"Down at the bottom of that crack were bones, a jumble of old gray bones. The remains of a human skeleton, complete with grinning skull."- The Nameless Detective (Bill Pronzini's Bones, 1985)
For some strange, indefinable reason, I acquired somewhat of a reputation as an unabashed fanboy of locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories, which I mentioned once or twice here, but I used to have a different fascination – stories about long-forgotten murders or recently unearthed skeletons.
During my early days, I was intrigued by the idea of old, unsolved crimes or a pile of earth-caked bones becoming the incarnate past to haunt the people who were involved in the case a lifetime ago. This is probably why I enjoyed Agatha Christie's Elephants Can Remember (1972) more than most.
So imagine my excitement when I discovered Bones (1985) by Bill Pronzini. The plot of the book dealt with the dodgy suicide of a pulp writer, who allegedly shot himself inside a locked room, which was followed by a local earthquake that uncovered a jumble of old bones. A brace of long-forgotten crimes stretching back decades into the past and one of them was a clever, well-executed impossible murder. It was an absolute treat!
The reason for bringing this up is that I found a locked room novel that, in many ways, is comparable to the plot of Pronzini's Bones.
A Child's Garden of Death (1975) is the first of ten novels about Lyon and Bea Wentworth, written by the late Richard Forrest over a thirty year period, of which five can be qualified as impossible crime stories and several seem to have very original premises – such as a vanishing airplane (Death Through the Looking Glass, 1978) and the disappearance of a houseboat (Death On the Mississippi, 1989). However, the locked room is only a minor part of the overall plot in this series opener and it is tucked away in the final quarter of the book.
What drives the plot is the uncovering of three buried skeletons, nestled together in a makeshift grave, who were evidently murdered: clobbered to death with something very heavy as "each skull is filled with fractures." Two of three skeletons were adults, a man and a woman, but the third one, a small skeleton, belonged to a child of about eight years of age – who was found clutching a "mottled and decomposed doll." Chief Rocco Herbert, of the Murphysville Police, is tasked with figuring out what happened at that desolate spot over thirty years ago, but small town politics immediately rears its ugly head. Rocco's brother-in-law, Captain Norbert of the State Police, wants take over the case from the local police, but Rocco sees this as an opportunity: he can retire from the force and run for town clerk "if this thing is handled properly." So he turns to his best friend, Lyon, to help him out with identifying the remains and finding their killer.
The first half of the book consists of two things: one of them is establishing the identity of the murdered family, which they accomplished when they drag a nearby lake and find an old house trailer. This makes for a nice diving-scene as Lyon peddles through the submerged vehicle and finds that, considering the circumstances, "the trailer's interior was in remarkable conditions." It's littered with silent witnesses whispering about the past lives of those three skeletons: a growth-covered dollhouse, rusted silverware, two sets of dishes, a water-corroded toolbox and a bookshelf filled with rotting books. I really the imagery of this particular scene and is what put Lyon on the trail of the murderer. A trail leading straight to a factory of airplane engines and their role in World War II.
Secondly, the story is very definitely an introduction to the primary characters: Lyon is presented to the reader as a "writer of children's fantasy," who created The Wobblies, which are described as "a cross between Gothic gargoyle and yeti," but were gentle and benign creatures. He uses the royalties of these books to slowly renovate the home. Bea is a local politician, a state senator, who was "becoming a political power in the state," but she also has hearing problem. She occasionally screams her lines in all caps. However, they have a genuine tragedy in the background of their life: their only child, a small girl, was killed in a hit-and-run and this fuels Lyon's investigation.
To cope with the lost of his daughter, Lyon picked up an interesting hobby that plays a minor part in the story: he has become a balloonist and often takes to the air.
Well, this part of the investigation and the fleshing out of the series characters is padded with some thriller-material, which comes in the guise of several attempts on the lives of both Lyon and Rocco. Some of these attempts were very close calls and one of them actually results in a casualty. These desperate attempts on the part of the murderer are not only because they're getting awfully close, but also the stubbornness of Lyon. On several occasions, everyone thought the whole matter was cleared up, but Lyon refused to settle for an easy answer. This eventually leads to a murder, disguised as a suicide, inside a locked office-room.
One of the people who came up during the investigation died shortly after a physical altercation, but every piece of evidence seems to indicate this person took his own life: the office-room was locked from the inside and the door had to be busted open after a shot was heard. The gun was found on the body and a message on the recording machine sounds like a suicide note. But, once again, Lyon refuses to settle for an easy answer and comes up with a rather clever explanation streaked with some original ideas, which, sadly, proved to be wrong. Granted, it was a bit gimmicky, but still good and even today came across as a novel idea. The part of the locked was a good idea and surprised the idea was not expended upon by other locked room specialists.
Anyway, the actual solution for the impossibility was pretty routine and unimpressive. I've seen variations of this shop-worn trick too often and the excellent, but false, solution should have been matched with an equally good and original explanation. Or they should have been switched around. I also wished the murderer had been less obvious.