"Seems to have put a curse on the fishing, that woman."- Dr. Roberts (Harriet Rutland's Bleeding Hooks, 1940)
A semi-regular item on the blog of my fellow locked room addict, JJ, is "A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat," which comprises, as of this writing, of four blog-posts covering a sundry of impossible crime fiction from the past thirty years – like Elliott Roosevelt's Murder in the Oval Office (1989) and Robin Stevens' First Class Murder (2015). So it was about time I returned the favor and cast a line of my own in the dark, murky waters of the contemporary crime-fiction.
The title I reeled back in happened to fit another semi-regular blog-item by JJ, "Adventures in Self-Publishing," in which he looks at writers who decided to circumvent the barrage of rejection slips and simply published their own work. Admittedly, JJ did uncover a couple of interesting self-published authors and hope to have found him a name that can be added to his list.
Michael Wallace is a public relations and publications consultant, with a background in journalism, who has been an avid fly-fisher for the past thirty years and got hooked himself on detective stories when he read Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) at the age of 12. Wallace worked his two passions into an ongoing series of fly-fishing themed mystery novels about his aptly named series-character, Quill Gordon, who's also a veteran angler. Yes, the fact that he shares his name with a famous fishing-fly is acknowledged.
Wash Her Guilt Away (2014) is the second title in the Quill Gordon series and is billed as a mystery about "a seemingly impossible crime." Needless to say, I was skeptical about this self-published detective novel, but there were a couple of promising indicators that gave me hope.
Firstly, Wash Her Guilt Away opened with the statement that the story had been written "in the spirit of John Dickson Carr" and inferred from this that Wallace had a refined taste when it came to detective stories. Secondly, there's a "Notice to the Reader," which assures that the "descriptive and detailed passages about fly-fishing" are for the benefit of those who fish, enjoy the outdoors or want to learn about the pastime, but readers who do not fall in those categories are free to skip past them – as they're not "germane to the solution" and do not contain any "vital clue." So that suggested Wallace was also aware of the concept of clueing. And that's not always a given with modern-day crime writers.
I should also point out that Wash Her Guilt Away, unlike the preponderance of self-published books, has actual production values. The cover looks fairly professional and they made a nicely put-together video trailer, but, more importantly, an editor went over the text and "caught hundreds of mistakes." So that helped the overall readability of the story and in particular the buildup to the murder during the first half of the book. Yes, this is one of those detective novels with a slow fuse.
Anyway, my impression was favorable enough to go ahead and take the plunge with this self-published mystery novel, but did it live up to the promise? Let's find out!
Wash Her Guilt Away takes place in early May of 1995 and the setting is Harry's Riverside Lodge, "a legend in Northeast California," which was originally owned by Harry Ezekian until his passing in the late-1970s, but up till then the fishing resort was a popular "getaway destination" and rich, powerful men flocked the place during its heyday – rarely with their own wife at their side. A veritable honey hole!
However, the place steadily declined when his son, Bob, took over the place and locals began to whisper that his restless wife had started a coven of witches in the vast woods surrounding the area. So one day she picked her suitcase and simply left, but not without leaving an ominous note, which placed a curse on the place ("there will be no love at Harry's..."). A year later, Bob took a small boat down the river and "blew his head off" with a shotgun. After Bob's suicide, the place passed through half a dozen owners, but none of them were able to cling on to the place for longer than two seasons. And by then, Harry's had lost all of its illustrious glory and splendor.
|A real-life "Quill Gordon"|
Quill Gordon had vowed never to return to the rundown resort, but Harry's had reopened under new owners, Don and Sharon Potter, which got recommended to the long-time angler by a friend and decided to give the place another chance. And dragged along one of his friends and fellow fisherman, Dr. Peter Delaney.
Gordon and Delaney are among the first guests of the season, which also includes a member of the Oakland City Council, Rachel Adderly, who's there with her husband, Stuart Bingham, who's a museum director. There a two friends, Alan Sakamoto and Drew Evans, who work in Silicon Valley for a software company. The most important ones are the elderly Charles van Holland and his much younger (second) wife, Wendy, who's "quite the personality" and has a restless personality that begged for trouble – which gave her a talent for making enemies. She even got into a cat-fight with one of the girl's working there, April.
Naturally, this becomes a problem when the increasingly worsening weather throws this group of people ever closer together and the consequences of this will prove to be fatal.
One morning, Wendy's body is found inside her log cabin, strangled to death, but the problem is that the windows were all locked and the chain-lock only the door was secured from the inside. The murder coincided with an unexpected snowfall and the cabin was surrounded by a blanket of snow, which showed no footprints going or out of the crime-scene. It's "an impossible murder inside a locked room."
The solution to the impossible murder is two-pronged: how the murderer managed to leave behind a crime-scene that was locked up from the inside hardly breaks any new ground and the experienced armchair detective should be able to figure out how that part of the locked room trick was accomplished. But this part of the trick also laid bare a weakness of the overall plot. Gordon remarked towards the end that knowing how it was done told him who had done it, which is absolutely true in this case, but the solvable locked room problem also functions as pretty much the only clue you'll get to help you figure out the murderer's identity. Only other real hint you get is a discrepancy in the time of death. However, I'll admit that the anomaly in the time of death is nicely tied to the (simplistic) locked room trick and would probably have worked better had it been used in a short story format.
|The third book in the series|
On that account, I have to remark that the book, or rather the plot, felt closer to the short (impossible crime) stories by Edward Hoch than the locked room novels by Carr. The locked cabin with the time-of-death distortion is a trick he would have pulled and even the detective has a name that's in line with many of Hoch's series-characters (e.g. Simon Ark, Harry Ponder, Nick Velvet, Ben Snow, etc).
Anyway, there's also the apparent impossibility of the absent footprints in the snow that surrounded the log cabin and Gordon labeled it "a neat little trick."
Well, I'll give Wallace this much: the no-footprints method is certainly an original one and, personally, never came across it before, but there's a good reason why a relatively simple trick, like that, has never turned up before it. It's an extremely silly one and felt completely out-of-place between the pages of this novel. I suppose it could work in a madcap mystery where every character is as mad as a hatter, but here it simply did not work. The stage was all wrong for it.
You can compare this to the equally unusual, almost daffy, explanation for the impossible footprints in Samuel W. Taylor's "Deadfall," collected in The Realm of the Impossible (2017), but it worked (better) because the stage had been properly set for it.
I feel somewhat divided on Wash Her Guilt Away. It was a pleasant enough read and the overall quality was far better than one would expect from a self-published novel, but, on the downside, the plot hardly posed the challenge I had hoped from the plot-description – especially the double-pronged impossibility. So you should not pick this one up with too high of an expectation, because this is (sadly) not the next Carr. Regardless, it can still be enjoyed for a nicely worked out, leisurely paced mystery novel with a locked room chugged in for good measure.
Yes, I know this is a very wishy-washy conclusion, but, despite its short comings, I did not dislike the book as a whole.
I'm not sure whether JJ would appreciate the story, as a whole, but no doubt he'll award points to Wallace for not shoving his book on the open market with the interference of an editor. And the wholehearted attempt to write in the spirit of the great mystery writers of the past is also something to be appreciated and encouraged.
On a final, semi-related note, I reviewed two fishing-themed mystery novels in the (recent) past: Vernon Loder's Death by the Gaff (1932) and Harriet Rutland's superb Bleeding Hooks (1940). I would also like to point your attention to my previous review of Szu-Yen Lin's Death in the House of Rain (2006) and the guest-post from Philip Harbottle about "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn."