Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Adventure of the Modern Short Story Collection

Wow, this is my third review in as many days. I’m almost surprised at myself. Anyhow, let’s get to the point: today’s review will be slightly different than usual, because I will be reviewing my first short story collection here, so I will be discussing each story individually and then look at them as a whole. Today’s book is by Hal White, author of The Reverend Dean Mysteries, a book which seems to have gotten considerably favourable reviews. I was intrigued: a modern-day author writing impossible crime stories starring a reverend? (Inconceivable!) I actually communicated with Mr. White through his website before placing an order on this book, and was reassured that the stories didn’t just go for unfair explanations. This encouraged me to order the book, and now I will share my opinions on these tales.

Murder at an Island Mansion

Unfortunately, the first story in this collection is something of a let-down, as the opening case is a fairly complex one, involving no less than three (that’s not a typo) impossible murders!!! There are hints that a ghost is behind the crimes, but unfortunately, this isn’t particularly eerie. Being simply told “only a ghost could’ve done it!” does not make the atmosphere particularly creepy or anything of the sort— it just serves as an odd statement to emphasize the impossible nature of these crimes.

Unfortunately, it’s not that impossible to begin with. The first murder is the cleverest of the lot, but I still solved it: it involves a murder on a beach with no footprints approaching the corpse. The second death involves a corpse surrounded entirely by wet paint, with no footprints approaching it. This is the worst crime of the bunch, as the explanation is unnecessarily complex, when you could’ve kept the same killer and solution and had a much more simple and direct approach. The third crime is a real letdown, because it involves a trick that should have never fooled the police.

However, I ended up liking the story overall, which is more than I can say for most modern authors. I think a story is doing something right if it keeps you entertained. Much of this is due to the character of Reverend Dean. I like the fellow a lot- he reminds me of one of my personal heroes, a Polish priest I knew (he unfortunately passed away) who was thrown into Auschwitz during WWII. I can see the kindness and generosity, and I can visualise his gentle smile. He is a comforting character to encounter, not some rough-and-tough gun-totin' Mafia Padre (which, to be frank, I wouldn't be surprised to see...). The story ends with a reference to the enjoyable, but flawed, movie Ghost Story, an apt metaphor for the story in question...

Murder from the Fourth Floor

This story is far more interesting. Its greatest flaw is its extremely contrived set-up, involving the mysterious disappearance of a shooter from an apartment room kept under observation. In particular, a teenager is “just chillen’” by listening to an MP3 player on a fire escape because the neighbour has a loud wrestling show going on… for two hours!!!  The teenager’s dialogue, incidentally, is rather embarrassing to read. I don’t know anybody who speaks that way. Still, he occupies a rather minor role, so it’s easy to forget this flaw.

That being said, the solution to the mystery is clever- I was bracing myself for the disappointingly obvious, but instead, the solution was complex and elaborate. (Really elaborate… I think it took the Reverend 16 pages to explain things! But don’t worry, it’s not dull.) The killer’s identity is easily spotted, but the how is much more complex, and although it requires a lot of preparation on the killer's part, I found myself overall satisfied, with one small reservation about the motive. So although it's flawed, this story was a huge improvement.

Murder on a Caribbean Cruise

This may very well be the best story in the collection. It is told in a fairly light-hearted manner, with a few sombre bits as Reverend Dean thinks about his late wife, Emma. The locked-room scenario is good, and the solution is also quite good. The method, I admit, had me puzzled, but the killer once again is extremely easy to spot.

In this story, Reverend Dean goes on a cruise where the ship's 24/7 buffet poses a true threat to the poor man’s health! I think the story’s atmosphere is best captured in a fun bit where Dean’s fellow passengers tell him to go to Hell. It’s a genuinely amusing and enjoyable story, a bit heavier than the others on the religious angle, but this is mainly during the good build-up to the crime itself.

Murder at the Lord’s Table

This is the kind of story so ridiculous that it comes off as amusing whether the author likes it or not. Say, have you ever thought that if Jesus showed up in church, more people would believe? Well, first an angel and then Jesus both appear in a church in this story, but they seem rather cheesed off at the pastor and predict a death. (What? Were Moses and Elijah too busy playing bridge with C.S. Lewis and Thomas Aquinas?) The pastor calls in Reverend Dean, who attends the next celebration at the church in question— only to witness the man being struck down, apparently by God himself.

Well, obviously the man was murdered, and thankfully this is a far shorter story than the others. I say “thankfully” because right away, the entire solution is almost painfully obvious. I think this would’ve made a better story if its unintended comedy was… well, intended. The situation is absolutely ridiculous— I think it would’ve been quite fun to have all sorts of Biblical characters running around and making this story something of a divine comedy (pardon the pun). But the story goes into interesting territory, about how faith does not exclude logic, and vice versa.

Murder in a Sealed Loft

This is also a contender for the best story in the collection, involving an extremely clever killer who goes to the trouble of creating a double solution for Reverend Dean. It is a fairly routine locked-room, with three locks and a guard dog separating the victim from whoever killed her. However, Hal White seems to forget to explain one detail, leaving things hanging. It’s the situation where you stare incredulously at the words “The End” and practically scream “But what did Lord Bathtub do with the third onion???” Apart from that, it’s plenty of fun, though the killer’s identity is once again quite obvious. It’s interesting to see Reverend Dean forced into an armchair detective role because of the flu, and overall, the story is rewarding.

Murder at the Fall Festival

I was not expecting much from this finale, a decent story which involves the mysterious materialization of a corpse in a locked garage. However, I was pleasantly surprised. While the killer’s identity is obvious, and I got the general idea of what kind of trick was played, the details of the killer’s plot entirely escaped me. I suspect the trick would have been better hidden in novel form, because one of the main clues is buried in a suspiciously lengthy diversion (for a short story).

***

And there we are, those are all the Reverend Dean stories. They all make for reasonable entertainment, and the reason for this is the character of Reverend Dean. He is an interesting character: a retired priest whose wife died a few years back, leaving him terribly lonely, and apparently, a magnet attracting malicious aspiring locked-room murderers. I even like his semi-sidekick dog, a monstrous St. Bernard named Puppadawg who keeps Reverend Dean company. If there is one criticism I have is that Dean goes into melancholy moods once or twice too often. Yes, he misses Emma, and that pain makes him seem more human and brings the reader closer to him, but something as simple as a blade of grass might end up bringing tears to his eyes as he remembers how Emma loved to mow the grass… This wouldn’t be the case in novel form, but in a short story, where every word is precious, it stretches things once or twice.

Mr. White has an interesting imagination, coming up with some fun impossible scenarios. I generally covered what I think could have been done better above, but overall, I think Reverend Dean would do better in novels. In a misguided attempt to exonerate the culprit from the reader’s mind, White ends up only drawing attention to the culprit. This is primarily due to something that might pass unnoticed in a novel, but in a short story, it’s easily spotted. Now I’m going to be really unfair: I can easily imagine John Dickson Carr pulling off the twist to Murder on a Caribbean Cruise and it coming as a total shock. Hal White is no John Dickson Carr, but that’s really an unfair comparison. Carr was a grandmaster, while this is a debut short story collection. I can only sincerely hope Hal White continues to write, and hopefully, his stories get better over time. I like his writing overall, and it’s a promising debut.

Overall, I enjoyed The Reverend Dean Mysteries. While far from perfect, it did something right, because I was entertained throughout. Don’t expect a reincarnation of John Dickson Carr, and you probably will enjoy it as well. A second short story collection or a Reverend Dean novel would be welcome, and if one becomes available, I will gladly read it.

4 comments:

  1. So you pretty much bought the book on recommendation of its authors? Cool! Can I interest you in purchasing the Sydney Opera House or The Golden Gate Bridge? ;)

    Peter Sinclair assured me his locked room stories are first-rate, fair play locked room mysteries, but I simply refuse to buy them until I have some credible feedback. I already burned my fingers on second-rate hacks such as Frederick Ramsey and David Marsh.

    Anyway, I also hope more Reverend Dean stories will await us in the near future, even though I was overall less enthusiastic about the stories then you are.

    "Murder at an Island Mansion" and "Murder on a Caribbean Cruise" are, IMO, the best stories, however, after reading your review I think that a reread of this collection is in order.

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  2. Heh, no, I was also persuaded when I saw Doug Greene's enthusiastic comments. Hearing that it's not going to be solved by a quick off-stage trip to Boston was what did it for me. ;)

    I'm surprised you consider "Murder at an Island Mansion" to be one of the best. I already mentioned why I was disappointed by it, so I won't reiterate. Why did you like it?

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  3. From memory, I enjoyed him stringing together three no-footprint scenarios with fairly original (loved the one on the beach) and workable solution – especially if you contrast them with some of the stories later on in the collection.

    "The Fourth Floor" is clever, but overly complex and no short story should require a nearly 20-page explanation; "Lord's Table" was incredibly silly and transparent; remember very little of "Sealed Loft," but there are apparently some holes in the solution and I just didn't like the ridiculous "Fall Festival."

    "Island Mansion" and "Caribbean Cruise," on the other hand, offer some simple, but effective, tricks – which made the stories stick out in my memory more than the other ones.

    Hal White, IMO, is at his best when he isn't trying to be too clever, like he was in the second story. Afterall, the best tricks are often the simplest ones.

    Carr, Talbot and Commings could get away with such firework displays of complexity, but some of their best stories were also the most basic ones – build around single ingenious idea.

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  4. Interesting opinions! I agree, I loved the beach crime in "Island Mansion", but it was easily solved and the others were disappointing, and that's what brought it down for me. I also agree that "Lord's Table" was quite silly and extremely obvious, but I think it would've made a good "divine comedy" if the humour there was intended. As for the long explanation for "The Fourth Floor"-- yes, it's long. Really, really, really long. But I liked the cleverness of it, and despite the complexity, it was rather easily followed, fairly clued, and satisfying overall.

    "Sealed Loft" definitely has at least one hole in the solution, which I put into spoilers at the forum. If not for that, I might've liked it more than the Caribbean cruise.

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