The brain works in funny ways. TomCat has been a champion of Killed on the Rocks (1990), the sixth novel to feature William L. DeAndrea’s semi-amateur sleuth Matt Cobb, for as long as I can remember. I learned of this book from TC’s list of favourite impossible crime novels, and was delighted to find a copy about 16 months ago, but it would have sat on my shelves for a long time yet — because, dude, my TBR is haunting — had I not learned, quite by accident, that DeAndrea himself died at the tragically tender age of 44. I can’t explain the logic, but I suddenly had the urge to read this, and the desire to enjoy it…and now I’ve done both.
The puzzle plot, in which a detective has to fit together a seemingly unrelated muddle of inexplicable events in order to get to the truth behind an equally baffling crime, eased out of fashion after the Golden Age novel of detection, as detective fiction slowly morphed into Suspense, Procedural, and other more (ahem) realism-based facets of what is now called “crime writing”. There have always been proponents of the puzzle plot, of course, and of its High Table, the impossible crime, but they’ve been very much out of vogue for a number of decades, not least because these sorts of books are difficult to write well. And the 1980s and 1990s were an especially tough time for the puzzler lovers amongst us, with the likes of Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters, Reginald Hill, and Colin Dexter rising to prominence and took the genre with them (other, non-British writers were also available).
DeAndrea started writing about television executive Matt Cobb in the 1970s, when the puzzle plot would have been probably at its most tarnished despite great work being done by the likes of John Sladek (who would himself abandon the puzzle after only a handful of excellent swipes), and a total of eight books would come out of the series over a span of 24 years. While certain concessions are made to the tastes of the time, Killed on the Rocks is probably about as much of a puzzle novel as 1990 could stand — in much the same way that audiences have recently discovered a joy in the genre with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), you win people over by pretending to meet them halfway. In all but a few choice pieces of language and the essential technological framing, this could come from as deep as you like in the genre’s heyday.
Observe: following an anonymous tip-off (✔) hinting at madness and murder (✔), Cobb accompanies representatives from the network to the isolated holiday home (✔) of billionaire (✔) G. B. Dost, where the possible take-over of the network is due to be thrashed out. Cobb is the head of Special Operations at the network see, giving him essentially a roaming brief to investigate (✔) any possible threats to the company, and when snow isolates them (✔) and Dost turns up murdered in impossible circumstance (✔) it’s up to Cobb to get to the truth about which of the motley crew gathered there (✔) is responsible. From filial discord (✔) to numismatic considerations (✔) it seems plenty of people have a motive to want Dost dead (✔), and stuck together in the isolated mansion (✔) it’s only a matter of time before someone else gets killed (✔).
DeAndrea updates this with the sort of jaded, cynical narrator’s voice that usually gets tiring after three chapters, but is rendered far more palatable here simply due to the pleasant flavour of the acid in Cobb’s veins: see legal man Haskell Freed summed up as “want[ing] to be head of the Network the way Mother Teresa wants to go to Heaven”, or Cobb’s response to Dost’s wife Aranda’s claiming psychic abilities on account of predicting the storm that “a snowstorm on a mountain in upstate New York in the middle of February did not constitute a bold rebuke to the laws of probability”. Whenever it seems DeAndrea might be getting lazy with the Types he shuts up in the mansion — the Unstable Son, the Suspicious Business Partner, the Loyal Servants, etc. — he reaches into his bag of tricks and pulls out a beautiful turn of phrase to keep you reading.
The crime, too, is a good one: Dost found face down in the snow, some forty yards from the house, with no mark around him — not even his own footprints — to explain how he got there. When it turns out the phones have been deliberately put out of service (✔) and that the chauffeur Ralph (arriving at the murder scene clad in only his pyjama bottoms and in possession of “the hairiest chest I have ever seen. I half expected to see WELCOME written out across it”) is a part-time Deputy in the local police, it’s not long before he and Cobb team up (✔) and begin to interview, confer, and get shot at. Even the interviews are enlivened by DeAndrea’s joyous writing (Ralph and Cobb cracking up at a comment the former makes when interviewing to Aranda had me in fits of giggles) and while Ralph admits he’s out of his depth and defers to Cobb’s greater experience of crime solving, it’s not as if everything always goes to plan (“It was a good agenda. We followed it without a hitch right through to item one.”).
It’s mostly the good GAD tropes that work their way in, too, like being told that we’ve heard someone tell “a whacking great lie”, some casually-sprinkled spoilers for (I presume) earlier books in the series, and little asides about “guys like Hercule Poirot and Doctor Fell” managing to keep up a punishing investigation schedule “by being not real”. A few of the bad ones end up in the mix, too — the impossible crime wouldn’t come off the way we’re told, not least because of, like, Physics, as well as there clearly not being enough [redacted] to enable the killer to [redacted] — and of course you simply have to have the imposition of Cobb’s love life where the impossibly perfect, young, millionairess throws herself at him…but, hey, this is the other half of that halfway meeting. Also the late scene where Cobb confronts the ranting murderer and they spill everything is…nonsensical, and perhaps not in the way DeAndrea intended.
It’s also not all cynicism and Cobb’s unwavering brilliance, though — he’s a remarkably human investigator at times, trying to convince a suspect to “lower that shotgun before I shit my pants” while also acknowledging the general disdain that the television business propagates:
“What’s important is to be hip. And the only way to be hip is to scorn everything. Because if you take anything seriously, if you care about anything, if you think anything is worthwhile, if you believe in anything, if you love anything, somebody might come along and laugh at you. And of course being a laugher is so much hipper than being a laughee.”