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…
“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.
“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:
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.