The Key to the Case (1992) by Roger Ormeord

Roger Ormerod’s retro-classical mystery novels have received repeated mention on this blog for their seamless splicing of the DNA of classical Golden Age-styled puzzle plots and the grit-and-grime of contemporary police thrillers. Time to Kill, Roger Ormerod’s debut featuring his first series sleuth private eye David Mallin, was an entry on my first list of my 15 favorite impossible crimes for its inspired spin on the “impossible alibi” problem, a post on which also earning a mention of the novel. A later novel in the same series, the more straightforwardly classical locked-room mystery More Dead Than Alive, was also fantastic. This novel, The Key to the Case is therefore the third novel of Ormerod’s to be covered — this one however, instead of David Mallin, features Roger Ormerod’s crime-solving husband-and-wife duo of retired police detective inspector Richard Patton and his wife Amelia, being the ninth book in the series about their exploits.

After solving “the affair of the clocks” (likely a reference to an earlier novel), Richard Patton finds himself spending most of his post-retirement life dealing with miscellaneous personal affairs like hunting for missing pets or handling property disputes. Following in this trend is Ronnie, an ex-convict and purportedly reformed petty burglar known to Richard, who claims to be innocent of an aggravated burglary that, unfortunately, the police want to pin on him. He begs Richard for an alibi, but he’s disinterested in the contract.

Unfortunately, later, a friend of Amelia’s introduces Richard to another purportedly reformed crook named Milo who also needs help from Richard. Milo’s son, Bryan, has just killed himself — or so the police claim. After all, Bryan was murdered inside of a locked-sealed-and-bolted house with all of the locks, seals, and bolts shot from the inside. Milo on the other hand believes that Bryan was murdered, and he needs Richard to figure out how. Although Richard claims to not be interested in this contract either, it slowly nags at him to investigate both problems.

In soon comes to Richard’s attention that Bryan had a lot of people out to get him — he is in actuality a serial rapist, responsible for the assaults of three women and having served and been released from prison. Only a month after his release, a fourth women is sexually assaulted and subsequently murdered in the same place he committed the other attacks, leading to a barrage of death threats. Knowing that his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship was murdered by a rapist, the revelation leads to complicated questions of whether it’s even worth finding Bryan’s murderer to begin with…

An element of Ormerod’s writing that has always appealed him to me is his ability to combine the contemporary police thriller with the classical puzzle plots. Ormerod is a smart creator and destroyer of alibis, and equally skilled at impossible crimes. Although his writing was always dense with personal and interpersonal dramas, at the end of it all he usually revealed how he had deftly laid clues in places you never would’ve thought to see. And, as with all of Ormerod’s writing, the story moves briskly and is defined by snappy, accessible, unfussy writing that makes for easy and quick reading. However, I think it’s possible that The Key to the Case might lean a little too heavily on the side of the contemporary crime story, to its detriment…

The Key to the Case is hurt majorly by its looseness and pacing with building-up the solution. Many plot points that, in a classical detective novel, would be reserved for the denouement, are either heavily suggested as possible or explicitly revealed during the course of the narrative. Strictly speaking, the full picture of the locked-room mystery and its solution is revealed in every part either by confession, implication, or explicit deduction by the middle-point of the novel (only being christened as the solution at the end) — adding to that, it isn’t a very compelling explanation. By the 70% point of the novel, essentially everything had been revealed except for the identity of the culprit in the rape-and-murder, and the Bryan murder cases. However, at this stage, I feel like the information is present that, rather than shocking, renders the solution merely perfectly natural and easily intuited. It’s particularly a shame, because there is a particularly brilliant clue a la Chesterton or “The Purloined Letter” that goes wasted because its intended meaning is easily inferred while bypassing Ormerod’s intended logic.

This is an element I’ve always associated with modern crime thrillers, where a clue leads to a conclusion leads to more investigation — conclusions are dolled out freely in order to maintain audience interest in the plot, rather than reserved for the sake of the puzzle. It’s something that I felt wasn’t present in the other Ormerods I’ve read, where Ormerod was much more tactful with handling little revelations throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, The Key to the Case spoils so much of the solution by the mid-late portion of the narrative that the eventual resolution is the most intuitive given the provided information. The motive, method, and all surrounding details are perfectly organic, all things considered, so that I’d be surprised if the novel has any surprises to spare the reader come the denouement.

The subject matter that defines the police thriller half of the novel’s identity is also troubling and uncomfortable. The matter of rape is by no means treated lightly; however, the resolution Ormerod eventually reaches on why Bryan’s death matters is at best tone-deaf and naive on the impacts of rape, and at worst deeply cynical towards women, suggesting that “the modern woman” is simply no longer impacted by rape because “morality is shifting”. He goes so far as to nearly suggest that Bryan’s rapes are permissible morally because they were “gentle”, depicting women as “grateful” to raise his progeny, and even having one of his victims offer to teach him how to perform sex better during the rape. Worse yet, Ormerod has all of his male characters standing around, being deeply upset about the matter, and has his rape-victim deuteragonist scold them, implying that their outrage at the sexual assaults are misplaced and irrational. It reaches a point where it feels like genuine, honest-to-God rape apologia that I don’t believe can be written off as “a product of its time”, and it’s the kind of thing I hadn’t seen in any other Ormerod novel. I firmly believe that if Ormerod had gotten a single female opinion on any part of this novel, The Key to the Case would be a very different novel than we’d got today.

Unfortunately, I cannot agree with TomCat’s review of The Key to the Case, in which he calls it “Ormerod’s best-plotted novel”. I found the plotting to be damaged by loosely-handled revelations that all but spoil the solution by nearly the halfway point, leaving the plot with nowhere to go but the obvious ending. While there’s one particularly clever clue, both scenario and resolution betray no trace of the imaginative, baroque plotting I saw in Time to Kill or More Dead than Alive. Worse yet, the story reveals a very dark, cynical perspective on rape that permeates throughout the entire novel that makes The Key to the Case obviously a product of having never spoken to a single woman during the course of writing it. As a mystery plot in a void, The Key to the Case is perfectly good on the level that all of the disparate pieces come together cleanly and neatly, but as a plot that harks back to the Golden Age it is flawed and uninspired in a way I’ve never seen from Ormerod.