Book Review: Bloodhounds (includes spoilers)Wed 31 May 2023
Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey is a locked room murder mystery. It has reasonably good reviews, and is set in Bath in the 90s, which is why I read it. I enjoyed most of the book, and I liked that I knew most of the places the book talks about. However, the plot has a fatal flaw, which is what has prompted me to write this post. Major spoilers lie ahead.
Emma pointed out that an impossible crime is what I wanted and an impossible crime is what I got!
The Bloodhounds are a group that meets weekly to discuss crime fiction. Milo Motion, a member of the group who lives on a boat, is due to read from a particular chapter of a particular book at the next meeting. In the intervening week, a valuable stamp is stolen from the postal museum. At the next meeting, when Milo opens the particular book, the stamp is discovered at the particular chapter, as if it were a bookmark. Milo goes straight to the police station to hand in the stamp, and he didn't have time to go anywhere else in between. The other members (including a man called Sid Towers) leave the meeting early. After being interviewed for a few hours, Milo is escorted to his boat, under constant supervision from police, unlocks the boat, and finds the dead body of Sid inside!
The padlock on the boat is said to be very high quality (German-made, in fact), and shows no signs of damage. There were only ever 2 keys for it, Milo had constant possession of one, and the other was dropped in the river a long time ago. And lock-picking does not exist. When Milo is in the boat, he leaves the padlock hanging outside and locks the door with a bolt from the inside, so nobody could have snuck in while he was asleep.
We learn that a disgruntled former member of the Bloodhounds, Gilbert Jones, still bears a grudge after being snubbed by the group. He discovers that his girlfriend of 6 months, Shirley-Ann Miller, enjoys crime fiction, and subtly leads her into joining the group. He learns from her that Milo is going to read the particular chapter of the particular book at the next meeting, and decides to steal the stamp and plant it in Milo's book to prove (to whom?) that he is smarter than the Bloodhounds.
Fine so far. The stamp theft is relatively straightforward: he climbs up a ladder posing as a window-cleaner, breaks in through a window, and takes the stamp before the museum opens. But how does he get the stamp into Milo's book?
Gilbert buys a lock that looks identical to Milo's padlock. At some time while Milo is inside the boat, with his padlock hanging outside (unlocked!), Gilbert simply switches the locks. When Milo leaves the boat, the lock he clicks closed is Gilbert's lock. Gilbert hides and waits for Milo to leave, then unlocks his own lock, using his own key, and gains entry to the boat. He locates the particular book and places the stamp in the particular chapter, leaves the boat, and locks it with Milo's lock, leaving no sign of any tampering. Milo eventually returns to the boat, unlocks his own lock, and doesn't find anything wrong. Eventually he takes the book to the Bloodhounds meeting, whereupon the stamp is discovered.
Superb! Top marks so far.
When Milo is at the Bloodhounds meeting, Gilbert is back at the boat to put Milo's lock back, but he doesn't know that the discovery of the stamp will lead to the meeting ending early. Sid's curiosity compels him to investigate the boat while Milo is at the police station. Sid finds the boat unlocked, and Gilbert is inside. Gilbert panics and hits Sid over the head with a windlass, accidentally killing him. Gilbert locks the boat with Milo's lock and runs away.
Gilbert can't have been at the boat to return the lock while Milo was at the Bloodhounds meeting. In order for Milo to have collected the book with the stamp, Milo must have gained access to the boat after Gilbert had been inside the boat. For Milo to have gained access to the boat, the boat must have been locked with Milo's lock, which means Gilbert's work was done. Gilbert has no further need to return to the boat once Milo's lock is back on, and if Milo's lock is not back on, Milo can't get inside to retrieve the book.
So that's the first, and most important, problem. Gilbert would not have had any reason to be anywhere near the boat during the time of the Bloodhounds meeting.
The other problem is that even if Gilbert was there to put the lock back on, why was he still there 3 hours after Milo left for the meeting? It would take all of 30 seconds to switch the locks. And why was he inside the boat? You don't need to go inside the boat to switch the locks. It all makes no sense.
There is a murder of another Bloodhounds member (Rupert Darby) later on in the story. Gilbert tries to make it look like Rupert hanged himself out of guilt over killing Sid. If Gilbert hadn't returned to the boat during the Bloodhounds meeting (which he patently did not need to do), then he wouldn't have killed Sid in the first place, so there would have been no need to kill Rupert either. The entire plot hinges around Gilbert being surprised by Sid inside the boat, even though Gilbert had no reason to be there, no reason to be there for so long, and no reason to be inside.
Gilbert plants the second padlock in Rupert's jacket, so that when the police discover it they will assume it was Rupert that did the padlock trick to gain access to the boat. But when interviewed by police later, Gilbert implies that he does not think the police know how the stamp was planted in the book. If you don't think the police can figure out the padlock trick, what good does it do to plant the padlock on Rupert?
A solution to the main flaw
The story desperately hinges on Gilbert and Sid meeting inside the boat while Milo is being interviewed by police. We either need Gilbert to be returning the padlock during this time (which is the solution the book gives, but which is impossible, else Milo wouldn't have been able to retrieve his book), or we need Gilbert to do the padlock trick a second time.
Maybe Gilbert wants more revenge than simply planting the stamp in the book. Maybe he has another prank in mind, but this one will take a few hours to set up, so he schedules it for when he knows Milo will be at the Bloodhounds meeting. That it takes several hours to carry out explains why Sid catches him in the act. And whatever he does probably either needs to be undetectable, or he needs to undo it before leaving the boat, or it needs to be embarrassing for Milo in some way, to explain why the police never hear about whatever he did.
Or maybe Gilbert is waiting at the boat for Milo to return, so he can say "Haha! Surprise! It was me who planted the stamp in your book and I bet you don't know how I keep getting in to your boat either!" and bask in the glory of having deceived the Bloodhounds who previously belittled him.
With some sort of change along those lines, the rest of the story would make sense.
As written, the plot is totally impossible. Gilbert would have no reason to be at the boat at the time Sid was investigating, because Gilbert must have switched the locks back prior to Milo collecting the book and going to the Bloodhounds meeting.
But apart from the fact that the plot is impossible, I found it an enjoyable book. I like that it is set in Bath. I like that it is set in the 90s. I consider this to be "present day" and "relatable", compared to the typical 1930s locked room in a giant country mansion. I really liked the padlock trick, because it's such an elegant way of gaining access to a seemingly-locked boat.
I plan to read more impossible crime fiction. Hopefully the next one I read will be logically consistent.
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