Believe it or believe it not, this occasional endeavour — in which I read modern locked room and impossible crime novels in the hope that I may save my fellow enthusiast TomCat some drudgery — started with good intentions, despite rarely going to plan. So, does the enthusiasm Puzzle Doctor showed for this no-footprints baffler mean we’ve found a good one?
The ‘no footprints in the snow’ problem stacks up as follows: forensic pathologist Estelle Doyle drives out to her wealthy father’s country pile, arriving after a fell of snow which surrounds the house in an unbroken carpet. Entering the house, and so leaving the only footprints visible when the police arrive later, she finds her father shot at close range. The police, when called, don’t believe her version of events, not least because her father must have died after the snow had fallen — “unless someone levitated in and out of the house, she was the only one with the means, motive and opportunity” — and so arrest Doyle for the murder. And the picture looks only bleaker for her when a chemical test reveals that her hands bear gunshot residue matching that of the weapon with which the murder was committed and there’s a forty-minute hole in her alibi which no-one can account for.
Once arrested, Doyle asks that DS Washington Poe be contacted, but Poe has problems of his own — somehow, someone who will come to be known as The Botanist is poisoning objectionable people in the public eye (“high-profile dickheads, something the UK had an unending supply of”) after sending them origami flowers and a poem that hints at the poison which will be used to kill them. The chief difficulty is that no-one can work out how the poison is being administered. One victim dies while locked alone in a bathroom, another while in medical isolation…howdunnit? So it’s two impossibilities for the price of one, with Poe complaining of “feel[ing] like I’m in a John Dickson Carr novel” as the cases bob and weave, and slowly the answers begin to make themselves known.
I don’t read a lot of modern crime fiction, with the majority in recent years being books for this precise undertaking, but I found a lot to like in Craven’s book. Not everything works, we’ll get to that, but the short chapters and functional prose resulted in a very quick read, with the dual impossible riddles dancing around enticingly, each discovery and revelation only making the situation see more dire — an early false solution to one poisoning is a nice touch — and fitting in nicely with the modern milieu. Folding this sort of puzzle plot endeavour into a modern police procedural isn’t easy, and Craven should be commended for exploiting his conundrums so well in such an uncommon setting. The answers are nothing new, but each represents a good modern twist on old ideas, and you know more thought has gone into devising these than it would appear if given a one-sentence summary.
“How was [the poison] administered?”
“We don’t know.”
“When was it administered?”
“We don’t know.”
“Was the flower petal relevant?”
Flynn said nothing.
“Let me guess, you don’t know,” he said.
More than anything else, my biggest problem with this was the character of Washing Poe himself. It’s not that I find the man’s aggressive and full-ahead nature problematic, and I won’t deny that he’s pretty funny at times, but his characterisation is hard to pin down This is one of those books where we find out a lot about the protagonist because everyone keeps telling him what he’s like — c.f. “You’re anti-authoritarian and you have a discipline problem.” and “I’ve been told you’re the last honest cop” and “And I thought people were exaggerating when they said you were dangerous, anti-authoritarian and had a discipline problem.” and so on — and the few character quirks he’s given to soften him up don’t seem to gel. We’re told the man has no interest in popular culture, but he throws around references to the Mission: Impossible films, Seinfeld, Only Fools and Horses, The Apprentice, and Downton Abbey without pause, and is able to name three John Sturgess films off the top of his head — and is amazed when no-one else has heard of them — but didn’t know Superman: The Movie (1978) until being made to watch it recently. There are also areas of ignorance that just don’t ring true: he doesn’t know what a Zoom call is, despite being on one at this time of expressing his ignorance and this clearly being a COVID pandemic timeline, and has to be told by a solicitor that a murderer cannot inherit from their victim…surely something a serving police officer would already now. It just doesn’t add up to anything for me.
Maybe I’m overthinking this, and there’s a question about how much of the above is “popular” culture (Downton Abbey is certainly modern enough that it should elude him), but it bothered me, given all the character quirks it would be possible to give the man which would also allow Craven to use these references. But then you see how Poe’s assistant, the “wonderfully innocent social hand grenade” that is Tilly Bradshaw, is also all things as needed and you just feel that it’s a series of shortcuts that would have made the book far more interesting if avoided.
Bradshaw’s backstory is pleasingly well-considered: a child genius who became a police analyst and, having been sent to university at a young age and always had the pressure of expectation upon her, has been deprived of a childhood and so presents in a very naive, literal way. She fails to understand idiomatic speech, responds to rhetorical questions, and offers up embarrassing analogies without any sense of the embarrassment she is causing. I applaud Craven’s choice not to categorise this as any one of a number of easily-labelled conditions and to simply present Bradshaw as she is, but again there are inconsistencies in how she behaves: she calls a character “dumb” in the American sense of being stupid when she’s far more likely to insist on the correct use of that term, she sniggers when Poe is the butt of jokes that I’m not sure her presentation elsewhere means she would understand. She’s also the How The Hell Do We Advance the Plot? button that Craven is able to hit every time he needs to progress things, since as an expert hacker, mathematical modeller extraordinaire, and general Master of All Trades she can break into anything and interpret any data in record time.
And, honestly, it’d be far, far more interesting if these people had any limits, anything they couldn’t do between them, so that there was a sense of peril or frustration or…anything beyond Poe quipping his way through every encounter and Bradshaw digging them out of every hole.
This being a modern thriller, too, there’s not really much in the way of clewing to play along with, so you just sit back, watch the detectives make one huge oversight that proves to be the key to the whole thing, and then get told the rest. The final unpicking of the disparate plots owes itself to a nicely forensic touch, but it’s a helluva leap and such a change in the direction of the detection done to that point that I didn’t really believe it in this universe. Craven hasn’t set out to write a book that professes to be a fair play novel of detection, so I don’t hold this against him, but it’s worth knowing what you’re getting going in. The answers are provided, and the whole scheme does make sense — up until the last paragraph, at least, which…surely doesn’t — but you’re watching this play out rather than being invited to play along.
And yet I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy this, despite the flaws above and some horribly clunky paragraph construction. Fine, you need to accept that the killer is a master of more things than Tilly Bradshaw, but some nice ideas — how the gunshot residue got on Estelle Doyle’s hands, for one, is superb — glimmer in the dimness. I can’t help but feel that there is a really good book to be written in this series, because the characters have about them that which could make them interesting, but it’d need Craven to commit more clearly to his own restrictions and, since we’re five books in at this point, I have no cause to doubt that it would be too great a change of direction for that to happen now.
In the final analysis, impossible crime fans are going to get very little out of this, and fans of detection will be left severely wanting, but it’s a quick, enjoyable read so long as you don’t expect it to behave with any consistency and are happy to just kick back and accept anything. For my reading in 2022, this doesn’t make the top half, but it is very nearly the one-eyed man ruling the kingdom of the blind that many of the books listed below seem to inhabit, and as such I suppose that makes it notable. You will, of course, make your own decision about whether to read it or not, but I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to this series any time soon.
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: