The joy of self-publishing must be the freedom to live or die solely on your own efforts. There’s most likely no-one looking over your shoulder to advise you, and while that may be the key factor that ruins a lot of SP fiction, if you can get it right on your own I imagine it’s rather thrilling.
Every so often I read a piece of self-published impossible crime fiction and think “Yeah, there’s no way anyone would publish this” for chiefly non-flattering reasons. In the case of The Phantom Ragdoll (2019), the second novella by man of mystery DWaM, I caught myself thinking “Yeah, there’s no way anyone would publish this…” but for thankfully the opposite reason: the freedom that means self-published authors can write whatever they like has resulted here in a wildly enjoyable, loopy, nightmarish dreamscape of a novella where the characters’ morality and psychology is every bit uncertain as the frankly baffling body-appear/body-swap mystery that give it its title. It’s far from perfect, but it’s also far, far better than the majority — possibly the entirety, the author’s later works notwithstanding — of free impossible crime fiction out there.
The setup is a seamless meld of pin-sharp Noir (the couple having difficulties in their marriage, the husband leaving for a business trip) and classic detection (the old timey train filled with Types, the isolated, darkened compartments) which is delightfully heavy on dialogue, the gaps between which are filled with a sort of bleached, dry prose that’s very difficult not to enjoy:
The compartments were, unsurprisingly, small. Directly across the door was a window. To the left and the right were leather seats. Each took their wall by the entirety of its length. Three people per seat, by the looks of it. Three and three made six. I was hoping to avoid company.
Given that the compartment was empty – so far, so good.
Above each seat was a shelf. I slid my suitcase onto the on the right one and dropped into the seat below. I rubbed my eyes.
I really was tired.
Of a lot of things.
There’s something James M. Cain-ish about the stripped nature of this writing — such a contrast to DWaM’s debut The Leviathan’s Resting Place (2019) — and it lends a real air of bafflement to the impossibility when it appears, since there’s clearly no attempt to hide actions behind flowery, ornate language.
The setup is simplicity itself: a scream rouses our narrator Noel from his compartment, and he goes into the corridor to discover that, as they went through a tunnel, a human-sized ragdoll has appeared out of nowhere on the floor of another similarly-darkened compartment occupied by some college-age kids. The young man denies any involvement, the young woman is a bundle of nerves, and Noel inspects the ragdoll, finds nothing to add to proceedings and returns to his compartment. A second scream rings out, and he again goes down to investigate, to discover that the ragdoll has now disappeared and a dead body has taken its place. Since no-one went into the compartment except Noel, what the hell is going on?
So far, so curious. The problem is a stumper, the setup is clean, and the stage set for some clever clew-dropping and subtle misdirection under the guise of blank-faced honesty the semi-hardboiled tone promises. Since this has one foot in classic detection, we of course get some good discussion around false solutions…
“The ragdoll couldn’t have just popped into existence. It also couldn’t have really been in any of the obvious hiding places. I know these seats can be lifted up, but either Bartham or Nancy would’ve noticed that happening, since they were sitting across each other. Just like they would’ve noticed if the ragdoll was anywhere on the shelves. So, the way it happened has to be a bit non-obvious. The only place I can think of is the ceiling.”
I raised my brow. “Er, excuse me?”
“The victim was killed before Bartham and Nancy got into that compartment. The body was attached to the wall. It was also wearing a ragdoll mask for some reason. It could be the victim just had it on.”
“Ah, yes, naturally.”
“Then, as they were going through the tunnel, the victim’s body got dislodged by accident. I think the culprit’s plan would’ve been for the body to fall down at any point – perhaps he wanted to establish an alibi? Or just needed to be at some other place at the moment the body was found? I wouldn’t know for sure, but that’s the only way I can see it happening.”
…and various reassurances that they’re all bunkum, and just as you settle in for the sturm und drang of interviews or virtuoso detection, the gears change and we find ourselves on a very different footing entirely.
I don’t wish to spoil this, so excuse me while I go all vague. The arrival of the investigator K. is a development which both plays into and thoroughly upsets all the expectations of tropes and trappings you may have had to this point. That K. and Noel are known to each other is only a small part of thing — the precise nature of their relationship becomes apparent very quickly, and will in fact inform more about what is going to unfold than any impossible appearance or vanishing. Which is not to say that there’s no focus on the mystery — indeed, the precise reason for the impossibility occurring as it does is part of the problem Noel reflects on most explicitly, and we get timetables and interviews, some briefly Croftsian “If we consider how fast the train was going then we know that…”. and even a nice bit of meta-awareness in being assured that one character “couldn’t have possibly been the culprit because of how late he’d been introduced”.
But the relationship between K. and Noel is what drives things, and what ends up being the most rewarding thread (deliberately, no doubt). The solution when it comes is dropped rather than deduced – it’s not so much that the story doesn’t play fair as that it was never really looking in those places to begin with. Which isn’t ideal, and I sincerely hope we see an improvement in his clewing as DWaM continues to write, but given the complexity of how things are resolved, it would be a brave writer indeed that attempted to subtly convey any of that. Where would you even begin?
And yet, best of all, the dauntless creativity and complexity actually boils down to something pretty tidy. Unlikely as all hell, sure, but then that’s the joy of the impossible crime: sometimes it goes some crazy places, which can be a detracting factor for those among us who like their fictional crimes more on the classical side — I’d consider myself among such people a lot of the time…but every so often you just have to admire the links people are able to form in making the impossible possible, and I’m happy to overlook how fluky elements of this are because, once you glom onto the essential structure, it’s actually wicked smart and very, very confidently done. This ain’t your grandma’s detection, it’s barely detection at all, but for a genre that’s well over a century old it’s great to see new blood having such fun with the possibilities of the form.
Editorially, too, lessons have clearly been learned from the verbosity of Leviathan, and I’m very excited to see what DWaM’s follow-up A Eulogy for Reason (2019) brings in terms of yet further improvements. See, it’s stuff like this that, done well and with an eye on seeking to improve, make these Adventures such fun. I recommend this for those of you willing to take a dip in slightly unexpected waters, and you can download it for a price of your choosing here. I confidently assure you that this is an author to watch, so get in now, so that you can say “Well, I was reading him already…”.