Well, well, well, 200π posts — or 100τ if you’re a weirdo. Let’s celebrate with two locked room murders…
Blake Banner is a self-published American author of, at time of writing, some 37 books spread over three series — all of them published since 2017, possessing him of a productivity that makes John Rhode/Miles Burton look like a reluctant dabbler. Murder Most Scottish (2018) is the eleventh book in his Dead Cold series featuring NYPD detectives John Stone and Carmen Dehan who, from what I gather in this one, work in the Cold Case unit on crimes that have lingered unsolved for decades. Newly married, the pair head to Scotland and the island of Gordon’s Swona for a honeymoon as removed from civilisation as can be managed — with the isolated Castle Gordon fitting the bill perfectly.
Once they encounter the handful of others in the castle, premonitions of the whole scene seeming like “a bizarre frozen tableau from an early play by Agatha Christie” begin to take on some substance as stories of the suicide of the Castle’s former owner some four decades previously make it sound increasingly likely that the old man was murdered. And since he was alone in his locked study at the time, “sitting at his desk with a bullet wound in his right temple, and his .38 service revolver lying on the floor beside him” and “the police searched high and low” and found nothing suspicious about the room…well, who better to dig into things than a pair of cold case detectives?
It’s…it’s a rhetorical question, guys.
While this book is not without its problems, it’s a very readable and enjoyable time. For every oddness that feels like the sort of bullshit macho posturing one might stereotypically expect from an author who mainly writes gritty crime novels — like Dehan and Stone introducing each other to their fellow guests using their professional titles (“May I present Detective Carmen Stone…” and “This is my husband, Detective John Stone”, this being long before any indication of a crime is made to those present and so coming across as a pointless flex, like a chef on holiday insisting everyone still call him “Chef”) — there’s also some great, fun writing that shows no small amount of talent. Dehan, in particular, gets the best of this, such as the moment in which she puts current owner of the castle and “Ivy League heir to daddy’s fortune” Charles Gordon, Sr. in his place when he sees fit to lecture her on “naivety, reality and carnality”.
The structure of things follows a fairly expected pattern: the first half introduces us to the denizens of the castle and island — rapacious Charles Gordon, Sr., his disappointing son Charles Gordon, Jr., long-term house-guest Major Reggie Hook, and the various women in Sr.’s thrall: his wife Pamela, long-time mistress Lady Jane “Bee” Butterworth, and new conquest Sally Cameron, wife of the local doctor. Add a hint of sexual tension, a disaffected marriage or two, and the pressured psychology of a lot of people living cheek-by-jowl in a tiny space without much to distract them, and it’s no surprise that the second half then concerns a murder. And not the 40 year-old one, either: we get a brand new shooting in the same room, under the same circumstances, and therefore presumably committed in the same way. So, like, howdunnit?
For a pair of detectives, it’s disappointing how little detection Dehan and Stone actually do. Indeed, it’s not even all that clear how and when Stone comes to the conclusions he does with regards the solution of the crimes. At the end of chapter 6 he’s about to hold forth to Dehan on his theory about the killing of Charles Sr.’s grandfather…and then we cut to the start of chapter 7 and “an hour later”…but Dehan still seems in the dark even though they’ve supposedly spent an hour discussing things. When he spills all in the final chapter, having made the discovery that traps the killer and clears up the motive — Dehan at his side the whole time — she’s still acting like some of it is a surprise, and there’s no real clewing that we should have glommed onto. Stone just sort of…knows. In fairness, a few developments do occur that he seems as surprised at as everyone else, so it’s not as if Banner wants him to be a paradigm of omniscient perfection, but to flex so hard about being detectives and then not, like, detect strikes the detection fan in me as a missed opportunity.
No, no, no. A thousand times “no”.
Slightly frustratingly, too, reader is even possibly lied to so that the locked room method could be occluded — that’s up for debate — but at the same time there is a good attempt at providing some sense of the approach taken in resolving a puzzle of this ilk:
“So, either: one, there is a concealed exit, two, he was killed from outside, or three, the room was locked from outside after the killing. There is no fourth alternative.”
The discussion around timings and placements isn’t rigorous by any means, but shows some consideration of approaching the matter of who and how beyond simply finding someone to pin the tail on come the finish…so it’s not that they don’t know how to detect, more just that we don’t see much of it. And, honestly, Stone and Dehan are good company, and Banner has a knack for letting his supporting players shine from time to time — bringing about a sense of the closeness on the island by mentioning how the local pub is serving meat out of season, for instance — with not everyone being blown away in the presence of this apparently legendary pair:
“You Americans are forever telling stories about what your fathers ‘always used to say’ to you. I wonder if any of them are true.”
Though, of course, in true modern style, you have to keep the best lines for the heroes:
I nodded a few times, considering the fact that there are few things in this world as slippery as a member of the British upper classes.
And as the psychology of living in such a small community begins to play an increasingly important part in the justifications of a lot of the actions we learn about, we also get some good reflections on the nature of these people — such as two of them laughing at a comment with Dehan reflecting that “[one] laughed more with pleasure and [the other] with trying to please”. This, unfortunately, gets undercut when several aspects of the narrative don’t quite join up through, you can’t help but feel, editorial oversight given how prodigiously Banner has been putting these out — we get one witness telling us how “as fas as [a key player in events] was concerned, I didn’t even exist” and then, later, it’s revealed that ignorance of the speaker by the party under discussion would only be possible by the likes of severe hypnosis or serious head injury (I wish to preserve spoilers). It could be that the speaker is seeking to minimise their role in proceedings, but it comes across like someone forgot what was written earlier.
I’m happy you’re happy. Answer’s still “no”.
It’s odd, and unsatisfying, how many of these little things add up and how a slightly more diligent reading would have tidied them away and left less for the attentive — or, yes, nit-picky — reader to be confounded by. Even simple things, like Stone knowing the detective who investigated the original murder (and committed, frankly, a piece of oversight that would end most careers) committed forty years ago comes back to upset things when said detective turns up at the end and is “in his fifties”. Was this an Encyclopedia Brown case we never got to read, then? And for the second time in two weeks we get a self-published author mangling the spelling of the name of a beloved icon of cinema…c’mon, guys, this is what the internet is for. Among, I understand, other things.
As I said up top, though, in spite of these flaws, and in spite of a murder method that won’t delight the meticulous when it comes to impossible crimes, I had a blast reading this. The speed of Banner’s writing invests his prose and predictable setup with an undeniable energy, and so for once I’m not sublimating the urge to give something a kicking. Murder Most Scottish (I don’t understand that title, is it some sort of pun?) is fun, swift, very easy to read, and a perfectly enjoyable time if you want something diverting and undemanding. And I’m pleased to see that there’s another impossible-sounding plot in Banner’s corpus — Fire From Heaven (2018), the ninth in this series, sports a partially-evaporated corpse and no footprints on the surrounding muddy ground — and so you better believe I’ll be returning to these guys in due course.
Previous and future Adventures in Self-Publishing can be found here.