#597: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #13: Impolitic Corpses (2019) by Paul Johnston

Impolitic Corpses

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?”

5 Chows

“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.

5 Chows

“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.

3 Chows

“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.  Here’s the Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo card, and let’s all just move on with our lives.

Bingo Impolitic Corpses

Frustratingly, Johnston’s a smart enough author to avoid the lazy cliches — but it’s still not a good book.

~

Previous Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts:

1. Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt

2. First Class Murder (2015) by Robin Stevens

3. The Secrets of Gaslight Lane (2016) by M.R.C. Kasasian

4. Hard Tack (1991) by Barbara D’Amato

5. The Real-Town Murders (2017) by Adam Roberts

6. Mr. Monk is Cleaned Out (2010) by Lee Goldberg

7. The Paris Librarian (2016) by Mark Pryor

8. The Magic Bullet (2011) by Larry Millett

9. By the Pricking of Her Thumb (2018) by Adam Roberts

10. Angel Killer (2014) by Andrew Mayne

11. Now You See Me (2019) by Chris McGeorge

12. Endgame (2019) by Daniel Cole

13 thoughts on “#597: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #13: Impolitic Corpses (2019) by Paul Johnston

    • I can’t begin to tell you how much I owe TomCat for my own impossible crime fandom. Beneath the Stains of Time was instrumental in pointing the way for me when I first really started to get into impossible crimes — this post in particular. Sure, we’ve not always agreed on what counts as the classics of the form, but just to have someone freaking out with unapologetic fanboy glee over something I had stumbled into and was having a similar freak out over was magnificent.

      For that help alone, as well as our continued excellent conversations, I’ll keep doing this series for another 20 years of appalling books if it helps steer a fellow nerd away from time-wasting crap like Andrew Mayne (tough that book is almost crazy enough to warrant a look), Chris McGeorge, and, unfortunately, this one.

      And I’ve already picked out the next FaMLRNfTC candidate, and hope to get to it in the next couple of weeks. If I could guarantee it’d be a great one I’d make if post #600 next weekend, but I think I need to go a bit safer for that one 🙂

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      • Don’t worry, James. I very much appreciate what JJ is doing with this blog-series, but, to be honest, I’ve not really shown it. JJ has been doing this series since 2017 and haven’t read any of his better recommendations. So I promise to finally read and review The Real-Town Murders next year!

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        • So little of what I’ve uncovered in this series has ben actually worth recommending, but some — The Real-Town Murders, First Class Murder — certainly bears investigation. Maybe I should rename this whole series as “Probably Finding a Modern Impossible Crime Novel TomCat Doesn’t Need to Bother With”…

          Oh, and I’ve abandoned the next one, since it was so awful. Maybe a break is on the cards…

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  1. After the disaster of “Redmire Hall”, I thought I’d stick my neck out the second time with another recommendation…

    This looks like it’s right up your alley in terms of finding a locked room/impossible murder mystery… But – and perhaps thankfully – I add the qualification that I have yet to read it. 😅

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    • Ha; I’m actually aware of this one, and having done some research I’m not entirely sure if it’s meant to be any good. But keep the notifications coming, they are greatly appreciated!

      I’m probably going to do another bout of self-published novels in January and will be checking out a second title by J.R. Ellis in that, I imagine, since I’m so loathe to write off anyone after just the one book. So let’s see what happens…

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      • The Miser’s Dream is already on my big pile! No idea if it will be any good, but a locked room murder at the cinema sounded very John Russell Fearn-like.

        But keep the notifications coming, they are greatly appreciated!

        If you want a recommendation, I would like your take on Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle by “NisiOisiN.” An anime/manga-style (light) mystery novel full with eccentric, zany characters, a nameless, anti-social narrator and one hell of a locked room-trick!

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  2. 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.

    Truer words have seldom been spoken on this blog! 😀

    This is why I can’t enjoy the lion’s share of modern crime fiction: no ingenuity or even a tiny shred of creativity. I unapologetically love impossible crimes, cast-iron alibis and the breakdown of manufactured identities. But even more than that, I love ideas and how they’re used as weapons to tear down the battlements of a sealed room or an apparently unbreakable alibi.

    On a larger, historical scale, I find it endlessly fascinating to see how detective writers grappled and adapted to a rapidly changing world, because the detective story came into prominence when the Western world underwent unprecedented chances – something you only find nowadays in the Japanese detective stories. Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X is a good example of this. Not only has it a kind of solution you’ll never find in a modern, Western crime novel, but a solution many have claimed is impossible to pull-off today. And it succeeded in challenging the conventions of the genre by being simultaneously perceived (depending on who’s reading) as a detective and an anti-detective story!

    This is also why I rate Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel so highly, because it destroyed the argument that the advance of forensic science and technology made clever plots obsolete/ideas decades before it was made.

    Anyway, I’ve rattled on long enough. Thanks for suffering on my behalf. Much appreciated!

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    • Suspect X is good, but for me the solution to Salvation of a Saint is the more brilliant — and worth the narrative work that needs doing to make it come together.

      Too little of the time do authors of modern crime novels featuring an impossibility put in the effort to make their plot genuinely clever. We’re at a stage where self-published fiction is outstripping trad fiction in this regard: James Scott Byrnside and Robert Innes have put more thought into their impossibilities than the overwhelming majority of authors in this series of posts (Andrew Mayne aside, who put in waaaaay too much thought, and ended up lost in a logic puzzle of nonsensical proportions).

      And yet, and yet…when asked about putting in these weak sauce impossible crimes, modern authors inevitably sound off about “wanting to write a traditional locked room mystery” — then do the traditional thing and try to make it intelligent! Don’t get someone out of a watched room by having the watched leaver for five minutes, or have someone attacked in a locked room by their attacker having a key and locking the door after themself as they leave.

      Can you really celebrate something by failing to understand what made it so wonderful? Mind you, going by the Sophie Hannah Poirot books, it does seem that this how things are going now…

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      • Suspect X is good, but for me the solution to Salvation of a Saint is the more brilliant — and worth the narrative work that needs doing to make it come together.

        Absolutely! Salvation of a Saint has a brilliantly cheeky solution, but one that could also have worked in the 1930s and can give you an example from that period working with a similar kind of trick. But not as brilliantly executed as Salvation of a Saint, of course. The Devotion of Suspect X, on the other hand, succeeded in what’s supposedly impossible to do in a detective novel set in the world of today. Higashino proved them wrong!

        We’re at a stage where self-published fiction is outstripping trad fiction in this regard: James Scott Byrnside and Robert Innes have put more thought into their impossibilities than the overwhelming majority of authors in this series of posts

        Paul Doherty is an enthusiastic and prolific writer of (historical) locked room stories, but they’re usually hit or miss. Still, he wrote some good ones. I very much liked the idea behind the locked tower murder from A Murder in Thebes and the impossibilities in The Spies of Sobeck had another one of those infernally cheeky solutions. But, yes, independent-and self-published works have overtaken the traditional publishers in our corner of the genre.

        Don’t get someone out of a watched room by having the watched leaver for five minutes, or have someone attacked in a locked room by their attacker having a key and locking the door after themself as they leave.

        I’ll never pretend to be anything more than a rambling fanboy and a hack reviewer, but the lack of thought shown by these modern writers when it comes to the locked room problem is simply baffling to me. I’ve come up with better solutions that used their own story elements (Eric Keith’s Nine Man’s Murder comes to mind) while reading. Only last week, I posted a solution to the real-life impossible murder of Isador Fink on the LRI blog using stuff from the victim’s laundry shop. Just for the hell of it.

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