Ellen Godfrey is an American-born entrepreneur, living in Canada, who has a decades-long resume in business and technology, such as co-founding a software company in the 1970s, which she drew upon for a short-lived series of mystery novels about a corporate headhunter, Jane Tregar – who appeared in only two books. The first one in the series is the captivatingly titled Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) and ended four years later with Georgia Disappeared (1992).
I don't believe regular readers of my blog need an explanation as to what and which book-title specifically attracted my attention. I think it's pretty obvious at this point. So let's jump straight into the story.
The setting of Murder Behind Locked Doors is a Toronto-based data-processing and software company, Brian Taylor Systems (BTS), which has been a trail-blazer as a technological innovator and is doing eight figures a year, but BTS stock takes a dip and rumors begin to fly when a key-figure in the company's top hierarchy unexpectedly died. Vice-President of Finance, Gary Levin, had been the financial guru of the company and, one evening, died of apparently natural causes in the computer room.
Jane Tregar is a headhunter who finds top executives to fill important, high-powered positions and is hired by CEO Brian Taylor to find him a new VP of Finance, but finding a replacement for the talented Levin turns out to be more difficult than expected – one of the reasons being the rumors that Levin had been murdered. Several of his colleagues believe he had been cleverly put out of the way. However, they're baffled as to how this could been accomplished, because Levin's body had been found in the proverbial, but up-to-date, locked room.
On the night of his death, Levin had been staying late and the computer he had been working on had crashed. So he had to go to the computer room to boot it up again and there his body was found the following morning, but the fact that he was found in the locked computer room seems to preclude the possibility of murder, because the room was protected by a (locked) steel door with an intruder-alarm and glass, passcard-controlled door – card-system log for that night shows only Levin had entered the computer room. And nobody had left the room after he had went in. Something that was withheld from the police is that a printed message had been found in the room saying, "that will teach the son of a bitch."
There are a handful of people, all of them BTS executives, who have a superpassword that allowed them to access every nook and cranny of their computer system: Martha Gruen (HR), Tom Henege (sales/marketing), Robert McDonnell (accountant), Martin Kaplan (customer support) and Taylor (CEO). So they all could have been aware what Levin had been working on. However, they also have iron-clad alibis.
Tregar comes to the conclusion that she has to find out what's going on behind the scenes of BTS, because it would be unethical to place an innocent person in the dead man's position without knowing if the replacement is in any possible danger of being murdered. After all, Levin could simply have been killed for what he had been doing as the VP of Finance. She soon learns that not everyone has been telling her the full story and a lot rumors are flying around about potential mergers, hostile takeovers and corporate business tactics like a greenmail plot – littered with phrases like white-knights and golden parachutes. Interestingly, there are excerpts throughout the story from The Toronto Daily News reporting on the business end of the case and how the stock-market is reacting to the death of Levin. And to the rumors of a possible merger or takeover. Those articles were a nice touch to the overall plot.
So, all of this made for a fascinating glance at a leading data-and software company that stood at the cradle of the modern-day computer era and the business end of the plot was well-conceived, which together with the locked room trick is strongest aspect of the story, but there's also a downside – namely the atrocious characterization. Godfrey is very much from the contemporary school of characterization.
A school of thought dictating that you can only have fully-rounded and relatable characters when they're portrayed as troubled, insecure and broken down people with more emotional baggage than a psychiatrist's file-cabinet. Jane Tregar is a text-book example of this. She had been brought up in a household where money had been tight and has been divorced from her much older, and very rich, husband who took their children with him. And she barely put up a fight to keep them. Later on in the story, the sister of a friend committed suicide and the reader is told that they came from a dysfunctional family with an abusive father.
None of this has any relevance, whatsoever, to the plot and reminded me why I prefer the traditional, plot-oriented detective stories from days gone by.
Regardless, Murder Behind Locked Doors still has a pretty good, adequately clued and traditionally-styled plot with an excellent impossible crime. A clever, multi-layered locked room trick that worked on all levels. There are technological and scientific aspects of the trick concerning the crashed computer and cause of death, but the linchpin of the trick are the personalities of the victim and murderer – who left the final execution of the locked room up to fate. Somehow, this really helped make the trick as believable as possible. I really liked the end result.
I have read locked room novels from this period before, such as Kate Wilhelm's Smart House (1989) and Richard Hunt's Deadlocked (1994), which attempted to use modern, sometimes SF-like, technology to create an entirely new kind of locked room scenarios. But they all failed. Godfrey deserves praise for actually making this work and craft a locked room problem, using science and technology, that could have been imagined by John Russell Fearn or Arthur Porges.
So, all in all, Murder Behind Locked Doors has a well worked-out plot with an interesting background that looks at big business and a deviously clever locked room trick, but the overall product is marred by the dreary, modern idea of characterization. However, if you can look pass that dreariness, you'll find a far better than average (modern) crime novel in Murder Behind Locked Doors.