February 2022 was one for the history books, storms in Europe, traffic jams in Canada and Russians in the Ukraine, which our very own Jim Noy, of The Invisible Event, deemed to be the perfect time to release his debut novel, The Red Death Murders (2022) – re-imagining Edgar Allan Poe's plague tale "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) as a detective story. A densely plotted detective novel packed from start to finish with grisly, seemingly impossible crimes in an isolated castle during a deadly plague. Since Jim is a notoriously difficult person (always disagreeing with my nuggets of wisdom), he made sure the book is difficult and tricky to review. But I'm going to give it the good old college try.
The Red Death Murders takes place during the first year of a hideous, deadly pestilence, known as the Red Death, "attacking any living thing within reach" and "granted at most an hour in which to suffer before expiring." The pestilence spread through blood contact and the symptoms were unmistakable, which should have easily tamed the disease. But then animals got infected. And "rats were living for up to ten days with the Red Death upon them." So the Red Death became an uncontrollable epidemic.
Prince Prospero summoned hundreds of powerful men and women to his castle, "many were convinced that he had a plan to push back the tide of the Red Death," but the Prince's only intention was to wait out the plague in a sealed environment where he hosted "exclusive and lavish parties" – which is why people had been "drifting away from the castle since that first day." The Red Death Murders begins when the laughter, partying and revelry has died down and only nine people remain at the castle. However, I will only focus on the detectives of the story as Jim wrote in a blog-post, "Give 'Em Enough Tropes – Genre Conventions in Writing The Red Death Murders," he has hates character lists and wishes "it would vanish from the face of the Earth." This is his novel. And my excuse to focus solely on the plot.
The main character of the story really the 13-year-old servant boy, Thomas, who was raised by Sir William Collingwood and his brother, Sir Marcus Collingwood. They take it upon themselves to bring clarity to the series of murky, apparently impossible and inexplicable crimes.
First of these impossibilities happened before the story's opening. Prince Prospero was attacked in his bedroom by someone wearing the costume of the Red Death, a scarlet colored, long-sleeved robe with a hood and the bleached skull of a horse as a mask, who was chased out of the Prince's bedroom. Somehow, the robed figure vanished in front of his pursuers as if by magic! After the attack on the Prince and ensuing confusion, they notice Sir Oswin Bassingham is missing. So a search begins of the castle and the story really begins on page one with Thomas discovering a streak of blood coming from underneath the door of a makeshift privy.
There were no servants left (besides Thomas) to empty out the toilet stands of the guests. So a bay window, hanging over the moat, was turned into a toilet with two wooden screens and a door in the middle fastened shut from the inside with a piece of twine – tightly wrapped around two nails. This may sound like a ramshackle locked room mystery, but the structure proves itself to be surprisingly sturdy as the scene of an impossible murder. Sir William believes Sir Oswin didn't slit his own wrists, but how did the murderer get out of the privy? Slowly, but surely, both their numbers and supply begin to dwindle with two additional impossibilities that need a rational explanation. One being a clever variation on the miraculous poisoning in which the victim drank from a cup that was harmless to others and another murder-disguised-as-suicide in a locked room. There also the murder of someone who was touched by the Red Death and a gruesome incident that could have been plucked from the pages of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery. Say what you want, but Jim knows what his costumers want!The Red Death Murders is very a mystery reader's detective novel and a huge part of the enjoyment came from the three detectives meticulously picking apart the problems (sometimes even the crime scenes) in order to find some much needed answers. They form theories, test them and you never quite sure which one is going to stand or fall, but, more impressively, is how all the theorizing and testing was building towards a cerebral firework display of multiple, false-solutions. Someone has obviously been reading Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand! Just as important as their role as detectives in the story, is the genuine affection between Thomas and his two warden. A flicker of light in their plague ravaged surroundings with a murderer on the loose and provided a human element to what otherwise would have been a grim and nightmarish detective fantasy. But what about the finer plot-details, you ask? There are some technical and historical details to nitpick about.
Jim wrote in the previously mentioned blog-post that he's "pretty sure two of those impossibilities have never been devised before." As the resident locked room fanboy, I can confirm Jim very likely came up with two brand new solutions to the locked room/impossible crime, but the trick with the fastened privy sorely needed a diagram. I had to reread certain parts to see if I correctly understood the trick and still not entirely sure if it would actually work (every time), which is where a diagram could have brought some clarity. On the other hand, the cheeky solution to the impossible poisoning had no ambiguity to it and loved how the method tied to other incidents throughout the story. Not to mention the excellent clueing and misdirection. A truly inspired piece of plotting! There are just two details about the presentation that irked me a little. Firstly, Jim has (ROT13/SPOILER) n irel cevfgvar vzntr bs whqvpvny unatvatf orsber gur zvq-gb yngr 1800f jura rkcrevzragf ortna jvgu gur ybat qebc gb oernx gur arpx bs gur pbaqrzarq. Qhevat gur praghevrf orsber gurfr ersbezf, gur qrngu cranygl jnf n chavfuzrag gb or raqherq naq nggenpgrq pebjqf bs fvtugfrref jub pnzr gb frr gur pbaqrzarq qnapvat ng gur raq bs n ebcr. Wvz qrfpevorq n unatvat Gubznf nggraqrq nf n 5-lrne-byq (“gur obql bs gur pbaqrzarq zna qebccvat guebhtu gur ungpu, gur arpx pyrnayl oebxra, naq gur ybbfr fgvyyarff bs gur fhfcraqrq sbez frrzvat fhqqrayl avtugznevfu va ubj dhvpxyl gur yvsr unq fvzcyl inavfurq sebz vg”) jbhyq unir erfhygrq va n evbg, orpnhfr n pebjq sebz guvf crevbq jbhyq srry gurl jrer eboorq bhg bs n tbbq fubj. Vs V erzrzore pbeerpgyl, gur svefg pebjq gung nggraqrq n unatvat jvgu gur ybat qebc jrag njnl irel qvfnccbvagrq. Secondly, how the murder was staged and presented maybe took it one step too far. It was still very convenient it happened at the right, dramatic moment and can't help but feel if the trick hadn't been better served had been presented like the murder on the staircase landing from Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939). It would have made the murder look less impossible, but it would have how it was done, in combination with the other none-impossible murder, even grander when it's revealed – especially in light what happens after the murders. But these are really very minor, stylistic complaints.
The Red Death Murders is a passionate love letter to the detective story and without name dropping his favorite mystery writers, you can easily see which writers he valued by what he did and where in the story. G.K. Chesterton would have approved of the murderer's motive! More importantly, The Red Death Murders demonstrates that you can create magic when you build on the rich history of your genre instead of rejecting it. Nearly a century ago, Edogawa Rampo introduced the Western-style detective story to Japan, which evolved into the Golden Age inspired honkaku-style and resurged in the 1980s as the shin honkaku movement. A movement that revitalized the traditional detective story with their tailor-made crime scenes and gruesome corpse-puzzles. Now those revitalized ideas have begun to journey back West to help stoke the fires of a Second Golden Age. Just as it should be! Great job, Jim! Great job.
Okay, I can breathe again :)ReplyDelete
I'm delighted that you enjoyed this as much as you did, and thanks for the kind words. It was a load of fun to piece the plot of this together, and to be able to concoct two new impossibilities to give something back to a genre that has brought me so much enjoyment over the years.
Your rot13 point above is a good one, and in part why I set this in an entirely fictional universe -- that way, I get to make up the history. Multiverses are cool right now, aren't they? Well, this is me opening up the GAD Multiverse...!
And, fine, next time there will be diagrams. Just prepare yourself for the can of worms you've opened...
If you seriously plan to go all out with diagrams, I guess your second book is going to be titled The Pit and the Pendulum Murders.Delete
So you knew that historical detail was out-of-place? You can absolutely get away with it here, because it's only a historical detail of a fictitious universe. But one that immediately caught my eye. I'm all for a GAD multiverse. I've always wondered what if Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin had boarded the Orient Express of Hercule Poirot. Don't deny it. You want to read it, too.
I didn't know the detail was out of place, no, but I also wasn't trying to write something that builds on extant history directly. For instance, one element stems from the Magna Carta...but that was signed in the 13th century and is therefore waaaaay too early for my medieval-themed setup (which no-one seems to've minded, btw :D).Delete
Instead I take a sweep of historical ideas and try to put a version of them in a context that informs what's happening in the book -- I'm no Brandon Sanderson, so I'm not going to meticulously plan out the 400 years prior to the events in my novel of impossible murder. So long as a detail fits into the universe I've created, I don't really mind too much if it deviates from how stuff was in this version of reality. That's, like, why I didn't set the book in this version of reality; there are some great ideas to be found in history, but trying to get the timelines to match up is a headache there's no way to resolve...unless you make a fictional universe. Ta-daaaa!
And, yeah, Murder by Death on the Orient Express sounds marvellous. Maybe someone else can write that, though...(though, well, technically Marion Mainwaring already did it at sea...)
" I had to reread certain parts to see if I correctly understood the trick and still not entirely sure if it would actually work"ReplyDelete
Well, I attempted it several times. It didn't work !
Please tell me you recreated the makeshift privy for your experiment! :)Delete