My previous encounter with A.G. Barnett’s self-published impossible crime fiction was An Invitation to Murder (2019), which saw an interesting-if-cozy impossible battering in a locked room lose points for drawing attention to the one detail it then failed to explain. But, everyone gets two books, and so we’re back, this time with a different series and a stabbing in a locked and watched room.
Let’s start with what’s good. Barnett is a very accessible writer, and both books I’ve read by him have been very easy to engage with on a purely sentence-by-sentence level — I ripped though this one very quickly indeed, though on Kindle it is difficult to know precisely how many pages it has. Still, the 33 fairly short chapters do fly past without you ever really feeling a desperate urge to read on to find out what’s happening, and this is credit to the smoothness of the prose. Plus, at times, some great descriptions loom out at you:
Brock didn’t have much experience with farmyards. meat, eggs and cereals were things that came from shops as far as he was concerned. He was well aware that there was hard work and muck involved somewhere down the line before that stage, but it didn’t interest him as long as it all arrive in his local shop and then eventually on his plate.
I especially liked the description of one yoga-loving character as someone who “wasn’t the bulky build of a weight lifter, his was the lithe power that you got from eating well, exercising regularly and generally, in Brock’s mind, not enjoying life”, even if that is pretty much the only attempt to give any character to anyone who isn’t DI Sam Brock or his partner DS Guy Poole.
Here’s the Forth Bridge for absolutely no reason.
Away from the how of Barnett’s writing, what he writes becomes a little more problematic. The narrative setup is great, since we start almost in media res with the possible kidnapping of Poole’s mother, and it’s enjoyable from a reader’s perspective to simply drop straight into this rather than be talked through the setup, possibly the result of this being the fourth book in this series. An attempt to link this to a shooting ten years previously doesn’t really ring true for me, but again that’s something which has been building through the three previous books and so might work better for those who see this as a payoff to a longer game. That Poole is allowed to remain on active duty seems…odd, but the eponymous murder at a health farm being used as an opportunity to distract him gives the narrative more grist than the gentle, cozy approach of An Invitation to Murder, that’s for sure.
That locked room murder looks like this: the co-owner and spiritual guru of a health retreat is overheard by the six guests at the resort having an argument with his business partner in his office. She, the partner, storms out of the office and he continues to rant and rave for a while…then all goes quiet. Two hours later — it seems mad to me that everyone would just sit there for two hours — someone tries the door, finds it locked, and, unable to rouse our victim, breaks it in to find him stabbed in the chest. There are, naturally, no other exits or entrances.
“If everyone sticks to the same story…we’ve got a whole room full of witnesses saying no one went in or out of that room the whole time they were sitting there.”
Clues gradually emerge that point in a great many directions, and Barnett gives away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express (1934) by Agatha Christie to dismiss one false solution before following others up in a somewhat haphazard manner and then leaping to a conclusion about the murder that will surprise very few people and leave as many questions hanging as it answers. Some deductions are interesting — the implication that the knife with which he’s been stabbed was jimmied about after death, for instance — but some delightfully weird clues (like what is found in the corpse’s mouth) amount to precisely nothing besides being a bit weird. For all the motivation behind the locked room murder, the reasoning for the killer locking the door and providing all the clues seems entirely contradictory. For instance, you can’t point the finger at someone who is alibi’d by five other people at the time of the murder…and when you know they’re being alibi’d there seems to be no point in implicating them. Also, the room being locked is never explicitly explained — yes, you might argue there’s an implicit explanation but, just like being told that there’s nothing suspicious about what turns out to be the key object in the explanation, surely this needs to be justified and fitted into a sequence of events for the reader.
in short, the locked room murder is nice in principle, but not good in practice. And from here, we must also address the book’s myriad other problems.
Honestly, there’s no subtext here. I promise.
I understand the need for protagonists to be competent and to rise above the difficulties they face, but Barnett does this in part by making everyone else who isn’t one of their friends or family into a moron of brobdingnagian proportions: the officers investigating Poole’s mother’s kidnapping are, of course, sceptical and lazy morons, the medical examiner is a creepy, skeezy, unprofessional, truculent moron, the Chief Inspector is a pen-pushing moron who’s more interested in his golfing schedule than in Real Police Work…it’s like a rainbow of morons, with every shade and flavour worked in so that Brock and Poole come out as shining saints in comparison.
Except…well, Brock and Poole aren’t exactly that great. Brock doesn’t like technology — doesn’t understand it, doesn’t trust it, won’t use it, can’t abide it, hasn’t really engaged with it, fails to see the point in it, is suspicious of it…you’ll get told this quite a few times — and Poole is a conflicting set of reactions and responses that add up enough only to cancel each other out. Learning that his mother has an appointment at the health retreat he’s quick to acknowledge the charlatanism on display and label it “definitely her kettle of fish” — but then on the next page he gets uptight when told that the victim “had a constant flow of people willing to take his money in exchange for some ridiculous healing process” as a way of explaining his mother’s appointment. Pick a lane, Guy. Equally, we’re told that Brock’s handling of people is “as natural to him as his deep-rooted desire to apologise for things constantly” which — once you’ve unpicked the grammar of that — stands in contrast to the fact that not once in this entire story does he apologise for anything, or express the desire or need to apologise. At all.
Elsewhere, what little characterisation we get of the suspects is equally inconsistent. One of the guests is suspected of sleeping with the victim because someone saw her coming out of his room, but she insists nothing of the sort happened…and then goes on to tell Brock and Poole how she saw someone else coming out of the victim’s room the next night and therefore that person had definitely slept with him. And…no-one even blinks. Another of the guests reveals that he’s been made to self-harm by the victim as part of the health regimen, shows them the scars on his arm and everything…and our coppers nod like it’s the most natural thing in the world, or at worst a minor inconvenience. This is the sort of thing that any actual police officer would be rather interested in, but I don’t think awareness of procedure is too high on Barnett’s list of skills.
Absolutely no relevance. None. Nada. Nil.
Yes, at times he displays some insight — like acknowledging that the initial kidnapping claim is spurious at best — but a lot of the time his understanding of even basic principles of common sense seems to’ve been faxed in from Whosville. The fact of a woman disappearing, making no contact with anyone, and not accessing her bank accounts for three full days is seen as an inconvenience rather than an indication that something might be wrong is baffling. He has a police officer — one of the inept ones, of course — actually say that there’s no grounds for investigation and nowhere to start even if they wanted to. When Poole receives a threatening email, we’re told that he has to hand over the device on which the email was received so that it can be investigated. Because, of course, the email is an intrinsic part of the tablet, phone, or computer on which it is received and not merely an electronic signal being interpreted by that device. And there’s so much talk of Internal Affairs at the end that you’d think that we actually had something called Internal Affairs in the UK. Mind you, in a couple of instances here it’s made to sound as if Sam Brock is having a conversation with someone while his trousers are around his ankles, so maybe I shouldn’t expect too much.
I could go on — the investigation Brock and Poole undertake is communicated in a variety of tell-don’t-show moments that actually made me think I’d somehow skipped a chapter (“…now we’ve gone into the company’s accounts a bit more deeply…” — did they? Have they?), the tying-everything-together finale is somehow both OTT and ludicrously understated while also making no sense in the chronology of events and opening up even more questions as it thinks it answers others — but let’s not get into it too much more. For someone who can write reasonably well, it’s a shame Barnett’s plotting isn’t to my liking. Good luck to him in all his future endeavours, as the man clearly has some vestige of talent to apply to this style of ill-considered mystery, but I’ll not be returning to his work.