The Capital City Mystery by J. H. Wallis

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Inspector Jacks #2
Preceded by Murder by Formula
Followed by The Servant of Death

The Blurb

From among a brilliant galaxy of Senators, Representatives, Diplomats, Governors, artists, society women, wealthy aristocrats, and influential newspaper publishers of Washington D.C. – a wealthy Congressman disappeared almost before their eyes, during the progress of one of his wife’s famous Sunday night suppers.

Inspector Jacks of New York had hardly started work on the case when there was an even stranger disappearance. How he wove a cunning web into which he drew many unsuspecting human flies and finally a diabolical pair that buzzed too long around the scene of their crime, is the high water mark of a most unique and blood-curdling mystery tale.

The Verdict

Not so much a fair play mystery as a thriller but the capital setting and the development of the cast of suspects is handled well.


My Thoughts

I was really excited to get hold of The Capital City Mystery a few months ago as it completed my collection of James Harold Wallis’ detective stories. These books have been largely forgotten but I have found each of the ones I have read interesting, even if they were not always entirely successful. This is one of his earliest efforts featuring his series detective, Inspector Jacks – an independently wealthy police detective from New York.

Each week US Representative Lester Armaude and his wife Lily host Sunday supper parties for their friends and neighbors who are a mix of politicians, news publishers and other dignitaries. This week is no different, although a heavy fog does mean that the gathering is expected to be a little smaller than usual. Anticipating the arrival of a colleague, Lester decides to walk down to unlock a side gate and wait to greet them. Guests begin to arrive but Lester does not return and when the visitors he was waiting for arrive and say they didn’t see him, a small search is mounted and while his pen is found, Lester is nowhere to be seen.

While his wife seems initially unconcerned by the absence, the next day she receives a telegram purporting to be from Lester in which he explains his absence. Rather than settling the matter, the note instead makes her suspicious as there is a telltale sign that it would not be from him. Fearing kidnap but daring not to go to the Police and cause a scandal, Lily’s house guest Lais suggests that they reach out to Inspector Jacks from New York who she met when he investigated her ‘trouble’ three years earlier (the events of the previous novel, Murder by Formula) and who can be trusted to be discrete. He agrees to take some leave and visit to look into the matter for them.

A deeper investigation of the scene only seems to confirm their suspicions that something sinister has happened and leads to a more formal investigation taking place. With no trace or sightings of him anywhere, the question is where could he have vanished to and for what purpose. And then another character disappears without a trace…

While the mechanism for involving Jacks in this capital-centered case is a little contrived, I found Wallis’ setup for this story and, in particular, the political aspects of the story to be quite intriguing. One common trick Wallis used in several of his setective stories is to have characters discuss the potential for a crime in an apparently hypothetical way that subsequently turns out to be rather prescient. Here we have just such a case where characters’ comments about the potential for murder are used to set the mood and prepare us for what we know must surely have happened, even in the absence of a corpse.

Wallis would have been familiar with the world of Washington from his experience working with Herbert Hoover as a special assistant when he was serving as Secretary of State. He also had some personal political experience both from his own time in local government and as a newspaper owner. All of that knowledge and detail is there on the page, making this depiction of the capital feel well-observed with plenty of references to actual political figures and legislative debates that would have been fairly recent as well as comments on some of the locations and neighborhoods around the District of Columbia. All of the figures involved in this case however are fictional (including the President), allowing for the possibility that anything might happen to them.

This attention to the details of the setting and the characters that inhabit it is easily the most successful and interesting part of The Capital City Mystery. The pool of suspects is drawn from those characters who attended the Armaudes’ party, with the exception of Lais who is clearly established as the romantic interest for Jacks (this does feel pretty convincing and clearly evolves out of the circumstances of the previous book). This means that the suspects are all from Washington’s high society, leading Jacks to move in some relatively high circles. Wallis explains the tensions between the various suspects well and while carrying out an abduction or murder might seem to be a high risk endeavor, I had little difficulty accepting their possible motives for doing so.

Perhaps the most striking of the various suspects is Tonescu, a diplomat from one of the Balkan countries (Wallis avoids being too specific). What makes Tonescu memorable is his willingness to embrace a sort of blunt materialism where he makes no pretense about what he wants. This apparent honesty about his interest in Lily Armaude as well as his willingness to admit involvement in a previous murder (which describes in just a few lines an idea that Christie would use as the solution to a novel a couple of years later), makes him a difficult character to fully grasp and understand for much of the book and yet he plays off Jacks superbly.

Wallis’ only slight misstep on the characterization front is the character of Gaiety Joy, an out of work jester who Jacks encounters in a diner and hires to be his eyes and ears. This mechanism of hiring a surrogate is a decent one that has been used very effectively elsewhere, yet Joy is a rather odd character and as useful as he proves it is hard to understand exactly what causes Jacks to be willing to make the investment in him. There is also a rather lengthy sequence in which Joy performs some political poetry that drags on a little too long. Still, the character does open up some interesting doors to the investigation later or and there is a rather amusing development involving a decision he takes shortly after being hired.

All of which brings me to the bigger question of the plot. I do think that the book starts with a really interesting scenario and I think that the solution given is quite a lot of fun, albeit quite a familiar one. I do have to note though that it is more thriller than detective story in the telling. While I think the reader can presume some answers, I don’t think they are given quite enough to prove anything themselves. This may frustrate some readers but I remained engaged and entertained by the various twists and turns the case goes on.

Overall then I found The Capital City Mystery to be an enjoyable read. While it may not have been a fair play mystery, I had little difficulty in working out who was responsible and their motives or in maintaining my interest. Still, in spite of that it is a fun journey packed with strong characters and, in my opinion, one of the better Inspector Jacks stories.

The Great Hotel Murder by Vincent Starrett

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Riley Blackwood #1
Followed by Midnight and Percy Jones

This book was expanded from Recipe for Murder published in 1934

The Blurb

When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.

Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavors to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence―and their whereabouts.

The Verdict

Pretty entertaining Golden Age fare that blends action and mystery with a likeable sleuth.


My Thoughts

As nice as it is to see new editions of books by Carr, Gardner and Queen appearing in the American Mystery Classics range, the books that truly excite me are the ones I have never heard of. That unfamiliarity is nice not only because of the variety it brings to a range, but also because there is something rather exciting about approaching a work with no expectations at all beyond what little information a cover and blurb may suggest.

The Great Hotel Murder begins with Blaine Oliver anxiously trying to summon Dr. Trample in the lobby of the Hotel Granada where she had an appointment to meet him. He is neither responding to calls to his room nor can he be found anywhere in the lobby. A friend happens upon her and suggests that they try going to his room and knocking directly but they find a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door and no response from inside. Finally they persuade the management to unlock the room and enter to find a man lying dead on the bed. To their surprise however it is not Dr. Trample and it turns out that he has died of a morphine overdose although he no syringe can be found and he does not appear to be a habitual user of the drug.

Before anyone gets too excited at the words ‘unlock the room’, I should say that the way that this case plays out serves to minimize that aspect of the plot. For one thing, we are told almost immediately after its detection that the poison could have been administered before the victim returned to the room and locked themselves in. We are also aware that several of the staff possess master keys so the locked door is less a barrier and more a logistical obstacle that the reader will have to factor into how they explain the sequence of events leading to the murder.

Instead this will be a case where we are looking for someone who has a motive for murder. While there is one character that seems to have had the clearest opportunity, it is hard to understand exactly why he would kill someone he appears to have only known for a few hours. In a reversal of the usual structure of the whodunit, here we begin with just one or two suspects and our field widens throughout the novel as we learn more about the victim. This approach works pretty well and I am happy to say that I was surprised by several aspects to the solution.

Our unlikely sleuth is theatrical critic Riley Blackwood, whose involvement in the case is justified by his being a friend of the hotel’s owner. Blackwood is a detective whose personality feels reminiscent of the Ellery Queen school of amateur detectives. He is well-read, whimsical and has a habit of responding to problems with quotations. In terms of the way he approaches the case however I think he also feels like he exists on the edge of a more hardboiled, pulpy sort of detection. After all, he forms attractions to women involved in the case, dives into a body of water to rescue someone and even carries a gun at one point. It makes for an interesting mix of traits that I think works pretty well for this sort of a case.

The pool of suspects that he is investigating make up a pretty interesting mix of characters from a variety of different walks of life. Given the importance of finding a motive to this case, the question becomes one of how the various characters knew the deceased, whether they knew he was there and what may have prompted a murder at that precise time.

These are pretty interesting questions and managed to sustain my interest for much of the book. I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.

More importantly, I think the way the story unfolds is pretty entertaining. Blackwood is often quite amusing, as are a couple of the suspects, and there are several moments of tension and action that help to keep things moving. This isn’t simply a short story with some padding to fill out the page count – it is a pretty engaging softboiled thriller that hits some solid comical notes.

Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. The plot is a little too simple and a little too familiar for that, but it entertains. In that sense it sits comfortably alongside the likes of Home, Sweet Homicide or Your Turn, Mr. Moto which are also part of this range and is worth a look for those who like novels that blend mystery and adventure.

Further Reading

The publication history of this book is just as interesting as the book itself. The Studies in Starrett Blog posted a series of articles about this back in 2017. The first installment focuses on the Redbook short story and how it differs from Starrett’s previous work. The second installment looks at the 1935 novel and the changes that were made from the Redbook version. The final installment focuses on the film adaptation which diverges quite radically from either of the texts with the author noting in his memoirs ‘Nobody was more surprised than the author by the revelation of the killer’s identity’.

There’s Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake

Book Details

Originally published in 1937

Nigel Strangeways #3
Preceded by Thou Shell of Death
Followed by The Beast Must Die

The Blurb

Private detective and poet Nigel Strangeways has been invited to address the Maiden Astbury literary society in the sleepy and serene Dorset town.

But all is not as peaceful as it seems. Local brewer, Eustace Bunnet, is on the war path after his beloved dog is found dead in one of the Bunnett’s Brewery vats. This grisly crime casts an air of suspicion over the whole town, but no culprit is found.

When a body is discovered in the very same vat, gruesomely boiled down to its bones, Nigel Strangeways is called in to capture the killer and solve this very peculiar mystery in a town more perturbing than picturesque.

The Verdict

Boasts a promising, if grotesque, premise. Sadly I figured out what had happened far too quickly, leaving me feeling a little underwhelmed and disappointed.


My Thoughts

As I have previously confessed on this blog, beer does not constitute a particularly big part of my diet these days. Were I a bigger drinker however I might find myself losing that taste after reading this book which contains what may be the most nauseating circumstances to find a body that I can ever recall reading in a crime novel. And yet, I am about to describe it so the sensitive of stomach (or for that matter, dog lovers) may wish to skip over this one.

You have been warned!

Nigel Strangeways has arrived in Maiden Astbury to address a meeting of the town’s literary society on the subject of modern poetry. During a drink before the meeting, one of the gathering jokingly asks if they are drinking Truffles in their beer. It turns out that some weeks earlier the remains of a dog belonging to Eustace Bunnet, the local brewer, was found dead inside one of his brewing vats.

Following Nigel’s speech, Bunnet approaches him ask to hire him to investigate the matter for him. He insists that his dog must have been murdered because it was too old and lacking in agility to find its way into the vat by itself. Nigel is not keen on the job but quotes an exorbitant fee which the parsimonious brewer surprisingly, if grudgingly, agrees to pay.

Bunnet arranges to meet with Nigel in his brewery the next day so it is surprising when he does not show up. One of Bunnet’s staff offers to show him the vat where the dog had been found but when they open it the find another body, this time a human one, that has been boiled down to its bones. There is no possibility that it could be suicide. It seems that Nigel has lost a client and gained another murder case.

In spite of how queasy it makes me to think over those opening chapters again, I think this makes for a wonderfully striking introduction to the novel. Blake’s prose is wonderfully witty and sharp, particularly in the scenes concerning the literary society which can be quite hilarious. For one thing, I can attest to how nothing draws a crowd for a literary gathering than the offer of free food…

While having the first victim be an animal may be upsetting, it does provide Strangeways with a reason to be on the scene, enabling him to get involved in the more traditional human murder case that follows. The discovery of that body, which comes early, raises a series of questions – not least about the relationship between these two bodies in the vat. To summarize some of them:

  • Was the dog murdered?
  • Is the murderer the same person responsible for the death of the dog?
  • If so, was it a trial run for the human murder that followed?
  • If not, did it inspire the murder or was it just coincidence?

I found these questions to be quite intriguing and looked forward to learning what the answers would be. Nigel’s investigation seems to go pretty smoothly and introduces us to a set of interesting characters setting up several suspects to consider. Yet for all of the appeal of this setup, I struggled to keep my interest for a very simple and very silly reason: one part of the solution struck me as far, far too obvious.

Now clearly I am not going to give away the game (at least, not deliberately). For one thing, I would love it if you disagree with me and find that the aspect of the plot I am referring to really works for you. The problem is that this book is structured in such a way as to make the moment where that information is shared feel powerful and yet if you see the clue coming, the mystery then becomes much, much simpler to solve.

Things are not helped either by heavy usage of the trope where our sleuth compiles pages of notes on each possible killer. This results in some pages of pretty dense text that mostly just reiterates aspects of the story we have already learned, seeming to only slow down the story.

Things do pick up a little towards the end but here, once again, I felt a little deflated. I wanted some moment of surprise and yet I found that I had simply predicted each of the planned surprises. The result was a book that while often quite witty and boasting an interesting starting point, sadly underwhelmed me, particularly in regards to the solution to its central detective story. Still, in spite of that Blake’s sharp and witty writing style makes this easy and entertaining to read.

While this book may have put me off my lunch and may make me eye my next few pints with a little suspicion, I am confident I will return to Blake again soon.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this one slightly more than I did, though I would agree that this would have been improved with a slightly shorter page count.

Moira @ ClothesInBooks has actually written about this twice. The praise is muted with a note that some aspects are of their time and that the tone can be rather snobbish.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World shares a mixture of contemporary reviews and their own opinion. They enjoyed the detection process in this one more than I did but they do point out the subsequent murders add interest which I do agree with.

Jonathan Creek: The Scented Room (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 7, 1998

Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by Time Waits for Norman
Followed by The Problem at Gallows Gate (Parts One and Two)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Bob Monkhouse was a standup comic who was a familiar face as a daytime television host on shows like Celebrity Squares and Wipeout.

Geoffrey McGivern makes his final appearance in the show as Maddy’s agent Barry (presumably he would have continued had Quentin come back). Best known for his role as Ford Prefect in original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, McGivern has performed in a wide array of comedy roles.

Finally, Peter Copley plays the small role of Eric the spam sandwich-loving guard here but will be known to fans of Cadfael as Abbot Heribert.

The Verdict

There are more complex or thrilling cases but this is the one I have watched most often. A clever puzzle which is filmed very effectively.


My Thoughts

A group of schoolgirls are being led on a tour of the home of theatre critic Sylvester Le Frey and his wife, Lady Theresa Cutler. While they bicker near the pool, a group of eight girls are led into a small room by a guide to see his El Greco while Eric, the security guard, keeps an eye on the group while nibbling on a spam sandwich. The group looks at the painting for a few moments before leaving, the painting still visibly on the wall. The door is closed and the other half of the class are gathered to be led in. As the guide opens the door she is shocked to find that the painting has been cut from the frame. There is no other way in or out of the small viewing room – the walls are solid and the skylight is built not to open. In short, it seems impossible that the painting could have been stolen in the space of thirty seconds with everyone stood outside and yet its disappearance is clear for all to see.

Jonathan detests Le Frey having been the subject of one of his acidic reviews in the past and so when he is tricked into visiting his home to check out the scene he is unwilling to be helpful, though he takes delight in telling Le Frey that he knows how the painting was stolen – he just won’t explain it to him.

In some of the comments on my posts about the first couple of episodes of this second season of Jonathan Creek I mention how the first three episodes make up my favorite run of stories from the show. At least, assuming my feelings about some of the later stories haven’t changed. While this story is perhaps less audaciously plotted than the two preceding it, the incredibly tight timetable in which the impossibility is worked makes the trick all the more impressive to me.

The opening to this episode is very effective, establishing not only the characters and the situation but the geography of the building. The camera is placed to give us clear shots of exactly what has happened, allowing the viewer to feel that they can survey the whole of the crime scene, both at the time of the crime and also as Jonathan will see it when he arrives at the house. That only raises the excitement of this particular case for me, making it an even more direct challenge to the viewer – Jonathan says right from the beginning he can work out how the trick was worked based on the exact same things we are seeing making us aware from the start that as impossible as the crime seems, the trick must be a simple one.

That turns out to be the case – the trick is a fairly simple one. Jonathan even gives Maddy a clue as to exactly how the trick was worked that is the type of one that is oblique enough that it is unlikely to help the viewer solve it yet clear enough that we can all marvel at how smart the sleuth is at the end of the story. Compared to the stories surrounding it however this does not feel noticeably slighter or less interesting in its plotting, particularly as the questions of who pulled off the heist and why remain unclear for much of the episode and are just as interesting to me as the how of the crime.

Adding to the situation is Jonathan’s resentment towards Le Frey. His reluctance to get involved in the case is quite understandable and so Maddy’s attempts to persuade him to help becomes a significant subplot for the episode. This, for me, is the least successful part of the episode as I find the business with the policeman more silly than funny, though I do at least enjoy Jonathan’s reaction to what happens and I appreciate that he does not budge in his conviction to not give Le Frey the satisfaction of an explanation, even when he comes to solve the case.

Speaking of Le Frey, I should probably take a moment to express my appreciation for the casting of Bob Monkhouse. This character is not a particularly complex one, nor is much asked of the performer in terms of showing much range or subtlety – he is there to be an obnoxious, arrogant blowhard and Monkhouse gives us exactly that. I am always a fan of seeing pomposity punctured and given how very, very pompous Le Frey is it is little wonder that I enjoy the grumpy interactions between him and Jonathan. Monkhouse’s performance is broad but entertaining, fitting his role perfectly and making this a favorite guest appearance on the show for me.

All of which brings me to the episode’s conclusion which I think is great. The resolution to the case involves an element of reenactment and I think this is done very well, reminding us of why the crime appeared so mysterious and giving the viewer one final opportunity to work out exactly how it was done before all is revealed. It is a fun scene visually, once again shot very efficiently, and I love the way it caps some of the relationships and themes we have seen developed in this story.

Of all of the Jonathan Creek stories, this is the one that I have the strongest memories of enjoying on first viewing. I remember feeling really surprised about the explanation of the crime and how it was worked, and I have found that my enjoyment for it hasn’t waned much on frequent repeated viewings. While I think there are some more complex or thrilling cases, I find that I love to revisit this story because of its clever premise and for the antagonism with Le Frey and have done so often over the years.

Five to Try: Memory Mysteries

I first began compiling this list in response to Curtis’ Friday Fright Night meme (more on that here). You see, being of a somewhat squeamish disposition I don’t typically read books that really fit with the trappings of the horror genre and so I thought rather laterally about things that scare me.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of losing my memory or my sense of awareness of my own actions. The odd thing is that I cannot really identify the origin of that fear. There is no great incident in my own life I can think of, nor do I have any reason to think that it is likely to happen to me. Still, the idea unsettles me and so I often find myself drawn to stories that use it in some fashion.

One work that does this well, though I have not included on my list, is the fascinating short story Diary of a Serial Killer by Young-Ha Kim. I decided against this book because only one of the stories, the titular one, is really a genre work. That story however is fascinating as we experience the thoughts of a serial killer who is suffering from dementia and struggles to keep his memories and thoughts in order – a dangerous prospect for someone whose life is comprised of secrets that might someday slip out. The presentation of what that would be like and, particularly, how distressing it could be is really effective and makes for a really powerful reading experience.

Looking at the five titles I have picked, none of them are really horrific or spooky in their presentation though I think some create horrific situations for their protagonists. I will try harder next time!

What I tried to do was select five books that handle the idea of memory in different ways, each focusing on some different aspect of it. In some you experience, quite directly, the narrator’s sense of confusion about their actions as they try to piece together what happened. In others the reader is kept at a distance from that character whose memory loss might be treated more ambiguously.

As always with these Five to Try-style posts, I invite you to share your own favorites of stories that play with memory-loss or manipulation in the comments. I love reading your thoughts and expanding on my wishlist of titles to read in the future!

One final note – I might very well have selected Great Black Kanba for this list had I not previously chosen it as part of my Railway Mysteries list just a few weeks ago. That offers a great example of how a character’s memory loss leaves her utterly confused about just who to trust and is definitely worthy of a closer look if you can track down an affordable copy. And so with that out of the way, on with the list!

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

If Only I Had Remembered…

I think it is fitting to begin this list with a book by Agatha Christie since she herself was supposed to have experienced one of the more mysterious cases of amnesia herself. For more on that story, check out this episode of the excellent Shedunnit podcast.

Ordeal by Innocence begins with Arthur arriving at the home of the Argyle family to share some information with them. Several years earlier the matriarch of the family had been murdered and her adopted son, Jacko, had been sent to prison for the crime. He had claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger at the time but that stranger could never be found. Arthur reveals he had been that man and the reason he could not verify the information was that he had lost his memory due to a car accident.

Unfortunately this piece of newly remembered information does not bring the peace Arthur had hoped for. Jacko had died in prison some time before and, as everyone soon realizes, if it wasn’t him then someone else in the house must have been responsible.

While the premise to this one is rather convoluted, it explores some interesting issues and family dynamics. Christie uses a structure where the story is told from the perspectives of each of her characters which allows us to understand how they are feeling and explore the sense of paranoia that Arthur’s revelation causes in most of them. Though not wholly successful, the book was one of Christie’s favorites and feels quite different from much of the author’s other work.

The Executioner Weeps (1957) by Frédéric Dard (Translated by David Coward)

Who Is She?

Most of the examples I have chosen on this list feature a protagonist who is struggling to piece together their memory of some events that happened to them. This work by Dard takes a different approach by having the person trying to piece that memory together be someone who finds the woman experiencing memory loss and falls in love with her.

What this book deals with, very effectively, is the idea that someone losing their memories might develop a secondary or different personality and that – in time, as their memories return – the original personality may reappear. It makes for a really compelling slice of noir drama and a great introduction to Dard’s work.

The Good Son (2016) by You-Jeong Jeong (Translated by Chi-Young Kim)

Why Did I Do It?

A young man wakes up to the smell of blood and a confusing telephone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. As he explores his house he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

The main character suffers from seizures and frequently does not remember things following them. Slowly his memories come back as he decides to try and cover up what he did.

While I prefer You-Jeong Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness, this book is a better match for the theme of this list and does a really good job of portraying how disconcerting this experience is for the protagonist.

Net of Cobwebs (1946) by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Did I Do That?

Malcolm Drake served as a merchant seaman before his boat was torpedoed leaving him quite nervous and volatile. He is staying with his brother and their family to convalesce which includes his rather domineering Aunt Evie. During a party Aunt Evie drops dead of alcohol poisoning. Several members of the party are sure that Malcolm was responsible and one, the butler, even claims to have witnessed it.

Holding is a superb writer who explores compelling psychological situations. Several of her stories incorporate some aspect of memory or the idea that the mind is playing tricks on a character. I think Malcolm’s volatility makes him an interesting protagonist however and left me quite unsure how this story would end.

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Why Don’t I Remember?

My final selection is also one of my favorite reads on this list. The Red Right Hand is told from the perspective of a character who ought to have been a witness to a murderer fleeing. The way the road is laid out they must have passed him and yet he cannot remember seeing anything. As he delves deeper into his memory, replaying events, we may begin to doubt the trustworthiness of those memories and if there might be some other reason that he cannot recall seeing a killer pass him.

This was recently reissued by Penzler Publishing as part of their American Mystery Classics series and is one of my favorite releases of this past year. Part of the reason for that is the book is not simply an unsettling suspense or thriller story but it also plays fair with the reader.


So those are my selections on this theme. What are some of your favorite mysteries that play with the idea of memory?

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #10
Preceded by Lord Edgeware Dies
Followed by Three Act Tragedy

The Blurb

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.

The Verdict

A well-plotted story with a truly memorable conclusion. It is not my favorite Poirot novel but it deserves its reputation as a classic.


My Thoughts

Hercule Poirot arrives at his hotel in Istanbul where he receives an urgent telegram that suggests he needs to return to England immediately. Poirot decides to book passage on the Orient Express, a train line that spans Europe, and asks the hotel desk to make arrangements. Unfortunately the first and second class compartments are fully booked but his friend, Monsieur Bouc, is a director at the railway and is able to intervene and secure him a berth when a passenger does not show up for their reservation.

At dinner Poirot is approached by Ratchett, an American businessman, who wants to hire him. He tells Poirot that he has received death threats and wants Poirot to sniff out the responsible party. He declines the commission however, telling Ratchett that he does not like his face. Poirot retires to his berth and tries to sleep, only to be woken in the early hours by a series of noises in the corridor.

Meanwhile weather conditions outside the train seem to be worsening and before long the train has come to a halt, trapped in a snowbank. Then Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment, his body have been stabbed twelve times. Bouc implores Poirot to carry out an investigation while the train is halted in the hope that they can present their findings to the Yugoslav police at the next station and avoid further delays.

It is a curious thought that this is one of just a handful of mystery titles I could write about that I can reasonably expect anyone reading this post to have experienced in some form. Even if you haven’t actually read or watched a version of this story, even if you do not like mystery fiction, there is still a very good chance that you will know some elements of the general setup and perhaps its solution.

Though I suspect anyone reading this blogpost will already know most of this book’s secrets, I will still do my best to avoid providing spoilers. I would suggest though that if you haven’t read this book yet and you have any sort of interest in mystery fiction that you should seek it out while you remain unspoiled – if you can preserve and experience the surprise of its ending then I think you owe it to yourself to do so while you still can.

So, why do I think Murder on the Orient Express became regarded as one of Christie’s best stories? I think the answer to that begins with its setup. This was not the first Christie story to be based around a train but I think it is much more successful than the previous one because the train itself, its features and internal space and geography feel more important to the crime and the detection of the killer. The use of a snowdrift to shape the geography of the crime is also very clever, avoiding the problem of a train’s accessibility as customers move on and off and making it into a very effective closed circle.

Another reason I think the setup to this story is effective is that unusually we have a victim who expects the murder. The question of who the victim is and why they have attracted enemies is an interesting one and here, as in The Murder on the Links, Christie opts to take inspiration from a famous real-life crime. The answers to those questions are effective, both in establishing Ratchett as a character but also in providing a credible motive for his murder.

There is one other aspect of the setup that I think works particularly well – Poirot is on the scene from the very start of the case. As he is also travelling on that train, he is able to observe the suspects’ behavior prior to the crime and has already noticed some things about them prior to being aware of the death threats or the murder itself. This is not only an economical choice in terms of the narrative, allowing the sleuth to notice some key points and relationships organically rather than having them explained to them, it also adds some excitement in the idea that the crime has been committed in the presence of the detective – an idea used very effectively in Peril at End House and which Christie frequently returns to in subsequent Poirot adventures.

Christie also creates an interesting mix of suspects to consider from a variety of different backgrounds. One of the initial challenges is understanding why any of this multinational cast, all apparently unknown to Ratchett, would have motive to kill him at all. In the course of his investigation, Poirot will turn up multiple possible killers and uncovers lots of secrets.

This brings me however to the thing I like least about the book – the lengthy succession of interviews. In practice the detection process in mystery novels often boils down to a series of interviews but these are often broken up, differentiated or disguised by moving them to different locations or requiring a little effort on the part of the detective to track the interviewee down. Here however it is presented as a succession of interviews and while many of the disclosures made are interesting, the structure that information is delivered through can feel a little limited and repetitive.

[To digress – it is that same succession of interviews that makes this book such a popular choice for adaptation. You have twelve really good single scenes of about the same length – ideal for bringing in a group of A list actors for just a short filming period.]

And yet while I think the somewhat flat presentation of the interviews can be disappointing, I find it only elevates the puzzle itself. It takes confidence in the ingenuity of your solution to risk stripping everything back and place so much testimony side by side to really highlight the contradictions between them. In doing this we also see Poirot’s brilliance as he pieces the puzzle together, using logic to resolve the differences and problems in the accounts and come up with the book’s memorable solution (or, more accurately, solutions).

Which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. When I first read this I disagreed with the way the case is resolved and the resolution of a central theme of the novel but returning to the book itself I find that I feel differently about that ending. Perhaps I am reading this section of the book slightly differently – my views on the themes discussed haven’t shifted so it must be the way I am interpreting the material itself.

ROT13: V unir vffhrf jvgu gur vqrn gung fvzcyl tngurevat 12 crbcyr vagvzngryl pbaarpgrq gb gur pnfr pbafgvghgrf nalguvat yvxr n whel, ubjrire zhpu vg cyrnfrf gur gjryir gb guvax bs gurzfryirf gung jnl. V nyfb bevtvanyyl fgehttyrq jvgu gur vqrn gung Cbvebg jnf pubbfvat n erfbyhgvba ohg er-ernqvat guvf V erpbtavmr gung V zvfernq guvf – ur zreryl cerfragf gur gjb ernqvatf bs gur rivqrapr naq nyybjf rirelbar ryfr gb pubbfr n fbyhgvba gung gurl ner unccvrfg jvgu.

Revisiting this with the knowledge of the solution, I was impressed by how well it was set up and clued and I think it manages to be surprising without feeling gimmicky. I probably enjoyed it more on revisiting it than I did on my first reading. Certainly I can understand why this story remains one of Christie’s most popular, even though I prefer some of Poirot’s other cases in terms of the interest of their initial scenarios.

Second Opinions

Brad at AhSweetMystery has written extensively about this book. Two of the highlights are this post in which he discusses it in the context of Christie’s output in the 1930s and this discussion of the book, what it means to him and its adaptations.

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime shares eleven things she finds interesting about the book.

Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery similarly found that they enjoyed this more on revisiting it – perhaps this is a story that is more enjoyable if you ignore its reputation.

Christian at Mysteries Short and Sweet covered this as part of his Christie at 100 series and gave this a glowing review. One of my favorite things about this series of reviews is looking at the various covers that have appeared on Swedish editions and seeing how different publishers have interpreted the book.

Bev at My Reader’s Block discusses the importance of this book to their becoming a mystery reader and many of the adaptations.

Dead Yesterday also shares some personal experiences of the book and how it shaped their reading. There are some spoilers but they are clearly labeled and avoidable.

Countdown John shares his notes on this book including research of some of the references contained in the book.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World calls this a masterpiece and provides some interesting contemporary reviews.

Jose at A Crime Is Afoot describes the book as a classic and gives it his highest recommendation.

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil

The Blurb

Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.

Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?

The Verdict

Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.

While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.

This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.

It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?

One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.

I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.

A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.

I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.

I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.

Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.


Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!

TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.

Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.


A Cataloguing Note

For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.

Jonathan Creek: Time Waits for Norman (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 31, 1998

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Danse Macabre
Followed by The Scented Room

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Dermot Crowley who plays the time-obsessed Norman in this episode has been a recurring character on Luther since its first season playing Martin Schenk.

Deborah Grant who plays Norman’s wife played a recurring part in the long-running crime show Bergerac.

The Verdict

I have some issues with aspects of the conclusion but the explanation of what happened is clever.


My Thoughts

The second season of Jonathan Creek opened with a really strong impossible murder and continued in a similarly impressive vein with this story which is a version of the person seen in two places at once impossibility. The titular Norman is a time-obsessed man who is so concerned with the idea that it is being wasted that he insists that all of the clocks in their home have their hands removed. His working time is split between two offices – one in Britain and the other in the United States – and he has worked at both locations long enough that everyone knows him well.

Norman has just returned to his home in the UK when he and his wife Antonia receive a visit from an employee at a Wimpy Burger. That man produces Norman’s wallet and insists that he had dropped it the previous morning while eating a burger – something that would be out of character for him. The wallet is definitely his but Norman claims that the man is talking nonsense and when she calls her husband’s office in the US Antonia is told that he had been in a meeting at exactly that time. Not knowing how to explain it, Antonia reaches out to Maddy for advice and she, in turn, solicits Jonathan’s help.

One of the things that appeals to me most about this story is that it seeks to broaden the scope of the show’s impossibilities. Each episode of the first season had involved a murder, as had the opener to this second season, so it made for a nice change to be dealing with something odd rather than deadly. It makes for a nice change of pace and tone as those somewhat lower stakes allow for a little more of a focus to fall on the will-they, won’t-they relationship between Maddy and Jonathan.

Renwick’s script does a very good job of laying out the details of the sightings and establishing that the US office genuinely exists (although the rather odd accent that the first person Antonia speaks with may have you doubting that fact) and that multiple individuals remember Norman being at the meeting that day. With lying excised as a possibility, we know that the answer to what happened has to be something more inventive than simply “they lied”.

When we get that explanation it does mostly satisfy me, although like most tricks there is always a sense of deflation when you realize how easily it is worked. While this went over my head when I first saw it I think anyone who approaches it logically may very well be able to work out what happened from just my summary above. For once I think the more interesting question here is not how but why and I think the answer given to that feels broadly credible.

I am less convinced by the episode’s secondary plot which features Jonathan finding himself entangled in an uncomfortable relationship with a woman he feels unable to break up with. While I recognize its purpose in being used as a reason to provoke jealousy and explore Jonathan’s discomfort, the actual content of those scenes falls flat for me and fails to make me laugh – hardly ideal for a plotline whose main purpose is comedic. I would also add that I don’t think those scenes ever really do a good enough job of exploring how the woman feels about the way she is seen and treated which ought to be a consideration.

The other characters fare better however and I think the reason that this episode works is because of the characters of Norman and Antonia Strangerson. These characters not only have interesting backgrounds and personalities, you also understand how the mistrust between them has begun to simmer and why Maddy and Jonathan need to uncover the truth.

Does that mean I love the ending? Not at all. In fact I think that once we get past the explanation of what happened, the episode really struggles to put forward a clear idea of how the viewer should be feeling or reacting to what they have seen. While I think that there is something realistic and honest in its conclusion, there is also something quite unsatisfying about how the episode ends.

ROT13 (SPOILERS): Gur rcvfbqr frrzf gb or fhttrfgvat gung jr bhtug gb flzcnguvmr jvgu Abezna’f fgehttyr gb yrg tb bs uvf cnfg snzvyl naq gung ur vf trahvar va uvf ybir sbe Nagbavn lrg uvf fhttrfgvba gung ur vf thvygl bs jnagvat gb ybir gbb zhpu srry frys-freivat naq vtaber gur jnagf bs gur bgure gjb crbcyr (naq gur puvyq) gung ner nssrpgrq. Guvf nyy fgevxrf zr nf qrrcyl hafngvfsnpgbel naq yrnirf zr srryvat fbzrjung bhg bs fgrc jvgu gur gbar bs gur raqvat.

In spite of those complaints, I do appreciate the cleverness of the problem’s solution and I think both Crowley and Grant are excellent guest stars. Is it quite as good as I remembered? Well, no. But the clever ideas are really clever and make this one of the better Jonathan Creek adventures.

Five to Try: Railway Mysteries

There are two settings that I identify strongly with the golden age of detective fiction. The first is the country house mystery along the lines of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The idea of a location where everyone gathers to relax or see friends and family turning murderous is one of those ideas that gets used again and again, particularly in contemporary works that seek to evoke that “Agatha Christie-style mystery” feel.

The other setting I associate with this era of crime fiction is, as you have no doubt guessed, the mystery set aboard a train. This is a less common setting but one that I would suggest is much more closely tied to the original golden age period. Yes, people still write works set on trains but in doing so they often trying to evoke or reference one of the most famous mysteries of all time, Murder on the Orient Express (which, as a friend noted on Twitter, will be the next title on my Poirot read-through).

I think there are several reasons that the train as a setting has such appeal to me. The first is that, unlike the plane, it is easy to move around and socialize on a train. The space becomes all the more important to the story as we become obsessed with whose cabin is next to the murder victim’s or who was sat in which seats in the dining car. It is a diagram lover’s dream – all those lovely rectangles, many of them with numbers associated with them. When you consider the possibilities for locked spaces the train offers a staggering variety of options for the crime writer.

Another reason is there is that sense of the space around the train itself. The landscape can really matter and you often have a sense of the train rushing through tunnels or through snowy, mountainous terrain that will almost certainly force the train to stop at some point. A plane or boat is obviously occupying a space but how often is it truly important to the story?

The train could be glamorous, comfortable and practical. It offered a location in which the middle and upper classes mixed, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Little wonder there are so many wonderful mystery stories set aboard them.

In the post below I share five mystery stories I most enjoyed that are set on or around the world of trains. I have tried to avoid the most obvious picks on the basis that they are already known and loved. Rather than trying to offer a ranking of the five stories I consider the best, I have instead attempted to pick five stories that illustrate different ways that this setting has been used in the genre. Okay – I cheat a little and mention a few others along the way… I may very well not mention one of your favorites. If so, I would love you to share the stories you love in the comments below and the reasons you love them.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

Dread Journey (1945) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The train as an enclosed space

Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey features a group of characters from the world of Hollywood making a coast-to-coast journey. As a consequence of being in close confinement with each other within a carriage, tensions rise and grievances are aired. It is clear that not everyone who boarded the train will live to disembark at the other end and that one character, an actress who is about to be dropped by her producer, is playing a very dangerous game…

There are multiple aspects of this book that I really responded to. The discussion of the casting process in Hollywood during this era seems horribly familiar while Hughes creates an interesting cast of characters to fill her Pullman carriage.

Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain

The train as the means of death

In spite of what the cover image shown here may suggest, the train in Double Indemnity is perhaps less of a feature than in the other stories I have listed. In fact very little of the book takes place in or around a train yet when it does feature it does so in a very important way. It serves as the means that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger use to dispose of her husband as part of an insurance scam. Given that this is a noir story however do not expect all to go well for the couple.

I think it is easy to forget that a train itself was an enormously powerful object that could, with some careful planning, be used as a means to kill. After all it does have a habit of hiding other injuries that the victim may have sustained. For an example of that idea take a look at E. and M.A. Radfords’ excellent inverted detective novel The Heel of Achilles.

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing (1935)

The sudden entry into a tunnel providing the opportunity for murder

Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky takes place on a train travelling across the border between the United States and Mexico. After US customs service agent Hugh Rennert learns of a strange threatening conversation between passengers on the train he is alert to the possibility of trouble.

During the journey the train passes through a tunnel and the lights do not turn on, throwing the carriage into darkness. When the train emerges on the other side the man who had issued the threat lies dead but with no signs of violence it is not even certain if he has been murdered. Soon however further killings will clarify that matter.

Downing is an excellent descriptive writer, able to make you feel what it is like to be on that train – particularly later in the book where it becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. It is not only a thrilling read, it is an excellent puzzle mystery which I thoroughly recommend.

For those interested in another take on this theme, check out Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Great Black Kanba (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

An accident on board a train leading to trouble…

Great Black Kanba reminds us that travelers could often be meeting someone for the first time.

We meet the main character of this story after she has been injured in a baggage accident, causing her to lose her memory of who she is and where she is travelling to. Fellow passengers tell her who she is based on some items found in what is presumed to be her baggage and she sets out to complete the journey she is told she is on, hoping that her memory comes back as she does so.

Another novella that mixes an accident on a train, albeit a much more serious one, with questions about identity is Cornell Woolrich’s wonderful I Married a Dead Man. In that story an unmarried woman who is eight months pregnant gets in an accident and is mistaken for a pregnant woman who was traveling to meet her in laws for the first time. It is a truly great slice of noir fiction.

Death of a Train (1946) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Not all trains are passenger trains

Of course I had to include something by Freeman Wills Crofts who is a particularly appropriate choice for this topic given his own background as a railroad engineer prior to becoming an author. He uses trains as elements in several of his books and while train timetables are not as vital to Crofts’ storytelling as some would have you believe, he certainly had a strong appreciation for the railroad and he does sometimes get rather technical.

Death of a Train takes place during the Second World War and involves a secret plan to transport important supplies without them falling into enemy hands. A special train is laid on but when an attempt to seize it is foiled only by chance it becomes clear that there must be a leak somewhere in the War Cabinet. It falls to Inspector French to try and seek out the guilty party.

This is not the most interesting of Crofts’ railroad mysteries but I selected it as a reminder that not every train carried passengers and that while goods trains may not be as glamorous, they could still offer intriguing possibilities for storytelling.


So there you have my five suggestions for Golden Age detective and mystery novels that feature trains. What are some of your favorite stories to feature trains? Feel free to break away from the Golden Age and include more recent titles!

Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill

Book Details

Originally published in 2012
Rowland Sinclair #3
Preceded by A Decline in Prophets
Followed by Paving the New Road

The Blurb

It is 1933 and wealthy Australian artist Rowland Sinclair is enjoying a leisurely sojourn in the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. As ever, he is accompanied by his entourage – a poet, a fellow painter and a brazen sculptress. The Depression-era troubles of the wider world seem far away. Until long-time Sinclair family ally and employee Harry Simpson disappears.

Rowland must leave for the High Country to find Harry. He encounters resentful stockmen, dangerous gangsters and threatening belligerence all round. With his trusted friends’ help, he uncovers a dark conspiracy which suddenly renders the beautiful Australian outback very sinister…

The Verdict

The characterizations and setting are great. The case however seems to meander a little, making this entertaining but not as good as either preceding novel.


My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my first two outings with Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist who finds himself getting caught up in mysteries while trying to navigate an awkward relationship with his disapproving older brother. I had actually intended to get to this one soon after the last but as often happens with my TBR pile, I find new things to add on top and can lose track of an enjoyable series in favor of the new. Happily I stumbled across it at just the right time, particularly as I felt keen to read a historical mystery, and ended up devouring it in a day.

After having an escape from a group of toughs in his home, Rowland Sinclair is summoned to see his brother Wilfred who makes two requests of him. The first is to cast a vote in his role as a director of a company. The other however is to journey into the High Country in search of an aboriginal employee who disappeared without a trace after being sent to take investigate a matter on Sinclair lands. The people he visited suggest he had gone on walkabout but Wil points out that behavior is quite unlike Harry who is usually responsible and communicative.

The book is at its best in the chapters in which we see Rowland and his friends roughing it in the countryside in search of Harry. This not only inspires some very effective descriptions of the landscape and the isolation of working the land and gives Gentill an opportunity to explore some different types of characters than we have seen in the series up until this point.

One consequence of Rowland being pulled out of his comfortable setting is that it reminds us that we have tended to view him through the lens of his family. In particular, his very conservative brother Wil. Compared to him Rowland certainly comes off as being much more down to earth but when he is thrown into a rough, rural setting we see him struggle to figure out how to talk with and deal with the people (and, quite memorably, the wildlife) he finds there.

Where his previous adventure saw Rowland making a choice to take a cruise that led him into adventure, here he finds himself quite unwillingly drawn into events. While he cares about Harry and wants to make sure he is safe, he is not enthused about undertaking this trip, nor about being pushed to take on additional responsibilities as a company director at an upcoming board meeting. Still, while this adventure will push him into some uncomfortable situations, I think it also works well to demonstrate some sides to his character that we have not really seen before as well as giving us further insight into his early life and that of his deceased brother Aubrey.

All of Rowland’s friends return and make appearances in this story which is welcome. That little family of characters that surround and support Rowland provide much of the series’ energy and heart. There are even some events that threaten to disrupt or at least complicate his relationship with Edna. That relationship still strikes me as quite charming and I will confess to being fully invested in wanting to see that realized (if you have read further in this series than me, please do not spoil me on whether I will be happy with the way it develops).

The relationship that interests me most however is not with his circle of friends but his complicated feelings towards his elder brother. The two men are clearly quite different in temprement, outlook and political sympathies. They have different views on what their role in society should be and how they can best represent their family. At times their relationship can become quite acrimonious and bitter – indeed, we get several such moments in this story. Yet you also see the bond the two men have, their shared experiences, and I am always struck by how real that relationship seems. That relationship seems to sit at the heart of this series – at least in these early installments – and it is this aspect of the books that I am most curious to see how it develops.

As much as I love the character content and the setting, I do have to comment on the mystery plot itself and here I am afraid I was a little disappointed. I have already indicated that I think the early part of the book with Rowly investigating the disappearance is really quite effective and engaging. The problems for me occur in the book’s back half. That is partly because the action relocates to the city, taking away the book’s most distinctive element, but it is also because the villain of the piece did not strike me as particularly convincing or stand up well in comparison with those in the first two books while their motivations felt somewhat generic.

The other reason I think the second half is weaker than the first is that Rowland loses his direct motivation to become engaged with the mystery. That is reflected in how he seems to become responsive rather than proactive from this point in the story and from that point on things seem to happen to him rather than feeling like he is choosing to engage with a mystery.

Still, Rowland remains a really fantastic creation and while I think this case is uneven, I cannot help but admire Gentill’s approach to characterization or giving us a sense of Australian society in the 1930s. While I preferred the first two novels which set a very high standard, the good bits here are very good. I feel keen to see how this series continues to develop and I look forward to reading the next installment – Paving the New Road – to see what the rest of this tumultous decade has in store for the Sinclair brothers.