As we approach the (current?) end of Rob Innes’ Blake Harte series of impossible crime stories, I have to confess that one of its major successes has been getting me, a man who will take a finely-crafted plot over minutely-observed character, engaged in the lives of his core cast.
Atmosphere (2018) is the ninth title in this current decalogue, and there’s been a close focus on the denizens of Harmschapel’s police force from the beginning, with associated boundary characters — Harte’s landlady Jacqueline, say — playing an increasingly-important part in the background as resurrections, levitating murderers, and someone drowning while alone in a lift have commanded the attention of the foreground. Slowly, slowly the pieces have all be shifted into place for what you feel is a reckoning of sorts for someone — certainly tenth title Harte (2019) is the longest of the lot to date — and the possibilities opened up here for those characters are, to my plot-focussed mind, pleasingly compelling.
The foreground plot here concerns the slightly low-rent and vaguely unsettling magician Sebastian Klein, enticed to Harmschapel to put on two shows in the village hall, and the two vanishings of his daughter/assistant Amelia: the first as intended while rehearsing, and the second during the show itself very much not as intended…with even Klein himself seemingly unsure about what’s happened to her. The setup is pleasingly complex, with Amelia vanishing from a cabinet hoisted 30 feet into the air (sound familiar…?) that also has an angled mirror suspended above and behind it so that the audience is able to see all sides of the cabinet while it is suspended. Given that we’re in a parochial village hall, special stages and secret trapdoors are out of the question, and so the prospect of two different solutions to this problem is very enticing indeed — not least because Blake lays bare the workings of the first vanishing as soon as Klein shows him the trick.
To address these vanishings up front, the simple truth is that neither works. I’m sorry, Rob — I love ya, and I’m a massive fan of this series, but the problem here is so damn tight that neither of the answers offered come close to practical. The first might appear possible if we had a diagram (this might just be my diagram bias showing however — every impossible crime story should feature a diagram, so that I can nerd out over it for hours) because I’m aware that magician’s assistants are selected, as Blake says here, along very specific grounds and are required to pull of some astounding physical feats. But the way the…thing is described, I simply cannot see it. Maybe people will flood the comments and say that I’m the one at fault — hell, please do if that’s the case — but I’ve accepted some wildly improbably answers to impossible situations in my time (the wilder the better, frankly) and I cannot make my brain see this. So, get thee to an artist to draw it out.
The second vanishing, occurring at the show itself, seems even less physically impossible not just because of the, er, change required but also because it requires the acquisition (in one-goat-hamlet Harmschapel, as far as I can tell) of an object that would be staggeringly hard to come by even in London for sensible money. And, even then, wouldn’t Klein be able to see what was, er, happening? I love the invention of this, and the fact that the ‘wrong’ cabinet is being used is a nice touch, but, again, from a practicality perspective I can’t believe all these elements are achievable at once. To take this sort of problem on at all is tricky in the extreme, and to propose two distinct solutions to it is emblematic of the sort of enthusiasm Innes has shown for the impossible crime throughout this series, and the inevitable result of enough ambition is that you don’t get it right all the time. This is one of those times.
Disabuse yourself of the idea that this means there’s nothing of credit in this volume, however, because pretty much all the other ingredients come up smelling beautiful: the sudden appearance of the video on Klein’s phone after Amelia disappears isn’t complex, but it’s a great touch that serves a decent purpose, as is the baffled response to the ransom demand made for Amelia’s safe return. Since the very first volume of this series, the thing that has impressed me about Innes is how neatly he winds his plot strands so that there’s always more going on than simply “Here’s an impossible crime, solve it” — he’s great at constructing winding plots which use the impossible occurrence as their instigation point if not their sole raison d’etre.
The odd lumpy phrase or pleonastic piece of writing aside (“…as quickly as Jacqueline had appeared to disappear off into her own world…”, or “…Blake’s smile quickly disappeared from his face…” as opposed to his foot…?) this is a quick, tight, and entertaining time that still manages to fit in some of the throwaway humour which is always a delight to find in Innes’ writing…
“But [her mother]’s dead.”
“No, she just smells like it,” Darnwood murmured.