It had been my intention to read one of J.R. Ellis’ earlier Yorkshire-set impossible crime novels after reading his third, The Murder at Redmire Hall (2018), last year. But then he released a fourth and, well, the best laid plans…
On the evidence of this fourth entry, The Royal Baths Murder (2019), I don’t think I’m ever going to call myself a fan of Ellis’ work. But before I explain why not, I think I owe it to him to commend some of the things he does well; see, because I think Ellis has been poorly served by the publishing arm of Amazon through which these are put out — there are some good ideas here, but the lack of editorial guidance has resulted in some very, very tedious novels where a couple of lightning-quick short stories with the same problems and solutions would have been delightful. Hell, I’d probably be raving about the guy, and all that would be different is 90,000 words of boring interviews would have been ripped out of the middle of his plots.
Based on The Murder at Redmire Hall and The Royal Baths Murder, I must admit that Ellis has a good eye on how to use his settings to inform his impossibilities. Neither solution is original, but they’ve been used with a clever consideration of the precise fixed geography of their settings. The Royal Baths Murder sees thoroughly unpleasant best-selling crime writer Damian ‘Poison Pen’ Penrose strangled in the subterranean swimming pool of Harrogate’s Royal Baths, and discovered, alone, by the first member of staff to enter the swimming pool after him. Since the only exit was watched, and since there are no nooks or crannies for the killer to secret themself into, how could they have disappeared? Resolve it in 15 pages and, despite some huge flaws in the reasoning, the solution would be fun, if not exactly one for the record books. Ellis is, however, rather fond of the tedious 1970s idiom crime writing where a lot of obvious red herrings are cooked up at the start — “He stole my plots!” “He wrote some nasty things about me!” “He ruined my business!” — and we have to pretend that they’re relevant before a “surprise” culprit and motive are established in the final stretch.
This is how you know they’re not well-structured novels and would instead make good short stories — you can read the setup, read the crime, and then flip to the last chapter to find out how it was done and by whom. I’ve essentially done this both times now, after trudging through so much obviously pointless detail (I read more of Redmire Hall than TRBM, where I think I got maybe 50% through before realising it conformed to the same pattern) and, to be honest, I’ll probably get his first couple of books in due course and do the same if only because I think he displays the germ of a good idea in the two I’ve read. Someone also needs to sit down with him and explain that chapters shouldn’t be these maundering, lumbering slabs of just arbitrary conversations and plots point shovelled in for good measure — TRBM has eight chapters and a prologue, and should be split into about 25 much shorter divisions, which would help keep the jumble of subplots clear — and the clear lack of external guidance on matters such as these why I’m still classifying these books as self-published.
“Here we go…”
Would a professional editor, for instance, allow a character who’s written 20 novels and risen to the top of their profession to say “I get so many unsolicited scripts, most of which are utter rubbish”? Because, as we know, authors don’t read unsolicited manuscripts — there’s too much risk involved in claims of plagiarism — but because we’re meant to entertain someone who accuses Penrose of plagiarism as a suspect, we’re asked to swallow that. Equally, when our police detective DCI Jim Oldroyd gets chummy with a publisher Penrose left in the lurch who wants to set up a business supporting Yorkshire crime writers — “he was keen to see northern writers being able to have their work published locally” — it’s a little uncomfortable seeing as the sentiment is expressed by a Yorkshire crime writer being published by global behemoth Amazon.
And should any author have a character at the end of their book express the sentiment “I don’t think [the case we’ve just solved] would make a good crime novel. If you wrote a plot based on what we’ve seen here, in the last two weeks, no one would accept it as being remotely credible”? Especially after your main characters earlier stood around at the scene of the apparently impossible crime saying things like “Maybe it’ll be like one of those [novels] by John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson”. Because you’re opening yourself up to two thoroughly valid criticisms: no, this isn’t remotely credible, and no, it isn’t like one of those books by John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson. “We’re a long way from the Golden Age,” Penrose opines at the start, apparently as a way of making him more objectionable, but I don’t think I’ve ever had greater cause to agree with the Unpleasant Victim before.
I’ll not spoil it, but the commission of the crime requires a piece of oversight on the part of our police that would surely end most careers. Ellis uses his setting well, as I say, and if you raced this past me in 15 pages I’d nod and accept it as part and parcel of trying to push the impossible crime into a more forensic age — but this lot take two weeks to solve it, and allow two other murders to be committed in the meantime, all because they overlook, like, Steps 1 and 2 of what you’d do in such a situation. Like…surely. Why not set this in the same Baths in 1930 — they’ve been around since Roman times, so I’m pretty sure there were there in the 1930s — and allow your ignorance to be mopped up by the perceived lack of rigour of our less-aware antecedents? Although Ellis is so bad at laying and interpreting clues, it might not make any difference.
Again, I’m not going to spoil anything, but Ellis leans heavily on his detective having a series of entirely unrelated moments of sudden insight to link together aspects of the case to solve it, based on no observations from the scene itself. Let’s imagine — and, again, no spoilers, so allow me to stress how this is not the solution here — that the killer hid in a storeroom by creating a false section of walling to place over the door, so that when the police came to investigate the scene they’d be unaware a room was hidden from view. A moment of inspired insight might be that the victim’s name is Penrose, as in the mathematician Roger Penrose, famous for his aperiodic two-tile protosets. Form here, the connection might be made with the tiling on the walls of the Baths, and so our detective gets thinking about how some of the tiling may be false. It’s not a good link, but there’s an aspect of logic to some of it.
How Jim Oldroyd would solve this, however, would be to think that the victim’s surname is Penrose, which contains the word ‘rose’, and sometimes roses grow through cracks in walls…so there’s obviously something funny about the walls in the Baths. Call it intuition if you like, but it’s not detection. And when you can’t even line up your reasoning correctly, and when every loose link just so happens to lead you by the nose to the precise solution, it seems inevitable that your police operational conduct is going to be squiffy — which is fine, except that two other people are killed because of the rank ineptitude of our investigators.
And it’s not even as if Ellis is pushed for time to rush the investigation through, since he has countless pages to devote to Oldroyd signing up for internet dating sites, and for a courting of the #MeToo movement with DS Steph Johnson being subject to workplace sexual harassment. I completely grasp that modern crime fiction is going to want to write about the world in which it is set, and the #MeToo movement has had a phenomenal effect in unearthing some disgustingly predatory behaviour in people who should frankly know better, but the way Ellis crowbars some of this in is just too awkward for words. Because who among us hasn’t taken topless pictures with our friends, posted them online, and then had a friend print them out and send them to our work as a joke? And, of course, once you received these at work, the first thing you’d do is throw them into an unlocked drawer and immediately forget about them. How relatable.
The horror of workplace sexual harassment is its very ubiquity, and if Ellis wants to write about this kind of thing he doesn’t need to go to such contortions. He writes moderately well about Steph’s realisation that other women in the station might be suffering from sexual harassment from the same source, but then strips her of agency by miring her in indecision, and resolves the whole thread in a way that never actually addresses the harassment in the first place (thankfully the responsible party is also a bit crooked…and upon being kicked off the force leaves behind him two colleagues equally as culpable in harassing Steph who will definitely have learned their lesson because their ringleader in no way faced sanctions for such behaviour…right?).
Yes, confront the current scourge of the modern workplace, and let’s not seek to pretend for a second that such things don’t form part of life for huge numbers of men and women the world over, but actually have the balls to confront it, rather than gesturing vaguely at wokeness in the hope of appearing current. Jeepers, what is it with self-published novels featuring clumsily, horribly-handled sexual misconduct allegations?
“You’ll get emails about that, Jim.”
So, man, I dunno. I would like to like what J.R. Ellis does, but he needs to be better at it — or to be better guided through it, at least — for that to happen. If he rewrote these books as a collection of short stories, I’d say snap it up: they’d be problematic, but they’d be fun. Curiosity, and an admiration of the principle of what he does, will see me read the first and last chapter of his previous works, as I say, but I can’t honestly encourage you to spend money on a book because 10% of it might be interestingly developed. Do what you like, obviously, but I’d strongly recommend that you supported James Scott Byrnside, DWaM, Matt Ingwalson, and Robert Innes instead.
The Yorkshire Murder Mysteries by J.R. Ellis:
1. The Quartet Murders (2017)
2. The Body in the Dales (2018)
3. The Murder at Redmire Hall (2018)
4. The Royal Baths Murder (2019)
Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.