The Murder Room

Of the various tropes in detective fiction, one that I like in particular is the cold case – and the colder the better. Particularly if it is some incident in the past that casts a long shadow onto the present. It’s not too hard to imagine a case occurring 50 years that turns out to have connections with a present-day one. But how far back could one push it, I sometimes wonder? Could one plot a novel where a present-day murder was rooted in something that happened 100 years ago? 200?

Passing through the airport last week en route to a relaxing holiday, I was intrigued to see on the bookshelves a novel by Michael Capuzzo called “The Murder Room”. The sales pitch on the front cover reads “1 room. 3 detectives. And 300 cold cases to solve.” This is accompanied by a quote from the Guardian: “Like seating Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple [etc] … in front of a cold case and watching the sparks fly”.

So I picked it up for some holiday reading. This turned out to be a mistake.

One thing anyone who has ever dabbled in role-playing or theatrical improvisation may have noticed is that it is much easier to act stupider than you are than to act cleverer then you are. This has relevance in detective fiction; if your hero is a genius-level detective, you have to make him a genius, which requires some intellectual ability yourself. The author can of course weight things in the detective’s favour; but in a scene like the famous exchange between Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, even if the Conan Doyle has planted the clues, the deductions still have to be credible.

This is apparently beyond the skill of Mr Capuzzo. His three detectives are the greatest detectives in the world. They are brilliant. They are incredibly famous. They are really great. We know this because the author tells us they are. Over and over again. But in fact, they never do any detecting. Faced with a crime, one of them will suddenly say, “Obviously the murderer is happily married, living in a suburb of Michigan and drives a black Cadillac”. Not because any clues point in that direction, but because it just has to be so. Then when the criminal is caught, and the detective found to be right, everyone praises him and we are told once again that these are the greatest detectives on the planet.

In fact, the author tells us a lot in the authorial voice, including the population of Boone VA (13,472) and the largest number of women ever to be photographed together in swimsuits on Bondi Beach. This is not so much writing as mainlining Wikipedia.

Here’s a sample of the prose style. This is the last paragraph of chapter 15.

“Walter had been moonlighting as a consulting detective on the most challenging and depraved murder cases in the world for more than a decade. It was what he did in his “spare hours” while working full-time for the Michigan Department of Corrections.”

I repeat, that’s the end of a chapter. Really finishes on a high note, doesn’t it?

Eventually, by page 219, halfway through the book and still without any discernable plot or sympathetic characters, I gave up. Fortunately I had packed another detective novel, by PD James, who can always be relied on for something gripping. When I dug it out of my suitcase, I got a surprise at the title, which I had forgotten. It was called “The Murder Room”.

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