#883: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #18: The Direction of Murder (2020) by John Nightingale

It’s rare that factors surrounding the existence of a book are more interesting than the book itself, but with his third novel, The Direction of Murder (2020), John Nightingale has achieved exactly this feat. Allow me to explain…

David Knight is a crime fiction author in the classic mould, whose “plots hark back to the Golden Age of detective fiction and are laced with sherry, fruitcake and sudden death. They feature locked-room mysteries and impossible crimes and have a neatness not normally found in life”. His series detective Tom Travis “always solves the case and returns order to a troubled world” and would be well-suited to the situation his creator finds himself confronting in this, the second and currently final book in the series.

The fact that we’re in the second book is rather important, since I get the impression that you really need to have read the first book The Appearance of Murder (2015) — which I have not — to know precisely what’s going on. The Direction of Murder sees a movie being made of David’s newest book, Murder Unseen, a prequel to the Tom Travis series…the biggest problem being that David isn’t the one who wrote it and objects to the way it turns his detective into a murderer, but seems to have allowed it to be published under his name to great acclaim, including the selling of these movie rights for “a million dollars”. This, one imagines, is all explained in that first book, as is precisely who Jerry is, but we’ll get to Jerry in a minute.

Good ol’ Jerry.

Kenneth Preston, darling of British stage and screen and with an ego to match, is apparently in the process of developing the film, and wants David on hand for reasons I never quite understood. Since David had already written the script, the contents of the film would seem fairly fixed — the core cast is a dazzling array of wonderful talent, apparently already signed up and raring to go — and so the excuse of having David around while they ‘workshop’ details about the film (including leaning heavily into the detective-as-murderer aspect, vastly changing the content of the novel and, presumably, extant screenplay) doesn’t feel right to me. Anyhoo, David finds himself at the isolated Langham Hall, where actorly egos, mistaken identity, death threats, and a generally sinister air all combine to see a murder or two committed.

I picked up a hardcover of The Direction of Murder in a local charity shop, and was drawn in by the promise in the synopsis that the case involved “unusual murder weapons and locked rooms” and the opening chapter, which deals pithily with Kenneth Preston’s ego and David’s own insecurities around the script, the book he hasn’t written, and various other matters besides. I also found it moderately amusing early on when Nightingale claims the solution to The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson for one of David’s own books — this could be a universe in which Carr doesn’t exist, or it could be seen as a commentary on modern crime writers being ignorant of what has come before them and so claiming innovation when recycling ideas old enough to have dated their great grandparents. I’ll leave it to you to decide.

With David installed, and each member of the entourage in the house getting a chapter to establish their appearance, role, attitudes, etc., things finally kick off when Jerry arrives — we’re not told when Jerry was invited or who he is beyond being a “friend, confidant, consultant, master of any gadget known to mankind and sounding board” for David. He arrives one morning intent on everyone believing he’s the “assistant screenwriter” despite apparently not being a writer, though David seems less keen on that, so they settled on him being “a nodder” — someone to simply agree with David and back him up in opposing the changes Kenneth wants to make. All this takes some time to establish, and I’m still not entirely sure who he is or why he’s there — especially as his role never seems to come into question.

Anyway, a lot of conversation results. They find a secret room which has a bolt on the inside of its door and several chapters later, Kenneth’s wife is found dead in a possible accident and, shortly thereafter, Kenneth himself is found dead in said secret room with the door bolted on the inside.

Good ol’ Kenneth.

A couple of years ago, TomCat, who is still gamely allowing me to pretend that I’m reading these books for anything more than sheer personal indulgence, rightly corrected me about the fetish of closed circle mysteries being incorrectly referred to by publishers as “locked room mysteries” — a misnaming that persists to this day and is probably going to take a long time to weed out. So when that synopsis claim of “unusual murder weapons and locked rooms” comes true — which it technically has, since one death invokes an usual weapon and Kenneth is dead in a locked room — I should have no complaints…but for the fact that this locked room has nothing impossible about it. I shall not spoil the How of this one, but suffice to say that it’s not even as complex as a ‘victim was stabbed outside and locked themselves in a room as protection from their attacker before dying’ sort of solution — the method of death is obvious, and the crime not even vaguely impossible.

This annoys me slightly, I’ll admit.

There seems little point in establishing your protagonist as an author of baffling impossible crimes only to dump him in a mystery that doesn’t feature an impossible crime. The book seems to relish in the meta aspect of having a crime writer involved in a crime in the first place (“I’m sure your audience wouldn’t appreciate a re-hash of an old idea, however skilfully it was done…”) so why not take it one stage further and make something impossible? Or just don’t make him an expert in impossible crimes and spoil one of the genre’s classic titles, perhaps. Notice, too, that I’ve used the word “protagonist” advisedly above, because David Knight isn’t a detective in the sense that he establishes facts and then pieces those together to come to a conclusion. He’s more of an observer, a Watson — which is weird, since he has his own Watson in Jerry — and appears to have no real idea what’s going on until the criminal turns up in his room with a gun and ten chapters left to explain at great length what has happened and why.

So, despite some very interesting, and some quite witty, ideas — the actor cast as Tom Travis is big on The Method and insists on being referred to as “Tom”…which, given the homicidal route the character takes in the script, gives a couple of characters cause for concern at one stage — and some suitably arch prose in places:

I was becoming concerned about my eldest son’s comprehensive knowledge of tabloid gossip. He might even be looking at Mail Online.

…The Direction of Murder is difficult to recommend to fans of classic puzzle mysteries. The pace is too slow, the characters are too bland, and the investigation too poorly focussed to really compel this to anyone with more than an exceptionally casual interest in the genre. However, I promised you something intriguing about is existence, and that is worth digging into.

Good ol’ Jim.

I’d not heard of John Nightingale before stumbling across this, despite it being his third book and me keeping a moderately weather eye on new releases that might promise something in the classic style. More interestingly, I’d not heard of Spider Monkey Books, the company who published this one. The acknowledgements, too, omit the usual mention of the agent/editor which one expects to see, given the work such people do bringing books to the public. So I did a very surface level search and found two interesting things: 1) Nightingale’s website makes no mention of this book, despite it being published two years ago, and 2) the Spider Monkey Books website lists only The Appearance of Murder and The Direction of Murder as its publications.

So, initially, this looks like something of a vanity project — someone self-publishing their novel, but taking the unconventional step of forming their own publishing company to do so; and, hey, why not? It’s probably fair to say that the populace at large is still a little cautious about self-published books, and this is one way to get someone to take a chance on what you’ve written…so long as you’ve got the money to sink into it, go for it. But then I got to thinking. The website self-describes Spider Monkey books as “an independent UK book publisher which specializes in mystery and crime fiction [and aims] for high production values in everything we publish”. So now I’m wondering if the company was launched as a legitimate attempt to publish other authors that failed, for whatever reason — lack of advances, lack of material, lack of awareness — to actually sign any other authors.

The only person who can answer this is, I’m sure, John Nightingale, and I sincerely doubt John Nightingale will find this review and/or feel inclined to let us know his intentions given that I’m not exactly shouting from the rooftops in encouraging you to rush out any buy this (sorry, John). It remains a tantalising proposition, though, I think you’ll agree: what might have been if Spider Monkey Books had found other authors to publish? What superb stuff out there, struggling to find someone to take a chance on it, might we have got to enjoy? For the potential alone, I applaud the undertaking, even if I am wide of the mark where Nightingale’s intentions are concerned. Hey, I’m not always cynical, okay?

Okay, yes I am, but I’m trying to change. Let me have this one.

~

7 thoughts on “#883: A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat Attempt #18: The Direction of Murder (2020) by John Nightingale

  1. Thanks for the review, JJ. Casting a glance at the titles you’ve reviewed in search of a modern locked room mystery for TomCat, it doesn’t feel like many (any?) of them would make the cut. 😔

    On a more positive note, I’m looking forward to your review of “Death among the Undead”. 🧟‍♀️ 🧟‍♂️ 🧟 I read it in 2018 or 2019, and found it to be among the very best mystery novels I read in those two years.

    On an even more positive note, I’ve just started on a certain “Red Death Murders” on my Kindle… 🤓

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    • The Real Town Murders by Adam Roberts was a solid genre-straddling effort, even if it goes a bit thrillerish towards the end, and Red Snow by Michael Slade is to be praised for its grisly invention…but, yeah, on the whole this series of posts has (unintentionally) become a by-word for, er, less than excellent books. Which is in part why I continue with it, because it is to be hoped that some good stuff is out there somewhere.

      And, hey, I wrote The Red Death Murders so that TomCat could have at least one half-decent modern impossible crime novel 🙂 Hope you enjoy it!

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  2. I don’t mind my name becoming a seal of quality, or lack thereof, for locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction, but the overall quality of the titles you’ve discussed can be a little disheartening. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how the truly bad ones appear to share the same flaws between them. Either they’re non-impossible crime novels, completely underwhelming or utterly ridiculous. Your reviews of Andrew Mayne’s Angel Killer and Chris McGeorge’s Now You See Me come to mind.

    There are exceptions, of course, but sometimes it really seems like the locked room mystery and plotting in general has become a lost art in the West. You can only really count on dedicated fans to deliver the good. And then there are writers, like Steve Levi, who make fearful some think they’ve stumbled across something new with these impossibilities.

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    • Yes, apologies, I thought I’d have a higher hit rate than this. It genuinely wasn’t my intention for your name to be a byword for this kind of thing…not after all the great work you’ve done supporting my own fandom. This is not how I typically repay people.

      And what the impossible crime in fiction could use is someone who’s been reading and writing about it for a number of years writing a novel containing a couple of completely new ideas to show everyone how to structure a plot around apparent impossibilities.

      Frankly, July and Tom Mead’s Death and the Conjurer can’t get here soon enough 😁

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