There’s a quote attributed to Michaelangelo essentially stating that a statue already exists inside a block of stone and it’s merely the sculptor’s job to chip away the stone that isn’t part of the resulting artwork. This came to mind a lot whilst reading The Thirteenth Apostle (2020) by Jamie Probin, because if you remove the excess of nervous repetition and tedious tone setting there’s probably a great book in here somewhere.
Starting in a way that’s likely to cause as much delight as it is despair — a dedication mentioning both John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, as respective masters of “the howdunit” and “the whydunit” — the prologue sets up neatly the career of master thief Le Fantôme and his (the pronoun is purely laziness, we’re assured; gender is not to be taken for granted) career of spectacular crimes across France and beyond in the early 1930s where “the names on the lips of the populace were not those of singers, actors, novelists, poets or painters — but the mysterious criminals who taunted the law as a matter of sport”…the irony being that “not one person in France know what Le Fantôme looked like. He could have walked past his biggest fan on the Boulevard Haussman without them ever knowing”. This prologue is wonderful, giving a sense of the master criminal thumbing his nose at the nabobs of French society, the meed to craft a compelling narrative around the crimes seeing Henri Toussante appointed as the face of the Sûreté in battling this unscrupulous genius, and a baffling murder in a sealed crypt thrown in to sweeten the deal. Lovely.
Then comes the first of many disappointments, as Probin unabashedly plays up to Christie’s masterpiece And Then There Were None (1939) by narrating the invitation of ten individuals to a mysterious meeting at the top of the Eiffel Tower — sure, why not have a wink of two in the direction of the classics, but jeepers it goes on and on and on and on. Christie’s strength was in the compactness of her writing, the succinctness of her prose in conveying the motivations (or the apparent motivations, at least) of a character swiftly; the introduction of her ten victims in the opening chapter of ATTWN flies past in lovely brief sketches. This one drags horribly, and I’ll confess to reading the first five and just skipping over the rest when it became apparent what we were getting. It seemed likely they’d be repeated anyway, and they were: you get a list of who’s who once they arrive at their location — provided, naturally, via a gramophone record, detailing how the indiscretions of those present are what have been used to lure them here…and then someone dies, poisoned, in a moment of brilliant bluntness that possibly matches Christie’s debut death in that aforementioned masterpiece. It’s great, and represents a well-worked payoff that the second chapter builds smartly to, even if it does make two Christie — er — appropriations in virtually no time at all given how Three-Act Tragedy (1934) it becomes.
Then things drop off again as, instead of following up on this shocking development, we cut away to detective Patrick Larsan who’s thinking about Le Fantôme and how much he hates him — oooo, he hates him, hates him so much, good heavens he’s done so many of those crimes and made the police look so bad and oh lordy wouldn’t it be fabulous to catch him oh yes it would…see what I mean by ‘nervous repetition’? Probin had covered this superbly in his prologue, so why are we cutting away from a moment of high drama purely to reinforce a point already made before, and made much more effectively? This is not garnish, it’s excessive over-salting: spoiling a dish it’s intended to enhance because the chef doesn’t trust their own skill. I’ll not continue to detail every shift in tone and pace, nor every frustrating cut away from something that actually develops the plot and should therefore remain the focus, but the frequency of these occurrences make this novel feel like a very, very bad TV show spacing out the plot a bit more so that it can fill its quota of episodes. And, good grief, this book is so long that it could have done with far, far less of this sort of thing.
“I’ll have that salty food if you’re not eating it…”
The first half has some great ideas, however, and Probin manages a few surprises that will intrigue the seasoned reader of mystery and detective fiction: Larsan’s revelation when it’s remarked upon that Le Fantôme has effectively narrowed their identity down to nine possibilities is amusing (if unearned — it comes out of nowhere), and the small matter of multiplying fake diamonds and Toussante’s behaviour in the opening chapter, which is revealed as increasingly bizarre as more revelations unfold, are good touches. Sure, Le Fantôme as an unknown master of disguise whose runs rings around the police and is now within their grasp but for the small matter of an impossible crime and unpicking his identity is perhaps closer to The Unicorn Murders (1935) by Carter Dickson than is advisable, and suffers as a result, but for all Probin’s flaws as a writer I really want to acknowledge the way he throws himself into the classic mystery themes here. Yes, he needs an editor, but plenty of professionally published novels have professional editors working on them (allegedly…) and don’t embrace the joy of classic era puzzle plots as gleefully as we see here.
Just don’t read Chapter 7. It is The Interviews, and interminable. It might contain clues, you say? I very much doubt you’ll care.
The second half picks up six months later, with those who were present at the Eiffel Tower invited to gather and work a way out of the suspicion that is lambent around them all. One of them is surely Le Fantôme, after all. And so we get another death: an impossible murder by hanging when someone enters a room that is under constant observation and could not have committed suicide in the manner which they are found. A lot of discussion and restatement of the different situations occurs, some investigating uncovers not very much and then the final chapter sees detective and killer face to face, with the detective admitting that there’s really no basis for them making the accusation they just made but…well, c’mon, you’re Le Fantôme, aren’t you? Just between us lads, eh? I feel that a disingenuous amount of time went into a case that essentially boils down to “Well, it couldn’t really be anyone else…could it?”, but I can’t deny that this final confrontational colloquy is well written and enjoyable to read — even if that is in part because it finally feels like we’re doing more than just repeating information provided elsewhere with no end in sight.
In the final analysis, then, Probin is a writer of promise, and at half the length this would be a spry, light-footed, and highly enjoyable throwback to the Golden Age mysteries he’s hoping to emulate. The inclusion of four impossibilities (though as is pointed out at one point, “one might contend the laws of probability were severely compromised that night, but that makes the events implausible. Describing them as “impossible” is an exaggeration too far” — sure, obviously they’re possible or they wouldn’t have happened…this splitting hairs does no-one any favours) shows that Probin is at least willing to put some effort into the construction of his schemes, and the resolution of the locked room hanging is quite nice, as is the impossible poisoning…even if it requires a huge leap in belief about how people would behave and act. The sealed tomb mystery is…very disappointing given how well it’s set up, and how the diamond vanished is told rather than explained…but two nicely handled impossibilities is certainly more than most modern authors can manage these days.
“I’m…I’m still here. And hungry.”
Some good writing can also be found if you’re willing to stick with this. The Dr. Harris of the subtitle is a professor of Mathematics — so is Probin — who “liked to dissect any technicality unfortunate enough to be placed in front of him”, or see Englishman Captain Oakes described that the type who “had such an immutable certainty that they were greater than every other nationality because they had emerged from the supreme pinnacle of human achievement, the British Empire”. These descriptions in no way facilitate the plot, and most of those ten present at the opening turn out to be little more than a name and a haircut, but Probin can at least capture the mood and general comportment of a character quite neatly. And the same is true of his scene-setting, too, he just needs to confidence to believe that he’s already done something and so doesn’t need to repeat it three times and then review it fifteen pages later. When the reader is bored by needless repetition they start picking up on the sheer idiocy of things like a wine bottle filling eleven glasses — eleven! — or the mind-numbing introduction of M. Jean Lafarge, which goes on for aaaages and relates the career, achievements, and general magnificent attitude of a man who’s in the book for two pages. So much stone remains, very little statue can be seen as a result.
There’s also a huge problem which may or may not be deliberate, and I don’t know how to go into it because it’s a gigantic spoiler. I will say this: given Probin’s observation of the classics — in lip service if nothing else — it seems amazing to me that he could make such an oversight accidentally, but if it is an accident then you have to feel a little sorry for him. And if he’s done it on purpose then…why? It would stand out a mile to the sort of person drawn to this by the impossible crimes, and while it’s sort of clever in a way it’s also a bit ridiculous if deliberate. No, I can’t go into it, and I wouldn’t suggest that this novel is bad enough to be worth saving your time over and so spoiling, but the fans of the classics might have a particular question to take away from the details above and I’ll just say: you’re not wrong. Provided, of course, that you’re thinking about the right thing.
So, Jamie Probin, get thee an editorial eye to run over thy manuscripts — one who actually edits, too, since they need to have the courage to tell you that half of your book is no good and drags down the half that could be great, as well as to make you choose whether you’re going to call it an “elevator” or a “lift”. The ingredients are definitely present, now the ratios need to be adjusted accordingly.
Well, in for 244 pennies, in for 99 more — I figured I might as well check out ‘The Episode of the Nine Monets’ (2020), the short story Probin wrote as a prelude to the above novel. If nothing else it’s shorter, and Probin might give a better showing of his abilities when he’s not trying to fulfil a page count. Concerning the theft of a never-before-exhibited Monet painting from the home of its wealthy owner and its replacement with “a plain canvas, all white save for a childish outline of a ghost etched in the centre with a few simple strokes of black paint”, Toussante, Larsan, and their colleague Alain Noble are of no doubt that this is the the work of their nemesis Le Fantôme. But, naturally, there’s the joy of how the painting could have been removed when the doors were all locked and the windows, while they “could be cracked open a few inches” nevertheless “all had iron grilles on the outside, rooted firmly in worn stone”.
It has to be said, this is much more successful as a story — Probin cracks on with the details and leaves the “Ooo, that flamin’ Fantôme…” fist-shaking for your imagination to fill in. Not only does this emphasise the classic detection tone of the piece, it also enables Probin’s trenchant and pithy phrasing to stand out: the painting’s misanthropic owner being moved to perform an action “as unaltruistically as humanly possible” or that there are “many responses dancing on the tip of the tongue of Henri Toussante” when challenged by said owner over the apparent lack of progress being made in solving a case that is only a few hours old. Best of all, though, is Noble’s lighting of a cigarette, which I shall leave for you to discover since it made me laugh out loud.
The method here is good, too, and well-reasoned, so it seems that Probin may simply be more confident in the shorter form (this was published, I believe, prior to The Thirteenth Apostle, and so I assume written before and thus not necessarily a result of more practice). If he writes another mystery, I hope he uses the experience of this short story to inform him: it’s neat, compact, well-written, and emblematic of the sort of riotous good fun that this subgenre can be. Read this one first, because it sets up the world well and is far more confidently wrangled, and then see how you feel about its sequel.