My exploration of self-published impossible crime fiction, which would itself have been impossible prior to the growth of the ebook market, continues apace — there are at present 21 books in my AiSP TBR alone. So let’s get on with it…
Difficult to believe now, but when Rob Innes’ Untouchable (2016) first showed up in my Amazon recommendations, I didn’t know whether to be pleased or sceptical. At the time he had, I believe, six novellas published, and there was never any chance of me not reading at least two (everyone gets two books) — but, man, to be now be on the eighth and have only two remaining seemed unthinkable back then. His versatility is what appealed in the early days, and he hasn’t disappointed — his plots have variously concerned shooting in locked rooms, death by unknown means, drowning on dry land, and the Christ Trifecta of walking on water, impossible vanishment, and resurrection. Touch (2018) now adds the classic “but no-one was anywhere near him, guv!” murder-in-the-open because, well, he wouldn’t want to be labelled a one-trick pony, would he?
Football fever has gripped Harmschapel…
“Hardly your area of expertise, Jim…”
…with the County Cup competition reaching its zenith and Harmschapel F.C. in the final for the first time in a donkey’s span, and hot property/star striker Scott Jennings a virtual certainty to sweep them to glory against bitter local rivals Clackton. With Detective Sergeant Blake Harte about as appreciative of football as the average reader of classic impossible crimes, it’s left to the other denizens of the local police station to share the enthusiasm amongst themselves and try to overlook the fact that Scott Jennings is, well, a bit of a dick. Seemingly unable to avoid confrontations with members of his own and the opposing team, Jennings is increasingly erratic, a mixed-up brew of bravado and hind-brain posturing, right up to the point that he drops dead in the middle of the football pitch without anyone near him.
There are essentially three ways this can be accomplished, and I had confidence enough in Innes not to plump for the obvious one despite the fact that when Scott is carried from the field he’s found with a stab wound bleeding profusely from his torso.
“I’ve got it!” Mattison said loudly. “One of them must have stabbed him! Just before you got there, sir, one of the medical team or Hattie Atkins must have quickly stabbed him.”
Classic Detection Rules v2.0 (Post-Knox Appendix 4, § 6) decree that anything Billy Mattison says out loud is either stupid or wrong, and I only include this here to reassure you that Innes is smarter than that. The impossibility strikes fairly late on in the narrative, and I don’t want you thinking it’s going to be as hoary as all that — and, no, I don’t consider Scott Jennings being the target to be a spoiler given how late it occurs; the only way he could be a more obvious future victim would be if he’d also summoned his extended family to Harmschapel so that after the game he could inform them all of the changes he wished to make to his will.
“Ha. Nice one.”
There’s plenty of setup prior to the crime, and the most telling thing about all this is how much Harmschapel has started to come alive for Innes as an actual place. In novellas that have a main focus on the impossible crime and a subplot reserved for Blake’s relationship with, variously, his boyfriend Harrison, his parents, or his landlady Jacqueline, the environs of Harmschapel often come a distant fourth beyond the suspects and immediate setting of the crime under investigation, but gradually we’ve seen the details fleshed out and the little touches that bring it to life mixed in. The appearance of a football stadium and the surrounding concerns — a team, and therefore a rival team and staff and players and the petty jealousies and associated posturing, etc — may come a little out of nowhere for those of us who saw Harmschapel as a one-horse (well, one-goat) town with a corner shop, church, and police station, but the supporting cast fill it out well and give a real sense of having been there all the time, just never important enough before to warrant mention.
Additionally, with the issues surrounding Jacqueline’s son Tom and his history with Blake and Harrison, and the introduction of new Detective Constable Lisa Fox, it feels like Innes is really pulling strands together — that prologue and epilogue are obviously part of something far bigger — and that a larger canvas is eventually going to reveal itself. I know now that the tenth entry in this series, Harte (2019), is Innes’ first novel-length story, but even without that a posteriori awareness it’s clear that we’re in for a change of some magnitude, and it’ll be great to see what that looks like when it gets here. But there’s the small matter of an impossible death on a football field to deal with first…
For some reason I cannot place, the method employed here reminds me of something out of Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald. There’s a clumsiness to it that makes me believe someone could come up with it organically on their own — as opposed to the 17-step masterplans that Carr’s villains sometimes employ, wonderful though they are — even if I’m not entirely sure quite how it works or why it needed to be done at that time in that precise manner. The reader hoping for fair declaration of clues is going to be left hanging again — the closest we get is a post-explanation for the actions of a certain person which I, er, don’t follow (but then I’m not a sports fan, and that may be relevant) — but it’s a good method which shares its difficulty in explanation with Innes’ debut (which kills someone in a locked room using a device of great cunning but, one feels, practical unattainabilty).
Maybe this is why I got to thinking of Untouchable when I started reviewing this — the core idea is great, but these lightning-quick, community focussed novellas Innes has become so adept at aren’t quite the right method of delivery for what he wants to achieve. And so that novel-length story seems to be coming at exactly the right time: as Innes’ ideas begin to increase in mendacity, and as the foibles of his characters begin to manifest themselves in such plot-centric ways as to warrant the lion’s share of the action, it stands to reason that a larger word-count is on the cards in order to do all this justice. And, with just one more story before that happens, you can count me very, very intrigued…
The Blake Harte Mysteries by Robert Innes:
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.