Wednesday, February 6, 2019

HORROR SHOW: Crucified - Michael Slade

Let’s start with the only reason I kept reading this book -- a kind of "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" reference to one of the great mystery writers of the Golden Age:
"How was Ack-Ack stabbed three times in the back when he was the only airman in the rear turret?" [asked] Liz.
"What we have here," Wyatt declared, "is a locked room puzzle. If we solve the howdunit, we'll solve the whodunit."
"But how do we solve it?"
"We seek help."
"Help from whom?"
"From John Dickson Carr."
An invocation to the god! Crucified (2008) is part thriller, part challenging puzzle mystery, part collection of arcane lore and history, and (unfortunately) part splatterpunk horror. The promise of not one, but two, impossible crimes was good enough for me to stick with this hodgepodge of retro pulp fiction and tangential history lessons...and over-the-top gruesome deaths described in surgical detail. It turned out to be yet another example of a subgenre of crime fiction I try to avoid -- extreme sadism as entertainment. Sure there’s an audience for it, but I don’t want to know who they are. And I don’t want to hear them laugh uproariously and high five each other when the characters “get it but good.” All reasons that I also never watch horror movies in a theater anymore.

I did read the first two sadistic torture killing sequences. That was more than enough for me. Anytime some poor character was about to be dispatched with yet another ancient torture implement I skipped all paragraphs with killing descriptions. In some cases they went on for pages. The book is actually easily and more quickly read if you skip every single chapter told from the killer’s point of view. After the first killing the drawn out sequences are pointless. Because they say exactly the same thing every single time he kills someone.

You learn what weapon he uses – one of several torture devices stolen from a museum that houses artifacts from the Inquisition.  (BTW, we are never shown this scene. But we are expected to believe that the killer/thief made away, single-handedly, with seven different and very cumbersome torture weapons, one of which is a chair with a spike embedded on top. So easy to stuff into a bag and stroll out to an awaiting escape vehicle, right?) You learn that he thinks he is possessed by the Devil. You learn that he is driven to protect the Church from non-believers and all those who impede his path. All reiterated seven different times with seven stomach churning methods of murder. And if that isn’t enough for the gorehounds there are three near murders in the finale all performed simultaneously in the same setting.

To spare my sanity I chose to read only the contemporary chapters dealing with lead character Wyatt Rook and the other protagonists and the historical chapters that take place in World War Two era Germany which detail the missions of a British anti-aircraft fighter squad and the crew of a submarine, both of which feature impossible crimes. In the remains of the airplane which crashed in Germany back in 1944 and is unearthed by a modern day German highway construction company a skeleton is found still in the rear gunner’s seat. The gunner’s chair shows stabs marks and a blade embedded in the bones indicating that the gunner was murdered in his seat before the plane crashed and the knife broken off at the handle. But one witness said all men had bailed out using their parachutes. It was believed that the gunner was killed when the tail section where he was situated was strafed by a German fighter plane. So who could possibly have stabbed the gunner and still escaped?

The entire plot hinges on the search for artifacts and documents related to Jesus’ crucifixion. Those damning artifacts which if they were to be examined for DNA would prove or disprove the entire basis of Christianity. An entire religion could be eradicated with a single scientific test. Shades of The Da Vinci Code? Definitely, but Slade's novel is smarter, more suspenseful and more exciting.

Which brings us to the puzzle of the submarine. The artifacts are wrapped in a scroll and taken on board the submarine. The mission was to be sabotaged in such a way that the person with the artifacts could get them off the sub. But the plan backfires, the sub is wrecked. When the wreck is finally located the sub was still completely sealed and the entire crew had perished with the artifacts nowhere in sight. Amazingly, they had been removed from a sealed and completely submerged submarine. How was that accomplished?

I managed to figure out the solution to the submarine puzzle based on one single clue. The gunner murder solution is a bit more complicated and involves the design of the plane’s interior and who could see what depending on where they were situated during the final moments prior to evacuation via parachute. Both are rather clever puzzles even if the airplane puzzle seems a bit disappointing in its solution.

Rommel, "The Desert Fox"
plays a significant part in
the historical sections
As for the historical and cultural lore lessons you get more than you ever bargained for. This is apparently a staple of Slade's thrillers. Similar to TV shows like The X Files and Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery novels laden with London lore Michael Slade finds neat ways to insert into his books all sorts of arcana and historical tidbits. In Crucified you learn of the horrifying self-flagellation ritual that Catholic zealots in the Philippines subject themselves during Holy Week as well as the reenactments of very realistic crucifixions there; the existence of a secret police in the Vatican; the nightmarishly cruel methods of the Inquisition and the diabolical machines and devices they used to extricate confessions; the operation of an RAF Bomber Command and the intricacies of fighter plane attacks in their airborne battlefields; the highly unglamorous and unsanitary living conditions on board a WW2 era submarine; Rommel's role in flaunting Hitler's direct orders and his possible part in the failed attempt to assassinate the Führer; and loads more.

Then there is, of course, all the gruesome violence. The body count is excessive and the descriptions are over-the-top. The puzzle aspects of this thriller hold attention, but for me, the murders and torture come as gross out interruptions to all the interesting character work and the inventive manner in which Slade ties together all his disparate plot machinations. Despite a finale in which our hero and heroine are saved by a deus ex machina, delivered so nonchalantly and indifferently in a single sentence as to be utterly laughable, the book provides no catharsis for all the violence and blood-soaked action.

Not knowing that Slade was a torture porn maven I bought three of these books. But I’m afraid I'm not eager to read the others, not even for the other homages to the work of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, both of whom Slade apparently holds in high esteem based on things he has written about each in this book and on his website. A pity because I did enjoy all the history lessons, the impossible crime detection which applies Carr's rules from the famed "Locked Room Lecture", and the several X Files–like pontifications from Wyatt Rook throughout the story. Slade does have storytelling skill, of that there is no doubt. I wish he could do it without the torrent of guts, gore, and body fluids.

For a review of Ripper by Michael Slade (one of the books I purchased) see TomCat's blog post.  He somehow managed to endure the "slaughter" that occurs in a house bobby-trapped with a variety of hidden murder means.


  1. Sadistic retro pulp is actually a good description of Ripper, but I completely misread you, John. Somehow, I assumed you were comfortable enough with the horror genre that the over-the-top torture murders wouldn't bother you. Have you never watched a really bad and bloody slasher movie or poked around the darker corners of the internet?

    What I appreciated about Ripper, more than anything else, is Slade's attempt to marry the gory, blood-soaked depravity of the modern serial killer novel to the intellect of the traditional detective story and chugged in some impossible crimes for good measure. Slade had no impetus to develop an intricate, traditionally slanted plots around his stories, packed with impossible murders and dying messages, but he did so anyway. I have to respect that.

    1. I have stated my feelings about contemporary horror many a time here and elsewhere in the blogosphere. Yes, I still watch horror movies. That doesn’t mean I revel in gory deaths. No, I don’t “poke around in the darker corners of the internet”. At least not intentionally. It happens too often by accident. I will never be “comfortable enough” with depictions of that kind of outrageous cruelty. Why should anyone be comfortable with any type of cruelty? Who cares if it’s made up? It takes a certain kind of person to dream it up and put it to paper. I don’t know who’s worse, the writer or his avid audience eager for more bloodletting and torture. Your hero Bill Pronzini called out Robert B. Parker for being an amoral writer for lesser crimes committed on paper. I’ll keep on doing it when I encounter it in my reading.

      I actually deleted an entire paragraph where I mounted my soapbox about amorality displayed in contemporary fiction. I decided to spare everyone that. But here I am ranting again.

    2. Now hold on a minute! You defended The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck when I reviewed it unfavorably on my blog and that one is about human experimentation, which is torture in a lab coat. You also spoke highly of Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder and you know what's at the heart of that story, which I found to be truly evil and genuinely shocking. Slade is merely a try-hard in comparison.

      This is why I thought you would have no problem with the blunt savagery in Slade.

    3. By the way, I like Pronzini, but Carr is my hero. :)

    4. No man who listens to “Moses und Aaron” should complain about sadistic horror!
      😉 😇

    5. There is a HUGE difference between criticizing a writer who describes torture and murder in what amounts to an almost salacious tone and praising a writer who dreams up taboo and grotesque plots. I am repulsed by one while I am impressed by the other. But I can still be shocked while I am being impressed. That isn't to say I'm not impressed by Slade's daring. He can choose to write about using medieval torture devices to murder his fictional victims and shock me without simultaneously making me want to reach for a barf bag. He chooses not to. Instead he describes anatomically what happens to each victim. Instead he adds onomatopoetic sound effects as the victims scream in agony. That kind of explicit inhumane writing I find amoral. You don't find that in Laing, Brady or even Wilson & Webb's torture scenes. They can terrify without indulging in sadism. They can shock without making me regret having eaten a few hours before.

      I'm not alone in my beliefs. Robert Bloch once said "...there is a distinction to be made between that which inspires terror and that which inspires nausea."

    6. Oops, confused you with opera aficionado Nick Fuller!

    7. JFN
      Yeah, there are writers I tossed aside because they were really writing a form of pornography, torture porn.

    8. It’s OK, I just looked it up right after my rude question which is now deleted. I noted the German in the title and figured it was some sort of composition. I now am aware of another Schoenberg work to avoid.

  2. The descriptions of the murders become even a bit more unsettling when you realize that Michael Slade is actually a pseudonym for a father-daughter writing duo -- Jay and Rebecca Clarke. What fun dinnertime conversation must have been during the writing process! No, actually, I would prefer not to imagine. I also tried to read a couple of these -- most notably Ripper -- but I had to stop because it did just get to be too much.

  3. I'm with you on the lack of tolerance for excessive violence in my reading -- indeed, it was the pronographic glee the violence the tranche of early-2000s contemporary crime novels I was reading (Karin Slaughter -- hmm -- Mo Hayder, John Connolly, Val McDermid) that sent me looking for more plot-based excitements. It seemed to me that it must be possible to tell a compelling story about a crime without revelling in the lurid details that added nothing except a sense of mild nausea to proceedings. And, yeah,nit turns out I was right.

    But, man, I am intrigued by those puzzles you mention above, John, and have been known to be somewhat fond of an impossible crime. Thanks for the reminder -- I'd forgotten about TomCat's review and you've both got me thinking now. Maybe I should read the third one so that we've covered them all among us...

    1. You could actually read this book ONLY for those chapters -- both the flashbacks and the contemporary solutions to the impossible crime. In total about seven or eight chapters, making up the middle third of the book. They act like self-contained novellas within the context of the entire novel and the larger enveloping mystery of what exactly the artifacts consist of. There are clues to that mystery as well, but they're extremely obvious. If you can find a cheap paperback copy (there ought to be dozens of them out there) I'd go for it. All of Slade's books are in eBook format now, too, at least in Canada and the US. But I don't know if they're cheap or not.

      BTW, as more enticements, there are two other references to Carr and Rook actually goes through the entire Locked Room Lecture prior to solving the airplane impossible crime as a sort of guidebook for his sleuthing team to help categorize which type the gunner's murder fits into and then once they get the category settled examine the eyewitness account of the only living survivor of the crash to help point out the salient details of the day of the plane crash. It's very well done. And the submarine puzzle is just as neatly handled.

      I'm investigating a trilogy of Slade's thrillers dealing with Mephisto, a master criminal he created. The books seem to borrow heavily on Golden Age motifs and allude to famous works. But I'll have to take a breather before I try another one. If there are more posts on Slade post I won't get to them until March or April.

    2. Good heavens, this and Ripper seem to be part of a 15-book series! Which now begs the question of how many of them have impossible/puzzle elements...though, to be honest, I'm tempted to just dive into the one with the hero called Zinc Chandler.

    3. Crucified is a stand alone. It may have a Canadian lawyer in the lead, but he is not part of the fictional RCMP division Slade created known as "Special X." You can read all about the origin of each book and the plot elements on the Morgue page at Slade's Special X website.

  4. It seems that we have two extremes that, I am guessing, most of us don't enjoy. On one hand, the gruesome depictions of violence and murder that do nothing to really further the story or the plot -- such as the books written by Michael Slade. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the cosy mysteries -- where murder is really treated as just a frame around which to have kooky characters and a bit of amateur detecting -- in these, there is practically no depiction of the state of the murder victim. I want something in between please -- and preferably without a pun in the title.