First TomCat, then John, and then last week Tom Mead mentioned the impossible crime credentials of the writing collective that publishes under he name ‘Michael Slade’, and then the rooster crowed and I realised I’d denied this three times and so should probably do something about it. Thus, today we dive into the world of Special X.
Red Snow (2010) is the fourteenth novel in the series about the Special X, er, team that seems to be an autonomous part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I appreciate that my ignorance on precisely what Special X is — or, indeed, what makes them so special — is entirely my own fault for jumping into a series that had, by this point, been going for 26 years, but essentially they go where they like and do what they want. They also have some wild backstories:
[Nick’s] love affair with Gill Macbeth had not survived after he’d caused the shipwreck that had made her miscarry. Gill had moved on to a future with Nick’s boss, Robert DeClerq, while Nick had lost a hand and an ear to a megalomaniac.
Nick was born prematurely on a bathroom floor during a blustery winter storm in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Later that night, his dad shot himself. His mom toiled in the laundry of a mental hospital to keep the roof over their heads and food on the table.
So, uh, yeah, we’re painting in fairly broad strokes here. Everything ‘Slade’ writes is done in big colours and for maximum, blunt impact from the bloody and violent history lesson about the origin of the “murder bag” detectives use at crime scenes all the way up to the bloody and violent acts of assault, murder, and rampage committed against several characters here. Indeed, if you’re after a series of history lessons interspersed with some grand-scale carnage and shoot-outs, Red Snow might be exactly what you’re looking for. It’s not always pleasant, and it’s not always the most enlightened, but it exerts a weirdly compelling effect on the attention given just how much carnage unfolds and how very unsafe even the most established characters turn out to be.
The essential plot here runs thus: for a number of years, it seems the maniac known only as Mephisto has been a thorn in the sides of Special X and, having attacked, trapped, harmed, and killed various members of the ensemble over the years — always escaping justice — he’s set his sights on eliminating the members of the team who saw his face previously. The scene for this vengeance is to be the Canadian skiing resort of Whistler, which is due to host the Winter Olympics in a few months and is, for reasons that elude me but don’t really matter, currently packed with skiers, snowboarders, and the various groupies such attracts, for the start of the snow season (…I think?). Killing a snowboarder in what will turn out to be characteristically violent fashion, Mephisto lures Special X to the resort…and the games begin.
This is easily the most explicitly violent book I’ve read in quite some time, and certainly the most blood-soaked to feature on this blog. You might struggle to get through it if such things bother you, but there’s so much claret on the page that after a while it begins to feels weirdly normal, and then it stops making any impact at all (this may just be me, however, which would be…terrifying). People are beheaded and the head is skinned and shrunk, others have their skin sliced off, get their throats slit (by a man on ice skates!), are stabbed in the back (by an ice pick!), have their ears cut off (by someone holding ice skates!)…it’s quite the cavalcade of spouting blood and dismemberment. The baddies are very bad, doubtless spend their time off-page cackling, and get quite hilariously earnest — “Mark my words: DeClerq will rue the day he was born. No one thwarts me. No one!” — and the goodies are very noble, straight out of Central Casting, and hilariously earnest.
Everyone is horny. Everyone is attractive. And there are more historical info-dumps than a Dan Brown ten-pack:
Their history went back to 1242 and the legendary Battle of the Ice, when Roman Catholic Teutonic Knights advanced against Russian pagans. During the battle, fought on frozen Lake Peipus, the pagan cavalry forced the knights onto thin ice, which gave way under the weight of their heavy armor, causing many to drown. From that point forward, the armies of northern Europe developed their winter warfare tactics, culminating in the greatest battle in the history of the world: the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad.
Violence aside, this is a very easy and fast read, despite some persistent irritations. Slade has, for one, that frustrating, Jeffery Deaver-alike habit of ending a chapter on a cliff-hanger and then starting the next chapter in an unrelated place or with a different character; it’s intended to build suspense, I know, but after the fifteenth invocation it gets a little wearisome. Additionally, on its own internal logic the book doesn’t make a lick of sense — whatever makes Special X special, would they really keep among their number someone who has a scar on their brain requiring a daily cocktail of anti-seizure medications? — and is at times quite breath-takingly misogynistic in how it views gold-digging young women with an eye on bagging a rich athlete in order to secure an easy life. Plus, some of the supposedly heroic characters are kinda garbage at times, like the woman ending her relationship with a man requiring him to be the one to break the news to her daughter.
And, oh, god, the history…
His ancestors had been Landsknechts, foot soldiers famous for using long pikes to dismount charging knights in a crunch of armor. After 1500, Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, decreed that the Landsknechts could hire themselves out for pay, and they were soon the most feared troops in Europe, fighting in every major campaign for centuries.
We would not be here but for the impossible crimes, however, so how are they? The first is a body in a locked room with “three barriers preventing us from breaking in: an electronic lock, a deadbolt, and a swing bar. Setting the deadbolt and swing bar again requires someone alive inside the room. To break in, we needed the hotel’s master key and a pair of bolt cutters to sever the knob in the swing bar”. The solution here is nothing new, and Methuselah himself couldn’t tell you how the killer achieved what was needed given the method used, but the detection of it is nice (and, honestly, the only real investigation done in the whole book — death and destruction reigns everywhere else). The second
Hernando Cortez and his small force of conquistadors used smallpox to overcome the Aztecs in 1521. During the French and Indian War, in what’s now New York, the British gave smallpox-infected blankets to hostile Indians holding Fort Carleton. Once the epidemic had reduced the tribe, the Redcoats attacked, took the stronghold, and renamed it Fort Ticonderoga.
In the spring of 1918, with the world embroiled in war…
…er, sorry about that. The second concerns two people found stabbed in the back on snowy ground with only their footprints in evidence and, due to the repeated stabbings, it being necessary for the killer to have gotten in close. Half of this solution is very neat, and the other half is…unlikely and impractical. Whoever conceived of this shold be commended for (albeit fleetingly…) throwing in a stab at a false solution to this problem, and someone taking the time to work two impossible crimes into their murder spree thriller when it would be entirely understandable not to — given the obvious intent of this book — desrves credit. Quite why these two crimes are given the appearance of impossibility isn’t ever addressed — by the time both happen, Special X no Mephisto is behind it all, and the solutions are reached rather quickly and then never addressed again as impossibilities — but points for trying nonetheless. The dying message and casual Ellery Queen reference shows that someone has at least done some investigation of classic tropes — as might the name of the bar, though that’s rather more borderline — but a better understanding of their utilisation would be more rewarding.
Anything else? Well, I can list absurdities — a character called Zinc Chandler, with eyes “the same metallic hue [as] the two-inch scar along his right jaw line” (???); every difficulty is explained away by “the internet”; and did I mention how horny or earnest they all are (“With her flaming red hair, hypnotic green eyes, and statuesque figure, Jackie was a fantasy female right out of Greek myth… Unlike the Amazons, she hadn’t cut off her right breast so she could shoot a bow more freely. But that was okay with the men of Special X”)? — but there’s also some good writing here (“the sauna was as foggy as jack the Ripper’s London” — yes, yes, I know it’s steam, but in context that’s a lovely image) and I won’t deny blasting through this in no time at all. Did I enjoy it? I don’t know. Would I read another one? Well, when a book takes time during the wholesale slaughter and destruction to have its ostensible main character reflect:
It irked him to see the Olympic spirit so poisoned by politics. If it wasn’t Hitler using the games to showcase his theory of Aryan superiority, it was two medalists giving a black power salute on the podium in 1968. If it wasn’t more than sixty nations boycotting the 1980 Moscow games to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, it was fourteen socialist countries boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles games in a Cold War quid pro quo… Germany was banned for ten years after the First World War. The Japanese and the Germans were personae non gratae in London in 1948 because of the Second World War. Apartheid saw South Africa shunned from 1960 to 1988, and thirty-odd African nations left the Montreal games in 1976 because New Zealand’s rugby team had toured South Africa. China boycotted the Melbourne games in 1956 because Taiwan was recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
…that’s the kind of prose that could feed a family of four for a week. So, with TomCat having looked at Ripper (1994) and John Crucified (2008) — and they, along with Red Snow, are the only ones listed in Skupin — I’d be willing to check out anything else in the series with an impossible crime in, if only for the sake of completeness in the second edition of that magnificent work. Any advice in this regard would be gratefully received.
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: