Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin

Book Details

Originally published in 1948
Gervase Fen #5
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by Buried for Pleasure

The Blurb

Castrevenford school invites English professor and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to present the prizes at Speech Day. However the night before, strange events leave two staff members dead. The Headmaster calls on Professor Fen to investigate.

The Verdict

Often quite amusing with a fun motive, though I think the steam runs out shortly after its discovery.

My Thoughts

In the days running up to the annual Speech Day at Castrevenford School its Headmaster is dealing with a variety of crises. First there is the report that a student from the neighboring girl’s school who was taking part in his school’s student production of Henry V returned home from rehearsals looking quite distressed, prompting an investigation into whether any of his boys had behaved in an untoward fashion. Then he has to deal with an upset science master whose chemicals cabinet has been broken into, though it is unclear whether anything was stolen. But worse is to come when on the eve of the festivities two of the masters are found shot dead in the night.

Fortunately for the Headmaster and the Castrevenford School community they happen to have invited English professor and experienced amateur sleuth Gervase Fen to give out the prizes that year…

This is my second attempt to review a Crispin novel since starting this blog though it is the first to actually appear on the site. Last year I had read The Moving Toyshop but the timing proved unfortunate as I read it right before an unplanned hiatus and by the time I was able to write again I found the details had slipped from my mind. Ask me what I think of the book and you will probably get a response along the lines of “I think I liked it”.

Unfortunately I am not entirely confident that this review will do him justice either. After all, I read this book on January 5th and 6th. While I was grateful for the distraction and moments of amusement, I am not sure that I did Crispin justice by reading it while keeping one eye on the news. He deserves a little better from me and so I will do my best to afford him my full critical attention with my next read.

Let’s start by discussing the aspect of the book that worked best for me: its setting. I enjoy mysteries set in British public schools, in part because it is such a familiar setting to me. I have shared before how I attended one such institution myself and while my own experience was hardly a joyous one, I find that school communities are fascinating and quirky places filled with fascinating and quirky people. In other words they make a perfect environment for a murder story.

Crispin had himself been both a student at a public school and, for a couple of years, worked as a schoolmaster at one so he had a good handle both on the physical environments of a school and the attitudes and culture of its faculty, rendering both convincingly. It is not just the details of school life which are well observed but also the fussy independence of the teachers, interference from parents and the sense of tradition and occassion. Castrevenford felt like a real location to me.

The first couple of chapters are quite entertaining as we watch the headmaster go about his business in preparation for speech day – an event I loathed and did my best to sneak away from each year. The general tone of these early interactions is comical though I was a little surprised that there was a suggestion that a female student may have been raped by a male student that seemed to go a little against the general tone of that chapter. It does, of course, transpire that no such event took place so that darker turn is averted.

I particularly enjoyed the appearance of a character who I think rather steals the book. That is the aging and cantankerous bloodhound, Mr. Merrythought, whose ‘homicidal fits’ make him impossible for the headmaster to control and make Fen quite uncomfortable. Crispin milks Fen’s discomfort and the headmaster’s acquiescence to his life being ruled by the animal for all it is worth, gifting the character a memorable introduction and adding to the sense of comedic chaos prior to the discovery of the murders.

Though the two murders take place almost at the same time they occur at opposite ends of the campus meaning that each is examined independently, being given their own chapters. I must say that there is little whimsical or of note about either murder, save for the strange feature of an electric fire being left running on an already hot night at one location and a note left at the other. What makes them interesting is that they occurred so close to each other and both victims seem to have been killed by the same gun.

I don’t think I can go much further with describing the crimes without risking spoiling them. There is, of course, a link and Fen will have to figure out what that connection could be. This does not involve a lot of evidence – just a couple of small details he is able to build his deductions around – but things do seem to come into focus with the discovery of a third murder. That introduces some clearer evidence and gives a stronger sense of the themes and of the direction that the investigation will take, introducing its most entertaining idea which relates to the motive for the crimes.

That motive is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the crimes. It is not exactly original – in fact I have read another work published in the same year by Elizabeth Daly that explores a similar idea. I do think that it is done well though and that Crispin explains it in a way that is quite clear, even if the policeman is a little slow to pick up on what had happened.

Unfortunately the motive is uncovered quite early in the novel which leaves a lot of narrative space to fill at the end and I didn’t feel that the investigation had enough remaining points of interest to sustain it. Once you uncover the motive, it becomes quite easy to connect the dots and recognize how each of the three murders relate to one another. There simply isn’t much left to detect and so the final chapters adopt more of an adventure story style, albeit a rather gentle one, before Fen explains it all. I enjoyed those chapters because they once again made use of Mr. Merrythought but if the descriptions of the activities of a misanthropic hound don’t amuse you then you may find them slow and feel like they are padding.

While I think there are some pacing issues with this novel I should emphasize that I found it very enjoyable anyway, in very large part because of the comical elements of the story. This material largely landed for me and kept me engaged even when the crime plot seemed to drag. It is those elements of the novel that I am sure will be what I remember most about it.

I am not sure which Gervase Fen story I will try next. I own Holy Disorders and Swan Song but may circle back to The Moving Toyshop and give that another go. If anyone has any strong opinions (or weak ones that they feel like stating forcefully) feel free to share. I promise next time I will give him my full attention!

This counts towards the Murder is Academic category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book though felt it was unbalanced, particularly in relation to the disappearance of Brenda.

Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト
English translation first published in 2003

The Blurb

This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society. 

At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

The Verdict

A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.

My Thoughts

Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.

The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.

From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.

The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.

Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.

While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.

Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.

In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.

Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.

Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.

There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.

Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.

As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.

Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.

Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #11
Preceded by Murder on the Orient Express
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Also known as Murder in Three Acts (original US title) though there are apparently some plot differences between the original UK and US editions outlined on the All About Agatha podcast. Beware it will spoil both versions though!

The Blurb

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead – choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison. 

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

The Verdict

Very cleverly plotted with some great characterization.

My Thoughts

For the past few years I have maintained on this blog that I have read all of the original Poirot novels. When I started to read Three Act Tragedy however it quickly became apparent to me that might not actually be the case as I remembered next to nothing about the case. Could it be another case of faulty memory? Perhaps. I certainly have heard a radio adaptation of it so I ought to have been able to recall more than I did. Not that it really matters because whether I have read it before or not, it felt entirely new to me and that was a very exciting feeling!

The story begins with the retired actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, about to entertain a group of guests for dinner. There are thirteen in the party so his secretary suggests that she should join the party to prevent any worry from the more superstitious members of the gathering. In the end however tragedy still strikes when the mild-mannered Reverend Babbington drops dead from nicotine poisoning moments after drinking a cocktail. There is no trace of poison in the glass, nor any in the food served at dinner. Adding to the confusion, it is hard to imagine any motive why someone might want the elderly clergyman dead.

There is lots to love about the circumstances surrounding the opening murder. For example, this is a case where Poirot is present from the beginning and while his role elsewhere is rather limited, it does mean that he is not relying on third party observations. He has met all of the players involved and so when he fails to even detect that it might be murder, which of course it is because Agatha Christie didn’t write novels about people dying from heavy smoking (Tuberculosis in Three Acts?), it demonstrates just how clever this puzzle is and how challenging it will be for Poirot to solve it.

One knock that people will often make against Christie’s writing relates to her characterizations. Three Act Tragedy is the perfect evidence to offer to refute that claim. Each of the characters present at Sir Charles’ party, who will either serve as surrogate sleuths for Poirot or make up our circle of suspects, feel dimensional and well-observed. There is certainly little sense that anyone is present just to make up the numbers and flesh out the circle a bit.

Several characters are related to the world of entertainment, which allows Christie a little opportunity to comment on aspects of that profession, and there is also some discussion of life in the Cornish countryside. For instance, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a woman living in difficult financial circumstances, reflects on how she is not able to take her daughter (who is nicknamed Egg) to the city where she would meet a variety of different men. Instead she likely has two options – either the young mechanic Oliver who is regarded as a communist or the much older Sir Charles.

What struck me most about the attention to characterization here is that it also applies to Poirot himself. While he appears relatively little, we are actually given something of a description of Poirot’s life and career as well as an explanation for some of his quirks as an investigator. Quite why this was the book that did that, I am not sure, but it is interesting and helps to make him seem a little more human and sympathetic than he often appears.

As I suggested earlier, the death of Babbington is simply the opening murder – the first of our three “acts”. I do not intend to identify the victims of the subsequent murders except to say that I think the choice of victims are surprising and that only adds to the sense that this is a particularly baffling crime. Were I less familiar with some of the elements and ideas that recur frequently in Christie’s work I am sure I would have been completely stumped by this one and in understanding the relationships between the three murders.

I previously referred to Poirot’s limited role in this story and the presence of some surrogate sleuths so let’s discuss the manner of the investigation here. In this story Poirot learns of the second death after the fact and at a point where several other characters have decided to undertake their own investigation. One of these, Mr. Satterthwaite, had previously appeared in The Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories a few years earlier. He is not unintelligent but he does have some qualities that mark him as being quite Hastings-like, such as the way he reads the evidence in front of him. Poirot describes him as being like an audience member at the theater and that is not inaccurate – he is highly perceptive and notices details but also rather credulous. I rather liked him by the end of the story, particularly when paired with Sir Charles, and would have liked to have seen him appear again alongside Poirot.

Also investigating the case is Egg who has used it as a pretext to spend time with Sir Charles. The pair conduct interviews with witnesses and while clearly nowhere near as sharp as Poirot, they are quite entertaining to follow. I particularly enjoy a sequence in which Egg uses deception to try and get some answers out of a witness. Did I really expect them to get to the solution themselves? Perhaps not, but I did like the setup with those two characters working together and how it allowed their romance subplot to feel not just entertaining but important to the central mystery plot.

Of course, while Poirot stays in the background content for these other sleuths to divide the work up between them that situation cannot stay forever. Inevitably Poirot eventually takes control of the proceedings and he will be the one to provide the explanation of what happened. The downside of this approach is that we do not spend much time with him but I think the time we do get feels all the more significant as a result, helped by some of the actions he takes once he gets involved (my favorite being the sequence in which he throws a small sherry party).

I have already described the puzzle here as challenging and it remains so right up to the end. While I may have been able to identify the guilty party and even something of their motives, the how of the matter is really quite clever and uses an idea that is used again later in one of my favorite Christie novels, albeit in a slightly different way. Its use here is just as good though and there are some other clever elements that are unique to this novel.

Do I buy everything about that solution? Well, I think that the motive will be problematic for some readers. This resulted in some changes being made for the American edition. I have not read that version of the text myself so I can’t speak to the details other than to say that based on the description it takes something admittedly quite far-fetched and substitutes for it something that seems like it would be quite an unsatisfying ending.

Personally I quite like the explanation we get. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite novels (as well as possessing some similarities to another Christie novel I adore – can’t say which ones without spoiling) and I appreciated how clever and original the method used feels. It is smart, fair and as far as this reader is concerned one of her best puzzles in terms of how it is worked mechanically.

Overall then I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the last paragraph which is for my money one of the best and most in character endings to any Poirot novel.

This counts towards the Murder by the Numbers category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Hagedorn

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as part of the Akashic Noir series.
Contains 14 short stories.

The Blurb

“Travel, history, and a little bit of lore . . . Transports you to the Philippines and is filled with riveting and sometimes dark stories of the capital city.” —Glamour

For the perfect definition of noir, look no further than Manila. The city itself is like a femme fatale: sexy, complicated, and betrayed. From its fraught colonial history to its present-day incarnation of a teeming metropolis, it is a city of extremes: posh hotels and slums, religious zeal and superstitions, corrupt cops and heroic citizens.
Capturing the essence of Manila, one of the wildest cities on the planet, this collection of noir includes stories by Lourd de Veyra, Gina Apostol, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, F.H. Batacan, Jose Dalisay, Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, Angelo R. Lacuesta, R. Zamora Linmark, Rosario Cruz-Lucero, Sabina Murray, Jonas Vitman, Marianne Villanueva, and Lysley Tenorio.

The Verdict

A very solid collection of short stories, almost all of which worked for me on some level.

My Thoughts

It has been a really long time since I last read and reviewed one of the short story collections from the Akashic Noir range (or any multi-author short story collection). I suppose the reason is a mixture of knowing that these posts tend to get much lower traffic since they are so different from much of the other material I write about and that categorizing and tagging posts with a dozen or more authors and potentially the same number of translators can be an exhausting process.

What I appreciate about these books though is that the offer a window to other places, offering a way to travel and experience those locations through the printed page. Typically our guides are local writers, able to portray tensions within a community or aspects of a place that most travellers would be oblivious to. This collection is a little different in that, according to their biographies at the end of the book, many of the writers are no longer living in the Philippines. I think they still able to offer insights and reflections on a place from a place of personal knowledge, particularly given that several of the stories take place in the past.

Manila Noir is one of the older titles in the collection, originally published back in 2013, which I had picked up a while ago as an ebook. The setting is one I am unfamiliar with, which is always a draw, and a quick read of the introduction sold me that this would be an interesting location to explore and learn more about.

I was pleased to find that this is one of the most consistent collections I have read in the range to date in terms of the stories’ quality. With one exception, The Unintended by Gina Apostol which I struggled to follow, I found these stories to be engaging and tightly told.

The first part of the collection, a grouping of stories titled ‘Us Against Them’ explore class conflict within Manila. The standout story here is Broken Glass by Sabina Murphy which explores the aftermath of an attempted robbery from the perspective of a child who overhears discussion of the event from her aunt and the men who work on her estate. While the ending sort of fizzles out, I think the story does communicate how this event is eye-opening for her and I think it is the most effective play on that theme of the contrasting experiences of life within Manila’s different economic strata.

The other stories in this section were not quite as successful but each still has a point of interest whether it is the vivid description of a car flipping in Angelo R. Lacuesta’s After Midnight or the discussion of the Davao Death Squad in Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s A Human Right. I think there is an argument that can be made though that some don’t quite feel cynical or dark enough to fit the noir label.

While I enjoyed that first section, the second, ‘Black Pearl of the Orient’, was much richer and offered a greater variety of themes and storytelling styles. Trese: Thirteen Stations is a comic that fits in to a long-running series. The supernatural and horror themes may turn some off but I found it one of the most interesting stories in the collection. F. H. Batacan’s Comforter of the Afflicted is equally impressive, exploring the murder of a woman and the story of a girl who grew up witnessing her mother’s abuse at the hands of her father and I found it to be quite a powerful read.

The final part, ‘They Live By Night’, dives into more expected territory of Manila’s night life with stories focused on exploring themes of drug abuse and prostitution. One of the stories, Eric Gamalinda’s Darling, You Can Count On Me grabbed me with its careful use of multiple perspectives and exploration of a real crime – the murder and dismemberment of Lucila Lulu.

The others each had some aspect that frustrated me, though I felt all three were worthwhile. Jessica Hagedorn’s Old Money builds up to a very strong moment of confrontation but I think it undermines it with a choice to offer alternative endings – a decision that keeps it from feeling as brutal as it should. I found the storytelling up to that point compelling though and felt that it was an interesting read.

Jonas Vitman’s Norma from Norman, the final story in the collection, is a really powerful exploration of a character who is the victim of a hate crime and might have been a highlight of the collection but the brutality in the graphic descriptions of the violence was too strong for me (while other stories have moments of violence they are considerably less gristly). Other, less squeamish readers may well feel differently.

Overall then I was very pleased with Manila Noir. I came away from it with a list of topics and places I wanted to learn more about and authors I wanted to read more from which for an anthology is the perfect outcome. While I am sure it will be a while before I tackle one of these collections again, I do look forward to doing so. If you have read any of them and have particular recommendations please feel free to share.

Comments on each story follow after the break:

A Kiss of Fire by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove

Book Details

Originally published in 1984 as 火の接吻.
English translation published in 1988.

The Blurb

Years ago they saw a batlike creature running up the stairs of the house, breathing fire. Now, the three childhood friends, their minds feverish with the inferno they had witnessed, struggle to comprehend the series of arsons that engulf their world.

One of them is the fireman, accused of being the arsonist when his wallet and I.D. are found in the stomach of a circus lion that has died in a fire. One of them is the detective, who must figure out which of his two childhood friends is the culprit. One of them is the arsonist, pursuing his nocturnal obsession in a black sweat suit, a bag of gasoline slung around his neck, a lion among his victims.

Little do they know that a hidden hand manipulates their every action, drawing them closer and closer together and deeper and deeper into a puzzle that offers one perplexing question after another, culminating in a final stunning solution.

The Verdict

Though the premise of this story appears heavily reliant on coincidence, the ending is superb and satisfying.

My Thoughts

According to her biography on Goodreads, the author Masako Togawa wrote over thirty novels in her lifetime. Unfortunately the few English language sources I can find are not particularly forthcoming on the details of those books but I can say that just four have been translated into English and, of those, only two (The Master Key and The Lady Killer) are still in print. Early last year I wrote about Slow Fuse, the last of her books to be translated, and I commented on a short story when I reviewed Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen so with this post I will be up to date on all of her work.

Togawa’s crime fiction, at least those stories I have been able to read in translation, falls within the broad description of psychological thriller rather than detective story. Stories may incorporate multiple perspectives as characters struggle to understand unsettling situations and work out what the significance of what they have witnessed or experienced is. These stories are as much about characters’ explorations of their understanding as they are about physical clues or suspects.

Of her four translated novels, this is probably the one which most resembles a fair play mystery – we are given plenty of information about what has taken place and the reader can correctly deduce what happened by the end of the novel. That being said, the book’s primary focus is on exploring these characters and their relationships to one another and it has more in common with Ruth Rendell and the sort of psychosexual thrillers of the eighties than Golden Age-style detective fiction.

A Kiss of Fire begins with a newspaper account of the death of an artist in a house fire. There were three young children in the house at the time who were suspected of playing with matches but while the police were suspicious that they may be responsible they were unable to find evidence proving that conclusion. Shortly after the tragedy the three would lose contact with each other and at the start of the novel we encounter them as adults, each living quite different lives but still retaining a connection to arson.

Togawa alternates perspectives between these three characters, labeling their chapters based on the role that they play: Fireman, detective and arsonist. These labels, while seemingly helpful, conceal as much as they reveal and part of the puzzle is understanding exactly how they relate to each other and why they behave in the way that they do. At times we may wonder if the characters or the narrator are being entirely truthful with us (and themselves) or whether their identities are more complicated than the labels they are given.

What unites these characters, other than their being witnesses to the death of the artist, is their interest and involvement in the case of a serial arsonist. This figure seems to operate by a series of rules, setting fires only on specific days of the month and only using some materials. Several people have died in the fires however which has prompted a police investigation which one of the three is leading. Meanwhile the firefighter is prowling the city’s streets at night, hoping to catch the guilty party in the act or to persuade residents to move flammable objects out of the arsonist’s reach. And as for the arsonist – well, they are identified but we are not told why they are doing what they do. Understanding that motivation is a very important part of this book and I am happy to say that the explanation of that motive turns out to be both thoughtful and pleasingly complex.

Though these three characters start the story in ignorance of each other’ involvement in the situation, soon their paths will cross again and events from their past will be explored in more detail. These characters are rarely likeable and their decision making is frequently poor, yet by the end of this story I felt that I understood most of the decisions that they made and why they took them.

I found the earliest chapters of the novel to be its least successful. Part of the reason is that the coldness of the character who dominates these earliest chapters – the firefighter – struck me as quite offputting. I should say that I think it is credible that someone could be as thoughtless and driven as he is but the casual manner in which, a couple of pages into the book, he blames his girlfriend for being raped when she was a teenager is pretty breathtaking and made me instantly dislike him. I will say that this does establish several aspects of his personality pretty effectively and as the narrative becomes more complex, I became less conscious of my dislike for him and more engrossed in the plot.

The other reason that I think that these early chapters are a little hard-going is that there is a great deal of coincidence in the history of these characters and the way they cross paths again. While Togawa justifies some of that coincidence, it still feels that these earliest chapters ask the reader to accept a lot. I think that by the end of the novel most of those seemingly bizarre coindences and strange behaviors make a great deal of sense in the context of the story’s solution but some may find the sudden apparent changes in characters’ behavior or sensational developments off-putting.

Perhaps my favorite of the contrivances, though it still feels quite incredible when explained, concerns the appearance of the firefighter’s wallet and ID inside the stomach of a caged lion that dies in a house fire. This is a wonderfully colorful and frankly absurd idea that the story fully embraces and explores. Its importance to the story is in pulling these characters more closely into each others’ orbits and making us question the reliability of what we have learned.

It is once these characters do cross paths and start to become aware of one another that I think this story really takes off. Part of the reason for this is that the events of the past appear much richer and more complex than the crimes taking place in the present. We are essentially dealing with memories and perceptions, colored by these characters’ very young ages at the time of the first fire. Each character has their own ideas as to what happened based on what they perceived seeing and I found the process of piecing these together to be quite fascinating.

While creating a fair play mystery is not necessarily Togawa’s focus, I would argue that the reader is given all of the information they need to work out the solution. In my own case I successfully identified the guilty party and their motivations by about halfway through the book though there are still plenty of interesting developments to come in the story after that point. The account of what happened, and the novel’s epilogue in which we are updated about the fates of the various characters, are handled exceptionally well, delivering a tight and really satisfying conclusion that is perhaps my favorite of the four Togawa novels I have read.

I should say however that in spite of my feelings about that ending I would not suggest this as your first Togawa. Instead I would recommend The Master Key which I think is a more consistent and approachable read. This is a great choice to follow that however an superior to both The Lady Killer or Slow Fuse (particularly the latter). Copies are not outrageously expensive and there seem to be quite a few copies of this in public libraries, at least according to WorldCat, so the lack of a recent reprint shouldn’t be too problematic for those seeking out a copy.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Killed in Translation category as a Silver Age read.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Movie Adaptation (1959)

Movie Details

Originally released in 1959
Screenplay by Peter Bryan based on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Directed by Terence Fisher

Key Cast

Peter Cushing is probably most known to audiences today for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original Star Wars film but he was also a frequent performer in the Hammer Horror film series where he played roles such as Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein. This was his first appearance as Holmes but he would revisit the part a decade later, including this same story, as part of a BBC television series.

Christopher Lee was one of the most prolific and well-known faces in cinema, often portraying villains such as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Like Cushing, he was also highly associated with the Hammer Horror films. A few years after this film he performed in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, another Terence Fisher production, this time as Holmes himself and would play the role again twice in the early 90s.

The Verdict

This atmospheric adaptation highlights the horror of the premise quite effectively. Cushing is very good as Holmes, though he is even better in the later television adaptation.

My Thoughts

The 1959 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles is interesting in several respects. It was the first Sherlock Holmes film to be made in color and while it shows some signs of its budgetary limitations, the location filming adds a sense of scale that benefits the tale. It is also the first appearance of Peter Cushing as the Great Detective – a part he would reprise a decade later for a television series which included a feature-length adaptation of the same story. This means that we have the rather unusual situation of having two takes by the same actor on the same story and can observe some differences between them.

The film opens with a rather lusty and quite lengthy rendition of the Baskerville family legend. While the period details don’t exactly scream English Civil War to me, the general beats of the tale are there – a young woman is chased across the moor by the brutish Sir Hugo Baskerville who, moments after stabbing her, is savagely torn to pieces by a giant, devilish hound. While rather overblown (and overacted), this sequence serves two purposes – firstly to emphasize that this is a Hammer film and that the horror and action of the story will be emphasised, and secondly it limits the length of the consultation scene in which Dr. Mortimer will explain the matter to Holmes by showing us what happened rather than telling us in conversation.

From this point we switch to the consultation in which we get our first sense of Holmes and how Cushing will play him. He is certainly cold and rather imperious in these scenes which suits the tone of the production (he is a little warmer and more humorous in the television version) and there is a sense of a great energy that I consider an important part of the character. This is particularly obvious in later sequences in the film in which we see him actively examining a location as he moves quickly across the space. Perhaps most striking however is just how closely he resembles the Paget illustrations, especially in the prominence of his cheekbones and the deepness of the eyes.

While the consultation and the scenes that follow in London are certainly considerably abridged from the novel, the story does follow the basic structure. Dr. Mortimer explains why he fears for the life of the last of the Baskervilles and entreats Holmes to advise Sir Henry on whether he should go to the Hall. They visit him in his hotel, witness some signs that further emphasize the danger he is in (including a rather ridiculous animal-based assassination attempt that thankfully is quite brief), and make arrangements for Watson to stay with him for his protection while Holmes has to stay in London.

The great problem of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Holmes vehicle is, of course, that the Great Detective is hardly in it. That is one reason why the actor playing Sir Henry was billed above Sherlock Holmes in several of the earlier film adaptations. This version keeps that structure which makes the casting of Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville all the more important as they will have to carry the mid-section of the film.

André Morell plays Watson and offers a good counterbalance to Cushing. He is not as warm as some other versions of the character but he comes over as dependable and competent, if not blessed with Holmes’ deductive genius. While he will have some clumsy misadventures during his time on the moors, they come about because of his desire to protect others rather than because he is an inherently bumbling type and he retains his dignity throughout.

Christopher Lee portrayed Sir Henry and it is rather interesting to see him in a role that is rather more heroic than he normally got to play. Indeed, as he notes in an interview that is included on the Twilight Time blu ray I watched, this represents one of the very few films in his career where he played, against type, a romantic lead. It’s a rather solid performance although that romantic subplot is rather rushed (though that clearly is not his fault) and he plays very nicely off both Cushing and Morell.

The film does a good job of capturing the scale of the moor and making it a threatening location, both in terms of suggesting that it is being stalked by a giant spectral hound but also by emphasizing its marshiness. This is most clearly shown in a sequence in which Watson falls in while trying to protect a woman. This not only creates a moment of peril, it also establishes the dangers of the crossing the mire which is an important point for later in the story.

It should be said that while the film does keep many of the plot beats of the original story there are a number of changes made, some small and some bigger. Some of these struck me as a little silly – the aforementioned assassination attempt at the hotel and a sequence involving a mine shaft are clearly there just to add visual peril as well as some suggestion of some satanic rites being performed on a body – but I feel the simplification of the villain’s role and plan is a pity. That character feels much flatter than in most of the other versions of this story I have seen as a result, making them seem less impressive as an adversary.

While this adaptation may not be as faithful as I might like, I should say that it is more faithful than I expected. The film captures a lot of the elements that I like about the story and works hard to evoke an atmosphere of dread, often with success. Most of the roles are cast well and I think Cushing proves to be a very impressive Holmes, though I personally prefer his subsequent TV portrayal where he gets to show some lighter, warmer sides to the character along with the sometimes stern and aloof characterization we see here.

It may not be the perfect adaptation of this novel but it is an entertaining one and worth a look if you are already a fan of the story.

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

Selena Murphy is commuting home on the train when she strikes up a conversation with a beautiful stranger in the next seat. The woman introduces herself as Martha and soon confesses that she’s been stuck in an affair with her boss. Selena, in turn, confesses that she suspects her husband is sleeping with the nanny. When the train arrives at Selena’s station, the two women part ways, presumably never to meet again.

Then the nanny disappears.

As Selena is pulled into the mystery of what happened, and as the fractures in her marriage grow deeper, she begins to wonder, who was Martha really? But she is hardly prepared for what she’ll discover…

The Verdict

Offers few surprises but develops its characters and themes well.

My Thoughts

Selena Murphy, the working mother of two boys, becomes the sole breadwinner in her family after her husband loses his job. She hires Geneva, a nanny, to look after the children and enable her husband to look for a new job but Selena has come to suspect that they may be sleeping together and, after hiding a camera, gets confirmation. Trying to figure out what to do she ends up confessing to a stranger on the train ride home about the problem, though she couches it as a mere suspicion. The stranger makes a comment about how maybe the maid might just disappear which Selena laughs off but before she comes to any decisions about what to do Geneva is reported missing and soon the police are at her door.

Confessions on the 7:45 came to my attention when I read some reviews that compared it with one of my favorite crime novels, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Reading it I can see why some connected the two, not least because Unger does this at several points in the story, directly referring to Martha as a ‘stranger on the train’ but beyond the chance encounter of these two women on a train, this is very much its own story with its own themes, structure and pace.

The book is told from multiple perspectives, some with obvious connections to each other and others where the link is not so obvious. These stories will inevitably converge by the end into a single, cohesive story and most share some common incidents, themes and ideas. The task for the reader is to anticipate those connections and work out how these different pieces will fit together.

I found some story threads to be quite interesting, particularly the chapters that follow Pearl, a teenage girl. Of all of the various characters whose perspectives we share, Pearl struck me as the most intriguing. Part of the reason for this is that her story appears the most disconnected from the others but it also reflects that there is some ambiguity in the relationships she forms and some of the events that happen to her, keeping us from being certain about what has happened to her and why.

Similarly I felt Geneva’s perspective on her affair and her own character was somewhat unexpected and more complicated than I expected it to be. While we do not spend much time with this character before they are reported missing, I think Unger does a good job of making her a more complex and rounded figure than just the other woman.

Some of the other characters’ perspectives however struck me as less engaging. I am chiefly thinking of the chapters that give a voice to the couple’s children. I felt those chapters did not do much to advance the plot or offer insight into either Selena or her husband Graham’s characters, making them seem rather redundant. In some other cases, such as the retired policeman, I thought that the chapters did serve a clear purpose in providing an external viewpoint on events or introducing a piece of information but they were not particularly dynamic or exciting.

Where I think Unger is much more successful is in the structuring of these different perspectives to explore this situation. The reader is given no clear indication of what has happened to Geneva and so the reader is left in the dark about whether she is alive or dead at all. Add in that there are some gaps in what we observe allowing for the possibility that one of our focal characters could be responsible and you have a pretty compelling situation to explore.

The eventual explanation is, I feel, one that the reader would have little chance of guessing at the start of the book yet I cannot really say it is particularly twisty or surprising (the only development that surprised me comes early in Pearl’s story). Instead I was struck by the sense that the book really sets up each development thematically so that by the time it happens the reader has already anticipated it and it feels quite inevitable. In most cases I found the answers to be quite satisfying and I appreciated how strongly Unger grounds these developments in her characters with each new discovery making them seem richer and more dimensional.

The other reason I think this story works is that it is easy to understand the conflict that Selena is experiencing about how to handle her crisis and empathize with her situation. While the decision to share her problems with a stranger is not a great choice, the feelings she contemplates are communicated very effectively. Similarly the book outlines her experiences with her husband’s infidelity and the struggles she has to maintain the image of the perfect family she wishes to project.

Thematically this is interesting too, particularly the novel’s questions concerning the images we try project of ourselves on social media and to those in our lives. While I do not think these observations are particularly challenging in themselves, they are developed thoughtfully and fit in with the broader themes of the novel quite comfortably.

While I do think that the story might have benefited from a little narrative pruning, I did appreciate the development of theme and character. While this is not perhaps as twisty and surprising as some other psychological thrillers, it is an engaging read that did a decent job of keeping my attention for an afternoon for which I was grateful.

Cries in the Night by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

Originally published 1933
Inspector Jacks #4
Preceded by The Servant of Death
Followed by The Mystery of Vaucluse

Book Summary

In the early hours of the morning a man is woken by a woman’s scream coming from one of the boats off the shore of Port Washington. Investigating, he finds a man who claims that his boat was stolen and that his wife, the actress Daphne Eden, was taken or murdered by a pair of pirates.

Connecting Eden’s disappearance with those of four other actresses, whose bodies were never found, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case. He will have to discover the reason why these particular women were targetted and identify the criminals before they can strike again…

The Verdict

The blend of thriller elements and fair play detection works well and makes this one of his most successful efforts.

My Thoughts

If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with the work of James Harold Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his eight novels having been out of print for decades and little-reviewed on the internet. When he is remembered it is usually in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his final novels (which reminds me that I really should write about that film on this blog at some point).

Since first discovering Wallis’ novels about two years ago, I have worked to track them down and have now reviewed almost all of them. This novel was the only Inspector Jacks story I had not read which means that after this I will only The Woman He Chose, a legal thriller, left to read. It’s a strange feeling given how much time I invested in this project to be nearly at its end. Happily I can say that I feel that time was well-spent as I have enjoyed all of the books and the only disappointment I feel about the project is that the obscurity of these titles means that I have little opportunity to hear what others make of them.

Cries in the Night begins with a man being woken in the early hours of the morning by a woman’s scream. He recognizes that the sound came from the water and, upon investigating, discovers a man, Whitney Sinclair, who claims that his boat was stolen by pirates and that they either kidnapped or murdered his wife, the actress Daphne Eden. Sinclair is taken back to his rescuer’s home but before calling the Police he places a call in which he is overheard saying that he can’t have something uncovered.

The New York City police connect Eden’s disappearance with several previous cases also involving actresses, though they were much less publicized. No ransom demands were ever received, nor were any bodies discovered in those cases. Fearing more disappearances may follow, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case and to test the theory that there may be some connection between these different cases.

Of all of the scenarios Wallis creates in his Inspector Jacks novels, I think that this is one of his most grabbing. Part of the reason for this is that this is his only case where we begin the book at a point at which the crime has already taken place, throwing us directly into the story. Not only that but because we join the story with the fifth crime, it means that a considerable amount of information has already been gathered, allowing Jacks to quickly focus on the most interesting aspects of the case.

I also think that the lack of information we have about exactly what has happened to those women helps to elevate the sense of mystery and tension. We may wonder whether the women are still alive and whether Jacks stands any chance of possibly recovering them all of which ties into the book’s most crucial question – why were these women kidnapped in the first place?

While the wide scope of this mystery may seem to suggest that anyone might have done the crime, the reader will likely find themselves focusing on a small group of suspects. These characters each have quite strong and distinct personalities that make enough of an impression that they can be easily distinguished from each other.

One of the things that struck me most while reading this was the way Wallis acknowledges the role race plays in how characters have been treated. This is most directly addressed in the way that the disappearances of four actresses, though each were talented and quite successful, were met with little attention. Daphne Eden, it is suggested, received more attention and media coverage as she was the first white victim. Similarly Wallis recognizes further inequalities in discussions about the victims’ careers and the opportunities they have been given. He would return to this theme much more forcefully a decade later in his final novel The Niece of Abraham Pein which discussed antisemitism.

In a passage later in the novel Wallis takes us to Harlem and describes the community and life there. I should say that while it seemed clear to me that Wallis intended to celebrate Harlem, there are a couple of descriptive phrases that do evoke some stereotypical ideas (principally that all Black people are happy and carefree). On the whole though I think these passages evoke a sense of respect for the community and the characters we encounter feel as dimensional as their white counterparts which is not always the case in Golden Age works…

As much as I appreciate the social context of this story, which also includes some reflection about the damage that the Great Depression has done to some personal fortunes and businesses in New York, the primary draw here for most will be the mystery and I am pleased to report that I think this one of the author’s most successful efforts.

Wallis’ approach here is to blend elements of the thriller and the fair play detective story which I feel is highly effective. While there are a few sensational developments, particularly in the final few chapters, Wallis does provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary deductions before they reach the Challenge to the Reader page. I will not claim that I think that every aspect of the solution here is likely or realistic, but I did find it to be entertaining and largely satisfying.

Overall then I found this to be one of the best examples of Wallis’ mystery writing I have encountered. The scenario he creates is intriguing and raises some interesting questions for the reader to solve. Unlike some of his other mysteries, this moves at a pretty slick speed, helped by the crime having already been committed at the start of the novel, and the inclusion of some thriller elements work well to raise the stakes and ensures that the book builds to an exciting conclusion.

The Lord of Misrule by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1994 as Le Roi du Desordre
Owen Burns #1
Followed by The Seven Wonders of Crime

The Blurb

We are in Victorian London, with its gaslight and fog, not long after the Jack the Ripper Murders. A mysterious cloaked figure wearing a hideous, leprous mask and sleigh-bells is stalking the countryside outside the capital, committing murder wherever it goes, yet leaving no footprints.

This is the first Paul Halter novel featuring amateur detective and aesthete Owen Burns, who regards the impossible crime as an art form.

The Verdict

The chilling seasonal elements work nicely but the solution feels rather contrived.

My Thoughts

The Lord of Misrule was the subject of a bit of a mystery for me last week when I sat down to start reading it. As I opened up the ebook for what was apparently the first time I found that my copy contained multiple annotations including highlighted passages and notes about aspects of the book. This went from the first page to the very end of the book and, what’s more, each thought was largely in line with the things I was thinking and feeling about the book.

Had I perhaps read the book before and, for some reason, decided not to review it and mark it as unread? If that was the case, why had I no memory of any part of it? Were those notes and highlights somehow transferred from the future? If so, given that I didn’t make any new ones should I expect to find myself in a Back to the Future-type situation where those notes would fade from my ebook when I failed to create them… Or was there some sort of Kindle glitch that gifted me the notes of a kindred spirit? Alas, I will never know. Rest assured however that the opinions that follow are my own – those notes were only consulted after forming them!

The book begins by recounting the story of how the narrator, Achilles Stock, got to know the amateur detective Owen Burns shortly after arriving in England for the first time. That first encounter, while somewhat tangential to the story, is quite amusing and does give us a strong understanding of both men’s personalities and characters. This in turn will help to explain the rather far-fetched circumstances by which the pair come to get involved in this crime story.

The next chapter jumps forward a year as the pair renew their acquaintance and Burns seeks a favor from his friend. Judging him to be a man who enjoys intrigue, he asks Stock to take his place at the Mansfield family’s Christmas at their estate on the outskirts of London to enable him to spend time with a young woman he is enamored with. He is supposed to attend in the guise of the fiance of Catherine, the sister of Samuel Piggott, the man engaged to Mansfield’s older daughter Sibyl.

The reason for the deception is that Catherine fears that for the safety of her brother because of a family curse that strikes fatally when the family occupy the estate at Christmas. It appears that the Lord of Misrule, a killer with a white mask and wearing jingling bells, has been responsible for a number of murders in the family over the centuries including three years earlier when Sibyl’s brother was murdered by an assailant who did not leave tracks in the snow. Achilles agrees to Owen’s request and attends the gathering only to find that further inexplicable events occur, all credited to this Lord of Misrule…

Let’s start with the legend of the Lord of Misrule because I consider it to be the most intriguing part of the book. The concept dates back to an old tradition by which someone is appointed to be the figurehead of the Christmas revelries, organizing games and jokes to entertain the party. While this custom may not be familiar to many today, it does help ground the story around the festive celebrations as well as emphasize that this family legend has been around for some considerable time.

The story of the origins of this Lord of Misrule, when it is relayed to the reader, is actually rather chilling and speaks to the idea of wild excesses being committed by the nobility. While we will know given that this is a detective story that a supernatural explanation will not be the correct one, it is understandable why the historical event would cast such a long shadow over the family and why it would be a very effective idea to revive in the present day. Similarly I love the image of the frightful face appearing at the window – it is creepy and fits in with the older concept of Christmas as a time for ghost stories.

I have more mixed feelings about some other aspects of the setup for this adventure. The circumstances in which Stock becomes involved in the case are quite convoluted and while I enjoyed some of the subterfuge this involves, the story does dance around describing what actually happened all those years ago for quite some time. This does mean that we then get a lot of detail compressed into a few dense chapters which meant that the book read more slowly than you might expect for a 180 page story.

On the other hand, I do quite like the mechanism of having Stock on his own at the start of the adventure and I also appreciate that the business with needing to pretend to be part of the family does mean that he experiences events from the perspective of part of the party rather than as an adversary. This had echoes for me of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its structure of allowing the reader to witness things through the unqualified eyes of the Watson-figure with the knowledge that a more brilliant reading of the crime will be given later when the Great Detective character arrives on the scene and explains it all. Just as with that story, the structure does build our anticipation for that happening.

In the meantime, Stock’s account of his misadventures is often quite entertaining and does manage to emphasize how startling and inexplicable many of the incidents that take place during the festivities are. Halter does do a fine job of creating situations that do seem to be genuinely impossible which only built my interest and left me wondering just how he could craft a solution that would pull everything together in a satisfactory way.

Rather unfortunately I think the solution misses the mark. There are certainly some strong ideas here, not least with regards the explanation for the strange circumstances surrounding Edwin’s death, but the crime that takes place in the present has some elements that struck me as highly unsatisfactory. Particularly the reveal of an critical element on the very last page that had me groaning and feeling frankly a little cheated.

Reading this I was reminded what I look for in impossible crime stories. I want a fantastic premise that becomes breathtakingly simple and logical when viewed from a perspective that would never have occured to me. Halter gives us that with the death of Edwin. The setup is superb while its explanation, viewed on its own, would be quite strong. Were that crime allowed to be the focus of the story I would no doubt be writing a very positive review right now.

The book’s problems lie in attempting to weave additional crimes into the mix. While those present day events add some additional complexity and interest to the investigation, they also make the solution significantly more contrived. Instead of taking a fantastic situation and making it simple, the result is that the reality of that seemingly fantastic situation is even more bizarre than it seems, leaving me rather frustrated and disappointed.

Reprint of the Year: My Second Pick

Last week I shared my first nomination for this year’s Reprint of the Year award, Mystery on Southampton Water, suggesting that it was a strong example of how reprints can make unaffordable classic crime novels accessible once again. My second nomination is representative of the other reason I think reprints are so important – they can shine a light on otherwise obscure writers or titles.

Dean Street Press are one of a number of publishers who have done splendid work bringing the works of writers of the Golden and Silver ages of crime fiction back onto our bookshelves. Whether you collect the handsome paperbacks or the highly affordable ebook copies, they have brought readers into contact with the works of writers like Moray Dalton, E. R. Punshon, Molly Thynne and yes, Brian Flynn.

The Heel of Achilles was a particularly joyous find for me because it is another example of an inverted mystery novel. The Radfords clearly drew inspiration from the work of R. Austin Freeman both in terms of the structure of the story but also in the manner of their sleuths. Manson, much like Thorndyke, carries a mobile laboratory with him.

The case itself is an interesting one, beginning with the account of what leads Jack, a young mechanic, to commit murder. As is typically in many of these stories, we understand Jack’s motivations and see why he feels trapped, particularly given how he was caught up in events he never wished to be involved in.

I equally enjoyed the remaining two-thirds of the novel in which we follow Manson as he attempts to make sense of the crime scene. Here the reader often has prior knowledge of the explanation of a particularly confusing aspect of the case and enjoys watching to see if the detective is able to piece it together without that knowledge.

What makes this story particularly entertaining to me however is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. Yes, he gets to the right solution in the end but he makes a number of incorrect, if logically reasoned, guesses along the way. Each of those mistakes is carefully footnoted in a sort of reverse cluefinder section at the end of the novel. It is a really charming feature of the story and one that I wish other writers had emulated.

It all makes for an entertaining and charming read that I am thoroughly glad was made available again for me to enjoy. It is certainly hard to imagine that even as an enthusiast of inverted mysteries I would ever have crossed paths with it without the efforts of Dean Street Press. Knowing that there are other Manson stories awaiting me only adds to my excitement!

For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrimeThe post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.