8/25/16

Disinter the Past


"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.

In any case, I found A Child's Garden of Death as interesting as a mystery novel as it was delightfully unusual and admire the attempt at bridging the gap between the detective stories from the Golden Age and those from the post-World War II era. It slipped, here and there, but, overall, I was very pleased with the result. If more modern crime novelists had build upon the genre's rich history, instead of rejecting it, I probably would've been less of a fundamental classicist.

21 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this book until the end. I liked the false solution much more than the pedestrian correct solution just as you outlined above. You didn't mention the gratuitous sex scene at the strip club. I thought that was ridiculous and I'm not at all a prude when it comes to sex in books. It was completely pointless and thrown in the for the salacious reader. Or maybe that was in the other Forrest book I read. I have almost all of these books with the Wentworths but have read only two, but I'll be damned if I can remember the title of the other one or what it was about! I think it was the third one -- DEATH THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. One of these days I'll read the rest of them. I liked Lyon and Forrest has a good handle on macabre incidents and creepy atmosphere. Later in the series hot air ballooning turns up as one of Lyons' hobbies which at least makes him unique among fictional detectives.

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    1. The gratuitous oral sex scene you mentioned is in this book, but had already forgotten about it when I wrote the review. You're right about how pointless it was. I suspect it was thrown in either to appeal to a modern audience or Forrest assumed it was one way to drag the classically-styled mystery into a new era. Either way, it was a pretty forgettable scene.

      From what I gathered, Lyon's hobby plays a part in the book about the vanishing airplane. I think he observed the entire set piece from his hot-air balloon.

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  2. I read this book a long time ago. I disliked it intensely, especially its wimpy protagonist (I would not say "hero"). This book is one of my prime candidates when I think about the decline and fall of the detective story. What the Continental Op would have thought of it all I would not like to say.

    I share your liking for the cold case skeleton mystery however. There was something of that in Macdonald's The Galton Case, and Aaron Elkins made a career of it. Do you have a list of that sort of book?

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    1. I have to agree that Lyon is not exactly portrayed as your typical storybook hero, especially by the hardboiled standards of Hammett and Chandler, but I think calling him wimpy is unfair.

      Socially, Lyon can come across as a bit of a softy, but not when a life-threatening situation calls for immediate action. I mean, could an actual wimp have survived the scene in the woods or had the courage to take care of the shooter in the way Lyon did?

      Lyon is not the image of the tough guy from the 30-and 40s, but neither is he the 1970s equivalent of the modern beta male.

      I do not have a list of such books, but that might be something for the future.

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    2. That is my point: it was books like these in the 1970s that got us started down the road to wimpery, and so to the full-blown decadence of the form in the 21st century.

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    3. Well, that point flew over my head, didn't it? I pointed out how the plot was a link between the classic and modern crime novel, but failed to see how the same can be said about the books characterization. Goes to show how much I really care about characters.

      That being said, I can guarantee you there will be contemporary readers who'll find Lyon's short bursts of masculinity to be dated, problematic and probably unbearable. Now matter how he acted when his life wasn't in immediate danger.

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  3. Sounds well worth catching up with - thanks TC, as ever.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio! Hopefully, you'll find Forrest worth your time.

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    2. Finding a paper copy is often the hard bit these days!

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  4. Here's a few "skeleton mysteries" that I've read. If interested in further details you can read essays on those marked with * at my blog.

    *OLD BONES by Herman Peterson
    *TOO MANY BONES - Ruth Sawtell Wallis
    SKELETON IN THE CLOCK - Carter Dickson
    *THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS - Charity Blackstock (aka *MISS FENNY, the title you'll find it under at my blog)
    *THE CARELESS HANGMAN - Nigel Morland
    THE CRIME IN THE CRYPT - Carolyn Wells
    THE SKELETON TALKS - Fredrick Eberhard (actually one of the most laughably bad mysteries I've ever read, so not really recommended unless you're into "Alternative Crime")

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations, John!

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  5. I've read THE PIED PIPER OF DEATH and DEATH ON THE MISSISSIPPI by Forrest, but not this one. I recall I liked those two.

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    1. Death on the Mississippi does sound like an intriguing mystery. And there aren't that many about an impossibly vanishing houseboat! Even Carr never attempted a trick like that.

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  6. Thanks for the list. Here are two more:
    Robinson-In a Dry Season
    Freeman-A Silent Witness: This is not a skeleton book; but Thorndyke has to establish the identity of a pile of cremated ashes, the ultimate identity problem.

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    1. There's really no need to subject onself to In a Dry Season, though, no matter how much of a fan you might be of this framing device. That's got to be the worst, dullest, least interesting, most staid, most convoluted, most under-plotted, and frankly pointless crime novel written in the 1990s -- a decade, need I remind you, that also represents the nadir of Inspector Morse, so it has some stiff competition in that regard...

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    2. Thanks for the warning, JJ. The title sounded familiar, but I remember reading similar comments about that book and the 1990s from other GAD enthusiasts.

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    3. Your comment surprises me. I liked the book a lot myself and the general consensus of reviews seems to back me up. Wikipedia states that the book was shortlisted for the Edgar Award. It won the Anthony Award for best novel in 2000 at the Bouchercon. Even if you don't like that one, though, I would recommend A Silent Witness, which is on my top 10 all-time favorite list. Thorndyke puts in a masterful performance.

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    4. I've been looking for somewhere to start with Thorndyke, so your recommendations of A Silent Witness has been dult noted, many thanks!

      I'm at a loss to explain the success of In a Dry Season. I mean, it represented a distinct change of tack for Robinson, so maybe people were encourage by that...or maybe my opinion differs from the majority because I'm bloody awkward and particular. I'd be inclined to believe the second over the first :-)

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  7. I know of this from the Locked Room Library page that John Pugrmie put up at Mystery*File, but I have not yet read it. I didn't even know it was available from the Mysterious Press -- very cool, as the last time I looked it wasn't an ebook at all.

    Perhaps some other Forrest impossibilities bear investigation -- do you know if any of them pass a slightly better muster? Because, y'know, my TBR is below three figures at present and I'm keen to correct that...

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    1. I've only read two of Forrest's impossible crime novels and can barely remember a thing about Death at Yew Corner, which is hardly a recommendation. Death at King Arthur's Court is scheduled for the near future, because the plot sounds really intriguing, but that's all I can say about his work for now. So you have take a shot in the dark, JJ.

      As for recommendations... Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders? Or what about a locked room mystery from the 1990s: William DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks? Why not fatten your TBR pile with two, closely-linked impossible crime novels: Hoodwink and Scattershot by Bill Pronzini. I would definitely be interested to see what you make of Manly Wellman's Devil's Planet.

      Hope you'll find this short, eclectic list of recommendations useful!

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    2. Oh, no, I meant recommendations of Forrest books -- don't worry, I've got your locked room posts bookmarked and am slowly working my way through them!

      Though, I'll be honest, I really didn't get on with Hoodwink. Might go for Bones next with Pronzini, since I know it's one you also rate highly, but Hoodwink realy didn not work for me at all. Swings and roundabouts and all that...

      And, yeah, having looked it up, Death at King Arthgur's Court sounds awesome. Here's hoping it lives up to its premise, huh?

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