#549: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #11: Now You See Me (2019) by Chris McGeorge

Now You See Me

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:

Post 2010 Crime Fiction Bingo

I am especially proud of the magnifying glass effect.

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.

5 Chows

“Knives out.”

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?

5 Chows

Nice to see you lot sticking around for once.

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.

5 Chows

“There are lots of sticks in the woods…”  “And squirrels!”

SPOILERS END; THE DESIRE TO SCREAM INTO THE UNLOVING VOID WILL, HOWEVER, PROBABLY ALWAYS BE WITH ME

This is a bad book.  An embarrassingly poor, badly written, barely-conceived, empty, lazy, pointless, and creatively bankrupt waste of paper that someone somewhere will spend money on which could have been put to a far more worthwhile cause (their local library, for instance).  I feel out of place in the world enough as it is, seeing books like this published and garnering praise really doesn’t help with that sense of impostorship.  This may have superseded all previous failures to write a modern crime novel of the lowest possible quality (well, maybe not…), and everyone involved in bringing this to print needs to sit down and have a long, hard look at themselves.  Except the cover designer, maybe, because that’s actually quite lovely and uses contrasting colours beautifully, even if it does show you the wrong type of boat and so spoil the eventual reveal.

Anyway, here’s the grid that kept me sane whilst enduring this.  Let’s never speak of this book again.

Bingo Now You See Me

I was so sure that website maven would be a lesbian, too…

~

Previous Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts:

1. Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt

2. First Class Murder (2015) by Robin Stevens

3. The Secrets of Gaslight Lane (2016) by M.R.C. Kasasian

4. Hard Tack (1991) by Barbara D’Amato

5. The Real-Town Murders (2017) by Adam Roberts

6. Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out (2010) by Lee Goldberg

7. The Paris Librarian (2016) by Mark Pryor

8. The Magic Bullet (2011) by Larry Millett

9. By the Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) by Adam Roberts

10. Angel Killer (2014) by Andrew Mayne

28 thoughts on “#549: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #11: Now You See Me (2019) by Chris McGeorge

  1. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Well, I did stop reading when you got to the spoiler section for the simple reason that I have ordered this book from a UK source to be delivered to the US. And I was so hoping it would live up to the ad copy and intriguing premise. How awful is that to know that you ordered a book that is going to take a bit of time to be delivered, not able to cancel the order now, and regretting the purchase. However, I did order a couple of other things in the order — most notably There Was a Time by Frank White (not a mystery) so will still be able to look forward to the shipment when it arrives!

    Have recently found this website and am a long-time fanatic of JDC and all things locked room / impossible crime! Even with a copy of Adey’s locked room reference book (hardcover original, not ex-library), am still finding books, short stories, etc. that I did not know about. So, thank you!

    Marcia

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    • Crikey, I’m sorry to dampen your enthusiasm, Marcia — maybe you’ll like it more than I did. in fact, I disliked this so much that I’d call it a virtual certainty that you’ll enjoy it more than I did. Do, please, come back to let me know your thoughts when you’ve read it.

      I’m delighted you’ve found the site, and hope you find much here to capture your interest. I’m also very jealous that you have an original version of Adey — what a coup! And the good news is that Locked Room International, who recently reissued the second edition, have a follow-up in the pipeline containing even more impossible crimes for us to hunt down — none of which are in either version of Adey. Given the far wider scope afforded by the internet to seek titles fro inclusion, I get the impression it’s going to be one helluva book.

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  2. Thanks for the review – I meant, warning. 😅 I read the first novel, at Puzzle Doctor’s recommendation, and I quite enjoyed it. Even then I recall PD rolling his eyes at the mention of “locked room” in the blurb of the first novel.

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    • McGeorge can’t be held responsible from how the book is marketed, or that fact that Orion have seen fit to deem him “the new king of the locked room mystery” or somesuch unfitting sobriquet. But he can be held responsible for this short story premise being streeeeeeeeetched out to exhausting length and the profligacy of redundancy and stupidity displayed within its pages. I know he has a book contract to fulfil, but can’t modern editors tell when something simply isn’t any good?

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  3. Well, no matter what you say, if there ain’t a sexy lesbian I refuse to entertain it anyway.
    Jeesh, I’ve actually heard about this book (someone who vaguely knows me vaguely suggested it to me in a vague sort of way when they found out I’d written some impossible crimes, y’know, in the same sort of vein as “oh, my friend is single too, you simply MUST go on a blind date,”) so this review was clicked on very quickly. Perhaps it’s testament to how brilliantly you sum up a plot, but I’d sort of solved it before you even gave the answer. That can’t be a good sign either.
    As always, an entertaining review though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The premise is great, the essential mystery a beauty. But the use of it here, thrown into a cynical modern framing and padded to the extent that you honestly sort of forget what the plot is supposed to be, is horrible. Back when Harlan Coben was good — the mid-90s — he’d’ve taken this and crafted something exceptional out of it. Now even the self-parody that Harlan Coben has become would think twice before letting anyone else see a manuscript this loose, lazy, and confusing. McGeorge has a good idea here, and hopefully he’ll go on to have more good ideas and actually deliver on them, but for now there’s nothing I can recommend about this. I mean, even the audience-pandering dog disappears from the narrative almost as soon as it’s mentioned — seriously, dude, at least keep track of your lazy tropes.

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      • I knew that there was going to be some validity behind it, but it still struck me as so funny. When I first read the set up it sounded so good, but then I had to do a double take on the “boat tunnel” part, followed by a triple take on the “five km”.

        That’s an interesting wikipedia article. You’re right that this is an absolute impossible crime gold mine. It’s too bad it wasn’t in better hands.

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        • As setups go, it’s very good, but I wonder if this is one of those Lamp of God situations where there’s such tight limitations that only really a very few limited options exits. The more I think about this, the more I think it’s a great idea that turns out to tbe horrible in execution.

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  4. You warned me beforehand this was going to be atrocious, but didn’t expected it to be quite this bad and rotten. What a mess!

    The idea behind the boat-trick was lifted from the pages of history: Emperor Nero once attempted to murder his mother, Agrippina, by rigging her boat with a collapsible bottom to drown her. It didn’t work for him either.

    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…

    To be entirely fair to the author, this idea would actually work in my country, because our waterways are cluttered with junk and are regularly cleared of the bigger pieces (such as bicycles, shopping carts and cars), but there’s still so much down there that it has given rise to a popular new pastime – magneetvissen (magnet fishing). People have found unopened safes, coins, guns, knives and explosives from the war.

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    • Hmmm, I can see this giving rise to some sort of equivalent of those Garage Sale Mysteries that American TV produces so frequently: y’know, someone goes along to a garage sale, buys a knick-knack, and it turns out to be a clue to some sort of murder that they then must go full AD to solve.

      I foresee a series of Dutch TV dramas in which a tramp armed with a magnet finds a safe, or a knife, or a metal shoe in a canal and is chased by a gang of motorbike-riding gangsters who need that item back because of the danger it poses to them. I’d watch that.

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      • That would be the gimmickiest of all gimmick series, but you’re right, I would probably give it a watch.

        I think there’s a good, crimeless, crime story in the premise. Just imagine a man who has been down on his luck his entire life and, one day, decides to take a break and go magnet fishing in a lonely, secluded spot away from the city. What he fishes up is a safe crammed to the door with packets of money and, for a brief moment, he thinks his luck has finally changed, but, when he pulls out a stack of bills, he discovers they’re guldens. And it’s 2032. So he can’t even exchange them for euros! Life had finally thrown him a bone and he was too late to catch it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve read something where this more or less happens: a builder is working on someone’s attic and finds a bag stuffed with banknotes bricked up in the wall. He steals the money and agonises over what to do with it before eventually being convinced to tell the owner about the find and returning the money. And it turns out that they’re old English notes and so valueless, which he couldn’t have known because he was from Poland and so had only limited awareness of the currency or something.

          And even that bad rendering of events make it sound better than I remember it being 🤣

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  5. Yep, I liked the magnifying glass effect and the grid.
    I’ll admit I couldn’t connect the title of this book to the plot, but perhaps I missed something.
    I enjoyed reading this critical and honest review.
    Thank you.

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    • The connection comes from the unstated second half of the title’s saying: “Now you see me, now you don’t” — referring both to the group of students who vanish impossibly in the tunnel, and to the compartment in which they hide (the phrase is used by the one who comes up with the scheme when demonstrating it to the others) which ‘vanishes’ and so could be seen one minute but not the next. As titles go, it’s among the more relevant I’ve encountered from post-2010 crime fiction!

      Glad you enjoyed the magnifying glass effect. I’m no graphic designer, as is obvious, but I quite enjoyed putting that little touch to the grid.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done for finding one positive about the book i.e. the cover. There is going to be one very chuffed book cover designer (even if he did get the boat wrong).
    Top marks for the bingo grid and it’s accompanying images! I may see how many squares I can complete with my next dire modern read, though shockingly I have only read one book this year published in 2019.
    Interested to see how you take to the Eberhart novel.

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    • I’ve been accused of being overly critical of books I didn’t like in the past, so wanted to get at least one positive thing into this review 🙂

      With this bingo grid and the ten categories of impossible crime I shall slowly conquer blogs the web over, and then the next phase of the plan begins…

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  7. I “liked” this post on the off chance I could get the grid to appear in the little box on the “Posts I Like” part of my page, to no avail. The grid is brilliant, and I will be using it as a plot wheel when I begin self-publishing.

    And yet, I was loathe to give this book any publicity, even negative, as I saw first-hand how much it hurt you to read it. It quite put you off your tagine. TomCat owes you big time for taking this for the team.

    Like others, I get a kick out of the tiny canoe on the cover. How did nobody notice that underneath this little rowboat was a compartment bigger than most London hotel rooms? (I guess that’s not saying much, is it?) it would make more sense if there was a TARSIS on the bottom of the boat, which might have led to a far more pleasant adventure.

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    • TomCat owes you big time for taking this for the team.

      Ha! You think too much of me, Brad. I’ve been trying for years now to make him read David Marsh’s Dead Box, but he simply refuses to shill out the money for an overpriced, secondhand copy. And that’s the book most likely to make him finally snap! 😀

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    • From a certain perspective I can understand the desire to keep the image simple and thus the mystery baffling, because six people fitting into such a boat would be an impossibility enough, without then wondering how they’d vanish from it.

      You feel the art of book design has really gone by the wayside, eh? Long gone are those scrupulously fair, assiduously accurate Dell mapbacks; sayonara even to the Berkeley Medallion novels and their slightly abstract yet still relevant coves. Now you;re told a book has a boat in it, and don’t worry too much about the details.

      Lovely colours, though; genuinely a great mood piece from that perspective.

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  8. This series of reviews conjures in my mind a vision of a young child, affectionately known as JJ. He stands before a stove.
    “JJ, don’t touch the element!”
    “Ouch!”
    A day passes.
    “JJ, don’t touch the element!”
    “Ouch!”

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    • It is, though, so much more fun really,/i> disliking something. I find these bad books very, very easy to read, and an absolute hoot into the bargain. Obviously I don’t start them with the intention of disliking them — given the option, I’d much rather rave about something — but when they turn out to be this bad it honestly simply encourages me to keep reading this type of thing.

      The way I see it, I’ll either find something wonderful that I can get other people excited about — cf. James Scott Byrnside — which will be great, or I’ll derive a perverse enjoyment from hating something and have a great time in the process.

      So long as t’s not merely okay, I’m happy. That getting to the end of a book and feeling no different to how you did halfway is possibly the most disappointing thing I can imagine in my reading.

      Like

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