Back in August, I posted a huge, ungainly retrospective of everyone's favorite subset of the traditional detective story, "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century: A Brief Historic Overview of the First Twenty (Some) Years," in which I specifically highlighted the current reprint renaissance and translation wave – coinciding and directly influencing the resurgence of the locked room mystery. A truly fascinating aspect of this cross-pollination between the reprint renaissance, translation wave and locked room resurgence is how the Japanese shin honkaku translations are giving shape to the Western self-published impossible crime novel.
James Scott Byrnside raised the bar of self-published detective novels and while standincloser to Western mystery writers in spirit (e.g. Christianna Brand and John Dickson Carr), Byrnside incorporated some elements associated today with the Japanese detective story. Firstly, there's the so-called corpse-puzzle in which the mutilated remains poses as much as puzzle as the who, why and how. Something commonly used in Western crime novels as horror dressing, but the murderers from Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) had a well-hidden reason to take chunks out of their victims. Secondly, the multiple impossibilities, three or more, which were not completely unheard before the translation wave hit, but comparatively rare compared to the non-English locked room mysteries. The self-published locked room specialists of today have made the multiple impossible crime parade their own. Our very own Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022) is one of those novels stuffed to gills with locked room murders, miraculous disappearances and inexplicable poisonings in addition to featuring an adolescent protagonist. A young detective is another feature more common to the Japanese than Western detective story. That same year another self-published author appeared on the scene who went somewhat further than incorporating typical shin honkaku elements into a Western detective story.
The Author is Dead (2022) is the first novel by "A. Carver," the proverbial unknown quantity, whose debut is a spirited, not unsuccessful attempt to the bridge East and West by blending and fine-tuning their commonalities and differences – synthesizing both styles and approaches to the traditional detective story. Such as Carver's two series-characters. Alex Corby is a self-conscious, socially anxious girl in her late teens currently living with her outspoken great-aunt, Cornelia Crow, "whose social skills rarely survived contact with the outside world." One thing they have in common, in spite of the differences in age and personalities, is an undying love for detective stories and particular detective stories of the impossible variety. A love that crossed from the printed page into the real life when they found themselves attending a fan meeting of Adam Carver's Castles in the Sky series at Carver's Rest on the Scottish coast. So at first sight, The Author is Dead may appear to some as one of those modern, cozified whodunits with a passing resemblance to the young adult mysteries of today, but the tricky, complicated plot stringing together four murders, attacks and vanishings inside tape-sealed rooms firmly entrenches in the territory of Carr, Brand and the shin hokaku mysteries of Soji Shimada, Yukito Ayatsuji and The Kindaichi Case Files. A novel that builds on an understanding and appreciation of the detective story rich, ongoing history to create something new for the future.
There are, as to be expected, some rough edges and imperfections that needed attention, but The Author is Dead is as impressive a debut as it's ambitious bursting with promise for the future ("...to Cornelia's delight, and Alex's despair, further titles featuring the two are forthcoming"). But everything remained quiet around Carver and this series, until recently.
This month, Carver is publishing the second Alex Corby and Cornelia Crow mystery novel, The Christmas Miracle Crimes (2023). A mystery novel doubling the number of locked room slayings, impossible situations and a miscellaneous assortment of seasonal miracles from its predecessor – seven or eight in as many pages. So was pleasantly surprised when Carver contacted me with the question to review and give my opinion on The Christmas Miracle Crimes ("...I would like it if potential readers (and also myself) are given ample warning if it's a lump of coal"). But that was easier said than done. The Christmas Miracle Crime serves a plot akin to a rich, lavish Christmas dinner that takes time to take apart, consume and digest. It all took a bit longer than originally planned, but have finished and digested most of this latest addition to the locked room resurgence. Let's dive in!
First of all, The Christmas Miracle Crimes is the second recorded case of Great-aunt Cornelia and her great-niece Alex, but after getting involved "the four taped doors of Carver's Rest," they apparently solved the problems of "the hunting room that opened fire on the Greenlove family" and "the vanishing knife in the Devil's Throat." Hopefully, they're not just apocryphal tales and will get explored in a short story collection. I really like the idea of a hunting room going on an indoors safari. But that is, perhaps, for another time.
The Christmas Miracle Crimes opens with a short prologue and the first of its many impossible crimes, which takes place in the past as a small child awaits the arrival of "the worst person in the world" on Christmas Eve. This time, the child has been gifted a very special weapon by Santa Claus. A "weapon, you might say, worthy of Santa Claus's magic" as can disappear without a trace after it had been used. Back to the present, Alex Corby and Cornelia Crow are on their way to spend the Christmas holiday with Alex's parents when a snowdrift strands their train in a valley in the middle of nowhere. Alex was left behind with Cornelia as the old lady was in condition to follow the other conductor and handful of passengers into the other swirling snow. So it was looking as if they were going to have a very cold, bleak Christmas trapped inside a train when rescue came. Robin Whitefell and his family read before everything went offline that there was a stranded train with two passengers nearby. So came to pick them up and bring them back to the house, Whitefell Chimneys, where the family is waiting.
Whitefell Chimneys is the large, sprawling and remote mansion of Robin's brother, Forrest Whitefell, who's a widower and father of a little girl, Estelle. Carol Whitefell is their sister and mother of two, Nicky and Rudy, who are about Alex's age. Hype Marathon is their stepfather and social media influencer. Yes, Hype Marathon is a character who would given Carr another stroke ("jumpscared me there..."). Lastly, there's the efficient presence of a man simply known as Butler, "the spitting image of an actual, literal butler," but is he? Being strangers at another Christmas reunion is awkward, but beats a wintry cold train carriage. Until the incidents begin to happen.
Forrest Whitefell is killed in his locked study by a shotgun blast to the chest and Estelle is found inside a locked cabinet. Estelle tells them that her father had told her to hide inside the cabinet, because someone's coming with a surprise. She peeked through the keyhole and swears Santa Claus came down the chimney with a sackful of presents, "but then there was this loud noise, like crash" – sees Santa hurrying back to the chimney ("...must have gotten scared..."). There were presents scattered on the floor, but, when they broke into the study, no third person was found. Least of all a shotgun toting Father Christmas. So, if the child is to believed, the implication is that Santa Claus came down the chimney, shot Forrest and somehow vanished from a locked room. Alex Corby and Cornelia Crow already have something of reputation for solving "all sorts of strange and unbelievable murders" ("I know about that Devil's Throat business"). So they take charge of the investigation and try to preserve the crime scene, until the police can called, but playing amateur detective has its perils and pitfalls. And then there's the difference between great-aunt and great-niece. Alex loves a good mystery, but never relished the murders. Cornelia "relished a new crime like a new book" and "treated every mystery like an armchair mystery, just a work of fiction to be coolly turned over and then discarded." I like how their personalities contrast (heart and mind) as they actually work together like a team. Not just another Holmes-Watson duo.
However, the attention inescapably turns on the clutch of Christmas miracles and the many complications that come out of them. I already mentioned the past murder with the vanishing murder weapon and the intrusion of the shotgun carrying Santa Claus, but the room becomes the scene of further attacks. One family is attacked and stuffed inside the locked cabinet, but the door was locked and Alex's tape-and-string seal on the broken window intact. Another attack imprisoned two others, but the way in which it was done required something approaching superhuman strength. An important object is found in a sealed, unused room with the dust of decades lying thick and undisturbed on the floor. Santa Claus also makes a much more traditional appearance as one family member observes "a red light approaching the house," while another sees "a red light leaving" and "flying up into the air" ("the clues we had were the set of parallel tracks leading down the avenue"). Finally, there's the disturbing incident with the snowman that apparently came to life, "walked through two locked doors, and then came marching out to the folly" enclosed by unmarked snow. I believe there were other (quasi) impossibilities, or two, but might have lost track of some as I was not prepared to tackle a locked room mystery with this kind of plot density.
I've reviewed a fair share of these multiple impossible crime extravaganzas in the recent past and mentioned the difficulty, if not an outright impossibility, to deliver a convincing, satisfying or even an acceptable explanation to every locked room murder, impossible vanishings and miscellaneous miracle – a problem that increases with each new impossible crime. From what I've read, the magic number to balance quantity and quality appears to be four. A mystery with five, or more, rarely deliver on their promise and tend to be disappointing and often poorer specimens of the locked room mystery. John Dickson Carr never went pass three and even Paul Halter struggled to satisfactorily pull seven of them together in Le sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997). So congratulations to Carver for successfully breaking with that long-standing tradition.
Carver genuinely tried, mostly succeeded, in delivering on the premises of most of the impossibilities without having to lean on overly simplistic or routine-tricks as filler material. Only solution that left me dissatisfied and unconvinced is the answer to the red light and the sleigh tracks in the snow. There's some hand waving (SPOILER/ROT13) jura Pbearyvn fnlf “vs jr'q obgurerq gb chefhr gubfr fyrvtu genpxf whfg n yvggyr snegure, V'z fher gurl'q unir jbooyrq naq pevff-pebffrq,” ohg trggvat gur svefg cneg bs gung genpx pbeerpg vf abguvat fubeg bs n zvabe Puevfgznf zvenpyr. Evqvat n ovplpyr guebhtu gur fabj, haqre gubfr pvephzfgnaprf, vf abg gung rnfl. Why and how the red light was seen flying away was just a little too convenient to the point of stretching things. Other than that, the overall quantity/quality is very well maintained. Not all of them blisteringly original, never-seen-before rug-pullers, but when pulled together, they make for an engrossing, all-consuming puzzle to keep even the most ardent armchair detective occupied for a couple of days. I really liked how the locked rooms taking place inside the walls of Whitefell Chimneys connected in one way or another. Some pleasing plot-patterns there.
That's perhaps also its greatest weakness as a locked room mystery. Since none of the multiple impossibilities sport, what you can call, so-called filler-tricks, the story feels like it needed double the number of pages to breath and do justice to all it wanted to do. It's not just the demon's night parade of devilish crimes, but the backstories of the house and characters. The question of motive and opportunity or the prickly problem of everyone possessing an alibi for one of the attacks. What about Alex and Cornelia finding themselves on the business end of an accusatory finger. It all felt a little too crammed at the time and either needed cutting or more pages to breath. However, it remains an impressive accomplishment to do something most masters of the form have either shied away from or only partially succeeded in doing on your second try – missing only once! More importantly, The Christmas Miracle Crimes has more to offer than just locked room murders and impossible crimes.
The Christmas Miracle Crimes is a classic, closed-circle of suspects mystery set inside an isolated manor house cut-off from the outside world and it should not be overlooked there are only half a dozen suspects (sbhe vs lbh qvfpneq gur gjb grraf). That makes plotting and writing a detective novel like this one a lot harder than when there are ten or twelve characters wandering around the place at all hours of the day. So to do it with only a handful of viable suspects without making the murderer standout like a sore thumb, in a plot constantly making demands on that character, deserves applause. I worked out certain parts of the overall solution, but kept second guessing and considering different possibilities when new things happened or were discovered. For example, I very briefly entertained the idea of a family conspiracy when two characters were imprisoned and the act required some considerable strength, which is described as a two person job. Well, I thought, two people were present in the room, but it would needed a third person to close the catch on the cabinet after entering the room. And it was Cornelia who opened the cabinet. So that theory was out of the window. Besides (ROT13) jbhyq lbh qent gjb grrantref vagb n qrnqyl snzvyl pbafcvenpl? So, as an amateur armchair detective, I quite enjoyed trying to keep up with the plot. Even if I fell behind in the end. There was just so much to take in.
The last thing that deserves to be highlighted is it's status as a Christmas mystery, because The Christmas Miracle Crimes is the genuine article. The problem with Christmas mysteries is that they all too often are lightweights when it comes to the plot (e.g. Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca, 1941) and when they are solidly plotted, Christmas is usually nothing more than background decorations (Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, 1938). Something the story acknowledges ("...have you ever noticed how many Christmas mysteries only feature Christmas incidentally?"). Carver provided a truly seasonal mystery with a strong, richly-flavored and maze-like plot with half of the inexplicable incidents involving the figure of Santa Claus and his reindeer-hauled sleigh. So have somewhat of a feeling that this book is going to turn up a lot in the years, and hopefully decades, ahead on people's annual December stack of seasonal mysteries. And deservedly so! You need to take your time with it, but it's undeniably another huge step towards that Second Golden Age. It's coming, Jim! It's coming!
Anyway, I plan to come back to The Christmas Miracle Crimes in a year, or two, prepared and fresh of spirit and mind, because now it hit like a sack full of presents accidentally dropped from Santa's sleigh. A nice surprise, sure, but was not in the right frame of mind to take on such a behemoth of a locked room mystery, which is why this review is such a long, rambling mess. More than usual. So a second read will hopefully translate into something slightly more coherent.