It’s easy to see how Roger Ormerod can fly under the radar of many enjoyers of Golden Age mysteries. To begin with, he wrote chiefly in the latter half of the 20th century (his earliest novel was published in 1974!), well out of the territory many readers would expect to find a fledgling in the craft of the puzzle plot. The front covers of the most recent reprints of his work are indistinguishable from one another — a brooding silhouette with his back turned against drab urban scenery that may not even have any connection to the plot anyway — and don’t do their part in suggesting anything other than a cheap dimestore crime thriller. An impression which, mind you, isn’t helped by the “A David Mallin Thriller” subtitle slapped onto every book in this particular series (his other series gets the very occasional distinction of “An Inspector Patton Mystery“).
More Dead Than Alive is the second Roger Ormerod novel I’ve read and, by extension, the second David Mallin I’ve read, with the first being his debut novel Time to Kill (1974), and save but the occasional moment of crassness and sex-positivity that would simply be unthinkable to many writers of the former half of the century I can’t find a single strand of the DNA of the dull, lackluster police thriller that the author’s marketing advertises. Yes, the writing is snappy, and the characters are a bit bolder and more down-to-earth than is typical, but at his heart David Mallin seems to be a late member of the class of puzzle-plot mysteries any fan of Golden Age mysteries would be remiss to neglect.
More Dead Than Alive sees David Mallin summoned to the decrepit medieval Kilvennan Castle by his wife, Elsa, to investigate the presumed death and, more importantly, impossible disappearance of famed illusionist and escape artist Konrad Klein. The vanishing act was performed from a room at the top of a tower with a door sealed from the inside by the weight of a trick cabinet and otherwise blocked off by a window opening to nothing but sheer rockface and a deadly drop into the waters below. Klein’s family are concerned about whether his disappearance was a suicide, foul-play, or something else entirely, as the magician’s insurance was quite clear that money would not be paid to the family in the event of suicide; a worry that is quickly discarded when Klein’s body washes ashore, decidedly killed with a bullet wound that creates a brand-new problem of a killer vanishing from a sealed room…
What makes up the majority of the novel is experimentation, with Mallin and his partner, the eager Coe, finding a delightful array of false solutions to the problem of the locked-room. However, at the end of the formulating-and-discarding of theories, David Mallin is able to, with the evidence provided, come to a conclusive answer about how the murder of Klein was committed and provide a blockbuster of a solution to the problem.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, More Dead Than Alive is a 1980 novel in nothing but aesthetic. It is conceived, plotted, and resolved as cerebrally and cleverly as any 1930’s crime novel, and provides a thoroughly satisfying and well-crafted impossible crime puzzle. Being released as late as it is, though, the book does borrow something from its contemporaries. A more modern wit, incredibly unfussy and easygoing writing, and characters just a bit more ordinary than a nosy egg-shaped Belgian or a bored aristocrat may make the book something shy of high literature, but absolutely pleasant to read.
The novel and its mystery can well be considered fairplay, but I confess that I can’t speak very confidently on that front. A combination of Tomcat’s review mentioning that, compared to the other solutions, the proper solution is somewhat incredible with Ormerod brow-beating you with a key detail about the killer made it somewhat easy to guess at the core artifice of the solution somewhat easily and early while bypassing the intended logic of the puzzle. Ordinarily I’d write it off as simply a lucky guess combined with preparation for the solution thanks to Tomcat’s review, but I confess that I was just as able to guess at the solution to Time to Kill, a novel I’d read ages ago while having no introduction to Ormerod’s work at all. This seems to me to be Ormerod’s greatest weakness in the two novels I’ve read is a hyper-excess of fairness. It’s almost like Ormerod wasn’t confident he planted enough clues for the reader in More Dead Than Alive and felt it necessary to go above and beyond to bring them to your attention in fear that he’d receive scorn if he didn’t. Which, in Ormerod’s defense, is probably a safe assumption, given the solution is tough to swallow, as jaw-droppingly devious as it is!
In spite of this, however, neither of the two Ormerod novels I’ve read so far has been a disappointment. In fact, I’m really taken with Ormerod. The problems and their resolutions in both Time to Kill and More Dead Than Alive are wildly clever and imaginative. I brought up Time to Kill in my post On A Defense of the Impossible Alibi Problem and “Doylist” Impossibilities, and it sprung to my mind when writing the post simply because it is my single favorite resolution to the problem of how a killer, who is guaranteed to be the killer by the narration mind you, can commit a crime while apparently under unbroken supervision by our reliable narrator. Yes, I guessed at the solution, just as I guessed at the solution in More Dead Than Alive, but I felt vindicated, rather than disappointed. I didn’t figure it out because I’d read a lot of mystery stories and was able to spot a familiar pattern in a familiar resolution, which would’ve been, frankly, disappointing and annoying; I figured it out because Ormerod was damn good at setting these problems up, giving you the information to figure them out, and resolving them. The overexcess of fairness might turn some people off, but these solutions are so unique you’re bound to feel clever for figuring them out either way, and if these early stories are, as Tomcat suggests, of lower-than-average quality for Ormerod’s output than I’m more than happy to name Ormerod a very likely favorite of mine.
The recent draught in reviews has, in some part, been due to my recent reading not inspiring much in me to say. I’ve had a whole host of books lined-up to read and review, but it always ended up being the same story for me. I read Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith and found the central problem incredibly novel, and the resolution simply as clever as clever gets, but was able to see past the core deception and resolve the heart of the mystery fairly early. On recommendation, I just read A Nice Murder for Mom by James Yaffe and found the resolution uninspired and immediately obvious. I read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie, and felt like the solution was incredibly clever and novelly-clued, but was also able to jab at most of the heart of the mystery. Murder in the Maze was a decent classically-styled mystery, but I felt like spotting the identity of the killer was a trifle. I’d also read and easily figured out The House That Kills by Noel Vindry and found the novel incredibly uninspired from its writing, to its crimes, to its solutions and frankly only remember it for this. Add onto this I had a sudden urge to review Time To Kill, which I also resolved fairly early, and it was just too much.
Frankly, I didn’t really want to write seven reviews in a row that included any variation of the phrase “I figured it out”, because not only does it feel like I’m just bragging, it also doesn’t make for interesting reading material for you all. Unfortunately, I felt like I needed to get back into the habit of weekly reviews, so I bit the bullet and picked one of my older reviews to publish. At the moment I’m reading Max Carrados, a short story collection featuring the blind detective of the same name, written by Ernest Bramah, and should be able to review it by next Sunday to return to a regular schedule.