The Heel of Achilles by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

Doctor Manson #8
Preceded by John Kyleing Died
Followed by Look in at Murder

The Blurb

The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.

The Verdict

A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.


My Thoughts

This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.

The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.

As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.

Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.

I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.

I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?

The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.

Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.

One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.

The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.

It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.

I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.

Columbo: Dead Weight (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast October 27, 1971.

Preceded by Death Lends a Hand
Followed by Suitable for Framing

Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jack Smight

Key Guest Cast

Eddie Albert was a well known actor who had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Roman Holiday several decades earlier (and would be again for The Heartbreak Kid two years later). He was best known at the time for his lead role in the sitcom Green Acres opposite Eva Gabor.

Suzanne Pleshette had played a supporting role in Hitchcock’s The Birds but would achieve even greater success a year after this episode when she was cast as Bob’s wife in The Bob Newhart Show which ran for six seasons and earned her two Emmy nominations.

The Verdict

An entertaining story that like the previous episode features an unplanned crime.


My Thoughts

Major General Martin Hollister was a Korean war hero who started a construction company after retiring. With the help of Colonel Dutton he secured several military contracts at knockdown prices, then embezzled the overspends. Dutton comes to see him to say that those transactions are now being investigated and that he plans to flee the country. Unwilling to trust in Dutton’s silence, Hollister shoots him and plans to dispose of the body.

Unfortunately for Hollister the shooting was partially seen by Helen Stewart who was sailing on the river at the time and she reports it. Columbo is dispatched to visit the property to see if he can find signs of a shooting or the body.

Like the previous story, Dead Weight features an unplanned crime. Hollister acts in the spur of the moment and is forced to create a plan on the spur of the moment to avoid detection. While I feel the lack of pre-planning created a pretty bland case in that story, the involvement of a witness here and Hollister’s background and strong personality make for a much more interesting scenario.

This story is the first Columbo case to feature a witness and I think it works well here. Not only is the character played brilliantly by Suzanne Pleshette, the inclusion of a witness in the case adds a fresh angle for the killer to address and adds a level of tension and uncertainty as we wonder what might happen to her.

Pleshette’s character, a divorcee who is living with her mother (played by the highly entertaining Kate Reid), is an entertaining and sympathetic one. Her actions are often in response to the nagging and interference from her mother, who firmly believes her daughter made up the shooting, but I also appreciate that she stands up to Columbo and points out the inconsistencies in his treatment of her.

I am less keen on one aspect of how her story develops, in part because I could not believe she would respond to direct interactions with Hollister in the manner shown, no matter how charming the character might be. I do recognize though what this development allows the plot to do and I appreciate the way it contributes to the tension of the piece, even if I don’t find it credible.

As for Hollister, he is a superb creation who combines many of the best attributes of the villains we have seen in the preceding episodes. He is clearly smart and organized, possesses great charm and feels he can handle Columbo’s questions (while being aware of the danger he is in). Like Brimmer in the previous story, you could make a case that he is responsible for building the case against himself but the difference is that there is a much clearer reason for Columbo to suspect him.

There are some great moments and exchanges between Albert and Falk including some particularly enjoyable ones that take place on Hollister’s boat. These are not just beautifully shot, conveying an enormous amount of speed and power (clearly designed to disconcert and throw Columbo off his game), they also prompt some wonderful sparring sessions and mind games between the pair.

While I think it is safe to say that there are a couple of far-fetched plot developments here, a superb villain and excellent performances from the cast make this an enjoyable episode of the series.

The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published in 1943
Inspector Hugh Collier #10
The publication order of the Collier stories seems a little confusing to me – in his excellent introduction to the book, Curtis says it is the tenth by his reckoning so we’ll go with that.

The Blurb

Artists’ model Althea Greville was, in life, known as something of a femme fatale. But the phrase becomes only too literal. What initially appears to be red paint leads instead to Althea’s dead body, murdered in Morosini’s renowned school of art. Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard is called in, but two more murder victims follow, one of them a female student at the school, stabbed to death at a cinema. After many a twist, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle to identify a murderer operating under cover of England’s World War Two black-out.

The Verdict

A quick-paced and entertaining detective story.


My Thoughts

I am always excited to see when Dean Street Press announce a new set of titles, particularly when they feature an author that is entirely new to me. Recently they have started releasing some works by Moray Dalton (a pen name for Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) and, of course, I jumped right on them – picking up several titles.

The one that grabbed my attention most was this title, in large part because of its setting. For one thing the case is set during wartime – more on that in a moment – but also because of the art school setting. One of the ways I have spent my enforced confinement to the home over the past month is filming and editing art instructional videos for my wife’s students so I find myself in an arty mood at the moment.

The novel is set at an art school located about forty minutes outside London in the small market town of Scanbridge. The school is owned by an Italian artist whose interest in the institution has waned over the years as he makes only infrequent visits, preferring the more vibrant cultural and social life found in the capital. As a consequence the school is facing a bleak future thanks to the effect of the war and the ‘absurdly high’ fees.

It opens with the wife of the building’s caretaker unlocking and opening up the school building in an early November morning only to discover a woman lying dead on the classroom floor. One of the masters identifies her as the life model he had engaged from London and the local police, recognizing (and perhaps hoping) that the crime may have roots outside their jurisdiction, decides to send for Scotland Yard to investigate.

While the prospect of the locked school building may sound like the starting point for a locked room mystery, I should stress that it is acknowledged early in the book that there are several individuals who possess keys to the building. Those questions of access do factor into the mystery but are by no means a key focus of the story.

Instead Inspector Collier’s focus falls on exploring the history of the murdered woman and that of the individuals who make up the school’s teaching staff and student body. While the student body is a reasonably large group of characters, our attention is narrowed to just a couple of witnesses (the mechanism for that is a little contrived but I will take a little streamlining over the prospect of dozens of identical interactions).

This is not the sort of mystery that presents the reader with much in the way of physical clues – most of the information gained comes in conversation. Being so interview-driven works to the book’s advantage as Dalton’s detective, Collier, is charming and highly personable, using his interpersonal skills to ease people into revealing information to him.

The second murder, when it comes, added an additional layer of interest for me and leads to some of the book’s strongest exchanges. For instance, it is following that incident that Collier finally manages to meet with Mr. Morosini who proves a rather highly strung interviewee and who is easily the book’s most colorful character.

The aspect of the book that intrigued me most however was its setting and Dalton’s presentation of how wartime conditions affect both the fortunes of the school and the investigation. The latter is particularly well done in moments such as when Collier acknowledging that some usual approaches to crime solving, such as discreetly tailing a suspect, are just impossible in the blackout.

This brings me, a little reluctantly, to discuss the book’s conclusion which I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The reveal of the killer struck me as a little anticlimactic, in part because I think there is an argument to be made that Collier really doesn’t do much to bring that about. He certainly connects the dots at the right time but I was not entirely convinced that the character could have known for sure without that. That being said, other aspects of the conclusion make it quite an exciting and dramatic read.

The motive, when revealed, is powerful and a secondary plot is wrapped up in a way that I felt was quite pleasing and gave some characters an appropriately happy ending. It made for a nice closure to the story and I appreciated the way Dalton gives us a glimpse into how some characters’ lives have changed since they were caught up in The Art School Murders.

Overall, I found this to be a quick, engaging and entertaining read. I have, of course, indulged my Dean Street Press habit and purchased all of the other Moray Dalton titles currently available. Based on this experience I am very confident that I will be reading more from this author in the next few months.

Further Reading

This superb essay from Curtis Evans, the writer of the introduction to the Dean Street Press edition, touches on both blackouts in crime fiction and this book specifically.

The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published 1912.
This volume collected stories originally published from 1909 to 1911.

Dr. Thorndyke #5
Preceded by The Mystery of 31 New Inn
Followed by A Silent Witness

The Blurb

Silas has diamonds in the heel of his shoe. He is a thief, but until the night he meets Oscar Brodski on the footpath near his house, he has never considered murder. A diamond dealer, Brodski’s pockets bulge with more precious stones than Silas has ever dreamed of, and they will be his with one swift, violent act. Silas does the deed and arranges the diamond dealer’s body to make the death look accidental. He has provided for every contingency—except for the arrival of a doctor named Thorndyke.

In this collection of stories, the reader knows the killer’s identity long before the ingenious medical detective enters the scene. These are brilliant early examples of open mysteries, in which the question is not whodunit—but how will he get caught?

The Verdict

A key text in the development of the inverted mystery which includes several entertaining short stories.


My Thoughts

In the introduction to The Singing Bone, R. Austin Freeman takes the credit for inventing what he terms the inverted mystery novel when he wrote his short story The Case of Oscar Brodski. He suggests that this was something of a experiment – an attempt to refocus the reader’s attention from whodunnit to the question of how they would be caught.

Freeman’s reason for experimenting with the form was to reject the artificiality of the detective story with its focus on who did the crime and instead create something more realistic. The suspense would not come in waiting for the reveal but rather in smaller, incremental moments in which we see the killer’s deceptions coming undone.

Freeman wrote of his project:

Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.

R. Austin Freeman – Preface to The Singing Bone

While Freeman did not invent the idea of following a criminal as they conduct a crime, he does create a format that retained the structure of a detective story that would prove to be a model for later authors. Crofts, for example, follows the structure of splitting some of his inverted stories in half such as in Antidote to Venom, beginning by following the criminal and then switching to the investigator.

I have previously read and reviewed the earliest of the inverted stories, The Case of Oscar Brodski, on this blog but I wanted to go back and read the rest of the collection. This week I was given a little push towards doing that when I agreed to prepare for about inverted crime novels (more on that at a future time). It seemed to me that I couldn’t approach that without a fuller experience of Freeman so this jumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

Dr. Thorndyke is not the most animated sleuth around but Freeman’s stories are far from dull. The cases themselves and the process of deductive reasoning built on forensic evidence he uses can be really novel and entertaining. In a few cases, such as The Echo of a Mutiny, complex ideas are communicated and used very effectively.

I also appreciate that while Thorndyke is always successful at discovering everything the physical evidence has to offer there is no guarantee that the criminal will be held accountable. This not only adds an additional layer of interest to each story, it is also an acknowledgement that forensic scientists do not solve crimes themselves and also that sometimes you can find the killer but be unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found points of interest in each story in the collection but some particularly appealed. A Case of Premeditation engaged me with its challenges to the reader – something I had never encountered in an inverted story – and while I think Thorndyke guesses at some aspects of the case, it is very entertaining.

I also loved A Wastrel’s Romance which I think has an entertaining scenario and some charming character choices. Finally, I recommend The Case of Oscar Brodski for its importance to the development of the form.

On the whole I think that this is a very effective collection that left me keen to read more Freeman. Sure, the sleuth himself is a little dry but the situations Freeman creates are both colorful and interesting.

I offer more detailed thoughts on each of the individual stories on the second page of this review.

Read more

Columbo: Death Lends A Hand (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast October 6, 1971

Season 1, Episode 2
Preceded by Murder by the Book
Followed by Dead Weight

Written by Richard Levinson & William Link
Directed by Bernard Kowalski

Key Guest Cast

Robert Culp had come to prominence in the late 50s playing the lead in the Western TV show Trackdown. He found his greatest success playing a CIA secret agent in the mid-60s on the show I Spy opposite Bill Cosby for which he earned three Emmy nominations.

Ray Milland had a long and successful career that saw him win an Oscar for The Long Weekend and twice-nominated for Golden Globes. He is very good here in the role of the deceased’s husband.

The Verdict

A solid if rather simple murder story is elevated by a fine performance by Robert Culp.


My Thoughts

A private investigator, Brimmer, has been hired by a newspaper publisher to check to see if his wife has been having an affair. He discovers proof of her guilt but tells the husband that she was innocent, intending to blackmail her into using her proximity to power to help his business. When she refuses he gets angry, killing her by mistake with a slap when she stumbles and hits her head.

This was the first Columbo story that didn’t show a premeditated murder but rather a crime committed in the heat of the moment. My feelings about this choice are a little mixed. I do think that the idea of varying the type of crime makes some sense and it does result in this case feeling distinct from those that came before. The trade-off for this though is that the antagonist’s motives feel pretty weak and as there isn’t much of a plan, there isn’t much for Columbo to unpack.

Fortunately for the episode, these deficiencies are masked by a strong piece of casting in Robert Culp. His Brimmer is not as strong or sneering a personality as Cassidy’s Franklin and recognizes Columbo’s observational skills pretty quickly. This produces a slightly different dynamic for the scenes he shares with Columbo as he nearly always takes him seriously as a threat, utilizing different strategies to try to stay ahead.

I enjoyed the dynamic between the two actors a lot, even if his attempts to manipulate Columbo are a little brazen. I also appreciated that Brimmer is pretty much the antithesis of Columbo – he is put together, organized and corporate yet he doesn’t read the person Columbo is or his values at all.

As I suggest above though there are two problems in the character and scenario the episode struggles to overcome. The first is that his motivation for killing is weak. This is a man with few personal ties to the deceased at all. This could represent a significant challenge for Columbo yet instead he hones in immediately on the killer for what strikes me as a pretty weak reason related to a piece of physical evidence on the body.

I think this is unfortunate because there is plenty of other behavioral evidence that should put him onto that track too that I think would make greater sense. Instead Columbo’s hunch, while correct, seems to just not be based on much of anything.

The other issue is that because of the nature of the crime and the cover-up there isn’t any loose thread or logical flaw for Columbo to grab hold of. Instead the guilt must be proved another way. The resolution is perfectly fine and does show Columbo’s guile but I do prefer those stories where he catches a killer on some small logical detail or inconsistency.

Still, while I don’t love every aspect of the plot, I did find the episode entertaining as a whole. The performances from the small cast are good and there are some fun moments including a lovely exchange near the end.

I, Claudia by Marilyn Todd

Book Details

Originally published in 1995

Claudia Seferius #1
Followed by Virgin Territory

The Blurb

Having connived her way into marriage with a wealthy wine merchant, Claudia quickly grows bored, so when her secret gambling debts spiral, she hits on a resourceful way to pay off the moneylenders. Offering “personal services” to high-ranking Romans. That is, until her clients start turning up dead.

When the charismatic investigator, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, digs too deep for comfort, Claudia is forced to track down the killer herself. Before the authorities or her husband find out what she’s up to.

The Verdict

Claudia won’t be for everyone but I found her a fun sleuth and this case is a solid introduction for her.


My Thoughts

When Claudia Seferius became the wife of a wealthy Roman wine merchant she may have expected a life of luxury but instead she found herself bored. Gambling seemed to offer some relief from the tedium but Claudia soon found herself in debt to some moneylenders and, lacking other ways to meet their demands, began offering her disciplinary services very discreetly (and expensively) to some of Rome’s leading men.

Unfortunately Claudia has run into a problem. Several of her clients have begun to turn up dead, stabbed with their eyes gouged out. When she stumbles onto the body of her latest client investigator Marcus Cornelius Orbilio finally gets a lead into the murders and starts to pursue her. Determined to clear her name (and hoping to kill the guilty party herself), Claudia starts her own investigation into the murder.

Claudia is a relatively unusual protagonist, particularly for a historical mystery, in that she is presented as an antihero. For one thing, we know that she is not particularly interested in justice but rather out of self-interest and the desire to hurt the killer for the inconvenience they have caused her.

On top of that we see she can be cruel, sharp-tongued and manipulative with everyone around her. Imagine Joan Collins in a toga or a much sharper Atia of the Julii from HBO’s Rome. I can imagine that some readers will struggle to like her or want to see her succeed – I, on the other hand, absolutely loved her.

Marilyn Todd makes a couple of choices that I think help the reader accept Claudia as a hero. First, she establishes that everyone else is pretty horrible too. From her sleazy brother-in-law who drunkenly propositions her and feels her up at family gatherings to the rich senators and proctors who preach Augustan values but pay for her services, we get a sense that Claudia is far from an outlier. She’s just playing the hypocrites at their own game.

Secondly, the brutality of the murders and the manner in which they clearly connect to Claudia helps us understand that there is a monster out to get her. We may not approve of her (though I suspect many readers will warm to her by the end of this book) but there is a clear reason for her to act and the authorities are shown to be clearly wanting – Orbilio aside.

While Todd titles the book I, Claudia (a pun on the classic Robert Graves novel), the narration is in the third person – though we are frequently treated to her thoughts and opinions. This allows us to get a sense of her acidic inner voice and also gives us a sense of her intelligence, allowing us to know what she makes of the clues she finds and the reasons behind most of her actions. One of the things I liked most about Claudia is that she is shown to be as sharp-witted as she is sharp-tongued and it is a consequence of this choice to let us hear her thoughts.

The most important of the other characters is Orbilio, the investigator who is working the case in a more official capacity. He is presented as being perceptive and dedicated to his career but has character flaws of his own. I will say that I liked him less than her but I liked the way he doggedly pursues her and felt that the pair spar pretty well throughout the novel.

Given Claudia’s secret profession and Orbilio’s appetites it probably won’t surprise you to hear that this novel has a few bawdy moments. The tone however is more cheeky than explicit, focusing on the craziness of a situation rather than sensual descriptions of body parts or activities.

Todd similarly avoids explicit descriptions of acts of violence but is able to convey a disturbing image of what the murderer has done. This sort of thing is a difficult balance to strike but I think the author mostly gets it right, conveying enough that the reader understands what happened without it seeming purely gratuitous.

I was similarly impressed by the choices the author makes in the way they present the historical background and setting. Basically this book belongs to the same school of thought as HBO’s Rome or the Falco books (though it is less stylized than either) – using occasional modern expressions to give the reader a sense of the spirit of a place and time.

There are plenty of interesting historical details and observations which the author does a good job of naturally integrating into the story, using them to illustrate a plot point or an aspect of a character. None felt forced which is pretty much what you want from a historical mystery.

One aspect of Roman life that I think is explored particularly well is the Augustan idea of matronly virtue. Claudia is compared frequently with her conservative sister-in-law and there are discussions of some of the Roman ideals such as the mother who spins garments herself and has multiple children.

I have focused a lot in my comments on the characterization of Claudia and the presentation of the setting so I do need to take a moment to discuss the plot. I want to stress that my placing this so late in the review does not indicate I think it is poor but rather that it is the element that I think will be least decisive in determining whether others will want to read this.

The mystery is competently plotted with several decent suspects to consider. The motive will be clear relatively early but fortunately enough characters share it to sustain the mystery for a while, even if the culprit will be unlikely to surprise many by the moment of the reveal. It is solid enough and reasonably well clued.

I found myself more interested in some of the secondary questions and puzzles structured around this main mystery which include a string of suspicious deaths in Claudia’s own household. Here, once again, the mysteries are solidly plotted – though it does not play entirely fair (one key piece of information is known to a character but not communicated to the reader before the murderer is apprehended). I do appreciated though how well spaced out these developments are, adding an extra layer of interest in the second half of the novel.

While the mysteries are solid enough, the principle attraction for me was the really entertaining main character. It is entirely possible that you may feel differently – particularly if it is important for you to be able to like, empathize with and want the best for the sleuth. If that’s the case this probably won’t be for you. As for me, well – I already have a copy of the next one on its way to me…

The Leavenworth Case by Anna K. Green

Book Details

Originally published in 1878
Ebenezer Gryce #1
Followed by A Strange Disappearance

The Blurb

When the retired merchant Horatio Leavenworth is found shot dead in his mansion library, suspicion falls on his nieces, Mary and Eleanore, who stand to inherit his vast fortune. Their lawyer, Everett Raymond, infatuated with one of the sisters, is determined that the official investigator, detective Ebenezer Gryce, widens the inquiry to less obvious suspects.

The Verdict

A reminder that being important doesn’t always equate to being entertaining.


My Thoughts

I have been told that one of the frustrating things about following my blog is that I often post about books that can be a little hard, if not impossible, to find. While I have no intention of stopping reading and writing about those types of books, I am aware that for many people the institutions and businesses they typically rely on to find new books are inaccessible to them.

For at least the next few months I have decided to feature several books a month that are within the Public Domain and that you can read online for free. Some of those books will be well known but I intend to stick with my habit of picking out an occasional obscure or little-reviewed title to discuss.

Today’s book is perhaps not widely known though given it is a landmark title as the first successful work of detective fiction by a female novelist. The book, the first by Anna Katharine Green, was a bestseller becoming popular on both sides of the Atlantic and influencing other mystery writers including that little-known writer, Agatha Christie.

The story concerns the death of Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy retired merchant who was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in his library. As no one could have left the mansion before the discovery of the body, suspicion falls on the other members of the household.

Everett Raymond, a young lawyer who had been sent on behalf of his firm to handle the case, forms a strong attraction to one of the suspects and works with the official investigator in the hope of proving her innocence.

While I do not generally read others’ reviews until after I have written my own, I did take a look at several articles discussing why the book had fallen from popularity including the excellent one by Curtis Evans which I link to below. A common theme seems to be that Green’s writing style is very much in the Victorian style making it hard going.

Certainly I think it is fair to say that her storytelling style is not as direct as it could be. A good example of this comes when Everett offers his initial descriptions of the deceased man’s two young cousins, rhapsodizing for several paragraphs about their beauty. This sort of stuff can certainly be dull and feels unnecessary but I never felt Green’s language is too complex or obscure to be understood, even if she does employ some melodramatic turns of phrase. Nor do I think it out of keeping with Conan Doyle’s efforts in A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four several years later, both of which feature lengthy and rather dull accounts. It does sometimes make for frustrating reading however as overwrought and melodramatic passages serve to slow the narrative down.

One of the reasons I think it is particularly problematic is that Green chooses to begin her book with the murder having already taken place and our protagonist already knowing some basic details of the case. The practical effect of this choice is that the scenes in which we get to know Everett and later Gryce have to happen during the inquest – a section of the book which already feels quite dense – and this material serves to slow those chapters down considerably.

To return to that earlier example of the florid paragraphs in which Everett rhapsodies about a woman’s beauty, this is not only establishing her qualities. It is also used to tell us something of nature that we will need to understand to justify some of his later efforts in investigating the case.

Though Everett can be a somewhat melodramatic and long-winded narrator, I did find him to be quite a charming protagonist. I liked his attempts to be gallant (such as his revulsion at the idea of being ‘a spy in a fair woman’s house’) and appreciated that Green points out some of the moments where he struggles to reconcile his duties to the law with his personal feelings about the case in some brilliant conversations with the much less partial Gryce.

I also appreciated that Everett’s relationship with Gryce, the man formally investigating the crime, is more professional and cordial than warm. There clearly there are moments in the adventure where each man frustrates the other and even work against each other – a reflection of their different priorities in their handling of this case.

The first section of the novel follows the revelations made at an inquest into the murder, providing us with introductions to the characters and the basic details of the crime. Green gives us an effective outline of the key points of the case and while I wished she didn’t always feel the need to provide every beat of the proceedings, the information is clearly conveyed and establishes an interesting crime scene where the evidence seems to point at one person.

Having established the case that has been made against the subject of Everett’s affections, the subsequent sections focus on the investigation itself.

Unfortunately these sections surprisingly feel less energetic and exciting than the earlier inquest chapters, in part because there are so few significant revelations. While Everett and Gryce identify what they need to find and have a plan to get it, the journey to acquire that information feels a little slow and there are few surprises.

When we do get some information however things pick up again and the final quarter of the book, though packed with melodramatic developments and declarations, feels pacier and much more entertaining. Some of the elements used by Green feel primitive compared with works even a decade later (my favorite such moment involves a very breakable code used in chapter twenty-eight) but I was impressed by just how many ideas appear here that would be standard elements in future works.

I suspect that most readers will find aspects of the killer’s confession a little ridiculous – particularly the chapter in which we read their account of the crime which goes on too long.

The problem that I think The Leavenworth Case has is that because of many of its modern detective story elements such as its forensic discussions it feels like it should belong to a later era than the one it was actually written in. I do think though it is important to remember that this is essentially a transitional text, moving us from a style of sensation fiction to something approaching the modern detective story. I certainly did not judge it to be any less satisfying than A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four, both of which also have their moments.

This issue really sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. It is undoubtedly an important title in the development of the genre but its slow midsection and dense, melodramatic prose means that it wasn’t always all that entertaining to read.

Further Reading

Curtis Evans wrote a superb piece for Crime Reads that looks at how the critical reception for this novel has changed in the years since it was first published.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime writes a brilliantly detailed review that is broken down into themes and goes pretty deep. There are some spoilers there but all are marked so can be avoided. It can best be summed up as melodramatic but well-constructed.

Criminal Element published a post in which they discussed the book, dubbing it ‘the most popular mystery novel you’ve never read’.