Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts

Many A Slip
Freeman Wills Crofts
First Collected 1955
Inspector French #29
Preceded by French Strikes Oil
Followed by Anything to Declare?

While I enjoyed reading through Crofts’ four inverted mystery novels, I felt quite disappointed when I realized that meant I had no more left to read. You can imagine my delight then when I finally got around to reading this short story collection and found that it was entirely made up of inverted puzzle mystery stories!

Most of these tales are very short as they were written to be published in newspapers – a fact Crofts references in his introduction where he comments that he had to flesh some of them out for inclusion here. Accordingly most are designed to feature few characters and comparatively simple situations, though most feature either an apparently perfect crime or unbreakable alibi.

The ‘Many a Slip’ of the title refers to the idea that one small mistake can allow a diligent police detective to unravel even the most complex of alibis. After presenting us with a description of the events leading up to a murder, Crofts then provides a short epilogue, most of which feature his series detective Inspector French, in which he comments on how the case was solved. The format is a little reminiscent of the adventures of Boy Detective Encyclopedia Brown with most cases relying on some tiny incongruous detail, usually not directly related to the murder.

Many of those solutions are quite ingenious but they are not without their issues. A pretty common issue is that a few stories rely on information that may go a little beyond common knowledge as few stories directly describing the crucial clue. This isn’t a problem if your interest is chiefly procedural of course and in many cases you could probably work out what the issue is likely to be based on Crofts’ habit of using the principle clue for his titles. On balance I think most of the stories are fair and would have been even more so at the time they were written.

For the most part I found this to be a pretty entertaining collection but I do suggest that these may be best dipped into rather than read in one or two sittings. Crofts picks on several murder methods and themes and returns to them repeatedly. Usually he presents a different or interesting twist on those ideas but I think they would have more impact in small doses.

I would suggest that Crofts’ skills were perhaps better suited to the novel rather than short story format but in spite of that I think this is a solid collection with some highlights. A couple of stories stand out as particularly strong efforts. Mushroom Patties stood out for its fair play solution which I am happy to report I missed as did The Aspirins and The New Cement. My favorite tale in the collection though is The Photograph which I felt was exceptional, putting its inventive solution in plain sight.

Continue reading “Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts”

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)

Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.

He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.

Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.

On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.

Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).

If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.

I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.

Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.

With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.

Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…

This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.

This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.

This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.

Death in Paradise: Series Two

DiP2This continues my series of posts I started recently about the mystery series Death in Paradise. This time we are moving onto the show’s second series which retained the core cast from the first though it is clear that there was a slight tweaking of the tone with several of the stories here containing darker elements.

While there were not many contenders for my eventual Top 5 Death in Paradise episodes among the stories from this series, I felt that the average standard was higher than in the series before. Only A Deadly Curse struck me as dull.

Other stories in the season are far stronger, particularly A Dash of Sunshine which combines excellent sleuthing with the entertaining dynamics.

Next time I’ll take a look at the third series which sees the first of many changes to the Honoré Police Station roster.

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series Two”

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Good Son
You-Jeong Jeong
Originally published as 종의 기원 in 2016
English translation published in 2018

For my birthday last month my wife decided to take me on a sort of whistle stop tour of several bookshops in the area. While I didn’t have a whole lot of luck at any of the secondhand bookstores, I did get pick up a few more recent translated crime works including this Korean thriller from You-Jeong Jeong who is compared in blurbs to Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith.

These author comparisons are rarely accurate or informative but while I think this author’s work has its own distinctive qualities, I can at least understand what inspired these comparisons though I think Highsmith is the more apt of the two both in tone and subject matter. For my part I would draw some comparisons with Ruth Rendell’s work.

Apparently this book has been something of a hit, being picked for as a book of the Summer by several magazines and websites. All that hype passed me by at the time however and so I came to this with few expectations at all. I think that worked to the book’s credit in this case and I do suspect that if I had read a few of those raves I may have been a little disappointed.

The Good Son opens with the narrator, twenty-six year old law student Yu-jin, awakening to a strange metallic smell and a confusing phone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. When he leaves his room he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

At first Yu-jin does not remember anything of the night before, a common side effect of the seizures he suffers from. Recognizing that things look bad for him he decides he needs to learn what happened and he starts to try and piece together his memories over the course of several days while covering up his mother’s death to buy himself some time.

The memory loss and extreme violence of the mother’s death make for an arresting beginning to the novel and I did find the situation interesting, even if I felt fairly sure from the start that I knew who was responsible for the death. I should say that I do not think You-Jeong Jeong gives away that point herself but rather the book’s blurb makes it pretty clear where this story would be headed. In any case, I do not think it is a problem that this aspect of the story is given away as there remains a mystery as to why this murder took place at all.

Yu-jin is an intriguing protagonist and while I cannot say I liked him or enjoyed his company, I did find his backstory to be quite compelling. This backstory is partly explored through his own memories and partly from the perspectives of other characters in the form of documents he reads and responds to throughout the novel.

Some of the promotional quotes you may read will describe him as an unreliable narrator which I don’t think is really very accurate. It is true that he does not share every relevant piece of information with the reader immediately but I do not think this is supposed to be an act of manipulation by that character. For one thing this story isn’t really presented as though it is a document written by him for a third party to read. Instead I think it is clear that any information he does not share initially is because it did not seem relevant to him at that time and, in some cases, because he does not remember events the way other characters do. This, to me, is one of the central ideas of the book – that characters have their own perspectives and may experience the same event in different ways.

I thought that the information revealed in the course of Yu-jin’s investigation added enormously to my understanding of his character and of the book’s themes yet I did not care for the way this was handled narratively as we are told what happened rather than shown it. Essentially the character spends much of the book reading and reflecting upon a document that he reads in sections working backwards in time, prompting him to remember relevant details and gain a greater understanding for his situation.

While I do not have any inherent objection to discovering information through documents, my problem with this approach here is that it renders Yu-jin a largely passive figure for much of the story. Any actions he takes are in reaction to an immediate threat of discovery but he does not have much to do beyond reading and thinking. As interesting as some of the revelations are, the inaction in the present makes it feel a curiously academic exercise, eliminating any tension that could otherwise be built up in those scenes. Coupled with Yu-jin’s calm, relatively emotionless persona this makes much of the story feel oddly static and while there are some flashes of tension at points, the lack of urgency during this central section of the book detracted from its impact.

In contrast I think several of the supporting characters are quite interesting and I found learning about their stories and relationships to each other to be more compelling. There are some compelling moments and ideas here, not least in the relationship between his mother and aunt, and I think it is in the portrayals of these characters that the book comes closest to defying expectations. Similarly the book’s most interesting questions all spring out of these characterizations.

While I think Yu-jin’s issues are clear, even if they need more explanation, from an early point in the book I found the relationships between the other members of his family and their feelings towards him to be quite ambiguous at first. Given we see them initially from Yu-jin’s perspective and hear what he thinks their views of him are, we do not truly know them until we are close to the novel’s conclusion. In each case I found the characters to be more interesting and complex than I had expected.

The novel’s conclusion works well and is thankfully free of the pacing issues and passivity I felt damaged the middle sections of the novel. I would suggest that they are quite thrilling, containing a few moments of fantastic tension and even a few surprises. My suspicion is that much of the praise for this book is derived from this short final section of the novel. I was certainly satisfied and felt that it did a great job of bringing everything together.

So, where does that leave me overall? I should begin by saying that those looking for a mystery should look elsewhere. While some stores and libraries are shelving it that way, it really is much more of a thriller. There are some interesting things to discover but it is much more of an exploration of a character and the way their life has developed.

At times it is really quite clever and I think it does build to a powerful and satisfying finish. My problem was a stylistic one – I wanted to see Yu-jin play a more active part in finding out about his past and in uncovering what had happened or for there to be a little more variety in the way he learns about it. Instead I found the novel’s midsection to be a bit of a slog.

While I wasn’t as thrilled about this book as many seem to have been, I do think the author creates an interesting premise and characters. This is the first of her books to have appeared in English translation but I would certainly be interested to read the others, particularly Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤) which sounds like my sort of read. Hopefully, given the success that this book seems to have found, those others may follow…

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

MarchOnce again my busy schedule has struck and I have had to reach for a piece I had penned about a mystery television series. For those whose interests lie solely in the printed page rest assured that book reviews are coming!

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a television series from the mid-50s based on John Dickson Carr’s short stories set in the Department of Queer Events within Scotland Yard. The premise is not dissimilar from Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends in that it exists to investigate offbeat, odd and otherwise inexplicable cases.

I should say up front that I haven’t read the short stories. Part of the reason that this post has been on the shelf was that I had hoped to track down an affordable copy but having spent months trying I am having to give up. As keen as I am to read it, I can’t justify spending close to $200 on a copy right now, particularly as people whose opinions I trust say it’s not Carr’s best work. Someday I will hope to rectify that.

The star of the show was Boris Karloff who was, of course, most famous for his roles in monster movies several decades earlier. This is a significantly different type of role and he plays his part with a sort of wry, good humor, often needling his colleague Inspector Ames (Ewan Roberts) who appears in most of the episodes and Inspector Goron of the French Surete (Eric Pohlmann) who is a semi-regular guest.

The stories themselves are quite uneven in quality and they do suffer from the limitations of the filming styles and constraints of the period as well as the short running time. As a result of the latter plots can sometimes feel a little flimsy or key elements stand out a little too much but even the episodes that don’t work brilliantly as mysteries will usually be quite entertaining in terms of the performances or broader concepts.

Some stories do stand out as being strong however such as the first episode, The Sorcerer, which features a simple idea but a clever and effective one. Fans of Carr’s gothic elements will likely enjoy The Talking Head which I think stands up best of the series as a whole and has a very clever explanation. Death and the Other Monkey and The Stolen Crime are also each excellent, particularly the latter which I consider one of the strongest episodes of the show.

I will say that this series does require a little patience with and tolerance for 1950s television. The viewer will often notice the limitations of the studio space (Passage at Arms struck me as somewhat ludicrous), slightly misplayed lines and, of course, somewhat static RP performances. Fortunately the latter is nowhere near as bad as you might expect given the era and fans of British films and television from the era may enjoy some of the before-they-were-famous guest appearances. Of these the Christopher Lee appearance in At Night All Cats Are Gray stands out for his attempts at an extremely questionable French accent.

Though it can be a little rough around the edges, Colonel March of Scotland Yard is frequently imaginative and fun. Episodes zip by and while I sometimes wanted an extra plot element to sink my teeth into, the content is usually good. If you have never sought it out before I would suggest that it is certainly worth a look.

The broadcast order of these episodes differs by territory so I am going by the sequence they are in on Amazon Instant Video. Summaries and comments on every single episode follow after the cut.

Continue reading “Colonel March of Scotland Yard”

Cast in Order of Disappearance by Simon Brett

Cast in Order of Disappearance
Simon Brett
Originally Published 1975
Charles Paris #1
Followed by So Much Blood

Today’s review is perhaps a little overdue. I suppose that in a very literal sense it is overdue because I had meant to post it on Monday. Another self-imposed deadline missed. Whoops. What I really mean to say however is that Brett and his actor sleuth, Charles Paris, were really significant figures in my own development as a crime fiction fan.

I do not intend to dwell too much on my own history but I first wrote about these books well over a decade ago. It was in the early days of Shelfari and those reviews were really the first time I had ever written about mystery novels. I suspect that those reviews were light on any sort of deep analysis but I remember them and the work I did to track down copies of each of the books very fondly.

The book introduces us to Charles Paris, an actor whose career has been met with only moderate success. Work is irregular and several of the actors he came up with have gone on to greater things while he plays bit parts in largely underwhelming productions. He drinks too heavily, has separated from his long-suffering (and far more practical) wife and lives in dreary theatrical digs.

In the later novels in the series Charles can come over as a rather melancholy or depressing figure and certainly this novel has its moments in which he reflects on his aging and some of the disappointments in his life (and, perhaps more poignantly, the ways he has disappointed others). Brett however uses those moments to enhance the comedic developments in the story and while Charles certainly has his faults, he compares pretty favorably with all the other showbiz characters he encounters.

Charles Paris is not, on the face of it, a natural sleuth. He is not particularly inquisitive, nor does he possess much specialist knowledge. What he is able to use however is his aptitude for disguises and his gossippy show business contacts to get access to the main figures and learn more about the case.

Back in 2011 when the other books in this series were much fresher in my mind I did describe this plot as one of the best of the then-17 Paris titles. I would stand by that statement today. The reason that I think it mostly works is that Brett designs a story that is predicated on a relatively small number of points of interest. The case is not overly complex and we are not asked to find it credible that Charles would be trying to manage a murder investigation on his own. In fact for much of the book he isn’t really investigating anything definite – he is just trying to reach out to someone.

The person Charles is seeking out is Marius Steen, a showbiz tycoon who was involved with one of his ex-girlfriends. She had approached Charles when he suddenly disappeared, asking him to make contact with Marius on her behalf. She worries that he may be avoiding her because of a scandal that is building about sex parties that they attended together and wants Charles to reassure him that she is not involved in any blackmail attempts.

Eventually a body turns up but even at that point Charles’ interest is less to do with finding the truth and more to do with protecting a friend. This not only gives him a credible motivation, it helps to limit the scope of the investigation to areas Charles could conceivably handle on his own. The case presents several intriguing developments and while I think there is a twist that is not wholly original, I do think it is executed very well.

One of the aspects of this book that I was far more conscious of when reading it this time around are the fairly frank references to the sexual excesses of show business in the seventies. While I think revelations in the past five years have raised awareness of some of the abuses that took place in the film and television industries, it is still a little shocking to read a character casually referencing losing their virginity at twelve to a man several decades older than her because of his status in the industry.

As distasteful as that world can be, I think Brett does an excellent job of portraying it here. It is not just the descriptions of the work itself but the little details of interacting with other actors and directors that help bring the setting to life. These figures feel well-observed and while some of the concerns they voice may be rooted in a particular time (the 80% tax bracket gets several mentions), I recognized the types easily enough.

The other aspect of the book that really struck me was that while the key elements are all in place, neither his agent Maurice or his estranged wife Frances play significant roles in the story. This is a shame as I think Charles is always entertaining when exasperated by his ineffectual agent and humanized by Frances but it is clear that the general idea behind both characters was in place already at this point. Later novels in the series would capitalize on this a little more successfully.

I will say however that as much as I enjoy this book, I found the radio adaptation to be even more satisfying. That partly reflects the softening of Charles’ character, the general affability of Bill Nighy and a greater role for several recurring supporting characters. It does a good job of updating the cultural references too while retaining the core of the plot. It does perhaps lack some of the tension of the novel, particularly in the final quarter of the book, but I think that some of those dramatic moments aids with the piece’s credibility while I think more of the jokes land.

While it is not perfect and several elements feel of their time, Cast, in Order of Disappearance is an entertaining and clever read. Paris is an interesting if not always likeable protagonist and I think Brett does a really skillful job of presenting him as a credible sleuth. Revisiting this, it is easy to see why the character has enjoyed this longevity and why forty-five years later he continues to solve mysteries (though I will leave the issue of his age and continuity discrepancies for another day).

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The King of Fools
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1952

Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.

The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.

One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.

A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.

This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.

To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.

It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.

I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.

There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.

I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.

Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.

I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!