Recently, while recording an episode of the rightly-popular Shedunnit podcast, I was moved to lament the decline in quality represented by most modern attempts at the impossible crime in fiction (and, for all I know, in reality, too). Today’s self-published crime novel, Ill Wind (2020) by Jean Heller, perhaps demonstrates the reasons for that decline better than I’ve previously managed myself.
Just to be clear, Ill Wind — despite sounding like a symptom of digestive disharmony — isn’t a bad book. Heller is a talented writer, setting her stall out from the opening paragraph with the sort of evocative, semi-tough tone that will pleasingly persist throughout:
The body hung against the facade of an office building, too far up the glass wall to be illuminated by streetlamps, their glow smothered in the gloom of a snowy night. The man’s form emerged as a ghostly and nightmarish spectacle only when a steel-gray dawn began to shoulder aside the darkness.
Equally, the plot develops at a mostly good pace — a tendency to repeat findings or developments like you expect your audience has actually been glancing at their watch for the last few chapters does slow it down in places — and the complexities of both the characters and the background that determines their actions are handled cleanly: there’s a lot going on here, and you’re never lost as to why events matter or how they relate. The fact that the investigation resulting from that hanging body is conducted by none-more-dogged reporter Deuce Mora steers us towards an Amateur Detective-style setup, but we’re firmly on a procedural/thriller footing with the nature of the developments, and if you’re coming to this for detection then you can probably turn around and go home again. For those after the modern thrills that such a package promises, however, there is plenty here to enjoy.
And this is where my difficulties begin. Because if this didn’t have an impossible crime element to it, I probably would have enjoyed it more than I did — the fault is mine for wanting something it’s only partially trying to deliver — and yet without the promise of the impossible crime it’s unlikely I would ever have picked this up to begin with. So you can see my quandary.
The impossibilities appear to kick off early, too, with two members of an organised crime fraternity who are due to give evidence against some higher-ups instead turning up dead in a manner no-one can explain:
“No entry wounds from a knife, no gunshot wounds, no burns from electric shocks, poison is about the only other option left. But you said…”
“No traces of common poisons or other toxic substances in their blood… We’ve already widened the search twice with a couple of zoo biologists from California. Still got nothing.”
Fast upon this, it’s revealed that the body found hanging in that opening paragraph was very dead by the time it was hanged, and that the door to the office from which it was displayed was locked in a manner that requires a very special key — only one of which is in existence, and that was in possession of its owner…who was nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time. Now, true, the killers could have climbed out the broken window of the office, but with no evidence they did this nudges its way into impossible crime territory for me. And Heller is keen for us to know that she’s pleasingly wise to the tricks, tropes, trappings, and expectations such a setup invites:
“Pretty simple, I think,” he said. “The killer stole the victim’s keys and locked the door behind him when he left. Or he stole the keys earlier and had a copy made. Or maybe it was a friend or lover who had a copy the victim gave him…or her. Or maybe the victim wasn’t dead yet when the killers left, and he…or she…managed to lock the door before shuffling off, though I don’t know why the victim would do that.”
We also entertain the possibility of a gap underneath the door meaning the key could have been used to lock the door and then slid back into the room… “But then you’d-a found it on the floor just inside the door,” and, as already covered, that’s not where it was. It’s refreshing — always assuming, as in the case of one modern locked room novel reviewed on this site, that these false solutions aren’t dismissed only for one of them to then turn out to actually be the answer — to see someone take so much care with this little niche of ours; I obviously can’t say how much Heller has read in the subgenre, but she gives the impression of someone who has a sense of the tricks and wishes to reassure us that something less hokey and hackneyed is on the way.
And here is the problem.
Because, well, the solution doesn’t have to be original, but avoiding everything that’s hokey limits its options somewhat. And about 50% of what’s promised here turns out to be very disappointing indeed — and the other 50% is precariously balanced on the ridge between Inspired and Too Foolish For Words. Honestly, ask me again in 20 years and I probably still won’t be able to decide. It’s not the “dragged off a boat by an invisible force” insanity of The Stingaree Murders (1932), but it will prove equally divisive among fans of this genre, I’m sure.
The bad 50% is those deaths by unknown means, mainly because it seems that no-one does their job properly, despite those reassurances to the contrary, until Deuce Mora turns up and does it for them. You’ve checked for poisons? There are no possible poisons and no marks where poisons could have been administered? Well, what about this poison I found on my first day of looking into it? Oh, you’ve found some marks now? And they contain traces of that poison? Ain’t life grand? It’s…not great, and yet another reason why the death by unknown means should largely be retired.
That locked door is what will enrage as much as it delights. I don’t think I’ve seen it before, and I’m always one to commend originality, but I dunno if it holds up under rigour (a situation not helped by the main character admitting that the validity of the method is itself rather suspect — c’mon, either commit to it or don’t bother writing it). For coming up with that as an idea alone, Heller deserves consideration from you when it comes to your next purchase, and the whole impossible angle is dealt with by about 30% of the way through, so you could always stop reading at that point if you wish. But, to be honest, what follows is pretty darn good: not exactly original, and hardly staggering in the field of procedural thrillers, but I liked these characters, I engaged with the problems they faced, I was caught out completely by one death, and while never doubting the eventual success of the good guys I still wanted to see how it came about.
So, Jean Heller joins Blake Banner in the annals of modern self-publishing authors whose works shouldn’t fall into my interest and yet have compelled me in spite of myself. Both are writing slightly tough-edged fiction featuring interesting sets of characters in compelling situations that are sinuous in their plotting and relationships alike without over-reaching themselves. It’s not perfect — there’s a line in here about depression that I find quite grotesquely offensive — but I’m not one to conflate my personal issues with the overall quality of a work, and I’ll just put the down to the risk you run as a self-published author by not having an editor run an eye through your manuscript before you publish it. Hopefully I’ll find more time to encounter Deuce Mora again, but be assured that it’s only the demands on this blog and the, er, several books glowering at me from my TBR that will restrict me. Were it merely a question of quality, I’d happily read another three of these right now. Maybe those of you who have more time on your hands might dive in and let me know what I’m missing…
The Adventures in Self-Publishing clubhouse can be found here…