The Single Staircase by Matt Ingwalson (2013)

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single staircaseThe Single Staircase (2013) by Matt Ingwalson
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‘The Single Staircase’ is the first of The Owl & The Raccoon locked room mysteries. It is not exactly new, but it is still new to me and many others, so we will bend the rules and call it a new release. To say the least, Ingwalson’s short novels are a very different type of locked room mystery than the traditional John Dickson Carr classics, but that is not intended as a negative critique. Ingwalson has created a style that is unique in my experience of reading countless mystery and crime novels – and somehow he manages to make this rather odd style work rather well!

The Owl and The Raccoon are the nicknames of two cops, codes which originated during the time they spent on the local SWAT team, and these monikers are remarkably fitting. The Owl is the brooding watcher, always observing every little movement. He has the type of mind that dwells on detail and tends towards inductive reasoning. The Owl is also constantly engaged in a futile struggle to maintain his emotional distance and keep his work from turning his life completely upside down. The Raccoon is a very different story. He is highly energetic and physical, able to endure many hours of fast paced activity, including agile experiments designed to test the possibility of a second floor intruder. The Raccoon is more dependent on a basic deductive process, though he is always ready to follow a hunch or contest any simplistic intuitive conclusion. Together, The Owl And The Raccoon form a missing persons detective team, apparently in some unspecified, fairly large, modern day, North American city, and they certainly deal with some very odd disappearances! The Owl is the senior detective, and clearly the leader, yet it is the energy and perseverance of The Raccoon that makes this partnership so effective. We learn only the most basic facts about these two detectives; only what is strictly necessary to tell the story of the current task at hand. They are not a particularly likeable pair, nor entirely disagreeable – they are simply two cops trying to get through another day in an emotionally devastating job.

Ingwalson himself notes in his blog – “Owl & Raccoon are barely human. They’re detectives defined by their hunt for missing children. And they know their mission is hollowing them out, stealing their evenings and ruining their relationships, but they can’t stop themselves” Another passage which makes this same point, comes in the middle of ‘wdyg’, the second Owl and Raccoon novel, but could just as easily have been part of “The Single Staircase’: “Back in the Explorer a few questions later, night fallen all around. “This is what I do,” Owl thought. “I get in and out of this car chasing shadows.” Yet, in reality, it is  Ingwalson who has us all chasing shadows right up to the final page.

These tough police procedurals mainly consist of inner monologues and an often terse, rather gruff, working dialogue between the two primary characters, a few assistants, and, of course, the all important witnesses. The scenes Ingwalson sets are more than minimalist. In effect, the reader is treated to the script of a radio drama, cast in imagined shades of black and white – with only a few stark descriptive images tossed into the mix – and these tend to appear when least expected. At times these splashes of color rather remind me of the little girl in the redcoat in ‘Schindler’s List’ – if such an allusion can be applied to a written page? The entire storyline therefore rests on the quality of the dialogue and constantly focuses on the inherent difficulties of real communication across all those immense gaps drawn by age, class, profession, and a multitude of other cultural factors. I must admit that I would be hard pressed to explain exactly how Ingwalson works his magic – but it is quite clear that this odd style works exceptionally well in his talented hands!

In this first novel, ‘The Single Staircase’, The Owl and The Racoon are called to investigate the disappearance of a three month old baby girl, Sarah Grey, from a closed third floor bedroom, while the parents watched TV within sight of the foot of the stairs. Any potential entrance via the roof, attic, or windows, is soon ruled out – the only possible access was quite clearly this ‘Single Staircase’! Given this dominant fact, it seems all but certain that both parents must have conspired to rid their marriage of this recent arrival. The new baby had brought about profound change, as babies tend to do; changes that had clearly disrupted the parents former singles lifestyle. It is also abundantly clear that the parents are not acting the part of the distraught grieving parents that one might expect to encounter under such circumstances. Besides, what other solution could be possible? Still, Owl and Raccoon must search half the possible dump sites in the city, and exhaust numerous potential leads, without finding any trace of the tiny body, before a chance comment finally leads them to a very inventive solution.

This book may not appeal to all, but it is an excellent piece of crime fiction. Some reviewers object to the incredibly fast pace and the abbreviated size of the chapters, one is only two sentences long, but given the lack of extraneous detail, the pace is clearly set by the brusque dialogue of the detectives and the necessarily harried search for the missing child. Only near the end do all these patchy interviews and snatches of conversations begin to fall into place. This book was clearly never intended as a nicely flowing narrative, but rather as a series of snapshots that are slowly gathered together to form a panoramic montage. Still, the plot is extremely well developed and few are likely to see the end coming – though all the necessary clues are in place. The reader, like Owl and Raccoon, simply tends to become blinded by the obvious nature of the working hypothesis, which paints the parents as the killers, in what appears to be a forgone conclusion.

Ingwalson’s books are more novella than novel, and the profits go to charity! A point worth consideration, but there can be no real doubt that they are well worth a couple of hours on a quiet winter’s eve! I give ‘The Single Staircase’ a firm four stars. Short one star for lack of descriptive content, but with three well earned stars for the quality of the inner monologues, and the strong concise dialogues which keep readers turning the pages at a furious pace. Finally, I must add one additional star for pure innovation!


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