Blogiversary: 4 Years Old

Today I can’t help but be a little self-indulgent as it marks the fourth anniversary of my starting this blog. A lot has changed over the years – my average post length has nearly doubled for one thing – but one thing that has stayed the same is my love of mysteries. If anything it has deepened as I have read more widely and discovered new authors and sub-genres of mystery and crime fiction that I never knew existed.

Thanks to all who share their thoughts, book recommendations and to those who have shared and linked to my posts. That has truly been the most rewarding part of book blogging and it’s what always pulls me back when I hit a reading slump or when real life responsibilities have had to take precedence. I appreciate your friendship and support and, as always, thank you for making this hobby so special to me.

Now that I’ve got the sentimental stuff out of the way, let’s move on to the other aspects of the blogiversary post. Each year I have made promises to myself about the things I have hoped to do in the year to come.

Last year I noted that I had just done a big redesign and so didn’t expect to make any further structural changes (that prediction failed – I did a redesign a month or so ago when I accidentally selected a different theme while experimenting in the WordPress customizer). Accordingly, I aimed to make smaller, achievable commitments.

Let’s see how I did:

Create more author guide pages – We’re not getting off to a great start here. This hasn’t happened at all (I may possibly have done Carr since then but that’s about it). The one thing in my defense is that I did revamp the ones I have done a little both in terms of creating new headers to match the revamped design and also getting away from the grid system to provide more detail and quotes from my reviews.

So a bit of a miss here but I have a pretty clear idea these days on what I want those pages to look like. Perhaps one for a year or two down the line when I’ll have read enough to properly realize some of those big ideas!

Write more Five To Try posts – I didn’t do brilliantly with this one either, though I created a bunch of header images and have a document where I list different books I would select for each. I am happy with the ones I did do though (Theatrical Mysteries, Hotel Mysteries and Poisoning Mysteries) and I will certainly hope to do more with this in the months to come!

More impossible crimes – Unlike the two previous goals, I did pretty amazingly with this one. This past year has seen me do more impossible crimes than anything else on my blog. This was helped by a spell of three months where I reviewed a different impossible crime novel each Monday (and often added a second one midweek). I enjoyed that ‘season’ of reviews and plan to repeat it again at some point in the New Year.

So, overall not a great year for meeting my goals but while I may have whiffed at several of these promises to myself, I feel pretty happy with the overall direction that the blog has taken.

A little over a month ago I posted my 450th book review and it seems quite possible that I will reach 500 around the New Year. I already have some ideas in mind for what I will want that book to be and am looking forward to blogging about mystery fiction for many more years to come…

As I always like to note when I make these Five to Try lists, I am not suggesting that the five titles I pick are the five best books I have read but rather than they are five titles that I think are deserving of some additional attention. I wanted to select the five titles I have read this past year that have really stood out for me as doing something unusual or unexpected.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

The Disaster Tourist concerns a woman whose career with a tour company that specializes in trips to areas that have experienced natural disasters seems to have deteriorated. After raising a complaint about harassment at work, she goes on a working holiday to evaluate one of their least profitable trips and prepare a proposal for an overhaul. She soon discovers though that the locals have their own plan to restore their profitability…

The book sits on the very edge of the genre as a blend of thriller and satire but I found it to be a really memorable read thanks to the fascinating and provocative questions it poses about the nature of eco-tourism and its dark portrayal of corporate culture.

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

Such Bright Disguises is an inverted mystery in which a young woman and her lover concoct a plan to murder her husband to allow them to be together.

The structure of the novel is interesting as the first part follows their reaching that decision and carrying out the deed. The second then follows what happens next as we see how their relationship is affected by their actions before a final, quite short part sees our series investigator – Anthony Bathurst – piece everything together.

There is some great character exploration and development but I think what I love most about this story is the conclusion which is fantastic. Easily my favorite Flynn to date (expect more reviews to come in Year Five).

Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo

A woman approaches a writer of detective fiction, explaining that she has been harassed by a former lover who is sending threatening letters to her, tracking her movements through the family home. He visits her home and makes some unsettling discoveries but concocts a plan to protect her. Things take a turn however when her husband is found dead and the pair worry that she might be next.

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

One bonus is that it is currently available in a double-bill with the pulpy The Black Lizard which is a really entertaining adventure tale.

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

How to Kidnap the Rich is an absolute blast to read. The novel, which blends social satire and a great con game and kidnapping yarn, is an absolutely wild ride that left me drawing comparisons with the work of Jim Thompson. It’s a really sharp and smart read that kept surprising me with each new development.

The characters are superbly drawn and I loved Ramesh, the protagonist, who has a really interesting and cynical narrative voice. I never really wanted him to succeed so much as I wanted to see all the other, terrible people lose and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about those antagonists and seeing what happened to them.

Best of all, rather than fizzling out it builds to a really compelling conclusion that I think fit the tone and the themes of the novel perfectly.

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

One of my favorite tropes in inverted mysteries is the murderer who is haunted by his crime. C. S. Forester’s Payment Deferred is a sublime example of that idea as Mr. Marble commits murder, makes a fortune and then finds himself unable to enjoy it as he lives in permanent fear of discovery.

The characterization here is superb and I loved the way the novel explores how Marbles’ new-found wealth affects not only him but the other members of his family. It is all handled extremely thoughtfully and while I felt profoundly sorry for some of those other characters, I think its ending is powerfully and highly effective.

A superb read that I consider one of the best in the inverted mysteries sub-genre.

Looking Ahead To Year Five

Here is the bit of the post where I foolishly set a number of criteria that I will fail to have met in a year’s time. While that may seem like an exercise in frustration, I do think that the process has value in terms of showing where I would like to head in the future.

More Public Domain Mysteries – one of the most-visited pages on this website is the one where I highlight works I have read that are in the public domain in the United States and so can be read for free by many readers. I had created this resource during the early days of the pandemic in a period where buying books might be logistically or financially impossible and while I continue to occasionally add to it, I haven’t read much work lately that would qualify.

While I don’t plan on making a commitment to a weekly read I do want to be mindful about doing at least one a month. I am even toying with the idea of flagging the book I am planning to read in case anyone wants to play along (though that would require me to actually stick to a posting schedule so perhaps not, eh?).

More Themed Mondays – I mentioned above that the Mondays are Impossible feature that I did throughout the Summer was enormously satisfying for me. So was my previous set of Monday posts focused on Japanese mysteries. While I want to be careful to avoid becoming too structured, I did enjoy the idea of doing a series of linked posts and being purposeful about seeking out new writers and authors who would help me achieve that goal. Twitter pals can expect more polls asking for help selecting new reads and themes in the months to come!

Replacing Jonathan Creek – Perhaps the biggest challenge in the months ahead will be figuring out what on earth I will be doing with my Saturday posts. For the past year or so I have been pretty focused on working through the Jonathan Creek series but now that I’ve done them all I find myself left with a void to fill.

Will it be more TV? Perhaps a day to share more long-form writing or a return to Columbo? Or will it perhaps be something else entirely? As of yet I have no firm plans…

So, that’s it for Year Four. Thank you once again for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts and opinions with me. I hope to see you again in Year Five (and beyond)!

The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey

The Verdict

An intriguing and unusual variation on the inverted form making for a wonderfully suspenseful read.

Book Details

Originally published in 1949
Collected with The Body on the Sidewalk by Stark House

The Blurb

We know that Vivian Haines intends to commit murder this weekend. She tells us so. But who is her intended victim? Could it be her wealthy aunt, who is supposed to leave her half her fortune one day? Or her frivolous sister and her seemingly penniless boyfriend? Or perhaps her aunt’s mousy companion, or her long-suffering chauffeur? Or Vivian’s own fiancé, the fastidious Cuthbert? All we know is what Vivian tells us as her efforts to plan and execute the perfect murder are constantly thwarted. Now Vivian is beginning to panic. Could one of them suspect her? Could one of them be planning to kill her before she can murder them first?

All I wanted was to be happy like other people. But instead I was destined to be a murderess.

My Thoughts

I never quite know how best to handle writing about the collections of novels and novellas done by publishers such as Stark House. I am aware that most readers coming to The Reluctant Murderer will be curious about the value of the package overall and yet I bristle a little at the prospect of writing about them as a pair, particularly as they were not conceived in that way (and, in this case, they are presented out of publication order). The plan then is to tackle them separately but I will try and get to the other by the end of November so that those who want to know what I think of the volume as a whole will have a better sense of that.

So, why did I start with The Reluctant Murderer? It is not, as you might suspect, that I wanted to start at the beginning or that I simply enjoy being contrary. I was attracted to its rather unusual premise which seemed to offer a slightly different take on the inverted mystery than I have come across before.

Vivian Haines receives a note from her sister Anne instructing her to get on a commuter train on Friday afternoon and spend the weekend with her. Their Aunt Maud has paid an unannounced visit to her home, prompting Anne to organize an impromptu family reunion. While Anne acknowledges that the weekend will be ‘deadly’, given Maud’s various strong opinions about matters like drinking and smoking, the sisters are also aware that as they are likely to be the only heirs to Aunt Maud’s fortune they need to put up with it to keep her happy. After all, as Anne notes, ‘half a million is still half a million – especially with prices like they are!’

Anne’s first reaction to this invitation is not to express her dread but instead it prompts her to realize that murder might be the answer to her problems. What we are not told at this point however is what the problem is that she is trying to fix and who she intends to kill. In the chapters that follow we will observe her actions as she tries to carry out her plan and try to deduce the answers to those questions and work out what she is trying to achieve. In other words, this is a blend of a whydunnit and who’dyawannadoitto. Yes, I am open to a better name for that latter one…

The novel is narrated by Vivian herself which was a smart choice, not only because it allows us to hear her internal monologue and understand her character better but because it makes it easier for Carey to obfuscate her meaning at times without it feeling like the reader is being cheated or manipulated. To give one example, Vivian is able to describe an early attempt to kill that goes awry without mentioning exactly who she was aiming at – with a third-person narration style it would feel odd for us not be given all of those details whereas in the first person it reads a little more naturally because our focus is on Vivian’s feelings – her fears and hopes – rather than describing the physical action.

The other advantage of this style is it allows us to really explore Vivian’s psychological state as she responds to what she perceives happening around her. I felt the depiction of her growing sense of fear and paranoia as she wonders if others are onto her is really effective and, once again, the choice to stick close to her and experience events from her perspective means that we are not afforded the comfort of a dispassionate third person perspective on events. Like Vivian, I found myself thoroughly suspicious of everyone else as the story went on as I wondered exactly what each character had in mind.

One of the other aspects of this setup I admired is that Vivian is shown to be a complex and dimensional character worthy of our interest. It quickly seems clear that she is quite sharp, independent and resourceful which had me wondering just what could have prompted her to feel that she needed to carry out the murder at all. This only served to increase my interest in understanding the different relationships at play within the house and learning more about the other characters.

As with Vivian, I felt that Carey does a good job of fleshing out the other characters who make up the house party. While some feature more prominently than others, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp of each of the individuals, their various secrets and relationships to one another by the end and I enjoyed the process of discovering that information.

My only complaint really with the setup is that I think the author is a little too effective in laying the groundwork for the reveal of who Vivian’s intended victim might be. There was a sentiment expressed early in the novel that stood out a little too much and so while I had some suspicions of what other characters may be up to, I felt pretty clear from the beginning as to who the intended victim was. Happily the question of why was a little harder to solve and I found the eventual explanation to be quite satisfying.

I felt that the clueing to that solution was fine overall, though I would suggest that this book reads better as a work of suspense rather than detective fiction. That reflects that there is more of a focus here on intent and exploring our would-be killer’s mental state than there is on the action taking place. Similarly I think that the resolution will feel more satisfactory when looked at through that psychological lens than viewed through a criminous one.

Overall I enjoyed this first taste of Carey’s work which struck me as a rather ambitious debut work. My plan is to tackle The Body on the Sidewalk as my next Carey read but if anyone has any recommendations for where to go after that I’d be glad to read your thoughts!

Case Closed, Volume 5: The Bandaged Be-header by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

The Verdict

Offers one excellent case, one middling one and an incomplete one (at least until Volume Six). Still, it’s entertaining and there are some wonderful moments to be found here.

Book Details

Originally published in 1995
English translation published in 2005
Volume 5
Preceded by Explosives on a Train
Followed by The Last Loan

The Blurb

Jimmy Kudo, the son of a world-renowned mystery writer, is a high school detective who has cracked the most baffling of cases. One day while on a date with his childhood friend Rachel Moore, Jimmy observes a pair of men in black involved in some shady business. The men capture Jimmy and give him a poisonous substance to rub out their witness. But instead of killing him, it turns him into a little kid! Jimmy takes on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa and continues to solve all the difficult cases that come his way. All the while, he’s looking for the men in black and the mysterious organization they’re with in order to find a cure for his miniature malady.

A vicious murderer whose face is covered in bandages is on the lose. Will Conan be able to catch him before he strikes again? 

And later, Conan’s friends Rachel and Serena want to blow off some steam but they get more than they bargain for when they discover murder at the karaoke box.

Can you figure out whodunnit before Conan does?

I couldn’t see his face well but a creepy man was wearing a dark cape and a hood.

My Thoughts

This past week has been a rather crazy one for me that found me with relatively little time on my hands to do any reading. Fortunately I found the perfect solution to this problem in the Case Closed manga series which are the sorts of book you can read in a single sitting and have become my go-to reads in that sort of situation.

The Bandaged Beheader is the fifth volume in the series in the manga series about a brilliant teen detective who has been transformed into the body of a grade schooler. As I have noted in previous reviews, I would encourage readers to work through these in order as there is some light continuity between the various adventures and to fully appreciate some of the elements that get used and the relationship between Jimmy and Rachel. Fortunately each of these volumes so far have been really entertaining making that an easy recommendation to make.

This volume is comprised of two and a half cases for our young detective to solve. Yes, that does unfortunately mean that one of these cases is incomplete and you will need to get the sixth volume to discover how it all concludes. I don’t exactly love that as an approach, particularly as it makes it that much harder to write this review, but I guess that makes sense as a sales strategy and given that I prefer to have two of the three parts than just one, I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

The first case, The Mysterious Bandaged Man, finds Rachel and Conan staying at an isolated villa where a group of college friends who had all been part of a Film Club are meeting for the first time in two years. On their way across the a rope bridge they spot a strange figure in robes with a bandaged face crossing the bridge ahead of them. Feeling a little creeped out, the pair get settled and meet the other guests. Rachel is persuaded to take a walk in the woods where she is unexpectedly attacked by that bandaged man, having a very narrow escape. Soon the group realize that someone has severed the supports on the rope bridge and disconnected the phone, stranding the group and leaving them with no way of sending for help.

Image of the title pages from The Man in Bandages

This makes for a pretty engaging backdrop to a story that feels quite action-driven but has a pretty solid detective story core. That story manages to sustain a pretty strong sense of tension, helped by the gruesomeness of a crime and the sense that Rachel’s life might really be in danger. There are some really striking panels such as the discovery of a body or an unexpected attack in the third part that keep the energy levels of this story high.

I don’t expect many readers will be surprised by the revelation of the guilty party’s identity though I think that is handled pretty well. My only complaint with Jimmy’s explanation is that there is a visual clue that is very clear when presented from the angle shown at the end of the case but that is far less clear when it is originally presented to the reader. This struck me as a little unfair, though I will accept that there are some other indications to support that same point and I will note that it didn’t really harm my enjoyment overall.

The second case, the Lex Vocalist Murder Case, involves our young heroes going to a karaoke session where they meet the members of a musical band. The group is led by the dashing Tatsuya Kimura who seems to needle his bandmates at every opportunity, creating tensions that inevitably lead to murder.

The circumstances of that murder are strange however as he is poisoned moments after he has finished a performance and has eaten a rice ball randomly off a shared tray. Based on everything we and our sleuths observe, it seems impossible that anyone could have administered a poison, meaning that we not only have to ask who did the crime but how they could have pulled it off in the first place.

It’s an enjoyable tale and I appreciated its audacity though I do wonder about the feasability of the plan the killer utilizes. My issue is not that I doubt the method might well kill Tatsuya but I think the killer puts themselves at considerable risk in carrying it out. There is so much potential for this to go badly, it makes it hard to see the plan as particularly clever. Fortunately this story offers some other points to recommend it.

For one thing I was pleasantly surprised by the emotional depth that is introduced towards the end. I hadn’t expected the story to strike those sorts of notes at all which made that development feel all the more striking and powerful. Rather than feeling sudden, I appreciated when I read back over the story that I could easily see the evidence for it, making me appreciate that plot and the subsequent tone struck all the more.

The other thing I enjoyed was the way that Jimmy manages to get involved and solve this case. This problem of how a pre-teen might get the authorities to listen to them has been really effective and I appreciate that this sees him using another clever mechanism to achieve that goal. That decision has some unintended consequences that have to be tied up towards the end of this story and I think it mostly does a good job of handling that, though I once again question Rachel’s thoughts and actions as she really should notice something is quite clearly off here.

The final story is the Conan Kidnapping Case, a story in which our young detective is surprised when a woman turns up at the Moore household claiming to be his mother. He is taken away only to be kidnapped and taken to an abandoned house. With no one aware of that fact, he must work to rescue himself from his captors after he figures out why they have taken him and what exactly they have planned for him.

More adventure than deductive test, these first two installments are fine enough and there are some entertaining elements though it does all feel rather slight. I did appreciate that this seems to link back to that broader on-going plot running through this series and I think there are some clever tricks and ideas here, even if there isn’t much opportunity for armchair detection.

The volume gives us a proper cliffhanger ending with our sleuth in serious danger of being spotted and recaptured, setting up an interesting problem for him to solve in the story’s final installment. Readers will no doubt want to jump straight to the next volume to find out how it all resolves and I will, of course, do the same shortly. While I do not love this splitting of a story across two volumes, I understand why it was necessary here and I am glad that neither of the previous stories was shortened to make space for this – particularly The Mysterious Bandaged Man which was easily my favorite of the stories here.

Death’s Inheritance by E. & M. A. Radford

The Verdict

The problem here takes a little too long to come into focus. This is a shame because there are some interesting ideas here.

Book Details

Originally published in 1961
Dr. Manson # 14
Preceded by Death on my Conscience
Followed by Death Takes the Wheel

The Blurb

Why did Sir John Appleby disinherit his wife and son and leave his estates and large fortune “to my daughter”? The girl has been dead for four years. What was the secret of eight mysterious years missing from his life? Had his wife, or his son, brought about his death to get his money? These were the problems confronting Doctor Manson, Scotland Yard’s scientist head, before he solved an intricate plot of murder, revenge and greed.

“His daughter? He hasn’t a daughter. She died four years ago. Do you mean, that there is nothing at all for my son and I?”

My Thoughts

When I track down an out-of-print Golden Age mystery it is generally because I have read something about it from a fellow blogger or perhaps read a synopsis that had some element that appealed. Today’s selection however came about because I could find out absolutely nothing about it during some cursory internet searches. No blurb or reviews on Goodreads, nor a particularly clear image of the cover. When I realized I could get hold of a copy I decided that it would be the least I could do to finally provide some of that information as well as offer my own opinions of it.

Death’s Inheritance is going to be a difficult book to describe in detail, not because the setup is particularly complex but because the exact nature of the crimes involved are revealed quite late in the novel. I will confirm that there is murder involved – the blurb quoted above indicates that – but I do not plan on revealing who dies or the circumstances of that death. Hopefully you can forgive a little vagueness and a more generalized discussion of the plot.

The book begins with the wife and son of Sir Waldo Appleby meeting with the family’s lawyer to learn the details of his will. After getting a couple of bequests to servants out of the way, the lawyer comes to discuss the matter of the bulk of the estate – the fortune and considerable landholdings. The expectation was that the son, John, would inherit so they are shocked when they hear that everything is left “to my daughter” – particularly given that Veronica had died several years earlier. It seems certain that a lengthy legal process is about to commence when the lawyer receives a surprising letter that would appear to change matters considerably.

The first half of the novel is given up to detailed discussions of the will and the legal processes that will be at play. This detail is necessary background but it can be a little dry at times. There is an attempt to cultivate some sense of mystery as to what exactly the letter that is received means but I did not find the revelations to be particularly surprising. That is not so much a result of the nature of those reveals as it is that the authors signpost them a little too clearly and offer little in the way of alternate possibilities. I suspect that most readers will find themselves ahead of the story at this point and waiting for the authors to catch up with them.

While the mystery elements in these chapters are a little underwhelming and some of the legal discussions can feel a little slow and circular, the early part of the novel does offer some points of interest. The authors do a good job of capturing life in a rural community at a point where landowning structures were shifting and presents the local farmers and laborers quite sympathetically. It was nice to see their thoughts and opinions represented and that they are allowed to change and grow over the course of the novel.

Around the novel’s halfway point an event occurs that sends the story in a somewhat different direction. While what follows retains much of the legal focus from the first half of the novel (which was why that detail was necessary), the book benefits from providing the reader with some questions to focus on and a proper puzzle emerges. We even get some short interviews and a little research and investigation. It’s really quite welcome and I have little hesitation in saying that the second half feels significantly stronger than the first.

While Dr. Manson does make a brief appearance in the first half of the novel, he becomes significantly more involved in the story from this point onward. He interviews witnesses and suspects, performs some scientific experiments and even does a little undercover work for which he employs a frankly terrible pseudonym of the sort you might expect from the Anthony Ainley Master on Doctor Who. Perhaps more importantly, he does a really good job of explaining exactly what the problems are that he will need to resolve.

Readers should anticipate the style of this story to be more akin to a procedural than a typical puzzle plot. There certainly are some logical inferences that the detective and reader can make from the evidence but I am not convinced that the reader can really solve this for themselves. Some of the information needed is simply too technical or introduced quite late in the story for the case to feel like one the reader can solve for themselves in every detail.

I personally found the solution to be a little far-fetched conceptually, even though I think it is based upon some clever principles. I couldn’t help but feel that the killer’s plan might easily have gone awry and the reveal of their identity was a little underwhelming. That feeling is perhaps amplified a little by the speed at which the conclusion plays out as I did feel that the end was a little rushed.

It is not surprising that Death’s Inheritance is not currently in print – it is not on the level of either Who Killed Dick Whittington? or The Heel of Achilles, both of which I’d happily recommend to those curious to try the authors’ work. The case is a little too technical in nature and, as a consequence, it can feel a little dry in points. Still, it is quite readable and has a few really nice moments such as those in which Lady Appleby comes to some realizations about her position that are written quite effectively.

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

The Verdict

An excellent inverted mystery featuring interesting characters and a wonderful ending.

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Anthony Bathurst #27
Preceded by They Never Came Back
Followed by Glittering Prizes

The Blurb

Hubert Grant is a fairly unpleasant man. He also thinks he is happily married.

Dorothy Grant despises her husband but finds consolation in the handsome Laurence Weston. In order for the lovers to be happy, however, the intolerable Hubert needs to be cut out of the picture. Permanently.

Dorothy and Laurence start plotting. But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and by the end of the scheming, there will be more than one body. Enter detective extraordinaire Anthony Bathurst . . .

“…I’ve made up my mind – once and for all. I’ll get rid of the brute.”

My Thoughts

It was inevitable that Such Bright Disguises would be my next Brian Flynn novel, ever since I read that it was an inverted mystery. As I understand it, this makes the novel something of a rarity in the Flynn oeuvre which is a shame as I think this is a great example of the sub-genre.

Such Bright Disguises is a novel that is comprised of three distinct sections. The first, titled ‘Hubert’, begins in the days running up to Christmas as Dorothy Grant sits at home awaiting the arrival of a luxury hamper filled with treats selected by her husband Hubert for their festivities. Rather than looking forward to some time with her husband, daughter and their friends, Dorothy is dreading it. She wishes instead that she could be sharing the season with her lover Laurence.

After illustrating the building sense of resentment within the Grant household, Flynn provides an incident that will spark the young couple to decide on murder as the solution to their problem. This section concludes shortly after that first murder takes place.

It takes Flynn some time to get to the point where his characters will decide upon murder but these early chapters do set up some important plotting points that we will return to later in the novel. They also do an excellent job of exploring these characters and their relationships with one another.

I was really impressed by the quality of Flynn’s characterizations of Dorothy, Hubert and Laurence. Part of the reason for this is the author’s unusually frank depiction of a crumbling marriage and infidelity, capturing the resentments and desires, particularly those of a married woman, in a way that feels quite surprising. That is not to say that readers are encouraged to sympathize with Dorothy – some of her thoughts about possibly abandoning her daughter in favor of her lover put pay to that – but I do think we are meant to empathize with her feelings of being bullied and stifled by a husband who views her purely as an ornament.

While Flynn does outline the events leading up to the murder, we do not witness the event itself or get much detailed discussion of the investigation at this point in the story. This is not uncommon in inverted stories of this period and I think this reflects that he is more interested in the characters’ mindsets and some elements of the planning than in exploring the violent details of the murder. There is a little ambiguity in a few elements of the plan, some of which will be explained later (very cleverly in the case of one element) though I felt that the novel never sufficiently addressed the involvement of a woman in the events of that night.

The second section, ‘Laurence’, picks up shortly after the murder and explores what becomes of the couple as they attempt to start a life together. As is often the case in inverted mysteries, the act of murder is shown to have create some pretty significant psychological stress for those involved. Flynn does an excellent job of depicting those stresses and the different ways that Laurence and Dorothy respond to them.

In addition to this psychological drama, Flynn also introduces a new element to the story that not only heightens some of those tensions but also provides a more typical mystery question for the reader to consider. While the answer to that question is unlikely to surprise readers in itself, I felt Flynn uses this element of the story cleverly within the context of the novel as a whole.

Further complications come with the delivery of those additional bodies that are promised in the blurb quoted above. While I anticipated these developments, their introduction did provide a bit of a wow moment for me in how sharply the story turns and transforms as it enters its final part.

Anthony Bathurst makes his brief appearance in this section which follows an investigation into all of the events that had preceded it. This section of the book is far shorter than either of the other two parts – according to my eBook copy it starts at the 75% point – and readers should not anticipate a particularly complex investigation. There is not the sort of case where there are a lot of witnesses or suspects for Bathurst to interview and so this phase of the story feels quite compact and, because of the nature of what is discovered, surprisingly punchy.

Flynn presents some fascinating moments and story beats here as plot points are connected and we come to understand exactly what has taken place. The conclusion he reaches did not surprise me as it seemed to be a natural fit to the conditions that preceded it and yet I was still impressed by the neatness of the plotting here and the boldness of the storytelling.

If I have a slight disappointment about the resolution, it is only that I had thought of two possible alternate endings and solutions to the mystery element of the novel that I think might have taken that idea even further. By the time we reach this third part I recognized that one of these was impossible but I felt my other idea would have still fitted all the facts of the case and would have had the benefit of being a little less predictable than the actual solution. Still, while I may mourn what I see as a missed opportunity with regards the ending, I think what we get is really pretty special.

If Frances, Dorothy’s young daughter, were to describe Such Bright Disguises she would no doubt brand it as being ‘simply wizard’. While the pacing is careful and deliberate, the characters are beautifully drawn and the story is cleverly structured, building to a very strong conclusion. While those who are looking primarily for a detective story may want to check out some different Flynn titles first, lovers of inverted mysteries are unlikely to be disappointed.

Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost

Episode Details

Originally broadcast December 28, 2016
TV Movie
Preceded by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

It is hard to know exactly what to say Warwick Davies is known best for. He has been involved in a number of enormous franchises in significant roles, not least Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is also the film Willow which he starred in and he will also star in the TV series which is supposed to be released in 2022.

Ken Bones has a lot of notable credits to his name. In addition to appearances in Medici and Versailles, he has appeared in several genre pieces including Midsomer Murders, Father Brown and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Jo Martin has been a regular for the past couple of years on the BBC’s hospital drama Holby City but I recognized them for their appearance in the most recently-broadcast series of Doctor Who.

The Verdict

If this is to be the final episode of Jonathan Creek, it is a good one that sends the show off with style.

Plot Summary

A film director calls his daughter back to the family home after years of estrangement following the deaths of her mother and siblings to tell her something. Unfortunately before she can arrive he has a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. Jonathan had assisted the daughter’s husband years earlier when he was accused of murdering his first wife and is now asked to help discover the truth of what happened and what the message might have been.

As it happens, those deaths are not the only terrors associated with Daemons’ Roost. There is a legend that a hundred years ago a sorcerer named Jacob Surtees was able to open a fiery portal and throw his victims into it using telekinesis. Before the case is over Jonathan will have to also explain what Surtees did all those years ago…

My Thoughts

So, it seems I have reached the end of my journey. It’s a bittersweet moment, not least because soon I will have to confront the problem of figuring out what on earth I’ll be posting about on the weekends now. I do hold out some small hope though that my declaring I have reached the end of the project and recorded a lengthy video ranking the entire series (it’s not up yet) will prompt Renwick to dash off another series or two just to force me to start over.

If this is the final installment of Jonathan Creek, I am very happy to say that the show concludes on a bit of a high with a story that reminded me of much of what I loved most about the series and particularly the specials. We have a blend of historic and the modern-day crimes for Jonathan to investigate. The mystery of the fiery inferno in particular struck me as a wonderfully visual puzzle and I enjoyed the gothic elements associated with that story enormously.

There is also a strong sense that the show is consciously alluding to its past throughout the episode. It’s not just the blatant references to past cases dropped in by the Reverend Wilkie, played with gusto by the marvelous Warwick Davies, but there is also a crazed killer from a previous case intent on revenge against Jonathan. These elements do a lot to remind us about the show’s history and make this feel like an intentional effort to pay homage to the show’s past.

Still, though the episode does feel like it pays tribute to the past, it doesn’t completely neglect what was then the show’s present. For one thing, this once again features Polly and while the action may take place in an unsettling and mysterious estate, we still spend plenty of time in the village and absorbed in its concerns – namely the need to create a scarecrow for a village festival. For another, I think that the ending of the special with its allusions to Jonathan’s past and his history with his brother, rather than providing closure, seems to open up new possibilities. Details about Jonathan’s early life have been fairly scant over the series and the sudden decision to flesh out his backstory and explore his memories could easily have been taken further had other stories followed.

The mysteries that Jonathan has to look into here are both interesting though I think the modern-day case suffers a little from not having a clear focal point or question that Jonathan has to answer. That has been a complaint I made about the previous three episodes and I can certainly see it reflected in the difficulty I had describing the plot above.

Still, while the problem itself may not be tidily described, the broader scenario is quite intriguing and illustrates a few things that I really like about the series and about the direction in which the series was headed in its flawed final few seasons. For the main one you’ll have to check out my coded spoilers section below but I do like that the scenario Jonathan is investigating is not a conventional crime – at least at first. Instead I appreciate that he is looking into something to help a woman settle some daemons from her own childhood.

Given the lack of a clear and engaging problem, I found this story thread fairly effective and I felt that the explanations provided had some interesting components and ideas to them. I felt that the explanation for the letter was particularly satisfying and worked rather nicely. There are a few weak points – not least the explanation for the estrangement and Alison being sent away from the home which didn’t quite add up for me.

The more interesting puzzle to me was the mystery of how the fiery inferno trick works. Here I will confess to being quite handily beaten by Renwick and I am happy to report that I think he set things up quite fairly. The solution is simple and wonderfully visual once shown on screen.

I have seen some express disapproval for an aspect of how the scene that confirms how the trick was worked ends up playing out. I can understand that the sequence certainly leaves Jonathan in a rather uncomfortable place, even if I think there is some justification for the choices he makes. While it certainly puts him in a somewhat different place than we usually see him, I felt that the scene fundamentally works.

The connection between the two cases is clever and, I felt, broadly satisfying. Even the rather silly bit with the scarecrows at the end didn’t bother me too much and I think it was delivered rather well. I have one reservation which, once again, can’t be discussed without spoiling the story but while I think it reflects a little untidiness in the plot, it didn’t sour me on the story as a whole.

I feel that I could make a more generalized version of that comment to sum up my feelings about this story overall. Daemons’ Roost is certainly not the tidiest or most compact episode of Jonathan Creek ever made but I think it is broadly successful nonetheless in marrying the elements of the show’s past and then-present to deliver an intriguing and entertaining ninety minutes of television. It isn’t vintage Creek, but as a last hurrah it gave me pretty much what I wanted.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Nobir V ersre gb guvatf V yvxr nobhg gur fubj’f svany srj frnfbaf – jryy, V nz guvaxvat cnegvphyneyl bs Gur Whqnf Gerr naq gur vqrn gung Wbanguna vf abg vasnyyvoyr. Urer jr frr uvz erpbtavmr gung ur pbzcyrgryl zvfernq n fvghngvba va gur cnfg orpnhfr ur gubhtug gung ur unq orra irel fzneg va cvrpvat fbzr guvatf gbtrgure jura va snpg n zheqrere jnf hfvat uvf bja grpuavdhrf ntnvafg uvz. Guvf vf ernyyl vagrerfgvat greevgbel sbe Wbanguna qenzngvpnyyl naq V guvax vg nyybjf gur fubj gb cerfrag Wbanguna va n fyvtugyl qvssrerag yvtug – erpbtavmvat uvf cerivbhf cevqr naq birepbasvqrapr znl unir pnhfrq uvz gb znxr reebef.

V nyfb rawblrq gung gur vavgvny pnfr juvpu oevatf uvz gb Qnrzbaf Ebbfg gheaf bhg gb or fbzrguvat bs n erq ureevat, ng yrnfg va grezf bs ubj gur znggre unq vavgvnyyl nccrnerq gb uvz. Guvf vf qbar dhvgr pyrireyl urer, nyybjvat gur zber vzcbegnag vasbezngvba gb or erirnyrq nf gur onpxtebhaq gb Wbanguna’f vaibyirzrag engure guna nf gur pbagrag bs uvf vairfgvtngvbaf.

Orvat zber fcrpvsvp nobhg zl ceboyrzf jvgu gur ernfba Nyvfba jnf frag njnl – juvyr V pna pregnvayl haqrefgnaq jul gur qverpgbe jbhyq jnag uvf qnhtugre gb or fcnerq sebz yvivat fbzrjurer gung jbhyq unir cnvashy zrzbevrf, V pnaabg erzbgryl haqrefgnaq jul ur bcgrq gb fgnl naq yvir va vfbyngvba. Pyrneyl ur vf fubja gb ybir Nyvfba onfrq ba uvf qrfver gb fcner ure univat gb rkcrevrapr gur fnzr cnva ur sryg ohg vg frrzf pyrne gung yvivat ng Qnrzbaf’ Ebbfg unf oebhtug uvz yvggyr wbl uvzfrys.

Ba gur znggre bs Wbanguna orvat n zheqrere – nf oehgny nf gur fprar vf, V jbhyq fnl vg’f dhvgr pyrneyl frys-qrsrafr. Vg znl abg or n gnfgrshy guvat gb qb, ohg V qba’g frr gung Wbanguna unq znal bgure punaprf gb rfpncr sebz gung fvghngvba nyvir.

Gel nf V zvtug, V fgehttyr gb urne ubj rira n puvyq zvtug zvfvagrecerg urzbtybova nf ubotboyva gubhtu V qb nccerpvngr gur rzbgvbany ryrzragf bs gung fgbelyvar.

Gur bayl cneg bs gur fbyhgvba V qvfyvxr vf Elzna vzcrefbangvat n ubzr frphevgl rkcreg sbe frireny qnlf. Vg’f abg gung V unir n ceboyrz jvgu gur zbgvir ohg whfg gung ubj ybat jbhyq ur unir gevrq gb unat nebhaq, fgergpuvat gur jbex bhg vs gur pbhcyr unqa’g vzzrqvngryl ghearq hc? Jung jnf uvf Cyna O urer?

Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

The Verdict

Amusing school satire and a cleverly timetabled crime made Death at the Opera a thoroughly engaging read for me.

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Mrs. Bradley #5
Preceded by The Saltmarsh Murders
Followed by The Devil at Saxon Wall

The Blurb

Hillmaston School has chosen The Mikado for their next school performance and, in recognition of her generous offer to finance the production, their meek and self-effacing arithmetic mistress is offered a key role. But when she disappears mid-way through the opening night performance and is later found dead, unconventional psychoanalyst Mrs. Bradley is called in to investigate. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the hapless teacher had quite a number of enemies—all with a motive for murder…

“She’s dead,” said Moira. “I found out – I found her – in the interval I went for a drink – I didn’t like to spoil the show – I – she… Oh, they’ll hang him! And he can’t die! He can’t!”

My Thoughts

Back when I shared my Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries list, one area I managed to overlook was the world of amateur dramatics. It was not a deliberate omission but it was a pretty big one given that novels from the Golden Age of Detection often seem to feature characters whose background in student theatricals or Christmas skits is used to explain their ability to pull off sensational disguises, even if front of those who know them best.

Had I read today’s book prior to writing that post I can say that it almost certainly would have featured as the plot centers on a school production of The Mikado at the progressive, co-educational Hillmaston School. Most of the roles are to be played by the teaching faculty though a few students are recruited for the juvenile parts and everyone seems to be looking forward to the occasion. Perhaps none more than Miss Ferris, the Arithmetic Mistress, who offered to finance the production herself and was offered the part of Katisha, an elderly maid who is betrothed to Nanki-Poo, the young hero.

It is a surprise then when she fails to appear shortly before she is to go on stage, forcing another actress to take her place. When her body is found drowned in a wash basin the other staff want to believe it was an accident or suicide but the headmaster has other ideas. He decides to contact Mrs. Bradley and brings her in to investigate the matter under the guise of hiring her as a temporary replacement to see out the term…

Death at the Opera really caught my attention right from the very start with the very humorous scene in which the faculty sit and debate what to choose for their next theatrical piece. I have remarked before on how well Mitchell captures the school setting and I think this is the best example of that I have found to date. In just a handful of pages we get a strong sense of the school and the types of individuals that work there based on their interactions and the desires they express, helping to establish those characters as credible, dimensional figures.

The pages that follow do a good job of teasing out and exploring some of those character relationships, adding to the sense of depth as we learn more about each of them. The discoveries include secret passions and rivalries which not only do a good job of setting up and teasing the murder to come but help give that sense of a group of coworkers who know each other very well from years of working together.

The discovery of the body is certainly a dramatic moment and I think the circumstances in which it happens are quite striking. While the reader will naturally be aware that it is murder, I appreciated that this was a scenario in which it was feasible that others might interpret it differently which prompts some interesting exchanges and gives Mrs. Bradley a little more room to pry than might have been the case with a stabbing or shooting.

Mrs. Bradley’s investigation is interview-heavy but there are so many discoveries and revelations, whether in the form of new pieces of evidence or reflections and interpretations of what we have, that our understanding of the situation seems to be in near-continuous movement. This is a very good thing and I think it is part of the reason that I found this to be so engaging, especially when coupled with some of our protagonist’s rather unconventional attitudes and behaviors.

The questions that absorb her interest concern characters’ movements on the night of the murder and uncovering any past animosities. These are interesting questions and I appreciated the way each was handled. Before long we have a good mix of suspects of consider and, adding to the novelty, this is a rare example of a case involving a real text that will inform our understanding of characters’ movements during the night in question. For those who are less keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, rest assured that those details will be spelled out for you too long before we get to the big reveal.

Speaking of the big reveal, now’s probably a good time to mention that this is a case of a novel that pulls that off in its very last line much as Ellery Queen did in The French Powder Mystery. I feel though that this one manages to do it with a little added drama. It’s partly that the way it is revealed feels a little less contrived than in the Queen novel but I also appreciate the circumstances in which it is revealed which feels very fitting overall.

On the other hand, while I find the solution quite delightful in some respects I have to confess that the motive here doesn’t remotely stack up or make much sense. If it were anyone other than Mrs. Bradley investigating this I might feel a little underwhelmed or cheated but it does fit her rather well and I felt that the method used was explained clearly.

While I cannot completely overlook how silly the matter of the motive feels, I do appreciate the tone of the piece overall and I find it to be a really entertaining story. It’s easily my favorite of the Mrs. Bradley stories I have read to date, feeling it balanced the humorous and mysterious elements together very well. I am sure I will be returning to Gladys Mitchell again soon without a doubt!

Rizzio by Denise Mina

The Verdict

A thoughtful exploration of how history is made and later interpreted.

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power. 

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight.

My Thoughts

Rizzio first came to my attention a little over a week ago when I read a review of the work by Fictionophile while on my lunch break. Minutes later when I got back to work I came across a copy and, struck by the coincidence, I decided to check it out. It was fate, right?

The novella depicts the events of March 9, 1566 when David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators in front of the Queen during an attempted coup. It’s a short work and rather than attempting to depict every moment of that night, Mina focuses on the most dramatic moments and those that best illustrate some of the motivations and tensions at play within the various groups of individuals that night.

The events of the evening are certainly dramatic and for those who do not already know the tale, will likely contain a few surprises as we follow how the events unfold and are ultimately resolved. As interesting as the events are however, I think the real point of focus is meant to be on the individuals involved in those events and exploring their motivations, thoughts and feelings at points during that night.

One idea that I think sits at the heart of this novel is that the idea that history is wrought by the ‘Great Men’ is a false one. Those people who viewed themselves as Statesmen were ultimately just men, often operating out of personal jealousies or for gain rather than the higher motivations they try to ascribe to their actions. They also rarely exercised the level of control over events that they believed that they had – history often comes down to fluke and coincidence rather than intentional planning and its effects are often wider than they may initially seem (we are reminded at the end of the novella that Mary’s child is James I of England).

I think Mina presents a pretty convincing case for that in the characters of Ruthven and Darnley, carefully exploring not only how these characters perceive themselves and their actions but how they are seen by those around them and some of the contradictions between what they say and how they act. By the end of the novella I felt I had a really clear understanding of these characters as well as several other figures around Holyrood at that time and I was struck by just how dimensional many of those portraits are given how short this piece is overall.

The other theme that resonated with me was the idea that history can easily be turned into mythology. The novella’s final chapter drives this notion home by bringing things forward several centuries and discussing how this moment in history was perceived by readers of Sir Walter Scott and has come to be viewed centuries after it happened. In contrast, Mina seems to want to strip it of that distance and some of the romance of history and to show it as borne of a relatable human desire and emotion. That this was something that happened to real people.

One method Mina uses to try and connect to these characters as people is to not try and reproduce sixteenth century language but to have them speak in direct, sometimes quite coarse or violent language. This emphasizes both the danger they are in but also the emotions that they were experiencing, even when they are not always entirely aware of them. A good case in point would be Darnley where the reader may well perceive subtext to some of his comments and concerns that he clearly does not understand or see himself.

While I know that some dislike the idea of historical fiction written in modern language, I do think it can be very effective and certainly here I think it is. Not only does it bring the violence of the situation quite vividly to life, it also helps to highlight and address many of Mina’s themes and the connections to issues still being experienced in Scotland today.

It helps too that some of Mina’s phrases are fantastically concise and effective. One of my favorites was the description of Henry Yair as ‘a killing spree looking for an excuse’ which conveys a lot about the intensity and attitudes held by that character.

Perhaps surprisingly, the least compelling character in the whole piece is the one who gives his name to it. While we learn a little of Rizzio’s background and more about his relationships with several of the characters, I never felt that the secretary made much of an impact at all as an individual. Instead, all we really get to learn about him is the fear he shows in the moments before his death.

It could be that was Mina’s point – that the murder was never really about Rizzio but that his arrest and murder was just a pretext for the events of that evening. Either way, this story quickly moves beyond the incident to explore many of the tensions within the Scottish court at this time.

One comment I have seen in several reviews of the work is that some wish that the work was longer. While I can understand that desire to have more, I am not sure that the additional detail would have benefitted the work. The reason that this worked for me was that it feels so tight and so focused on exploring those themes and ideas. I find it hard to think what could have been added that wouldn’t have just slowed the story down.

Rizzio won’t be to everyone’s taste. For one thing it isn’t really a mystery at all but rather a historical crime story. For another, I would suggest that it is a work where theme is more important than action as shown by the way it speeds through the conclusion to that night’s violence. It is an interesting piece though that I think has some intriguing things to say about how we view the past, the people who lived then as well as the political and social movements of long ago.

Five to Try: Poisoning Mysteries

There are lots of different methods a mystery author can employ to murder but of all of them I think poisoning offers the most possibility for variation. A poisoning can be violent and instant or subtle and drawn out. Sometimes it may not even seem that a murder has taken place at all!

In today’s post I am offering up five examples of poisonings in Golden Age fiction. Please note that I have stayed away from selecting hidden poisonings for the obvious reason that I don’t want to spoil that reveal for anyone. Yes, that does mean that I am cutting off one of the richest and most interesting ways of using this idea but the good news is that I still had plenty of great stories to choose from.

One more thing: as I always note, this is not meant to be a list of the five greatest poisoning stories. Instead these are five tales that I felt demonstrated different interesting ways to use this method to tell interesting and compelling stories. With that said, let’s begin…

Murder in the Maze by J. J. Connington

One of my favorite murder weapon tropes from the Golden Age is that every country house seemed to have an open jar or two of that rare poison, curare. For the uninitiated, curare is the name given to highly toxic alkaloid poisons used to treat arrowheads by certain indigenous tribes in South America.

There’s a lot that appeals to me with this trope, from the unusual and dramatic method of delivery from a distance to the excitement of figuring out who could have got access to that poison and how.

J. J. Connington’s Murder in the Maze is a great example of this trope as the story involves the murder of two brothers in a hedge maze, both with poison-tipped arrows. While the matter of who did the crime is not particularly well-disguised, the investigation is a lot of fun and the conclusion to the novel is a lot of fun.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

One of the most interesting aspects of a poisoning murder is that it allows for the possibility of a delayed crime or murder at a distance. Excellent Intentions offers an excellent example of this as the victim ends up administering it to themselves when they inhale snuff that has been laced with poison.

An unusual feature of the novel is that the book begins with the killer on trial for the murder but their identity is withheld from the reader. The reader will have to use their observational and deductive skills to work out which of the characters in the story is the one on trial.

It’s a novel approach and it makes for an entertaining read, particularly given there are several colorful characters in the suspect pool.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie frequently used poison as the murder method in her novels giving me plenty of options to pick from.

Three Act Tragedy is an interesting example because while it is clear from the start that poison was used to murder the Reverend Babbington, there are no traces of it in either the drinks glasses or in the food served at dinner. In other words, we have a poisoning howdunnit.

Add in the question of why anyone would want to murder the mild-mannered man and you have the ingredients for a fascinating and challenging case for Poirot. Mechanically, the solution is clever (aside from the motive) and I also really enjoy that Poirot is a witness to the first murder.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

I picked The Chocolate Cobweb because I felt it uses the threat of a poisoning to excellent effect. At the start of the novel Amanda, our protagonist, observes an attempt by Ione to poison her stepson’s hot chocolate. Fearing that she will try again she decides to return to their house and get evidence of that crime.

Armstrong was a master of creating suspense and this novel demonstrates that wonderfully. Amanda is perfectly aware of the dangers she will be facing but chooses to do so anyway in the hope that Ione will accidentally expose herself if she moves against her.

The book contains very little padding and builds brilliantly to a thrilling conclusion. This is one of my favorite books released to date in the American Mystery Classics range and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense fiction.

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Finally, I couldn’t do a post about poisonings in mystery fiction without referencing one of my very favorite Golden Age novels, Anthony Rolls’ Family Matters which I have still not reviewed on this blog.

The premise of the story is that we have two potential killers who each independently come up with the same idea to murder a man, albeit for quite different reasons. Having picked the same target, they each set to work to execute their plan but find themselves getting in each others’ way.

One of the things that delighted me about this book was that, in contrast with its obviously dark subject matter, it is often very funny. A large part of that is that we possess knowledge that the characters don’t and can appreciate their growing frustration and puzzlement about why their plans aren’t working.

The other is that although we know who is trying to kill the victim, we spend the novel wondering which one will ultimately succeed. A very clever inverted novel – Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments is also excellent and, once again, involves poison but is much harder to find.

No review here (yet) but I do discuss it with JJ on episode 2 of the In GAD We Trust podcast.

What are some of your favorite mysteries that feature poisonings?

Previous Five to Try lists: Inverted Mysteries, Railway Mysteries, Memory Mysteries, Theatrical Mysteries, Hotel Mysteries

Jonathan Creek: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 14, 2014
Season Five, Episode Three
Preceded by The Sinner and the Sandman
Followed by Daemons’ Roost

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

June Whitfield is a British comedy legend. Among her most famous roles were playing opposite Terry Scott in the long-running sitcom Terry and June and for Absolutely Fabulous. Mystery fans will also be aware though that she played Miss Marple in a series of BBC Radio adaptations that this blogger holds in high regard!

Josie Lawrence is a comedienne and actress who was best known at the time for her improvisational comedy on shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, her work with the Comedy Store Players and a stint on Eastenders.

The Verdict

A rather messy story in which the mystery element of the story takes far too long to present itself.

My Thoughts

It’s hard to know quite where to begin with The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. While most episodes of Jonathan Creek can be easily boiled down to one or two clear and gripping problems, the nature of the impossibility here is a little harder to discern. This is not helped by the fact that it is introduced surprisingly late in the episode, meaning that the viewer will spend much of the episode unclear exactly how Jonathan will get involved with the various situations we see unfold.

The episode begins by showing the abduction of Lindsey Isherwood, a successful analyst and the wife of a cabinet minister. After two episodes which played out on a relatively small scale, I welcomed what seemed to suggest a return to some of the broader, more expansive storytelling of previous seasons. It soon became clear however that while there was a crime with possible national security implications, our focus would instead fall upon the comedic boudoir antics of the Creek family’s undersexed cleaner.

When said cleaner, Denise, finds a bronze lamp that reminds her of the one from Aladdin she gives it a rub and expresses her wish that some of her needs might be met. Later that day she stumbles onto an internet ad for an escort agency and, thinking her wish has been granted, makes an appointment.

When Kevin turns up on her doorstep she is pretty taken with him but the evening turns sour when she finds him dead in her bathtub. Panicked she calls Polly and persuades her to help her dispose of the body to avoid her husband finding out about it. When she wakes the next morning however she is shocked to find a priceless woman’s watch in the bed next to her. What makes it all the more odd however is when Jonathan identifies it as a one-of-a-kind piece belonging to Lindsey Isherwood, bringing us back to the kidnapping story thread.

It is only at this point, halfway through the episode, that anything approaching an impossibility or even just a puzzle for Jonathan to solve is introduced to the story. The problem here is in understanding how a priceless piece of jewelry managed to find its way into the bedroom of a woman with no apparent connection to the crime when we had seen it on the victim’s wrist when she was brought into the bunker.

I find this unsatisfying as a problem for several reasons, not least that I think it is introduced far too late in the story to allow for any serious investigative efforts to be made. One of the most striking aspects of this episode for me was just how little investigation Jonathan seems to do, instead wrapping up the case after a bit of a chat with the police and a trip to scout out a location. I cannot think of another episode of the show where Jonathan seems to do as little work on a case and this served to diminish the sense of accomplishment when it is resolved.

The other major issue I had with it as a problem was that it relies rather heavily on us accepting that an item would be unique and also recognizable enough as the property of the kidnapped woman for Jonathan to notice. Of course people do possess one-of-a-kind items and I can accept that such an item would be needed for this story to work and that coincidence can happen, yet the steps required for it to appear in that bed feel really quite contrived and I was left feeling rather unconvinced that they would have done so.

Prior to the problem being laid out, our attention is focused on two comedic subplots. The more minor of the two concerns a possible murder plot being hatched by two identical twins played by the marvelous June Whitfield. The explanation of the events feels startlingly obvious from the start but I enjoyed the performance enough that it was easy to view this as a piece of comedic color and appreciate it on that grounds. Don’t expect anything deep or raucous from this and you won’t be too disappointed.

The other is Denise’s botched attempt at an affair with that male escort. The tone and setup for this part of the story struck me as a little odd – as accommodating as Polly can be, it’s hard for me to imagine her as someone who would tolerate Denise’s oversharing, let alone help her hide a corpse. Comedically it all feels a little awkward (if not rather insensitive), though I did appreciate the performance from Josie Lawrence who presented a strong interpretation of the character.

The matter of the titular lamp however struck me as entirely convoluted, existing really only to allow Renwick to utilize the title of one of Carr’s novels. Unfortunately Renwick’s sequence feels more silly than moving and so, much like the previous episode, we once again find ourselves with a story that feels like it is written primarily to justify a title rather than because each of those developments make sense.

This story concludes the fifth season of Jonathan Creek on something of a low note. While Renwick’s attempts to play around with some new ideas and structures were commendable, I think that the execution of those ideas was often not ideal with the episodes suffering from the lack of focus on a single impossible problem. Were this the last episode of Jonathan Creek I think I would have felt that something else was needed to give us a proper sense of closure on the series. As it was we still had Daemons’ Roost, the most recently produced story to date, to come and give the series a much tighter conclusion. Join me next time as I share my thoughts on it and, in the process, complete this journey…