Friday, May 06, 2011

The Big Chill

William L. DeAndrea has quickly become the most reviewed author so far on this (still rather young) blog, but can you really blame me? DeAndrea knew how to tell a good story without uselessly padding it out. He was clearly influenced by Rex Stout, and in this book, Killed on the Rocks, I noticed more than ever the way the detective, Matt Cobb, spoke in that unmistakable voice used by Stout’s Archie Goodwin.

Killed on the Rocks is a highly entertaining read, where DeAndrea seems to have combined the style of Rex Stout with a plot that John Dickson Carr at his most ingenious could’ve come up with. This combination is the stuff of dreams, something mystery fans like me thought they could only wish upon a star about. But as it turns out, it is possible to reach out and read it! No, this isn’t a hallucination, a lie, or a dream! Egad!

Obviously, I’ve gotten quite fond of DeAndrea since making my acquaintance with his work. How can I describe his style? He seems to be having fun all the way through, and makes no bones about it: it is a mystery. You can take it or leave it, but any deep thoughts on society are pure coincidence, and any English professors who start talking about Deeper Artistic Meaning will be put to death on the spot. The influence of Rex Stout in his style is obvious, especially in his dialogue and the way his narrator here, Matt Cobb, echoes Archie Goodwin. Consider this passage, for instance, after he interrogates a whole pile of suspects:

“I went to the bar and made a bourbon and soda for myself. Ralph had one too. He looked as exhausted as I felt. I had no idea how guys like Hercule Poirot and Doctor Fell managed it. Yes, I did. By not being real, that’s how they managed it.”

This is a marvellous reference to Christie’s super sleuth and Carr’s great detective, which I found very funny.

DeAndrea, however, has one clear advantage over Rex Stout: he plays fair with his clues, which are rather strong. Stout’s plots were often either not clued fairly or clued weakly— they served as springboards from which Nero Wolfe would make a deduction, and then send out someone other than Archie to confirm it and then do some more sniffing around, from which he could make more deductions than the reader ever could. DeAndrea, on the other hand, gives his reader all the clues when his detective gets them, and they are good ones. You get to see Matt Cobb here piece the puzzle together; it’s not as though he figures everything out on page 13 and spends the rest of the book thumbing his nose at the reader, chanting “I’m not telling!!!” 

Another thing I’ve noticed in DeAndrea is that most of his books have a very thrilling confrontation involving guns. There was an excellent climatic shootout in Killed on the Ice; Quinn Booker has to face off against a nasty character in a gunfight in Written in Fire; and now here, in Killed on the Rocks, the finale is a lengthy confrontation where the killer is holding the gun and Cobb hasn’t got anything.

As I’ve hinted before, however, Killed on the Rocks is a surprisingly complex story, which feels like a fusion of Rex Stout’s style in a John Dickson Carr plot. The Network, which Cobb works for, is in negotiations with G. B. (“Gabby”) Dost, who wants to purchase it. A series of anonymous letters is sent, accusing Dost of being involved in (among other things) treachery, murder, and madness. Well, to discuss the details further, everyone is summoned to Dost’s mansion in the mountains, when they are all snowed in, effectively cut off from the outside world. As Cobb puts it:

“This is what comes, I told myself, of perceiving Tom Falzet as a human being. You wind up snowed into the middle of nowhere with a bunch of very strange people. I didn’t know about treachery or death, but if anybody wanted corroboration of the madness angle, I was willing to cosign the next anonymous note.”

Things take a slightly dark turn, however, when Dost is discovered the next morning outside the house, a bloody mess on the rocks— with completely unmarked snow between him and the house! This isn’t your usual case of the victim’s footprints being the only ones to the body; apart from the bloody corpse, there isn’t anything disturbing the snow! Cobb, abruptly woken up, quickly tries to take charge of the situation, but that doesn’t make him exactly popular among the rest of the guests:

“What do you want?” he said.
“I’d like to know why you think—“
“And why aren’t you wearing any clothes?
I made myself a silent promise that the next time I came across an impossibly dead corpse, I would don a goddam tuxedo before I did anything else.

This exchange comes with the victim’s son Barry, who insists his father was speaking with Cobb before he died, and promptly loses his temper, fighting with Cobb, kicking him in the head, and promptly disappearing, making everyone worried that there is a murderous lunatic at large somewhere in the house.

But that is just the beginning, as the plot revolves around discovering just how Dost met his death, why Barry claims Cobb was talking with the dead man, and one of Cobb’s female friends claiming their hostess made a sexual pass at her— but the lady in question furiously denies it and claims that she wouldn’t have allowed a lesbian in her house if she’d known. In the middle of this, a second impossible situation occurs, as the dead man appears inside a TV set that isn’t hooked up to anything but the electric socket!

DeAndrea tells a complex plot full of twists and turns, fairly clued and ultimately quite satisfying. There is even a romantic angle to the story, which I think is DeAndrea’s best thus far. However, be warned: there is a segment in this book that appears to spoil the solution to at least two previous books, and tells you who Cobb’s love interests (and obviously, non-culprits) were in a few other books. I tried my best not to focus on the names mentioned, so when I get around to these books, they’ll hopefully still be surprises.

I highly recommend Killed on the Rocks, a marvellous entry into the impossible crime genre, with a very good and, as far as I can tell, original solution. It’s a fairly-clued story told in the traditional manner, which could’ve come right out of Carr, and it is told with the gusto of Rex Stout. It’s the most delightful book I’ve read by DeAndrea. William L. DeAndrea seems to be my newest candidate for sainthood in the realm of mysteries. What a shame he died so young!


  1. I guess I was right in my assessment, solely based on reading Killed in Paradise, that Matt Cobb is the literary descendant of Archie Goodwin.

    And now I really can't wait for my copy to arrive. I mean, a JDC-type impossible crime story told in a narrative voice not unlike Archie's... I'll take a dozen ‘em, please! :D

    It's a pity we can't trade Gilbert Adair, Dan Brown or any other generic thriller author to get William DeAndrea back.

  2. I think we'd have to package them all together and throw in a first round draft pick just to get trade talks going... Which obviously is unfortunate.

    And I'm fairly certain you won't be disappointed. Unless, of course, I'm a big fool and it turns out that some brilliant impossible crime story by Hake Talbot that *everyone* has read (but me) had the exact same solution...

    But either way, there's plenty to enjoy in this lively, Stoutian telling of a Carr tale. I'm starting to wonder whether it might not be worthwhile to hunt down a copy of DeAndrea's Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. I'd be interested in reading his various views- after all, it won an Edgar.