Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 7, 2014
Season Five, Episode Two
Preceded by The Letters of Septimus Noone
Followed by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

John Bird is a familiar face on British TV, particularly to fans of political comedy for his work with John Fortune and Rory Bremner. While his background in principally in satirical comedy, Bird has appeared in a number of genre shows including Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders. He had also previously appeared in Jonathan Creek as a different character in The Three Gamblers.

David Gant, who plays Eric Ipswich, has quite a few genre credits to his name including appearances in Sherlock, Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Whitechapel, Rosemary & Thyme, Inspector Morse and more.

The Verdict

Nothing hugely to object to but not much to excite either. It feels like a collection of disconnected B-plots.

Episode Summary

When failed psychic magician Eric Ipswich has to go to hospital the community decides to rally around and give his home a much-needed refresh. Jonathan and Polly get to work stripping layers of wallpaper in the bedroom only to uncover a series of numbers with the words “will win” written underneath. It turns out those numbers had been winning numbers some time ago when local businessman Leonard Corbyn won the jackpot. How did Eric Ipswich, a terrible psychic, actually make this amazing prediction decades earlier?

Meanwhile Polly finds that returning to her childhood home has brought back some unexpected memories of a nightmarish man she thinks of as The Sandman. Who was he and what was Polly remembering?

Finally, the community tries to understand how rumors are spreading quickly through the village and what the truth is behind the strange beast with glowing eyes seen prowling in the vicarage garden at night.

My Thoughts

The Sinner and the Sandman strikes me as a rather disjointed episode. In addition to working to establish Jonathan and Polly’s new home and community, the story tries to set up and resolve at least three or four mysteries but each of these strike me as quite slight including the most eye-catching – the psychic prediction.

Before we tackle any of these though I have to start by briefly discussing the very strange opening with what must be the least convincing home invasion in television history. Polly has dragged Jonathan to have dinner with a ‘wrestling critic’, whatever that is but finding them not at home with dinner left out they explore leading to an unfortunate interaction with the would-be thieves.

The scene plays out somewhat comedically but it’s odd as it has little importance to the rest of the story. It is really only there to set up a zany punchline moment Renwick has planned for the end of the episode. It feels like a pretty length detour and the payoff was not, for me, enough to make the time spent on it feel worthwhile for me. I wish instead that the space had been given to one of the other plot threads to give room for a little more complexity.

One of the most notable elements of series five is that the episodes feel smaller with a strong focus on the show’s new rural setting and Jonathan’s embrace of domesticity and middle age. Of the three episodes, this is the one that most strongly focuses on that village setting and a set of common characters who are shared between the episodes. For instance this would once again use James Bachman as the vicar who we saw conduct the funeral service in the previous episode while it also introduces us to John Bird’s Horace Greeley – a sort of village busybody who runs the parish newspaper.

Now I have to say that I really enjoy John Bird as a performer but I was not in love with the choice of bringing him back to the series to play a new character. We had seen this same practice several episodes earlier with Nigel Planer but I think there is an important difference between the two: Planer’s performance feels quite distinct with a rather different make-up and completely different manner. Bird’s performance as Greeley, while enjoyable, feels quite similar to his DI Gallo from The Three Gamblers and so it’s hard to forget that we are watching the same actor at work which makes it all the more odd that Jonathan never comments on the similarity. I think the best way I can make peace with this is to say that this is another little love note to Columbo which frequently did this but I did find it a little distracting.

On a more positive note though, I do like the idea of giving Jonathan a more permanent base of operations, even if it turned out to be quite short-lived. While it feels quite different from what the series had done before, I think it does allow for some different sorts of stories to be told and presumably would have enabled the series to make some cost savings. It even allows for the possibility that characters would have been reused between episodes, creating a stronger sense of the community. It’s a shame really that the series would end so soon so these ideas were never fully realized.

The most satisfying of the three mystery strands for me was the one rooted in village life. The comedy in this plot thread feels relatively gentle compared to some of the previous stories and I think the explanation is pretty credible (well, except for the belief in the ‘beast’ and the preventative measures taken by the villagers). There isn’t a whole lot here to detect but the explanation is at least pretty logical.

The Sandman storyline struck me as a little forced though I can accept that memory can be distorted and repressed. I do appreciate that this plot thread is intended though to build up Polly’s backstory and I quite liked an emotional note that the episode gives following the explanation for this plot and Sarah Alexander’s performance. I will note though that unlike the other mystery threads, this isn’t particularly strongly clued though.

The clunkiest plot thread for me is the impossibility. The problems begin with the heavy level of contrivance that is required to find it in the first place. The home makeover, Polly’s marvelous memory that recalls that the numbers exactly match a photograph she glimpsed only for a few seconds some days before and the presentation of the message found beneath the wallpaper. The explanation is not inherently bad but the idea that anyone might think that Ipswich had predicted the lottery results years before there was even a lottery seems quite strange. Even more so that he doesn’t gain anything from it himself (if he had been the winner it would have seemed more miraculous but I imagine it would be harder to explain why anyone would have found the prediction).

Were this a b-plot, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. The problem is that it is supposed to hold our attention for an entire episode and it simply arrives too late in the hour to make much impact. It’s not really a case that requires much investigation at all – hence why when we do get the scene where Jonathan explains it all it seems to come from nowhere, necessitating the awkward introduction of several characters.

Still, while I didn’t find much here to marvel at I didn’t hate it either. Just don’t expect it to be placed particularly highly on my ranked list of the episodes when I eventually share that…

The Ninth Enemy by Francis Vivian

The Verdict

The Ninth Enemy sets up interesting situations but resolves them too early. While I was surprised by the ending, my issues with the killer’s motive left me unsatisfied.

Book Details

Originally published in 1948
Inspector Knollis #4
Preceded by The Threefold Cord
Followed by The Laughing Dog

The Blurb

Inspector Knollis of Scotland Yard is hoping for a nice quiet weekend in the country. Instead he is embroiled in a murder case—the death by gunshot of local bigwig Richard Huntingdon.

Jean, the dead man’s wife, discovers the body in dense woods near a river. Knollis soon learns that Jean’s previous husband also met an untimely end, not that she is the only suspect. Despite his reputation for good deeds, Huntingdon had enemies in the district, including the progressive Bishop of Northcote. And it turns out the late Mr. Huntingdon was intimately involved with a grade-A femme fatale

Knollis, along with the redoubtable Sergeant Ellis, has to deal with a plethora of puzzling clues before solving this bucolic case of Murder most Foul. Key to the mystery is a toy yacht found floating on the river near the body—a craft almost identical to the gift recently received—anonymously—by Huntingdon’s young daughter, Dorrie.

“It would seem that Richard Huntingdon has had his hour upon the stage. Requiescat in pace!”

My Thoughts

Inspector Knollis is looking forward to enjoying a short break from work when he finds himself brought into a local murder case. The victim, Richard Huntingdon, is a prominent local figure who made a fortune as the founder of an engineering company before getting involved in a variety of civic organizations. His main passion though is to speak to the town’s youth to advocate for a return to chivalric values, frequently appearing in the local paper.

Huntingdon’s body is discovered near the edge of the local dam when his wife Jean hurries there in response to a message she received saying her daughter had met with a terrible accident. Instead of finding her daughter Dorrie, she finds he has been shot and a toy boat resembling her daughter’s floats in the water nearby. Dorrie is soon found to be safe and sound at a friend’s party raising all sorts of questions about the circumstances of Richard’s death.

Among the questions we need to ponder are whether Richard really left a message for Jean about Dorrie and, if so, why was he mistaken? Who killed Richard and why? What happened to Jean’s first husband years earlier? Who anonymously sent Dorrie her toy yacht for her birthday? There is, in short, a lot to dig into.

The Ninth Enemy gets off to an excellent start, quickly setting out its problems and starting to unravel some of the complex background to this case and the individuals involved in it. We learn a lot in those early chapters, particularly concerning some of the interpersonal relationships between the members of the Huntingdon family and their circle of friends which take some time to fully unpick. While some of these are perhaps a little more easily guessed than the author presumably intends, I still found it entertaining to watch Knollis at work as he carefully untangles these and gets to grips with the cast of suspects.

While some characters interested and puzzled me more than others, I appreciated that efforts are made to present a variety of types and several of the characters struck me as offering an interesting ambiguity. This is most clearly the case with our victim who we slowly get to know by hearing how the various characters perceive him. Those portraits are not always sympathetic but they do allow the reader to slowly build up a picture of the complex web of relationships and allow for some intriguing nuances in characterization that make him feel more credible as a creation. That strikes me as impressive in a novel where the victim is dead before we even begin reading.

Similarly I quite enjoyed following Knollis’ efforts as he tries to methodically work through each of his leads and interviews the various suspects. The character, while not particularly dynamic, is a strong example of the thoughtful detective and his behavior is often quite fun, if not altogether funny.

The problems come once the initial rush of activity subsides and we have most of the facts of the case at our disposal. From that point onwards the pacing of the story comes to feel noticeably slow as there are relatively few new clues for our detectives to come across.

My biggest issue with the book however relates to a decision Knollis makes to not look for the murder weapon midway through the investigation that just seems utterly bizarre to me. Several of his colleagues suggest that they ought to seek it out but he argues back that to look for it would be pointless as the accused would almost certainly claim it wasn’t theirs.

The reason I take issue with this is not that I think that Knollis’ claim is necessarily incorrect but that he then goes on to direct his underlings to conduct a search for a different item only tangentially related to the case. A consequence of this choice is that the storytelling, which had previously been quite direct, suddenly seems to noticeably stretch out and slow down.

As for the solution, I will admit that it caught me quite off guard and there were some aspects of it I quite appreciated. The problem is that the killer’s motivations feel a little silly and their plan seems poorly thought out to me. Unfortunately I think the surprise at the killer’s identity is offset for me by the feeling that the reason I failed to guess at it is that their plan is utterly ridiculous.

It’s a shame because I will say that I really had been enjoying the novel up until the midpoint and had been quite excited to see where it was headed. Certainly I liked this well enough to feel interested to try some other Vivian works in the future – if anyone has a suggestion for one that might be more to my liking I’d be happy to give it a try.

The Howling Beast by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1934 as La Bête hurlante
English translation first published in 2016

The Blurb

Pierre Herry is on the run. Not just from the police, who suspect him of a double murder, but also from the memory of the circumstances in which two impossible crimes were committed in the ruined castle which is the hereditary seat of the Comte de Saint-Luce, an old big-game hunting friend from the past.

The castle is virtually inaccessible, situated as it is in a high-walled park on a desolate stretch of moorland not far from Versailles. Herry insists he is not guilty of the murders of which he finds himself accused, but claims they were committed right before his eyes in a way that defies explanation… and how can he defend himself if he cannot explain what happened?

The inexplicable disappearance of another guest, threatening letters, and the howling of an unknown beast all serve as pieces in the puzzle, and examining magistrate M. Allou explains everything in this masterpiece of French locked room literature.

‘…Logically, I should be guilty. No reasonable man should claim otherwise. My reason, for what it’s worth, tells me I must be a criminal. And yet I believe myself to be innocent.’

My Thoughts

Last week I found myself in the mood for an impossible crime and so I put out the call on Twitter for friends to select a book for me to read next. This was the title that they picked and I am happy to be able to say that they did me proud – it’s a great read. I should say, before tucking into this, that this is purposefully a shorter review – some of the most interesting aspects of the story occur very late in the narrative and I do not think they can be discussed without spoiling it.

The Howling Beast begins with the examining magistrate, M. Allou, encountering a fugitive who is suspected of being responsible for a double murder. The victims were his friend, the Comte de Saint-Luce, and a woman, both of whom were shot dead in the Comte’s castle which appears to have been inaccessible to outsiders as its heavy portcullis had been lowered earlier that day.

Herry is sure he is innocent of the crime but he is unable to present any other reasonable explanation for what could have occurred. His hope though is that if he explains the puzzling circumstances to Allou, the magistrate may think of something he has overlooked and prove his innocence. Having caught his attention he proceeds to carefully outline his acquaintance with the Comte and the events that led up to that terrible night.

The scenario is an intriguing one as Vindry carefully describes the situation and dismisses many possible lines of inquiry. We learn, for instance, that an ancestor of the Comte had meticulously explored and documented the tunnels beneath the castle and so it can be shown that each entrance is sealed while we also hear that the portcullis creates such a loud sound that it would be impossible to raise or lower it without it being heard throughout the castle.

When we get to the description of the night of the murders, the descriptions are excellent and help make sense of each character’s movements and relative positions at all times. As impossibilities go, the construction here is superb and I have to admit that I came nowhere near the actual solution which is clearly and carefully explained. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas used here, none of which I can really discuss without spoiling the novel but I will say that I really appreciated the ingenuity of the element of the story that the title references. Great stuff!

One of the most successful aspects of the novel is its sense of place. The Comte’s crumbling castle feels as much a character as the man himself and while Vindry is not a particularly descriptive writer, I think he manages to convey a lot about the space and the people who reside there in just a few lines or in the manner of their speech and behavior.

This particularly struck me toward the end of the novel where we reach Allou’s explanation of the case. Once we understand what was actually happening and we look back on the events earlier I felt it was easy to see the evidence of those ideas even though they completely elude our narrator.

The only issues I had with the book relate to the choice to have the case related to Allou by the fugitive. On the one hand I can see what Vindry was intending here as it does focus the narrative onto the essential facts of the case while also building up a sense that these events were truly confounding. It also allows Vindry time to insert a considerable amount of backstory while also providing some vague sense of the crime. That is probably just as well as the murder itself is not discussed in detail until very late in the novel.

The bigger issue I have with this approach is that it isn’t particularly elegant. As the story is recounted by Herry speaking with occasional interruptions by Allou for clarification, whenever characters speak we get nested speeches as Herry tells us what others said. This technique is fair enough in a short story or for a few chapters but given that nearly the entire novel is rendered in this way I wish Vindry had structured his tale a little differently to have whole chapters simply acknowledged as Herry’s account to allow him to dispense with that framing technique. That is a matter of personal preference however and I should stress that it is always clear who is speaking.

Beyond these stylistic choices however I had little to complain about. The Howling Beast is a superb read that offers a cunningly constructed puzzle that is absolutely worth your time to unpick.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event offers their thoughts in a spoiler-free review here.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time also rates this story very highly and points out some stylistic similarities between this and Doyle’s Holmes stories – a point I agree with.

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

The Verdict

This spy thriller also offers a pretty compelling and well-clued mystery.

Book Details

Originally published in 1961
George Smiley #1
Followed by A Murder of Quality

The Blurb

George Smiley is no one’s idea of a spy—which is perhaps why he’s such a natural. But Smiley apparently made a mistake. After a routine security interview, he concluded that the affable Samuel Fennan had nothing to hide. Why, then, did the man from the Foreign Office shoot himself in the head only hours later? Or did he?

The heart-stopping tale of intrigue that launched both novelist and spy, Call for the Dead is an essential introduction to le Carré’s chillingly amoral universe.

He’s dead. Killed himself at 10.30 this evening. Left a letter to the Foreign Secretary. The police rang one of his secretaries and got permission to open the letter. Then they told us. There’s going to be an inquiry.

My Thoughts

Last week I read a mystery novel by mistake.

The circumstances were that I found myself for once quite a way ahead of schedule (that wouldn’t last) and so I decided that I would take advantage of the opportunity to read something I had no intention of reviewing on the blog. I took a quick look at my shelves and picked out the very first book from my “everything else” pile, not even bothering to read the blurb.

The book, Call for the Dead, was the novel that introduced readers to George Smiley, the rather nondescript, desk-bound spy who is le Carré’s best known creation. I had picked this up some years ago around the time that the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie came out but never actually got around to it (nor, come to that, the movie). When I returned to it I expected an espionage story but it took just a couple of pages for me to realize my mistake as the book almost immediately presents Smiley with a suspicious death to investigate.

Call for the Dead begins with Smiley being contacted by his superior within the service to ask for details about a routine security interview he had conducted the day before. The reason is that the subject, Samuel Fennan, had committed suicide just a few hours after the meeting and left a note saying that he had been unable to take the pressure of the investigation. This note had gone to the ministerial level leading to some heavy pressure on the department and a desire for some answers.

Smiley expresses that he is baffled. The interview was, he assures him, a completely routine affair in response to an anonymous accusation that Fennan had dabbled in extreme politics at university. He insists that the conversation had been genial and points out that he had made it quite clear that the matter was a formality and that he had indicated that the matter was closed and that he would be exonerated in his report. What, he wonders, could have changed in just a few hours to drive the man to take his own life?

This is a fascinating starting point for the story as the author does an excellent job of exploring the situation logically, pointing out the inconsistencies and oddities of the situation as Smiley tries to think things through. Before long he is interviewing the dead man’s widow and finds that rather than making things clearer, the situation seems more confused than ever.

While Smiley tries to reconcile the suicide with his own observations, the reader will likely be somewhat ahead of the sleuth in these early chapters. Rather than feeling redundant however, le Carré uses this portion of the book to introduce us to Smiley and the nature of the work he does, giving us a better understanding of the man and the methods he will employ in this story. By the time he finds a decisive clue pointing at murder we have a good grasp of the man, enabling the reader to focus on some of the more curious details of the case.

There is one clue in particular, referenced in the novel’s title, that proves particularly helpful in steering the investigation away from suicide and toward murder. The significance of the clue is quite immediately apparent and yet it takes time to understand what implications we should draw from it and to begin to assemble a picture of the crime and the reasons for it.

Le Carré operates with a relatively small cast of characters which does rather limit the possible answers as to whodunit. I think though that even if the reader suspects the correct person there is still plenty that needs to be explained to fully understand what had happened and why. Discovering the answers to those questions is quite rewarding and I think the author paced the revelations of information well enough to allow the reader to feel that there is a gradual movement toward learning the truth. Even though I had guessed the killer, the motive and the identity of the letter writer some chapters before the truth is revealed, I still found this to be a really compelling read and I loved seeing exactly how everything would come together.

I really enjoyed the process of getting to know Smiley who, while not a particularly flashy character, struck me as good company. While I was new to the books, I was at least familiar with the concept of Smiley who has long been described to me as sort of the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. Smiley is rather dry and academic, rarely ventures out into the field and has no romantic encounters at all (he is, we learn, separated from his wife but given she does not directly appear here I do not feel she counts, at least in the context of this story). In spite of those traits though I find his sincerity and cool, logical thinking to be quite attractive and enjoyed reading how he comes to piece the whole matter together.

That explanation, as I indicated earlier, did not particularly surprise me but it did satisfy me. It hinges on some very careful, solid observations that I think helped make sense of the connections. For those who are less interested in the mystery than in the espionage, there is plenty of that here too with the author carefully laying out the meaning of what is being done and how characters’ actions may be influenced by or impact forces from mainland Europe.

It unfolds at a pretty smooth and solid pace, making it a relatively easy read, and it even incorporates a little action toward the end which is written well and easy to visualize. As for the novel’s espionage content, I found it to be quite fascinating and I appreciated the emphasis on attempting to realistically show details of how some things are worked and even, in a memorable chapter describing Smiley’s own work in the field during the thirties, what it would feel like to be on assignment. The result is a fascinating book that I found to be quite compelling and which I am glad I made the time to read. Whether read as a mystery or spy thriller, I felt Call for the Dead was a superb read and I am looking forward to making time to read the next now which I understand is also primarily a detective story.

Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2014
Season Five, Episode One
Preceded by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb
Followed by The Sinner and the Sandman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

Paula Wilcox was one of the stars of Man About the House and may also be known for her roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as Upstart Crow. Her genre credits include Grantchester and A Touch of Frost.

Raquel Cassidy is probably best known for her role as Miss Baxter in Downton Abbey and an appearance in Doctor Who. In this household however she is a favorite for her performance as Miss Hardbroom in the recent TV adaptation of The Worst Witch. She also has some genre credits appearing in episodes of Poirot, Law & Order: UK and Midsomer Murders.

Finally I have to mention Kieran Hodgson who became familiar to me during lockdown last year for his Youtube channel where he posts what he calls bad impressions. The draw for me was this series of reenactments of early Doctor Who.

The Verdict

A rare example of an inverted impossibility – an idea that Renwick handles pretty well though the pacing is a touch slow.

Episode Summary

An actress seems to have been stabbed moments after entering a dressing room that is under observation from the outside. Meanwhile Polly Creek learns of the death of her father and investigates if there is a secret in her parents’ past.

My Thoughts

If there’s one thing I like even more than impossible crimes it is an inverted mystery. That makes The Letters of Septimus Noone then something of a treat as it represents one of the very rare instances where those two subgenres combine and we get a case where we know the solution from the start. The question is then how will Jonathan reach that solution.

The setup for this case is handled quite well, carefully laying out the reasons behind the stabbing as well as the silence of those who have information that could clear the whole mess up. Those motivations struck me as pretty compelling, even if they are misguided.

I have suggested before that I rather like impossibilities that are created unintentionally and this is a perfect example of that. Characters make decisions based on their understanding and priorities with little thought as to how this will look from the outside to a third party. The case that develops is not particularly complex but suits this episode’s short running time and the need to fit alongside another more personal plot.

It should not surprise then that given the simplicity of the case, finding the solution comes down to spotting a single clue. Some may feel a little disappointed that Jonathan doesn’t actually deduce every step of the solution for himself and prove a case but I don’t think that would have fitted this story or the themes it had been developing.

Running through this, in one of the better comedic subplots from the show’s later years, is the idea that Jonathan has unwillingly acquired an intern of sorts – Ridley, a student returning from university who idolizes him and thinks he can perform the same feats of deduction. The jokes are somewhat predictable (and perhaps recall Miracle in Crooked Lane a little too much) but they are delivered well by Kieran Hodgson, culminating in an entertaining spin on the gathering all the suspects trope.

That other plot involves the sudden death of Polly’s father and the discovery of a box of letters. The mystery here is harder to summarize, in part because some aspects are introduced relatively late in the episode, but it is much more focused on exploring matters of grief and how we come to terms with the idea that we may not know someone as well as we thought.

As with the stabbing case the deductions required here are not particularly challenging. One of them will likely leap off the screen to viewers as soon as they see it, particularly given it’s an idea Renwick has used elsewhere. Still, I appreciated that the episode was trying to give us a different sort of case than we had seen before on the show and I liked that it was personal to Polly as I think it helps us understand her better and also provides a transition for the show into slightly new ground.

Beyond that I don’t have a lot else to say. I think that says rather a lot about this episode compared to those from the previous couple of seasons and the various specials. This is slighter than some offering two relatively simple puzzles but it also feels much more cohesive in terms of its themes and ideas. The comedic elements and the personal drama sits comfortably alongside the central mystery rather than fighting each other for dominance. It’s arguably comfortable and perhaps unambitious compared to those stories, fitting comfortably into the time slot and playing out at a rather leisurely pace. Still, I found it likable and I think it does a good job overall of completing the transition of Jonathan into a more comfortable, settled middle age.

That said I do have one point of enormous frustration. This episode completely pointlessly gives away some of the plot from The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Bah!

The Final Days of Abbot Montrose by Sven Elvestad

The Verdict

A well-clued puzzle mystery with some adventure elements.

Book Details

Originally published in 1917 as Montrose.
English translation published in 2018.

The Blurb

It is an evening in early May when the quiet of Montrose Abbey is shattered by the sounds of shouting and broken glass. When the police arrive, they find the abbey library ransacked and bloodstained. Broken furniture and a burning carpet bear witness to a violent struggle. And the abbot himself, the scholarly Abbot Montrose, is missing. Only a torn fragment of his cassock remains, caught in the wrought-iron fence surrounding the abbey.

The police, the press, and citizens of this northern city fear the worst. What could have befallen the missing abbot? Has he been murdered? Abducted?

As world-renowned Detective Asbjørn Krag and his partner, Detective Sirius Keller, begin to unravel the tangled knot of clues left behind, they find themselves in the city’s infamous Krydder District, “where the dark doorways are as close together as rat holes in an old warehouse.” The more answers they find, the more questions seem to pop up.

“It looks terrible inside,” replied Number 12. “Everything has been thrown up-side-down. And there is blood everywhere.”

My Thoughts

One of the pages I have on this blog is a listing of all of the crime and mystery novels I have in my TBR pile. I created this mostly as an aide mémoire though it didn’t stop me accidentally buying two copies of So Pretty a Problem so it’s not infallible. I do note on that page that if readers have requests for me to read a title I have listed on that page to get in touch (I just spotted that Ken asked me some time ago to read Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss so I will try to get to that soon). As it happens I received an email last week asking if I could share my opinion of this work by Sven Elvestad and I was happy to oblige, particularly as it had been recommended by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime – that review is linked at the end of this post.

The novel concerns the disappearance of Abbot Montrose, a scholarly priest, from the abbey’s library. The room is found to be in disarray with broken furniture and blood stains suggesting violence or perhaps murder. There is no sign of a body however and the lack of a ransom seems to indicate that he was kidnapped either. With a handful of physical clues, Detective Krag is tasked with discovering what happened to the Abbot and why.

One of the things that I couldn’t get out of my head as I read this is how much this resembles a Holmes story (albeit one with a stronger focus on fair play detection). It is not just that the detective has moments where they make deductions from seemingly innocuous details of a person’s appearance or behavior but the style in which this story is told with our heroes dashing from place to place and, at one point, even experiencing some moments of light peril.

Perhaps the strongest parallels though lie in the type of case that Krag and Keller are called upon to solve. This case presents exactly the sort of slightly odd situation that would have fascinated Holmes as the victim seems so unlikely. The lack of a body even means that we cannot be sure for much of the novel what type of crime has taken place, adding an unusual complication to the proceedings.

While the story is generally handled quite seriously, the novel does contain some flashes of humor. My favorite section of the novel takes place around a rather seedy hotel, The Gilded Peacock, in which our two sleuths find it necessary to adopt disguises to enter and remain inconspicuous. The nature of those disguises is quite amusing and sets an appropriately odd tone to match the environment they are to enter.

I should probably note at this point that there is a part of this section of the novel that I think could be described as presenting an impossibility. I did consider categorizing this post as such but ended up deciding against it, in large part because of the simplicity of the setup and the resolution, but it was a nice surprise to suddenly encounter that as an incidental feature of the book. It involves the vanishing of a suspect and one of the detectives from a hotel room that was locked from the inside by the detective who we can safely assume is honest. This could easily have been worked up into something a little more substantial and fairly clued – as it is, it is just used to provide a shock of excitement mid-way in the book between questioning sessions.

The solution to the crime could also come straight out of a Doyle tale though I would stress that I think the ending is one that the reader can reach by considering the evidence. I have just one issue with the conclusion that is hard to describe well without spoiling it. All I can say is that there is one aspect of the case that confuses matters. This is fine enough as it makes the case more interesting but I did feel that the explanation of why that was the case was a little unconvincing and I do wish that there had been a better reason for it happening.

That being said, I found my overall experience with Sven Elvestad to be a largely enjoyable one. I particularly appreciated that the novel presents a rather unusual type of crime, trusting that the reader will be attracted enough with the strangeness of a situation to forgo a corpse.

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this a lot, complimenting the puzzle plot.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

The Verdict

One of the best Carrs I have read to date, this is every bit as good as its reputation offering a scenario full of twists and turns and a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Dr. Gideon Fell #15
Preceded by Death Turns the Tables
Followed by He Who Whispers

The Blurb

Crime author Dick Markham is in love again; his fiancée the mysterious newcomer to the village, Lesley Grant. When Grant accidentally shoots the fortune teller through the side of his tent at the local fair – following a very strange reaction to his predictions – Markham is reluctantly brought into a scheme to expose his betrothed as a suspected serial husband poisoner.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller – and chief accuser – is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

Thinking the matter over afterwards, Dick Markham might have seen omens or portents in the summer thunderstorm, in the fortune-teller’s tent, in the shooting-range, in half a dozen other things at that bazaar.

My Thoughts

In my four years of crime fiction blogging, I cannot recall being as excited about a vintage crime reprint as I was when I heard that Till Death Do Us Part would be reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. I had previously enjoyed the story in the form of the very faithful BBC Radio adaptation starring Donald Sinden but I was looking forward to getting to read the story properly for myself. Little wonder then that when the package arrived on my doorstep last weekend I immediately put everything else to one side and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting.

Crime writer Dick Markham arrives at a village fête with Lesley Grant, a woman who has only lived in the area for a matter of months. We learn that the couple have just become engaged and are planning to share the good news later that day. Before they do however they decide they will enjoy some of the attractions and they head to the fortune teller’s booth where a man billed as The Great Swami promises to tell their fortunes.

Lesley enters the tent while Dick chats to the Major who is operating the shooting range next to it. He shares his good news but is surprised when Lesley emerges from the tent looking upset. Dick heads inside to speak to the Swami but before he can learn anything a gunshot is fired through the canvas. He emerges to find Lesley asserting that the rifle, which she had not wanted to hold, had fired by accident. It all seems pretty suspicious, particularly when he receives a telephone call from the doctor asking him to visit his patient who has some information to share with him about his bride to be…

This is a really intriguing setup because of the way it plays around with information. There is the information about Dick’s engagement which we learn may be distressing to at least one other inhabitant of the village, then there’s the information about the Swami’s identity and then there’s the information he has about Lesley. These opening pages are packed with revelations, each serving to shift our understanding of the situation and what is happening long before the murder even takes place. I love the sense of discovery in these early chapters and would suggest that the best way to enjoy this story is to just throw yourself straight into it and be surprised.

The murder comes pretty early in this one and does present an impossibility of sorts, though I do not want to overplay this element of the story. While it’s certainly there and does involve some well-clued details, I think what makes this a compelling story is not so much the mechanics of the crime as the tensions and suspicions it brings about in the various characters.

The story follows Dick’s perspective and so we experience his growing doubts and worries about Lesley as he battles with things he comes to learn and suspect. Carr does this well, incorporating some elements of domestic suspense into the story as Dick grapples with whether he can trust Lesley, how his feelings for her might be affected by what he is told and how he should interact with her moving forwards.

The decision to closely follow Dick means that we are kept at a slight distance not only from Lesley but also from Dr. Gideon Fell who enters the story shortly after the body is found though he is talked about several times prior to that. This is an effective technique as it serves to remind us of Fell’s reputation as a genius for solving impossible crimes, heightening our anticipation for the moment of his arrival. Even once he does appear our focus remains on Dick with some of Fell’s ideas and deductions being kept under wraps until near the end when he swoops in to bring about a resolution. Still, while Fell is utilized in a more limited way than some other of his stories I find him utterly engaging whenever he does appear and would consider this one of his best outings that I have read to date.

One aspect of the novel that I think is very striking is its depiction of life within the confines of an English village. There is of course the depiction of a village festival with their sometimes quite clunky stalls and games as well as the idea that someone might be a bigger celebrity in a small village than they would be in a more urban area hence all of the attention that the villagers pay to Dick. This also feeds into some aspects of the case and in some of the tensions surrounding Dick’s relationship with Lesley. After all the village is a small place and people will gossip, adding pressure to an already tricky situation.

The solution, when it is presented, is a clever one though I admit to finding a few of the crucial details a little tricky to visualize at first. Some aspects of this though are very clever, particularly those relating to what is observed around the time that the gunshot is fired. While Carr has been more ingenious, I do appreciate how the story comes together overall.

What I think seals its status for me as one of the best I have read to date is the manner of the resolution. This is not just an exciting scene which follows a little burst of action, I feel that the construction of this sequence is exceptional and makes very good use once again of the distance between Dick and Fell, building up to a really powerful conclusion that provides some solid closure.

Overall then I have to unimaginatively concur with those voices who suggest that this is one of the best Dr. Fell mysteries. While I wish I had something a little more creative to say about it, all I can really offer is my belief that this holds together really well and that it was a joy to experience again even knowing the solution. This is about as highly recommended as they come.

Case Closed, Volume 4: Explosives on a Train by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

The Verdict

Book Details

Originally published in 1995
English translation published in 2005
Volume 4
Preceded by One and the Same?
Followed by The Bandaged Be-header

The Blurb

Bloody murder is committed at a museum, reproducing a scene from a gruesome painting.

Later, the men in black are back! Will Conan be able to come any closer to getting his old body back? 

Also, Conan’s friends from grade school find a treasure map–but will it only lead them to a trove of trouble?

What? A medieval suit of armor was walking by itself?

My Thoughts

Today finds me returning to Case Closed, the manga series about a brilliant teen detective who has been transformed into the body of a grade schooler. It’s a fun, lighthearted series but given that it is best read in order let me send you back to the first review and I’ll see you in three books time!

Okay, where were we? While the previous volume featured just two cases, this one has three. The nice thing about this is that it does mean that there is a little more variety but that does come at the cost of depth. Each of these three cases feel a little simple compared to those in the previous volume.

The first involves the strange case of an ancient suit of armor that supposedly roams the halls of a museum. One day the gallery is being visited by its obnoxious new owner who steps into the Hell Gallery only to be run through by a sword.

The case is a solid murder mystery though it suffers a little from having just two characters who might be suspects, particularly when one becomes the focus of the investigation. I think though that rather than viewing this purely as a whodunnit, it is more interesting to view this as a howcatchem and ask what clues will lead Jimmy toward the truth.

While the case is short and relatively simple, it does offer some points of interest including a dying message and a pretty clever trick used to get to the truth. All in all, a very solid start to the volume.

In my previous Case Closed post I noted that I had one issue with the second and third volumes: that Jimmy seemed to have forgotten that his purpose in getting close to Rachel’s father and assisting him in his work as a private detective was to find out information about the gang who drugged and de-aged him. Happily the next story in this fourth volume sees Jimmy cross paths with two of its members, even if he gets sidetracked along the way.

He is traveling by train with Rachel and her father when he sees the two heavies climb on board carrying a dark briefcase. Following them to the dining car he learns that they have sold the case and its contents to a passenger but they have a secret. The buyer is unaware that their new locked briefcase contains a bomb that will detonate. Jimmy needs to find the buyer and dispose of the briefcase before that happens.

This is a fun setup and it feels like a nice change of pace from some of the previous cases. The time element certainly adds to the sense of tension but I also appreciate that this is another example of a story where Jimmy’s small size and apparent youth is a real barrier to his investigation. This is not just physical though there are moments where that comes into play – it’s also that Jimmy has to contend with Rachel trying to babysit him.

It’s a fun adventure and there is a subtle element of deduction involved. More than anything though I just feel it’s nice to acknowledge properly that Jimmy is supposed to be looking for the solution to his situation and while I understand that this obviously will be stretched out, it’s nice to see that addressed from time to time.

The final story sees the return of an idea from the second volume that I liked in theory, even though I felt that the case was not wholly satisfying. This is another case featuring the characters from Jimmy’s class in school who this time find themselves involved in something of a treasure hunt.

While the reader doesn’t have much opportunity to solve anything, the idea is a lot of fun and I do enjoy the dynamics of that group of children. It is always interesting to see Jimmy put in awkward situations and I do appreciate that the series is not forgetting to show the other half of his issue with de-aging – that he is intellectually far above those who are supposed to be his peers.

Overall then I felt this was another very solid installment in the series. I appreciate that each of the three stories feels quite distinct from the others though I did feel that the first two could each have benefited from a little more space to add complexity. In spite of that though this is a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing what other adventures Jimmy has in store for him…

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 1, 2013
2013 Special
Preceded by The Judas Tree
Followed by The Letters of Septimus Noone

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Joanna Lumley first became famous for her roles in The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel but she is probably best known these days for her role in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Genre roles include playing Mrs Peacock in a series of Cluedo, Dolly Bantry in Agatha Christie’s Marple and Felicity Fanshaw in Paddington 2.

Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a genre film…

Sarah Alexander plays Polly, Jonathan’s wife. She will be most familiar for her roles in comedies such as Green Wing, The Worst Week of My Life and Smack the Pony though she also has a couple of genre credits. These include appearances in Midsomer Murders and Marple.

The Verdict

So much better than I remembered. While I have some issues with a development towards the end, the resolutions to the events in the present and in the past are each really interesting.

Episode Summary

A corpse is seen and photographed through the keyhole in the only door to a locked room. The door is under constant observation until help arrives and the door is kicked down. When they enter however they find that the body has completely vanished.

My Thoughts

Back when I started this project of rewatching the entire run of Jonathan Creek in order my object was to see the material through much more experienced eyes. As I have noted in some previous posts, when I first saw these they were pretty much the only locked room and impossible crime stories I had ever experienced. This meant that my reactions to the stories were often centered on the metrics of how much a story either surprised or amused me at the time.

That was unfortunate for a story like The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. While the two previous specials had both featured dark themes and moments, they also had some familiar, more ostensibly comedic elements. In contrast, this story jettisons some of those and presents a somewhat different version of Jonathan – now obviously in his middle age and less quirky. I had been hoping for more of the same but instead we got something that sought to take the character forward. While that disappointed me at the time, I find that I have a completely different impression of those choices now.

The most significant change for Jonathan here is that in the space between the last special and this he has got married to Polly, played by Sarah Alexander. We will see much more of her in subsequent episodes as she has little involvement in the case itself but the marriage is used to show that he is in a very different headspace than he had been in the past. He is trying to be grown up, now being on the corporate ladder, and so his desire to investigate a crime becomes a point of conflict for the character in a way we haven’t seen before. This manifests in a costuming decision to switch him into suits, at least at the start, and so one of the most satisfying moments in the episode is when we see him reaching for the duffle coat – a scene that feels almost reminiscent of an aging Bruce Wayne reaching for the cowl in Batman: Year One.

The choice to reintroduce Rik Mayall’s Gideon Pryke in this story makes a lot of sense in this context. The character, who had been one of the highlights of Black Canary for me, was the first to be presented as almost a mirror of him. Equally brilliant, often pipping Jonathan to some key discoveries, the two seemed to come to a mutual respect for each other by the end of that adventure and the rivalry seems to bring out the best in each of them. Here we see that Gideon has also experienced his own significant life changes after a bullet leaves him confined to a wheelchair but he remains every bit as brilliant, charismatic and capable.

Pryke’s role then is to remind Jonathan of who he is. What makes Jonathan a great detective is not his background as a stage illusionist but his personality. In particular, his attention to detail and ability to think creatively. He is also there as someone for Jonathan to spark off and compete with. That he continues to have that relationship with Joey here, creating a sort of investigative super-trio, is all the more exciting.

This brings me to Sheridan Smith’s Joey Ross, sadly making her last appearance in the series here as she left after this due to her theatrical commitments. This character is, for me, the most appealing of all of Jonathan’s ‘assistant’ characters, in large part because she is anything but. She is a partner and an intellectual competitor with him. She isn’t there to be amazed or to be a source of romantic tension – her role is to be ahead of the audience but still ever so slightly behind Jonathan, spurring him on to greater deductions.

Smith is brilliant in the part, working equally well when she is interacting with him as when she is taking the lead on an investigation as she does at the start of this story. The actors play wonderfully off each other both dramatically and comedically. Perhaps most satisfying of all though is that unlike the previous departures of an assistant, this does at least have the feeling of a deliberate transition as we introduce Polly.

Turning to matters plot, this story presents two strange situations for our team to solve – one in the present, one in the past. I have shared in the past my feeling that this is a golden formula for the show that we have seen Renwick use in each of the specials and I am pleased to say I find it just as successful here. In some ways perhaps more so as I think both are fairly well clued.

Let’s start with the present as it is this that prompts Jonathan and Joey to start investigating. Our mystery here is the disappearance of a corpse from a room, the only door to which was under constant observation. We even have photographic evidence of what was seen, taken through the keyhole. It’s a pretty tantalizing problem to unpick, particularly given that no one seems to have had a motive for murder.

I feel that the circumstances of the disappearance are clued pretty thoroughly. While I have some qualms about an aspect of motivation – more about that in the spoilers below – I think the viewer does at least have enough information to piece together what happened and how the body disappeared and I felt that the explanation held together very well.

The historic thread concerns a strange set of events at a convent school in the sixties. We have the mystery of why a group of girls each had odd markings appear on their foreheads while sleeping, one of whom died. The other concerns a strange ‘quiet room’ with a painting that seems to come to life, reaching out to them.

This thread of the story gives me some serious Gladys Mitchell vibes in several respects. While the subject matter is clearly pretty dark and disquieting stuff, especially since it involves children, I think it is executed well and I think the solutions to each question struck me as broadly satisfying. A few clues that seal the deal come a little late in the game but even without those I feel we are given enough to have a general idea of what was happening and the motivations for it.

The link between the two strands of the episode is Joanna Lumley who plays Rosalind, the victim’s wife who was one of the children in the historic thread of the story. I think the casting here is absolutely perfect and I think enriches the character. Similarly I really like Nigel Planer’s Franklin – a much better role for him than his earlier appearance in The Reconstituted Corpse.

Of course, this is not a perfect episode by any stretch. I have already alluded to my having some issues with an aspect of the motive for the disappearance which feels a little weak. My bigger problem comes though with a secondary development that takes place towards the end of the episode which feels rather silly. Unfortunately I can’t discuss it here without spoiling it but I think this would have been a more satisfying outing had the story omitted it. It’s hard to view this as anything but an attempt to pad out the story with one extra surprising twist.

Overall then I have to say that this has been about the most pleasant surprise this project has given me. It’s tonally consistent in a way few episodes have been in the past few seasons and offers up several intriguing impossibilities. Had I been asked at the start of this to produce a ranked list of episodes I think this may have been towards the foot of that list – instead, while I would not say it is a Championship contender it may well be looking at a Euro Cup spot. As surprises go that’s a great one.

Finally, before I get to the spoiler section, let me offer a couple of links to some contemporary reviews of this episode for some alternate perspectives. TomCat reviewed this on Beneath the Stains of Time while the Puzzle Doctor shared thoughts on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Nyzbfg nyy bs zl vffhrf jvgu guvf fgbel eryngr gb gur znggre bs gur QIQ. Vg’f abg gung V vaureragyl zvaq gur vqrn bs n tbireazrag pbafcvenpl – gubhtu V nqzvg vg’f abg n snibevgr cybg cbvag – ohg vg yrnirf fbzr cybggvat ceboyrzf V fgehttyr jvgu.

Sbe vafgnapr, gur fhttrfgvba vf znqr gung gur znyshapgvba bs gur punvafnj jnf pnhfrq checbfrshyyl ol gur gjb haqrepbire bcrengvirf. Tvira gung Senaxyva bayl neenatrf gb qb gur gevpx ba gur avtug va dhrfgvba evtug orsber ur urnqf gb gur onea, ubj qvq gurl unir gvzr gb pbzr hc jvgu gung cyna (naq ubj pbhyq gurl or fher, sbe gung znggre, gung ur jbhyq or gur bar gb hfr gur punvafnj engure guna uvf nffvfgnag)?

Zl ovttre vffhr gubhtu pbzrf jvgu gurve vagrenpgvba jvgu gur Dhvrg Ebbz va gur pbairag fpubby. Juvyr vg vf arire pbasvezrq, V guvax jr pna thrff gung gur znyr bs gur cnve jnf gur bar gung gevrq gb fgenatyr Wbrl guebhtu gur cnvagvat. Ubj qvq ur svaq gung frperg ebbz? Zber vzcbegnagyl, jul qvq ur srry gur arrq gb xvyy Wbrl? Ur xarj gung gur QIQ unq orra renfrq naq fb fur unq abg frra gur fhccbfrq pbagragf. Whfg jung jnf ur pyrnavat hc?

N srj zber zvabe guvatf – jbhyq n pnzren ba n cubar ernyyl gnxr fhpu n pyrne cvpgher guebhtu n xrlubyr? V jbhyq grfg guvf zlfrys ohg nyy zl ybpxf ner Lnyr-glcr ohg vg qbrf frrz hayvxryl gb zr gung lbh jbhyq trg fhpu n pyrne cvpgher. V’q dhvgr jvyyvatyl npprcg V znl or jebat gubhtu.

V nyfb jbaqre jul Wbanguna qbrfa’g vzzrqvngryl pybpx gur qvssrerapr va gur tybor orgjrra gur gjb cvpgherf? Vg qvq vzzrqvngryl whzc bhg ng zr gubhtu V jvyy pbaprqr gung V znl whfg or erzrzorevat gung vg jnf vzcbegnag sebz zl cerivbhf ivrjvat.

Gur bayl guvat gung ernyyl vexf zr nobhg guvf gubhtu vf gung gur zbgvir sbe qbvat gur qvfnccrnevat obql srryf n yvggyr jrnx nf rkcynvarq, gubhtu V guvax vg vf ng yrnfg pyhrq gung vg unf n cresbezngvir nfcrpg. GbzPng znxrf n pbzcnevfba va uvf erivrj gb n cerivbhf rcvfbqr bs gur fubj gung rfpncrq zr ng gur gvzr ohg juvpu V pna pregnvayl frr abj. V nz fngvfsvrq gubhtu ol gur zber trareny vqrn gung gurer vf n arrq gb cerirag nabgure punenpgre sebz snyyvat haqre fhfcvpvba.

Bu, naq bar zber guvat – V jvfu gung gurer jnf n yvggyr zber sbphf ba gur vqrn bs Senaxyva xabjvat uvf qrngu qngr. Guvf vf guebja bhg gurer sbe gur ivrjre ohg ab bar rire pbzzragf ba vg. Juvyr jr zvtug guvax gung pbhyq uvag ng n fhvpvqr rkcynangvba gung pyrneyl qbrfa’g uryc jvgu gur qvfnccrnevat obql naq fb vg srryf yvxr n qrnq raq sebz gur zbzrag vg vf vagebqhprq, gurer sbe ngzbfcurer ohg yvggyr ryfr.

They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall

Cover of They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall

The Verdict

Inspired by Christie but I wished more liberties had been taken with its structure.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime…

Delighted by a surprise invitation, Miriam Macy sails to a luxurious private island off the coast of Mexico with six other strangers. Surrounded by miles of open water in the gloriously green Sea of Cortez, Miriam is soon shocked to discover that she and the rest of her companions have been brought to the remote island under false pretenses – and all seven strangers harbor a secret.

Danger lurks in the lush forest and in the halls and bedrooms of the lonely mansion. Sporadic cell phone coverage and miles of ocean keep the group trapped in paradise. And strange accidents stir suspicions, as one by one…

They all fall down.

Something about Artemis, something about Mictlan Island made me breathless – and not in a thrilling way.

My Thoughts

A group of seven people, all apparent strangers, travel together to a remote island off the coast of Mexico. They go anticipating a pleasant time only to discover that they have been gathered under false pretenses. Each of the party has a dark secret known to its organizer and each is intended to die for their crimes.

As you may have guessed from the very brief summary above, They All Fall Down is a novel that reworks Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This is acknowledged both in the use of a quotation from that novel that opens the book and also its dedication to an English professor who ‘didn’t want me to interpret precious English things as something darker and American’.

While I think it is hard to imagine anything darker than Christie’s original novel, I felt that the intention to rework what is one of the most famous suspense novels was an intriguing one. Would Hall adhere strictly to the structure and story beats of the original or would it diverge in any places? Would she use it to explore different themes or ideas?

In most respects Hall opts to stick quite close to Christie’s original novel. She does narrow the cast of characters from ten to seven – a move that makes sense as it means they get more space in the novel. It also enables Hall to replace the nursery rhyme with another object related to the seven deadly sins. While the idea of a series of murders being committed based on a set of sins is not unique, this provides a nice structure as we wonder which of the guests will be linked with which sin and about the nature of the crime they have committed.

The more significant changes are rooted in matters of character. It is here that we can see most clearly Hall’s intention to reimagine the story as a modern American one. This is not just reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the guests, both ethnically and socially, but also their aspirations, troubles and world views. With this in mind, we must then consider how altering the geographic and cultural backdrop to the novel alters it.

In discussing this I want to be mindful of preserving the surprises about the various characters’ backgrounds. For that reason I only intend to describe the narrator, Miriam Macy. This is not because she tells us her whole story from the start – her crime will be one of the last to be confessed – but because we know significantly more about her background from the start of the novel, even if it is an incomplete picture.

Miriam arrives at the island under the belief that she has come to compete on a new reality tv show. This is not only welcome because it suggests an end to some financial problems she is facing, having left her job as a marketing and communications for a luxury goods consignment store, it also allows her to escape her problems at home. We know that she has a strained relationship with her daughter Morgan who is upset about how Miriam handled a situation involved a racist bully in her ballet class. We also know that there has been some sort of incident outside her home that has led to her being questioned by the police and that she is considering pressing charges against someone. Add in her resentment of her ex-husband who occupies her home with his new lover and an addiction to prescription pain and anxiety meds and it is easy to understand why she is keen to make a fresh start.

Throughout the novel we get snippets of emails and text messages sent between Miriam and some of the people in her life back home. This not only helps us to build a picture of her life prior to arriving at the island and of the way she is perceived by those who know her, it reminds us of the characters’ isolation. Internet access is patchy, offering little opportunity for the characters to communicate with those off the island.

When the crimes of each of the other guests are revealed there is some aspect of them that is intended to surprise. In most cases this is the nature of the crime itself. The exception is that of Desi, a young widow, but even there we get to discover the precise circumstances of what she had done. Miriam’s story unfolds a little differently however as the reader will likely get a growing sense of what she did as we work towards the end of the novel. That thread of the story is by far the most interesting and successful in the novel, allowing for a complexity of character and relationships that I found to be more compelling than the main thriller plot.

By far the most interesting of the other characters to me was Wallace, a man who begins the novel claiming to already know all about Miriam. This creates an interesting dynamic of suspicion and irritation between the two characters that shifts subtly throughout the story in response to the various things that happen. One of the reasons I felt that way is that I found his past to be one of the most surprising of the party, rendering him a more complex character than he initially seemed.

That is not to say that I was uninterested in the other characters. I enjoyed the process of discovering their stories and the reasons each had come to the island. It is just inevitably though several of them feel somewhat flat in comparison with Miriam given the additional space her story is given to be explored and a few of the characters’ fates seemed somewhat rushed. Their deaths are, however, generally quite memorable and imaginative.

This brings me though to the biggest problem I had with the reimagining of the book – the matter of the motivation behind it all. In altering some aspects of the setup to Christie’s original, Hall strips it of its most powerful and perverse thematic element. For all that is gained in bringing in some new and important discussions of issues such as racism and policing, it loses some of its power in relation to the question of justice.

I was also a little disappointed when we learn the truth as to what had been happening on the island and who precisely was responsible for the deaths. While this is at least clued, allowing the reader to detect who the responsible party is, I found their motivations to be less convincing than those of the killer in And Then There Were None and so aspects of the conclusion left me rather unsatisfied.

This is disappointing because I think Miriam’s story becomes increasingly compelling as we near the end and we learn more about what exactly happened that has made Morgan hate her. The issues that are raised by her story are complex and I felt Hall explores them very thoughtfully. Unfortunately the decision to mimic the structure of the source material rather than elevating Miriam’s story ends up being a barrier to its success. It forces the inclusion of lesser secondary stories and plot beats that I felt did little to enhance the telling of her story while it is not different enough to keep the overall work from feeling a little derivative.

Still, They All Fall Down is engaging and, at times, quite exciting. While I think the use of And Then There Were None proved limiting, I would still consider it one of the better examples of a reworking of that novel. If nothing else, it has left me curious to try more of the author’s work – happily I already own a copy of These Toxic Things in my TBR pile so I expect I will return to her soon.