5/25/17

Fenced In

"This is no ordinary murder! This is an impossible crime!"
- Edogawa Rampo
The late Roger Ormerod, who hailed from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England, worked a wide variety of jobs during his lifetime, such as postman, factory worker, country court officer and an executive officer in the Department of Social Security, but also moonlighted as a novelist with more than twenty crime-and detective novels under his belt – published over a quarter of a century between 1974 and 1999.

Honestly, I probably would've remained completely ignorant of Ormerod had it not been for the inclusion of three of his books in Robert Adey's invaluable Locked Room Murders (1991). And the descriptions of the impossibilities were original enough to attract my attention. One of these books in particular held my interest.

The Weight in Evidence (1978) appears to have brought two of Ormerod series-characters, David Mallin and George Coe, together in a partnership as private-investigators. Mallin seems to have been his main series-characters, debuting in Time to Kill (1974), while Coe only appeared sporadically in such books as A Spoonful of Luger (1975) and A Glimpse of Death (1976) – with the former being one of the three impossible crime novels listed by Adey. They seem to have crossed paths for the first time in Too Late for the Funeral (1977), when they approached the same case from opposite ends, each unaware of the other's interest, which ended with them becoming partners in crime.

However, the crossover aspect of the past entries in this series was not the primary reason for picking this particular title. Oh no. My reason was much more banal: Adey listed not one, but two, impossible situations for The Weight of Evidence. So, just like a kid in a candy store, I pounced on the bag of sweets which looked to me to be the fullest.

The Weight of Evidence tells of the first investigation of Mallin and Coe as official partners, which brings them to a fence-enclosed site "in the middle of an area obviously being systematically torn down" by a horde of construction workers. But one of the hard hats has gone missing under inexplicable circumstances.

On the previous day, they had erected a site-foreman's shed on the terrain by pouring an eleven by nine slab of concrete on the ground and lowering a floorless shed by crane on this foundation, which was then bolted down on the inside by one of the construction workers, Fred Wallach – who was not a popular member of the crew. So when the crane operator, Walter Dyke, noticed Wallach, who was giving directions in the center of the concrete patch, appeared to be unaware that the shed was coming down the wrong way round he kept his lips sealed. Because a chain-link fence now blocked the door and this trapped Wallach inside the shed.

Next thing they know, "the five o'clock hooter" went and they "packed it in," which left Wallach to spend "a cheerful night" trapped inside a bare shed. However, when they returned to the shed it appears to be inexplicably deserted and when the two private-investigators take a look inside they discover the nuts have been bolted down and tightened, which left Wallach with absolutely no room to escape. The chain-link face blocking the door was undisturbed and taking out the window proved to be an unlikely explanation.

So how could anyone vanish, like a burst soap-bubble, from a shed with its only exit blocked by a solid, undamaged chain-link fence? It's "a classical locked-room situation."

The trick for the impossible disappearance is pretty nifty and logical, splendidly using the bolted down, tightened nuts as red herrings, which did not prevent me from figuring out how Wallach escaped from the blocked shed. However, this was not due to my dazzling abilities as a brilliant armchair reasoner, but because certain elements of the setting and problem reminded me of another locked room novel. I would probably spoil too much by naming the book in question, because the method for the vanishing trick here hinges on exactly the same idea used in the other book to present a murder in a small, completely sealed environment – getting a different result with pretty much the same trick. And Ormerod looks to have been the originator of this locked room idea.

Anyway, the impossible disappearance is resolved by the end of the second chapter, but there's a legitimate and very clever reason offered for this early revelation of, what should've been, one of the focal points of the plot.

The solution to the first impossibility leads them to a long-forgotten room on the demolition site, bolted from the inside, which contains two bodies: one of them is the missing construction worker, shot through the heart, but the second body has been rotting away in that room for the past thirteen or fourteen years. As it turns out, the decayed skeleton belonged to Marty Coleman, a local, who disappeared after taking part in a bank robbery with the loot. A "bag of white fivers" that could not be spent. A second accomplish, Dutch Marks, got away empty handed and the third one, Karl Lubin, served time for shooting the bank manager. Now he lives in the neighborhood again!

So that makes for a nice, double-layered locked room problem, but the bolted door is not even the biggest obstacle facing Mallin, Coe and the police. Coleman and Wallach were shot with the same gun, thirteen years apart, but the missing hand of Coleman suggested the murder weapon had been wrenched from his grasp. But can a gun, "rusted to hell," fire a second, fatal shot after nearly fifteen years? What role does the bank robbery and bag of banknotes play in the case? Are any of the old robbers involved or did Wallach's murderer accidentally stumble across this nifty hiding place?

Admittedly, the whodunit angle is the weakest facet of the plot, because Ormerod gave the murderer's identity away when the robbery angle turned up. Mallin made a throwaway remark that contained the whole truth and could have flown under the radar had Ormerod handled this so-called clue with a bit more subtlety and sophistication. 

Regardless of this blunt handling of the killer's identity, the main attraction of the plot remains the locked rooms and the way in which they were interconnected. One simply could not exist without the other and the only other example I could think of with such a pair of linked impossibilities is John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935).

Of course, The Weight of Evidence is not in the same league as that landmark impossible crime novel by the master himself, but the ambition was definitely there and the locked rooms were good, and original, enough for Adey to label the book as "the genuine article." Even though he was taken somewhat aback by the complexity of how both locked room tricks were stringed together. I fully admit the story would have benefited from some maps or diagrams, but the tricks are not impossible to imagine. You just have to read the explanations very carefully.

So, no, it would be unfair to compare The Weight of Evidence to some of the classics of the genre, but I think a comparison with the trio of locked room novels Bill Pronzini wrote during the 1980s is allowable. 

I know Pronzini is an American and Ormerod was English, but everything about this book, such as the tone, atmosphere and plot, felt not entirely dissimilar to Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985). Particularly the last one felt similar in mood to this one as well as dealing with skeletal remains and an impossible crime. So you should expect something along the lines of a 1980s Nameless Detective novel when picking this one up.

As you can probably judge by this review, you have not heard the last of Ormerod on this blog and I'll not limit myself to his handful of locked room novels. Some of his "normal" detective stories also piqued my interest and found some of the negative commentary on his work by the critics very encouraging, which stated that his labyrinthine plots tend to have too many twists and turns. Ha! There's no such thing as too many twists and turns in a traditionally (styled) detective story.

So expect a quick return to this writer, but the next blog-post might be taking a look at a Dutch mystery novel with, what might be, a very unusual locked room problem.

8 comments:

  1. Well, this sounds great. I'd only just read your last review where you tease us at the end with either this or a Dutch impossible crime, and I was going to weigh in with "tell us about the English one!" but figured you'd be about ready to put something up by now anyway.

    Sounds like Ormerod had a really good handle on construction, so I'll definitely check this out before too long (hmmmm, my TBR is already somewhat insane...); interesting, too, that this is the first I've ever heard of him. And he was so prolific, too -- sure, they're not all impossible crimes, but it's still a lot of books for someone I've never even heard a word about. Many thanks for bringing him to our attention; and he's mostly in print, too!

    Incidentally, I've not forgotten that I'd promised to try a 90s impossible crime novel in the hope of passing a recommendation back, and it's coming: I'm planning to start it this weekend and have a post up on Tuesday. Fingers crossed I've found something a) new to you and b) good into the bargain...

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    1. I know this review followed shortly on my previous one, but this was a rather short novel and my reading pace always quickens when something interests me. I should probably copy Ho-Ling here as well and start queuing my blog-posts over a longer period of time. Anyway... the next one will take a bit longer to appear.

      You're probably not the only one who has never heard about him. There are some brief reviews, here and there, but, on a whole, he seems to be pretty obscure nowadays. A pity for someone who reportedly loved building maze-like plots and dabble occasionally in our favorite sub-genre of the detective story.

      That's the unimaginable vastness of the genre for you. Every time you think you've got a pretty good idea about the lay of the land, someone brings up a name, book-title or an entire series you've never heard of before. It's something that will never stop.

      Looking forward to your review of the 90s impossible crime novel. I'm very curious to see what you've found. Oh, hell, I'm already trying to guess the book or writer. My shot in the dark at the moment is Michael Bowen, but you said it was (hopefully) something new to me. So it's probably not Bowen.

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    2. If anything I'm jealous of the likes of you and Kate who can put up a review every two days...I have to pace myself a bit more now in my old age. Plus, y'know, I like to sprinkle a mix of SF and non-genre stuff into my reading, and no-one is coming to my blog for my thoughts on Poul Anderson or Ursula Le Guin!

      I read Bowen's Washington Deceased a little while ago -- well, "read" may be the wrong verb, perhaps "fought" would be better -- but really did not get on with it. He has a very fertile take on the impossible crime there, though, and so when I stumbled across another in a secondhand bookshop recently I bought it and shall get to it at some point. Perhaps he improves as he goes; it's been known to happen...

      Oh, and I was mistaken: the locked room I have is not a 90s impossible crime, but instead from 1989. Expect more in a few days (man, I hope it's good after all this build up...)

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    3. Some objections can be leveled against Washington Deceased, such as the lack of explanation for how the gun got inside the prison or the complexity of the trick, but it was still a superior mystery compared to most of what has been published since the 1960s.

      I know, I know. That's my go-to argument to defend contemporary mysteries with a classical bend that are flawed in some ways, but I have read enough of the literary crime novels to appreciate every modern writer who try their hands at a GAD-style plot.

      Of course, that doesn't mean everyone gets a free pass. Just read my recent reviews of Andrew Greeley's Happy Are Those Who Mourn and Eric Brown's Murder at the Chase. They were bad examples of the modern (locked room) mystery.

      Oh, 1989, you say? I'd like to make one last guess: Barbara Paul's He Huffed and He Puffed. And? Was my shot in the dark a lucky one that hit home?

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    4. The trick in Washington Deceased is bloody complex, but I actually didn't mind that -- I could see it working as it was explained, and it at least had a good chance of working. It was more the horrible prose establishing everyone, and the pacing that slowed everything down to fill out a full novel. As I say, I'm confident he'll improve, so I'll give whatever the book I have is (alas, I don't have it to hand...I want to say Worst Case Scenario...something like that, anyway) a shot.

      I actually have my eye on a Greeley book -- I've been doing some research -- and hope to have a (ahem) happier experience than you did. Watch this space!

      As for He Huffed and He Puffed...no, not what I have. Try not to expire with anticipation over the weekend, or I'll fall under suspicion for killing you whilst having a perfect alibi...

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    5. My only real objection to such complex, involved tricks, which require a sequence of actions or movements, is how they always seem to work on the first try without running into any problems. I appreciate and love the thought and ingenuity that goes into putting them together, but even I can't deny such tricks tend to feel a bit artificial.

      One of the reasons I love Death on the Nile so much is that it shows a contrived plot falling apart the moment it is put in motion, but you probably heard that tune before.

      I hope you're able to find a good locked room mystery by Greeley. He seems to have used the detective novel as a vehicle for social commentary and was more interested in character than plot. So I would be (pleasantly) surprised to learn he wrote a proper detective novel with a decent impossible crime. And, hey, there's always room on one's wishlist for one more title, right?

      Oh, don't you worry, I won't expire that easily. I'm just being a very curious locked room fanboy.

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  2. I came across Ormerod through an entry in the reference book 1001 Midnights for the book The Hanging Doll Murder. The reviewer gave it a very good review. The entry states that this book was Ormerod's 18th novel, but the first to be published in the U.S. So it is not surprising that he is obscure. Fantastic Fiction states he was born in 1920, so he is getting up there. He was active from 1974 to 1999. There are 16 books in the David Mallin series, with the last one in 1981. He had two other series characters. He seems to have been one of that type of English author that you don't see much of any more: the midlist author who turns a profit on his yearly novel, but not a big one, and who fades away after his death. Modern publishers only want the big sellers.

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    1. "Fantastic Fiction states he was born in 1920, so he is getting up there."

      According to information elsewhere, Ormerod passed away twelve years ago in 2005. So old age probably caught up with him in the late 90s, preventing any further publications, followed by his death five years later. Still, it would mean he began to write when he was in his fifties and stopped in his late seventies. Or even in his early eighties. And that's a great capstone to top off both your life and career!

      Ormerod also wrote a dozen, or so, standalone novels and you're right modern publishers have no interest in mid-list authors who only move a decent amount of books. They also stopped giving authors the time to make their audience grow like they used to do back in the days. Luckily, the internet is giving both readers and authors options. One of them being reissuing the backlog of all these long-forgotten (mid-list) writers.

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