#271: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Impossible Bliss (2001) by Lee Sheldon

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Four businessmen are playing their weekly early-morning round of golf when one of them hits his ball into a sand-filled bunker.  Taking his next shot from down in the bunker, out of sight of everyone else, not only does he hit the ball straight out of the sand and into the hole (which he cannot see), but when the others approach the bunker to congratulate him they find it empty except for a blood-stained golf club, with no way for their colleague to have vanished without either being seen or leaving obvious traces.  Intrigued?  You should be…

Yup, two golf mysteries in a fortnight.  I must be nearing retirement or something (ha, I wish…).

I can’t quite remember how this came to my attention, but as it’s published by editorial and publicity service iUniverse Star it qualifies for my long-neglected Adventures in Self-Publishing where I search for impossible crime novels unrecognised by trad publishing houses that nevertheless might be worthy of your attention.  And, y’know what?  This is actually pretty damn good.  It has its problems (we’ll get to those) but on the whole it’s of a quality that more self-published novels — hell, more novels full stop — should aspire to, enriched by some very good writing and a nice streak of inventiveness that fills out this wealthy SoCal milieu.

You can see Sheldon selling it on the odd-couple pairing of straight-laced Chief of Police Dan Shepard and terrible artist and general nuisance to society Herman de Portola Bliss as they lock horns, argue, team up, and eventually solve the mystery.  It’s not without its cosy aspects in this regard, but Shepard is a slightly more put upon presence than we might anticipate — recently brought in from ‘outside’ to the consternation of a few colleagues, under pressure from the mayor who makes no secret of how much Shepard’s job depends on solving this case — and Bliss is captured beautifully in descriptions like

The furrows that fifty-six years had carved into his face added to the image, but Bliss no longer minded.  If he needed to nurture his love of beauty, he looked at his art, not in the mirror.

Or exchanges such as:

“He exposed himself to a group of congressmen!”

Bliss shrugged, “They were Republicans.”

Around Bliss’ neck, then, hangs the sense of making this more of a caper — there will be impersonation of a police officer, breaking an entering, several arrests, a game of tennis, and more than a few obscure proclamations in the style of the Great Detective before we’re done — but it’s done with such a pure heart and a sense of enjoyment behind it all that you can’t really hold it against Sheldon for taking this approach.  It’s fun, it moves at a good lick, and while I can’t comment in the originality of the disappearance (I can give at least two examples of the same sort of thing, but not with these precise…workings) you certainly don’t feel that Sheldon is lazily repeating something he read elsewhere: the golfing milieu is used very well, and while I’m not sure there are clues as such, you can certainly look back over things come the end and see how it was indicated in the text (yes, this sounds like clewing, but it’s not really…you’ll have to read it to see what I mean).

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Golf!

The impossible disintegration is well-worked and well-motivated, too, which is often something where more modern takes on the subgenre fall down.  There’s a slew of last-minute information that makes the full motive of the guilty party all but impossible to fathom in advance, but at least S.S. van Dine would be happy to see a few of his rules observed to the letter.  There’s also one element it shares in common with one of Carr’s less-heralded early titles that may not delight the purist, but I’m willing to give Sheldon a pass on this — seriously, he does a great job straddling the cozy mystery, impossible crime, eccentric sleuth, stern authority figure, and small town small-mindedness tropes that we might expect to drag the whole enterprise down (he even works in some clever threads about the wider community without stalling the enterprise even slightly), and what emerges is an inventive, richly-realised, and unusual detective story.

I especially like the added detail of the near-impossible golf shot that our vanishee makes before evaporating.  In and of itself it isn’t impossible, but the fact that the shot had to be made in order to add to the overall effect of the vanishing give it at least a borderline impossible edge…and while others may consider the solution to this a little obvious, there’s again a nice form of foreshadowing that doesn’t quite fall into clewing but nevertheless made me very happy once it was spelled out.  It works extremely well as a plot thread here, but would equally make a beautiful short story in its own right.  In fact, I could believe Sheldon would make a very good short story writer if the itch ever got to him again (alas, this is his only fiction publication) and if he had another manuscript sitting on his computer I’d love to read more from him…provided he worked on the biggest flaw here: his characters.

Because the one problem a lot of people will have with this is that beyond Bliss no other character really emerges beyond Shepard playing music and the mayor being…a mayor.  And it would actually be fine if there didn’t seem to be some late addition single-paragraph horrors of this ilk:

Amy smiled, obviously pleased.  Most of the drudgework at the station fell to her.  She put in long hours, despite being a single mom with a nine-year-old boy, and rarely got much recognition for her mostly menial efforts.  Shepard knew she felt good playing a part in the investigation.

That, incidentally, being the only time we’re ever really told anything about Amy except that she’s in a room and/or sitting at a desk.  But then Sheldon manages some quite wonderful turns of phrase, too, like…

Violence no longer respected such geographical niceties.  These days the wolf howled at every door.

…and these definitely outnumber the cloth-eared characterisation points you sort of feel he was poorly-advised to add in…though these really are the only outright negative aspect I can find to criticise this on.

High Standards

Preach.

So, I have found a very strong impossible crime novel that was self-published — go me!  And, indeed, my immense respect to Lee Sheldon for what he’s achieved here.  I can recommend this fully to anyone who is intrigued by the setup, and equally to anyone requiring any proof that self-published works can compete with more traditionally-achieved ends.  This by no means spells the end of these Adventures, though; if anything, having proved that there are two authors out there who have done this well off their own backs — let’s not forget Matt Ingwalson, who started this whole enterprise of mine off — I’m even more determined to find more.

Ever onwards…!

~

See also:

Publisher’s Weekly: Taking charge of the investigation, Dan Shepard, the easygoing new chief of the Carmel City (Calif.) police department, finds himself reluctantly playing Watson to Bliss, who has a natural gift for detective work. While some people want Wagner’s murderer found, others don’t. Since Shepard is new to the area, everyone keeps a dubious eye on the chief’s performance, and Bliss doesn’t make his job easier. A witty and graceful style, an unusual cast of characters and a mystery that baffles up to the last page bode well for future puzzlers from Sheldon. If this isn’t the start of a series, it should be.

~

Previous Adventures in Self-Publishing:

1. The Third Gunman (2016) by Raymond Knight Read

2. The Mysteries of Reverend Dean [ss] (2008) by Hal White

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18 thoughts on “#271: Adventures in Self-Publishing – Impossible Bliss (2001) by Lee Sheldon

  1. Ah, iUniverse, you say, huh? I will never be able to disassociate that self-publishing outfit with David Marsh’s Dead Box, which is still one of the worst mystery novels I ever had the misfortune of stumbling across. You really should consider making it a part of your “Adventures in Self-Publishing,” because the sheer anger it might provoke in you would make for a fun blog-post.

    But I’ll take your word for it that Sheldon Lee’s Impossible Bliss is worth a swing (see what I did there?) and it has been added to my wish list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is Dead Box an impossible crime? If so, I’ll definitely consider it — always nice to discover unheralded gems such as these, but equally looking over something that you expect to.be terrible might, just might, throw out something worthy of comment…!

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      • Officially, it’s an impossible crime story. Way back when, someone on the yahoo GAD list had recommended the book as a hardboiled locked room mystery in the style of Bill Pronzini. But, uh, it’s a clusterfuck you should experience for yourself. I would be very surprise if there’s even a single kind word in your commentary.

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        • Well…okay, then, now I’m especially curious! If I can get it for no great outlay I’ll definitely check it out — watch this space, and…thanks?

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        • Nah, all the deep/dark websites I use have been shut down. Instead I’ll just recommend a series of increasingly poor locked room novels and pay others to also say they’re brilliant and so ruin your reputation…wait, what am I saying? That sounds expensive.

          And Dead Box is currently £13 on Amazon and I’m not paying that much for a book that’s only brought to my attention because it’s shit. So our feud may have to wait…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like an absolute beauty. What a great set up! That’s the kind of set up you tell your non GAD friends and they get excited about it. Really want to see how the hole in one relates to the solution.

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    • It’s a lot of fun. The impossibility will, as is the way with these things, infuriate and delight at approximately a 50/50 split, but there are a couple of classics that do the essential same thing and are highly regarded…Sheldon has done very well to work in a new aspect, even if his clewing is suspect — genuinely not sure how the information could have been provided without being hideously obvious, so he gets a pass!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Lee Sheldon has published other books, but no other novels — this is his sole effort, and it’s self-published, so I guess that makes his fiction “totally” SP, yeah. iUniverse appear to offer editing and feedback services, but it doesn’t strike me as a trad publishing setup…fine, it might be borderline if one wished to split hairs, but anything not trad that reaches the market in this way is self-published as far as I’m concerned. I’m not doing a PhD thesis, so my definitions can be a little loose…

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  3. My name is Mike Grost. I am a non-commercial writer. I self-publish my impossible crime short stories, distributing them for free on my web site. They are available for free in ePub, Kindle and web page (HTML) formats at:
    http://mikegrost.com/mymyst.htm

    ePub is a format used by Android, iPad and Nook tablets and smart phones.
    Thank you.

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    • Welcome, Mike! I’m on your website about four or five times a month because of your excellent detail and analysis, so I’m delighted you’ve found me — I should totally check out some of your stuff for this, that’s a great idea. Any advice on where to start?

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  4. Thank you!
    The first tale “A Detective Is Born” is an origin story for Jake and his friends. Jake is a pulp magazine writer in the 1920’s, who gets a job writing adventure movies in Silent Film Hollywood.

    The stories are mystery comedies. They are light-hearted. No one would ever ever call them noir, dark, spooky or full of terror and suspense. They do have a lot of plot, and try to be fast paced.

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  5. This is a noble service you’re performing, JJ, in an era where the whole publishing world is transforming itself. I’ll let you know if I ever need your services! 🙂

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    • The tempting thing is to dismiss it all as shite, I’m aware, but by that reasoning all trad published novels must be great and we know that ain’t true. I’m sure I’ll kiss a lot of frogs, but what I do in my own time is my own business…er, I mean, hopefully I’ll continue to find SP and POD books that I can recommend. Certainly this has given me a fair chunk of hope.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Glad to hear that there are self-published mystery novels worth reading. Happily, my local Kindle store stocks this title; I managed to snatch up a second-hand paperback copy of ‘Stableford at Golf’ too. Thanks for the reviews… 😀

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    • Niiiiiice, I look forward to hearing what you make of the Reef — given the rise in interest in that style of book, I’m hoping for the others to secure some sort of translation deal…I mean, it might happen…!

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