Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

Injured in a freak fall, novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his glamorous high-rise apartment, dependent on two women he barely knows: his incurious young assistant, and a dull, slow-witted night nurse.

Then late one night, the phone rings. The caller claims to be the “real” Aubrey, the alluring title character from his most successful novel, Dream Girl. But there is no real Aubrey. She’s a figment born of a writer’s imagination, despite what many believe or claim to know. Could the cryptic caller be one of his three ex-wives playing a vindictive trick after all these years? Or is she Margot, an ex-girlfriend who keeps trying to insinuate her way back into Gerry’s life?

And why does no one believe that the call even happened?

Isolated from the world, drowsy from medication, Gerry slips between reality and a dreamlike state in which he is haunted by his own past: his faithless father, his devoted mother; the women who loved him, the women he loved.

And now here is Aubrey, threatening to visit him, suggesting that she is owed something. Is the threat real or is it a sign of dementia? Which scenario would he prefer? Gerry has never been so alone, so confused – and so terrified.

The Verdict

Dream Girl has a really interesting and quite unsettling premise. What makes it compelling however is the sharp character study and its discussions of the creative process. Recommended.

It’s Aubrey, Gerry. We need to talk. About my story, about what really happened between us, that mess with your wife. I think it’s time the world knows I’m a real person.

My Thoughts

I have been eager to get my hands on a copy of Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl ever since I first read the synopsis so the moment my copy arrived it went straight to the top of my To Read pile. That is partly a reflection of how much I had enjoyed Sunburn, my first experience of Lippman’s writing which I read just about a year ago, but also because the themes it promised to discuss – the creative process, the boundaries between reality and imagination and the publishing world seemed intriguing. I am happy to say that this proved to be a good choice as I found myself devouring the book in just one day.

The novel concerns a novelist, Gerry Andersen who, while not a prolific author, became celebrated and financially successful thanks to his fourth and most celebrated novel, Dream Girl. That book about a man who changes his life when he meets a young woman named Aubrey brought him fame and fortune, leading to literary prizes, college teaching posts and his magnificent, if severe, new apartment in Baltimore.

Not that Gerry particularly wanted to live there again. He moved back to the city to care for his aging mother only for her to die a few days after he closed on the property. Still processing her death, an accident leaves him confined to his bed for several months as he waits for fractures to heal, cut off from the outside world.

Gerry is unsettled when he receives the first in a series of telephone calls from a woman who claims to be Aubrey, the celebrate title character from Dream Girl. Fueled by his isolation and the opioids he is being prescribed, Gerry begins to wonder if the calls are real or just a figment of his imagination. And, if they are real, who might be responsible…

In her notes at the end of the novel Lippman describes this work as her first work of horror fiction and while there are mystery elements here too, I certainly see why she says that. There is something truly hypnotic and deeply unsettling as we recognize, long before Gerry himself, how his world has become increasingly limited and how dependent he now is upon the people tasked with helping him. Lippman creates a palpable sense of dread right from the start of the novel, before the first of those strange phone calls is made, as we read how disoriented he now is by the drugs he is continually fed and it soon becomes clear that something is really going on, even if it takes us a while to learn why that might be the case.

The book continually jumps around in time, moving between the present and the events in Gerry’s past that seem to be linked to them. Some times the links are obvious but often the connections are more subtle, providing details about Gerry’s life and background that help us understand him better as a man. While I cannot say that I particularly liked him as a person, he feels credible and dimensional and his story, along with the issues it raises, are quite compelling.

One of the ideas here that appealed most to me was that readers often want the writer not to have been creative or to have simply invented their characters and plots. They want to believe that they can somehow pluck out or deduce the real life origins of those elements. Having been to a couple of literary festivals in my time, I have heard enough audience questions to know that this is undoubtedly true and I could understand why the question of who inspired the titular Dream Girl might provoke so much interest among his fans and the media.

Lippman’s answer to that question is really interesting, as are many of her reflections on the writing industry in general. I felt that the book was quite a reflective work, drawing on a number of themes and ideas that feel quite prominent in our moment but I think the handling of those ideas will likely be quite timeless.

The decision to tell this story from Gerry’s perspective is an interesting one because while it employs a third person voice, giving some distance, the reader may still feel encouraged to empathize with him as we see how he struggles to understand what is going on. While that choice is not always comfortable, I think it allows Lippman to explore those ideas and themes from a slightly different perspective than is usually used and would note that it does not come at the expense of hearing from those other voices later in the story.

So, what are the mystery elements here? Well, there are two main strands. The first concerns the identity of the person responsible for placing those calls and their motives for doing so. The second is prompted by something that happens at the end of the first part, sending the work in a somewhat different direction. I felt that both questions were interesting and that the answers developed were thoughtful and entertaining.

Though many of the central developments are carefully foreshadowed, that is not to say that the book doesn’t offer some surprises. There is a moment towards the end that I found to be both powerful and quite shocking. Similarly, I found the ending to be quite satisfying, feeling that it provided a strong resolution to the novel’s themes and plot threads.

Overall I felt it was a fine work with interesting characters, particularly Gerry, and a compelling and unsettling plot. It’s a superb piece of suspense writing that I think deserves the hype it has been quite rightly receiving. Recommended.

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase

The Blurb

In the scenic Scottish village of Kirkcudbright, no one is disliked more than Sandy Campbell. When the painter is found dead at the foot of cliff, his easel standing above, no one is sorry to see him gone—especially six members of the close knit Galloway artists’ colony.

The inimitable Lord Peter Wimsey is on the scene to determine the truth about Campbell’s death. Piecing together the evidence, the aristocratic sleuth discovers that of the six suspected painters, five are red herrings, innocent of the crime. But just which one is the ingenious artist with a talent for murder?

The Verdict

The core ideas of the mystery are interesting but I found the telling of it tedious and drawn out.

I say – I don’t mind betting this is the most popular thing Campbell ever did. Nothing in life became him like the leaving it, eh, what?

My Thoughts

For years I have held that The Five Red Herrings is one of the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. In fact I can clearly recall doing just that over drinks one evening with a fellow mystery fan during my university days at the student union bar. Having revisited it for the first time in twenty years I feel the need to apologize to that friend if they happened to follow my advice – I don’t know what I was thinking either.

The novel takes place in a Scottish village where a colony of artists reside. Lord Peter happens to be holidaying nearby and so gets to know several of the key figures prior to the case beginning including the victim, a quarrelsome artist by the name of Sandy Campbell. In fact he even was involved in one altercation shortly before Campbell is found dead having apparently slipped in a tragic accident while painting.

Lord Peter quickly notes that the death, while appearing accidental, must almost certainly have been murder. After proving his point he lends a hand with the investigation, looking into the six fellow painters who he considers the most likely culprits.

I found the opening chapters of the novel to offer some points of promise, not least the chapter in which Lord Peter sets about proving that murder was done after all. This is done quite simply and it even involves a fun challenge to the reader in which the narrator tells us that they won’t identify what Lord Peter thinks is wrong with the crime scene immediately as we should be able to guess it for ourselves. They’re right, of course, and the answer is pretty persuasive.

I also think Sayers does a pretty good job of setting up Campbell to be a deserving corpse. It is pretty clear from the moment he first appears why anyone in the village might want to kill him and I appreciate that Sayers offers up some variety among those six suspects, each of whom has experienced a different point of tension with him. The line I quote above from Lord Peter feels decidedly apt.

Most of my problems begin however with the investigation proper. It is, in short, tedious. I know that people love to deride Freeman Wills Crofts as a timetable plotter but this book includes multiple, incredibly dry and detailed timetables. Those who love to painstakingly chart the movements of multiple bicycles and keep track of different train routes may love this – I was just losing my patience.

There is a bit of a brief respite from this when we get a passage narrated by Bunter about his own investigations that Wimsey suggests ‘would do credit to The Castle of Otranto‘ – perhaps overstated but nonetheless I found it to be quite a welcome change. Unfortunately we are soon back to the grind.

And it is a grind. For instance, the chapter titled Farren’s Story contains a page-long paragraph. I made a note in my Kindle edition that this was ‘Too much text’ and I stand by that. Those sorts of long, dense passages often seem to do little to move the plot forward and instead just seem to stretch the story out more and more, as do the several explanations of the crime that are offered prior to Wimsey’s own.

That is not to say that there are not some bright spots. This book contains a number of references to other Golden Age crime novels such as Crofts’ Sir John Magill’s Last Journey and various other works that Sayers clearly felt were of note, many of which might now be considered obscure. Unfortunately there does seem to be a spoiler for Connington’s The Two Tickets Puzzle, though the information given may be less crucial than it seemed here (I own that title but have yet to read it).

I also think that there are a few nice character moments for Wimsey and I did enjoy the material with Bunter, limited though it was. Sadly they couldn’t overcome my complaints about the pace that the mystery unfolded at.

This is a shame because I think that the story isn’t, in itself, a bad one. In fact one of the reasons that this post is coming to you later than planned was that I wanted to listen to the radio adaptation again which was the most recent way I had most recently consumed it. I was pleased to find that it was much closer to my memories of the piece and also a little tighter as well. Perhaps it helps too that I often prefer the softer, more jovial Ian Carmichael rendering of Wimsey to the character I imagine coming from the page. If memory serves (and clearly, mine is questionable), the TV adaptation was pretty decent too.

All in all, I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy my experience revisiting this one and do not anticipate doing so again any time soon. At least, not as the novel. Thankfully the next novel in the series brings back Harriet Vane so hopefully I will find more to like there. I may wait another few months though before settling down to read it…

DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat by A. C. Baantjer, translated by H. G. Smittenaar

Book Details

Originally published in 1977 as De Cock en de treurende kater
English translation first published in 1993
DeKok #7
Preceded by DeKok and the Dead Harlequin
Followed by DeKok and the Disillusioned Corpse

The Blurb

On the sand dunes that protect the low lands of the Netherlands, an early morning jogger makes a gruesome discovery-the body of a man with a dagger protruding from his back. The corpse of Peter Geffel, better known as “Cunning” Pete, is identified, but the local police cannot find any clues. 

When the call goes out to notify other jurisdictions of the discovery, Homicide Detective DeKok feels drawn to the case because he knew the victim. Along with his inseparable side-kick Vledder, DeKok searches the city of Amsterdam for answers. Soon there is another corpse and, unlikely as it may seem, the killing of Cunning Pete is connected to a killing in higher social circles. 

The Verdict

A solid procedural-type story offering some interesting characterizations, even if the cases’ details are not especially noteworthy.

Peter Geffel, commonly known as “Cunning Pete” had to come to a bad end. Even his own mother had predicted that many times. He died at a youthful age. It was a quick and violent death.

My Thoughts

One of the things my parents like to do when they visit is have some of their holiday reading shipped to my home in advance. Generally this works out quite well as it saves some valuable suitcase room (and both prefer physical books to the electronic kind) but the last time a shipping snafu meant that one package, a novel by A. C. Baantjer, arrived about fifteen minutes after they departed for the airport. It has been sat on my shelf ever since and I have found myself tempted to try it on several occasions.

You may be expecting me to say that it was this book. Unfortunately you’d be wrong. Thanks to some carelessness on my part I accidentally saw the solution to that one when consulting Adey’s Locked Rooms and I have found myself completely unable to forget it. Still, I was curious and when I found myself wanting to try some Dutch crime I tracked down an ebook of this one (which seems to be the only one available now in the US).

Young Peter Geffel had a reputation as a bit of a joker and troublemaker, rather than a hardened criminal. His line was in embezzlement and blackmail rather than anything violent. Indeed DeKok had once arrested him for embezzlement, landing him with a short stint inside. When Geffel’s body is found among the sand dunes at Seadike with a knife in his back it is assumed by most that one of his victims must have taken exception to their humiliation and had their revenge. It seemed inevitable after all – even his mother expected he would meet a bad end.

When DeKok learns about the murder he starts to ask some questions but before he can get very far he gets pulled into a very different sort of case: the armed robbery of an armored truck that was transporting millions in currency. The size of the transfer had been quite unusual and few would have had knowledge of the plan meaning that either the thieves got very lucky or they had some inside help to do the job.

One of the earliest observations I made about the novel was how quickly the book seems to set up each element of the story. The scenes in the first few chapters are often very short with some blunt prose and character exchanges that are just a couple of paragraphs long. It makes for a rather dizzying start which, coupled with the apparent simplicity of the two plot threads, left me wondering if I had made a mistake in my pick. Fortunately the two plot threads would soon intersect in a way I didn’t quite predict, adding considerably more interest to the scenario for me. Thankfully the storytelling pace also settled a little.

While I would not suggest that the scenario Baantjer creates is particularly exciting in its central elements, what made it compelling for me was the cast of characters. This begins with the character of Geffel who, although we never see him ourselves, still makes a strong impact because of the way others talk about him. His character and decisions are given more depth than I expected and I found myself surprised that I ended up caring about his murder as much as DeKok did.

The other characters that DeKok comes into contact with, both within the company and those connected with Geffel, also struck me as surprisingly vibrant and dimensional, even if we only spend a short time with them. This is conveyed not through the descriptions of them, which are quite brief, but rather through their actions and DeKok’s reactions to them.

This was obviously my first time encountering DeKok. He is a pretty strong personality himself as far as sleuths go, though we do not get much backstory or sense of his home life – just enough to get a clear sense of the man’s values and general character. I found that I liked him, particularly enjoying his provocative needling of some of the suspects.

The investigation, though slower than the setup, still moves quite quickly. While I would describe Baantjer’s style here as procedural, readers can make inferences and deductions to better understand the case. Though I suggest that the elements here are not particularly exotic, the combination of ideas is often very clever and I did feel that the eventual solution had a very clever ideas. It makes for a pretty solid and enjoyable, if unremarkable, puzzle.

Beyond that it’s hard to know exactly what else to say about this novel as to discuss the things I like most would require spoilers that I know would detract from the impact of those elements and ideas. There is nothing remarkable about DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat but it was a fun and quick read that I felt became more interesting as it progressed. I would certainly expect to revisit the author again in the future.

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published in 1930
Dr. Thorndyke
Preceded by Dr. Thorndyke Investigates
Followed by Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

The Blurb

Mr. Pottermack is persecuted by a blackmailer against whose extortions he is quite defenceless. Eventually he makes away with his persecutor and effectually conceals the body. But, too late, he discovers the unmistakable tracks of the deceased leading to his garden gate, and, since it is impossible to efface them, he conceives the idea of continuing them to some less compromising destination.

This he does with great skill and ingenuity and so convincingly that no hint of suspicion falls on him – until, by chance, the case comes to the notice of Dr. Thorndyke, who instantly detects the fraud. For there is one little, inconspicuous fact that Mr. Pottermack has overlooked.

Probably the reader will overlook it, too, and will be deeply interested when, at the end of the book, Thorndyke explains the curious fact he had noted and details the intricate chain of reasoning by which, from this one fact, he was able to reconstruct the whole sequence of events.

The Verdict

A compelling exploration of an attempt to cover up a crime and the way that is carefully unpicked. Clever and audacious. Highly recommended.

It was true that everything seemed to be quite safe and secret. He, Pottermack, had taken every possible precaution. But supposing he had forgotten something; that he had overlooked some small but vital detail.

My Thoughts

A little over a year ago I was having a discussion with JJ for his then-untitled Golden Age of Detection podcast in which we chatted about inverted mysteries. During our discussion he asked if I had ever read Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight and recommended it to me as something I would likely enjoy. It’s taken me some time to follow that advice but I am very happy to say that I did…

Mr. Pottermack is working in his garden preparing for the installation of a sundial when he uncovers a deep and rather dangerous well that had been lightly boarded over and covered in earth. When he finishes his work he opens his mail to discover another note from a blackmailer demanding a payment and informing him that he will call on him soon. When he arrives Mr. Pottermack decides he has had enough and strikes out, killing his tormentor and sending his body dozens of feet down the well.

For a few moments he is relieved to think that his ordeal is over but that feeling is short-lived as he soon realizes that there is a long and very clear trail of footprints leading their way into his garden…

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight then is an example of the howcatchem style of inverted mystery. After witnessing the unplanned murder, the bulk of the novel is spent following Mr. Pottermack’s careful attempts to cover up his crime with only occasional asides where we briefly follow Dr. Thorndyke’s interest in the case. Our goal then is to spot the loose bit of thread that Thorndyke will use to start his chain of deductions. While I am not entirely convinced by Freeman’s assertion there is just one oversight to spot, it is a fun game to play.

Freeman provides the reader with a lot of technical detail as we see Pottermack carefully prepare and execute his various schemes but that is anything but dry. I was struck by the intelligence and the credibility of much of what is done, both in terms of believing that it could be done and that someone like Pottermack would conceive the plan in the first place.

The crime is hidden quite convincingly to the point where it seemed to me inconceivable that it could all get back to him at all, even if we know that Thorndyke is suspicious of him from the very beginning. Freeman however has a clever and compelling twist that will complicate Pottermack’s situation and force him to accept some additional risks. I might suggest that it is a somewhat Ilesian twist except, of course, that Malice Aforethought had yet to be published when Freeman wrote this. It certainly provides a strong boost to the story as Pottermack embarks on a truly audacious plan.

I don’t want to spoil where that plan takes him. This is a rather wild ride and part of the fun lies in figuring out exactly what he is trying to accomplish. I would say that the ideas used here are really quite original and entertaining, even if I have a few questions about whether they would have worked even in 1930. Freeman, to his credit, did ultimately reference some of those towards the end of the novel during the section in which Thorndyke explains how he pieced the truth together.

In that conversation with JJ I referenced the idea that one of the interesting aspects of the inverted mystery is that a skilled author can often create a character or situation that leads the reader to sympathize with the character of the killer. In some rare instances that may even extend to wanting to see them get away with it. This was one of those instances for me as I found Pottermack’s plight really quite sympathetic, particularly once we learn more about why he was being blackmailed. Even if you do not sympathize with him, his actions are always interesting and I appreciate that while he is thoughtful, he seems to remain in movement throughout most of the story.

Thorndyke, in contrast, spends much of the story in the background. He is only occasionally brought directly into the story and even then it is in an unofficial capacity. There is a sense of intrigue however generated by this added distance as it means that we are encouraged to deduce what he might have seen or understood in those very brief moments of interaction.

When he does finally offer us an explanation of the crime, I think it feels all the more interesting because we have had so little interaction with him up until that point. It is hard not to feel a small thrill as he calmly and methodically works through the case, pointing out incongruities and connections that may well have passed the reader by, even if we may want him to skip over some of the more obvious points and get to the clever stuff…

This, I suppose, brings me to the only real problem that I have with the novel – the aspect of the case identified as the oversight may be rather hard for modern readers to anticipate or visualize. That is plainly not Freeman’s fault – it simply reflects that then-common knowledge is not so today. Were the whole mystery hung on that one reveal I would be disappointed but fortunately there are plenty of other developments within the plot to spot and to try and understand. I would also suggest that while the specific information may be a little obscure, readers can still point to the general idea.

Overall I am happy to say that I really enjoyed this novel and felt it lived up to the billing it had received. While this is one of my shorter reviews (at least in recent years), that really reflects my desire to avoid spoiling the experience for those who have not read it. It’s a clever plot, explored quite thoughtfully and I felt that Freeman resolves the story rather memorably too. Very highly recommended.

Further Reading

Given his role in pushing me to read this novel, I feel it only proper to link to JJ’s excellent review at The Invisible Event. I should also provide a link to the podcast episode I referenced.

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

Brilliant yet poor, Ramesh Kumar grew up working at his father’s tea stall in the Old City of Delhi. Now, he makes a lucrative living taking tests for the sons of India’s elite—a situation that becomes complicated when one of his clients, the sweet but hapless eighteen-year-old Rudi Saxena, places first in the All Indias, the national university entrance exams, thanks to him.

Ramesh sees an opportunity—perhaps even an obligation—to cash in on Rudi’s newfound celebrity, not knowing that Rudi’s role on a game show will lead to unexpected love, followed by wild trouble when both young men are kidnapped. 

But Ramesh outwits the criminals who’ve abducted them, turning the tables and becoming a kidnapper himself. As he leads Rudi through a maze of crimes both large and small, their dizzying journey reveals an India in all its complexity, beauty, and squalor, moving from the bottom rungs to the circles inhabited by the ultra-rich and everywhere in between.

A caper, social satire, and love story rolled into one, How to Kidnap the Rich is a wild ride told by a mesmerizing new talent with an electric voice.

The Verdict

A highly amusing and fast-paced romp that balances witty and sharp social commentary with an exciting kidnapping story.

The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault.
The others – those were definitely me.

My Thoughts

The past few weeks I have found myself in something of a reading slump. While a few disappointments have appeared on the blog, several others didn’t either because the genre ties were too weak or because I abandoned them mid-read as my attention wandered. Thankfully How to Kidnap the Rich turned out to be the antidote to my state of mind, giving me exactly what I needed.

The story begins with Ramesh Kumar having been abducted along with a man named Rudi to be held for ransom. After establishing that situation, the novel jumps backwards in time to explain the circumstances that led the two men to that point before an event sees Ramesh realize how he might turn the tables and become a kidnapper himself, setting things off on an even crazier path.

Part of the joy of this novel comes from discovering that strange sequence of events and circumstances, so I do not want to be too detailed in my description of that plot. Suffice it to say that Ramesh had been working as a professional test taker, impersonating the sons of wealthy families and taking exams in their place for cash. Rudi’s parents had paid him to sit the All India exams on their son’s behalf but Ramesh outperforms his wildest expectations, placing second nationwide and turning his client into a celebrity.

How to Kidnap the Rich is a novel that is as much a work of social satire as it is a crime novel. It explores aspects of social class, privilege and identity. While some of the detail is specific to India, the themes are universal – after all, the idea of scams to help the children of the elites get access to prestigious educational institutions is not without parallels in the US education system. Those satirical elements are sharp, well-observed and often very wittily delivered.

Given that this blog is a mystery fiction blog, I should probably take a moment to specifically address the criminous elements of the story. As you have probably guessed this is not a story of detection (though the reader may well infer or deduce developments from evidence and observation).

As I read I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Jim Thompson. It’s not just the sharp wit and cynicism of the narration, nor the biting social satire or dubious morality of the protagonists but also the structure of the novel with its multiple reversals of fortune as characters’ misfortunes compound and the exploration of the gulf between peoples’ public and private faces. And just like Thompson’s best work, it’s a really wild ride.

I found Raina’s writing style to be highly engaging. That is partly because of structural decisions he makes to begin his novel at a pivotal moment in the story, not only creating a sense of mystery about the events that led to that moment but also meaning that once that background is explained he is able to take the action in a different direction, setting up a distinctly different second half of the novel.

The main reason though is that I think Ramesh has a really interesting voice. As with many a Thompson protagonist, I liked him in spite of some obvious character flaws – not least that he begins the story as a conman and a blackmailer. That partly reflects some elements of tragedy in his backstory but I think that the main reason is that he compares favorably with many of the other characters in the novel whose behavior is even worse. To put it another way, it is not so much that I want to see Ramesh succeed as I really wanted to see the other characters brought down.

Those antagonists are each strong characters and I enjoyed learning more about them and understanding the reasons for their actions. I appreciate that Raina draws each quite boldly, allowing them to feel individual and make an impact even when we do not necessarily see them for very long, and that in several cases their roles within the novel evolve and change. The fluidity of that antagonism is interesting and I think it is one of the more distinctive elements of the novel, only adding to the sense that the book is something of a rollercoaster.

The plot moves incredibly quickly, often escalating in unpredictable and amusing ways. I was pleased to find that, rather than fizzling out as some heist-type stories often do, Raina builds to a strong finish that feels like an appropriate conclusion to the novel’s central themes. It left me satisfied, amused and hoping to see more from the author in the future.

The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley

Book Details

Originally published in 1926
Roger Sheringham #2
Preceded by The Layton Court Mystery
Followed by Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery

The Blurb

Mrs Bentley has been arrested for murder. The evidence is overwhelming: arsenic she extracted from fly papers was in her husband’s medicine, his food and his lemonade, and her crimes are being plastered across the newspapers. Even her lawyers believe she is guilty. But Roger Sheringham, the brilliant but outspoken young novelist, is convinced that there is ‘too much evidence’ against Mrs Bentley and sets out to prove her innocence.

Credited as the book that first introduced psychology to the detective novel, The Wychford Poisoning Case was based on a notorious real-life murder inquiry. Written by Anthony Berkeley, a founder of the celebrated Detection Club who also found fame under the pen-name ‘Francis Iles’, the story saw the return of Roger Sheringham, the Golden Age’s breeziest – and booziest – detective.

The Verdict

A tremendously frustrating experience for me. Better approached as social commentary than as a detective story.

Alec and I have come down here because we’re of the opinion that there may be very much more in this case than meets the eye. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, that Mrs Bentley may just possibly be innocent!

My Thoughts

I came to The Wychford Poisoning Case is blissful ignorance of any knowledge about the book whatsoever beyond the back page blurb quoted above. While the recent HarperCollins reprint contains an excellent short introduction by Tony Medawar, I typically skip over such things until the end, and in this case I had never read any other bloggers’ reviews or commentaries about the book. In short, I was unprepared for the spankings.

But we’ll get to those in time. First, let’s outline some basic details of the plot:

This story concerns an infamous case about to come to court in which a woman is accused of having poisoned her husband with arsenic. The wife, a French woman, was understood to have soaked flypapers in water for several weeks to extract arsenic and the drug was found in his medicine, food and even a glass of lemonade in his room. Everyone seems utterly convinced of her guilt except novelist Roger Sheringham who believes there is simply too much evidence of her guilt. He convinces Alec to join him in a journey to Wychford where they contrive to meet and interview many of the witnesses to the crime.

The setup is not dissimilar then from Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Strong Poison which was published several years later. There are a couple of interesting differences between the setups however. The first is that Berkeley has his investigation take place prior to any trial at all at a stage at which the case has only been pursued in the press. This means that the interviews have to serve to reaffirm some basic facts of the case. Sayers however begins after a hung verdict in the first trial which only comes about because of a member of the jury insists on her innocence. In that scenario we are even more aware of how likely it is she will be convicted and hanged, making the stakes of that investigation all the clearer. I would also suggest that the trial opening allows for a more natural way to explore the background of a case than the somewhat awkward conversation we get here between Roger and Alec.

The more important difference however concerns the relationship between sleuth and suspect. Sayers would give Lord Peter a personal interest in the case by having him fall in love with the woman he swears to defend and protect. Berkeley’s Sheringham however is not acting out of anything more than what might be described as an intellectual curiosity though I would suggest there are also signs of a heavy contrarian streak in his character.

Indeed one of the least satisfying aspects of the book for me was that we get to the end of the novel with very little idea of who Mrs. Bentley is at all. In fact we never even meet her. While that partly reflects that Sheringham has no official status at all to carry out his investigations, I suspect that Berkeley is more interested in exploring the perceptions of this character by those around her and the prejudices that have formed against her. By never introducing us to her directly, we are not allowed to weigh those opinions against our own and so are required to reflect instead on our views of the people speaking them. It’s an interesting approach but I cannot say it was a particularly satisfying one and the absence of Mrs. Bentley’s voice in the narrative did strike me as quite odd.

Sheringham’s investigations in Wychford are highly informal and he utilizes trickery and manipulation to worm his way into the paths of the various witnesses and extract information from them. While I would agree with what seems to be the prevailing view that Sheringham is a smug and tiresome bore at times, I did at least enjoy the variety of methods he employs.

Berkeley clearly intends the work to read comedically, offering some rather sharp satirical portrayals of some types of characters. This material will either amuse or seem dreadfully tiresome – I seemed to bounce back and forth between those two feelings depending on the subject. I will say though that I found the playing around with apparent misogynistic views on the part of Roger to be less droll than I think Berkeley intended and I particularly struggled with the author’s generally positive portrayal of a male playboy character.

This brings me I suppose to the spanking scene in which Roger takes a rolled up newspaper to Alec’s teenaged cousin’s rear end over some teasing remarks. I found it pretty uncomfortable reading and felt that the ‘comical’ tone that Berkeley was clearly aiming for to be misjudged. In fact I find the whole presentation of Sheila to be uncomfortable given the suggestion of flirtation between her and the much-older Roger and the repeated references to her night clothes and posture throughout the novel. Which is a shame because I otherwise quite enjoyed her youthful enthusiasm and her teasing of Roger which helps prick at his arrogance and pretension.

I think the biggest problem for me with the whole book however is that it becomes increasingly clear as the novel nears its end that Berkeley is more interested in exploring the questions of why the various witnesses believe Mrs. Bentley guilty than he is on presenting the reader with the information needed to construct an explanation themselves. Indeed the final, presumably truthful explanation of what happened is revealed in a letter at the end of the book using relatively little of the information that we have spent an entire novel examining. To say that this is enormously anticlimactic would be an understatement. This is one of those occasions where I felt like throwing the book down in disgust – unfortunately that becomes a much less dramatic move when you’ve actually finished the darned thing…

This is particularly disappointing because there are some pretty interesting and entertaining false solutions that precede it, one of which (the last one) would have felt quite satisfactory to me. My only explanation of this is to return to the idea that Berkeley is less interested in who killed Mr. Bentley as he is in exploring that question of why people are so willing to consider Mrs Bentley guilty. I would much rather that the whole story had been framed in that way however rather than presenting it as a detective story with the murder as the focus.

As I mentioned at the opening of the review, after finishing the book I went back and read Tony Medawar’s excellent introduction and learned about the historical case that inspired it (there were two episodes of the excellent Shedunnit podcast about this but they happen to be ones I hadn’t listened to at the time I read this book). This sent me off down a pleasurable rabbit hole of research though I soon realized just how many elements Berkeley directly lifts from the real life case. Unfortunately the one really strong positive I had been clinging to up until that point was that Berkeley had imagined a really detailed set of circumstances for his murder case but, alas, even that positive got stripped away.

Not a favorite book at all then.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime found a few more positives in the book than I did and also saw the parallels with Strong Poison. I also think she makes some great points about a rather odd claim about Roger made in the blurb quoted above.

Brad @ AhSweetMystery reminded me of one of the things I did like about the book which I forgot to mention – the exploration of why the supposed differences between the English and French justice systems are not entirely as they are often portrayed.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel was also disappointed, finding the characters of Roger and Alec to be a particular struggle.

Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith

Book Details

Originally published in 1953
This title is collected in an omnibus edition with Come to Paddington Fair and Model for Murder

The Blurb

Roger Querrin died alone in a locked and guarded room, beyond the reach of human hands. Algy Lawrence …could not explain the mystery of this “miracle” murder. And then, faced with a second crime which could not possibly have been committed, he began to wonder, at last, if somebody had conjured up an invisible demon who could blast out locks and walk through solid walls…

The Verdict

Offers an intriguing opening and some clever points in the solution but I was a little frustrated by the pacing and some of the choices made in the investigative section.

“An uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach? A nasty thumping at the top of your head? I call that detective fever.”

My Thoughts

You find me sitting down for the second time to write up my thoughts on Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil having contrived to accidentally delete all of my scheduled posts that were supposed to go out last week. To say that was frustrating is rather an understatement than better that then my first thought which was that they had gone live and simply no one had found them interesting enough to respond to. That, of course, could still happen…

Whistle Up the Devil has been on my TBR pile for nearly as long as I’ve been doing this blog. That is not entirely unprecedented – I have a bad habit of reading half of an omnibus and leaving the rest untouched for years (for example, The Dead Shall Be Raised and Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs). It may also reflect though that while I admired the ending of Come to Paddington Fair, I found the first half of that novel pretty uninspiring.

The novel begins with Algy Lawrence being asked by Chief Inspector Castle to visit Querrin House in the countryside in his stead after he has been called away by the Yard to work on an urgent case. We learn that Castle is concerned for the safety of his friend Roger Querrin who is about to get married as he is insisting on recreating a family tradition that had led to the death of an ancestor.

Lawrence tries to decline the request but his curiosity gets the better of him and he joins the vigil, assisting the local police in providing a perimeter around the room’s entrances and windows. Inevitably however history repeats himself and Querrin is discovered dead with a knife in his back. The entrances to the room had been under constant observation making the murder seem impossible.

Okay, so plenty to discuss here but before I get into the investigative portion of the novel I do want to stress how well I think the first two chapters set up the conditions of the crime and point to some possible points of interest. One thing I particularly noted is how quickly this material is set up and the clarity of the descriptions of the space and of the various players’ positions. The impossibility is clear and it is easy to see why the conditions of the crime would appear so puzzling to those keeping guard.

I should also say that the family legend of supernatural doom and destruction is a favorite trope of mine in this sort of fiction and while this is not as outlandish as some (for example, Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule), I think it is sufficiently simple that you could accept both the idea of the family ceremony and also the reason why a supernatural event might be tied to it. As starting points for stories go, I think this is pretty solid.

Unfortunately, I was less pleased with the body of the investigation. Part of the issue here is connected to the book’s pacing. After getting things off to such a quick start, throwing us into a potential murder case on the day it is supposed to happen and giving us an account of the wait for something to happen, the sudden deceleration that occurs once questions begun to be asked struck me as quite jarring.

Perhaps it also didn’t help that the cast of potential suspects provided is fairly small and contained a character in the form of Uncle Russ, an older man with a predilection for young, attractive women, that I found boorish rather than charmingly roguish as I suspect I was supposed to. Meanwhile the female characters are almost entirely characterized and described in terms of their sexual appeal.

Derek Smith was clearly a huge enthusiast of the impossible crime story. There are references and call-outs galore to writers like Carr and Clayton Rawson that will no doubt be a source of delight to some. I get the appeal of those moments – I am, after all, also a huge Doctor Who fan and get the joy that comes with seeing things I love get name checked. Here however I felt it gets in the way of the story and highlights the artificiality of the detective story format and contributed to the sense that we went from a place of apprehension and suspense to something rather more self-aware. Halter, of course, is just as well read and similarly draws influence from classic works but those parallels feels more like treats for the widely-read impossible crimes enthusiast to spot and appreciate for themselves.

Things do pick up a little with the introduction of a second impossibility which offers another take on the idea of a crime being committed under the detectives’ noses. I do feel that the ultimate explanation of how and why that second murder took place struck me as a little less clever than the first but as secondary crimes go it is solid enough and I do appreciate what it ends up adding to the story overall.

While I may have felt that the middle of this novel seemed to sag, I will say that the solution is at least interesting and I enjoyed some of the developments that occur in the final few chapters. I also appreciate that while the crime may seem complex, the solution to it is quite simple and the tricks worked are pretty clever and make sense – even when the killer seems to be taking some pretty big risks. Occasionally I have complained about problems of motive with impossible crime novels but that is not the case at all here – indeed one of the aspects of the novel that impressed me most was that there was some thought given to the psychology of what was happening in the discussion of the crime at the end.

I also think Lawrence’s explanation is laid out very well. Each aspect of the solution is clearly and logically explained, making it seem all the more convincing. Is it flawless? Perhaps not. The author acknowledges one problem, admittedly more to do with plotting clarity than feasibility, in a letter included in the edition I read where they also describe how they would have made some small changes to tighten an aspect of the solution. Overall I felt quite satisfied, even if it lacked the excitement I felt as the impossibility came into view towards the end of Come to Paddington Fair.

Overall I felt that Whistle Up the Devil offered up some points of interest, even if it didn’t manage to sustain the excitement of its first few chapters. Personally I think there are some stronger titles in the Locked Room International library but it is certainly worth a look for puzzle fans, especially as the omnibus edition represents some excellent value for money.

The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.

The Blurb

Japanese National Railways runs a special Mystery Train that leaves Tokyo on a Saturday night, scheduled to return the following Monday morning. It has no announced schedule or destination, just the promise of an entertaining trip for the passengers.

This time, the passengers end up getting more “entertainment” than they bargained for. A phone call to railway officials demanding one billion yen in exchange for the safe return of the train and its passengers is thought to be a hoax – until the train fails to arrive at one of its scheduled stops.

Now railway officials really have a mystery train on their hands. How can a twelve-car train just vanish? Where can more than four hundred hostages be kept without being seen?

Clues are scarce and time is short. Nishimura uses masterful plotting and gripping suspense to create an investigation where the police are seemingly always one step behind the kidnappers – until some unexpected twists at the end.

The Verdict

Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.

We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.

My Thoughts

Earlier this year when I reviewed the short story anthology Old Crimes, New Scenes, I remarked on how I wanted to read more Nishimura in translation. Well, in doing my research for that post I learned that one of his many, many novels (there are over 400 apparently) was translated into English in 1990 and after doing a little scouting around I was able to track down a reasonably-priced copy.

The novel is The Mystery Train Disappears – a title that seemed to be suggestive of an impossible crime plot. As such, I was tempted to read and review it for my impossible crime series but having been burned on impossibilities several times lately I decided to go for a sure thing instead and to read this with no expectations. For the record it offers two impossible crimes. First, let’s outline the general scenario:

Japanese National Railways, keen to find ways to reduce its operational deficit, has decided to run a series of special journeys with the exciting hook that the passengers will be traveling to a mystery destination. The promotion seems to be a hit with the railway receiving a huge number of applications for the four hundred seats. A magazine decides that it is a good enough story to send a reporter to write about the trip and a reporter is dispatched, promising his fiancée that he will call her when they reach their first stop. When he fails to do so she is concerned and approaches the railway to ask for details of the trip.

The railway officials feel sure that everything is okay, particularly when they call the museum that the travelers were meant to visit who confirm that the travelers had shown up as expected but when they call the next station they are told that the train never arrived. While there is some speculation that the train may have broken down they learn that other trains have travelled on each of the tracks between the two cities, suggesting that the eight hundred foot train has just vanished off the tracks. As concern seems to grow the train company receives a phone call demanding a ransom payment for the safe return of the train and its passengers.

The disappearance of the train is our first impossible scenario. While I think some explanations will come to mind, the scale of the crime and the challenge of abducting a train when no one knows its eventual destination adds layers of complexity to the situation. I might suggest however that while this is an impossibility, the way it is explored does not really focus on the question of how it was done as the process of following leads to discover where the train and its passengers are now.

Ho-Ling Wong in his excellent post about this book (linked below) notes that a Japanese mystery fan wiki suggests that the solution to how this was done is actually impossible. Even without that knowledge, I think there is something rather underwhelming in how it is described even though I appreciated a few elements of it. I think I might have appreciated it even more though had the publisher provided a map of the line and a timetable to pour over – not that they would necessarily have helped me but it would have made me feel like there was a greater chance of my working out the relationships between the various clues and snippets of information that we are given.

The second impossibility, while shorter and less flashy, struck me as a more compelling one for impossible crime fans to work through. It concerns the ransom money which manages to vanish from the moving train while traveling between stations. The passengers’ luggage is thoroughly searched while the windows are sealed and the baggage train was completely inaccessible, adding to the mystery.

There are times that I feel rather stupid for failing to solve an impossible crime but this is not really one of those. I certainly think that the solution is pretty clever but I never really had a strong enough sense of the space to have been able to imagine what happened. Perhaps that reflects more on me and my lack of regular train travel than the mystery itself as the moment the explanation was given I could see exactly how that would work.

While the novel offers up two impossibilities, the style of the storytelling is all procedural and not unlike taking a mystery train journey. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation is on a set of tracks, offering a clearly defined path with few surprises or diversions. It is also clear that the reader has little chance of drawing any firm conclusions from what they have learned until close to the end. Even when we near that resolution, solving this has less to do with applications of logic or thinking through a problem as it does simply piecing the bits of information we have together and even that feels rather minimal.

The bigger issue is that the investigators themselves feel quite bland and I certainly had little sense of who they were beyond their function in the story. That perhaps reflects that one of the characters had appeared in a number of previous Nishimura stories but it means that there is no sense of personalities within the department – something that can often liven up those moments in a procedural in which the investigators seem to be getting nowhere (which in this book is quite a frequent feeling).

The characters from the railway company perhaps feel a little more defined though here I have an issue with empathizing with those characters. While they are doing the right thing by paying out the ransom, it is hard to sympathize with a company’s prime concern being avoiding a public relations scandal, even if that is quite a realistic view of how many executives would view the situation.

Perhaps the biggest cause of dissatisfaction for me lies in the ending’s novel. Now, I have no intention of spoiling exactly what that resolution is but I think it is worth stressing that there is a decisive part of the ending that happens in spite of the investigation rather than because of it. While such moments are pretty common early in an investigation, it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory to have a key development happen regardless of your protagonists’ involvement and while probably realistic, it struck me as quite anticlimactic.

Overall then my first novel-length Nishimura struck me as rather disappointing. There are some fun ideas here and it offers some appeal points for those who like gentle thrillers and stories involving trains but I found it rather underwhelming in terms of its puzzle plot. That being said, assuming that this isn’t the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist, I still hope that some day I will get to read more of his work in translation. He was so prolific it would be nice to get to know him better.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests lowering your expectations for this one but considers it an ‘interesting curio’.

Ho-Ling Wong shares his thoughts on this book, regarding it as rather underwhelming (and querying why this was the title out of his vast, vast catalog of work to be translated into English).

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 밤의 여행자들
English translation first published in 2020

The Blurb

Jungle is a cutting–edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. And until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday.

When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position? An eco–thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist introduces a fresh new voice to the United States that engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.

The Verdict

A fascinating exploration of the ethics of tourism and of the relationship between people and the corporations that employ them. It may not be a pure genre work but it is highly recommended nonetheless.

News of the deaths moved fast that week. Word was spreading quickly, but it wouldn’t be long before people lost interest. By the time funeral proceedings began, the public would have already forgotten the deceased.

My Thoughts

Yona has worked for Jungle for more than ten years. Jungle is a travel agency that takes tourists to visit and work in areas affected by natural disasters and climate change and Yona’s job has been to work out how to create their tour packages. Recently however it seems that her career has stalled as she is increasingly being tasked with handling customer complaints and she suspects that she may be on the verge of being forced out. The proof seems to come when her boss makes unwanted sexual advances to her in the elevator one day, apparently confident that if she complains the company will not want to do anything about it.

As she becomes increasingly disillusioned she decides to resign but instead of accepting her resignation, her supervisor suggests that she take a paid leave of absence and visit an unprofitable tourist destination to offer her thoughts on whether it can be salvaged. She is unsure whether he is trying to buy her off but decides to take up the offer, hoping at least to relax for the first time in years and possibly restore her reputation by preparing an excellent report.

Her destination is the island of Mui which lies a short distance off the coast of Vietnam. She soon discovers why it has become a failing destination but when she experiences a travel mishap she finds herself stuck on the island. As she waits for her papers to arrive to enable her to leave the island, she learns however that some on the island have a plan to restore its status as a thriving disaster tourism destination…

I should probably start by acknowledging that The Disaster Tourist is not easily categorized as a genre work, though I would argue that the scale of the crimes we see planned are on a scale far beyond those of any other novel I have written about on this blog to date. I would also add that while it doesn’t always read like a thriller, it certainly incorporates some elements of that style as the book nears its conclusion and that the book struck me as possessing an outlook on the world and the people that inhabit it that feels like it belongs firmly to the noir tradition.

Perhaps the place to begin is with the book’s central conceit that a company like Jungle could spring up. While some might find it hard to imagine that a company solely devoted to disaster tourism might be a thing, there are clearly examples of package tours that do exactly what is described. What I think Yun does brilliantly is to explore the relationship between those tours and the place that is supposedly being rejuvenated by its tourism industry might be and to sincerely question whether this is aiding the areas’ economic recovery or sustaining and perhaps even prolonging its poverty.

Some of the novel’s most powerful material comes in its exploration of the personalities of the different people who are on the tour along with Yona and their different motivations for visiting. Yun not only describes the reasons they believe they are making their visits and the power dynamics between the locals and the visitors but also gives us a powerful illustration of how Yona, who is more aware of the crafting of the tour experience, finds herself behave in a way she finds shameful at a point in the tour.

I have read some reviews that suggest that Yona is not a particularly forceful or dynamic character, and I think that there is a little bit of truth to that. While we get given a little bit of backstory at the start of the novel, we get little sense of her life beyond work. I think though that is rather the point as we come to realize that Jungle has really consumed Yona’s life and defined who she has become. Here she represents a corporate drone – someone who has little purpose beyond the company and who cannot really envisage their life without it.

The scenario that Yona finds herself in is clearly quite fantastic but I felt that the issues raised were powerful and compelling. What do desperate people do when they risk losing everything? This is a recurring idea throughout the novel and I find it fascinating to observe the parallels between these characters, often coming from very different backgrounds and situations, and the choices they decide to make. Here once again Yun does an admirable job of exploring the reasons behind those choices, even if we do not really get to know those characters on a truly individual level.

This arguably is the greatest issue with the book – that the scope of the story it tells within such a limited page count does not allow for much time to be spent on building up the characters as individuals. Instead they tend to be established with their plot function, described in shorthand such as ‘Man 2’. It is dehumanizing and perhaps numbs the reader to the individual cost of some of what happens, though here once again I feel that very clearly fits with the central argument that the book is making.

I don’t want to say much more about the novel for fear of spoiling the experience. The book is, after all, quite short and to discuss the exact nature of the thriller elements later in the novel would likely detract from them. I personally found them to be engaging and I think the story’s resolution feels appropriate to the themes that the novel had established and discussed.

I found The Disaster Tourist to be a thoughtful, provocative and highly engaging novel. It’s not a pure genre read but I nonetheless think it worthy of a strong recommendation.

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire by James Scott Byrnside

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Rowan Mallory #3
Note: though this is the third novel published in the series, it is set before the other two.

The Blurb

In 1880, a vampire terrorized Barrington Hills, feasting on the locals and leaving their mutilated corpses as evidence. Now, forty years later, it’s happening again.

Detective Rowan Manory and his assistant Walter Williams are hired to investigate. They don’t believe in the undead, but nothing else could explain murders so bloodily impossible. How does the killer walk through walls? Why doesn’t it leave footprints in the snow? Who will it kill next?

Can the detectives solve the case before the vampire strikes again? Can you?

The Verdict

A complex and ingeniously plotted novel featuring multiple cunning impossibilities to solve.

“A vampire, Lon Chaney here at the wheel, and snow tornados – man alive, what have you gotten us into?”

My Thoughts

Some impossible crime novels have a really great central premise or hook that everything is built around. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire can boast several. These include a no footprints crime, a dying message, a locked room murder, a séance and an apparent supernatural creature of legend apparently responsible for it all. For the fan of impossible crime stories this is a veritable smorgasbord of criminous delights, each treated seriously and given the space and time they deserve.

Several years ago I reviewed Byrnside’s previous novel, The Opening Night Murders, which I enjoyed a lot. This novel is actually set before either of its two predecessors meaning that those new to the series can start here and feel completely able to follow what is going on. Meanwhile those who read and loved the two previous titles will enjoy discovering more about a case that had been heavily teased in that previous volume.

Private detective Rowan Mallory is delighted to receive an invitation to address a gathering of the Detectives Club in London, an organization made up of some of the world’s most elite sleuths. He is to tell the story of his most famous case. When he receives a phone call from one of Chicago’s richest men asking him to debunk a séance for an outrageous payment he finds himself unable to turn down the job and sets out for the home, accompanied by his ‘Watson’ Walter.

When Rowan arrives in the town of Barrington Hills he meets with Browning and the other members of his household and learns something of the local lore. Decades earlier a man reputed to be a vampire was buried alive after there had been a number of deaths, including two particularly gruesome murders. Locals note that no grass will grow on his grave and they remain afraid of the idea that he might return from the dead again.

At the séance things take a spooky turn when after the medium appears to speak in the voice of the vampire, saying that they want the blood of Browning and his friend Hådd Mades, the face of a vampire appears on the ceiling. Further unsettling events occur, including the inexplicable appearance of the vampire in a photograph taken, but things are escalated when a mutilated body is found in the early hours of the morning with just the victim’s footprints in the snow leading to the murder site and a single pair of footprints on the building’s roof.

I think this outline already shows the diversity of ideas at play here and I want to stress that there are further surprises and developments to discover. As different as some of these elements are, each of them can be tied to the titular creature that clearly exercises a strong grip on the community’s imagination decades after their death. While this plays with some elements of horror however the focus is on creating a sense of atmosphere and a backdrop for its cleverly constructed fair play puzzle.

I particularly enjoyed the passages in which Byrnside describes the history of the supposed vampire and I felt he does a fine job of exploring the sense of hysteria building up around the idea that he might return from the dead. I appreciate that he gives us the sense that there are a range of responses with some clearly taking the threat more seriously than others.

As entertaining as the build-up to the séance can be, I feel that the events really kick up a gear once the first body is discovered as the circumstances surrounding the deaths can be bloody with some occasionally surprising touches. After the first death several others quickly follow, each impossible yet quite distinct from each other. Things move quickly and by the point you reach the Challenge to the Reader page there are enough problems to consider to enable the author to pose eight questions.

The final chapter rattles through each of the questions and does a good job of explaining the answers and the evidence that had pointed to them. For the record I only solved a couple of these myself, though I agree with the author that I jolly well ought to have been able to solve them all with the evidence I had been given! While there are a few aspects of the broader solution that would be hard to imagine a reader solving on their own, rest assured that they do not relate to the eight questions you will be judging yourself against!

That overall solution is quite clever and satisfying, doing a good job of tying up a number of aspects of the crime to provide us with a complete and mostly convincing explanation of the crime. With so many different threads to pull together, I was surprised how tidy most of it was. There is even quite a good explanation of the historical vampire incidents so Byrnside really does try to resolve every aspect of his plot and largely succeeds.

I continue to enjoy Rowan and Walter’s sometimes quite testy relationship with one another and feel that both had strong moments throughout this novel that showed their different personalities off well. Their conversation moves as quickly as the novel’s plot and helps create a lighthearted tone that contrasts with the sometimes shocking and horrific content of the case.

That inconsistency of tone may feel quite surprising to the reader and I believe it was meant to. While Byrnside’s novel shows an enormous understanding and appreciation of writers of the Golden Age and is clearly set during that time frame, he does not try to emulate that writing style (beyond a few touches like the aforementioned Challenge to the Reader). His characters are frequently coarse meaning that when a document they read needs to shock them, he has to go even further.

Similarly there is a really trippy sequence in which something happens to Rowan that feels more akin to a piece of horror writing. I found it quite effective but it definitely pulls the novel in an even darker and quite unsettling direction, at least for a chapter, and that shift does feel quite sudden.

I am less concerned however with the cutting off of a victim’s hands. That moment is certainly a violent and disturbing image but it is not described in much more detail than the decapitations were in Brand’s Heads You Lose and I think it is certainly relevant to the plot more generally and properly explained.

Overall then I am happy to report that I enjoyed this second encounter with Rowan and Walter – perhaps even more than the last. This is a really cleverly plotted and very atmospheric piece of mystery writing that does a really good job of playing with some elements of the supernatural. I had a great time reading it and if you like impossible crime stories that play with horror themes or imagery then I think you will have a great time too.