I started, but did not finish, Daniel Cole’s debut novel Ragdoll (2017), which seemed to me a gruesome hook followed by a lot of meandering prose. Endgame (2019), his third novel, promised me a dead body in a locked room and so, since I’m reluctant to write off anyone after just one book, here we are.
Now, full disclosure, these legitimate attempts to find modern examples of impossible crime novels to stir the blood of my fellow enthusiast TomCat started out as hopeful and have over time morphed into a sort of literary Rocky climactic showdown in which I stagger around getting eight kinds of tar pasted out of my patience and incredulity before somehow finding the resolve the get the better of my opponent and stumbling off to fight another day. I wanted to find good books — and some of them are — but my default expectation these days has shifted over towards “This probably won’t be any good, so let’s just make the best of it”. Sometimes it’s their sheer badness that gets me through — yeah, I’m looking at you, Mayne — and sometimes I get to the end and don’t know what to think: they’re not bad enough to be entertaining, but they’re not good enough to be recommended. One of them, I don’t even remember the impossible situation in, since the plot I can recall mostly involved people having dull conversations in cars, next to cars, having just got out of a car, or within sight of a car. The point is, they’re a mixed bag, but my expectations are low at the best of times now.
So Endgame represents something of a quandary. Because it’s not a good book, and it’s not bad enough to be fun, but its flaws and the problems they represent are interesting for the decisions Cole — and, one presumes, his editor, who, contributing to a feeling I get from most of the modern stuff I read these days, needs to learn what the job ‘Editor’ entails — makes. Because some of it is weird, just plain, what-the-actual-fuck weird, and not in an interesting, genre-challenging, yes-I-know-how-plotting-works way. And then, just as I’d roll my eyes and stagger to the verge of giving up, Cole would pull out a magnificent turn of phrase, or a delightful sentence fragment, or the seed of an interesting idea and sort of catch me on the edge of the precipice. When he learns how to write, and when he gets someone involved in the publication of his books who able to actually, y’know, shape the manuscript and cut away all the extraneous fodder, Daniel Cole could be…good, I guess.
The plot of Endgame is actually quite straightforward — far too straightforward for the 330 pages it fills, so cue 30 pages of scene-setting Han Solo-ing (you know — “I can’t get involved…oh, okay, now that twenty pages have gone by I can get involved”) at the start and copious flashbacks throughout: retired policeman found shot at home, apparent suicide owing to the sealed nature of the room (in one of those occasionally-interesting wrinkles, the door is secured by sealant around the inside of the frame — suggesting a third variation on John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson’s challenge). Renegade, maverick, loose canon, play-by-his-own-rules, badass, maverick, tough guy, take-no-prisoners, brilliant, firebrand, maverick, iconoclastic ex-DI William Fawkes returns from whatever disgrace he was left in at the end of Ragdoll to prove that suicide can be excepted and then go on to solve the case, because the dead man was a mentor of his and yadda yadda. In essence, if you strip away the modern posturing, relationship drama, and ghastly Americanisms (“butt cheek” indeed…), this is at core a locked room mystery with a simple focus and a firm central motivation. Before it all goes wrong, that is.
So, let us start with what is good. Cole is no judge of tone, but the occasional joke or comic aside lands well. Possibly my favourite is the moment a character barges in on a sombre moment and introduces some false bonhomie after “illiterately reading the room”, but a few others can be found throughout: not to spoilt them all, but upon explaining the working of the sealed room at about the halfway point our detective is asked to “repeat the bit…where you were talking”, and every so often a subtle narrative wink will crop up when you’re least expecting it. And the culprit is revealed pleasingly early on, too, though not in any intelligent or meaningful way — you sort of feel that someone who could devise the scheme dreamed up here on zero notice would do better than to fall for the cheap trick played, but…well, sometimes plot has to advance, y’know?
As for the plot, that’s a mess, but there’s also something of the intelligent design behind it that isn’t quite as ridiculous as it appears due to Cole’s amateurish handling. With a few threads tidied up, and with a little more preparation given to others, this could actually be worthy of some of the praise generously ladled upon it by a lot of people I’ve not heard of, who are clearly as excited about another blandly generic set of thriller characters going through the motions as I am about all the forthcoming classic crime that Otto Penzler, the British Library, Locked Room International and others are going to bring us in the years ahead. Though Simon Toyne urging you to “kill to get a copy” reeks of the sort of lazy hyperbole that surrounds the modern crime thriller, and contributes, I can’t help but feel, to why we no longer get so many nice things in the genre. With, as mentioned above, an editor who was willing to put in the yards to shape this into a tighter, more focussed tale it could actually be a lot of fun in a Jeffery Deaver-ish sort of way.
And so, the less successful elements. God, where to start?
You’ll have your own views on whether giving your novel the same title as the biggest and most anticipated movie in history, which came out a few months prior, is a move of genius, cynicism, or pure coincidence. What Cole’s book and the Avengers’ (first) final hurrah do have in common, though, is backstory. Granted, this is the third book in a trilogy, and Cole writes an introduction telling you how you’ll get the most out of this if you’ve read the first two books, but ye gods everything and everyone has enough backstory to make the accrued universe crossovers of 22 Marvel movies look like mere child’s play. Sure characters and their previous interactions, but even Fawkes’ overcoat gets its own backstory, as does the front bumper of DI Emily Baxter’s Audi A1. Even the flashbacks have flashbacks, with the narrative leaping between 2016, 2010, 1979, 2009, and possibly others, with certainly each of the chapters from the 1970s simply an excuse to add some pages and then finally get to the point in their final line, and more often just there to cram yet more back-loadinginto this novel. If this were a ship, it would sink arse — sorry, butt — first.
Then there’s the wild and uncomfortable variations in tone, such as when the team sit down to discuss that sequence of events from the 1970s that have resulted in the brutal murder of the man Fawkes and Baxter consider a father figure and mentor — a murder Fawkes has willingly come out of hiding, allowing himself to be arrested, to investigate…and we get Fawkes’ jokey delight at being able to use a “Moooo!” sound effect on a powerpoint presentation and a series of ‘comical’ drawings showing us who shot who and when and how when a simple narrative explanation would be far more fitting (while also not having to stop to discuss how good Fawkes is or is not at drawing rabbits). Time and again there’s this sort of genre-pebbledashing approach, where the whimsical tone might be supposed to stand in for character development but actually comes across as distasteful and staggeringly unprofessional writing. ‘Tarantino-esque’ may be the cry, but anyone who offers that as consolation clearly has no idea what makes Tarantino’s dialogue so special (and I say that as no fan of the man’s work) and why such lazy allowances are deleterious to the quality of prose we get these days.
As to characters, well. At one point Emily Baxter receives a phone call from a supposed close friend of hers, and what flashes up on her mobile screen is “Holly (Vet/Slutty Friend)”, which fairly accurately catches the sort of nuance we can expect elsewhere. Add this to some dialogue so on the nose that I had to book an appointment at my local One-Stop Rhinoplasty (“…you choose this life of death and pain to spare others from it because you are stronger than the rest of them put together.”) and an almost impressive failure of the gender-reversed Bechdel Test and, well, let’s move on.
The peril in the plot, too, is hilarious. The entire final quarter or so of the book rests on the antagonist being given as a bargaining chip a mobile phone on which is the recording of a conversation that will be useful to them:
He reached out and took the phone from her.
“It’s locked,” he said.
“You have the recording in your possession. You’ll get the password when you’ve honoured our arrangement.”
“I like you.”
Haha! Touche! Checkmate! We do the antagonising, you and I, and you force my hand! Mutual respect, and all the etcs. Except, like, there is a booth on probably every high street in the country where you can unlock a mobile phone for about £5. So, er, maybe don’t just hand this over so quickly, hey? Especially as you’ve told him it’s a code and not unlocked by facial recognition or similar. And the final twist brought about by this deal is…well, it’s stupid. I can see what Cole’s aiming for, but it’s only brought about by events that our protagonists have no control over, and the how — it requires the finding of someone who has been unsuccessfully searched for by a huge criminal organisation for about thirty years — is summed up in a sort of “Well, they just didn’t look everywhere” dismissal. Because, of course. If you want to find a helpful, mysterious stranger, just look for him. Why didn’t the money-obsessed criminal syndicate think of that? Idiots, the lot of them.
On the subject of idiots, it’s fairly amazing to me that any of our core group — featuring two Metropolitan Police Detective Inspectors and a private eye, and I have a feeing there might be someone else there who I kept forgetting about — are professional investigators, since none of them seem capable of doing any investigating. Without the villain confessing needlessly at an early point, there’s actually nothing to suggest anyone was ever going to uncover their complicity in the murder, and the ease with which they happen upon the answer to the locked room is a real shambles, and does no favours for a genre that would delight in the complexities and possibilities of such a setup — here, you’re simply told what the solution is without there being any rigour, deduction, or contemplation of alternatives behind it. The only interesting element in the whole thing is how long passes between the villain effectively confessing and anyone doing anything to bring them to justice, allowing for the striking of the aforementioned deal and a bit of plot contorting that is fun if entirely nonsensical, plus some reheated ‘thrilling’ sequences so disinterested — oh no, I’m hiding under the bad guy’s desk and he doesn’t know I’m here and my phone might ring — that it’s debatable whether Cole was even awake when he wrote them.
So the sealed room that brought us here in the first place? Yes, this, too, is a disappointment. Amusing as it is to have someone fail to follow the series of events when Fawkes goes through them, the scheme is at least passable by modern (which is to say “significantly lowered”) standards. But the crime scene as presented doesn’t bear up to the explanation of the crime: would a door with no lock, kept closed by sealant around the frame for probably a couple of hours at most, really leave “chunks of plaster ripped from the surrounding wall” when kicked in? I don’t think it would. And why does it take so long for anyone to assume it’s not suicide when, given the victim’s financial difficulties and sizeable life insurance policy, the last thing he’d do if he was killing himself to get the money for his family is make it look like a suicide? There’s a decidedly Carolyn Wells, early 20th century vibe to the explanation here, too, which now makes me want to read some early 20th century locked room novels, since I have a feeling I’d be far more forgiving of them in light of this experience. Andrew Mayne’s book was shit, but at least he was trying.
And, on a purely editorial note, why — in a book that starts every single chapter with the date and time of its occurrence — is there a page, a whole extra piece of paper that’s blank of its rear side included in every single copy, telling us that it’s now “Nine days later…”? Couldn’t that be, like, included in the text or something?
Hmm, upon reflection this isn’t a very good book at all. Oh, well, here’s the Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo grid:
Quite restrained, all things considered.
The good news is that I have another modern impossible crime novel lined up for a couple of weeks from now which I’m pretty sure is going to be very good indeed. If it’s not…then heaven help us.
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