In the style of Sesame Street, today’s review is brought to you by In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel‘s Puzzle Doctor, who kindly leant me this book following years of me failing to find an affordable copy. And, boy, what an exciting prospect it is: no mere “one chapter each” in the style of ‘Behind the Screen’ (1930), ‘The Scoop’ (1931), or The Floating Admiral (1932), this is a proper collaboration between two of the Golden Age’s titans: Carter Dickson, a.k.a. John Dickson Carr, and John Rhode, a.k.a. Miles Burton — two gentlemen who individually devised a greater library of brilliant means of criminal dispatch than almost any other pair you’d care to name.
I apologise if I appear to be giving some import to my own fevered speculations here, but a few weeks ago I wrote that “I absolutely commend the role literature plays in helping people, young or otherwise, make sense of the world around them, but it’s also nice that sometimes a novel about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder can just be about a couple of 11 year-olds solving a murder”. I referenced it once already, and now I’m doing it again. Yeesh, my ego.
Two months after reading Untouchable (2016), the first of Robert Innes’ now six-strong series of self-published impossible mysteries, I’m back with the second instalment. This time around, parishioners keep having heart attacks in the confession booth of the small Catholic church in the (aptly named, it must be said) village of Harmschapel. “I think the only suspects you have so far are high cholesterol and God,” DS Blake Harte is told at one point — or is something more sinister going on?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to dive into another complex alibi problem so soon after Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush. But if anyone can convince me of the joys of alibi-breaking it’s Freeman Wills Crofts, and so off I went in hope of some fiendish minutiae to get the brain cogitating with possibilities. As it happens, I need not have worried — there is no complex alibi-breaking here. Sure, there’s a grand mix of ratiocination and weighing the odds on the way to intelligent deductive work, but this is decidedly a ‘wrong man on the run’-style thriller before it’s a novel of routine. Were pithiness my forte, I’d probably make an ‘Alfred Hitchcrofts’ reference.
I am aware that some (many/most/all?) of my readers do not share my fascination with the current Young Adult detective fiction scene, and to a certain extent I sympathise. But in an age where detection is eschewed in grown-up circles — with unreliable narrators prevailing, and amnesia conveniently repealed at the 85% mark to hurry in a conclusion because clewing has failed — it heartens me to know that younger generations are being raised with access to the rigorous principles that delight so many of us.
Flour, eggs, sugar, butter. Mix them, put them in the oven, you get a cake. But there are cakes and there are cakes. Equally, books. Give me a baffling murder, the precise focus of which shifts again and again like the first two sections of John Dickson Carr’s The Arabian Nights Murder (1936), and stir in a Croftian alibi trick and I should be in heaven. Alas, this is one of the bad cakes — the sort of well-intentioned thing your seven year-old nephew bakes and you take two bites from out of politeness and then put down and hope no-one brings back to your attention. Christopher Bush has taken promising ingredients and cooked us a turgid mess.