Otto Reylands, multi-millionaire, has been receiving threatening letters, as is the wont of multi-millionaires in fiction (and perhaps reality, I have no experience at either end). Letters accusing him of chicanery and deception. Letters accompanied by photos of a dead woman…
Man, I feel old. When I were a lad, books was something you hadta buy from a shop — a real shop, mind, with people getting in your way, and sometimes carpet. Now all these interweb doo-dahs will deliver it to you electronically through the airwaves onto a magic box that has no pages…and just as I get used to that it turns out there are even more options available to us. For instance, self-publishing has now reached the point where authors just upload their work to websites and you can download it for an optional contribution…which is how I’ve come across this first title for these Adventures this month.
The author — a man of mystery going simply by the sobriquet ‘DWaM’, so that’s not a typo up there — is a co-follower of James Scott Byrnside on Twitter, and once I realise that someone is writing impossible crime stories…well, hold me back. By his own admission, this debut isn’t a highly-polished text and needs a good edit, but there are often some gems to be found in a rockface, so let’s get back to it.
Reylands, his son and heir Alan, his legal adviser Ulysses Bell, a lawyer for a company he’s keen to buy Celeste Styles, and Reylands’ personal assistant (and our narrator) Navy Moore are forty minutes into a first class flight from Seattle to Los Angeles when Reylands, Sr. goes to use the aeroplane’s toilet dressed in an old trenchcoat and large hat he’s seen fit to bring with him for reasons unfathomable. Five minutes pass, in which Alan and Navy keep their eyes on the door, concerned by his unusual behaviour. When Reylands fails to emerge after those five minutes — a not unreasonable amount of time to spend in an aeroplane toilet, I feel, but maybe things are different in first class — Alan goes to check and finds both that toilet and the once opposite it empty but for a token with a snake printed on it.
Further revelations await the group on landing, but I’ll discuss no more about the plot here. The dual combination of not just how anyone could vanish from an observed aeroplane toilet but also the question of who it was in there (c’mon — you don’t wear a trenchcoat and a big, face-concealing hat in a crime story unless you want people to question your identity…) makes a nice little conundrum, and the setup is suitably compact and sparsely populated enough to keep it interesting. There’s also, this being a modern piece of writing, just the smallest dash of self-awareness at times, which while not pushing us anything close to meta-mystery at least enlivens what could have been a slightly dry undertaking:
There was still work to be done, of course, but no last-minute surprises. “I can get most of this done on the plane…” I confirmed with myself.
Satisfied, I hopped over to the bathroom.
My usual routine of staring myself in the mirror after a shower hadn’t changed. It was only customary for any true protagonist.
So far, then, so good, and for a debut work this goes to some very interesting places — the scheme that unfolds from that vanishing performance is layered in a few different ways, and little mysteries that crop up throughout are sewn in neatly and resolved in a manner that’s pleasing to encounter. A lot of ground needs to be covered by certain people in order to make the plot happen, and I don’t mind the contortions that are required to string these plot beads together; it’s unlikely as all hell, but I’m a big fan of genre being used as a springboard to explore the wilder possibilities (which is why I’m such a big classic SF fan). Unlikely As All Hell is perhaps my favourite kind of unlikely, and the crazier the better where impossibilities are involved.
“What’s your favourite E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith novel, then?”
However, this is still very much an embryonic work at the start of a writer’s career, and while it’s always fun to speculate what people might go on to after promising beginnings — and this is a promising beginning — it’s best not to do so at the risk of blindness to flaws where they exist. This is, as mentioned above, in need of an edit — acknowledged by the author, as I say — and should ideally be about half its approximately 40,000 words, which is a torrid task for whoever has to cut it back, but what remains is promising; it’s a belter of a long-short story, and the wheels within wheels really need to be shown off without the auxiliary scene-setting and dialogue which do slightly more than just fill space but also don’t function at such a level of importance that you can’t imagine the text working without them.
See, because the impossible crime is smart. it’s essentially the reworking of two well-regarded long-short stories, one of which I have written about on here in the last, let’s say, year, and one of which I’ve mentioned on more than a few occasions. Both are great and, while I can’t say with any certainty that the combination of their ideas has never been tried before, seeing them put together in this way is very pleasing — it’s smack-yourself-on-the-head nifty, and is certainly more a case of reinvestment of ideas than frank embezzlement. No, the characters don’t really register except as Person A, Person B, etc, but as a first go at wrangling the grandest game in the world this deserves respect for such a confident swing.
If it misses — there’s one aspect of the solution which I simply do no believe, and which, slightly frustratingly, could have been side-stepped altogether, as the weakest link in the chain — it’s at least a delightfully joyous attempt to string together a chain of mildly unfathomable, and occasionally surprising, events in the best puzzle tradition. There’s no detection, instead the sort of inspired moment of insight that shows the newness of any debut author, but you can’t argue with the presentation of the information as given: you won’t solve it, but you’re also not going to go back and gripe about how something was unfairly obfuscated as a way of cheating the solution past you (having said this, I apologise to DWaM for the people who will take it as a personal challenge to gripe as much as possible — not my intent…). Also, rejoice — there’s a floorplan!
So, a flawed but promising beginning which could augur very well indeed if our author is able to indulge in his tonsorial impulses and keep the focus on the plot rather than trying to cram in false notes of character. A second novella, The Phantom Ragdoll (2019), is now available from the same hand, and I’m very eager to see what stylistic improvements it represents and, if I’m honest, what other crazy ideas are pulled in and added to what I’m imagining will be a very entertaining sweep through this wonderful, infuriating, challenging, and rewarding subgenre. Welcome to the fold, sir, I very much look forward to following your work.
See, and people laughed when I started doing these AiSP, but there’s some great stuff coming to light now. At least, I imagine they laughed. At any rate, I can certainly hear laughter; far off, sinister, receding, echoing laughter…
More Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.