#571: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Skeletons (2018) by Robert Innes

Skeletons

Welcome to Harmschapel, where people are shot while alone in locked rooms, murderers walk on water, men drown while trapped in a lift, and now it seems people return from the dead.  Also, there’s Scrabble at the pub on a Thursday evening.

Into this melee, in the firm tradition of the genius detective of GAD lore, strides DS Blake Harte — encountering baffling crimes up, down, and sideways, while all the time trying to keep his relationship with boyfriend Harrison Baxter on an even keel…and in this, his seventh outing, it seems that both his sanity and his relationship may be at risk.

Now, yes, I’m one of those arch traditionalists who tends to dismiss the detective’s personal life and the struggles therein in my detective fiction: if you’re having problems at home, do what Gideon Fell does and don’t go there after Book 1.  I read my detective fiction for a plot, preferably the more baffling the better, and while life needs to be injected into the characters who are either to be murdered or to fall under suspicion, the detective can be brought to life by any number of ploys and chivying without needing to go full Soap Opera on us.  But, and perhaps it’s my general lack of exposure to this sort of thing, I have found myself getting increasingly involved in the Blake/Harrison dynamic as this series has progressed.  Quite apart from the fact that the LGBTQ+ community is woefully under-represented in classic detective fiction — for every Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd there are, like, 200,000 explicitly hetero-normative couplings of Bright Young Things — and so it’s not something I have much experience, of reading, I just think Rob Innes writes the scenes between his characters, all his characters, well.  So while the impending collapse of Blake and Harrison’s relationship mentioned up there might have some of your rolling your eyes at the old A Case Strikes Uncomfortably Close to Home trope, I, for one, really enjoyed that element of this narrative.

It’s especially well-handled because of the parallels that Innes draws throughout with the orbiting support cast: Mini Patil should really take a pregnancy test on account of her “having to rush to the loo” and being unable “to keep anything down” in the mornings, Harrison is being slightly secretive on account of the attractive ‘Tip Tap’ Tom who has appeared in the village as if by magic, and in spite of his own nature and the advice Blake has to offer to those around him, these threads are reflecting back on his own behaviour both here and in previous instalments.  Also, the fact that we get the line “I’m not that scared little boy cowering away from the world with only a goat for company” delivered with a straight face should, surely, sufficiently convince you of the validity of the Detective’s Personal Life becoming a factor here.

But, yes, we’re mostly here for the impossibility.  I believe I mentioned something about a man rising from the dead…

house-m.d.-tv-series-poster

“Wait, an actual goat…?”

So what of that?  When Harmschapel’s sole undertaker Patrick Coopland is seen driving through the village at high speed while to arguing with his wife Angela, no-one is expecting them to crash, for the car to catch fire, and for Patrick to be engulfed in the flames.  Upon the arrival of the paramedics, Patrick is pronounced dead at the scene — Angela having been rescued by Harrison and Tom — and the inevitable preparations for his funeral begin.

And then…well, then Angela starts claiming to have seen Patrick alive and unharmed: firstly in the crowd that gathered following the crash, and then again at the foot of her bed while in hospital.  And so she turns to Blake in the hope that he’ll be able to make some sense of it:

“You know how gossip goes round Harmschapel.  It sounds like you’ve had some real puzzles.  That’s the only reason I’m even telling you this, to be honest.  Because you’re the only one who might be able to make me feel like I’m not going mad.”

And when Blake himself sees Patrick in broad daylight, clearly there’s more to this than simply a shocked mind coming to terms with a life-changing tragedy (and, let’s face it, that would be a terrible solution).  I don’t really know how much more I should say about this plot, because ever since the first in this series, Innes has shown a real talent for tying together the threads he throws into his plots; sure, some of his reasoning is a little loose, and one of his resolutions in an earlier book is a bit of a kludge, but I cannot deny that he has a talent for bringing things together in an increasingly-tidy show of plotting acumen.  And this is no different; it seems complex, and then it seems simple because you — the seasoned reader that you are — have a good idea of the trick that’s being played here, but, good heavens, it becomes more complex at the halfway stage with a humdinger of a revelation and then, come the end, ends up remarkably simple once again.  It’s another very entertaining entry in this very creative series, a body of work that becomes even more impressive when you consider firstly that Innes was writing four of these a year and secondly that he’d barely read anything in the genre when he started writing.

5 Chows

“We are also curious about the goat thing…”

And so while I reckon you’ll probably solve this, you’ve a hard heart indeed if you can’t enjoy it and get into the spirit of playfulness in which it is so obviously intended.  Additionally, the gap between Innes realising the problem and proposing the solution you doubtless have in mind is sparingly brief, meaning that it can’t have been intended as a true baffler, especially as he still has so much plot to get through once the truth is established, and he’s able to drop in a wonderfully smart piece of meta-reasoning fairly quickly that raises a further, and possibly more important, question of profound difficulty.  Plus, there’s still a superb lightness to his writing and good seam of humour sewn throughout:

“Can I ask a stupid question?” Mattison asked, after they had been staring at the photos for a few moments.

“Better than anybody in the station,” Gardiner quipped.

Flaws are, naturally present — some ghastly Americanisms have crept in (“The flames were now roaring from the hood [of the car]” — tut, tut, Robert), and my old nemesis The Statement That Has A Question Marked Put At The End rears its head — but for the earnest effort that has gone into making this series as a whole so much fun I can overlook their relative sparsity.  I do wish, though, that authors would stop spoiling key details of the earlier books in later titles: James Scott Byrnside did this needlessly in The Opening Night Murders (2019), and now Innes spoils both Untouchable (2016) and Ripples (2017) by telling you here the killers there.  No need for this, guys!  And it makes it difficult for conscientious reviewers to say “Hey, you might like to try this if…” when we know it’s spoiling another, excellent book.  Yes, in an ideal world everyone who reads your work would do so both comprehensively and chronologically, but have either of you looked outside recently?!  “Ideal” is not the state most people would use to describe the current situation of things.

Anyhoo.  This is another very good entry in this very good series, and knowing that Innes has recently achieved his masterplan of ten stories featuring Harte which, I’m assured, has been a slow build the whole way through, makes me only more excited for the remaining cases.  I understand there’s Death by Invisible Agency up next in Touch (2018), so expect that one to feature on here soon.  Also, if anyone has a big dictionary for this week’s Scrabble meeting, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that we’d like to avoid the controversy and violence of last week if at all possible…

~

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.

 

24 thoughts on “#571: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Skeletons (2018) by Robert Innes

    • You did. Twice, in fact. But I forgive you for how carefully and enjoyably you’re treading on the hallowed ground of the impossible crime 😉

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  1. Let’s say I don’t really mind the spoilers for past books — which, of the books that you’ve read in this series — would you recommend the most? (I’ll probably get around to reading a few of them, but I don’t have too much room in my backlog at this point, so I’d appreciate just one to go start.)

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    • By my reckoning, Ripples (#3 in the series) is the best, but Flatline (#6) is not only ingenious but also possibly original if you want to see that. And Reach (#4, er, I think) has a very nicely-dovetailed plot. So any of those three would be ideal to start with.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In the first couple books Ellery Queen is pretty clearly gay, in a wink wink sort of way. There are a few plays on words that I noticed at the time but have long forgotten. The authors later denied all this (they were explicitly asked) but when they created Ellery they were not expecting him to become a valuable property. They hetero-ed him up right smartly for the magazine market.

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    • Huh. I always thought the explicit mention of his wife and son in the Roman Hat introduction seemed a little forced. But this is the first I’ve heard of this theory — interesting, anyone else know anything about it?

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  3. I mean, interestingly you say about the lack of LGBT representation in classic detective fiction but there’s pretty much sod all in even modern detective fiction too. Certainly on TV I can’t leap to any examples.

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    • I shy away from mentioning modern crime fiction because it’s not my area — and you never know what someone out there might be writing, given that Bigfoot Erotica is a thing (trust me on this…you don’t want to know). But if there is still an absence of representation in the genre even post-1967…man, that’s just shit.

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  4. Out and proud though I may be, I tend to think that the “Ellery (was a) Queen” theory is pure bunk. First of all, there’s the hidden wife and child in Italy, as JJ mentioned, and they are presented front and center in the very first mention of the detective in the very first book. GAD is strewn with asexual sleuths who have a wife and children tucked away conveniently (hello, HM)! Secondly, Ellery was the creation of two, young, very neurotic and very straight Jewish men who created him to win a popular contest. What would be their gain to create someone whose nature, in the late 20’s, most readers wouldn’t have even understood? I think it was in the Queen biography that I read of the cousins’ shock when they learned that secret meaning of their hero’s surname. Thirdly, what in Period One Ellery’s behavior or personality suggests gayness that can’t be explained by his creators’ slavish devotion to Philo Vance, upon whom much of Ellery’s persona seems to be modeled. I can’t speak with any authority because I wasn’t there, but I don’t see Ellery as one of my people.

    Nevertheless, it’s quite apparent that Dannay and Lee “butched him up” in Period Two, both for the women’s magazines in which they were published and for radio (hello, Nikki Porter). And then came Wrightsville Ellery, who could be both sensitive and attracted to women. But if all of these manifestations are essentially the same character, why would it take so long for Ellery to recognize certain factors about the killer in that infamously horrific late title that we despise so much? Why would Dannay and Lee treat homosexuality like a cliche tragedy if they weren’t sensitive to some part of their hero’s nature?

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    • Well, people are not understanding my claim. I do not claim Lee and Dannay decided to set before the public a gay hero. But recall the nature of the first book. It was a contest entry and is full of little puzzles and tricks. There are acrostics made from the first and last letters of chapters and so on. I think making the detective homosexual was another jest (by presumably homophobic writers). A homophobic jest inherently.

      More importantly of course is the name. Dannay and Lee’s protestations Of ignorance require me to believe that young men or late teenagers are less au fait with scornful terms for homosexuals than the average middle aged matron. I don’t accept that. “Queen” was not forced on them, and Ellery Poofter wouldn’t be a subtle joke would it. Queen was the one acceptably ambiguous nudge-nudge term at the time.

      Someone cited JJ McC. But there are two problems here. McC is demonstrably unreliable, as the history of EQ showed. And again of course the name is a tip off. I mean “JJ”. You cannot really rely on a JJ now can you?

      No one denies surely that they remade Ellery as more hetero after the early books. Why did they feel the need?

      As I said I recall allusions and wordplay, but cannot recall specifics.

      There are subtler hints too. Has anyone read the cousins’ letters? Lee in particular loathed the early Ellery persona. Really intense loathing. Homophobia might be part of the reason I speculate.

      Lastly the Brad Rule applies: Brad is always wrong.

      QED

      …. but read the early books yourself and see. 😉

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    • Brad
      More on the “we didn’t know” thing. Not only is it inherently implausible, let’s look at how straightforward the cousins were in their pronouncements. They published the book as Ellery Queen, playing a mild trick on the public. Later they revealed their “real” names, Dannay and Lee. But those weren’t their real names. That too was another bit of fooling. Aside from the monetary incentive of not damaging the brand — which back then a public admission of homosexuality in Ellery would surely have done — they just are never reliable when talking about their writing process (and why should they be?).

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  5. I’ll have to agree with Brad. I don’t think Dannay & Lee ever intended Ellery to be gay. I’m pretty sure his wife is mentioned in the foreword of the very first edition of his very first book.

    I certainly don’t recall any hints in the first two books though it’s been a while since I read them. I think Ken is just trying to get you to read the Early Queens since nothing else will!

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      • JJ has read the early Queens, at least most of them. He doesn’t like them much, and I understand his reasons. I read ALL of the first period Queens before I read any others; they were republished kind of in order that way in the late 60’s – early 70’s. I still don’t buy what you’re saying, Ken. Everything the cousins did at the start mimicked what Van Dine did: the pseudonym, the dilettante detective. The most clever idea was to give their sleuth the same name as their own pseudonym, making him an author by trade. Although it’s also a bit confusing, since we never enter into Ellery’s mind until Calamity Town in the 1940’s. Both men were 24-year-old working stiffs; I don’t see them “tee-hee”-ing their way through a gay subtext here, simply by making the early detective and the early books clever. (When did clever become a subtext for gay?)

        I don’t remember any openly gay sleuths until the 1960’s with George Baxt’s Pharoah Love. I didn’t read those, but I did read all of the Dave Brandstetter mysteries. I don’t love private eyes, but this was personal, and Joseph Hansen was quite a good writer. Hammett had gay characters in The Maltese Falcon; in fact, I think you found more openly gay people in hard-boiled detective fiction than in GAD, where they were mostly artistic types: antiques dealers, theatre people, or fashion designers.

        In the Golden Age, there were many gay detective story writers, and although I don’t think any of them created a gay sleuth, there is plenty of homoeroticism in Patrick Quentin and Gore Vidal/Edgar Box, as well as gay characters. There’s not a drop of the former in Queen that I can see, and the only major gay character I can remember was a travesty. (I won’t mention them due to spoilers.)

        I have read the letters, and I understand why Lee would hate the first incarnation of Queen. He was bored with writing “arid” puzzle mysteries and found the dilettante insufferable. The change to a more masculine Queen, complete with girlfriends like Paula Paris, was a commercial decision. The sensitive, truly human Queen of the 40’s and 50’s was the best of their work. And then Ellery became . . . a nothing. Just a detective solving puzzles again – no dilettantism, no machismo, no heart, just a brain. Some of the cases he solves were fun, but none of them attain the real depth of feeling of the Wrightsville stories and Cat of Many Tails.

        You should talk to Curtis Evans, Ken. He compiles an amazing book about queer presence in the detective novel. I think that sometimes the detective hero is such a pure outsider, which resonates as a queer metaphor. In that sense, I see something in the early Ellery, but no more than in many other GAD sleuths of the 1920’s-30’s.

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        • I may be wrong but I think JJ gave up on Dutch Shoe and Spanish Cape, skipped American Gun and Siamese Twin (Arguably the best, definitely the second best of the lot) and completely ignored the Drury Lane Series as ‘EQ in Order’ suddenly changed into ‘(Trashing) EQ in Disorder’!

          If nothing else, maybe the prospect of hunting for subtle allusions of homosexuality will encourage him to give early queen another chance!

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          • Neil, I agree about Siamese Twin, and I’ve asked JJ to read it many times! Come to think of it, that would be a good book to explore on this topic, since it features two handsome young men in a really close relationship, kind of a “joined at the hip” friendship.

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            • And if he ends up hating that one too, I’d suggest he should be banned from reading and reviewing detective fiction for atleast two years!

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            • Neil
              The problem with that suggestion — reasonable and admirable as it seems at first — is just how many GAD bloggers we’d have to ban. i have seen the following books trashed, amongst others
              The Maltese Falcon
              The Big Sleep
              The Hollow Man
              The Talented Mr Ripley
              Murder on the Orient Express
              And Then There Were None
              Suddenly At His Residence
              The Judas Window
              The Greene Murder Case
              The Greek Coffin Mystery (okay, that was me slagging this one)

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            • I’ve heard the entreaties to read Siamese Twin, and I shall read it, but other stuff keeps coming up. Plus, I just had to know what the deal with The Door Between was.

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          • Full disclosure: I did eventually go back and read Dutch Shoe, and I did not care for it. Honestly, I think it might be something to do with reading it on Kindle — my patience seems to wear much thinner much quicker than with print books (or maybe I’m selecting exclusively bad ebooks…).

            When I saw that Otto Penzler was republishing Dutch Shoe, I thought I’d get a copy and read it in “real” book format before reviewing it on here. But I need to leave a bit of time before that happens.

            My gaydar shall, of course, be on full alert when I get to it.

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  6. As most of you probably know, I don’t really care about the private lives of my favorite detectives, whether they’re straight or gay, but, if you guys are truly interested, there’s probably one gay detective from the Golden Age. On his website, Mike Grost pointed out several clues that Clyde B. Clason’s Theocritus L. Westborough might be gay. But don’t let that idea distract you from the often clever, original and imaginative plots.

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