Confidence and competence are, I think, the two qualities I’d like an author to exhibit if they’re going to ask for money for their work. The confidence to know they’ve written something well, and the competence to be at least moderately schooled in things like continuity, how to use the language they’re writing in, and how to place and build ideas around their core structure.
Some authors, I’d imagine even most of them, wisely resort to support networks of various sizes in order to achieve this — proof-readers, editors, writing groups, etc — and some (the name A.G. Barnett springs to mind) decide that such things are clearly a waste of time and they’ll just crap something out into their computer and sell it for whatever they can get. Welcome to my TED talk, where I’ll be discussing the many, varied, hilarious incompetencies of An Invitation to Murder (2019) by A.G. Barnett.
[“But wait!” someone inevitably cries. “Does this qualify as a self-published work? It says Oddmoor Press on the title page!” and since Oddmoor Press appears to have been founded by one Mr. Adam Joseph George Barnett I think we can confidently sweep the question aside and move on.]
The plot sees ageing actress Mary Blake — we’re not told how old she is, but we know she thinks she has to put in a lot of effort to appear 45 years old — having been unseated from her long-standing role as the lead in the hit detective show Her Law by the younger Melanie Shaw. In order to shake her out of the resulting doldrums, her friend and PA Dot Tanner encourages Mary to attend a murder mystery party being thrown by Pea, Mary’s brother, who is shoring up the old family estate (the addendum “or what was left of it” is appended here twice in the space of a page, lest you weren’t paying attention the first time) Blancham Hall. Shock and, indeed, horror result when Melanie Shaw (who is taking Mary’s place on the show Her Law, we’re reminded at least twice) is also found to be in attendance, and these are magnified when Melanie ends up real-world dead in unfathomable circumstances. Cue our faded actress turning sleuth to help Detective Inspector Corrigan get to the bottom of things.
It’s obviously very cozy, but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. The setup is perfectly fine, and a lot of fun could be had with the garniture of TV and Industry types who speckle the novel like blood on a consumptive’s handkerchief. The difficulties come in that Barnett lacks confidence in what he writes and has no competence in how he writes.
Let’s take confidence first. Barnett clearly does not believe that what he writes is clear enough to convey the intended meaning, and so his prose and dialogue run into redundancy an alarmingly large proportion of the time. For instance, when Dot is given the role of the maid Esther (“I think only the nobility get surnames, Dot” is Mary’s comment on this, one of Barnett’s frustratingly uncommon decent insights), a servant to Mary’s Lady Gossover, Melanie, who has been steadily winding up everyone present as only the best future murder victims can, gets Mary a glass of champagne before commenting to Dot “Oh sorry, I didn’t get you one! But then, servants don’t get the bubbly do they!”. And Barnett simply has to tell us that…
Obviously, Melanie had been referring to Dot’s role in the murder mystery, but still. There had been something there that was suggesting Dot was Mary’s servant in real life.
In case, y’know, you didn’t pick up on that. Or take Mary’s accusatory “Don’t think I haven’t seen through your part in this little devious plan here, Dot” when it transpires that various ‘TV people’ comprise the guests at the gathering — to which Dot replies “I don’t know what you mean”, which obviously means that she does know what Mary means, and then Mary proceeds to go on and tell her not only that she, Mary, knows that Dot knows what she means but also what the meaning is, and why she means it. It’s like these people have somehow never had a conversation before. In fact, look no further than someone lamenting Melanie’s murder by asking despairingly “How can she be dead?” and…
Mary resisted the urge to say, “because someone hit her over the head”…
These might seem like nothing in isolation, but when added to the other sins, and repeated throughout in various situations and with differing combinations of characters, it adds up to a distracting time. Indeed, it even started me looking for possible places where meaning could be twisted to deliberate misunderstanding, such as the possibly-maybe burgeoning couple Steven Benz and Emily Hanchurch who seem to go through some difficulty as a result of the murder:
“Steve!” Emily said, rushing to him. She embraced him, her head against his chest, but Mary noticed there was a reluctant stiffness from his side, and he ended the contact swiftly.
“Uh-huh huh huhuhuhuh…thtiffneth — uh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh”
This might be okay in a debut, when an author is still uncertain about how to write, but this appears to be Barnett’s fifth published work; and how anyone could proof-read this even as a debut and allow the sheer magnitude of repetition through leads me to believe that no-one did proof-read it…unless the manuscript was in somehow worse shape before, but that’s not a situation I wish to entertain. And the poorness of such realisation is quadruply frustrating because there are times when Barnett nails it, such as Mary returning to her childhood home:
To Mary, the building had always had a slightly unreal quality since she left it. As though she was visiting a museum dedicated to her past rather than an actual house she had grown up in. It was almost as though she was back on set, playing the role of her younger self.
That’s fabulous! As is the stereotypically cynical and money-grabbing agent Dave Flintock being caught in a moment “sounding like he had heard of the concept of grief, but didn’t really believe in it”…c’mon, what’s not to love? Alas, these are about the only two moments in which Barnett doesn’t feel the need to ladle on the explanations (“because if he believed in the concept of grief he would most likely be experiencing it and be grieving, given that someone had died and typically grief is a sense of regret felt in the wake of death…”). There’s a lot to dislike about this book, and I want to give credit where it’s due, but that’s perhaps the last piece of sunlight on offer for a while now, so let’s bask in it for a moment longer.
Okay, competence. Sweet hairy Aaron does Barnett not come across as someone with any sort of handle on his writing. To begin with, his continuity is all over the place, and in the most hilariously incompetent ways. I’ll pick five at random:
1) It’s established early on that Melanie is the killer in the murder mystery party, only for it to have apparently been Mary when a lazy piece of finger-pointing is required later on so that she can be suspected as the killer in the real world murder.
2) When meeting the other guests at the party, Mary “rose and moved past Freddie to where the final two guests had entered and were watching silently” and we’re then introduced to one person and he’s the final guest at the shindig.
3) When the ‘family secret’ plot line is parachuted in from nowhere, Mary uncovers a poem that cryptically points to a doo-dah and “recognised her mother’s writing” and, upon reading it, wonders why “her father [would] write this cryptic message”.
4) During a moment of staggering insight to solve the impossible murder — we’re coming to the impossible murder — Mary asks Corrigan if he can fingerprint the specific, crucial items in the case, then proceeds for another chapter or so to not realise that they’re crucial to the case, before suddenly realising they’re crucial to the case.
5) When the murder is solved, and the final chapter turns into a treasure hunt to save the family estate (or what was left of it…) and brings them to a library book, great excitement is caused when Mary finds in the margin “two words, written in her mother’s hand”. Those two words? “Sookie’s grave, like the fool”.
Also, punctuation. Barnett does not understand how commas work, and loses, or creates, clauses all over the place:
The clang of metal rang out from the other side of the door. “And then pull the paper out,” she finished, doing as she said and removing the paper, on which, sat the key.
Or, perhaps my head-aching favourite:
“Well, I don’t know how efficient the Tanbury police are, deal with many murders, do you?”
But, okay, if clauses and sub-clauses seem an obscure complaint that no-one really understands anyway — though I would, naturally, beg to differ — surely you’ll appreciate the doorknob-fornicating stupidity of question marks being put at the ends of statements, as in:
“Sounds like you might have had a pretty good reason for getting Melanie out of the way?”
…which occurs a devastatingly large number of times as an act of violence committed by more than one character and so, no, cannot be attributed to a self-conscious commentary on the increasingly popular tendency to add a rising intonation at the end of a sentence when speaking. Nevertheless, still too picky for you? How about just plain old wrong words?
“Don’t worry about that,” Corrigan said with a look of exacerbation.
…to which we can add the moment when “Emily put[s] her hand” around the whole of Steve Benz, or the early cloth-eared instance where Mary enquires out of nowhere about the lack of movement in Dot’s midriff — leading me to think for a second that we’d veered into a plot strand concerning a problematic pregnancy — only for it to turn out three pages later that Dot’s constipated. It’s like Barnett read an article on Common Errors Writers Make, thought it was an inspirational call to arms, and ransacked it for all it was worth.
Still, at least there’s the impossible murder, right?
“Your carefree air alarms me…”
The murder sees Melanie Shaw — who’s just been cast in Mary’s place in the hit TV show Her Law — found dead in the middle of the floor of her bedroom, killed by a blow to the head. The window is open, but the sheer wall outside would make getting in or out impossible, the door is locked and the key extracted from the lock by our sleuth using a method that Frederick Algernon Trotteville demonstrated (and so, we must presume, actually in the lock), and there’s no sign of anything in the room that could have caused the blow, and no trail of blood that would account for her being injured elsewhere and collapsing in the middle of the room.
Oh, look, I’ve wasted enough time on this, and the book doesn’t deserve it. The method is stolen from Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), and the lack of blood trail never addressed. There’s no clewing as such, and it all comes together in a confused moment (or two) of divine inspiration. Don’t bother, there’s nothing in here to satiate even the least discerning palate of any hue, stripe, colour, creed, or nation — if you like books that are completely inept then I’ve found something for you, I guess, but if you like books that are completely inept, well, you’ve also probably got quite a large TBR pile as it is and I can’t even recommend you jump to this one for the fun of it.
Good grief, what a piece of crap; not worth your money, your time, the storage space on anyone’s server or device, or the paper someone will have doubtless printed this on at some stage. Gives a bad name to crime fiction, detective fiction, impossible crimes, self-publishing, books, the English language, being an author, and any honourable pursuit that sees people being asked to part with their money to pay for goods or services. If I’d read it in time to return it for a refund, believe me I would have — I cannot encourage you to perpetrate this ineptitude even to the tune of the meagre financial outlay being requested on its behalf, and encourage us all as a planet to turn our backs on this book and never speak of it again.