The Mysteries of Reverend Dean - Hal White

Hal White is an "amateur" writer and this is more or less a self-published book with several locked room short stories. Well, it does have a real publishing house, but that publisher is generally a publisher of Christian works, not mysteries, so it still feels a bit off the beaten path.

It was published in 2008, and I've not really heard anything from the author since then, so I don't know if his imagination was depleted by writing these stories, or if he's simply chosen to focus his energies elsewhere.

This short story collection is structured a bit like an episodic novel by including a prologue, dividing each of the short stories into chapters, and trying to carry on an overarching narrative of Reverend Dean's trials and tribulations after retiring.

Reverend Dean is an interesting enough character, but on the whole characterisation is White's main problem. In each of these stories the characters are paper-thin, and it's dead easy to spot the villain of the story. It may be that White knows his own shortcomings here and that is the reason for not including very many characters, but that just compounds the problem - if there were more characters, at least it would be a little bit harder to spot the culprit.

The first "real" story of the collection - after the prologue - is "Murder at an Island Mansion". This story actually features three impossible murders - one man found dead on the beach with wet sand surrounding him and yet no footprints, a woman found dead in a room with wet paint all over the floor and, again, no footprints, and finally another man found dead in a muddy pond with no footprints, for the third time.

The solution to the impossibilities is actually not bad at all. The first murder admittedly demands that the reader accepts some very exceptional gymnastic talent from the murderer, while the second fares somewhat better in that regard. The third murder, however, entirely depends on misdirection from the murderer. It only works because the story has the characters act the way they do, if anyone had done anything different it would have been a disaster for the murderer. Still, somehow it all works anyway. It's a pretty good start to the collection.

In the next story "Murder from the Fourth Floor" we're introduced to the only other recurring character - policeman Mark Small. White tries to give him a bit of characterisation, but on the whole, he's nothing more than a blank Watson to Reverend Dean's Holmes. In this story we get an impossible crime where first a young man is almost shot and killed from a fourth floor flat, and when the flat is searched a murdered woman is found inside.

On the whole, this story worked somewhat worse than its predecessor. White has the characters do some contortions just to get the action to work, and even Dean has problems answering why the murderer did what he did. The story is also overlong, which brings down the pacing.

In "Murder on a Cabin Cruise" we're treated to an impossible murder on a boat. A man is thrown overboard, and later a woman from the group he was travelling with is found dead in her cabin.

This is also the story where White's Christian leanings start to take too much space in the story. At this point I have to mention that I don't like religious proselytising - it's a red blanket to me. And here it gets too much. I get that the protagonist is a priest, and the proportion was all right in the first two stories, but I do get a bit eye-rolly here. It doesn't help that this has a fairly unimaginative solution to the crime. It's based on something that most of us will have already encountered in other, better impossible crime stories. And again, the story is much too long.

"Murder at the Lord's Table" continues the Christian themes, unfortunately. Okay, it's set in the church itself, so I guess it's unavoidable. It's just a pity that it follows the most overtly proselytising story in the collection. In this case we have a priest being killed by poison during communion, in front of several other people, and yet no one can explain how he was poisoned.

Again, the solution is a bit old hat. It's more or less one of those stories where only one person could have logically done it, and also turns out to be the baddie. On the plus side, the story is not as long as the previous ones and has better pacing. I like the ending denouement as well.

"Murder in a Sealed Loft" is quite possibly the best story of the collection. In it, a woman is found murdered in her apartment while her husband and two friends were outside the entire day working in the yard.

The story moves at a faster clip, being again one of the storter stories in the book, and the solution is well thought through. There's some direct cluing going on here, and actually some misdirection as well, making it harder than usual to spot who will turn out to be the criminal. Well worth reading.

The collection rounds off with "Murder at the Fall Festival", wherein a man is found dead, nailed to a board in a locked storage room where people have been outside the entire afternoon.

The whole impossible situation is bonkers in all possible ways. It's sort of awesome and super stupid at the same time. There is absolutely no way that any murderer would choose to kill someone in this way, so expect no realism. On the other hand, it's kinda fun to see an author go all out for once. I don't know if I'd recommend the story, but it was fun to read.


It's hard to dump on a modern author who's obviously got a lot of love and respect for the impossible mystery genre. But there are a lot of problems here. I've already mentioned some here: the paper thin characterisation, the much too long stories, the all too permeating religiousness - the latter is probably less of a problem to other readers.

However, there's one other problem I haven't mentioned and that is editing. I truly wonder if there was any editor involved before publication of this book. It's not that there's a lot of problems with spelling, punctuation or grammar - no, those seem fine to me. However, there's a problem with extraneous material in the stories.

I get the reason for the prologue. It sets the table by having the Reverend retire. All good and fine. Then the first short story begins, and we get a chapter which is kind of a follow-up to the prologue. It also introduces the Reverend's niece Susan. And then... she disappears and is never used again, not only in that story, but never in any of the stories. The whole first chapter of the story is entirely redundant. White might have wanted that part to show us more of Reverend Dean's surroundings, but why on earth have it part of the first story? It would have been infinitely better to add it to the prologue instead!

There are other similar problems in the other stories where some material is quite extraneous to the mysteries. I've chosen to include two of the stories from this book in my own project - "Murder at an Island Mansion" and "Murder in a Sealed Loft", but I've had to make some judicious edits in my translations. As the stories are, within the episodic collection, it just about works, but as single short stories, if taken separately, it becomes bewildering.

Over on The Invisible Event, J. J. seems to agree with me (or if it's the other way round) on the stories in this collection: https://theinvisibleevent.com/2016/12/03/17-adventures-in-self-publishing-the-mysteries-of-reverend-dean-ss-2008-by-hal-white/


  1. Well, whichever way around it is...we agree (thanks for the shout out, btw)!

    'Sealed Loft' is the gem in the collection, an absolute triumph, and 'Fall Festival' is weird enough to be commended for the utterly, utterly insane workings of its method -- how many short stories leave that assort of impression, hey? Your summation of "awesome and super stupid" is, I think, the last word needed on the subject.

    'Island Mansion' is fun, and it's not to be sniffed at for working in three no footprints solutions in not very many pages (and surely the one on the beach requires the most acrobatics...!). The others are, yeah, missable, but I'd absolutely buy another collection if White published one.

    I'm really enjoying seeing how this project of your is shaping up. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments, J. J. You can expect to see quite a few more of these before I've exhausted the material. There's still a handful of "regular" collections that I haven't mentioned yet, and then we'll have to go through all the anthologies. I will be adding some Swedish anthologies as well since some stories there that are hard to in English language anthologies.

    And that doesn't even take into account the works of Carr, Queen and Christie where I'll probably use the collections I myself privately created when I did my previous translation project.

    Stick around, 'cause there's still a lot of interesting - and some uninteresting! - impossible short story material to go through.

    And BTW, I do think that the first murder of "Island Mansion" is the one that demands most of the gymnastic murderer. Perhaps I expressed myself badly there.