Saturday, July 26, 2014

Totally Not Father Brown

Let's get this party started!

The Mysteries of Reverend Dean is a short story collection written by Hal White. It revolves around the titular Reverend Dean who expects a boring retirement, but soon finds himself dragged into a variety of impossible murders both in and out of his hometown of Dark Pine (which gives off some Silent Hill vibes in the opening, but I digress). This book also has the distinction of being the first set of locked room mysteries that I ever read, so if it seems like I'm pouring out a bunch of undue praise, remember that.

Murder at an Island Mansion

In the first of many stories in which Hal White lies in the title, Reverend Dean is called out to a mansion by the daughter of a former church member. She's going through a bit of a rough patch in her life: her father died, there was a creepy note left behind saying that anyone who tries to sell the house will die with no footprints near their bodies, and one of her siblings has just died. On a beach. With no footprints in sight. And that's just the first...

A good start to the collection. The story is fairly clued, the deaths are creative (or at least they were to rookie me), and there's a nice little bit at the end that I choose to interpret as the strangest use of "God moves in mysterious ways" that I've seen. But I do have to acknowledge that the murders won't fool the experienced reader (except maybe the first one), the stupidity of the later victims is mind boggling ("Two of my siblings have been killed by a deranged lunatic because they wanted to sell the house. Let me publicly announce my intent to sell the house to every possible suspect!), and Hal White lies in the title ( there are three not one!). Get used to it, he does this a lot.

Murder from the Fourth Floor

Reverend Dean is prepariong to act as a councilor between a feuding couple, when the wife shoots her husband. From her fourth flour apartment. But he doesn't die (WHIIIITE). The police move in and think that everything's in the bag. There's an attentive witness outside who saw the apartment's door close and saw no one leave and a later a stereotypical teen will say that no one left by the fire escape, but when the police barge in, the woman has vanished, leaving only the smell of a fired shot to show that she was there...

This story really is a guilty pleasure. Looking at it now, it really is too complex; it takes the reverend about a fourth of the story to explain everything, and you're left with the impression that there had to be an easier way of doing this. But to rookie me it was glorious to see this story unfold. It might not be the best, but it's a personal favorite.

Murder on a Caribbean Cruse

When the reverend receives a free trip on a cruse from a deacon, he expects sun, the sea, and a good time with some singles he's met on the ship. Then a mysterious bearded man punches one overboard. And another is found hanging in her cabin, which is barred on the inside...

Another good story that makes up for the complexity of the last one with a simple and to-the-point solution. My main gripe is that the killer is obvious to anyone with the slightest familiarity with mysteries (Guess who didn't solve it!). There's also a theological digression, but it doesn't slow the plot down, in my opinion. Also, Hal White finally doesn't lie in a title.

Murder at the Lord's Table

A friend of the reverend comes with some disturbing news, a couple of weeks ago, an angel apparently made a vague threat against him during his service. The next week, no authority less than Jesus Christ clarified the original threat, more or less going, "Yep, you're gonna die." Then he vanished from the pastor's locked office, just to rub it in. The reverend is happy to attend the Lord's Supper at his friend's church to make sure nothing goes wrong, but he cannot stop his friend from kneeing over thanks to poison in his communion cup. How is this impossible? Communion is taken from multiple cups and there are no set cups for a person. Hence, there should be no way for someone to poison a cup knowing that it will kill a certain person. That is, unless the poisoner is God...

This was probably the most disappointing story in the collection. Not because the solution is bad; it's a little simple but that doesn't mean bad. It's because the situation is disappointing. This is a murder that is planned to be attributed to God, you don't just use poison, you use lighting, flaming swords, bears, something more dramatic! Also, the disappearance is easy, I was able to solve it from reading the snippet on Hal White's website. And this was when I was still a rookie!

Murder in a Sealed Loft

The reverend is down with influenza, but that won't stop his police officer friend from bringing him an impossible crime to solve and it's a doozy. The victim was stabbed in her locked apartment. Which had three locks. The windows were locked. No one was seen leaving. Oh, and there was a guard dog too. And yet the reverend believes that the main importance is the strange disappearance of some paperweights and a stapler...

On a pure technical level, this is probably the best story in the collection. It manages to present two solutions to the locked room and integrates both of them well. The "bizarre clue" you often see in stories like this is also well handled. Though...I do have a slight question (SPOLIERS I thought that none of the men were out of sight of each other. Or was that just the husband? The set-up obviously took time, so why didn't the others notice, or at least mention, the killer leaving? END SPOLIERS). I admit that this could be a misunderstanding, but it still bothers me.

Murder at the Fall Festival

The annual Fall Festival has come to Dark Pine and murder follows...and it doesn't even wait for the festival to start! (You were doing so good there Hal White...) During the preparations, one of the organizers is found dead, smothered in his garage. Which was under observation all day and no one saw anything suspicious at all. Throw in the interference of Totally-Not-Leland Stottlemeyer , and the reverend has his work cut out for him...

He really doesn't. This is probably the easiest story in the collection simply because Hal White over-clues the story. You'll know what I'm talking about when you read the story. (SPOLIERS I can't fault the author for making sure that you know what you need to know to solve the mystery, but couldn't that information have come by something other than an info dump? END SPOLIERS) Still, it's not bad and the solution works, even if it is a little...bizarre. There's also a neat little scene where the reverend explains what could drive a man out of his secured bedroom into the arms of a burglar. It's like something out of the Monk novels.

- The clueing is, as far as I can tell, perfectly fair.
- The solution to the locked rooms all work even if the second story pushes the suspension of disbelief more than it should.
-Reverend Dean himself is a very relatable character. He honestly comes off as someone that I'd actually want to know in real life. EDIT: Also, he's a religious character portrayed positively!

-The killers are very obvious. Sure, I didn't solve these things when I read them, but I was still floundering in this new world. I'm sure that most regular readers will have no trouble spotting these people if just by basic genre knowledge.
-While it doesn't get in the way too much, the reverend's constant mourning for his wife does get a tiny bit annoying. One ill-timed comment or otherwise ordinary experience and BANG! Despair! Despair! This random incident is causing me to despair! If these stories were published separately then it'd make some sense but they were all (as far as I know) written for this collection. We don't need a large reminder of the protagonists problems every chapter.
-I acknowledge that this is petty, but I wish that more was done with Dark Pine itself. It has some creepy vibes in the opening and...that's it. I'm not asking for shotgun duels with the Esoteric Order of Dagon, but some exploration of this would have been nice.

All in all, this was a pretty good book. It's by no means the best, but I think that we can appreciate when someone puts in a pretty good effort to craft fair-play locked room mysteries in our "enlightened" modern age. (And, yes, I know that this book was written about five years ago. It's still one of the few locked room mysteries to come out in that time.) If nothing else, it makes a great introduction to locked room mysteries.

I give it a 7.5 out of 10.

Next time: An anthology! Feel free to comment, either about the book or my review. I'm always up for improvements!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Introduction for the Connoisseurs in Murder

Welcome, welcome! I was wondering if you would show up! Come, take a seat and...Your shoes got muddy? Well of course they would! This house is surrounded by mud. Er...this is a odd question but did you notice any other footprints? No? Great! And you locked the door after you came in, right? Hm, too many locks you say? I see. You did get them all though, right? Wonderful!

Anyway, I'm glad you could come here. I've decided to follow in the footsteps of others and create a blog dedicated to giving my horribly biased opinion on mysteries. I assure you that I seek only the best...or at least the readable. Despite the name of this blog, I'll review whatever catches my fancy, though locked room mysteries do hold a special place in my heart. My only real criteria is that the mystery be fairly clued. I intend to go through almost every mystery I own (except for collections of really short stories) in about the rough order I read them. This will give you a peek into my evolution as a mystery fan, give you the joy at laughing at my early (and current) stupidity, and give me a very large backlog to make sure that I'm never short a review!

Now, because I'm terrible at keeping my writing coherent enough for in-depth criticism, I intend to give individual pros and cons for any books I review. I looks neater, it's easier for me to sort, and I don't see anyone else doing this exact thing, so I get to be different! I do want to warn you that I can and will indulge in spoilers, though they will be marked and you'll have to highlight them to see them.

That's about it for right now. Next time, we'll take a look at the book that truly started my current love of mysteries. I look forward to seeing you again. Be sure to comment and give criticism, opinions, and discussion.

Oh, you did lock the study door, right? Good, good, you can't make it easy these days...oh, never mind, he's already inside. Nice knowing ya!