Here’s a poser for you: a woman’s body found in a castle, but the castle was searched before it was locked up for the night and she wasn’t there, and she could not have gotten in afterwards thanks to a combination of the partially-surrounding sea, a two-ton portcullis, and CCTV coverage. If it’s suicide, how did she get in? And if it’s murder, how did the murderer get in and out? No secret passages, no hidden rooms…howdunnit? After some misgivings about Adrian McKinty, I’m proving myself an actual adult by giving this impossible crime of his, set in 1987’s Northern Ireland amidst the sectarian upheaval most commonly referred to as ‘The Troubles’, a go. So, how did we do?
Y’know what? McKinty is a fine writer. The mix of DI Sean Duffy’s sharp observations and weary worldliness saves us from the cloying anachronisms that mar so may historical mysteries, and simple references to CDs being a fad or the newness of a kitchen kettle are sufficient to place us in time without overdoing it. Two era-appropriate famous faces show up in the narrative, and neither feels particularly shoe-horned in — no mean feat considering the second one and the ignoble nature of the story being told here — and McKinty deserves praise for working so well inside his milieu and avoiding jarring temporal awkwardnessess.
There are also some flashes of almost Croftian obsessive detail: the medical examiner’s extended recital of his findings, for one, and the invocation of Bayesian mathematics (though McKinty then gets simple probability wrong immediately after this, which takes the sheen off a bit). The procedure here is finely observed, and the fact that our impossible crime has a lot of other baggage around it is played very well indeed: the irenic nature of the job in the context is never far from your awareness, and the various issues are well-handled as Duffy and his men thrash out scenario after scenario to establish the plot and the actions taken. I mean, sure, the eventual direction is inevitable, but I rarely felt that the time was being wasted or needlessly padded.
McKinty, however, is a little bit too in love with Duffy — from the Borges epigraph to the diet of fry-ups, daily alcohol in all its forms, and marijuana turning him into a Morse-esque irresistible sex panther women are powerless around, complete with a love of classical music and philosophy, but with a stir of the Common Man in his cynicism…there are no cracks in Detective Inspector Duffy, and it gets a little boring. Other characters fare better, the callow Sergeant Lawson in particular, and the minor cast are sketched in very well indeed…it’s just a shame that Duffy feels so much like an idealisation without the flaws McKinty seems to think having him smoke weed at a crime scene implies. There’s an interesting iteration of this man, but we’re not there yet — any comparison to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch clearly does not understand those two far more nuanced and accomplished fictional leading men.
And the impossible death? Well, it’s a shame to report that it’s really little more than a gimcrack hook to hang the plot’s coat on, and not even close to offering a mildly original or interesting variation — we the reading public are being staggeringly short-changed by the explanation of how the lady in question got there, and the explanation of the exit of the murderer (because, c’mon, like it wouldn’t be murder) is so old that I’m surprised they weren’t heard creaking as they carried it off. This is apparently the second impossible crime in this series, and I’m not sure I can be bothered to check out the first one after the disappointment of this; I really want to commend McKinty’s efforts in utilising this classic puzzle-form in a modern crime novel, but you don’t invoke Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Jules Maigret, and Gideon Fell in your text and then only offer this up in answer.
And then, with the case all tied up except in one small detail — I’m going to steal a leaf from Ben at The Green Capsule and go for some muted spoilers below — we end on a three-chapter divergence into Duffy’s personal life which is astoundingly out of kilter with everything that has come before. Just when I was thinking that maybe some modern crime novels might be worth investigating again…nope, not if this is what they do. I’m good, thanks, I’ll stick with the classics. So not a swing and a miss — if you like your recent history you’re in for a treat — but too slight for anyone seeking an exciting new impossibility or a tortuous plot to wrap their noggin around.
The killer getting away and then later being killed by someone else as punishment for their crimes has a weird morality to it that makes me uncomfortable, but I can’t pin down quite what it is. The ‘balancing of books’ implied by their murder feels like a quick way to provide a sort of narrative closure, but I feel like the idea is much more complicated than that, and it’s a shame McKinty doesn’t do more with this. But there you go; just wanted to put this in as it’s been bugging me.
Oh, and there’s a legit connection to Murder on the Way!, too, which was nice…
Mysterious Reviews: The cast of characters, Duffy in particular, time and place are all pitch perfect. And it’s hard to go wrong with a solidly set up and intricately developed locked room-style mystery, even if the solution to it isn’t original in the least. The issues here, and they are really quite minor ones, are that the storyline is just a little more complicated than it needs to be, creating a few unnecessary tangents that slow up the narrative and really don’t advance the plot significantly, and an ending (completely unrelated to Duffy’s investigation) that can at best, and charitably, be described as cozy, completely out of character with the style and tenor of the series to date.
Jose Ignacio @ A Crime is Afoot: [McKinty’s] books have an excellent sense of time and place, a sympathetic character, and the plot line is strong and is well thought-out. I also very much enjoy his writing style. Up till now, I have read all his books in the series, and Rain Dogs is in my view among the best. Rain Dogs, as the rest in the series, can be read as a standalone, but if I were you, I would rather start reading the series from the beginning.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Iron Chariot from last week as both are narrated in the first person.