Death March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1951
Inspector Littlejohn #18
Preceded by Crime in Leper’s Hollow
Followed by Death in Dark Glasses

In the wake of Mr. William Blow’s death, his surviving relatives find themselves tangled up in family secrets and financial mystery. So when Miss Penelope Blow suddenly dies by falling out her bedroom window, suspicions are raised. With Scotland Yard under pressure to determine the widow’s fall was really accidental, Inspector Littlejohn is called in to get to the bottom of the case. But the deeper Littlejohn delves into the case, the more secrets he finds. From malice to madness, there is one possible cause. Can Littlejohn uncover the truth before another tragedy befalls the Blows?

One of the reasons I return to Bellairs’ Littlejohn novels so frequently is the hope that I may discover that elusive ‘stone-cold classic’ among his considerable output. To date the closest thing I had found was A Knife for Harry Dodd but while the search for that knockout title continues, I am happy to say that Dead March for Penelope Blow is a comparably great read.

The novel opens with Miss Penelope Blow visiting Scotland Yard for the third day in a row, hoping to speak with Inspector Littlejohn regarding a private matter. Unfortunately for her he is away working a case and so she reluctantly leaves a message with instructions on how to call her. Before he can follow up and speak to her however she is dead having fallen from her bedroom window in what appears to be a tragic accident.

Littlejohn is concerned by the timing of the death and so decides to visit the area to learn why she wanted his help. While the verdict of the inquest is accidental death, Littlejohn becomes convinced that the spinster was murdered and that the reason for her death was related to her visits to see him in London…

One of reasons that I think this book had such a strong and immediate appeal for me was the hook of Penelope Blow having attempted to speak with Littlejohn prior to her murder. This trope of the detective’s help being sought but it not coming in time, either because of a failure to reach them as here or a refusal, is one of my favorites in Golden Age detective fiction. The reason is that it provides a really strong motivation for the detective to keep investigating, even when there appears to be no crime at all. Here we get a further layer of mystery as it is far from clear what the matter was that she was so desperate to speak with Littlejohn about.

We soon learn more about the Blow family, their history, and their status within their community. Their stories are all interesting and what we discover provides some clear points of tension within the family to explore as well as potential motives for murder. There are also a few barriers to the investigation however as the Chief Constable has no wish to call in Scotland Yard while Littlejohn is turned away from the home by one of the family and forbidden from returning or speaking with the other members of the household. Bellairs explores the challenges that brings well and I appreciate what it illustrates about the characters involved as well.

This brings me to another of the things I really like about this book: it highlights Littlejohn’s resourcefulness and his ability to quickly build relationships with those in the community. He is able to convince the servants to assist him, even though they know that they will be dismissed if their cooperation is discovered. It is those characters, sitting outside the pool of suspects, that prove to be among the most memorable in the book and that will provide Littlejohn (and us) with the bulk of the information needed to solve the case.

Of the various characters Littlejohn meets, the most colorful by far is the retired military man Captain Broome who, we are told, is ‘like a character out of Kipling’. It is not just his lively, brisk pattern of speech that captures the eye and often amuses but also the richness of that character’s backstory. His life is just interesting, not just for the way it ties into the mystery proper but also for its more tragic elements. Given how this character could so easily have been one-dimensional, I really appreciated the thought and time given to building him up and the more emotional, tender moments that character has. Other characters, such as the clergyman who recommended that Miss Blow consult Littlejohn are similarly more layered than they initially appear.

Returning to the murder case, I appreciated the careful construction of the plot and the way Bellairs distributes the clues throughout the mystery. While, as I noted at the start, the solution is not particularly surprising at the point at which it is revealed, earlier developments are often much more unexpected, often significantly changing our understanding of the case’s dimensions in interesting ways. It’s impossible to give examples without spoiling those moments but I enjoyed each of the possibilities Bellairs dangles in front of us and was particularly delighted by the one introduced in the chapter titled Mr. Claplady Confides which uses one of my favorite Golden Age mystery elements (no spoilers here but you’ll know it when you get to it!).

As is often the case in Bellairs’ novels, his prose is often very wryly amusing. One of the most entertaining examples of this can be found early in the novel as Littlejohn attempts to seat himself in a restaurant after waiting for some time without being greeted. It is not just that this scene is beautifully observed in that initial moment (I suspect many readers will recognize the sort of employee who confronts him) but Bellairs successfully pays off that moment later in the chapter with a very strong punchline.

Above all, it is one of his most readable tales, offering an interesting mix of characters and a satisfying puzzle to solve. For those who have never tried any of Bellairs’ work before I think it would be a very strong starting point, showcasing multiple aspects of the author’s style as he transitioned from his early puzzle-based style to the social and character focus I have found to dominate his later works.

The Verdict: One of the most interesting and entertaining Littlejohn cases I have encountered to date. Bellairs develops an interesting premise, working it to a very solid end that is unlikely to shock but that satisfied nonetheless.

The Detection Club Project – R. Austin Freeman: The Mystery of 31 New Inn

#9: R. Austin Freeman

Freeman’s precise literary style, like his calligraphic handwriting, suggests a dry, painstaking man, more comfortable with microscope and test tube than the ebb and flow of human emotions. In fact, he was a romantic whom women found highly attractive, but his personable manner concealed a streak of ruthlessness.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I first became aware of R. Austin Freeman because of his significance to the development of the inverted mystery story which he claimed to have invented with his story story The Case of Oscar Brody in his short story collection The Singing Bone. I have suggested before that this is possibly a little misleading as there are a number of earlier stories that have the reader follow a criminal in devising and committing a crime, but Freeman does provide an innovation in showing that a crime writer can maintain interest and suspense in showing the detective piecing together a puzzle whose solution we already know. Later writers in that subgenre like Freeman Wills Crofts and E. & M. A. Radford as well as the TV series Columbo owe a considerable debt to R. Austin Freeman’s approach.

Freeman’s first efforts in the field of mystery fiction were short stories, penned along with fellow medic John James Pitcairn under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown. These stories followed the roguish conman Romney Pringle who apparently uses his observational, scientific and deductive skills to track down other criminals.

He found his greatest literary success a few years later however with the publication of The Red Thumb Mark, the first of the Dr. Thorndyke stories. These stories are at first glance reminiscent of Doyle’s Holmes adventures, particularly in the way that the sleuth takes a small number of physical clues and uses them to construct elaborate theories or explanations of puzzling situations but there are some important differences.

The first is that the Thorndyke stories feel far less sensationalist with less of a focus on surprising the reader. One of the things that I feel defines Freeman from earlier writers is his dedication to the idea of fair play – being careful to point out the clues that Thorndyke will use and to give the reader time to consider their importance. As a case in point, Freeman includes a note at the start of The Mystery of 31 New Inn to explain that he has tested a key concept used in the novel and can attest to its practicality.

The way Thorndyke acquires and processes that evidence is also somewhat different. While Holmes may talk of methodically eliminating possibilities, there are times where the conclusions that are reached from evidence may feel rather arbitrary. In contrast, Thorndyke carefully assembles facts, conducts tests and assesses how his findings alter the likelihood of his theories being correct. Accordingly his progress can be slower and less dramatic but that is no bad thing for those who enjoy playing at being an armchair detective as it allows the reader additional time to consider the solution.

The other significant difference is that Thorndyke is a considerably warmer character than the often misanthropic Holmes. Freeman’s detective is apparently quite handsome and also quite personable both towards his friends and also those he comes into contact with in his investigations. For Freeman though the point of interest is in the science rather than the character of his sleuth and while I quite enjoy Thorndyke’s company, I read Freeman primarily for his plots.

Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club contains a good amount of discussion of Freeman’s background and character with a particular focus on his enthusiasm for eugenics in the period between the wars. One of the things he notes was that Freeman authored a book on the topic, Social Decay and Regeneration, which he felt prouder of than his many mystery novels. While he was not alone in his beliefs, he was certainly in a minority within the Detection Club and Edwards provides a couple of examples from the works of Sayers and Christie skewering those expressing such views.

The work I selected to read for this project was one of Freeman’s earlier Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. I ended up opting for this one over some of his later works partly out of a sense of intrigue at the story’s premise but also because it is a work in the American public domain, meaning that it is easily accessible. Given that many of the posts in this series, at least in the immediate future, will require sourcing out of print and rare works, it is nice to be able to point to a work that everyone can obtain easily. As it happens, I also think it is a strong example of the author’s style…

The Mystery of 31 New Inn by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published in 1912
Dr. Thorndyke #4
Preceded by The Eye of Osiris
Followed by The Singing Bone

A man falls gravely ill, but is reluctant to call a doctor. As his condition worsens, he is eventually forced to seek medical aid—but he does so only under the condition that the physician does not learn his identity or address. Dr. Jervis is therefore transported to the man’s home in a 4-wheeled cab with tightly closed shutters. When he arrives, the doctor finds that the patient—who has been introduced with a pseudonym—exhibits all of the signs of morphine poisoning. But the sick man’s caretaker assures Jervis that this is outside the realm of possibility. Knowing neither the patient’s real name nor where he lives, Jervis feels both helpless and puzzled, so he consults his friend Dr. John Thorndyke. Versed in the nuances of medicine and law, Thorndyke is the only person who can solve this cryptic case.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn begins by reintroducing the reader to Dr. Jervis who is covering a fellow doctor’s practice which he is away. He receives a visit from a man who has been sent to summon him to assist a reluctant patient. The sick man, who is apparently highly mistrusting of doctors, has apparently only consented to be seen if his physician does not know his identity or the location of his home. Jervis is not pleased at the conditions but agrees to attend. When he does he is shocked by the patient’s condition, suspecting morphine poisoning. Feeling unsure of what to do given the strange circumstances of the case, Jervis seeks Dr. Thorndyke’s advice.

As it happens Dr. Thorndyke is about to embark on a puzzling case of his own. It concerns the recent death of a man who for reasons unknown decided to write and sign a new will with almost identical terms to one already in existence. There is one issue with the wording of the document however that proves highly significant because just hours before his death, the deceased unexpectedly inherited a sizeable sum of money which thanks to the change in wording would go to the estate’s executor rather than the heir…

Freeman thus provides the reader with two points of interest to hook them. Of these I found Dr. Jervis’ experience to be the more intriguing and atmospheric, helped by the thick mist and the candlelit visit, while Thorndyke’s problem appealed more as a puzzle. This is not a reflection on the complexity of the case but rather the curious details and contradictions present in its setup with the two very similar wills.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn is not intended to be an inverted mystery but I will say that the villain’s identity will be pretty obvious to the reader from the start, even if it is surprising to those involved in the case. Part of that is structural – there are some assumptions that the reader is likely to make because they are familiar with the genre and its tricks. It is also a matter of logic – once some facts are established the reader can pretty quickly reach some further conclusions through application of reasoning. This is not, as I suggested in my introduction, a bad thing but it does increase the likelihood that the reader will spend much of the novel ahead of the detectives. The question therefore is whether the story can hold the reader’s attention in spite of many of its secrets seeming quite apparent.

The joy in this work is not in any moment of surprise but in the quality of the construction. Even if the reader can identify the villain of the piece from near the novel’s start, there are still plenty of aspects of the puzzle left to resolve and that process can be quite satisfying.

One of my favorite clues is introduced in the novel’s seventh chapter and it offers a great example of the way Freeman handles his clues. He begins by introducing the clue – in fact in some editions, though sadly not the one pictured above, providing an illustration of it alongside the text (these are present in the Project Gutenberg copy). Thorndyke acknowledges the significance of the clue but does not explain it at first, giving Dr. Jervis and the reader time to consider its meaning. Then some possible implications are given and it will later be considered in conjunction with other clues Thorndyke has gathered. It can be a rather slow process but it’s a meticulous one and it does mean that the reader who values fair play is truly catered for.

Similarly I was impressed by Freeman’s attention to detail in the way he describes how some aspects of detection work. There is one process Thorndyke employs (the one referenced in the author’s note at the start of the book) that is particularly interesting and where there was some potential for confusion. Freeman does an excellent job however of carefully walking the reader through each step of the process to the point where I think the attentive reader could probably reproduce it for themselves – a pretty impressive feat!

As informative as it is, I must admit that Freeman’s prose is sometimes a little stiff and functional. This is good from the point of view of clarity but it also contributes to the sense that this reads like a late Victorian novel. Ultimately that didn’t bother me too much but I would suggest that if you come away from this wanting to read more Freeman it won’t be because of his narrative flair.

Still, the solution to the story is very tidy and Freeman does a good job of having Thorndyke walk the reader through the chain of reasoning they should have followed, carefully laying out the connections between each fact to build a complete picture of what had happened and the reasons for it. While there are few surprises, I enjoyed both the careful explanation of the crucial points of the case and also the reactions of the people he is explaining those facts to. My only disappointment there is that the aftermath of the reveal feels rather rushed and perhaps a little unsatisfying given it is recounted to the reader after it has happened.

As underwhelming as the coda to the investigation may be, I have to stress that I enjoyed the bulk of the book up to that point. While The Mystery of 31 New Inn may not be one of the toughest or most colorful cases to solve that you will ever read, it is told in an engaging way, encouraging the reader to figure out all of the connections between the various clues. More than anything it has reminded me that I want to seek out more Freeman in the future so expect further posts on his works to follow in the next few months!

The Verdict: A very solid, logical case hinges on a couple of excellent clues and one quite magnificent one. While Freeman’s writing style can be a little bland and functional, his plot construction was strong and those skills are in clear evidence here. Expect me to return to Freeman repeatedly over the next few months…

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event was also a fan of the journey that Freeman takes us on here, noting that “the journey with all its rigour and care is sheer manna from heaven for those of us with the taste for such undertakings.”

A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

Originally published in 1954.

It was supposed to be only a temporary job — something to pay the bills until Dusty could get his feet back on the ground and raise enough money for medical school. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a bellboy at a respectable hotel like the Manton — that is, until she came along.

Marcia Hillis. The perfect woman. Beautiful. Experienced. Older and wiser. The only woman to ever measure up to that other her — the one whose painful rejection Dusty can’t quite put from his mind.

But while Dusty has designs on Marcia, Marcia has an agenda of her own. One that threatens to pull the Manton inside-out, use Dusty up for all he’s worth and leave him reeling and on the run, the whole world at his heels.

Dusty Rhodes was meant to be going to medical school but his plans were put on hold when his father lost his job, forcing him to take a job working the night shift at the pretty high-end Manton Hotel. The hours may not be great but the tips are pretty generous. The only thing he has to be careful of is to never get involved with any of the guests. This was easy enough for him until he met Marcia Hillis.

Marcia checks into the hotel late one night, getting one of the few cheap rate rooms in the establishment. Dusty immediately finds himself drawn to her, perhaps because of her resemblance to a woman from his past, and struggles to keep his distance. Then one night he answers a call from her asking him to bring her stationery and finds himself in a compromising position, only to receive help from an unexpected source.

The problem is that the help comes with a catch. Dusty’s guardian angel wants his help with pulling off a heist. The job is a daunting one but the score could set him up for years to come and make his financial worries go away. The question is whether they can manage it and get away without detection?

A Swell-Looking Babe is one of the most interesting books I have read to date by Jim Thompson. It is certainly not a great work in the way that Pop. 1280 was, nor is it as successful in what it does as the likes of After Dark, My Sweet, yet I was struck by its ambition. Thompson may not accomplish everything he sets out to do for reasons I’ll come onto but I appreciated that he attempts to try something a little more ambitious, blending styles in such a way that the reader is not likely to anticipate exactly how the story may unfold at its beginning.

As with many of Thompson’s works, A Swell-Looking Babe is at heart a complex character study. Dusty is initially quite a likable protagonist. In the first few chapters we learn a little about his background and the circumstances in which he started work for the hotel and that story is likely to endear him to the reader. As they read on however it will become increasingly clear that he is not quite as charming or as good-natured as he initially appears.

This devil with an angel’s face concept is an idea that runs through many of Thompson’s novels and it is realized well here. Dusty’s issues are significant and while I was disappointed that the blurb on my edition gave the nature of his secret away, I think there were enough clues early in the book that I may well have guessed it anyway. What was more surprising though are the things that secret has led him to do and when we do understand that we are likely to see him in a whole new light. It makes for an interesting psychological portrait of a rather angry young man and in some ways the more limited scale of his crimes makes them all the more interesting.

The subject of Dusty’s obsession, Marcia Hillis, is no less interesting than the novel’s protagonist, though we spend only brief periods in her company. Her actions can confuse as Thompson leaves the reader wondering to some of the motivations that lie behind them – an ambiguity that is built on in some interesting ways in the later parts of the novel.

The centerpiece of the novel is its heist sequence, set in the hotel. Part of the reason it works is that Thompson allows our anticipation to build steadily, describing the idea in general before presenting it in greater levels of detail as we near its beginning. This portion of the book is not only exciting because of the nature of the risks that the characters are taking but I also think it’s a pretty interesting scheme logistically too.

The process of getting Dusty involved in the scheme in the first place though is a little more awkward. Having seemed to establish that Dusty was smart enough to stand a good chance of doing well in medical school, his lack of application of any logic or reasoning in the predicament he finds himself in may strike some readers as odd. While I am not sure that there is ever a safer way out of the messy situation he is in at the start of the novel, his gullibility at points can be quite astounding.

Another issue I have with the book is more of a structural one. While I can tell you that Thompson will pull all of his elements together by the end of the novel, there are sections of the book which read like tangents to the rest of the material. Readers may well wonder why we spend so much time watching Dusty’s father potter around asking for money or discussing his lawsuit. Eventually Thompson does connect the book’s themes and elements together and once he does I found myself all the more engaged with it – I would have sympathy though with those who may feel that there are some sections of the book which feel a little conspicuously padded.

My final complaint would be that the middle third of the book suffers a little from feeling a little predictable, particularly for those already well versed in this style of mystery fiction. Thompson establishes some of his ideas a little too clearly early in the book and so the likely consequences of those elements are often quite apparent.

That is not to suggest however that the book is without surprises. In fact there are some quite satisfying ones along the way, particularly as we near the novel’s endgame and resolution. Thompson’s conclusion here may be a little abrupt yet it feels fitting given the circumstances and while it may not be as punchy as some of his other endings, I appreciated that it does resolve matters quite tidily, providing the reader with a clear idea of how the story’s various elements are connected to each other.

The Verdict: A clever and interesting character study about a young, obsessive man. It perhaps lacks the power and focus of Thompson’s most powerful works but it is a largely rewarding one.

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich

Originally published in 1944 using the pseudonym William Irish.

When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing―and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts. 

When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky―linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance―return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good.

What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation.

Deadline at Dawn concerns two people, one a dancer for hire, the other an out-of-work handyman, who meet and recognize that they both came from the same town. Had they each stayed there they may well have been sweethearts – instead they each made their way to the big city where they failed to realize their dreams, leaving them feeling chewed up and hopeless.

Both had contemplated heading back to their small town but felt unable to do so on their own. They think that together though they might finally do it and they agree to catch a bus together at 6am. There is a complication however. Quinn had pulled off a robbery earlier that evening, breaking into the home of a former client and stealing a sizeable sum of money. It’s a decision he regrets, finding he cannot enjoy his ill-acquired gains, but he also fears that the police will be after him. Bricky presents a solution – if they can return the money before the client returns to their home and realizes the theft has happened then he might escape charges. Unfortunately for the pair when they do return to the house they find a dead body…

One of the things that defines the story is that it takes place over a very short space of time – just a little over five hours. This is driven home to the reader by the fun device of beginning each chapter with an analog clock reading rather than a title or number. It isn’t just the novelty of this that makes it memorable though – rather it’s the way that this contributes to the pressure that our heroes are under, reminding us just how little time remains for them to accomplish their goals. It’s a great device for creating and building pressure and it worked well for me.

Of course the reader must accept that these two characters would in just a few hours throw themselves in together in the way shown. Their connection is far from typical after all. Woolrich does a really good job though of convincing the reader of their desperation and sense of hopelessness. Each begins the story seeming doomed and so while a romance ensues, it is as much about clinging to one another in the hope of survival and exploring what might have been as it is the hope of how that will develop now.

I really liked both Bricky and Quinn and quickly came to care for them as their stories are revealed and we get to know them. It is easy to understand how each fell into their respective positions of hopelessness, the barriers that have kept them from heading home and to understand the desperation that led Quinn to steal. While we begin the book keenly aware of the darkness they are in, there is also a sense of hope – they found each other in their darkest moment and together they might just pull through.

The discovery of the body is obviously an enormous complication for our young pair and it does represent a further challenge to the credibility of our heroes actions. It is nearly always questionable why an amateur ends up investigating a murder and here we may think our heroes foolish for not immediately reporting the crime, as bad as it might look. Woolrich has done such a strong job of building that ‘it’s now or never’ message though that I think he just about sells it – any kind of a delay is sure to damage their resolve and mean they will never get on that bus…

Their investigative efforts are characterized more by their urgency than the quality or complexity of their reasoning. This is not the sort of case where the reader has anything much to solve – we hardly know anything about the victim, let alone those who may wish to kill him. Still there are a few nice moments where we see our heroes draw smart and logical conclusions from the evidence they have been presented with and I enjoyed seeing how they divided responsibility, each pursuing separate leads.

One of the aspects of this book I appreciated most was its seedy depiction of the city in those early hours of the morning. This starts with the description of Bricky leaving the dance hall and trying to elude the men waiting at the doors, hoping to convince the girls to go with them. There are similarly effective moments that take place in the cabs, pharmacies and bars that we visit in the course of that evening. All of this reinforces that notion of the city as having a façade of loveliness which covers a much rougher reality experienced by the people who make that dream seem real.

The investigation comprises lots of false starts and dead ends. One positive of this is that we get a number of glimpses into the lives of other people roaming the city in those early hours, getting a glimpse at some of the other hopeless situations people have found themselves in. One of the most poignant of these comes in an unexpectedly emotional exchange between Quinn and a man he believes is carrying a gun. That sequence was for me one of the highlights of the book.

The less positive consequence of the structuring of that investigation though is that when we enter the story’s final act, Woolrich has a lot of dots left to connect and not much space left to do it. This in turns brings two issues with it. The first is that credibility gets stretched just that little bit further as things have to be wrapped up one way or another by that 6am deadline. I will admit to having little sense of the geography of the area in which the story is set so I don’t know if these locations are closer together than I was assuming but the reader will have to swallow a lot of swift movement and decision making – particularly in those final few chapters.

The other is that as we near that conclusion, I found the sudden acceleration in storytelling and the incorporation of some more action-driven sequences led to me having to reread some passages carefully to be sure I was following the developments in the story correctly. When I did though I found a story that felt largely satisfying, particularly when viewed on a thematic level. I might suggest that Woolrich does engage in a few overly neat story moves, leaving things overly tidy, but that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the messy way in which the adventure begins.

Overall I am happy to be able to say I had a great time with this one. I admired its depiction of two people who begin the story hopeless but find strength and support in one another. I came away from this reminded that I have a couple of other Woolrich titles on my TBR pile that really deserve my attention. Expect to see me tackle them at some point in the next few months…

The Verdict: This entertaining race against time story features some compelling characters and an intriguing situation. There’s no detection here to speak of but the ride is worth experiencing for anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

The Detection Club Project: Helen Simpson – The Prime Minister is Dead

#8: Helen Simpson

Image Credit: Helen de Guerry Simpson by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tall and pale, with thick dark wavy hair, Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that a woman could have it all.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

You may recall that when I wrote my post about Clemence Dane a few months ago as part of this series, I noted that I had struggled with the decision as to whether to write a single profile with her and Helen Simpson. The reason for considering doing that is that most of their detective fiction output was the result of collaborating with each other.

Indeed there seems to have been some speculation whether Simpson was actually a full member of the Detection Club in her own right as she is described as an ‘associate member’ in a contemporary list of members. Martin Edwards notes though in his survey of the history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, that she was eminently qualified for membership in her own right and that her interest in the genre outlasted that of her writing partner.

One sign of that is that while Dane only wrote mysteries in collaboration, Simpson did write a mystery novel on her own and contributed to several of the Club’s collaborative works. She also was friendly with Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading members of the Detection Club, and was collaborating with her on a history of Lord Peter.

The portrait of Simpson in The Golden Age of Murder is not particularly lengthy but does a good job of giving a sense of her abilities and wide range of interests which included witchcraft and smoking cigars. One of those passions was politics which we will see reflected in the book discussed below…

The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson

Following the publication of Enter Sir John and Printer’s Devil, Helen Simpson went on to write this novel which was originally published in the UK as Vantage Striker in 1931. As you can see I have opted to use its American title for this post. That partly is to acknowledge the edition that I read but mostly it’s because I think the original title is terrible, conveying little sense of what the book is actually about to those unfamiliar with the term.

The novel is one of those which arguably exists on the edge of the genre. It is a story about a murder, its investigation and the resolution of the case yet that detective process never feels like the focus of the book. Rather I would suggest that the book feels like it is most concerned with exploring the political fallout from an event of the type depicted and working through how the establishment might respond to such a situation.

We begin shortly after the conclusion of a party leadership election in which a new Prime Minister, Mr. Aspinall, has been selected. That person was not regarded as the best or brightest but rather an affable and inoffensive lightweight. The assumption is that the runner-up, the International Secretary Justin Brazier, will resign. Instead he stubbornly holds onto his office while making it quite clear that he does not approve of his new leader. A political crisis seems to be in the offing so Aspinall decides he will try and reach out, arranging a private meeting between them over dinner. Rather than bridging their divide, the evening ends with Aspinall dead from a head injury.

One of the reasons that this story struck me as being on the edge of the genre was that it takes a really long time to get to its death and even once we do, it is several chapters before the manner of that death is ever described to the reader. Instead Simpson places the focus on establishing the professional relationships between the various characters. There are several lengthy sporting sequences – one that takes place in a boxing match, the other tennis – which serve as analogies of sorts to the situation being constructed. Both are solidly described though I felt both went on a little longer than I desired.

Those political relationships are quite interesting however and I appreciated the often witty observations and commentaries Simpson offers on politicians and elective office. It’s by no means razor sharp satire, but Simpson is thoughtful about her topic and does a good job creating credible characters to explore those issues with.

As I suggested earlier, I do feel that there are some issues with the pacing of this story if we are trying to read it as a work of mystery fiction. One of these is that Simpson devotes so much time to setting up her scenario that the murder sequence and investigation feel very short in comparison to the point of being rushed. This strikes me as a shame because when Simpson finally does have those elements in place in the final few chapters of her story, she does use them well to create a very interesting and original conclusion.

Unfortunately though it is rushed and there is little sport to be had in trying to play along with this one. Simpson offers little in the way of credible misdirection, leaving the murderer quite visible and easy to identify from an early point in the story. It perhaps doesn’t help either that some assumptions that may have been outrageous and unthinkable in 1931 would represent our default mindset today, meaning that one reveal is unlikely to surprise quite as it would have done ninety years earlier.

The Prime Minister is Dead may not be a classic work of detective fiction but it does offer some points of interest, particularly for those with an interest in all things Westminster. It also demonstrates that the author was as comfortable creating a story in that setting as they had been in exploring the theatrical world in Enter Sir John.

The Verdict: More interesting for its depiction of Westminster than its rushed and ultimately unsatisfying murder plot.

Further Reading

Martin Edwards wrote about this book under its original UK title Vantage Striker on his blog and also featured the title in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The Complete Adventures of Feluda 1 by Satyajit Ray, translated by Gopa Majumdar

Originally published in 2000
Collects stories published between 1965 and 1978
Followed by The Complete Adventures of Feluda 2

This omnibus edition features the ever-popular adventures of Satyajit Ray’s enduring creation, the professional sleuth Pradosh C. Mitter (Feluda). In his escapades, Feluda is accompanied by his cousin Topshe and the bumbling crime writer Lalmohan Ganguly (Jatayu). From Jaisalmer to Simla, from the Ellora Caves to Varanasi, the trio traverse fascinating locales to unravel one devious crime after another.

Several weeks ago I stumbled upon an article on CrimeReads written several years ago that discussed Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories. These were short stories written for a young audience, though they also had appeal to adult readers, several of which were adapted for film. I was intrigued by what I read and came away from the piece keen to give the tales a try for myself.

Pradosh C. Mitter, known as Feluda, is a private investigator who raised himself on mystery novels and is keen to test his abilities. He is assisted by his teenaged cousin Topshe and in later stories gains an additional, more comedic sidekick in the form of the writer Lalmohan Ganguly who writes potboiler thrillers as Jatayu. The stories are not dissimilar to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories which are referenced in the introductions to this collection with Feluda deducing details of people’s lives from details of their dress and general appearance as well as frequent action scenes.

Unlike Holmes however many of the stories feature puzzles that the reader can solve for themselves. While the stories were written for younger readers, some of these are quite cunningly worked and a few may well pose a challenge for any adults who try to tackle them. One of my favorites of the puzzle-driven stories is The Key which is also one of the shortest stories in the collection. That case sees Feluda trying to solve the meaning of a riddle that should enable him to open a lockbox. It’s simple but clever and, perhaps most importantly, it is perfectly paced for the length of the story.

Other tales are driven more by their adventure and suspense elements. For example two of the stories feature tigers on the loose and threats against our heroes made over the telephone are a recurring plot point in many of the earlier stories collected here. Ray writes these sequences well, conveying a sense of the action and building tension superbly. Many of the stories are quite cinematic in scope, no doubt explaining their success on film, though I am a little puzzled as to why Trouble in Gangtok (my favorite story in the collection) has not been adapted when it seems so ideal for film treatment.

This volume, the first of two published by Penguin, collects the stories in chronological order. It is a pretty hefty tome – 785 pages – which makes it a solid contender for the longest book I have reviewed on this blog to date. Happily the quality is pretty consistent throughout and while Lalmohan Ganguly is introduced later in the series, the stories with just Feluda and Topshe are every bit as entertaining as the later ones.

Were I looking for issues I might note that there are some recurring themes in the stories, reflecting that the author was trying to stay away from what he considered to be more adult themes. Art and jewel-based crimes feature heavily here and readers may want to plan to spread out their reading to allow the stories to have their maximum effect. In spite of those common elements though each story has its own elements of setting that help to define it and add some additional interest and appeal.

I had a thoroughly good time reading this and I already have my copy of the second volume so I will look forward to seeing how Ray continued to develop the character. Had these stories been available in translation when I was a preteen discovering Sherlock Holmes, I am sure I would have devoured these exciting, funny and mysterious stories.

The Verdict: I loved this collection of short stories which offer intriguing situations, exciting action and a memorable cast of heroes. While intended for younger readers, I appreciated the stories’ settings and found the puzzles much stronger than expected. The standard of the stories in this first volume is consistently high and, at nearly 800 pages, it offers tremendous value for money.

This first collected volume offers tremendous value and the standard of stories is consistently high.

click for Story-by-story reviews

Anything to Declare? by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1957
Inspector French #31
Preceded by Many a Slip

A foolproof method for earning a fortune in a short space of time is discovered by some enterprising young men. They haven’t bargained on finding themselves involved in blackmail and then murder. It is up to Inspector French to unravel the threads with his usual flair.

Peter Edgeley has found the return to civilian life after the war challenging. Though he is clearly intelligent and capable, he struggles to take direction and yearns for a break from the drudgery of routine. After being dismissed for insubordination, Edgeley runs into an old friend from before the war who has experienced some similar challenges. That friend however thinks he has the solution and invites Edgeley to join him in his new, but illegal, venture.

Dick Loxton has recently inherited a rather snazzy yacht – it’s gorgeous but devilishly expensive to run. He could sell it and live off the proceeds for a while but he would rather find a way to make it pay and experience a bit of the adventurous life he has also been craving. With the help of a financial backer, he plans to run a small cruising company, taking groups of four or five to Switzerland and back. The real money however won’t be in the human passengers but some cargo he plans to hide on board and smuggle back to England, avoiding customs duty.

The early chapters of the book follow Peter and Dick as they scheme together, meet Dick’s backer, and put their plans into action. Crofts was always superb at carefully laying out the genesis and construction of a scheme and this novel is no exception. While his writing style is rather leisurely, the author’s delight at explaining the technical details of the execution of that plan is quite evident and at times rather infectious. We certainly understand why these two young men are prepared to throw the dice, not so much out of financial desperation but a desire to recapture something they’ve lost.

This matter of how the war changed the men who returned is a common theme in mystery fiction of this period but particularly in the inverted mystery field. Quite often the books that explore this topic can be quite grim reads but interestingly these are not men haunted by what they have done or empowered to commit violence but rather thrillseekers keen to experience excitement and danger once again. Crofts manages to make the pair quite appealing, casting them as rogues rather than villains and allowing us to retain some degree of sympathy with them throughout the whole book.

The other strength of this first part of the book is the credibility of the scheme. Crofts is meticulous about explaining why the scheme might work, outlines some issues that the plotters will need to address, and then sets about providing solutions to them. It’s a very solid, cleverly composed scheme that stands a decent chance of success so long as they don’t have any bad luck. Which, of course, they inevitably do.

After allowing us to follow the planning and execution of the scheme, along with its successful first voyage (incidentally, one of Crofts’ better efforts at travelogue writing), we then see how things begin to come unstuck. The explanation for those circumstances is similarly credible and Crofts does a good job of stringing out that moment, presenting the moment of discovery from the point of view of that witness. From that point onwards the story assumes a more familiar trajectory, setting up a familiar inverted mystery structure.

I have previously described Crofts as something of a master of that form and so it’s quite pleasing to see that in this, his final work published only a few weeks before his death, he returned to that form once more. Structurally and thematically this work is most like Mystery on Southampton Water, though there are still a few moments where he tries something new – most memorably the event that takes place at the end of the first section of the novel and the incorporation of a whodunnit element later in the book.

Unfortunately while I am predisposed to enjoy Crofts’ inverted novels, I feel this is one that falls down on the detection elements with the investigation feeling rushed and unsatisfactory to this reader. Part of that is the awkward conceit that French is trying discretely to assist his protege, Inspector Rollo, to ensure that he lives up to the task having assigned it to him over more experienced peers. This occasionally limits his actions but not in an interesting way while Rollo is so lightly characterized that he makes French look like quite a vibrant personality in contrast.

The bigger problem though is that French just gets really lucky. There are a number of points at the story where French, forced to interpret an aspect of the crime, instinctively guesses at the correct idea or explanation without ever really considering or testing the matter. This feels really lazy and sloppy but more importantly it reduces the opportunity for French to carefully piece together details – usually the strength of Crofts’ writing.

Things get so rushed towards the end that characters we have spent time with in the first half of the novel suddenly get forgotten, their actions and fates referenced but overlooked in favor of other figures from the case. After investing so heavily in them before, this feels disappointing and once again reduces the satisfaction of the ending a little.

That being said, the few clues Crofts provides French are solid and do a nice job of setting up reasons for him to doubt the story he is being fed. One feature I did appreciate was the need to find some way of corroborating what he knows to be true in order to be able to make his final arrest – while the journey to that ending may be a bit rough, I did believe that the case French builds against the story’s villain will stick. That, to this reader, meant that the story ends on a relative high note.

Anything to Declare? would be the final Crofts novel and I felt a little sad when I finally closed this one as, to the best of my knowledge, I have no more inverted stories by him left to read. I still consider him to be one of the strongest of the Golden Age exponents of that style and I love that each of the novels ends up trying to do something different than those that preceded it – even this one which is admittedly the least ambitious of the five novels (ROT-13: Gur ernqre jvyy or fhecevfrq ng gur erprvivat bs n frpbaq oynpxznvy abgr nsgre gur zheqre bs gur svefg oynpxznvyre, creuncf yrnivat gurz gb jbaqre whfg ubj fbzrbar ryfr znl unir yrnearq bs gurve cynaf).

The good news is that while I may have exhausted the well of Crofts inverted mysteries, I have plenty of more conventional detective stories left to read. No doubt I will do so soon as I seem to recall that he was a member of a certain society of mystery writers which readers of this blog have been seeing me write about a lot recently…

The Verdict: While French’s investigation is rushed and, I would argue, a little unsatisfying, it it by no means disastrous. Anything to Declare? is far from a late stain on its author’s career and I can imagine revisiting it in years to come.

Columbo: A Friend in Deed (TV)

Season Three, Episode Eight
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by An Exercise in Fatality (Season Four)

Originally broadcast May 5, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Ben Gazzara

Plot Summary

When Hugh Caldwell kills his wife in the middle of a fight he turns to his friend Mark for help. That assistance takes the form of giving him an alibi while staging the crime scene to tell a different story – that of a murder by an unknown intruder. What Hugh does not realize however is that Mark’s help will come at a price…

My Thoughts

Columbo‘s third season is, in the opinion of this viewer, a bit of a mixed bag. There were some real highs such as Any Old Port in a Storm or Publish or Perish but it also gave us an episode in Mind over Mayhem which is the story I have enjoyed least so far in the series by quite some way. Perhaps it is fitting then that I found the season finale, A Friend in Deed, to be a similarly inconsistent effort with some moments of pure inspiration but a couple of elements that just didn’t work for me.

The best place to begin with this story is its central concept: the cover-up of a murder by a friend of the killer. When this idea is initially introduced I will admit to thinking it was a bit weak and I struggled to accept that Mark would willingly put their freedom in jeopardy by getting involved in a murder cover-up that didn’t benefit him at all. That is partly explained by the idea referenced by several characters that the victim had tormented Hugh which makes his sympathy understandable but had his actions hinged solely on that empathy I think the episode would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Peter S. Fischer has a much cleverer concept in mind that he presents part way into the episode.

That idea is not wholly original but it works nicely because of a structural choice he makes earlier in the episode. The initial setup is so ordinary and simple that it seems inconceivable that the situation as first presented could sustain a whole ninety-five minutes of drama. In what amounts to a nice piece of misdirection, Fischer knows we will be looking for that extra something and gives it to us before then providing an additional reveal that takes the story in an entirely different direction. What’s more it’s at this point that the relationship between Columbo and our criminal mastermind really comes into focus and the games that are being played become more interesting.

The early reveal relates to an aspect of Mark’s background that will not only drive his conflict with Columbo but also give it a rather unique character. I’ll be discussing that further in my spoiler section below but the short version is that I appreciate the intention and while I have some questions about the consequences of that reveal, I do like that it does make this episode and its villain feel a bit different.

Mark is played by Richard Kiley whose portrayal emphasizes the character’s seedy, entitled side. When we are first introduced to him for instance we see him in a gambling establishment enjoying the company of some women who are not his wife and he gives off a rather nonchalant air. The character’s scheme for orchestrating the cover-up is not particularly complex, nor is it all that audacious. That partly reflects that further reveals are to come at that point in the story but also the character’s supreme confidence in himself. It’s a simple and familiar trick but the execution is solid enough.

There are parts of Kiley’s performance I quite enjoy but I do think one of the weaknesses of the script is how ridiculously over-the-top and villainous he can appear. Moments like his snarling down the phone to Hugh to get him to say a particular phrase necessary for their plan or his introduction in that gambling den seem rather silly and cartoonish. On the other hand, there are some wonderful moments, particularly when he is playing off Columbo, and his performance in the crucial gotchya scene is one of the best so far.

Opposite him, Michael McGuire’s Hugh is understandably a bag of nerves. It is his view we initially get of the crime and we follow him as he approaches Mark for help. Given how tightly wound this character becomes as a consquence of what happens, I was sure that we would witness him disintegrate further under pressure as the story goes on but instead I was surprised at how quickly he drops from the story and how our focus falls almost entirely on Mark.

So, what is Mark’s plan? He plans to suggest that the murder happened as a result of a break-in at Hugh’s home by the Bel-Air Burglar – a character all over the news. Once again, a simple enough idea but it’s a solid enough premise for a cover-up. Unfortunately though this takes us to a dive bar setting that I think misses the mark.

Those scenes are clearly intended to be gritty and realistic from the way they are scripted but I think they are let down by some costuming and tonal choices. One of the most striking things about this episode is that while there are some lines of dialogue that I think feel a little silly and playful, there is less of a focus on the comedy content than in many of the episodes in this season with Columbo himself seeming more restrained.

The exception is the business with Artie and Thelma. These scenes in which the two bicker feel like they are intended to be comical yet I felt they came off as silly, perhaps in part because Thelma’s costume seems ridiculous. This in turn makes it harder to take the pair seriously. Matters are not helped by their dialogue which just didn’t ring true to me. Fortunately while I think the manner of Artie’s introduction is poor, I did like the way he is utilized in some of the later scenes in the episode.

Which brings me to that gotchya moment I referenced before. The goal here is that I like to be surprised and, ideally, when that happens to end up frustrated with myself that I overlooked something obvious. The manner of the conclusion here certainly accomplishes that, giving us one of the show’s best gotchya moments since Suitable for Framing. I enjoyed the brazeness of Columbo’s plan, I appreciate the psychology behind that moment and, most importantly, I think those last few minutes of the episode made for some really gripping TV.

The episode does end on a high then but I am left uncertain as to how I feel about this one overall. On a conceptual level I think this is a very clever story and I think it lands its ending but I don’t think it has a consistent tone with some moments coming off as silly rather than amusing.

The Verdict: I feel that a very clever concept is marred a little by some inconsistency of tone. Throw in an uneven performance from the actor playing the episode’s antagonist and you have a recipe for an episode that, while good, doesn’t entirely deliver on its promise.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13: V jnf jngpuvat guvf rcvfbqr jvgu zl jvsr jub vf ol ab zrnaf n zlfgrel sna naq jnf pbzcyrgryl arj gb gur fubj ohg jura vg jnf erirnyrq gung Znex jnf Pbyhzob’f obff, ure erfcbafr jnf gb nfx jul ab bar va uvf qrcnegzrag engrf uvf fxvyyf jura ur fbyirf vaperqvoyl gevpxl pnfrf rnpu jrrx. Zl svefg erfcbafr jnf gb fhttrfg gung znlor uvf fhcrevbef qba’g erpbtavmr uvf pbagevohgvba be uvf fznegf orpnhfr bs gur crefban ur nqbcgf ohg gur rcvfbqr qverpgyl pbagenqvpgf guvf, znxvat vg pyrne gung uvf fxvyyf ner irel pyrneyl engrq.

Fb jul ba rnegu qbrf Znex pnyy sbe uvz naq gura, bapr ur’f vaibyirq, bcg gb xrrc uvz urnqvat hc gur pnfr. Pbyhzob pyrneyl vfa’g tbvat gb sbyybj gur yvar Znex vf nffvtavat uvz fb jul qbrf ur xrrc uvz ba gur pnfr ng nyy? Vg znxrf irel yvggyr frafr gb zr.

Fvzvyneyl, juvyr gurer’f ab pbfg gb vg, V pna’g trg zl urnq nebhaq Znex yrnivat gur trzf nyy arngyl jenccrq hc va uvf tnentr jura ur pbzzvgf uvf zheqre, xabjvat gur pbcf jvyy or fjnezvat nyy bire gur ubhfr. Creuncf jr’er zrnag gb gnxr gung nf n fvta bs gur zna’f gbgny neebtnapr ohg vg frrzf dhvgr fvyyl.

The Detection Club Project: Margaret Cole – The Murder at Crome House

Image Credit: Dame Margaret Isabel Cole by Stella Bowen © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#6: Margaret Cole

Margaret was a dynamic young woman, with a ‘mop of short thick black wavy hair in which is set swarthy complexion, sharp nose and chin and most brilliantly defiant eyes’.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

After tackling half of a short-lived writing partnership last time around, this time around I am taking as my subject one member of a rather more long-lived and prolific crime-writing partnership – Margaret Cole.

Just like last time I pondered whether it would be best to tackle the Coles together as one ‘writer’ or separately. There is always a question of how you identify the aspects of a book that relate to one member of a writing partnership over another. As it happens however the Coles’ method of writing appears to have been relatively unusual as Martin Edwards describes:

The Coles decided to play the detective game together… Having settled a plot in outline, one spouse wrote a first draft which the couple then discussed and worked on together.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Crime historian Curtis Evans in The Spectrum of English Murder, a comparative study of the lives and work of the Coles and fellow Detection Club member Henry Wade, goes into greater detail on this practice and produces a breakdown of which books he believed Margaret and her husband were responsible for based both on sources and textural analysis. The earliest work he attributes primarily to Margaret is the one I will be writing about below – 1927’s The Murder at Crome House.

Based on what I have read both in Edwards’ and Evans’ books, Margaret Cole seems to have been a fascinating individual. Born Margaret Postgate (if that name seems familiar it may be because her brother Raymond would also become a detective fiction writer), she rejected her father’s conservative views and instead ’embraced socialism, atheism, feminism and pipe-smoking’.

Margaret taught for a while before meeting Douglas Cole, an economist, while working on a campaign against conscription. Both would go on to work for the Fabian Society, promoting the cause of democratic socialism. Their courtship and marriage were both quite unusual and both Evans and Edwards’ books do a good job of exploring those aspects of their personal lives.

Douglas was the first to take to writing crime fiction, taking it up during a period recovering from a bout of pneumonia and finishing it when Margaret bet him that he wouldn’t. Detective fiction became a way of supplementing their income from their academic works and the couple became quite prolific over a period of about twenty years with many of their novels featuring series sleuth Superintendent Wilson (I previously reviewed End of an Ancient Mariner from that series).

Martin Edwards’ book paints a picture of Margaret as the most social of the two, comfortable in a wide mix of company which the Detection Club will have certainly offered as many of its members will have been of quite different political persuasions from the couple. It seems though that Margaret enjoyed debating with those other members.

While the Coles produced quite a substantial body of work, eventually their interest in the genre would collapse. Margaret did remain prominent in other aspects of her life however, serving on London County Council’s Education Committee and later the Inner London Education Authority. She would be given an OBE and later MBE in recognition of her services to local government and education.

So, how best to assess the contribution and style of Margaret Cole? Honestly, I am not entirely sure. The best I can think to do is to look at a book they wrote together and then to read the book we know was entirely the work of G. D. H. Cole to see what’s different. To do the latter we will have to wait until I get hold of The Brooklyn Murders. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on The Murder at Crome House.

Her brother – Raymond Postgate

The Murder at Crome House by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole

Originally published in 1927

What would you do if you, a University lecturer with no qualifications for detective work, were suddenly called upon to vindicate a friend’s name by discovering the author of a crime committed nearly six months before, and your only clue led nowhere?  This is the problem which confronted James Flint and his friends in the murder of Sir Harry Wye, for which his stepson had so nearly been hanged; and the story tells how, with no superhuman sleuth or vast scientific apparatus to assist them, but merely by patiently using their wits, the little group at last succeeded in clearing the unfortunate suspect and unmasking a peculiarly atrocious scoundrel.  The unravelling brings them up against many remarkable and entertaining characters, and into exciting situations in which one of them is nearly killed before the end is reached; but the signal fact about this story, unlike most detective yarns, is that it might have happened to any one.

The Murder at Crome House begins with James Flint, an academic, finding an odd photograph of a man appearing to prepare to shoot another man tucked inside a library book. He is disposed to think of the thing as a prank and puts it in the fire only to be surprised with a visit from the previous borrower who has come in search of the picture. Wrongly believing it to be burned, Flint assures him that the picture is no more and is surprised that the man seems pleased and leaves happily. When he discovers the picture again later that day he plans to return it until he learns that the photograph is similar to another that had been evidence in a recently concluded murder trial.

The victim in that trial was Sir Harry Wye, a rather unpleasant rogue who seems to have kept poor company and had his share of enemies. The one accused of his murder had been his stepson, believed lost at sea many years earlier, who returned to England with claims that Wye had cheated him out of an inheritance from his mother. Many in the community believed him guilty but he was spotted elsewhere at about the time of the murder, leaving him to escape the gallows with his life but with his reputation in tatters.

Rather unusually then the authors are presenting us with a story where the crime and much of the investigation has already taken place at the start of the novel. Our role, and that of the amateur sleuths, is not so much to collect the evidence as to weigh it and make connections between the details to test its reliability and build a complete picture of the affair.

The most distinctive aspect of the crime is that initial hook – the rather odd photographs. In some ways this element feels quite modern, seeming to anticipate decades of later works with murders caught on camera, but because the shot is a still rather than a video it feels mechanically quite contrived. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way that this might turn out to be a genuine photograph and so instead we are stuck wondering just how and why this could factor into the case itself and this aspect of the mystery gets sidelined for much of the novel.

Instead our focus is that familiar one of trying to break an alibi. In this case we are presented with several possible suspects but those with the opportunity seem to have no motive while those who might have wanted Wye dead all seem to have been seen some distance from the house at the time of the murder.

Flint initially seems reluctant to get involved but after hearing more about the murder he begins to believe that the stepson’s story, which admittedly sounds quite odd and far-fetched, may be truthful. He and a few others connected with that man decide to work together to seek out evidence that might prove his innocence and uncover the real killer’s identity.

This idea of a group of amateurs all pitching in together to investigate is a rather charming one and while I think the cheery volunteer card is played perhaps once too often, I think it allows for a steady accumulation of evidence. Equally important though is that I believe it helps to reinforce the idea that the murdered man was really not a nice person and that Oliver, foolish as he can seem, is actually quite appealing and sympathetic.

One aspect of the book that passed me by until it was pointed out to me is that our hero, Flint, shares a number of attributes in common with Margaret’s husband Douglas (G. D. H. Cole). It is not just their backgrounds as academics but their temperaments are similar too. While Flint is not the warmest of characters, I quite enjoyed him as a protagonist and found myself wishing that he had been used again as this is, unfortunately, a standalone work.

While Flint strikes me as a pretty engaging protagonist, I found a few of the other characters seemed much less complex and compelling by comparison. Some of that reflects that most are there to serve some plotting purpose, entering to dispense a single piece of information before exiting the stage. In other cases however I think the authors fall into the mistake of writing types and so some characters feel a little generic or clumsily drawn. One passage in particular, concerning a drunken witness, felt a little overwritten while a completely incidental character, a Japanese student, is treated purely as a ‘gag’ and written in a way I found rather cringeworthy.

Other aspects of the story work a little better. While I do think the investigation moves a tad slowly in the middle of the novel, the Coles provide plenty of revelations towards the end, giving the sense that we are building to a final revelation.

That big reveal when it comes was not particularly surprising to me as I felt that the killer’s identity does stand out from close to the start of the novel, but I enjoyed reading this to see just how that character might be caught. Some aspects of that solution are pretty strong though I do think there is an aspect of how it was accomplished that feels rather lazy and ought to have been considered much earlier in the story. Perhaps more importantly, there are a few action-oriented moments towards the end of the piece that I felt did a good job of raising the tension and our anticipation of the villain being caught.

The Verdict: This book has some interesting elements but perhaps takes a little too long getting to its conclusion, rendering it a little anticlimactic.

Second Opinions:

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World found the writing witty but the comparison with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans feels quite apt.

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love by Carlos Allende

Cover for Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love

Originally published in 2022

Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is another one of those books that is rather difficult to put into a genre box. It is, first and foremost, a work of comedic fiction. It is also the story of a relationship. A messed up, difficult relationship but then the two characters who end up in it are rather messed up, difficult people for reasons we’ll come onto. It discusses sexual and cultural identity and the search for belonging, all the while depicting a moment in California and America’s political climate – the start of President Obama’s second term at a point and the speculation about the administration’s stance on gay marriage.

In addition to being all those things, it is also a crime novel.

Allende’s story concerns an almost accidental serial killer. Jignesh never intended to kill anyone but when a former intern at his company mocks him he lashes out. Panicked and needing to figure out a way of disposing of the body – or at least hiding it – he turns to a one-night stand he had been avoiding who just happens to be in possession of a really oversized freezer.

In what quickly turns into a comedy of errors, Jignesh will soon have more bodies on his hands as his attempts to evade detection push him into more and more trouble. Adding to the complications, while Jignesh has a freezer to store the bodies in, he soon finds that he has to move in with that former hook-up, Charlie, in order to have somewhere to keep the freezer. And then, inevitably, Charlie looks in that freezer and finds himself involved too.

So let’s start by talking comedy. As I have often remarked before on this blog, humor is really subjective. Some will absolutely adore how dark this story gets and how awful the two protagonists behave throughout the story. Others are certain not to. My advice here is that if the concept of the book interests you, go check out the sample chapters on Amazon (or another ebook vendor that does samples). Allende’s two narrators maintain consistent voices throughout and so what you get in those three and a half chapters is pretty representative of the tone and style of the whole book.

Personally I found the situations more amusing than the often outrageous and offensive thoughts of the two protagonists. Charlie’s perspective in particular is laden with cringeworthy racial assumptions and stereotypes. I am quite clear that we not meant to think that those are right or laudable but reflections of the character’s prejudice and upbringing, reminding us that someone can be the subject of microaggressions and bullying behavior while happily engaging in them themselves all the while thinking of themselves as an outrageous wit. Still, while this may work as a character study, I found it a little wearying at points.

The construction of the farce however is superb. So often in these sorts of stories, authors will run out of steam in the later parts of the story. Here though Allende does an amazing job of continuing to escalate and both growing the stakes and the dangers his protagonists find themselves in. Even more impressive though is how he avoids the traps of predictability, delivering some plot developments that surprise while feeling absolutely in keeping with out previous understandings of the characters and the situation they are in.

While I may not have always enjoyed their narration, I did find the protagonists interesting and I enjoyed some of the character exploration that takes place often under the surface. That is perhaps necessary as neither Charlie nor Jignesh is particularly introspective, each seeming to make decisions on impulse, but there are still plenty of moments where we get insight, either from the other character or by the author providing the opportunities to read details or subtext into these characters.

That is particularly true in terms of understanding the complex dynamic of their relationship, much of which develops between chapters or goes unspoken. Neither character is particularly interested in the other romantically at the start of the story yet they are in a very different place by the end of the novel. It’s not exactly a love story – Charlie is quite open with us about how transactionally he views his relationship with Jignesh, particularly once he discovers the first body and opts to delay reporting what he has found to the police until after the LA Opera season is over.

I enjoyed the occasional moments of ambiguity in that relationship and how hard it is to ascribe a label to it. That relationship changes, evolving (and perhaps devolving at points) in response to the events of the novel. It feels very well-observed and that messiness and difficulty made their dynamic all the more interesting to me. I never quite knew what these characters would do in response to the other’s actions, making following that relationship all the more compelling.

What surprised me most is that while I am quite clear that Charlie and Jignesh are both terrible people, there are moments where their situation can elicit some genuine sympathy. That partly reflects that other characters are equally terrible or worse, such as most of the people Jignesh works with. I think it also reflects that their problems are all easy to understand and often to sympathize with. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted them to be happy with each other but I did find myself caring about them by the end.

Which brings me neatly to the book’s conclusion. I have previously mentioned that the book continues to escalate and complicate the situation until the final few pages of the book. By the time we reach that end, thing have become so crazy that the reader may be forgiven for wondering just how everything could possibly be tidied up.

The answer is that while there is a resolution and it feels quite satisfying in terms of paying off what has come before, there are a couple of loose ends left untied and resolutions not quite given. There is one aspect of the story which I had been particularly anticipating yet when we reach the conclusion it isn’t referenced at all. Those reading this for those farce elements though are likely to be pleased with how this wraps up and will excuse a little untidiness in a couple of plot threads for the overall effect of the novel’s punchline.

The Verdict – This often-outrageous crime farce won’t appeal to everyone but features some very clever plot construction and a pair of memorable, if not always likable, protagonists.