Come to Paddington Fair is quite a curious novel and, as much as I was enjoying it, I spent a fair portion of the book waiting for something impossible to happen. It was being republished by Locked Room International after all.
The usual pattern of an impossible crime novel is that you are presented with an incredible crime and the detectives break it down to show how it could have been performed. Here the book opens with what seems to be a clear assassination committed by an easily identified suspect but our detectives will not accept that solution and soon find evidence confirming that view.
Before going further though let me step back and explain the circumstances of the murder, at least in a vague way.
Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to attend a play from an anonymous benefactor. At a key moment in the play the male lead is supposed to shoot the female lead using a gun filled with blanks. We learn that prior to the performance the male lead has been behaving erratically and routinely arriving on set inebriated and they have had a big fight, though we do not yet know what they are arguing about.
During the play at the moment at which the on-stage shooting should take place, a man in the audience produces a gun and appears to shoot the female lead before failing to make his escape. The man is arrested and recognized before being taken into custody on the suspicion of murder.
There are some fantastic ideas at play in this story and I did admire the careful construction of this plot, particularly in the ending which caught me wonderfully by surprise. The plot the killer has devised is simple which I tend to find makes for some of the most successful mysteries.
I particularly enjoyed the theatrical setting which I feel is well observed and filled with believable types of character. There is plenty of backstage rivalry as well as the usual resentments about others’ success and several characters are quick to acknowledge that someone else’s misfortune might be the start of their own success if they are promoted from understudy for a performance or two.
Another aspect of the book I responded strongly to was the way it provided the reader with a seemingly disconnected story strand in the opening chapters and trusted that we would wait for the linkages to become clear. At first this seems completely disconnected from the rest of the tale yet I felt that it stitched together rather well with the main narrative once the connection was understood.
Once the investigation gets well underway, I did find my interest was waning at moments. This is partly because it takes on a rather technical tone based upon opportunity rather than motivation and there are relatively few big revelations in the middle third of the novel. I also suspect it had something to do with my finding Lawrence and Castle a trifle dull as investigators.
Things change considerably in the final third of the novel however as an impossibility finally comes into focus and some characters’ motivations become clearer. I thought the ending was a cracker and I felt that the killer’s plans made a lot of sense. Finally, there is even a Challenge to the Reader page heading into the final chapters – something that always will make me smile.
So, where does that leave me on Come to Paddington Fair overall? I think that the ending significantly raised my enjoyment of the book yet I have to acknowledge that I found the middle of the investigation to be solid but uninspiring fare. This slower section becomes more understandable once you see the impossibility come into view in that final third and it is quite thrilling to see it dealt with as quickly as it is here – something that is only possible because of the facts established in the middle of the novel.