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Locked Room Reviews:
A new style of Locked Room mystery!
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Another Matt Ingwalson review, this time for a book that has received less critical applause – ‘wdyg’ is the next instalment in The Owl & The Raccoon locked room mysteries. Once again, it is not exactly new, but it is still new to me and many others, so we will slightly bend the rules and call it a new release.
In ‘wdyg’ (‘where did you go’ in text language) The Owl and the Raccoon head to the local mall for another of Ingwalson’s new style of locked room cases. This time, one of four girls on a weekend shopping spree walks down a narrow corridor leading to the bathroom while her three friends wait outside. Oddly, she never returns – and her friends are left standing in the only exit!
The Owl and The Racoon soon find themselves dealing with a closely related homicide investigation, aggressive swat teams, and the possibility that a psychotic killer may be on the loose. However, their biggest single problem is that a clique of high school girls who are always texting, are not necessarily communicating the truth!
In comparison to ‘The Single Staircase’, ‘wdyg’ is not as good, purely as a locked room mystery. The possibility that the girl intentionally disappeared is never far below the surface. Instead, the question is why would she leave her friends in the dark? A secret meeting with a boyfriend? Family problems – which soon loom large? Or just normal teenage girls living a complicated life? The possibilities are endless, and after running down all possible leads – even The Owl and The Raccoon begin to believe that the girl has vanished for good!
On the other hand, the character development is much stronger in ‘wdyg’ and it feels a little less disconnected than ‘A Single Staircase’, where the victim could not have played a significant role in the disappearance. All things considered – the two Owl and Raccoon cases are essentially equal. ‘The Single Staircase’ gets my vote as the better locked room mystery – but ‘wdyg’ is clearly better written and perhaps even more intriguing. I will therefore refrain from dropping my extra star granted for pure innovation, which is less impressive the second time around, and call this another four star effort, but one that barely escapes a three star rating!
For those interested in a deeper look at these amazing ‘Owl and Raccoon’ novellas, I have adapted a few relevant comments from my review of ‘The Single Staircase’ and repeated them below. These same reflections apply equally to both novels, or for the full review of ‘A Single Staircase’ go to:
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 quite well!
The Owl and The Raccoon are the nicknames of two cops, codes which originated during the time they spent on the SWAT team, and these monikers are remarkably fitting. The Owl is the brooding watcher, always observing every 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 clear cut deductive process, but is always ready to follow any hunch or contest simplistic intuitive conclusions. Together, The Owl And The Raccoon form a missing persons detective team, apparently in some large, modern day, American city, and they 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 work so well. 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: “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.” 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 appear only 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!
These book may not appeal to all, but they are excellent pieces of crime fiction. Some reviews object to the incredibly fast pace and the abbreviated size of the chapters, one chapter in ‘A Single Staircase’ is only two sentences long, but given the lack of extraneous descriptive detail, the pace must be set by the brusque dialogue of the detectives and the necessarily harried search for the missing child. Only near the end of these novels do all these patchy interviews and dialogue begin to fall into place. These books were 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 plotting is extremely well managed and few are likely to see the end coming – though all the necessary clues are in place.
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!
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