In 1942, with the threat of invasion greater than ever, the UK government approved the development of biological weapons on British soil. Anthrax, that most insidious of killers, was developed on Gruinard Island. While the attack never occurred, the island was left completely contaminated with anthrax bacteria, hence the island’s nickname – Anthrax Island.
In the present day, a multinational group of scientists returns to the island to research the lingering contamination, but when a member of the team dies and a system failure traps the remaining staff, John Tyler is flown in to fix it. But there is far more going on that a simple blown fuse. Tensions are running high, the very air outside the sealed base is toxic and when one member of the team is shot dead – inside a locked room with no means of escape – it becomes clear that the situation on the island is no series of accidents. An alcoholic technician like Tyler is hardly the man for the job – but that’s not exactly who John Tyler is…
OK, sit back, this is a bit of a long story. The other day, as I was trawling Twitter, I came across the blurb for a talk at the Newcastle Noir conference. Now see if you can guess what set off the alarm bells…
Panel 5 3.00 – 3.45pm Will We Ever Get Out of Here?
Edgar Allen Poe, Agatha Christie and Gaston Leroux first showed us the criminally delicious tension and intrigue that was to be found in the locked-room mystery. Fast forward 80 years and our authors on this panel will demonstrate the tremendous flexibility of this mystery subgenre. Nowadays the scene of the crime has grown to encompass actual areas, like houses or islands. The suspense lies in knowing that you may be next!
With Chris McGeorge and DL Marshall
I’ve ranted a bit in the past about the misuse of the term Locked Room Mystery. At some point – and I’d be very curious to find out when it happened – it was decided that a closed circle of suspects was a locked room mystery. While you can argue that And There Were None is an impossible crime, it only becomes an impossible crime once the suspects run out. So shoving a bunch of characters on an island and killing a few of them before catching the murderer is not a locked room mystery. Evil Under The Sun, for example, is not a locked room mystery.
OK, so I tweeted a response, which caught the eye of the two speakers. Now I’ve read Chris McGeorge’s stuff before, and his first novel, Guess Who?, is one of those books that I feel is one of these mis-sold ones – it’s a very good thriller, btw, just not a locked room mystery. Half-Past Tomorrow, on the other hand, has a good impossible crime trick in it. So I was expecting, if any reply at all, a bit of a defence of the argument, but it became clear very quickly that they seemed to mostly agree with me. So I thought I’d give D L Marshall’s work a try.
I’ll be honest, from the blurb, I was sort of wary, but Mike Craven, one of my favourite modern writers, had a pull quote taking pride of place on the cover, so I decided what the hell? and dived in…
One last diversion before I get to the book itself. Some of my long-term readers may remember the point of this blog when it started eleven or so years ago. It was to find modern mystery novels that followed the classic scheme of mysteries. Not the sort of mystery that involves a bucketload of unpleasant corpses until the serial killer gives themselves away by trying to kill the hero. Not the sort of mystery where a very polite murder occurs in chapter one, and the sleuth spends the whole book having tea with everyone in town until they either find the murder weapon by accident or, yes, the murderer tries to kill them. No, the proper sort of mystery where the reader is encouraged to form theories, change those theories when a twist occurs, and then be surprised when you realise you have missed the logical solution that was staring at you.
I think I can honestly say that Anthrax Island is one of the finest examples of the sort of book that I was looking for. It’s the best modern mystery novel that I’ve read in ages.
First of all, yes, it’s a locked room mystery. People argue in an observed room. Gun shot rings out. Door opened – man lies dead, murderer has vanished and there was no way out of the room. And you know what else, there’s even a reason for the locked room situation to arise. There are only so many ways to do a locked room, but you know what – I didn’t spot this at all. I was a bit worried when the trapdoor was found, but aficionados should stop panicking – it’s not the solution.
Yes, the book has strong thriller trappings as well. There are a fair few death-defying escapes – genuinely exciting scenes, by the way – but make no mistake, this never forgets the mystery plot at the centre of it. There are some great misdirections to keep the reader guessing and despite all the complications, the plot makes sense, never suffering to support a good plot twist.
There is an additional layer of mystery as well with the character of John Tyler. Despite being the narrator, his character and intentions are revealed slowly for the reader, and in an intelligent, natural way, not just to support the plot mechanics.
I’m not going to say any more, so just to reiterate. This is one of the best modern mysteries that I’ve read in ages, a genuinely original setting – the island is a real place, btw – a clever multi-layered mysteries with a clever locked room. Mystery fans, don’t be put off by the thriller trappings – this is far, far more than that.
There is a second book in the series – Black Run – which also features a locked room murder. You can rest assured it won’t be long before you’ll be seeing a review of that one too…