Why I Love… The Great Mouse Detective

In late 2019 I started to introduce some video content onto this blog which was a project I was really pretty excited about. I had recorded several posts where I discussed the reasons I love particular mystery-themed movies and also a book discussion about my favorite novel, A Kiss Before Dying. The views weren’t incredible but it was a chance to speak extemporaneously about things I liked which is fun to do.

Unfortunately that project ground to a halt when several videos I shot got corrupted before I could upload them (including a Five to Try with books from the British Library Crime Classics range – a video I should probably try and do again at some point) and by the time I could start over again the pandemic was underway and the house was anything but quiet. The idea was quietly shelved and I got on with other stuff. Like actually writing about books – ho, hum.

Well, as I was planning to take a break this week from watching Jonathan Creek and to catch up on my reading I decided that it might be fun to get this plan back on track and record another of these. The question was which movie to talk about.

As it happened I recently rewatched The Great Mouse Detective with my kid who is currently in a bit of a detective phase (which I am doing my best to support by providing lots of material). She enjoyed some parts very much while other bits struck her as a little slow compared to more recent Disney cartoons or mystery shows like The Inbestigators but that is very much a reflection of the era in which it was made.

As for myself, I am not going to pretend that this the greatest mystery ever written. You will notice the plot is not included in my list of five things. This was my first introduction to the idea of a detective though and specifically to the world of Sherlock Holmes and so while it is not necessarily a great mystery in its own right, I still appreciated revisiting it and had no difficulty thinking of five things I wanted to talk about:

Whether you share my nostalgic love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.

The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

Book Details

Originally published in 1965

The Blurb

For the love of a beautiful waitress, a meat salesman will turn butcher.

Clay Lockwood enters the Portico with corned beef on his mind. He’s a top distributing executive with Grant’s Meats, and the contract with the Portico restaurant chain is only the latest in a long line of boardroom coups. He comes for lunch, and eats his fill of his company’s beef, but leaves with an entirely different hunger gnawing at his gut—a volcanic passion that will tear him apart.

The hostess’s name is Sally Alexis, a magician’s wife whose rough-hewn charm mesmerizes this magnate of meat. She rebuffs his first pass, but calls him up later, to explain her situation and plead for tenderness. Although her marriage is miserable, she’s won’t leave her husband because she wants to secure an inheritance for her little boy. As the lovers get closer, Lockwood becomes an amateur illusionist himself, focusing on one very particular trick—how to make a magician disappear.

The Verdict

A disappointing rehash of Cain’s earliest classics. Though it starts strong enough, it stumbles onto its ending. Recommended for Cain completists only.

She’ll be a Merry Widow, that we know for sure, but not with your help. Do you hear?

My Thoughts

Clay Lockwood is a businessman who sells readymade meals to restaurants. He is dining at the Portico restaurant where he meets Sally Alexis, who is working as the hostess. Sally charms him when she refers to him by name, in spite of never having been introduced, and the two flirt for a while. When he makes a hard pass at her though she admits that she’s married and turns him down, frustrating Lockwood. Later on though Sally calls him to explain about her circumstances and arranges to meet up in secret.

When back at Clay’s pad he declares that he wants Sally to leave her husband and marry him. She says that she can’t as she feels that she must stay in her unhappy marriage for the sake of her young son who is supposed to come into an inheritance. It soon becomes clear that Sally is angling for Clay to take action, a move he initially resists, but he finds his willpower weakens with each meeting…

The Magician’s Wife is a fine example of pastiche fiction, evoking memories of some of the famous early works of James M. Cain. The premise feels evocative of The Postman Always Rings Twice and also Double Indemnity at times, both novels which I really enjoy. The unfortunate thing though is that the novel is written by Cain himself.

The reason that this is unfortunate is that while this is incredibly readable, featuring plenty of examples of Cain’s lean and muscular prose, when an author so consciously revisits the ideas and themes of an early work you want to see something different to show either their evolution as a writer or presenting those ideas in a new way to comment on them. Instead he just presents us with what feels like an reprise performance.

Clay Lockwood is a pretty solid example of the typical Cain protagonist, exuding a powerful machismo and decisiveness as well as an inability to repress desire that will clearly be the source of all his trouble. His introduction to the story where we see him in action exerting his power over a restaurant owner, bullying him into signing a contract with his company, gives us a strong sense of who he is and what he wants from life. This suits Cain’s style of storytelling as he is a pretty straightforward character, allowing for some pretty direct storytelling.

One of the few things that does distinguish this story from those two earlier classics is that Cain allows Clay to have an active (and similarly forceful) internal monologue. An example of this can be seen in the quotation precededing these thoughts where Clay tells himself that Sally is clearly planning to be a widow and that he should not be a part of that. It’s a semi-effective technique, allowing for some foreshadowing and highlighting that Clay knows the consequences of his actions, but its effectiveness decreases once the crucial decisions are taken and so it gets used with less frequency.

Sally is a pretty typical Cain femme fatale, knowingly using her sexual appeal to encourage a man to act recklessly on her behalf. Readers should not anticipate really getting to know her beyond the demands of that role however – we get little sense of her likes or interests, nor of any deeper connection between the two. This has bothered me in some of Cain’s previous work but at least in those cases I understood the core reasons for the attraction, either based on the situation or the lovers’ personalities. Here I get why Sally needs Clay, I am much less clear on why he gives in to her.

One of the reasons for that uncertainty is that before the murder takes place we have already seen Clay become interested in another woman, Sally’s mother, creating a rather bizarre triangle. This seems like it may be intended to shock readers but it really just left me baffled about what Clay is wanting and expecting from life. It suddenly takes away his most interesting character trait, his decisiveness, and renders him rather weak and pathetic and makes all three characters harder to relate to.

While I have issues with understanding the reasons characters act as they do in this story, Cain does a splendid job of showing how Clay and Sally plot out the murder and describing the events of that evening. There is plenty of detail to their plan and while there are some parts that feel a little sloppy or poorly conceived, I found that only made that process more credible. The reader will notice that there are plenty of loose ends for an investigation to seize upon, the question is which of these will be important and how they will be connected.

This brings us to the other aspect of the story where Cain does attempt to do something a little bit different – the events leading up to the ending. Though undoubtedly cut from a similar storytelling cloth to his other efforts, Clay’s path to destruction is a little different. It is unfortunate though that in trying to figure out a different path in this middle phase of the novel, the often quite convoluted plotting choices seem to fly in the face of that powerful, direct storytelling that is the author’s hallmark.

This is a shame because I think the core ideas explored in Clay’s downfall are not uninteresting and are arguably the most distinctive feature of this novel. The problem then is not the idea but the way in which those ideas are introduced. I think that there were ways that Cain could have explored those ideas in a more direct and more characteristically Cain-ish way.

As much as I hoped to like The Magician’s Wife, and I did like parts of it, it was this stumbling onto the ending that was its most disappointing feature. The result is a work that lacks Cain’s usual polish, feeling a bit like a stale remix. It isn’t a patch on either of those earlier classic works and I can really only recommend it to Cain completists.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Get Out of Jail Free (It’s A Kind of Magic) category as a Silver Age read.

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Book Details

Originally published as 掏摸 (Suri) in 2009.
English translation published in 2012.

This book has a sister volume, Kingdom, which was translated in the same year. The two stories can apparently be read in either order.

The Blurb

A literary crime masterpiece that follows a Japanese pickpocket lost to the machinations of fate. Bleak and oozing existential dread, The Thief is simply unforgettable.

The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections…. But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.

The Verdict

A very short but powerful exploration of the life of a thief with strong characters and thoughtful development of themes.

“The most important thing about carrying out a crime is planning. People who commit crimes without planning are idiots.”

My Thoughts

The Thief is told from the perspective of a nameless thief who has supported himself since his teen years by picking pockets and shoplifting. He is good at what he does, knowing how to evade the eyes of store detectives and the police, though he has started to not even realize when he does it, occasionally finding wallets in his pockets he doesn’t remember taking.

Though he has more than enough to survive, the thief lives a solitary existence. He has no family or friends beyond a couple of fellow pickpockets he has worked with in the past. When one of those, Ishikawa, tells him that he has been told he must recruit him to help out with a heist the thief agrees. The job is supposed to be a simple one where the gang steal some money and papers from a safe and they pull it off with ease but the next day they learn that the victim was brutally murdered after they left.

The book is a short one and while I would suggest that it is more focused on character than plotting. I will say that I do not expect that readers will be surprised at the general direction of the story but that the details and the development of theme, combined with the novel’s brevity, make for a surprisingly weighty read.

I had only read one other Nakamura novella prior to this one, The Gun, which was his very first work. That was of a similar length and was also clearly intended as a character study but where that work built a sense of dread about where the story was headed, inching slowly towards a grim inevitability, this story feels quite different. Certainly we will be aware of the danger facing the protagonist but where The Gun features a character descending into obsession and inhumanity, here we have a character who clearly is searching for the light, even if he knows he will never escape his lifestyle.

This idea is most clearly shown in his actions towards a pair of characters he encounters at several points in the story. His actions, while not exactly heroic, show him in a generally positive light and establish him as far more likeable than the protagonist in The Gun. In other words, I think readers will want him to survive and hope that he finds a way out of his predicament, even if we recognize that this seems unlikely.

While we do not learn a lot of detail about the thief’s background, we do become quite versed in his lifestyle. Nakamura carefully describes different aspects of pickpocketing and thievery, painting a convincing picture of that life and giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to live that way. The material feels well-researched and there is even a little interesting background about some noteable historical pickpockets and thieves, helping flesh out that world for readers even more.

Though the bulk of the story explores the character’s relationship with his chosen profession, there are some developments that compel him to action. This involves the introduction of a figure who serves as the antagonist of the piece though I think that term is not entirely accurate to his role within the story. This character’s appearance, while brief, feels substantial because they are not just representing an obstacle for the thief to overcome but because of the attitudes they express about everyone other than themselves.

Key developments happen pretty quickly and information learned fills in many of the gaps for us, helping the reader understand exactly what happened though a few of the broader details remain sketchy – no doubt because they aren’t really relevant to the thief’s story or the broader themes being discussed. This story is not, after all, about the crime but about the effect it has on the criminal.

It builds up to a rather powerful finish that some will doubtlessly find frustrating, though I found it quite intriguing. The ending provides a clear statement of the antagonist’s perspective and philosophy but Nakamura leaves a tiny sliver of space for the reader to consider and reject it. This is not exactly an open-ended conclusion – it does tie up several loose ends quite tidily. Instead it represents a sort of philosophical challenge to the reader, encouraging a judgment from the reader. As an exploration of theme it is a highly effective ending but those principally interested in the narrative may feel a little underwhelmed.

Which I suppose brings me to the question of genre.

One of the most tiresome discussions that people get into about this book is whether it is crime fiction at all. Those arguing this view typically suggest that the book should be read as literary fiction. The reason that this is tiresome is that unless you are merchandising this in a bookshop or library the question is entirely academic. I would suggest that you can have equally rewarding experiences reading it as either of those two forms though personally I would suggest that it is both.

Whether you come to this for an exploration of the human condition or to read a criminous tale of a safe-cracking gone wrong, I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I far preferred this to The Gun and hope to get around to its similarly short sister volume, The Kingdom, at some point soon.

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

Jonathan Creek: The Three Gamblers (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast on January 2, 2000
Season 3, Episode 6
Preceded by Miracle in Crooked Lane
Followed by Satan’s Chimney

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Richard Holthouse

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 and he also appears again in this show in a pair of later episodes.

Nina Sosanya is much more well known today than she would have been when she filmed this, having appeared in recent years in His Dark Materials, Good Omens, Staged and Killing Eve.

Of all of the actors the one I would have been most familiar with at the time was Hattie Hayridge who played Holly, the shipboard computer, in several seasons of Red Dwarf.

Finally Harry Peacock is Ray Bloody Purchase from the sitcom Toast of London. Genre credits include episodes of Wire in the Blood, Pie in the Sky and Midsomer Murders.

The Verdict

Maddy’s final episode is not a classic but it is one of the better efforts from this third season boasting some effective imagery and a solid puzzle plot.

Episode Summary

Three friends meet up with a man named Geiger who plans to cut them in on a drug score that will take place in the Caribbean. He outlines the plan but as the evening goes on the tensions between the group grow, suddenly erupting when the two men try to steal Geiger’s contact book. When Geiger stumbles in on them he is livid, accusing them of trying to cut him out, and they fire at each other. Floyd instinctively grabs a poker and smashes Geiger over the head, knocking him unconscious, then shoots him repeatedly in the head using his own gun.

They deposit his body in the cellar, locking the door and blocking it with a heavy dresser before throwing the key away in the river. When they attempt to go ahead with the plan they are ambushed by the local police. After spending a few months underground Floyd becomes convinced that Geiger was having his revenge from beyond the grave and when he returns to England he confesses to the Police. To corroborate his story they go to the farmhouse where they find everything as it was left by the gang months earlier. When they pull the dresser away however they see a hand poking out from under the door and open it to discover Geiger at the top of the stairs, arm outstretched, with a terrible expression on his face…

My Thoughts

The Three Gamblers not only brings the uneven third season of Jonathan Creek to a close, it also marks the final appearance of Caroline Quentin as intrepid investigative reporter Maddy Magellan. When questioned about returning to Creek on Graham Norton’s radio show, Quentin indicated that she always expected she would come back but indicated that the production team seemed to have moved on during that time.

Certainly there is little to indicate that this was intended to be a sendoff for the character. The plot does not particularly revolve around her character and she gets a pretty average amount of screen time. While she may not have been the focus of the episode though, I do appreciate that her final case gives her a moment in which she uses her observational skills to deduce something important, even if that moment is highlighted to such an extent with the performances and the edit that it rather robs it of the impact it might have had.

At this point I had intended to address the question of Quentin’s legacy to the show but I think that may be a topic best left for the end of this series of posts when I can consider what each of the partners brought to the show. Instead let’s crack on and discuss some of the details of The Three Gamblers.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this episode is its tone. From the beginning this seems to attempt to evoke a sort of hard boiled realism with talk of drug running and a criminal conspiracy and some more graphic depictions of gun violence than usual. That perhaps explains why the first time I revisited this a few years ago I couldn’t recall anything beyond that opening – I suspect either the TV must have been switched off or the children were exiled from the living room!

While it may have been a little grittier than usual though I should be clear that this could not be mistaken for an episode of Luther or a Guy Ritchie movie. After all, I don’t think many of us would think to cast John Bird if we’re looking to give a show a hard boiled edge. Strip away the sequence leading to the murder and a brief moment of violence in the middle and you have a pretty typical episode of the show based around a single impossibility.

I really like a lot about the presentation of that impossibility which leans in nicely to some horror tropes. The moment where you see Geiger’s corpse is horrific and a triumph of makeup and lighting, delivering chills. While it is obvious rationally that he is really dead, much like it was obvious that there was no real alien several episodes earlier, it is not initially easy to imagine how this could have happened, and I think the psychological impact this has on Floyd is clever as it is clear that his experience seeing the corpse has left him shattered and unable to help the Police with their investigation.

Unfortunately once you get past the reveal of the impossibility, I think that the investigative portion of the episode feels a little flat. That is because there simply isn’t anyone to speak to and the crime scene is in itself rather bland. While there are certainly important clues to find, the entire business hinges on a single concept and so this leaves a lot of narrative space that will need to be filled.

The episode tries to do this in two ways. The first is to add an extra problem to overcome at the end of the investigation, leading to a rare action sequence. I have mixed feelings about this because I quite like the technical elements of this – particularly Jonathan’s means of resolving it which feels absolutely true to his character and skill set – but I hate that it feels tacked on to the end of this phase of the story as it has very little relevance to anything else.

The other is to get plenty of time to Adam Klaus who has not one but two story threads within the episode, the more notable being his getting worked up about whether he will win a major magic award. This offers Stuart Milligan some amusing moments where he gets to show how two-faced and insincere Adam can be, particularly in a scene in which he places a string of telephone calls. My only disappointment here is that both this thread and the one featuring a young subversive magician he meets feel like they just tail off rather than land a decisive knockout punchline. Still, in spite of that I found that they were pretty entertaining viewing.

The problem is one of balance though. Given what feels like near-equal time to Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation as well as the biggest laughs, these scenes feel like they are the focus of the story which isn’t exactly what I am looking for from the show. In contrast the investigation appears drab and a little simple, being explained quite easily. While that explanation seems pretty clever, I found the simplicity here underwhelming rather than wowing.

In spite of this issue with the balance of the various elements, taken in the context of the third season however I think this has to be regarded as one of the stronger efforts. While the impossibility is comparatively simple, it is quite arresting visually and I feel it has one of the more credible solutions on offer in this run of episodes. I wish that there was a little more to go on (or that Maddy’s deduction was a little harder) but it is a pretty solid puzzle overall and certainly very watchable.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop by Gladys Mitchell

Book Details

Originally published in 1929
Mrs. Bradley #2
Preceded by A Speedy Death
Followed by The Longer Bodies

The Blurb

When Rupert Sethleigh’s body is found one morning, laid out in the village butcher’s shop but minus its head, the inhabitants of Wandles Parva aren’t particularly upset. Sethleigh was a blackmailing money lender and when Mrs. Bradley begins her investigation she finds no shortage of suspects. It soon transpires that most of the village seem to have been wandering about Manor Woods, home of the mysterious druidic stone on which Sethleigh’s blood is found splashed on the night he was murdered, but can she eliminate the red herrings and catch the real killer?

The Verdict

Though the subject matter is dark, this is a surprisingly humorous read.

“Human joints, my dear, all hanging up on the hooks where he generally hangs his beef and lamb on a Tuesday morning!”

My Thoughts

Over the past few months I have made several attempts to start reading some later Gladys Mitchell novels, only to find myself struggling to get into them. I didn’t expect to find myself trying again so soon but a bit of adventurous reading was forced on me when I found myself without the book I was reading and needing one I could quickly access online. The Kindle Unlimited program seems to be largely consisted of Mitchell novels (at least in the US) and so I found myself scouring the blurbs to try and find one that appealed. Happily this one grabbed me with its rather grim premise.

Rupert Sethleigh has, without any apparent warning, suddenly disappeared from his home in Wandles Parva. While there is some suggestion that he might have abruptly left for America, his aunt, Mrs. Bryce Harringay, cannot believe that he would undertake a sea voyage knowing his fear of travelling. She insists on speaking to the authorities about the matter and when a headless human body is discovered, hung in pieces in the butcher’s shop, they wonder if they have found the missing man.

This image of the body in the butcher’s shop was the one that grabbed my attention when I read the blurb being so macabre. Thankfully the scene is not particularly descriptive (at least in comparison to some other recent reads featuring dismemberment) but instead it is presented in more abstract terms. It does however build a sense of a disturbing atmosphere, which is added to by the presence of a druidic stone nearby that was supposed to have been the site of human sacrifices in antiquity and on which is found a small amount of fresh blood. I know that themes of witchcraft and paganism are found in abundance in Mitchell’s work and given that this is her second novel, it is clear that they were with it from the start.

On that matter of the stone, I have to say that a small gripe I have with this book is the way it repeatedly reintroduces that stone in similar portentous terms on several occasions in just a dozen or so pages. While I think this is meant to add a sense of dread I feel this could have been better conveyed either with a more detailed description of its history or physical characteristics. This is a relatively small part of the novel however and I felt that the repeated descriptions issue was not a problem with any other element of the book.

The police’s investigation into Rupert’s life soon reveals reasons that many in the village might have wanted him dead. He was, we discover, a bad sort and when Mrs. Bradley reflects on how ‘one can see so many reasons why the murdered person was – well, murdered’ we may well see her point. While many have motives however the police soon settle on Jim Redsey, his cousin, as the focus of their enquiries. Determined to ensure that the police do not simply accuse him out of convenience, Mrs. Bradley declares that she will not leave the village until she has ensured his freedom.

It should be said at this point that Mrs. Bradley, at least in this novel, is not a particularly active investigator. This gives the book a rather unfocused quality as she does not so much direct the investigation but rather seems to repeatedly respond to it. Though she is present in the story from the beginning, she exists in the background until over a third of the way in and even once she does appear, there is little sense of a structured investigation taking place. Her style here is rather to badger the police, asking awkward questions or making knowing assertions that encourage them to look at evidence from a different perspective. When investigation is required she tends to do so through an intermediary, sometimes sending them to gather information on her behalf.

This passive style of investigation can be quite frustrating as there are points where one wishes that Mrs. Bradley would simply come out and say what she is thinking rather than playing games with the police but I think that is quite intentional. Her interest is not so much in finding the guilty party but in protecting a particular person. When their protection necessitates firmer action she steps in but often she is just happy to sit back and let things play out. I think were the case less entertaining I could well have tired of that approach. Here however this less structured approach allows an opportunity for exploration of the quirky individuals involved in this case as well as some further moments of oddity.

In her review, linked below, Kate suggests that many of the characters feel like they have stepped out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. I had a similar reaction, particularly in relation to the business concerning the theft of a ‘valuable’ stuffed fish (it must be valuable or else why else would it have been stolen, Aunt Bryce Harringay points out) which put me in mind of silver cow creamers. Certainly there are a number of moments in which the story threatens to dissolve into farce, particularly as it becomes clear that almost everyone seems to have been in or around those woods that evening. I would describe these moments as more amusing than hilarious but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

While often taking comedic detours, the grim nature of the crime keeps pulling the tone and the narrative back and reminding us of its darker aspects and that we have a murderer to find. There are plenty of clues turned up, each seemingly adding to the complexity of this crime requiring Mrs. Bradley to step in at the end and sort the whole business out for us.

This brings me to the bit of the book I liked least, though I note others feel quite differently from me – the reproduction of Mrs. Bradley’s notebook. While I certainly appreciated the little sketches which do help make sense of the geography of the crime, the structure of the text as a series of questions and answers, though neat, struck me as being both dry and a little tedious. It’s a particular shame because this text lacks Mrs. Bradley’s strong personality that is so present throughout every other bit of this novel.

The novel’s solution and resolution however is very interesting, if typically (for Mitchell) unorthodox in a few respects. While I didn’t love the manner of laying out the points leading to that solution, I think a couple of the crucial points made are really quite clever contributing to a story that feels quite strikingly different. It is certainly the Mitchell story I have most enjoyed reading to date and while I am by no means a devotee, this does leave me more interested to try her work again in the future.

As always I welcome any recommendations for favorite Mitchells if you have them!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Snatch & Grab category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Jason @ The Stone House rates this one very highly, appreciating its colorful and bizarre qualities. There are also links at the bottom of that post to some more detailed discussions from the Mitchell Mystery Reading Group.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also considers this particular successful, describing it as ‘sheer good fun’.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime is a little less enthusiastic, particularly about the treatment of the clues, noting that she enjoyed it more on her first read.

Murder at Mt. Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert B. Rohmer

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as W No Higeki
English translation first published in 1987

The Blurb

January 3. Asahi Hills, a posh and isolated village set below the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, is the home of Yohei – “Grandpa” – Wada, president of the immensely successful Wada Pharmaceuticals, and the destination of Jane Prescott. An American student, Jane has been invited to the imposing family chateau by the patriarch’s grand-niece, Chiyo, to help revise her English thesis. Feeling quite out of place in the midst of the Wada’s yearly family reunion, Jane sets to work immediately with the intention of finishing her promised task and clearing out as soon as possible.

That is, until Chiyo comes running into the living room three hours later, her sleeves drenched in blood and the irrevocable words “I killed Grandpa” on her lips.

Convinced that the murder was accidental and committed in self-defense, the Wada family rallies around the fragile girl, vowing to protect her from prosecution, and save the family name from disgrace. But the family’s cleverly and carefully laid plans go awry. The police find obvious clues that lead them directly to Chiyo. But the clues are too obvious; so obvious that Jane begins to suspect sabotage. But who would betray the gentle Chiyo in such a way?

The Verdict

This boasts a great set-up but the rushed investigation and resolution phases of the novel made it feel a little anticlimactic.

“You see, what I told you earlier was true. All the men of the Wada family have an uncontrollable lust for young ladies.”

My Thoughts

Each year the Wada family gather to celebrate the New Year at a villa near Mt. Fuji hosted by Yohei Wada, the head of the Wada Pharmaceuticals company. It is meant to be an intimate family celebration but this year a stranger joins them, an American student named Jane Prescott who has been invited by Chiyo, one of the youngest members of the family, to help her work on her English thesis.

Soon after arriving Jane is warned by a family member about the men in the family’s reputation for womanizing, noting that this is true even of those men who have married into the family. A short while later this seems to be confirmed when Chiyo emerges from Yohei’s bedroom, her arms covered in blood, saying that he had tried to proposition her and, when she threatened to kill herself rather than sleep with her Great Uncle, he attacked her causing her to accidentally stab him in the chest.

The family, each of whom are fond of Chiyo, decide to work together to try and cover up the crime. They develop a plan in which they will send Chiyo back to the city and make it appear that an outsider broke into the home later that night. This means finding ways to mask the timeline, leading to some interesting trickery. Unfortunately however all their hard work is undone when the Police arrive and we are left to wonder if someone in the family is sabotaging their efforts.

Crime fiction readers today are quite used to the idea of reading fiction in translation but when Murder at Mt. Fuji was first released in translation it was much more novel. Only a handful of Japanese mysteries had been translated at that point and so it appears that there was some concern about whether American readers would be comfortable trying something that may have felt very foreign to them. The result was not only a title change, taking us from The Tragedy of W to the much clearer Murder at Mt. Fuji, clearly establishing both the locale and it being a genre work, but there are apparently also some other significant changes to the story with a character being rewritten as an American student. For more on that see Ho-Ling Wong’s blog post about the book which I have linked to below.

Being unable to read the original work for myself, it’s hard for me to offer a take on how this has changed the work. I am under no illusions that translated fiction will be an exact reproduction of a work and I know that translators often have to make adjustments to help readers understand references or themes better. Here is feels a little more trivial because it seems to be quite incidental to the story – Jane’s background as a foreigner is rather irrelevant once you get beyond her introduction and certainly has no bearing on the plot. In other words, the change seems to be a largely cosmetic one.

The premise of this story is an engaging one that seems to fall neatly into the howcatchem school of inverted crime stories. Here we see how the Wada family come to decide on a cover-up and we are aware of each of the tricks they have used to try and make the corpse appear to have died after Chiyo left. Some of these tricks are obvious, such as the attempts to create the appearance of the intruder and to cool the body, but a few struck me as both clever and novel. This process is quite interesting to follow with Natsuki offering quite a bit of information about how time of death is typically determined. When the time comes for the police to arrive it seems that they have thought of everything and it is easy to imagine that the family might get away with their deception.

These early chapters also give us a pretty good sense of the various family members and their different personalities. Natsuki is good about explaining these characters’ relationships to Yohei though I felt less confident about how they related to one another. While this is not critical to the story, this is one of those cases where I wish that a family tree had been provided for the reader. Still, regardless of those genetic relationships I felt I got a pretty good handle on each character and their emotional relationships with the other members of the family which ends up being so important to this story.

Following several chapters of careful setup where we observe the family’s preparations, the police investigation by contrast feels rather rushed and frankly a little anticlimactic. Natsuki gives these investigations an almost comic air as we see the police repeatedly recasting the results of their investigation in different lights as new pieces of information turn up, trying desperately to spin these flip-flops as part of a cunning plan. It’s pretty amusing and I think Natsuki does generate some suspense as we wait for the investigators to connect the information they have but those hoping for a careful dissection of a crime from the investigators’ perspectives are likely to be a little disappointed. The investigators really aren’t meant to be the heroes of this story and so these chapters are merely a bridge that transitions us from one type of mystery novel to another.

I was a little conflicted about whether to discuss this as I typically try and avoid detailed discussion of developments so late in a story (at least, sans spoiler tags) but in this case it’s in the blurb and if I failed to at least mention it those of you who do not share my love of the inverted crime may pass over this one a little too quickly. So, let’s be clear: in addition to the inverted form there is also a whodunnit aspect to this story as we wonder who is tipping off the cops and why.

I feel that Natsuki executes this shift in styles pretty well, hinting at it before providing the reader with confirmation that someone must be playing a double role. It’s an intriguing idea but I think it is not really exploited to its full potential. This situation seems ideally set up to generate resentments and suspicions but instead we rush through that phase of the story with the story instead going through a further transition into thriller mode where Jane as a heroine is put in peril by the killer.

Jane is certainly a heroine that the reader can empathize with. She is an outsider who is unfortunate to get caught up in the events of that night. She cares about Chiyo, recognizing the unfairness that her friend is being discarded by a member of her family and she instinctively wants to find the party involved. That is all pretty convincing. Unfortunately the resolution is reached rather too quickly and so lacks the impact I think it would have had for a little extra snooping or some further direct confrontations with members of the family.

I do want to stress that I did enjoy my experience with this book overall. This is one of the few inverted mysteries I have encountered that attempts to explicitly discuss and work through the medical evidence of a crime scene which I think is done pretty well. The setup here is superb and I just wished that the story had been resolved with that same careful pacing and attention to detail.

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

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong wrote about his experience reading a translation of this translation. One of the comments in that excellent post is the source for the information about the changes made for the English language market.

Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time also shared thoughts on this book, saying it has ‘something completely different and very fresh to offer’ as an example of the inverted mystery.

Finally these are not related specifically to this book but discuss some of the challenges and approaches to translating crime fiction. I recently (virtually) attended a discussion between Jennifer Arnold and the translators Antonia Lloyd Jones and Peter Bush that I found interesting and which you can watch for free. I also strongly recommend the episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where Jim chats with Louise Heal Kawai who translated The Honjin Murders and several other works of classic Japanese mystery fiction.

Jonathan Creek: Miracle in Crooked Lane (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 28 December 1999
Season 3, Episode 5
Preceded by Ghost’s Forge
Followed by The Three Gamblers

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Richard Holthouse

Familiar Faces

Dinah Sheridan makes her final screen appearance in this episode of Jonathan Creek but had a long career that included an appearance in the movie version of The Mirror Crack’d (which I just purchased on blu-ray and look forward to revisiting).

Tom Goodman-Hill was towards the start of his TV career and has become a familiar face since this was made. He has made a number of genre appearances including in episodes of Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. More recently he appeared in Silent Witness and the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca.

Finally, period drama fans will know Benjamin Whitrow for playing Mr. Bennet in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series.

The Verdict

One of the better impossible situations from this season though the investigation phase of the episode, though sometimes amusing, seems to lack focus .

Episode Summary

Kathleen, a missionary, is staying with a photographer friend in a small village while she recovers from heart bypass surgery. He takes her outside to sit in his garden and enjoy some fresh air. While she is there she chats with Jacqui Jordan, a rather infamous glamor model who has recently shared some stories of her sexploits with the rich and famous in The Sun. The problem is that earlier that same day Jacqui was caught in an explosion that left her in a coma. How could Kathleen have spoken with a woman who was lying unconscious in a hospital bed at the time?

My Thoughts

I have been interested to see this episode, Miracle in Crooked Lane, receive quite a lot of love in some of the comments for some of my recent Jonathan Creek posts. This struck me as particularly curious because I didn’t have much of a memory at all of this episode prior to revisiting it. I think our conversation needs to begin with a discussion of the episode’s impossibility and how it fits into the season as a whole.

While I have found parts of the previous stories entertaining, I think it is fair to suggest that the impossibilities in this season are not particularly compelling. In some cases it is because the stories around the impossibility feels convoluted to allow for Jonathan or Maddy’s involvement. In others it is because some aspects of the explanation just don’t seem to hold up. And in the case of The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish, it’s just a garbled, ridiculous mess that favors style over substance. But I digress.

Miracle in Crooked Lane is not necessarily a great impossibility (we’ll get to that in a moment) but it is a significant improvement on the stories surrounding it. In my review last week I commented that a problem with that story was that I couldn’t sum up the problem in a sentence. Well, here I can and it’s pretty interesting – how can someone have had a conversation with a woman who, at that same time, was in a hospital in a coma? It’s simple, clearly mysterious and of about the right complexity to be explored properly in 45 minutes.

Perhaps the most interesting feature that sets it apart from other Creek episodes is that it does not seem to be connected to a crime. Jonathan and Maddy do not learn about it from a news headline but because it is brought up as an interesting problem meant to grab his attention. Their investigation reflects that, focusing more on the curiosity of the situation rather than an attempt to uncover any sinister reason behind it (though, fear not, there is something darker going on under the surface for them to discover and explain). This means it feels a little different than many of the stories around it, helping it to stand out a little.

The scenario intrigues because Renwick is careful to make sure we know that the basic facts are trustworthy. This is partly achieved with the portrayal of Kathleen as an unimpeachable witness. She is an outsider with no real ties to the community or to Jacqui Jordan, the victim of the tragic accident. As she lacks any personal reason to lie about speaking with her, we have to take her statements at face value. At the same time however we witness the events leading up to the explosion in the shed ourselves, meaning that we have a pretty clear idea that she had been hospitalized exactly as claimed.

I found this to be an intriguing variation on the person in two places problem. If there is an issue with its premise it is that it seems pretty clear which of the two places Jacqui must have been in at 7:40pm. While Renwick could have tried to stretch it out by suggesting that someone else may have been injured in the explosion in Jacqui’s place, that idea is raised and immediately dismissed as not credible. Instead of wondering which of the two accounts is true we are left to consider why her appearance in the other place appears so credible.

Where I think the lack of a clear link to a crime becomes problematic is that the investigation lacks some central points of focus. Jonathan and Maddy begin by investigating what exactly happened to Jacqui but there isn’t a clear sense of exactly what they’re looking for. This gives the investigation a more disorganized feel than is typical of the show and means that at points the focus instead seems to fall on some of the more comedic elements of the script.

In fairness that isn’t a bad thing as I think this is one of the funnier episodes this series had made up to this point. This begins with the framing structure of the pair attending a Crime Writers’ convention where a small but intense group enthusiasts, many of whom have styled themselves after Jonathan, have gathered to meet them. I found the conversation they have in which they pick apart flaws in some of their earlier cases to be pretty amusing and felt it did a good job of nailing fans’ ability to nitpick (see any of my recent Jonathan Creek reviews for evidence of that).

Similarly there is some amusing material with Jeff, one of those fans, who is responsible for initially hooking Jonathan with this case. Tim Goodman-Hill plays that part really well while Emma Kennedy is really amusing as his long-suffering and frequently bemused girlfriend. There are some pretty entertaining comedic moments and while I think the ending feels a little too ridiculous, I do enjoy the dynamic between them and our two leads.

Perhaps my favorite of the comedic moments though belongs to Benjamin Whitrow who plays Rupert, Jacqui’s wealthy husband. He has a wonderfully dry, matter-of-fact delivery and a light touch with comedic material which makes the scene in the library where he gives Maddy a tour of sorts particularly amusing. It may not be very mature but I thought it was executed really well.

Predictably I was a little less enamored of the attempts to resolve the sexual tension between Jonathan and Maddy. While it was probably overdue given I’ve grumped about those scenes in several recent episodes, I cannot say I found it tremendously satisfying. I seem to remember wishing that those two would get together when I watched the show for the first time but in revisiting them I cannot quite understand why. Perhaps I just recognize that they are really poorly suited to each other romantically or maybe I am just grumpy that I wish some of that time was given over to developing the mystery. Either way, I don’t feel it adds much.

Though amusing in places, Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation offers little in the way of new or compelling information about the impossibility. Rather than steering the viewer towards the correct solution it feels like the investigation is more helpful in terms of ruling out possibilities.

The result is a solution that feels like it is reached simply because it is the only one that seems to fit the rather odd circumstances of the case. Though the ideas he describes are quite exciting, Jonathan’s explanation contains relatively little direct evidence. While it is certainly very persuasive, I feel confident in saying that he falls short of proving it. This is reflected in the way in which a character simply folds under indirect pressure and confirms all of the points the detective could never have proven. The weak, unforced confession is one of my biggest frustrations with mysteries, particularly on television, and so unsurprisingly I felt disappointed by that aspect of it.

On the other hand, I cannot help but admire the construction of that ending. The explanation of what happened is clear and easy to follow and I think a lot of thought was given to making the impossibility come together credibly. I think that it does at least do that and so while I think the storytelling lacks the focus found in many of the other episodes, I can agree that it is one of the most interesting and unusually structured stories the show had produced up until this point and certainly it does stand out in the context of this unfortunately rather uneven season.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1947
Doctor Manson #6
Preceded by It’s Murder to Live!
Followed by John Klyeing Died

The Blurb

Norma de Grey, the Principal in the Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington, was not popular with the rest of the Pavilion Theatre company. But was she hated enough to be killed by prussic acid, during the performance itself?

Suspicion immediately falls on the Cat, her fellow actor in the fatal scene. Until it transpires that the Cat too has been poisoned – and his understudy has a solid alibi. But someone must have donned the disguise and appeared on stage incognito. Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, analytical detective par excellence, is on the case.

The Verdict

An excellent fair-play puzzle mystery, enhanced by its colorful theatrical setting.

“What? Well, if that ain’t the cat’s whiskers. What are we playing tonight? Whittington or Sweeney Todd?”

My Thoughts

Last year I read and reviewed The Heel of Achilles, an inverted mystery written by the Radfords and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact I even ended up selecting it as one of my nominations for the Reprint of the Year Awards. There was no doubt in my mind then that I’d be back for more. The only question was which book I’d select.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? is set against the backdrop of a British festive institution – the Christmas pantomime – though this is not really a seasonal read. As the title of the novel suggests, the pantomime in question is an adaptation of the story of Dick Whittington in which a boy travels to London to seek his fortune and ends up becoming Mayor of London. The production is doing steady business in spite of lacking a star name, helped by a lack of competition. That is not to say however that there isn’t a difficult lead actor – nobody in the company seems to have anything positive to say of Norma de Grey, the young actress playing the role.

Little surprise then when she ends up dead, though the circumstances are somewhat odd. In the scene before the interval Dick and his cat, played by an actor in a fur suit, lie down for a nap while the fairies perform a ballet. When the time comes for Dick to wake and deliver the final line in the act it never comes. The curtain falls and when the crew investigate they find her unconscious. The first-aid man quickly examines her and tells the gathered crowd that he thinks she is dead.

Examination reveals that Norma was poisoned and that it must have taken place during on stage as the poison, prussic acid, would have worked in seconds. The only person who went near her was the actor playing the Cat – the problem is that both that actor and his understudy have pretty solid alibis…

This book is listed in Adey’s Locked Room Murders (an invaluable reference guide for locked room and impossible crime stories) but I cannot really understand the reason for its inclusion. After all, it seems pretty clear from early in the case exactly how the poison had been administered – the mystery really lies in the who and the reasons why. I’d suggest setting aside any expectations of an impossibility and instead enjoy what is a rather beautifully crafted piece of fair-play forensic detection.

According to Nigel Moss’ excellent introduction, which can be found in the recent Dean Street Press reprint, both Radfords had some prior professional engagement with the theater – Mona had acted and written for the stage while Edwin had been an Arts journalist. The authors clearly drew upon that experience to create a representation of a theatrical company that feels both detailed and credible. Whether it is describing the contents of a dressing room, backstage movements or capturing the professional jealousies within the company, it is easy to be drawn into the theatrical setting presented here.

In addition to this main investigation, the Radfords also provide a secondary investigation that is already underway at the start of the novel. This case, which involves trying to prove whether a series of fires at commercial properties were accidents or arson, is less colorful and lacks the color found in the theatrical setting but it is interesting enough, particularly once we learn how these two cases are connected (though it is perhaps unbelievably fortunate that Manson is assigned to both).

For those unfamiliar with Doctor Manson, he is a scientist in the manner of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke. Guided entirely by evidence rather than psychology, he is observant, methodical and detailed in the way he approaches picking apart a crime. He is perhaps a shade warmer than Thorndyke, possessing a sense of humor, though he can also be quite fussy and sharp in conversation with colleagues. Crucially for us as readers, he takes the time to explain any relevant piece of science in such a way as to make it approachable and easy to understand, meaning that the reader can expect a fair challenge.

Which is exactly what we get here. In fact we get three of them as, prior to the final challenge to the reader, there are two previous challenges where the authors pose questions about the relevance of some point Doctor Manson has asked. Each of these were quite specific in the information sought and I agree with the authors that in each case the reader ought to be able to guess the relevance of each point, making for a particularly rewarding reading experience for armchair sleuths.

In addition to these logical games, the book contains a significant amount of forensic analysis explained in pretty straightforward, if occasionally somewhat dry, English. The science is easy to follow and I was surprised at how exciting I found a few of the tests that get described. Of particular interest for me was an experiment that involved weighing some ash (I will let you discover the reasons Manson engages in this activity for yourself).

While the forensics are important to the book in terms of discovering evidence, I think that it is important to stress that the solution is found through the application of logic. Each thread is connected at the end with the links between each piece of evidence clearly explained in a newspaper account of a trial.

I was not particularly surprised by the solutions – the Radfords clue the mystery well enough that I felt confident long before the final challenge was issued that I knew who had done the crimes and even why. The greater challenge for me was in figuring out exactly how Dr. Manson would prove his case. At least one aspect of the solution completed eluded me in spite of how incredibly obvious it was which is pretty much all I want from a detective story. I want to be fooled by something that is so simple I really ought to have seen it coming. As I wrote in my Kindle notes (it’s in all caps because I was clearly quite excited):

For the curious, this note is at location 3126 in the Kindle edition. Be sure not to look at it before you read the whole book as this is critically important to a solution.

Which I think speaks to why I ended up enjoying this so much. It is a clever, well clued mystery that plays fair with its readers. Though the writing style can be a little dry and awkward in a few of the technical forensic passages, I found the science fascinating and I loved following along as Manson pieced it all together and trying to beat the challenges. Highly recommended.

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Lord Peter Wimsey #6
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by The Five Red Herrings

The Blurb

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love.
As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.

The Verdict

This successfully introduced some elements that would benefit later stories. Unfortunately the case feels padded, unremarkable and overrated.

My Thoughts

Revisiting the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in order has been quite instructive for me as I have come to appreciate the evolution of the character. In my review of his first adventure, Whose Body?, I noted that while the affectations and core personality traits were all basically there, the character often read as flippant and tiresome. Those traits were gradually toned down in the subsequent stories as it was made clearer that this personality has been, at least to some extent, cultivated to make him appear less threatening.

The previous story in the series, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, had presented readers with a more sharply defined and sympathetic version of the character. While he was still capable of flippant witticisms, there we saw him act out of care for another, fighting on their behalf rather than just engaging in criminology as a hobby. This book takes that idea one step further, seeing him become involved to save a young woman he has fallen in love with from the gallows.

That character is, of course, the mystery novelist Harriet Vane who will go on in subsequent novels to become his partner in detection. This change significantly alters the tone and themes of the series in those books but that of course will be a discussion for later reviews. Here she plays only a limited role, briefly appearing in just a couple of chapters and to provide inspiration for Lord Peter’s efforts to uncover the truth.

The reason for this is that at the start of the novel Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of having poisoned her former lover, the novelist Philip Boyes, using arsenic. Her supposed motive is that she had agreed to live with him without being married having been convinced of his opposition to the institution, only for him to subsequently offer her marriage after all. She clearly felt angry and betrayed, leaving him.

The problem for Harriet is that she had been identified buying arsenic, apparently to test to see how easily it could be procured for a future novel and no one else seems to have a clear motive. Lord Peter refuses to believe her guilty, not based on any evidence but based on his instinct and strength of feeling about her and tells her that he will work on her behalf to find evidence to acquit her, telling her that he wants to marry her when it is all over.

This initial point of attraction is, for me, the weakest part of the story as I think Peter’s attraction to her has to be quite superficial. I think it could be fairly categorized as an example of the love at first sight trope as he wants to marry her before he has ever spoken with her himself. Sayers even seems to draw a parallel between Peter and other men, noting that Harriet has already received a number of other offers of marriage since being arrested. Still, I think the reader can infer reasons for that attraction based on his perception of her character and smartly the author does not give us the gratification of a quick acceptance of his affections.

While the initial attraction may be superficial, I love the way these characters verbally tease and play with each other. Some of those moments are quite sharp and witty – a favorite exchange comes when Harriet suggests that he is overlooking that she has had a lover to which he replies that he has had several himself and can ‘produce quite good testimonials’. These moments have a charm and energy to them that lifts the piece and I enjoy any moments the pair are together.

Which helps make up a little for the rest of the book. As appealing as Lord Peter’s flirtations with Harriet are, I find the mystery plotline here to be rather underwhelming.

Part of the problem I have with this is that the killer’s identity is quite clear from early on in the novel. This is not because there is much reason for the investigation to settle on him but rather because there is simply no other suspect. Now, I’m the last person to complain about knowing the killer’s identity but if you are going to make their identity clear then you might as well commit to the inverted form properly as in Unnatural Death and either give us greater access to their thoughts or more directly establish a relationship between them and the sleuth.

A game of cat and mouse is only really fun if both parties are aware that they are playing. While there are a couple of moments where criminal and sleuth interact, there is not much back and forth or manipulation to be had here. Instead a lot of time is spent in what I consider filler material, with characters working to secretly obtain information. Those sequences are often quite memorable and entertaining such as a very clever seance sequence or the visit to a rather unorthodox Christian fellowship meeting but these passages move very slowly and little of what we learn will surprise.

In addition to learning the killer’s identity, the reader will also need to detect a motive and understand how they did it. The killer’s motive is, once again, relatively straightforward though I appreciate it does convincingly explain why the killer needs to act at that precise moment. A problem is that, as with proving the killer’s identity, the process by which we learn the killer’s motive feels strung out. Another is that surely almost everything that gets found would be inadmissable because of the way in which the information is gained (though perhaps the law on that point was very different in Britain in the early 30s).

Which brings me, finally, to the means by which it is managed. This is perhaps the book’s most creative idea, though it probably wouldn’t work in reality. While I think some parts are basically not guessable because they rely on prior knoweldge, the reader should be able to work out the significance of some key bits of information and start to piece those ideas together to at least give a general idea of how the poison must have been delivered. Those ideas are clever and exciting. I can certainly understand how it might work for others.

So overall then I found this to be rather a mixed bag (and that’s not even touching on the rather uncomfortable paragraphs where characters discuss Jewish bankers). The good bits of the story are both successful and interesting but I struggled with how bland the novel’s villain felt and had problems with the general pacing of the tale. Sayers was certainly capable of better and I think, were Harriet not introduced in this story, it would not be remembered anywhere near so fondly.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Curious whether the method used here would work? Several years ago The Guardian published a story discussing it, basically saying that while the science was credible in 1930s understanding, it doesn’t stand up today. Be warned that the article does give the solution away so read at your own risk.

Nick at the Grandest Game in the World considers this one of Sayers’ best, appreciating the witty writing and the inclusion of Miss Climpson who, yes, is ‘as splendid as ever’.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes

Book Details

The Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴, Kuro-tokage) was originally published in 1934
Beast in The Shadows (陰獣, Injū) was originally published in 1928
English translations published as a collection in 2006

The Blurb (Trimmed for Space)

The Black Lizard (Kurotokage) first appeared as a magazine serial, published in twelve monthly installments between January and December, 1934. It features Rampo’s main detective character, Akechi Kogorō: a figure who combines elements of Poe’s Auguste Dupin with the gentleman adventurers of British golden age detective literature. The Black Lizard herself is a master criminal and femme fatale, whose charged relationship with detective Akechi and unconcealed sadism have inspired shuddering admiration in generations of readers…

Themes of deviance and sado-masochism are central to Beast in the Shadows (Inju), a tale from the height of Rampo’s grotesque period, which appeared in serial form between August and October, 1928. This tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and dark crimes stands in stark contrast to the genteel detective stories then popular in English literature. It bears comparison with the American pulp fiction serial, the genre that led to the classic modern American crime novel, and with the more extravagant moments of film noir. Beast in the Shadows, however, recalls classic themes in Japanese popular fiction, with origins in the illustrated novels and mass market shockers of the Edo period (1600-1868)…

The Verdict

A fun collection of two novellas. The Black Lizard is pure pulpy thriller stuff and good fun but Beast in the Shadows is a much darker and more interesting work. That story, while shorter, is worth the cost of the collection in itself.

My Thoughts

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most enduring and consequential writers of mystery fiction in Japan from the early 20th century. His work is heavily influenced by the likes of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, so the focus is often not on crafting fair play stories of detection but memorable moments of horror, discomfort and adventure. I previously reviewed a collection of his short stories on this blog, many of which memorably play with grotesque and disturbing types of crime.

In addition to his own stories for adults and children, he established a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, the Detective Author’s Club (later renamed as the Mystery Writers of Japan) and wrote critical essays about the history and the form of the genre. His works were frequently adapted into films both during and after his lifetime and his significance is recognized in the name of a Japanese literary award, The Edogawa Rampo Prize, for unpublished mystery authors which was introduced in the 1950s.

In short, there was no way I would commit to writing several months weekly posts about Japanese works of mystery and crime fiction without including at least one of his works. Based on this experience I may try and rework my schedule to make that two…

This volume contains two works from earlier in his career. Both stories were originally serialized for publication in magazines which is quite evident in the way the stories are structured. Many chapters seem to end either on a significant revelation or with moments of peril, particularly in the case of the first story in this collection – The Black Lizard.

The story is essentially inverted with the reader being party to the planning of a daring crime in which the titular crime boss, The Black Lizard, plans to kidnap the daughter of one of Osaka’s leading jewel merchants as a means of securing a fabulous prize – the largest diamond in Japan. Being a sporting sort however she sends him notice of her intent to kidnap his daughter, leading him to engage that great detective Akechi Kogorō to protect her.

While this story features a detective, do not expect much, if anything, in the way of detection. The style is really pulpy and layers plenty of plot twists and reversals on top of each other, building a story that seems to get crazier and more outlandish as it goes on. Expect plenty of disguises, identity tricks, lots of random moments of nudity (though these are not described in detail), a truly perverse museum and snakes.

Perhaps my favorite bit of craziness though is the very casual way in which Rampo drops detailed references to some of his other stories as works of fiction, having characters comment on how one plot development is reminiscent of the plots of a celebrated short story. It is all very meta and fits the general arch tone of the piece.

The most striking aspect of the story, other than Akechi himself, is the character of our villain – the Black Lizard. Though her entrance performing a naked dance for her henchmen to the accompaniment of ‘an erotic saxophone’ feels quite ludicrous, Rampo quickly establishes her as smart, ruthless and cunning. While the warning to her victim is silly, I really enjoyed the way that she directly engages with her adversary and that she seems to be as interested in the game she is playing with Akechi as she is in achieving her real goal. It makes for an entertaining, page turning read.

As much as I enjoyed The Black Lizard however, I think Beast in the Shadows is the more interesting work. Though shorter at just a hundred pages, it is both a really cleverly worked detective story and also an early work of ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque nonsense). As Rampo’s career developed his work would increasingly shift in that direction, in part because of demand from his readership, and those themes are often associated with his work for adults.

The story is told by a writer of detective stories who has been approached by a married woman desperate for his help. She tells him that as a teenager she had lost her virginity to a man who became obsessed with her, stalking her and threatening her when their relationship broke down. A sudden move seemed to put a temporary stop to his activities and she subsequently met a merchant and married though she never told him about her prior affair.

Recently however she started to receive letters once again, detailing her movements within the family home and threatening both her life and that of her husband. The narrator visits her home and after making some disturbing discoveries devises a plan to protect her but when her husband ends up dead they worry that she will be next.

Rampo manages to balance the moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

The length of the work makes it hard to offer much detailed comment without getting into spoiler territory. I can say though that the pacing here is as strong as the atmosphere and that I think the two characters we spend the most time with – the narrator and Shizuko, the married woman – are interesting. Though there is one development related to one of the other character’s motives that is only speculated upon rather than clearly established and described as fact.

It is a fascinating and chilling read that for me is worth the price of the collection on its own, offering a view of both sides of Rampo’s writing. This left me excited to read more of Rampo’s work – now I just need to decide where to go next. If you are a fan, please feel free to offer advice!

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

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong’s blog is a great resource offering a number of posts both about Rampo’s works and also some of the film and television adaptations of them. Though it is now over a decade old, this post about Rampo’s works in translation, then a shorter list, is a nice starting point. There is even a translation of one of his short stories – One Person, Two Identities (Hitori Futayaku).