two didn’t know each other at the time, and how Matthew got Robin’s mobile phone number isn’t apparently considered important…and, given what we find out about how Samantha came to phone Matthew later on in the book, it’s simply setting up the omission of details like this which drive the whole plot and can’t be explained.
“It was a random call. I thought it was someone taking the piss. I thought she was drunk.”
“How’d she get your number?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where was she calling from?”
“It was an unknown number.”
In that exchange is a detail so staggeringly convenient, and so very hard to believe, on account of which the whole book hinges. Some of you will have the experience claimed above, but I’m guessing a tiny minority, and the coincidence of it here frustrated me no end (not least on account of how ham-handedly it’s crammed into some dialogue later on). Anyway, if Robin wants more detail about his vanished wife then Matthew wants help. Oh, and they’re having this conversation face-to-face a day or two after Matthew phoned Robin because prisons just let you turn up and talk to people when you want to (or, in fairness, when the influential father of one of the prisoner’s suspected victims tells members of the prison’s staff to let you in…though I’m not sure which seems more ridiculous). The help he needs is that he can’t believe he killed his friends — convenient amnesia, and it was at this point that I broke off and made my bingo grid — and so wants Robin to investigate; is, in fact, pinning all his hope of freedom on Robin’s investigation.
Because a woman who might have been drunk or drugged once rang him at 3am three years ago and mentioned the name Robin Ferringham.
Robin agrees, gets help from a mysterious stranger while being treated suspiciously by locals and the policeman father of two of the apparent victims…honestly, I enjoyed this book so much more having written that bingo grid. I’ve never been so happy to see a protagonist rendered conveniently unconscious — and apparently then carried across uneven ground by a woman half his age and size — in order to progress the plot to the next pointless dose of insouciant idiocy. Throw in a Shifty Local calling Robin “Hercules Poirot” — and Robin has to stop himself from correcting her so that we know McGeorge knows that’s wrong — and a thoroughly unearned “U.N. Owen” reference and, well, break out the piñata and fireworks. I’ll show you how I did (or is it how McGeorge did?) bingo-wise at the end of the review.
So much of this makes no sense in the little ways that are themselves meaningless and nonsensical. For instance, Robin finds a photo of the six young people taken at the tunnel on the day they disappeared, and it’s described in such a way that implies the camera is a long way from the subjects…but no-one else was there that day to take the photo (we know this, because we’re shown that day in excess detail). In fact, there’s another variation on this when Matthew discovers the five of them were in a photo at the tunnel without him and is angry because he wasn’t invited — who’s taking all these photos? And then a bedroom in a pub in some isolated town which has — suspiciously — quiet streets at 6pm (duhn-duhn-duuuuuuuhn) costs a mere £45 and Robin is shocked.
“Things aren’t so expensive here, huh?” she said. “You’re a bona fide city boy, ain’t ya?”
That, or he’s never heard of a Travelodge. And if he’s never heard of a Travelodge, clearly his tastes are too rich for him to care if it was cheap. Surely this joke only works about how expensive London is, not how cheap Londoners find everywhere else. And didn’t this schtick get old in 1983?
Elsewhere Matthew’s barrister Terrence Loamfield is supposed to take on a suspicious air because he terminates a phone call with Robin by saying “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call” and then doesn’t give Robin his number — gasp!! But, like, given that you were talking to him on the phone, surely it’s fair to assume that you have his number, Rob. And he’s a barrister. Even if he called you, they’re easy to find on the…oh, what’s it called…the interwebs? Also, Loamfield doesn’t believe in his client’s innocence but is representing him anyway because “[A] case like this is going to be big. Doesn’t matter what side of the battlefield you’re on, you still make the history books.” Fine, we, get it, he’s fiscally-motivated arsehole, thanks for the subtle character work there…except that the impossible vanishing of five bright, young, attractive people two months or so ago made — we’re told — absolutely zero impact in the press. Robin can find only two websites, one of them based locally to the tragedy, that make any mention of it at all, with every other news outlet either ignoring it or being deliberately vague and brief on the matter, with obviously no help sought from the media at all. Quite apart from this being perhaps the least believable part of this entire story — seriously, is McGeorge that desperate to foster mystery that he requires the police and prison services in and around Huddersfield to be staffed exclusively by stoners or something? — if there was zero interest in the disappearance at the time, why would anyone would care several months later?
Let’s gloss over such prose delights as Robin being hit over the head and then discovering that his eye is “stuck shut by something sticky” and get to the impossibility already. Because the impossibility, you’ll be shocked to learn, is very short on the details such a scheme would need. And also motive; in fact, especially motive. If you care, I’m going to have to spoil this, so please skip the bits between the warnings if there’s some part of you that wants to experience this book pure…though do also look at some of your life choices if that’s the case.
SPOILERS AHEAD!! SPOILERS!!
The five who disappear do so because they went out drinking, hit Samantha in their car, and take her to the local pub — the one with the jaw-on-the-floor amazing room prices, breakfast included — to bury her body. She’s not dead, initially, and uses one of their phones when they’re all out of the room to phone Matthew — see, someone has a positively antediluvian 1999 phone, the number of which doesn’t show up when its owner rings people (and “Thank god it wasn’t password protected” we’re told — aaah, yes, that one-in-seventeen-million chance) — and then they realise she’s still alive and kill her. And then they…decide they must therefore fake their deaths and go and live in the woods.
Nobody comes looking for Samantha in those intervening three years. Nobody ever would have connected her with that town, those people. So…why go and live in the woods?? And…how? You’ll be shocked to learn that this is never addressed.
Anyway, they fake their deaths by building an additional compartment on the bottom of the boat which they hide in and then leave once the boat is discovered, having first knocked out Matthew to…frame him, I suppose. And this compartment is collapsible so that it will detach from the bottom of the boat and fall apart as it hits the bottom of the canal and so be indistinguishable from the other detritus there. Now, there’s a neat Chestertonian “hide a murdered body on a battlefield” aspect to this given the stereotypical junk one finds in fictional canals, I don’t deny…but firstly canals are not very deep, secondly that extra mass on a small boat would unbalance it significantly, and thirdly the specialist skill required to build such an addition is…significant. Yes, one of them is studying Engineering at university, but I did a Maths degree and can’t perform financial wizardry to hide millions in taxes for dishonest organisations (not that they use much accounting wizardry these days, am I bloody right?). They’re both numbers, but there are numbers and numbers.
Also, when and where did they do this engineering work? And if they’re worried because some homeless guy found some of the materials used and has been utilising them to build a shelter for himself in a parallel tunnel, how in the name of all that is holy did that dude discover the stuff? He’s a tramp, and this is standard Book Tramp behaviour. Also, police divers searched the canal and would have seen the materials there and evidently thought nothing of them…though they were as high as kites at the time, we’re required to believe…so why does the tramp finding them get presented as if it’s a significant occurrence that risks their exposure? The police know these bits of metal are in the canal; someone removing them means…less than nothing.
And how does this living in the woods work anyway? Why not just get a job and leave the town? You have a university degree. This is what they’re for. No-one would find that suspicious. No-one. How is living in a suspicious house in the woods a better plan? And don’t even get me started on Samantha also being able to leave a coherent message for Robin about going on to live his life without her…there’s “unexpected tugging of heartstrings” and there’s “retch-inducing cheapening emotive manipulation”, and I shall leave it to the reader to decide which side of that fence I fall in this instance.
SPOILERS END; THE DESIRE TO SCREAM INTO THE UNLOVING VOID WILL, HOWEVER, PROBABLY ALWAYS BE WITH ME