A couple of months ago, A. Carver left a message on my blog asking me to review his debut impossible crime novel The Author is Dead. He pitched it to me as [a case involving] rooms taped shut from inside, plus other classic impossible scenarios, [which] also directly reflects on particular Golden Age Detection texts. The detectives are a modern-day teenager and a mystery reader born in the Golden Age itself, and more broadly includes elements both of classic detective fiction and the world of today. Naturally, I couldn’t be more interested!
Adam Carver is an author of the wildly successful Gothic mystery series of Castles in the Sky, stories “as brilliant and melodramatic as the author himself” which were often compared against the works of Agatha Christie “and other equally dead authors” only for it to be decided that his were unequivocally the best of the entire history of the genre. Enjoying great success and wealth, Adam Carver spends his days in his modern castle-mansion overhanging the edge of an island in the middle of nowhere with his wife Victoria… His works are often discussed in the online messaging board Besieging Heaven where fan-fiction writers, fan-artists, review bloggers, and all stripes of fan meet to bond over their shared admiration for the great Adam Carver.
…that is to say, within The Author is Dead, this is the life of the author Adam Carver!
The novel follows Alex Corby — known in the Besieging Heaven group as “RedRidingBlood” — a young, self-conscious mystery reader and reverent fan of Adam Carver. By random chance, Alex won a competition hosted by Besieging Heaven‘s owner to join him and other influential members of the community in an opportunity to meet their mutual hero Adam Carver at his great modern castle Carver’s Rest to celebrate his birthday. Only, of course, with a mix of the weather and her misreading “10 am” as “10 pm”, she was 13 hours late, and missed her one chance to meet the great, the glorious, the charming, the brilliant Adam Carver, and feeling stupid in the process…
She is received at the house by Carver’s agent, Maria Bole, who admonishes Alex her mistake but nonetheless sends her off to her room in the dark of the dank castle’s corridors. Finding the door by nothing more than the glint of the key in the keyhole, she finds it mysteriously difficult to get into her room. Only managing to push in with a forceful shove from her shoulder, she is shocked… her hero, Adam Carver, the greatest mystery author to ever live, was taped to a chair in her bedroom, stabbed through the chest! Next to his corpse was a wrapped present containing Death in the Walls, the first Castles in the Sky novel…
Suddenly realizing that the room was difficult to get into because the door was taped shut the realization that the killer must still be in the room dawned on Alex… only, of course, for the room to be impossible empty, save for the corpse. Unsure what to do with this real-life locked-room murder, as Alex has “never correctly guessed a mystery in her life”, she quickly goes to find Maria to help her report the murder, but instead finds the shy-in-real-life, intense-online fan artist Colin West, alias “DaVinciCorpse”. Only, of course, when she tells him Carver’s been murdered, he returns to her room and… nothing is there. No corpse, no blood, no tape. The entire crime scene has vanished in the mere 60 seconds since she left the room.
Knowing that nobody will believe her, Alex Corby is forced to play out the rest of the day with her fellow forum-goers until something happens that helps her corroborate her experiences! And soon, such an event occurs, as Maria, the literary agent, also winds up murdered, tapped to a drawbridge, and stabbed by a sword tapped to the top of a gatehouse with the raising of the drawbridge. Only, of course, the murder happened that morning, on the other side of the only exit to the building, a door taped shut from the inside making it impossible for the killer to leave, with the controls to the gate on the other side of a patch of snow with no footprints to account for the killer’s walking across it to close the drawbridge. The only clue? A copy of the second Castles in the Sky mystery, Hand at the Threshold.
Another impossible murder that brings her into contact with CorvusCrown, a genius who could solve all of the Adam Carver novels from mere excerpts — or, in more extreme cases, even just the synopsis on the back of the book! The ultimate reader of mystery novels with an encyclopedic knowledge of every mystery every read! And, as it so happens, Alex’s mystery-reading great-aunt Cornelia… who takes it upon herself to lead the group in solving the murder before the worst could come to happen…
The Author is Dead is clearly written by a lover of Golden Age mysteries. Similar to Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds, the group is filled with different stripes of mystery-lover who namecheck many famous authors and sleuths both in the text and on the book’s Amazon page. The book has not one, not two, not three… but four Challenges to the Reader. The first occurs immediately after the murder of Adam Carver, reassuring you that the book you are holding is, in fact, a puzzle true and proper, and “The Author” promises to give you all of the clues you need to solve the mystery. The second introduces Knox’s Ten Commandments, and promises to abide by them entirely. The third is a minor lecture on the three kinds of deceptions in locked-room mysteries, and swears that all three are used. The fourth, immediately before the denouement, reminds you that the book has given you all the same clues as the detectives and tells you that before flipping to the next chapter you have an opportunity to solve the mystery ahead of time. The enthusiasm is evident!
And, not only that, but in addition to the two impossible crimes I described above, there are two more, all of which clearly inspired by the taped-rooms of Clayton Rawson’s “From Another World” and John Dickson Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. One of which involves a taped room in a solarium behind four locked doors, and one which involves a victim found stabbed in a ribbon-tied Iron Maiden.
To answer the book’s Challenges to the Reader, I am sorry to report that I did in fact solve each of the four mysteries — as far back as Chapter 5 of 24, I pieced together the principle locked-room murder and identified the culprit in one fell swoop. The first impossible crime is a rather old dodge I’ve seen (and even written!) a few times in the past, and when you identify a few tell-tale mistakes Alex makes upon discovering the crime scene the trick employed by the killer becomes crystal-clear.
Sadly, the remaining three locked-room mysteries don’t employ classical misdirection, instead relying on tricks that are mechanical without being ambitious, and are as a consequence similarly easy to solve. Even the detective identifies the murder method employed in the second crime as something of an old hat, and these all rely on a tired sort of artifice, played entirely traditionally.
Well, that is all to say, I found the locked-room mysteries not totally inspired, and was able to identify the who and the how. What I didn’t quite as easily piece together was the why…
On that point, I want to address the elephant in the room: Adam Carver’s self-insert.
The Adam Carver character is actually a very smart piece of writing. What may seem from the synopsis, and indeed during most of the book, a very self-indulgent, bordering on self-fellating, portrait of an author who believes himself a second-coming of every Golden Age mystery author wrapped together in a trench coat actually evolves into a very neat piece of meta-misdirection I can only compare to Anthony Horowitz’s The Magpie Murders. Indeed, it’s a piece of misdirection that defies the barriers of the text — when this piece of the narrative snaps into place, not only does it retroactively make the self-insert make a lot of sense, but it also shows how the misdirection extends itself to the covers of the novel and even the Amazon store-page! It’s a kind of ambitious, almost self-destructive piece of writing that could literally only appear in the self-published novel of a first-time writer. And while I did piece this part together as well, it was a consequence of some very fair (if somewhat heavy-handed) cluing at the true nature of the author Adam Carver that dovetails into a neat motive for a killer that totally recontextualizes the entire book, blurring the lines between perpetrator and culprit in an incredibly smart way, as well as offering a neat reflection of the nature of detective fiction, and the attraction of intimate versus forensic investigation…
This neat conceit is the element of the novel I took the most from after reading it. Without it, The Author is Dead might’ve only ended up being a bogstandard, average locked-room mystery novel that I’d quickly forget about. But this clever twist of writing revealed a brilliant underside to the novel on which I’ll think back fondly. No, it doesn’t quite elevate The Author is Dead to the level of being a hidden gem of self-published locked-room mysteries — as I said above, the locked-rooms themselves are middling affairs — but it does show the extent of a burgeoning author’s plotting cleverness that makes me excited to see how his plotting evolves and matures with time. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes on A. Carver!
Question for the Author
I actually wonder if A. Carver has any history with Japanese detective fiction? The in-universe Adam Carver’s Castles in the Sky series, turning on complex castle-like architecture, reminded me a lot of Ayatsuji Yukito’s Weird House series. Alex Corby is also a charmingly self-effacing protagonist, and her role as “the mundane, self-conscious dork among geniuses” was a trope used in the post-modern mystery series Zaregoto, which also inspired Danganronpa, in which Makoto Naegi, similar to Alex Corby, is at a school for geniuses merely because of the luck of a student-selecting lottery… I enjoyed Alex Corby’s role as an outsider, which is used well in The Author is Dead, especially with her being self-reportedly out of her depths.