Here’s a poser to wrap your head around: how is it possible for a novel set in the 1920s Florida land rush and containing five murders — four of them impossible — to be so dull?
Death in Unlikely Places (2014) is, from what I can tell, the fifth book in John Reisinger’s series featuring Max Hurlock — “I’m not a private detective; I’m an investigator” he asserts at one point, because the difference clearly matters for some reason. When he’s employed by magnate Glenn Curtiss to find out who is killing developers responsible for selling off chunks of land in the Sunshine State, Hurlock and his wife Allison will travel from Maryland down to Florida — a long goddamn way, with no real reason supplied for hiring someone out of state — and spend a long time apparently behaving as if the murders are difficult to solve. But given that he and Allison think they might want to have a baby and so fall into bed at any given opportunity, it’s possible his mind is on other matters…
I wanted to like this book, I promise I did. Given the lip-service paid to the impossible crime in a lot of modern crime fiction — I was recently given cause to reflect on just how much the old “he was shot/stabbed outside of the room, and locked himself inside as protection from his attacker” ruse has been taken out of mothballs in recent years — I was intrigued to see the opening pages of this one promise five impossibilities: a stabbing in a locked room, a death by blunt instrument in the middle of a lake, a shooting while the victim was alone in a lift, a body shot in a tree with no sign of how it got there, and another locked room shooting. And all played out against the backdrop of the rush to buy land in Florida in the mid-1920s, when newspapers were advertising plots for sale and eager buyers were snapping them up sight unseen, and often selling them on within a week to a huge profit. How can it fail?
There are plenty of facetious, unhelpful answers to that question, but the essential problem is that none of it is fun. Everything and everyone is so damned earnest. From Allison tagging a long to write an article for a magazine about the hidden side of Florida — nothing comes of that, incidentally, except we have to sit through some fake journalism that’s almost as unbearable as author-penned poetry — and have the sort of on the nose discussions about being a parent that keeps rhinoplasty clinics the world over in business (“How can I be a mother when I can’t even have a conversation with some random four year-old I encountered?!” is one of the more stultifying of the possible reflections we’re dragged into), to the sorts of C-, D- and E-plots that turn out to be nothing and add nothing (the creepy real estate man sniffing around Allison? Turns out she reminds him of his dead wife. How pointed.), there’s no life to any of this.
Media vita in morte sumus.
When your background is more compelling than your foreground, something has gone wrong. The “tin can tourists” flocking into Florida to snap up cheap land is a great conceit for a murder mystery. That disgruntled buyers would grab land, fail to keep up with the payments on bank loans, and thus have the land taken away from them by the banks is a tragic part of the history of the state, and the financial ruin faced by many simply for over-reaching themselves during the post-war boom is fertile stuff. Additionally, Max Hurlock does some good, solid, unshowy detection: we know it’s a waste of time tracking down witnesses and possible suspects (the “these guys are our suspects” plot-line isn’t the reddest herring ever to herring, but it’s the dullest bluff ever to take up the family trade), but Reisinger is to be commended for going about it in an era-appropriate way even if he has no real idea how that sort of investigation might have been aided by a larger network of police (the task force put together by the Governor to take on the serial killer amounts to less than this sentence of me telling you it’s something that (barely) happens in the book).
To be honest, I don’t really have the energy to go through this and tell you all the ways in which it fails. It’s not a problem that every single impossibility is solvable at first glance — that’s increasingly the case with impossible crimes these days, and I manage to enjoy them because the writing is accomplished, or the setting is well-wrangled, or the people are interesting, or the pace is exciting, or the surrounding plot manages to work them in organically, or the mixture of other elements too numerous to get into here just works. Death in Unlikely Places, by contrast, is simply dialogue attributed to names with no defining characteristics — one of them has a beard, apparently, and that turns out to be very important — standing around baffled at crimes which they’ve gotten a dude from 1,000 miles away especially to provide some perspective on who cannot begin to fathom how someone could be stabbed in a room that’s locked from the inside (hint: see above).
That time pressure adds a certain tension to proceedings is addressed in the text — every delay potentially represents another life lost, with the killer stalking their prey and ready to strike at any moment — but our detect- sorry, investigator, is also fond of claiming to probably know how a crime was committed and then not sharing his ideas with anyone because he’s not completely certain. Dude, blue sky thinking, maybe have a Big Room, do a round-the-table, outside-the-box exercise. You can’t be all brooding and intense because you’re worried about the next victim and yet also not collaborate with the people specifically on hand to help you. “That’s why they call you Sherlock Hurlock” he’s told at one point. and if this was because he was an arrogant know-it-all who never shared his thinking I’d agree, but I get the suspicion it’s more because it rhymes.
Si fractus illabatur orbis impavidum ferient ruinae.
Did I enjoy anything? Possibly my favourite thing was the New Englander who describes a downpour as “wicked raining”, and the apparent straight face with which Max complements someone on their “refined literary tastes” because they quote Sherlock Holmes’ “When you have eliminated the impossible…” adage. And the nine discussion points for book groups contained at the end are rather priceless, not least for the implicit assumption that there’s anything of any depth here to discuss:
6. How does Allison display her independence?
Mainly by wandering off and having a series of encounters of precisely no consequence. If ever a character was shoe-horned into a plot to give a half-baked impression of independence, it was Allison Hurlock.
7. Why does Max keep his theories a secret from the sheriff until near the end?
Who knows? There is literally no good reason for this.
9. The Max Hurlock stories often feature unexpected twists, such as the real reason for Julian DeKuyper’s interest in Allison. Can you think of others?
One of those guys had a beard! I had no idea!
This isn’t awful by any means, and I want to commend Reisinger for putting in a little more effort than we usually see to include several impossible crimes, but aside from the lake killing — and how fortunate that there were precisely two people on and near the lake that day — there’s little here to get excited about: the style is bland, the characters unmemorable, the plot hackneyed, the suspect pulled out of a hat (oh, yeah, it’s not someone who plays a part in the narrative, they just turn up in the final stretch), and the potential wasted. Hell, you couldn’t even be sure it’s set in the 1920s except that some houses don’t have phones, and I can believe that’s still the case in parts of Florida now.
File under: very well-meaning, very failure.