"Yes... it's a puzzle to know just where to begin."- Major Williams (Lynton Blow's The "Moth" Murder, 1931)
Originally, the plan for this blog-post was to be a cross-blog tag team review with "JJ," who blogs over at The Invisible Event, but he emailed me last Saturday saying he was bowing out, because he had never "hated every single aspect of a book" before - including the author. He simply refused to waste anymore time on the book.
So what was he reading, you ask? Death on the Mississippi (1989) by the late Richard Forrest, which is an impossible crime novel about a houseboat that vanishes from a closely watched stretch of river. And, as a contrast, I was going to review Death Through the Looking Glass (1978), which concerns the brief and inexplicable disappearance of the wreck of a crashed airplane.
Luckily, I fared better with my pick than the one JJ tried to battle through and it turned out to be surprisingly consistent. That's not something I can say about all of Forrest's locked room novels.
Death Through the Looking Glass is the third entry in a series of ten books about Lyon and Bea Wentworth, who first appeared in A Child's Garden of Death (1975) and were last seen in Death at King Arthur's Court (2005), but it was also the author's second impossible crime novel – even though that aspect of the plot was barely brought up. Surprising, I know. But the angle of the vanishing plane-wreck was barely given any consideration.
The story opens on Lyon's birthday, who's now in his mid-thirties and approaching an early midlife crisis, but at least he got some nifty birthday presents: the complete works of Dashiell Hammett, a six-foot doll based on one of the characters from his children's stories and a new wicker basket for his hot-air balloon. He got the last one from his wife and she also insisted he stopped getting them involved in dangerous murder cases, but during the first flight in the new balloon he personally witnesses the beginning of another one.
A low-flying aircraft, "a garishly painted Piper," approached from the east, "directly out of the sun," which Lyon recognizes as the plane of Tom Giles, a long-ago classmate and real-estate lawyer, but the rush of childhood memories are disturbed when he sees "a plume of black smoke curling" from the craft – after which it plunges in the waters below. However, a search of the supposed crash site, pointed out by Lyon, failed to find any sign of wreckage. Or even a simple oil slick.
The wreck of the airplane has simply disappeared, but the situation becomes even more inexplicable when Lyon receives a phone-call from Giles!
Giles tells Lyon he has good reasons to believe someone is attempting to kill him and asks his old friend to come and see him at his lakeside cottage, but when he arrives the place is completely deserted and there a signs of foul play: the phone line has been cut and there's a suspicious stain next to an overturned chair. On the following morning, Lyon awakes to the news that the plane-wreck has been found with Giles inside it! A bullet in the head and the purse of woman by his side, which belongs to a certain Carol Dodgson.
After this, the story "normalizes" and turns into a regular whodunit: the official police, Captain Norbert of the State Police, favor the wife of the victim, Karen, and her pilot-lover, Garry Middleton. Lyon sees more in the Giles' membership in a tontine, in which the last surviving member makes five million on a hundred thousand dollar investment. There are some colorful characters part of this tontine scheme such as Sal Esposito, an Italian-American, who owns a string of adult-movie shops and massage parlors but, privately, he's a complete weeb. He even has a Japanese houseman. An equally colorful personality is Reverend Dr. Toranga Blossom, leader of a doomsday cult, who believe "the world will die in 1982" in "a multitude of brilliant blossoms" - i.e. atomic warfare. So they can use every penny they can get to prepare by buying abandoned mines and provisions.
Luckily, any person storylines from the regular characters were kept at a bare minimum, because there was red flag in the first chapters of the book. Lyon was silently approaching his early midlife crisis when the eighteen-year-old daughter of a friend began to show interest in him, but that plot-thread mercifully fizzled out. It had the potential to become a total cringe-fest. So the characterization could have been far worse.
As far as the plot is concerned, it is (as I said before) the most consistent detective novel I've read by Forrest. Usually, he has a good (locked room) ideas buried in an uneven, sometimes padded narratives and this has me convinced he should've written his impossible crimes as short stories. It might not have made the same kind of money as a series of full-length novels, but a short story collection of locked room mysteries might have been better for his reputation within in genre in the long run.
How good was the impossible situation in this one? Well, I think the best aspect of this plot-thread was how well it tied-in with Lyon's hobby as a balloonist. His eye-witness account of the crash was a key element of the trick, but the problem is that the nature of the trick gives the entire game away. Once you know how it was done, you know by who it was done. Because the trick fits one of the characters like a glove. I guess that's why the clues were thinly spread around in this surprisingly short novel, but the method for the vanishing plane-wreck is very guessable and from that point out you can figure out everything else.
Yes, Death Through the Looking Glass is one of Forrest's most consistent detective novels, but also one that's very easily solved. Even without any significant clueing.
So, while my overall experience was somewhat better than JJ, I fully acknowledge Forrest was not one of the top-tier mystery novelists from the post-GAD era and some of his better (locked room) ideas were probably better served had they been written down as short stories or novellas. And this relatively short novel shows that in his case less was more and improved the overall quality of the story and plot.
Well, thus far this lukewarm blog-post.