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Item - Death at Appledore Towers

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Series: Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries — no. 3
Translated Into: Il caso Milverton (Italian)
Das Ende eines Erpressers (German)
Le maƮtre chanteur d'Appledore (French)
Morte nas torres Appledore (Portuguese)
Muerte en Appledore Towers (Spanish)
Author: Lientz, Gerald
Illustrator: Horne, Daniel R.
Date: 1987
Length: 529 sections plus prologue
User Summary: A blackmailer is shot to death in his elegant mansion at midnight. Can you find out who did it and why? And why do Holmes and Watson seem uninterested in helping you? Could it be that they have other motivations rather than ethics?
Guillermo's Thoughts:

(review based on the Spanish translation)

If there is something that could be called a "vanilla" Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries gamebook, this would probably be it. The entire book is dedicated to the investigation of the mystery, unlike virtually all the others which always include some sort of subplot or action sequence (or both). Being Gerald Lientz's second entry in the series, it definitely looks more mature than his earlier effort, Murder at the Diogenes Club: game balance is adequate and there are no unfairly tough-to-find clues. Besides, the design is very solid: there are no bugs or continuity errors to put a finger on (although a misplaced instruction in one paragraph could be construed as such). While the book is designed so you don't have to do things in the exact same order every time you play through, a lot of care seems to have been taken so the instructions don't inadvertently lead the player to have the same conversation twice or to skip an important section of the adventure. That is certainly appreciated, and I wish all gamebook authors would do the same.

Put roughly, the book is divided into three parts. The first part, which I found highly entertaining and challenging, consists of detective work in the scene of the crime and may also involve examining the victim's body. The second part consists of interviewing the house's servants; in some ways it made me feel as if I was playing a dramatized version of the Clue board game (or Cluedo, if you prefer): the different characters' personalities are definitely well portrayed, and getting them to reveal important evidence is often not easy. The third part deals with investigation work done outside the house, which mostly consists of conversations with other sources and with the suspects themselves, but at the end it's possible to do a bit of trespassing in order to find evidence, these sequences being short but enjoyable.

The murder mystery is cleverly conceived and definitely not easy to figure out. Fortunately, game balance is adequate enough: most die rolls I encountered required minimum rolls in the 6-8 range on two dice, assuming you are using the pregenerated character (rather few were above or below this range). Given that the probability curve can work against the player, it may be necessary to make more than one trip through the book in order to gather enough clues, but I certainly didn't find this frustrating. Only a few clues are required to unmask the culprit (this, by the way, may make the book seem overlong), but finding them is neither too easy or too hard.

The decision-making aspect of the book is also well thought-out. While in Murder at the Diogenes Club it is usually quite obvious what the correct choice is, choices in this book are much more challenging: at several points in the adventure it's actually very important that you choose your questions carefully, or that you do the right thing at the right time. The thought several of the choices require makes the book interesting and stimulating. Besides dropping the case prematurely, the only "failure" ending I found involves being thrown in jail, but the player must be very unlucky with die rolls and make very unwise choices to reach this point.

While the writing is generally good, there is not much to say about the story itself. The only aspect which I believe sets this book apart from the rest of the series is that Holmes and Watson refuse to help out with this mystery, and so most of the time they become subjects of investigation rather than mentors. One of the book's weak points is that its central arguments seem imprecise and not always strongly justified: at different points in the adventure, Holmes and Watson attempt to dissuade you from solving the case, even offering to reveal the solution so you don't have to keep investigating. Here I wondered what was exactly Lientz's point: if he wanted to stress the point that investigating the murder of a criminal is morally wrong, why did he write this book at all? And if he just wanted to see what it would be like to offer the player the option of rebelling against Holmes' wishes and going ahead with the investigation, I must say the end result is not that interesting, nor does it help the book to stand out from the rest of the series.

Perhaps the most interesting trait of the book in literary terms is character depth. Let me repeat myself: nonplayer character development in this book is among the best I've found in a gamebook. The servants, for example, all share a strong feeling of loyalty for their dead master, but they are not cardboard, unidimensional stereotypes: the story works to bring out their character flaws, and these serve not only to hinder the player's efforts to obtain information but also to enrich the plot and make the story believable. All of the suspects are members of the Victorian aristocracy, and they wouldn't have been victims of blackmail if they did not have personal affairs to hide. As a result, getting them to reveal sensitive information is not easy, and being brash while questioning them can have very bad consequences. The complexity of the characters and social situations involved help set this book apart as a more "adult" gamebook (and no, I'm not talking about pornography). Because of this, I believe it will be more appreciated by audiences with some taste for stories like Madame de La Fayette's "The Princess of Cleves," and less by the teens and pre-teens who make up a large part of the Fighting Fantasy fan base.

While the book is adequately balanced, well-constructed and entertaining in parts, it definitely overstays its welcome. I wonder if a slightly shorter adventure couldn't have been just as satisfying. The bulk of the book consists of interrogating witnesses and possible suspects, and having so many conversations, sometimes even repeating the same bits of information over and over again, can become a bit dull and tedious. One of the reasons I count the servant's interrogatory as a separate section of the adventure is because it involves interviewing at least a dozen different people in sequence, and only a few of them really have important information to offer. With regards to the later parts of the adventure, they also consist mostly of conversations, and while I didn't count, my guess is that at least fifteen more people have to be interviewed, and again, only a few really have crucial information. I'm not certain, but it seems like the author just introduced more characters in the story than he originally intended, in order to pad out the book and comply with publishing requirements. More creativity in devising interesting situations and challenges and less idle conversations would have made the book much better, however. The author himself seems to have been aware of this book's design flaws, because in a later book he makes a back reference about "a murder mystery where I had to interview all the service personnel, a dozen or so people" (this is a not an exact quotation, but the idea is basically that).

To sum up, I must say that this is a worthwhile gamebook, despite its flaws. Here the author seems more in control and fairly certain of what he is doing, and that is certainly appreciated, since translating such a complex plot into gamebook form is definitely not easy. There is little in the book for high-adrenaline gamers, but patient people (and if you reached this point in the review, you certainly are one) should find a lot to like.

More reviews by Guillermo

Special Thanks:Thanks to Guillermo Paredes for the plot summary.
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