Ripples (2017) by Robert Innes

Although the Golden Age of Detective Fiction officially ended in the 1940s, with riddling classical whodunits being replaced by the grit and grime of crime noir, to act as if those so-called “puzzle plots” had ever entirely fallen out of vogue would be more than a little faulty. Even after Dashiell Hammett and Julian Symons had their way with the detective fiction genre in the 40s, for the following eight decades many authors defiantly held on to the tradition of those literary brainteasers dearly beloved. Oftentimes, these authors were merely Golden Age puzzle plotters wearing the hats of contemporary police thrillers, and often they were authors who wanted to see how puzzle plots could evolve with the new identity of the genre.

The 50s saw Derek Smith take a stand with Whistle up the Devil, a dazzling locked-room mystery homage to his contemporary, John Dickson Carr. The 70s spawned Roger Ormerod, an incredibly imaginative author of alibi plots in the tradition of Christopher Bush. Much of the 80s and 90s were taken by Colin Dexter and his sullen Detective Inspector Endeavor Morse.

And for the 2010s (as far as the English-speaking world is concerned), can Robert Innes take up the mantle as a modern disciple of those authentically Golden Age plots?

A self-published author of 13 novels, Robert Innes has given much of his focus to Blake Harte, about whom 11 of this 13 novels have been written. Blake Harte is a gay cop who ended up fleeing to the he-thought-idyllic countryside village of Harmschapel after he caught his boyfriend Nathan in bed with a woman. However, much to his dismay, Harmschapel doesn’t give Harte any sort of retreat, and instead keeps piling on top of him impossible crime after impossible crime, all of which seem to center around the handsome young farming man Harrison — a young man with whom Harte becomes quite infatuated.

At the beginning of Ripples, Harte’s nosy neighbor Jacqueline, noticing the budding romance between Harte and Harrison, tricks them into taking a romantic retreat together to a manor-cum-hotel in the Lake District, The Manor of the Lakes, to the two men’s great discomfort. After all, neither was ready to go jumping into another relationship under such precarious circumstances as two murder cases! Nonetheless, the two men rationalize that they do need a getaway, and it’d be perfectly fine to go as “just friends”.

While there, however, the two Schrödinger’s Lovers encounter, and later learn about, the hooded man who has been stalking The Manor of the Lakes. The two proprietors of the hotel are Rupert and Polly Urquhart, a “modern-day Romeo & Juliet” who come from two warring families, Rupert from the Urquharts and Polly the Lumoxes. The ground on which The Manor of the Lakes was built once belonged to the Lumoxes, once containing a steam railway before being purchased by the Urquharts. The Lumoxes were fine with this arrangement, under the condition that they be allowed to remain as staff to work on the railway. Only, of course, the Urquharts demolished the railway and built the manor on top of it, earning the ire of the Lumoxes who have been haunting the family for half a century!

The hooded man, Rupert and Polly explain, must only be a member of the Lumoxes!

That is, of course, their story. However, Rupert’s elder brother Duncan simply doesn’t believe him, and accuses him of making up excuses for the failure of their business venture. Despite not believing in the hotel, however, Duncan makes it his business to be involved with every part of it, including upsetting and firing staff.

To make matters worse, on top of the Urquhart-Lumox family drama Blake is extremely distressed to discover that Nathan, his ex-boyfriend, was also at The Manor of the Lakes on a romantic venture with his wife Davina. Nathan spends the better part of the week harassing Blake over their failed relationship, and trying to manipulate Harrison into losing faith in his potential courtship with Blake. To put it bluntly, the trip had gone exactly the opposite as planned.

Upon discovering a little cabin situated between the the two rivers, Harrison is invited by Polly and Rupert to attend a small dinner with Nathan, Davina, and Blake, which he readily accepts, not wanting to be rude. It was at this dinner that the relaxing getaway had finally entirely derailed…

While the members of the cabin are together, they look out of the window and see Duncan fishing in the lake. And nearby, a haunting figure of the hooded man, who steps out onto the lake and, as if the water were solid ground, walked across its surface and stabbed Duncan to death! A spectral killer apparently capable of defying the very laws of physics has manifested at The Manor of the Lakes and committed the most ghastly murder any of the occupants have ever seen! And Blake gets roped into solving it before his blowhard of a boss..!

To my understanding, romance-mysteries have something of a negative reputation for essentially using murder mysteries as an excuse for pushing half-baked love stories and sex. I was more than a little worried that, when most of the first half of the novella was dedicated to the romance between Blake and Harrison, I wasn’t in store for much of a mystery. Yes, the romance was charmingly awkward, with both men openly having feelings for one another while nonetheless trying to pretend that their little excursion was merely platonic… but, of course, to read a self-proclaimed impossible crime in which the crime takes second billing to a love story would, at least for me, be ungratifying.

However, at almost exactly the halfway point of the novel, we get to see the hooded stranger step onto the surface of the lake, stroll on top of it as if it were solid ground, and stab the ornery older brother of the owner of The Manor of the Lakes, and I was happy to be proven wrong! The investigation takes off in full-force, with inquiries into the Lumoxes and their whereabouts, interviewing the remaining members of the Urquhart family, and probing around the scene of the crime. An autopsy reveals a shocking truth that totally turns your understanding of the crime on its head. At first blush, it really does have all of the trappings of a good mystery puzzler!

During this segment, the relationship between Blake and Harte is also explored more beyond the initial superficial fluff. The investigation introduces a seamlessly-written character arc about Harte confronting his hyper-fixation on solving unsolvable cases, which can often make his partners feel inadequate and unloved, as Blake continues to spurn Harrison’s attempts to help and be involved in his life. Although the first half of the novel felt like the romance was eating up much of the plot without ever really progressing, it was nice to see the love story intertwined effortlessly with the investigation without detracting from it. In fact, using the murder to enhance the relationship between the two men was very well-done.

And then, finally, come the denouement, we get a genuinely surprising explanation to the impossible problem of the man who walks across the lake! Although certain elements of the solution will doubtless occur to most people, it is much harder to divine the way in which Ripples utilizes these pieces in a resolution that’s equal parts technical trickery and genuinely classical misdirection. The impossibility is beautifully-established, and furthermore beautifully-explained, retroactively referring to scenes where Innes all but threw down the explanation to the mystery in front of you in such a brilliantly brazen way that it’s so easy to just breeze right past it!

However, the question is “does Ripples pass snuff as a puzzle mystery?”. To that, despite the genuinely smart explanation to the impossible problem, I’d say “no”. Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely inspired and downright brilliant clues here, not only to the howdunit but also the whodunit. But for my money, I wouldn’t say this novel is actually fairly clued. It makes a pass at trying to be, but truthfully it only just gets as far as giving you room to potentially infer the method rather than being 100% assured that your solution is correct. The whodunit in particular is only really clued insofar as a very smart piece of evidence pops up that the culprit is lying about something, and while the reasoning is convincing to a point given the situation and circumstance, there’s still some wiggle room that permits for some other people to be guilty that hasn’t been reasonably discredited… Both the culprit or culprit(s) and their motive or motive(s) almost entirely come out of left field, with very little cluing or hinting as such — so much is actually acknowledged in the story, with the denouement being filled with confessions that vindicate Harte’s hunches or assumptions. There is one bit of foreshadowing to one aspect of the who(y)dunit, in a scene where a character is confessing to something, but admittedly it’s very heavyhanded, so the mystery savvy reader will very likely read it as misdirection away from what Innes clearly intended it to foreshadow.

In fact, I think the culprit(s) identity(ies) are very underwhelming, given the context of the mystery, but it’s something that’s very hard to expound upon without entering spoiler territory. The following segment will be in ROT13 cipher.

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Nonetheless, this is all really minor. It’s clear that Ripples was only flirting with the “puzzle mystery” here, and wasn’t out to be some Ellery Queen-esque dissertation on airtight logic and ratiocination. Although the cluing is a little loose and not entirely fair, the fact that we got what smart hints we did get is still impressive. Trust me, there’s more than a few daring clues here that recall aspects of Christianna Brand’s style of plotting in the best way possible, and they are stunning come the denouement.

As for the romance side of the story, I only have one major gripe: Nathan. Nathan as a character is very unpleasant, but not entirely for the reasons Innes intended. Nathan is the only bisexual character in the story. When you only have one character from a particular marginalized group, it gets a little difficult to write them in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re your token representation of your views on an entire demographic of people. When the character is an unrelentingly bad person, you need to be especially careful that you’re clear that the unlikable sides of their personality stem not from their identity but from their own personal shortcomings. Unfortunately, Innes doesn’t do any of the things necessary to manage that, and ends up writing a character who feels like they only exist to reinforce not-so-great stereotypes about bisexual people. The most common negative stereotype about people who are bisexual is that, because they’re attracted to multiple genders, they’re more likely to end up cheating on you. Given that Nathan ended up cheating on his boyfriend with a woman, and he spends the entire novel rubbing that fact in Blake’s face, I walk away from the story with a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. Obviously I’m not calling for Innes for be cancelled, his books burned, or whatever. I don’t think Innes had poor intentions with writing the Nathan character — the whole book turns on a tender queer romance! I only feel like the character might end up unwittingly being a somewhat damaging depiction of an already marginalized group of people, and it’s worth acknowledging that for what it is.

All told, though, I don’t want to sound too negative. Because I really did enjoy Ripples a lot. The cluing didn’t quite reach the level of feeling truly “fair”, but nonetheless brilliant hints, and a truly inspired solution to its unique impossible crime of a man walking across water show Innes flirting with the puzzle mystery enough to leave something here for classical purists to get a kick out of. The romance plot never felt like it detracted from the mystery, and was very tender and charming, doing a fantastic job of combating my negative views of this subgenre of crime fiction. There’s plenty here to enjoy with Innes, so that even for its minor bumps I absolutely look forward to reading more of the Blake Harte series!

(*note: This novel spoils its two predecessors, Untouchable and Confessional, naming the culprits explicitly)