The Three Taps by Ronald Knox

51V0WAnUlmLBack in March I wrote about the first crime novel by Ronald Knox, The Viaduct Murder, which I found quite entertaining though I felt its final third was quite disappointing. The Three Taps was Knox’s second novel and the first to feature his series sleuth, Miles Bredon.

The novel opens with a length and very amusing description of the Indescribable Company, an insurance agency with considerable resources. We are following one of their clients, Mr. Mottram, who holds an Euthanasia Policy with them.

According to the terms of that policy, if he dies before his sixty-fifth birthday his beneficiaries would receive half a million pounds. Should he survive beyond that age then he is entitled to an annuity. Should he commit suicide however he would not be entitled to a penny.

The reason for his visit to the company is that he is looking to cash out of his policy early, against the terms and company practice. He explains that he has recently received a diagnosis that he will die within the next two years but rather than his heirs receiving a half million pounds upon his death, he is proposing that they terminate the policy and refund half of his premium payments instead so he can enjoy his final few months. This offer is politely refused and, after he has gone, the Company sends Miles to look into matters. Miles and his wife follow him to a hotel in the country where they discover he has died as a result of poisoning by gas in circumstances that are far from clear.

The problem is that there are features of the crime scene that are suggestive of both suicide and murder. For one thing the body is found in a room that has been locked from the inside. However it is noted that the gas taps are actually switched off in the room and the window is open while some of his actions the evening before do not seem to tally with those of a man who expects to kill himself. It’s an intriguing scenario that only becomes more confusing as we learn more about the circumstances of the death.

Knox’s sleuth, Miles Bredon, makes his first appearance here and it is clear that he is cut from a rather different mold than many of his contemporaries. While he is smart and perceptive, his attention will drift and he is described as being somewhat lethargic. This case does catch his interest however, in part because he lays a small (but soon to increase) bet on the outcome with the police officer investigating the death. The two of them will investigate this case together, sharing their findings while Miles’ wife also plays an important role in conducting some of the interviews and making suggestions.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Miles and Angela which are breezy and comedic in tone. Angela plays a significant part in this investigation and shows some strong detective skills of her own, working to extract information from sources, and keeps her husband on task. It’s a fun relationship and I think Knox uses them superbly, balancing the comedic interactions with serious, thoughtful detection.

Returning to the case itself, one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was that the author does not follow the usual template for novels that feature a death which looks like suicide. Typically in such stories the author takes pains to get past any such uncertainty and quickly establish that it is a case of murder before presenting us with a gallery of suspects.

Knox does not follow that game plan here at all, keeping the questions about the nature of the death open until very close to the end. That he manages to do so while keeping his plot fair play is laudable and he manages to do this by focusing less on the question of whodunit than pondering howdunit and whydunit.

The genius of the circumstances Knox outlines are that there is a tension within the evidence that seems impossible to resolve. If you accept that it was a case of suicide then how do you explain the evidence that suggests someone had been in the room after his death. If it is murder then why did someone go to the trouble of making it look like a suicide when that would remove the financial incentive for murder in the first place?

The solution that Knox gives us is really quite clever, both in terms of the mechanical way it was worked but also in its psychological aspects. I didn’t come close to figuring it out myself and while I think the technical explanation does become a little dry in those parts, I thought it presented some novel features that make it quite distinct.

As enjoyable as the book is however, it is not without a few problems. One of these relates to the ending where though I feel that while a piece of information is fairly clued, I am not sure that it was as well conveyed in the setup as it is in the final explanation. I somewhat suspect that this is one of those cases where contemporary audiences may have reacted differently to that piece of information.

The other is harder to explain without getting into spoilery territory which I’d like to avoid as much as possible. What I will say is that I think some aspects of the ending may run contrary to the reader’s expectations of what this sort of book is supposed to do. Those who like to focus on spotting the suspects may feel a little disappointed at how few options Knox gives us. That is not to say that those elements aren’t there, just that they are not as prominent as usual.

Overall I was far more impressed with The Three Taps than I had been with my previous foray into Knox’s work. There are some really solid ideas here and I thought the crime scene was enjoyably devious. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked Miles and Angela and will hope to be able to get back to them again soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: In a locked room (Where)

The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi

TheInformerShigeo Segawa had been a successful stock trader for several years before disgracing himself when he was caught trading with company money. After trying to strike out on business on his own and failing we find him at the novel’s start working for his family business making a tenth of his former salary.

By chance he runs into an old acquaintance who tells him about a job opportunity that she had heard about. She sets up an appointment with what seems to be a fledgling company selling massage machines to executives. His meeting goes well and he receives a job offer with far more lucrative terms than he would expect and accepts, albeit with some reservations. Soon he learns that his position will not just be selling those machines but that he has been hired to carry out an act of industrial espionage.

This is my first experience reading anything by Akimitsu Takagi, a fairly prolific Japanese author of the post-war period and I came to it with relatively little knowledge of the type of story I would be reading.

The tone and storytelling in the opening chapters seems to indicate that we will be experiencing an inverted or psychological crime story as the reader anticipates everything going wrong. One review I read compared the themes and style of the first third of the novel to Mamet’s work which is an observation I wish I could claim was my own. At the point that everything goes wrong our point of perspective shifts to that of Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, one of Takagi’s series characters, who is tasked with investigating a murder and we realize that while what we have read will help us identify the killer, it is probably not going to be Shigeo.

Rather than trying to categorize the story by its storytelling style, I think this is better addressed in terms of its thematic discussion. The Informer is a story that addresses the changing nature of Japanese business and the values associated with that in the post-war period. In this sense it reminds me a lot of some of Kurosawa’s more cynical, modern dramas that would portray figures you would expect to be respectable as verging on degeneracy such as his Drunken Angel.

This is reflected in the cast of characters Takagi creates who might be described as varying dark shades of gray. There are numerous instances of what would have been regarded as sexual immorality and adultery, financial malpractice as well as manipulation and coercion. There are several instances in the novel where characters voice a lack of respect for the older generation which implies a broader cultural degeneracy infiltrating the workplace. Even the victim is hard to sympathize with if we can believe some of the information his wife’s sister shares with Shigeo.

The novel also evokes a strong sense of place and time, giving Takagi’s view of the business world of this time. Industrial espionage is rife with companies seeking any advantage they can find in a difficult economy. There are still hints of an older, highly paternalistic culture however that comes through in the way an employer seeks to protect the interests of one of his employees suggesting that this is Japan in transition. If you enjoy social history or reading about other cultures then you may well find these aspects of the book to be quite compelling.

Turning back to the mystery plot itself, I spent a good portion of the book absolutely certain of who must be responsible only to feel quite ridiculous when the final reveal comes. This reflects that the plot makes a certain amount of sense, though be prepared for the discussion of what happened to feel a little abrupt. Also, the fate of a key character is left unresolved so be prepared if you must have total closure! This may not be for you.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this work though is the writer’s ability to evoke psychology and put the reader in the head of his key characters as they process the situations they find themselves in and react. While this is a third person narrative, we get to share in Shigeo’s understanding of what is happening to him and follow his emotional reactions and reasoning as he makes his decisions. We are never left wondering why he responds the way he does, even when it causes more trouble for him, and I was anxious to know whether Saburo would catch the killer and how it would all be resolved for Shigeo.

The result is a novel that I felt made for fascinating reading although it is more of a suspense novel than a detective story. The setting is striking and the book conveyed a strong sense of time, place and culture. The circumstances of the crime are intriguing though I will say that the question of mechanics is not considered at all by either detective or writer. It made for a striking first impression of Akimitsu Takagi’s work, though I am disappointed to discover that only two of his other books were ever translated into English so unless someone goes ahead and starts commissioning some more I’ll never be able to read them myself.

Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinmanI am typically a little wary of historical mystery novels that feature historical figures or events prominently. There are certainly some very good stories that have used them thoughtfully but all too often I feel that it becomes an excuse to indulge in historical celebrity-spotting. While Bertie and the Tinman features a number of real life figures I am happy to say that they are generally used in a very thoughtful and restrained way.

The premise of this short series from Peter Lovesey was that Bertie, the Prince of Wales, fancied himself an amateur detective and had several adventures that he recorded in book form and had sealed away for a hundred years to avoid causing any disgrace. This period now being at an end, we are reading what purports to be a historical account complete with a charming editor’s note at the end that suggests that there are reasons to doubt its authenticity (not least that we should doubt that Bertie possessed the drive to complete a manuscript himself) and outlines the fates of the various characters following the end of this adventure.

The incident that this story revolves around is actually drawn from the history books, the apparent suicide of famed jockey Fred Archer as a result of delirium brought on by illness. Lovesey weaves his narrative around those historical details very skillfully to create a rich and believable story. The question is why a man who was regarded as the most skilled rider of his era would suddenly commit suicide when he seemed to be recovering from a bout of illness. While I do not share Lovesey’s love of sporting history, I think this initial premise is intriguing and certainly it provides a cast of colorful characters for us to encounter.

Bertie, the Prince of Wales, is on the face of it rather an unlikely detective and I did worry that I would find it hard to take him seriously in that role or that there would be some alterations to his character to make it work. Instead Lovesey makes a virtue of those deficiencies, presenting us with a slightly different model of investigator. He is not a great thinker, though he is certainly intelligent, nor does he possess much drive or application in conducting his investigations as at several points he hands off work to others to perform on his behalf.

He does possess the advantage of access and status however that will prove a boon to him in his investigations. In addition, he is genuinely intrigued by the circumstances of this mystery and concerned for Archer’s reputation in death. The combination of those traits made him credible to me and I appreciated that Lovesey does not gloss over his flaws.

In fact it is those flaws within Bertie that make him the most compelling aspect of this story as he has one of those wonderful narrative voices that drips with personality. This is a man who feels frustrated in his position, keen to acquire a purpose and meaningful duties yet often acting quite irresponsibly. He can be quite self-aware and charming yet he can also be an incorrigible ass, particularly in the way he treats his wife. The result is a hero, of sorts, that we can laugh with and at but whose investigation is serious and credible.

There are some memorable moments along the way, not least when his mother makes an appearance as well as some of his bedroom antics (which are written to tread the line perfectly, being more bawdy than explicit). The biographical details of Bertie’s life are well researched and the novel touches on many aspects of Victorian life and culture including the music hall scene and spiritualism.

As entertaining as Lovesey’s prose and dialog can be, I think that judged purely on the mystery elements the book would be found wanting. Perhaps because Bertie possesses more limited powers of deduction than the likes of Cribb, the solution to the mystery is unlikely to dazzle or shock the reader. Alternatively, perhaps Lovesey’s care to ensure that the solution fits the historical facts is responsible. Either way, the final third of the book lacks much of the spark and excitements of the earlier sections though I was charmed by his use of a challenge to the reader presented in the form of a bathtub realization.

Ultimately it is the charm of the novel that carries the day and makes it easy to overlook some of the weaknesses of the mystery at its heart. Bertie is instantly recognizable, credible and amusing so it is never a chore to spend time in his company while Lovesey’s attention to the details of the historical setting and character is superb. A very entertaining effort.

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko

MansionMurdersIt is the early hours of the morning and Yukie Hachisuka and her sign language teacher are talking when they hear the sound of someone walking and decide to open the curtains to look. When they do they observe Yukie’s father, businessman Kikuichirō Hachisuka, being shot through the heart with a crossbow.

When the two women instinctively leave their room to run down to him they are struck from behind, waking up several hours later. They discover that he is dead but there are signs that the body had been moved. Even more strangely, when the Police investigate they find that the room the murderer used belongs to Yūsaku Yano, the son of the family’s servants, who swears that he was fast asleep and that his door was locked from the inside.

The Police quickly settle on Yano as the only possible suspect they can see and they plan to arrest him but Kyōzō Hayami, an inspector of the Metropolitan Police Department, is persuaded by Yukie to try to find an alternative suspect. The Chief suggests that he might want to take a few days leave to investigate the matter and he and his colleague Kinoshita start to look into events.

The puzzle is a solid one though I was somewhat surprised that I worked out exactly how it was accomplished about two fifths of the way into the book. This is rather baffling to me as it is quite unlike me to have the first clue about solving an impossible crime, let alone getting it done so early in the text. When this sort of thing happens I usually caution that I may just have been lucky but I do think there are several significant details mentioned that may prove suggestive to seasoned readers of the genre.

While I may not have been amazed by the mechanics of how the crime was achieved, I am very happy to say that reaching that solution early did not diminish my enjoyment of the story for several reasons. For one, I could not be entirely certain of the identity of the killer. For another, there are some other aspects of the case that take a little longer to come into clear focus. But perhaps most importantly, I found Takemaru Abiko’s style to be highly entertaining and engaging.

Part of the way Abiko draws the reader in is by presenting us with a very likeable central character in the form of Kyōzō. He is not necessarily the sharpest investigator, nor the most brilliant mind but he possesses a simple charm. One of the things that really sticks out is when we first learn that he is attracted to Yukie and he reflects on how he feels lucky that he would have a successful relationship with her because she is the fiftieth woman he has fallen in love with but there are plenty of other fun details and thoughts within the text.

The other aspect of Abiko’s approach that I think sticks out is the restrained use of humor throughout the story. Combining comedy and crime can be a tricky business and there is always a risk that the jokes will overpower the narrative. Abiko avoids that by picking specific aspects of his story to provide humor while allowing the crime to be taken seriously.

One particularly rich source of humor is Kyōzō’s ability to compel Kinoshita to perform reckless or foolish acts. By the end of the book the reader will be anticipating the punch lines to these interactions but the pleasure comes in seeing just how Kinoshita will find himself injured again. Similarly I appreciated his frustrating interactions with his brother and sister who are both mystery fans and who each take on significant roles in the case, at one point giving their own version of Dr. Fell’s famous locked room lecture.

Though its puzzle may not be quite as ingeniously constructed as either The Moai Island Puzzle or The Decagon House Mystery, other shin honkaku titles published by Locked Room International, I think it is most accessible of the three and it might make a good first step for readers beginning to explore this style of Japanese crime writing. I am excited to see these works being made available in translation and hope that there may be further titles in the offing. Recommended.

The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts

BoMIt has been a few months since I last tackled an Inspector French book and, now that I’ve read all of his inverted mysteries, I had big plans to pick up one of the books I received at Christmas. Instead, just as I was about to pick one of them up, a super-affordable copy of The Box Office Murders fell right onto the top of my to read pile. Sorry, The Hog’s Back Mystery, but you will have to wait a little longer…

The Box Office Murders is a difficult story to summarize, not because its plot is particularly complex but because so many of its keys points are established quite a way into the narrative. Rather than risk spoiling people’s enjoyment of the story, I am opting to be a little vague about what exactly it entails.

What I can say is that this story begins with a solicitor referring a young client to Scotland Yard to speak about her experiences. This woman tells Inspector French of how she became involved in a criminal enterprise and also about the fate of a friend who was thought to have committed suicide but who she believes was murdered. When the young woman herself is found dead the following day, French starts looking into the circumstances of these deaths in earnest.

This introduction reflects one of the most significant issues that I had with the book – namely that Crofts gifts a lot of information to our hero in the form of long conversations in which key characters lay out what they know and who he should suspect. Now, I would certainly acknowledge that the way he manipulates the witness showcases some of his skills and I would also accept that this is exactly the way that the sort of crime we have here would be detected. The problem is that it will cause French to play a curiously passive role at some key points in the proceedings and so his chief contribution to this story would be to work out what the gang’s scheme is.

This is the earliest French novel I have read by quite some way and so I am not sure if this is typical of the role he played in earlier titles. It certainly presents some challenges as an approach because it runs contrary to the idea that your protagonist should be driving events. Crofts invites us to empathize with him, to share in his worries, and to follow his actions but without the actions of a secondary character he wouldn’t even know who to consider a suspect, let alone catch them. It feels rather unsatisfactory.

This is a shame because the scheme itself is an unusual one. It is perhaps not one that the modern reader can be prepared to guess because it is so grounded in the practices of the time period in which it was written but I think it is quite charmingly practical, imaginative and well thought-through.

Turning to French himself, I was rather struck by a few uncharacteristic moments of wildness in the character. Here he bends interrogation rules, breaks into houses without warrants and, in a moment of exaltation he grabs a young woman who is most definitely not his wife, kisses her twice on the lips and tells her ‘My word… but you’re the goods!”. Now, he does immediately reference that he is married but this is not the Inspector French I am used to, methodically comparing the marks made on parking tickets or examining train timetables.

As I referenced earlier, there is an important secondary character in the book who will carry out some very important work in this investigation. I liked this character quite a lot, and appreciated the time taken at the end to sum up how they were left as a result of the investigation. I appreciated that they were not just placed in a position where they needed to be rescued but were able to exert some agency on the events, coming up with a good scheme of their own. I just wish that French had been a little more ingenious in his own efforts rather than waiting for the telephone to ring.

At the end of the case, French sums it up as being ‘an unusually troublesome and disappointing one’. This is of course a gift of a phrase for anyone who wishes to criticise it but, though I have issues with the role it gives its sleuth, I do think that it scores some points for the originality of its crime. That being said, I would strongly suggest that you not make this your first taste of French as this isn’t his most ingenious case, nor the best showing of this character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

 

Prague Noir edited by Miriam Margala and Pavel Mandys

PragueI have a bad habit of checking out more books than I can ever read from the library and the Akashic Noir series are often among those that I intend to read but keep returning when they fall due with a commitment that next time I’ll finally try one.

Well, next time came and given the particular city chosen I couldn’t resist making sure I got around to reading it. Prague Noir is a collection of stories from a country that didn’t really have a tradition of noir or even mystery fiction prior to the fall of Communism as the excellent introduction points out.

What we have then are some intriguing stories grouped into loose sections based around theme. Many, but not all, focus on the location or aspects of the Czech historical experience but there are a few more traditional detective stories here too.

Story-by-story comments follow but I would pick out Amateurs, The Magical Amulet, All the Old Disguises and Olda No. 3 as my favorites from each of their respective sections. I can also say that I will probably make more of an effort to make sure I read the next Akashic Noir collection I check out.

Part I: Sharp Lads
“Three Musketeers” by Martin Goffa (Vyšehrad)

The collection opens with this story about two men meeting after a number of years. The narrator has a grievance against his companion but at first we are not sure what it may be.

Scenes from the past are inserted at points into that conversation, allowing our understanding to build towards the story’s punchy conclusion. It’s a great way to start the collection as I was surprised by the way it resolves and certainly conveys a sense of place.

“Amateurs” by Štěpán Kopřiva (Hostivař)

This is one of those stories that’s hard to discuss without spoiling where it’s going though I don’t think the resolution is necessarily surprising. The setting is a large-scale marijuana greenhouse operation run by the Vietnamese.

While I think the twist is quite clear, I found the execution to be quite satisfying and feel that the title ends up being quite clever as it could refer to several people within the story.

“Disappearances on the Bridge” by Miloš Urban (Charles Bridge)

The Charles Bridge has been fitted with some new high resolution cameras designed to help the Police monitor the flow of pedestrians and observe pickpockets. The technology is being demonstrated to the head of the division when the technician notices that a young woman wearing a striking red hoodie has disappeared while standing in front of a statue. The officers decline to investigate so he rushes out to look for himself before promptly disappearing near the same spot. Finally one of the officers springs into action and goes in search of the technician only to find himself vanishing as well.

I was quite enjoying this and wondered where it was headed but I felt the answers were a little too fantastic. It all takes a rather violent turn at the end and while I appreciated an element of the resolution, I felt it didn’t quite live up to its striking premise.

“The Dead Girl from a Haunted House” by Jiří W. Procházka (Exhibition Grounds)

This story details an investigation over the course of a few hours into the death of a young woman in a haunted house at the fair.

Procházka is playing with some interesting ideas and creates a suitably gruesome crime scene but I didn’t care much for his habit of referring to characters by pop culture pseudonyms and the ending in which the sleuth gathers all the suspects in one place feels out of place with a story of this type.

Part II: Magical Prague

“The Magical Amulet” by Chaim Cigan (Pankrác)

Set in the 1950s, this story involves a cousin turning up in search of a family heirloom that supposedly has magical powers. It may initially be hard to see where the mystery comes in but things do become clear as the story is developed. It’s a curious piece, reflecting the experiences of the Czech Jewish population during the Second World War and the decade that followed, and I think it raises an interesting question about whether an actual crime is committed.

“Marl Circle” by Ondřej Neff (Malá Strana)

I couldn’t get into this story at all. An excavation and reconstruction is taking place at the former Jesuit Palace near St. Nicolas Cathedral. A workman is discovered dead, a jackhammer having penetrated his chest. There are very heavy paranormal elements here with little sense of mystery. I found the whole thing too much of a diversion from my normal tastes but it may have appeal to those who like the ideas of secret histories and the like.

“The Cabinet of Seven Pierced Books” by Petr Stančík (Josefov)

A story that draws on the idea of the Golem and that once again features some heavy mystical or paranormal content. It does have a wonderful sense of setting however and I appreciated the cleverness of its killer’s motive and the story that is worked around it.

Part III: Shadows of the Past

“The Life and Work of Baroness Mautnic” by Kateřina Tučková (New Town)

This story kicks off the third section of the book which showcases stories in which the historical experiences of the city play an important role in the narrative. This centers on the fate of a house that has fallen into disrepair in the Soviet years and follows the fate of the house and its inhabitants over a number of decades.

I think that this is an interesting approach and it does deal more directly with the Soviet era than many of the other stories in the collection but for all its historical scope, I didn’t engage particularly with the characters or this scenario.

“All the Old Disguises” by Markéta Pilátová (Grébovka)

A superb, economical story about a man’s return to post-Communist Prague at the invitation of his friend’s grandson. There is some genuine mystery here about what that grandson wants from him but the thrills come from seeing the narrator make his choices at the end of the tale. Simple but perfectly executed.

“Percy Thrillington” by Michal Sýkora (Pohořelec)

A more conventional mystery story, a police detective is retiring and in talking with a friend he reminisces about how a vinyl album helped him solve his first homicide case. A businessman is found hanged in his office with a suicide note apologizing to his daughter and laying out his requests for the music for his funeral.

The answers may be apparent to readers but the story is well told and it is a pleasure to follow the detective’s attempts to work through the evidence. Very solid.

Part IV: In Jeopardy

“Better Life” by Michaela Klevisová (Žižkov)

An antiques dealer has taken on some black market work in order to help support his sister and her son who have come to live with him. One week he notices a woman has made repeated visits to his store and he starts to wonder whether she is working for the police or maybe has fallen in love with his picture in a magazine.

Overall I liked this story quite a lot though I found an aspect of the ending confusing and had to reread the last couple of pages. I appreciated that this evolved in an unexpected direction.

“Another Worst Day” by Petra Soukupová (Letná)

A rather good piece telling the story of an investigation into a missing husband’s sudden disappearance. Characterization of the different people involved is strong and while I don’t think I didn’t find the resolution surprising, I think it is well handled.

“Olda No. 3” by Irena Hejdová (Olšany Cemetery)

A divorced woman has picked up a man on a one night stand and has to take the trouble to hide him in her apartment away from her mother and the young son who is still blaming her for the divorce. On the way back from dropping him off at Kindergarten her dog discovers something in the cemetery that will start a short investigation.

This is a well-told tale that has some intriguing twists and turns. I particularly appreciated the coincidence that gives this its title. One of the stronger inclusions in the collection.

“Epiphany, or Whatever You Wish” by Petr Šabach (Bubeneč)

The final story in the collection deals with a man who decides to kill himself to prevent him from killing his wife. It’s an interesting story because it is quite different from the rest of the collection and arguably there is no mystery here at all, being more of a character piece, but I found it to be quite a striking end to what is a pretty strong collection.

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

MurderofMyAuntThe Murder of My Aunt is a story in the inverted style, told from the perspective of a young man who is plotting to kill the aunt who he must live with in order to receive an allowance that he regards as pitifully small. It is an overtly comedic tale and, in talking about it with friends, I have likened it to imagining a less imaginative, more feckless Bertie Wooster trying to off his Aunt Agatha without any assistance from Jeeves.

It should be said that not only is this not a conventional mystery novel, it isn’t even really a conventional inverted story either as almost all of the action takes place prior to the murder taking place. There is no period of reflection, no telltale conscience or worrying about clues left at the scene. Instead this is a journal-style report of the development of the protagonist’s plans as they try to find a scheme that will work.

The first few chapters are the best in the whole book as we get to know that protagonist and see how his resentment towards his aunt has built and the manner of their interactions with each other. The incident that sparks it all is his Aunt insisting that Edward take a stroll into the village to pick up a parcel of the French novels he orders that she thoroughly disapproves of. He wishes to avoid the exercise but everything he thinks to try she has already prepared for. It is tremendously enjoyable opening to the novel and features some of the best comical writing I have ever encountered.

It is in the aftermath of that event that we see Edward come to the decision that his aunt must die and he begins to scheme ways to make that happen. There are still a number of very funny moments and sequences in these sections of the book as the battle of wits continues and the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the titular murder will ever take place. Don’t worry, it will and when we finally get to that moment the reader ought to be prepared to work out precisely how it will be managed based on the hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel.

Both Edward and his Aunt Mildred are glorious creations and come to vivid life on the page. Certainly their antagonistic relationship feels believable and like one that may have developed over a lifetime of growing up in close proximity to someone you don’t particularly like or respect.

Edward is idle, insolent and believes that he is entitled to live a life of leisure and comfort at his aunt’s expense. He begrudges having to live in the country where he lacks diversions, and lavishes what little attention he possesses upon his French novels, his Pekinese dog So-So and his fashionable roadster La Joyeuse. He is not unintelligent but does not apply himself to anything which will be one of the challenges he will struggle to overcome in organizing an effective murder plot.

Meanwhile his Aunt Mildred is domineering and wishes to mold her nephew into her image of a fit young man to be the future of their old family name. Even keeping in mind that this narrative is told from the perspective of a man who feels vindictively toward her, she is someone it would be hard to like and the reader may well question whether there might have been a better approach she might have taken in managing her wayward charge.

The secondary characters are much less vividly drawn and occupy only very limited roles in Edward’s narrative, reflecting his narrow view of events, though they do play significant roles in parts of the plot. Hull’s writing style is engaging and even though it becomes clear where things will be headed by the midpoint of the novel, I felt the novel lost little of its interest.

Unfortunately I think there is little more I can say about this novel without running the risk of spoiling the experience. I am extremely glad I read it and have already sought out some other books by Hull that I plan on reading over the next few months. What I can say is that this is an excellent, if unconventional entry in the British Library Crime Classics collection and well worth checking out if you like darkly humorous stories or the inverted mystery form. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How) – A bit of a cheat here but there is an incident of arson within the narrative.

Review copy provided by the publisher.