Flatline (2018) by Robert Innes

Last year, my fellow locked room enthusiast JJ, of The Invisible Event, posted an installment on his blog of "Adventures in Self-Publishing," a series bravely tackling self-published detective novels, novellas and short stories, which introduced me to the work of Robert Innes – a mystery writer specialized in impossible crime fiction. So that earned him a top spot on my list of persons of interest.

As of this writing, Innes has penned nine novellas about his series-character, Detective-Sergeant Blake Harte, who transferred in Untouchable (2016) from Manchester to the quiet, picturesque village of Harmschapel. But as Sherlock Holmes and Midsomer Murders has learned us, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London" do not present "a more dreadful record of sin" than does "the smiling and beautiful countryside." Harmschapel proved to be a hotbed for seemingly impossible murders.

JJ had cautioned me to read the series in chronological order, because the later stories refer back to the murderers from previous cases, but also warned that Untouchable would probably infuriate me beyond all measure – which is why it took me so long to get around to this series. I had no idea where to begin. So I finally decided to just pick a title with the most intriguing-sounding premise and impossible problem.

Flatline (2018) is the sixth novella in the series and D.S. Blake Harte is hospitalized and scheduled to go under the knife to have his appendix removed, but something dark is brooding in the staff rooms and corridors of Clackton General.

Exactly a year ago, Doctor Joe Tilsley and Nurse Kelsey Richards, who are dating, accidentally killed a young woman, Lucy Pennock, when they struck her with their car on a dark, rainy country road. Joe convinced Kelsey they should get out of there in order to protect their careers, but the death of Lucy weighs very heavy on Kelsey's conscience, which naturally puts a strain on their relationship. She becomes incredibly suspicious and slightly paranoid when D.S. Harte is hospitalized, because she found out he's "an extremely talented officer" behind "the solving of some truly baffling cases," but worst of all, Harte is the police officer in charge of the investigation into a deadly hit-and-run – one which happened exactly a year ago! But the worst is yet to come.

Kelsey receives a disturbing video message from someone wearing a surgical mask and cap, who identifies himself as The Watcher, warning Kelsey that the time has come to pay for the innocent life that had been so cruelly snatched away. This is followed by the bells of Big Ben booming from the tannoy system in the middle of the night and sinister phone call from The Watcher ending with "the long, monotonous tone of a flatline." Finally, there's the murder.

Dr. Joe Tilsley enters one of the two elevators in the hospital on the tenth floor and gets stuck on his way down, between the eight and seventh floor, which stays there for twenty-five minutes. When they finally opened the elevator doors, Dr. Tilsey is lying on the floor. And according to the physical evidence, he had been drowned in a bone dry elevator during those twenty-five lonely minutes when he had been trapped inside.

So here you have, what's undoubtedly, an intriguing premise for an impossible crime, but the story turned out to be a mixed bag of tricks. Let me begin with what I liked about it.

The locked room-trick found a new variation on an old principle of the impossible crime story often employed by such luminaries as John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch and Paul Halter. You have to wonder why nobody else had come up with this idea before and miraculous drowning in the closed elevator was strengthened by the cussedness of all things general. A well-done impossible crime with a Carrian touch. The second thing I liked was the presence of a rival-detective, Sergeant Gardiner, who has been after Harte's position ever since he arrived in Harmschapel and provides the story with a ridiculous false solution, which is exactly what I expected from a rival-detective – because the Western detective story needs more Simon Brimmer's and Superintendent Akechi's. They're simply fun.

On the other hand, I hated how Harte's private life intruded upon the story. I mean, this is supposed to be a dark, brooding detective story with an elusive figure dressed as a surgeon stalking a doctor and a nurse in the corridors of the hospital and apparently leaving behind a body in a locked elevator. But the flow of this story is interrupted several times so that Harte can argue with his boyfriend about him always working or discharging himself from hospital against the advice of the doctors.

This is exactly what I hate about so many modern police procedurals. Not to mention that this came at the cost of at least three characters who needed a little more fleshing out.

Dr. Joe Tilsley is pretty much a non-entity and only there to provide a corpse for the story and a motive for the murderer, while Nurse Kelsey is a typical woman-in-peril who gets unburdened when a deus ex machine gave a new explanation for the hit-and-run. So not very original, but could have been more than it was if it was shown how that fateful night changed their relationship. The two already were an interesting contrast of each other. But the character who really got the short end of the stick was the murderer.

If the reader had been told what made the murderer tick, it would have strengthened the locked room-trick even more, because the murderer's personality and state-of-mind is integral to the murder. Innes could have gotten away with this, because he had dragged a good red herring across the trail to divert your attention away from this person.

So, all in all, Flatline is an uneven detective story with some good ideas, but clings too much to the conventions of the modern, British police procedural and allowed the personal life of the police-detective to intrude upon the story – disrupting and eventually breaking my immersion. However, I will not give up on this series and try one or two more. Ripples (2017) and Atmosphere (2018) have fascinating-sounding premises for an impossible crime story.

Well, this is the third mixed review in a row, but I'll try to pick something good for my next read. Fingers cross!


  1. I've skimmed this as it's the next one for me in the series, and I just thought I'd leave a comment to say that I plan to read this in June in the same week as Mystery at Friar's Pardon by Martin Porlock so that I can compare two locked room, impossible drownings.

    If there's a third example of such a thing, I could even make a week of it...any suggestions?

    1. Impossible drownings? They're not very common, but Paul Doherty's The Poisoner of Ptah and Daniel Stashower's The Floating Lady Murder have two very different takes on it. You've already read The Stingaree Murders.

    2. Hmm, thanks, I might have to do a bit of research...

  2. The only impossible drowning I've come across outside of ...Friar's Pardon is The Devil Drives by Virgil Markham. Both have clever solutions. But I like the Philip MacDonald (aka "Martin Porlock") book better. I like it a lot, in fact.

    I've been interested in Robert Innes' books since JJ has been writing about them, but for months they were only available in eBook format. I just went to look if any paperbacks were available and noticed that suddenly they all are! So I bought four and I'll be joining this discussion soon.

    OH! and 3-13 Murders post is coming this Sunday, Tomcat.

    1. My review of The 3-13 Murders must have really enticed you. It took you less than a month to get around to it! Well, I hope you liked it and eagerly look forward to your take on it.

    2. And my copy is coming next to this Sunday !

  3. Thanks very much for your review TomCat. Definitely some thoughts in here that I can use moving forwards. It was a tricky one to write. My desk was filled with...well, let's call it research.

    The comments you make about the relationship issues made me smile. You'd be amazed at how different the mystery fanbase is to the LGBT fanbase and keeping them both happy is pretty much impossible sometimes.
    Glad you like the crime itself though!

    It's interesting what you say about modern police dramas. I have to admit, I'm fairly unapologetic about my approach in that regard. I've never got on with a lot of classic detective fiction, purely because the ones I've read feature such paper thin characters in their lead. Don't misunderstand me, I'd never claim that I've done my version of it perfectly, it's a cause of much anxiety for me at all times (as most writers will tell you) but I wonder if there's a series that tries to do this better that has worked for you? I'd love to read it so I can learn some tips!

    But thanks once again for such an in depth review. It's the likes of you and JJ that help writers see where they're going wrong and what can be improved. Now, it looks like I have another website to peruse...

    1. One thing you should know about my taste is that characterization is less important to me than the plot. I can outright hate characterization when it intrudes on a good plot or ideas, which was certainly the case here. If you give me an impossible drowning inside a bone dry and sealed elevator, I don't want to hear the detective bicker with his boyfriend about how he's always working.

      That being said, you really should have fleshed out the murderer's character. It would have made the motive stronger, the impossible crime better and benefited the plot as a whole. I'm not wholly against in-depth characterization, but, in a detective story, it should help strengthen the plot. Not detract from it.

      I wonder if there's a series that tries to do this better that has worked for you? I'd love to read it so I can learn some tips!

      Bill Pronzini's “Nameless Detective” series. I believe Pronzini has described his series as an ongoing biography of a private-investigator, but it never felt like it intruded on the plots or stories. On the contrary. I also liked the characterization of the police-characters in M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug series, because it was not done in a heavy-handed way, but that series is unfortunately only available in Dutch.

  4. Shimada had an impossible drowning in Suishou no Pyramid, with a man drowned inside a locked room all the way at the top of a tower standing next to a 1:1 copy of the Great Pyramid of Khufu in New Orleans. The trick was... ooh boy, one to never forget.

    1. Well, hell, let's get that translated...someone...please??

    2. This sounds like a job for Vertigo! Oh, while we're on that subject, Seichi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders is coming in December (google it).

  5. "Kelsey receives a disturbing video message from someone wearing a surgical mask and cap, who identifies himself as The Watcher, warning Kelsey that the time has come to pay for the innocent life that had been so cruelly snatched away. This is followed by the bells of Big Ben booming from the tannoy system in the middle of the night and sinister phone call from The Watcher ...."
    I believe you got the chronology wrong! First there is the booming of the bells of Big Ben from the tannoy system, then the sinister phone call and finally the video message.

    1. Did I switched that around? My mistake!

      So you have read the story? What did you think of it?

    2. I rate it as 3 stars. He is simply not of the same calibre as Carr or Halter.
      I was particularly irritated by Harte's homosexual relationship which unnecessarily interrupted several times the main story.
      Also the particular trait and longing of the murderer could have been revealed to the reader in advance.

      SPOILER: To work out the impossible crime would require some medical knowledge
      Hence I do not regard it as fair-play mystery.