Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey

Surrounded by security.
Victoria, you challenge me,
I shall shortly come to thee.

A banker has just shot his manager and in less than thirty seconds of the police arriving on the scene confesses to the murder. Bored out of his wits with paperwork and thirsting for a suitably engaging case, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is quick to get involved when the arrival of a mysterious verse in the press presages the theft of the Penny Black, the world’s oldest and most valuable postage stamp….

Meanwhile, local Bathian Shirley Ann-Miller finds her way to the crypt of The Church of St. Michael with St. Paul, where a weekly meeting of The Bloodhounds, an intimate group of lovers of crime fiction, was soon to be underway. Bored out of her wits by her partner’s long work hours, and passionate of the genre, Shirley Ann-Miller thought the group would provide a suitable alternative to spending an afternoon cooped up in her flat. After a debate on the merits of character versus reality versus puzzles in crime fiction, veteran Bloodhound Milo Motion supplies a copy of John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man, intending to make converts of the group with his famous lecture on locked room murders. Only the matter becomes all too real when the Penny Black falls from the book which has never left Milo’s possession or his locked boathouse… and the body of fellow club member Sid shows up under similarly baffling circumstances inside of the locked boathouse. Two impossible crimes in real life, now centered on The Bloodhounds…

Bloodhounds can easily be described as the marriage between a Golden Age puzzler and a contemporary police procedural. The murder in a perfectly locked boathouse, and a spectacular heist of an age-old stamp is straight out of the pages of a novel from the 1930s, but as the book starts to take a more sober stance on the investigation of the problem it’s clear that much of the artificiality (though not all) that makes a lot of locked room mysteries function is missing here. The lock is not a latch that can only be shot from the inside of the room, but rather nothing more than a simple padlock hanging on the outside of the door. And, just like the contemporary police procedural that it is, Peter Diamond does not exhaust himself reasoning out the locked room mystery, spending equal if not more time creating a full picture of his suspects.

While in places this makes the book charming and unique, it also lends itself to some of the books lowest lows and longest slogs that take it well outside of my tastes. A core distinction I’ve found between procedurals and detective novels of the Golden Age is that the former is more about the collection of evidence — individual clues may be misleading, but only misleading in the lack of other information, and as more evidence rears its head, conclusions flow organically from there. The interpretation of the evidence is not complex, and ultimately is not the focus, as it would be in a Golden Age mystery, and even much of the investigation happens in the background with the help of highly specialized police teams. Instead, the focus of the narration is on Lovesey conducting lengthy interviews, crafting complete and thorough profiles of the victim and the people who knew him.

None of that in and of itself is bad. It is simply a separate school of thought in the very broad genre of crime writing, and it is that very breadth that Bloodhounds celebrates. While the heart and soul of Bloodhounds is a procedural, there are aspects of multiple subgenres thrown together that represent the philosophies brought forth by The Bloodhounds. However, the Bloodhounds often struggled, and fought, and the harmony was a perilous and conflicted one and that in and of itself serves as the perfect metaphor for the results of trying to merge so much together in one novel.

The procedural aspects of Bloodhounds, which find their avatar in Rupert, who believes that crime fiction ought to portray a realistic image of crime, caused the crime to often feel incidental to the narrative. Oftentimes when something happened that had dramatic implications and was supposed to totally uproot your understanding of the murder and the theft, it came out of stark nowhere after such a long time of the crimes simply not being in focus that you were confused in the worst possible way, and the impact was dulled and lost.

The Golden Age of Detection was rhapsodized upon by Milo Motion, who thought the puzzle of methods laid out for the reader was the heart and soul of crime fiction. This aspect of the book was hurt by the fact that evidence was often only introduced as it was needed to bring the detectives to the next point of its investigation. While you eventually had all of the information, very rarely was a point introduced and it just have some mystery as to what it means. It usually went that the wrong interpretation was brought forth by the narration, which you frequently didn’t entirely have the ability to correct until more information came later, and when the new information was brought to light the narration would amend its opinion on the earlier clues fairly quickly. The only time you really had much room to work with to puzzle the solution out was between the end of the investigation and the denouement proper, which was only a few chapters. There were some glimmers of earlier fairness, with a lot of small details dotted throughout that the keen reader will definitely pick up on, and that does let the reader get some heads-up on the detective, but not by too far.

The book is as confused about what it represents as The Bloodhounds themselves, and the treatment of the crime and mystery felt weird to me. But it isn’t all bad, and despite all of what I’ve just said I think the book has plenty to offer readers. The characters are all fully realized, and more than mere archetypes. The dialogue is often witty enough to earn an audible laugh. And though The Bloodhounds do sadly get phased out of the picture as a group later in the book, with Shirley even inexplicably disappearing as a second narrator, when they’re together, the debates they have are homely and familiar. Much of their talks are well-researched and leaves the reader with plenty of books to chase down. The seasoned reader of mystery novels will likely find themselves thinking they’ve had this conversation before on more than one occasion. And though the way the mystery handled itself was confused, the solution was not, with solid reasoning and a satisfying resolution to every question and problem, bar perhaps the locked room problem itself was not entirely fair outside of being “the only possible solution”, and it was only a somewhat more clever twist of a fairly tired solution type.

All in all, I’m not super passionate about Bloodhounds as a mystery. As Milo Motion himself said, mysteries nowadays are more about the characters than the crime, and the same can be said for this novel. While it tried to strike a delicate balance, with a complex criminal plot one can see coming straight out of Christie or at the heart of it plot, it often leaned too far on one side for the merge to be totally seamless. But there’s a clear lot of love for the genre here, and when it works, it works! It has its low points, but when it matters the book can pull the reader back in, and it ends on a very high note. The book is very nearly fairplay, but in an odd way, and the crime is complex even if it isn’t the essence of the narrative.

Bloodhounds is an easy recommend for people who want more character from their convoluted criminal plots, or who wants a more sober take on the Golden Age puzzle.

The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr

Case Of The Constant Suicides: 9781846974595: Books

When I first discovered the wide, wonderful world of impossible crimes and locked room murders, it shouldn’t be anyone’s surprise that the very, very first name I was introduced to — and one which I’d come to hear, and speak reverently, many more times for years to come — was John Dickson Carr. He’s the veritable king of the locked room mystery! The master of impossible crimes! A masterclass in atmospheric ghost stories-cum-murder mysteries. However, despite the fact Mr. Carr is best known for The Hollow Man (or The Three Coffins, if you prefer going against the tide), I was first introduced to him through a friend’s emphatic review of The Case of the Constant Suicides. For reasons unknown even to myself, I had still decided to put off reading The Case of the Constant Suicides for four whole years, even as I read other Carr novels, but the book was always in the back of my mind. So, finally, in 2020, I decided to do right by myself and my enthusiastic friend and give the book a read.

Having now read it, though, I’m stuck with a bit of a conundrum. As a first Carr novel, The Case of the Constant Suicides is difficult to recommend because the cluing, plotting, narrative and tone are so far-removed from anything traditionally “John Dickson Carr” that it doesn’t offer a good indication of what to expect from his writing. However, those very same problems may also makes The Case of the Constant Suicides a hard read for purists, not only of Carr but also locked room mysteries in general. The book is best served as either a middle read, enjoyed after you’ve developed a casual acquaintanceship with locked room mysteries and your standards and tastes aren’t so rigid, or a nearly-last read, enjoyed after you’re exhausted of reading contrived, winding puzzles and want a mystery more social in natural. Alas, neither of those apply to me, and I can safely say The Case of the Constant Suicides is not one of my most favorite of Carr’s works and, in fact, may be one of my least favorite reads from the author.

In Scotland, the Campbell clan gather at the Castle of Shira to mourn the passing of Angus Campbell, who died after a fall from the highest room of the castle’s tower. Because the room was perfectly sealed from the inside, his death is presumed a suicide, but some among the gathering believe that his recent life insurance policies (which would be annulled in the case of suicide) are proof that Angus hadn’t committed suicide, but was indeed murdered!

Fortunately, as it would so happen, Colin Campbell has connections to Gideon Fell, a renowned amateur-expert in the area of locked rooms and how to commit murder in them. Upon arriving, he confirms the mourners’ worst suspicions… Angus Campbell was murdered!

The Case of the Constant Suicides is a bizarre entry into Carr’s portfolio, but if nothing else it proves that if Carr wrote in the modern world he’d always have television comedy to fall back on should the locked room market collapse. Indeed, the novel’s tone is incredibly out-of-place in the Fell series, which often features a haunting, oppressive atmosphere. Instead, many of the most memorable scenes of Constant Suicides would feel right at place in, believe it or not, an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

To put it in paradoxical terms, the humor in Constant Suicides is incredibly funny, but at the same time my least favorite part of the book. Despite being one of the shortest Carr’s I’ve read recently, no less than a third of the novel is spent in sitcom-space introducing us to the perspective characters of Alan and Kathryn Campbell, feuding academic-writers and unbeknownst cousins, their odd “will-they-won’t-they”, and their quirky distant family. In this way, Constant Suicides is remarkably similar to the earlier Christianna Brand novels, but even then the handling of the murder is frankly bizarre. Once Fell finally gets to make an appearance the problem of the “it could be murder” is given some attention, but then after not so much as a rudimentary physical investigation he divines the solution to the problem, some time is spent with the drama of not believing the room is dangerous and the book carries on with some interrogations to fill some gaps in the story. Unlike any other locked room Carr, where the main article is a winding trail of clues and red herrings leading you along to the solution, Constant Suicides leaves the solution nearly immediately apparent and leaves it at that. And, while there are two more impossible crimes, one is a direct repetition of the original problem and the other is a very disappointing piece. The main article is easily the interactions between characters, their drama and the humor — absolutely not the constant suicides, as the title and any blurb would have you believe — making The Case of the Constant Suicides a social mystery of the highest order, from a man who rarely if ever dabbled in the school.

This unconventional focus in narrative and plotting isn’t bad by any stretch, but it makes The Case of the Constant Suicides feel counter-intuitive to the sort of work Carr did in much of his other 70-plus mysteries. It’s hard to recommend this book to anyone looking for “another Carr” or a puzzling locked room problem, but those who don’t suffer the curse of purism may find here a pleasantly entertaining comedy in the form of an impossible crime.