Richard Forrest’s 1975 novel is a an example of the “impossible crime thrown in at the last minute” (sub)subgenre of mystery. It begins with the discovery of three skeletons (1 man, 1 woman, 1 child) on a ridge in Murphysville, Connecticut. A doll clutched in the tiny skeleton’s arms and the dental work on the male’s teeth suggests the time of death at around 1943, meaning we’re off on a clue by clue gathering to find the murderer. Along the way we encounter dead-end leads, seedy characters, blowjobs in strip clubs, balloonist lingo, and visions of dead children. You know, the usual.
Our two protagonists are Chief Rocco Herbert, a cop looking to escape his small-town prison, and Lyon Wentworth, a writer of children’s books. Wentworth belongs to that beloved class of sleuth – the dude who isn’t really a detective, but develops an unhealthy obsession that forces him to become one. His own daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver years ago, and the sight of the tiny skeleton holding a doll haunts him to action.
Our two main characters are fine. They have a well-developed shorthand communication between them, suggesting how much they know and like each other. The rest of the bunch are given a quirky characteristic or two. For example, Wentworth’s wife is going deaf, so she shouts everything. They live with a black radicalized maid who sees oppression in everything. We meet a nymphomaniac who tries to have sex with everyone she meets. I’m serious, that’s what she does. I’m not even joking. Tough guys act tough, policeman decry the bad publicity, everyone drinks. (Actually, that sounds like my books. Ignore that last part.)
There’s more. There’s much more. It adds up to a whole lot less. On the plus side, the book is very readable. It moves quickly and nothing is so important that it stays in the foreground for very long. All in all, it’s a serviceable product to get through a few hours of life without washing the dishes.
So, why did I read it. Oh yeah – that impossible murder! Here’s the deal, any book can be redeemed with a good impossible murder. When CGOD presented one late in the game, I was stoked. This is what I came for, and the presentation wasn’t half bad.
One of the suspects is found dead in a locked room. Suicide is the only answer. There is a recording of said suspect describing how he wants to end it all then a gunshot and then the door being kicked open by a large group of his employees. It got better when Wentworth & Herbert came up with a brilliant solution to the crime! I rather like this shitty book now. And then…
It turns out this impossible murder belongs to another sub(etc) genre of impossible crime – my least favorite. CGOD is an example of a false solution being infinitely better than the actual one. For God’s sake, SWITCH THEM! Give the humdrum solution first, then you do the good one.
You may come across this book in a list of impossible crime novels. Save it ’til you’ve read all the others. Maybe not all the others. It’s not quite as bad as I’ve described, but it is a huge disappointment.