"You make it sound like something out of a dime novel."- Shirley Taggert (Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down," collected in Hans Stefan Stantesson's The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes, 1968)
Kel Richards is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and author whose bibliography is stuffed with crime-fiction, such as Sherlockian pastiches, thrillers and traditional detective stories, but what beckoned me to his work were a number of historical mysteries – which threw the mantle of Sherlock Holmes over such literary figures as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Oh, there's also the fact that these novels are saturated with impossible crime material.
So I was compelled to take a gander and see how Richards handled everyone's favorite plot-device, because hey, any excuse to further bloat the locked room label. We're getting close to 250 blog-posts! But, for now, let’s take a look at one of these locked room novels.
The Floating Body (2015), originally published in Australia as The Floating Corpse, entered third in a series about the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), C.S. Lewis, who now has a penchant for getting involved in murder cases – usually of the impossible variety. The person responsible for drawing Lewis into these cases is one of his former pupils, Tom Morris, who seems to be the true murder magnet of the series.
Tom Morris is the Acting English Master at Nesfield Cathedral School, located in the fictional town of Nesfield, which Richards (admittedly) borrowed from Michael Innes' The Weight of Evidence (1944). The Author's Note at the end points out that Innes, the penname of Prof. J.I.M. Steward, was "a colleague of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the English School at Oxford." So that's a nice touch to the story and the narrative has several of these literary Easter Eggs. For instance, Morris confiscated a lurid crime novel from one of the schoolboys, The Purple Gang, which is "a non-existent mystery novel referred to a number of times in the comic novels and short stories of P.G. Wodehouse."
I got the impression Richards tried to emulate the kindly, lighthearted tone of the Gervase Fen mysteries by Edmund Crispin. A tone that become particular audible in the plot-thread concerning the shenanigans of some of the schoolboys.
The Floating Body begins with the introduction of this particular plot-thread, which happens when Morris has to order the school bully to release his prey, "young Stanhope of the Fourth," from his stranglehold, but the Acting Master discovers the boy has a propensity for trouble – trying to use his father's standing and money to get one of his fellow students to steal next week's exam paper for him. However, not everyone appreciated how the School Toff approached them, nose high in the air and "an ingrained look of vast superiority to the world around him," which placed a pair of nasty bullies on his tail.
Regardless of his faults, Stanhope is only a small boy who still has some things to learn and Morris asks a group of friends, who refer to themselves as "The Famous Four," to play the role of guardian angels to the young boy. This storyline runs, like a red-thread, through the entire plot of the book and breaths some real life in the school setting. It's also a lovely throwback and homage to the long-gone era of school-and sporting stories from the boy's magazines of yore, which were, if I'm not mistaken, at their zenith during the 1920-and 30s – diminishing in popularity after the Second World War. You can also make a case that this plot-thread ties the book to juvenile crime-fiction.
However, not everything is fun and games at the school: Morris ensnared his former university tutor, C.S. Lewis, to come down to Nesfield and fill the spot of guest speaker, but eventually has to play detective when he witnesses a seemingly impossible murder.
The young Mathematics Master, Dave Fowler, is seen going to the roof of one of the school building, "well away from all noisy schoolboys," where he plans to enjoy the summer weather and a mystery novel – which happens to be the then recently published The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers. By the way, the story takes place at the start of the summer of 1935. Anyway, Lewis and Morris witness how Fowler is arguing with an invisible person on the roof, who stabs him in the stomach, which is followed by the math teacher staggering unsteady across the roof. He then "seemed to lose his balance" and "disappeared from view as he plunged over the far side of the roof," but what they find where the body was supposed to be was "a bare, gravel road." The body seems to have vanished on the way down.
Fowler's corpse is eventually found where it was supposed to be, after it was seen tumbling from the rooftop, but not for another twenty-four hours. As if the body had been suspended in midair, completely invisible, before falling down to the ground on the following day.
The explanation was surprisingly simple, somewhat reminiscent of Leo Bruce's Nothing Like Blood (1962) and the rejected solution from a fairly well-known locked room short, but these ideas were used here to form a nice little impossible crime. My only grip about this part of the plot is the knifing of the victim, which unnecessarily complicated matters for the murderer. I think this person should have used a crook-handle cane, instead of a knife, to work Fowler over the edge of the rooftop. If you know how the murderer remained invisible to onlookers, you know how the crook of the cane could be employed and used as a clue that nodded in the direction of the murderer. Otherwise, I enjoyed trying to work out possible explanations for the invisible assailant and the midair disappearance of the body.
On the other hand, I was not as impressed with the who, why and the fair-play of the overall plot. One of the potential motives, linked to a hidden sub-plot and false solution, is simply thrown into the story and the actual explanation felt uninspired, which can be explained by all of the attention spend on the schoolboy-angle, the impossible crime and Lewis' exhortations on Christianity – which sometimes made the book feel like a sermon with detective interruptions.
So I feel very divided about The Floating Body: there's some things to like about the story, but, purely as a fair-play mystery, it has its fair share of flaws. However, I'll further investigate his work before giving my final judgment. After all, I read some positive responses to the second book in the series, The Corpse in the Cellar (2013), which is also a locked room mystery. I'll get back to him sooner rather than later.