Cast triskaidekaphobia aside! Sure, these modern impossible crime novels haven’t always shown the subgenre at its best, but Paul Johnston was one of the many contemporary crime fiction authors I read back in the early 2000s, and a chance to reconnect with him and the series that made his name can only be a good thing…right?
I know what you’re thinking: “Jim, you tried going home already, and it was only partially successful” — well, yes. Here, though, it’s not so much a dewy-eyed fondness for a particular title as intrigue brought about by not realising this series was still a going concern. See, I last read Johnston about 15 years ago, by which time he’d already given up his series set in a Scotland of the slightly futuristic 2020s and had moved on to contemporary Greek-set crime novels that I, er, did not especially care for. Then classic detection reared its head and my interest in contemporary crime writing largely dried up.
However, the same Amazon algorithm that keeps trying to sell me more toilet seats than any man could possibly need just because I bought one there once six years ago clearly remembered me buying a Johnston novel at one point, joined it up with recent interest in impossible crime fiction, and threw this title into my notifications: Impolitic Corpses (2019), the eighth title in a series I thought only had five, featuring as it does what sounds like an impossible vanishing from a locked, sealed, watched room:
“I’ve checked the chimney and looked behind all the walls. As you can see, we’ve lifted the carpet and the underlay. There’s no secret chamber or exit. Ditto the ceiling.” He pointed to the smooth expanse of plaster above. “No way out. No place to hide.”
And so Quintilian ‘Quint’ Dalrymple — one time detective, now Citizen of the recently reunified Scotland, which had previously been shattered by revolution against a borderline fascist regime into a hodge-podge of local fiefdoms operating under their own auspices — is pressed into service as an independent investigator to find out how the notable member of the new Scottish government could have vanished so completely. There was a witness outside the door, the door when broken down had key on the inside and bolt holding it shut bent out of shape, there were newly-placed bars on the windows: “I was living in my own Golden Age crime novel. Thing is, I’ve always been a Noir man; Hammett and Chandler didn’t do locked rooms. What would the Continental Op, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe have to say about this?”
“Probably ‘One of us solved an impossible crime,’ I reckon…”
From here, you may be either heartened or put on your guard by the referencing of the Locked Room Lecture in chapter 17 of The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr, and the fact that the immediately obvious — and most lazy — possible solution is openly discussed by two characters. Is this a sign of Johnston being savvy to the reader expecting something lazy of that ilk and so reassuring us that it’s not what’s going to be the answer…or is it, I dunno, Johnston preparing us for the fact that this is the first thing he could think of and he’s trying to prepare us for the eventual disappointment of his having not taken the impossible crime element of this seriously at all? Well, I had to wait to find out, and so shall you…albeit for fewer words than I did.
Or you could just scroll down and find out, of course. I can’t stop you.
Away from the impossibility, this is a frustrating book, and makes me appreciate the somewhat hidebound nature of classic era detective fiction. The detective in classic GAD is isolated from the suspects in the case, so that if you pick up the eighth Gideon Fell novel or the eighth Hercule Poirot novel you only really need to know who the detective is, identify the policeman who will stand there and essentially go “Lawks, Mr. Detective, I’da nevera thoughta that!” and you’re away. The relationships that are carried over from previous books are clean, easily-delineated, and often very much of a type. This is the canvas upon which a crime is then painted, and scorned lovers, ex-wives, duplicitous business partners, and shady politicos all get their scene or five and then bugger off out of the canon quick-sharp once the criminal is identified and apprehended.
Even in your professional GAD detective — District Attorney Doug Selby, say, or Inspector Roderick Alleyn — if there’s a group of people (Sylvia Martin, Rex Brandon, Brer Fox, Agatha Troy, etc.), their relationship to the core character is usually pretty clean: they love him, they hate him, they work for him and have no feelings either way. Crime fiction found this displeasing, and so where characters recurred there came with it a natural and understandable need for continuity: for someone slighted in Book Five to still hold the remnants of a grudge in Book Seven, or a betrayal or personal tragedy to still linger like so many thorns under the skin, for relationships to break down and need rebuilding, or to crumble past the point of repair. The rational part of me sees this as an inevitable consequence of wishing the reader to get emotionally involved in the lives of the characters we’re being told about, and the cynic in me can’t help but acknowledge that it also means you’re also required to keep up to date with developments once a year at £14.99 a pop.
“You should be a disillusioned Noir protagonist yourself with that attitude.”
Johnston has so many characters with so many pre-existing relationships that we don’t even get to the people who might be involved in the vanishment until more than half the book has passed, by which point the answers to “Howdunnit?” are well and truly provided (not “detected” note — most certainly “provided”). There’s so much history here that at times the admirably authentic background Johnston is working against almost requires a website of its own so that you can gen up on your future history, and the people involved have either all had a dodgy past and are now reputable or had a reputable past and are now dodgy, or had a dodgy past and were then reputable but now seem dodgy, and they all like each other except they don’t trust each other, and most of them definitely don’t trust Quint on account of something something see paragraph 7 of chapter 12 of the Supplementary Material unless they do because of sections 3-7, only the odd-numbered lines. It’s like attending a party where you know no-one but it turns out there’s been a lot of intra-dating and so the relationships seem to shift with every new conversational topic.
It gets — there’s no other word for it — boring. And I think Johnston knows this, because suddenly, for a reason doubtless explained four books back, Quint and his Watson find themselves persona non grata and are sort of on the run or…something because the people who hired them put a bug in their car…? I didn’t really understand this bit, but I guess having to flee from an interview because a police car just pulled up outside is gripping, right? Even though you’re employed by the police? Nothing’s ever really explained, at least not so I got any sense of why the Very Senior Policewoman who hires Quint pulls a gun on a lawyer at one point before threatening Quint with excommunication and not wanting to work with his partner or…something. But guns are exciting, right? Hell, at one point I thought Quint and his Watson were psychic since Quint learns something while interviewing one suspect — there’s a lot of interviewing, ye gods — and walks in to the interview that Watson is conducting simultaneously with someone else, and yet it’s Watson who immediately asks that suspect about what Quint just learned. Makes no sense, and so fits right in.
It’s not all bad, Johnston has a good hand with acerbic observations — one character pulling himself up indignantly looks “like a tartan giraffe”, or the fact that fantasy novels are popular “especially in Edinburgh, where reality had been grim for decades” — but by the time the Hieronymous Bosch motif of the crimes has been cast aside so that a pair of mad, maaaaaad twins can something something torture Quint, something something I had well and truly checked out. Sure, maybe I should have gone back, reread the ones I’d read before, and then read intervening stories so that I had a full appreciation of this in context. But who does that these days? Who should have to wade through seven books to read one that might be interesting and then isn’t? God, and this one ends on a cliffhanger, too, so I pity the poor bastard who picks up book nine without reading this one.
Oh, and the disappearance is the laziest thing imaginable. Like, think of the easiest way to get someone out of an observed room. Yup, that’s what was done. And, sure, a disappointing impossibility is by no means the ruination of a book — had there been a good, compelling narrative around this I’d be more than happy to forgive it, but I’m also starting to tire of modern authors throwing in a quick, unearned reference to classic detection as if that alone with excuse their own lack of inventiveness and/or rigour. Dismissing bullets made of ice as the “mainstay of many a crap crime story, especially ones set in locked rooms” when you haven’t the ability to devise anything even half as creative is unfortunate: it comes off as a sort of snobbery with regards the genre which laid the foundations on you get to be this damn lazy. When your scheme is so simple that most authors in the genre 80+ years ago wouldn’t have wasted their readers’ time with it, you generally don’t get to criticise what preceded you, I’d wager.
“Why are we the only ones who ever sit these out?”
So, well, nostalgia did not help me here, and it’s another absolute duffer. Frustratingly, Johnston’s a smart enough author to avoid the lazy cliches — but it’s still not a good book.
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