Regular readers of this blog (and thank you immeasurably for that!) know that I don’t usually do reviews. That’s mostly because I simply don’t have the patience for them (oh, how my mind wanders!), which is why my hat is lifted to JJ, Brad, Patrick, TomCat, PuzzleDoctor, and all of you for doing what I cannot!
Well, rules–even un-cemented ones–are made to be broken, and here I am, doing a review.
I feel I have to do it, simply to get it off my chest.
I hated this book, Nine Man’s Murder. Hated hated hated hated hated this book. Hated it.
(And, yes, I could have simply re-phrased Roger Ebert’s entire review of North and had it serve as my review of Nine Man’s Murder.)
Right after I finished it, I wrote down my thoughts and finished it up with “I think I’ll probably forget it as of tomorrow.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I still remember the time I spent on it, and how disappointed I was in every aspect. Not to take anything away from author Keith, who apparently has a great love of our genre and seems like a nice person from his comments on PuzzleDoctor’s blog. Nor from the people who liked it, including PD and Patrick. Nevertheless, I feel I must be truthful about my reaction, if you’re at all interested. Here goes:
Keith cannot write, plain and simple. Nor can he plot, in the sense of creating a story that keeps one reading on. He can formulate puzzle plots, which are necessary ipso facto for detective stories, but without anything to keep me reading on, I find that it has all the interest of the coldest logic puzzle you can conceive. Suspense, humor, human emotion, clever writing–all missing. I’m skeptical that Keith even understands Ten Little Indians, the book he’s riffing. That book has nail-biting tension as the end approaches, combined with wondering how Christie could ever pull off an ending. This book had me yawning, as I couldn’t give a damn which of these stick figures had murdered the other eight. It’s this kind of book, to be honest, that gave detective stories a bad name.
This is the same flaw I see regarding most of Paul Halter’s works, but Halter seems like the greatest writer on God’s green earth compared to Keith. (And that is something I thought I’d never, ever, say!) The silliness of something like The Invisible Circle, or the lack of characterization in The Tiger’s Head, is nowhere in the same level of badness as something here. I used to be one of those people who thought that Halter’s books read less like detective stories than synopses of detective stories, but that’s nothing compared to Keith. I’m loath even to call what he did “writing.”
And the puzzle-plot. Ah, yes, the puzzle-plot, that sine qua non of detective stories. John Dickson Carr formulated the central twist here in 1935. Anthony Horowitz invented a creative variant of Carr’s trick in 2004. Keith took Horowitz’s variant and combined it with Christie’s main trick from And Then There Were None. There was some clever locked-room stuff, but nothing that held my interest out of idle curiosity.
As I noted above, despite the unoriginality of the central twist, Keith can create puzzle-plots. The chain of cluing here is good, if (again) dull to read. If Keith desires to go on writing detective stories, he should invest in a collaborator who can do the writing whilst he does the plotting. It would be an improvement for all involved.
Ugh. This is one of the worst detective stories I’ve read in a long time. (Luckily, Hard Tack, the detective story I just finished, is a good remedy.) Anything else in the field, even the unbearable Crofts, is better than this.
P.S. In his [also negative] review, TomCat mentions an alternate solution he dreamt up, and it’s a great one. As I told him, I can only wish that Keith had gone with something like that instead.
What You Should Read/Watch Instead–And Then There Were None
Only thing that genuinely surprised me about Nine Man’s Murder is how Puzzle Doctor and Patrick (from At the Scene of the Crime) managed write positive reviews. The book is a fatal combination of a poorly handled plot with uninteresting, paper-thin characters who are completely unmoved by the dire situation they find themselves in.
You know your characterization is piss-poor when even I noticed how flat they are, because, usually, I can forgive the absence of three-dimensional characters. Particularly when the book has something to offer in the other departments, which was not the case here.
Anyhow, thanks for the mention! Glad you liked my alternative (locked room) solution.
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I wonder if Patrick and PD have ever read Horowitz’s story, “I Know What You Did Last Wednesday.” If not, I can well imagine their being impressed with the main plot twist, as it would then seem a new solution to Christie’s set-up. Problem is, Horowitz worked it out 7 years before Keith did, and I knew exactly what to look for.
Puzzle-plotting is the only criterion I can conceive for their praise, however. The rest of the book is execrable.
It’s genuinely extraordinary, how bad the characterization is—and not in a goofy “so bad it’s good” way. It’s almost as if Keith contrived to make them as dull and colorless as possible. As John put it on your blog, it’s hard to believe a grown man wrote this book.
Yeah, I remember checking out the Amazon preview and being put off by that alone…which takes some doing in only a few pages! Delighted you enjoyed Hard Tack, though, as that’s one I’ve got on my TBR. Here’s wishing you better reading from hereon!
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I’ve got to say, JJ, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Halter after reading this book. My criticisms remain, but at least Halter actually does something I’d call “writing.” This book makes the newspaper’s crossword clues look like masterworks of prose. And Halter, even at his silliest moments, still has a fair play, clever, original solution. Not so Keith.
Hard Tack is a lot of fun. Cat Marsala is an engaging sleuth and a lively narrator (who likes locked-room mysteries!—I knew I liked her). The first half is better than the second, and the locked room solution, while novel and clever, is not too difficult to figure out, but it’s a good, fast-paced, well-plotted read. More than anything, it reminded me of William DeAndrea’s Matt Cobb books, though DeAndrea’s cluing might have been a trifle better.
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Thanks for the review. 🙂 I confess I enjoyed ‘Nine Man’s Murder’, though I concede to the criticisms levelled against characterisation. It’s hard to find modern-day puzzle-based mystery novels, and so I was perhaps persuaded to be more lenient…
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Thanks, John, and my apologies for not responding sooner. I suppose I’d be inclined to be more lenient as well if there weren’t other modern authors who write puzzle-based novels and are better writers—including Halter, believe it or not, but also KK Beck, the late William L. DeAndrea, Robert Thorogood, Anthony Horowitz, and now Barbara D’Amato.
With all that said, thanks again for chiming in! Much appreciated, and I hope you stick around in case I start laying out an alternate solution to The Hollow Man. (See? Take that, JJ! 😉 )
HA! I loved that you included a link to Roger Ebert’s review, and then did a riff on it. Cleverly done.
Also, it sounds like you performed a Valuable Public Service by warning us away from this dreadful book.
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Thanks, Silver Screenings.
Happy to see you caught the Ebert connection—the review of North was the first thing I thought of when I started this review.
Yes, I find this a very off-putting book, but I think mystery fans should make up their own minds, as reader response seems nearly equally divided…