"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked."Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.""How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice."You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."- Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
According to the back-flap of the dust cover, wrapped around the binding of the first printing of The Seclusion Room (1978), its author, Dr. Fredric Neuman, is a practicing psychiatrist from New York – which probably explains why this story left me in a confusing, dual state of adoration and detestation. Psychiatrists are apt to mess with your mind like that.
In many ways, The Seclusion Room is a model of what contemporary
mystery crime writers, who took it upon themselves to blur the borders and shove the genre into the mainstream, should be aiming for. On the other hand, the inveterate classicist within me was not amused at the solution, which, admittedly, was clever enough, but something important and essential was sacrificed in order to achieve its effect. But let's begin at the beginning.
The backdrop of this story is a psychiatric hospital, named Four Elms, where, during the waking hours of a particular dreary and unwelcoming morning, Dr. Abe Redden is roused from his reverie by the ringing of the telephone – which conveys immediate summons to one of the wards. One of his patients, Seymour Ratner, seems to have committed suicide behind the blocked door of the seclusion room, one end of a strip of cloth knotted around his neck and the other end tied to the radiator, but the circumstances in this bare room, with check-ups at fifteen minute interval, should've made this impossible. Even more baffling is the fact that Seymour Ratner was thoroughly searched before being secluded, however, when they finally pried open the door to the room they discovered that he had a knife in his possession and used this to carve the words THEY HAVE KILLED ME in the linoleum floor!
But murder is as infeasible as suicide, since this hypothetical murderer would not only have to be invisible, in order to sneak around in the hallway unobserved, but also able to phase through a solid door of a room that was temporarily made inaccessible by plugging the keyhole with a wad of wires – and a freak accident doesn't account for the presence of the knife and wire in the room.
Detective William Moore is not only confronted with a death that seems factually impossible on all counts, but also with an assortments of suspects and witnesses that could've wandered from a nightmarish rewrite of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Schizophrenics, alcoholics, child abusers, manic-depressives, rapists and half of these people are on the staff of the hospital!
However, it's not Detective Moore's footsteps who the readers follows, as you wander through the dimmed corridors of this institution, but those of one of their staff members, Dr. Abe Redden – whose wry and cynical narrative voice will delight fans of such writers as William DeAndrea and Raymond Chandler. The way in which he delineates characters, both patients and staff members, sketches situations and his pessimistic observations makes this an enthralling read, which, at times, really made this a book elevate itself above its status as genre fiction.
The Seclusion Room is a very modern novel that takes a serious approach at characterizing and fleshing out the inhabitants of the psychiatric wards, nurses stations and doctors offices at Four Elms and grapples with serious topics, such as a rape, but this does not mean that the book takes itself too seriously – as the characters and setting also easily lend themselves to a few very funny, but dark, comedic sequences. My favorite part from the book is probably when Redden and Moore visit the pathologist, who lectures them and tells anecdotes while his arms are buried in the abdominal regions of his latest patient. Yes, I'm aware that I have issues.
So, I hear you wonder, what's exactly the problem with this book? Everything I have said up this point indicates that I regard this a novel as a companion to those that were penned by Bill Pronzini, Herbert Resnicow and William DeAndrea. The problem is that the cleverness of this detective story is that the plot starts out with a baffling, classically-styled locked room problem that could've been lifted from the pages of a John Dickson Carr novel, "with all the mad logic of a dream," but once the story has descried itself, after a morbid send-up of the classic scene in which all of the suspects are gathered in the library, what is left of the problem is nothing more than a routine, common garden-variety crime, which, in essence, I liked, but to achieve this effect the locked room angle was turned into a sacrificial lamb.
In spite of the fascinating set-up and the fact that it secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), this is not a locked room mystery and the explanation to why I was dropped-off at the final page of this story with a split personality.
Overall, this is a very well written novel, populated with intriguingly sketched characters set in a world that sometimes resembles a ghoulish fun-house packed with cracked mirrors, and the modernistic approach to the traditional detective story definitely deserves praise, but this was one of the first novels I picked from Adey's listing of locked rooms and expected much more of this as an impossible crime story.
The technical aspect of the solution was a bit of a let down, but not disappointing enough to prevent me from further pursuing this author and he recently published another detective novel, Come One, Come All (2011), which is described as "a locked-room mystery, and a take-off on locked room murder mysteries" as well as a "comic novel, but realistic." So that one will be near the top of the heap for next year.
In conclusion, I'm left with only one more thing to say: Dr. Neuman, if you read this, you owe me a free consult! ;)