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…

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Verdict

A story of two halves. The first is a tight and propulsive story that will have you asking what you would do in an impossible situation. Sadly the second falls into more standard action thriller territory and left me underwhelmed.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

It’s something parents do every morning: Rachel Klein drops her daughter at the bus stop and heads into her day. But a cell phone call from an unknown number changes everything: it’s a woman on the line, informing her that she has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will see her again is to follow her instructions exactly: pay a ransom, and find another child to abduct. This is no ordinary kidnapping: the caller is a mother herself, whose son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn’t do as she’s told, the boy will die.

“You are not the first. And you will certainly not be the last.” Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending and ingenious scheme that turns victims into criminals—and is making someone else very rich in the process. The rules are simple, the moral challenges impossible; find the money fast, find your victim, and then commit a horrible act you’d have thought yourself incapable of just twenty-four hours ago.

But what the masterminds behind The Chain know is that parents will do anything for their children. It turns out that kidnapping is only the beginning.

Keep calm. Put this blindfold on. What your mother does in the next twenty-four hours will determine whether you live or die.

My Thoughts

Rachel Klein is driving to a doctor’s appointment when she receives a call from an unknown number. She is told that she will need to pull over and prepare herself for another phone call she should get just a couple of minutes later. There will be instructions to follow and she must not contact the police or any other kind of law enforcement. She is now part of ‘the Chain’.

The next call gives more information. Her teenage daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the first thing she will need to do is raise money for a ransom. That’s the easy part. The second stage is the hard bit – she will have to carry out her own kidnapping, just as her daughter’s kidnappers have done. Kylie will only be released when her own victim pays the ransom and carries out their own kidnapping.

The Chain is a thriller, through and through. It is an exploration of the terrible things that a parent might feel compelled to do to save their child’s life. I wrote in my review of Brad Park’s Say Nothing (another child kidnapping story) how I felt that having a child made me susceptible to all sorts of emotional manipulations. A decade ago this sort of material would have left me quite cold but it’s hard not to engage your imagination to think how you would feel in those same situations. This is the sort of book that could easily make you never want to let your child out of your sights again.

You can imagine then that this proved pretty uncomfortable reading for me and I am sure that if I wasn’t reading it for my work, I would likely have abandoned it long before the end. That would not be so much a reflection of the book’s quality as my feeling about its intensity and that it sits outside my usual areas of interest. Still, having read it I feel that I ought to try to organize some of my thoughts about the book as a crime story.

Let’s start then with the concept of the kidnapping scheme that is described here. It is easy to understand why such a scheme could prove highly effective. Everything about the system is designed to ensure complicity, making it near-impossible for the victims to go to the authorities. In the author’s notes at the end of the novel McKinty suggests that he was inspired by what he learned about exchange kidnappings during a stay in Mexico – my own thoughts went to tiger kidnapping crimes like the Bank of Ireland robbery a little over a decade ago.

What makes McKinty’s idea feel incredible is not the premise but the scale. The idea that such a scheme could be successful, running through countless victims without a breakdown seems to really stretch credibility. Even with the most careful victim selection and the odd dead end, the scheme would require a clinical tidiness that feels quite far-fetched.

The novel is broken into two sections, the first dealing with the kidnapping of Kylie and what Rachel does in response, the second exploring what happens afterwards. The first part was by far the more engaging for me as it focuses on establishing the principal characters and exploring how it would feel to go through their ordeal. I had little difficulty putting myself in either character’s position and while I may question the wisdom of some of those choices (I am thinking particularly of a character Rachel comes to rely upon), I always understood them.

Both Rachel and Pete, her former brother-in-law, feel credible and I appreciate that there is an attempt to portray them as relatively normal people, each going through problems that predate the kidnapping. I appreciated the way that these can both sit in the background but also at times are shown to clearly inform or affect the characters’ choices, often in quite critical ways.

While I empathized with Pete, I cannot say that I found him particularly likable. I found it rather hard to relate to his intensity of feelings about his niece and can’t say that I was rooting for some of the later developments in the story to happen. The social issues that his storyline raises and discusses however are handled very thoughtfully and I appreciated that McKinty didn’t go the route of giving us overtly heroic characters to follow but rather more flawed and three-dimensional characters.

There are few surprises in this first section but to be honest that didn’t trouble me at all. The pacing is so strong and the stakes are set out so clearly that I found myself quite gripped and wanting to see how things would play out. My issues with the novel really lie with its second phase.

Here I have to be a little more vague to avoid giving too much away about the key developments. I can say that this second section of the novel is more action-focused than the first and might be summed up as ‘Rachel goes looking for trouble’.

It is this section of the novel that has to demystify the Chain, giving us information about its origins. This was, of course, necessary but it struck me as rather anticlimactic. Rather than feeling satisfied and that I understood these events better, I found it even harder to believe how the Chain could have started in the first place once I had met those responsible. It doesn’t help that, in contrast to characters like Rachel and Pete, they feel somewhat disconnected from reality – a sort of cinematic evil rather than a truthful one. The more we know them, the further we get from the character-focused material in the first part that had been so interesting, and instead we find ourselves in thriller territory.

It really didn’t work for me. While I can understand why Rachel might decide not to let matters lie, I feel that the novel seems to lose its focus on exploring its characters from that point on. The shift in tone and style feels quite abrupt and it tries to push Rachel into more clearly heroic territory that I am not sure was earned by the character up until that point. Nor can I say that I found the action particularly exciting although it is described in quite cinematic terms. It probably doesn’t help that the reader is required to accept a few really contrived plot developments that are needed to set up that big action-driven finale.

For all of my complaints about this second section, one aspect I did appreciate was that it didn’t completely forget about the things that had been done in the first. This was welcome, even if it feels a little half-hearted – I suppose the question of what justice would look like in this situation is a debatable one. While I understood the choice that McKinty makes at this moment, I think it might have been more interesting to either leave it open-ended or go darker.

The Chain had been at its most interesting when our protagonists were reacting to events beyond their control. It is the question of what they would do with so much on the line and under such intense pressure that made the early chapters feel so compulsive. Once that pressure is withdrawn, the novel seems to lose much of that propulsive momentum and so, for me at least, my interest went with it.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

This clever tale boasts one of Christie’s most distinctive victims and a broadly satisfying conclusion.

Book Details

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #17
Preceded by Murder in the Mews
Followed by Death on the Nile

This has also been published as Poirot Loses a Client.

The Blurb

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot investigates the very suspicious death of an elderly spinster who, fearing the very worst, had written to the great detective prior to her demise.

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

But though Miss Arundel’s death surprised no one, something else did. The provisions of her will gave rise to varying emotions, astonishment, pleasurable excitement, deep condemnation, fury, despair, anger and general gossip.

My Thoughts

I need to start this post by acknowledging the elephant in this room. I forgot that the short story collection Murder in the Mews followed Cards on the Table. There is, of course, no excuse for this oversight which really amounts to carelessness on my part. Rest assured that this will be rectified in the coming weeks! Now, on with the story…

Emily Arundell’s nephew and nieces are visiting her to spend the Easter weekend at her home in the country. During their stay Emily meets with a shocking accident when she tumbles down her stairs having apparently slipped on her terrier’s ball. Fortunately she emerges just badly bruised but as she thinks over the affair she becomes increasingly concerned that it might not be an accident.

Emily decides to take the precaution of writing to Hercule Poirot to seek his advice. Unfortunately for her the letter is not posted until after she dies several weeks later. When he, accompanied by his friend Hastings, travels to Market Basing, he learns that she was widely believed to have died of a malady that had nearly killed her a year and a half earlier. Poirot however suspects that Miss Arundell had reason to think an attempt had been made on her life and wonders if the would-be killer might have tried again…

The opening chapters of this book are quite remarkable and do a fantastic job of introducing us to Emily and the members of her family and household who will be our principal suspects. There are some absolutely fantastic turns of phrase employed in Christie’s prose that give the narration a somewhat sardonic tone. One favorite of mine is that after describing how Miss Lawson, Miss Arundel’s companion, had professed ignorance that she would be named as the principal beneficiary of the will there is a paragraph break before the narrator adds ‘A lot of people, of course, did not believe this.’

Similarly I think Christie’s depiction of Emily Arundell feels really boldly drawn, in the best possible way. Between her love of her dog, Bob, and her extremely particular way that she organizes the household festivities and makes the bedroom arrangements (giving priority to her nephew over her niece because ‘In Miss Arundell’s day, women took second place’), we quickly build a strong picture of her. Indeed, I might well suggest that I consider her to be one of Christie’s most dimensional victims – helped by the fact hat we not only encounter her prior to the crime but she feels present in much of what follows as characters debate what her wishes or intentions might have been and we focus on the question of what she must have thought prior to her death.

I also really like the mechanism of Poirot becoming engaged in this case when a piece of mail is belatedly delivered to him. This is not only intriguing in itself as a question – why does this letter suddenly appear months after the death – but I appreciate that Poirot seems to regard it as a matter of honor to investigate as a result. It is curious to consider whether he would have had the same curiosity had the letter arrived when it was intended. Would there have been enough to catch his attention?

Poirot’s investigations take the form of a series of interviews but there is little sense of repetition or stagnation here. Each interviewee presents something new that pushes our understanding of the case forwards either by presenting some new piece of evidence or by clarifying or complicating the relationships within the family. Presentationally there is also the novelty that Poirot engages in a variety of minor deceptions to encourage those suspects to talk to him prompting a couple of comical moments where Hastings expresses his dismay at such unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of his friend.

The supporting characters are arguably a little less dimensional than the victim but each makes a strong impression and has a very clearly defined personality (an exception is Miss Peabody, Emily’s friend who has some wonderfully sharp dialogue, but she is not a suspect). Few come off particularly sympathetically but I felt there were nuances in the characterizations, particularly that of the Greek physician Dr. Tanios who is presented as a subject of much suspicion largely because of his nationality.

Even Emily’s little terrier, Bob, feels pleasingly characterful – helped by Hasting’s decision to interpret his barking. This is peak self-induglent Hastings behavior and I am absolutely in love with it, in part because Christie doesn’t overdo it and limits it to just a couple of scenes. It’s odd but I think it speaks perfectly to his romantic and imaginative character.

The solution is quite clever and I liked some of the subtle clueing that pointed to the solution. While the relevance of a particular clue may elude some readers, I think the way it is visually suggested is superb and certainly appeals to the imagination. Similarly, I think that the choice of villain is an interesting one and I appreciate in revisiting this very nearly in order how it feels quite unexpected in the context of the previous few novels. Poirot’s explanation is clear and struck me as holding together pretty well.

Unfortunately this post cannot be entirely positive.

There is a clue that is revealed midway through the novel that is predicated on someone doing something incredibly odd while wearing something that seems to make no sense. This aspect of the story bothers me every time I revisit it and I have never managed to make peace with it yet. I really dislike how contrived the situation feels and the idea that it exists purely for the benefit of the reader rather than because it makes any sense for the characters involved.

The other objection I have to the book is its use of a racist expression which is quoted for the title of Chapter Eighteen and casually used by Poirot himself in conversation with Hastings. I think it is that latter part which is what makes me most uncomfortable with this – Poirot is, after all, the hero and so I don’t like to think of him in such a light.

It’s really disappointing because in almost every other regard Dumb Witness is superb. After all, it boasts one of Christie’s most memorable victims, a puzzling premise and a rather clever solution.

The Bowstring Murders by John Dickson Carr (as Carr Dickson)

The Verdict

Offers up a rather good puzzle with some ingenious features, though a few aspects of the investigation feel underdone.

Book Details

Originally published in 1933 under the pseudonym Carr Dickson (some later reissues change the author’s name to Carter Dickson, the pseudonym the author would use for his Merrivale series).

The Blurb

Dotty old Lord Rayle doted on his priceless collection of medieval battle gear at Bowstring Castle. But some ironic knave who didn’t give a hoot about chivalry donned a mail glove and strangled him with his own bowstring. When the dastard also struck down two of Lord Rayle’s armor-bearers, things really came unhinged!

Enter John Gaunt

The boozy-but-brilliant sleuth picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the crafty challenger. The clues weren’t linked and the facts didn’t mesh – but this champion was determined to find the chink in the murderer’s armor!

Look here, I may be wrong. But I think that sooner or later something mad and ugly and dangerous is going to blow up in that place. I warn you –!

My Thoughts

Bowstring Castle is said to contain one of the country’s best collections of medieval armor and weaponry, housed in the building’s armory. The castle is owned by Lord Rayle, a somewhat eccentric and forgetful man, whose strangled body is discovered within the armory by his daughter. There were just two possible entrances to the space, one observed at all times by Dr. Tairlaine, the other covered in a thick layer of dust, so how did the killer manage to commit the crime?

The Bowstring Murders was published at a transitional moment in John Dickson Carr’s career. It was written a year after the penultimate Henri Bencolin novel (he wouldn’t write the final one until 1937) and one year before he introduced Sir Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders. Meanwhile he had recently published the first two Gideon Fell mysteries – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery.

This book therefore seems to herald a move from the Grand Guignol-style of the Bencolin stories set in France to something more puzzle-focused and comedic with an English setting – in other words, the formula for Carr’s Merrivale tales. I think you can see Sir John Gaunt, the sleuth in this story, as embodying that transition as the text references he mentions that he has just returned from France himself when he is brought into this case.

Carr’s growing interest in English tradition and history seems to be reflected in the design of Bowstring Castle, the setting for this story. Not only is this clearly meant to be a historic building, inhabited by members of the British aristocracy, but it is something of a museum – particularly the wing of the Castle in which the murder will take place which houses a collection of armor and medieval weaponry. While such a setting might seem suggestive of a gothic atmosphere, Carr never really takes it in that direction. Instead he focuses on the history and the eccentricity of the space.

In addition to these physical elements of the past, there is also some discussion of how the world is changing and not, Carr seems to say, for the better. One example of this might be the discussion of how the cinematic hero had changed with Francis bitterly reflecting that Larry Kestevan is successful because he is surly and suggesting that while a hero’s masculinity used to be shown by having them punch a villain, in those days they were more likely to punch the heroine.

I think though that the strongest clues to the importance of this theme to Carr lie in the character of his sleuth – John Gaunt. The name, of course, recalls one of the most important figures from England’s Middle Ages, Sir John of Gaunt, from whom all of the kings would be descended until the War of the Roses. Shakespeare would depict John of Gaunt in his play Richard II in which he makes the famed ‘Scepter’d Isle’ speech and so his name has these strong historical and cultural connections with England’s past.

This is coupled with the notion that Gaunt, who is shown to possess a brilliant mind, has rejected working with Scotland Yard because of their insistence on utilizing modern, scientific methods rather than deduction. They, in turn, disapproved of his heavy drinking and how he has exercised his own judgment in the past to allow a murderer to get away. In other words, he is an eccentric individual in a world that no longer prizes those qualities, preferring conformity. A theme which Carr would return to again and again in the years to come.

I quite enjoyed getting to know Gaunt and was rather disappointed to realize that this would be the character’s only outing. While he is less colorful than H. M., I enjoyed following his thinking as he broke the case down and explained the connections between the multiple murders. Though he enters the story midway through the novel, Carr employs one of his favorite devices of having characters discuss him repeatedly before he does (as he would do with Dr. Fell in Till Death Do Us Part) which gives that moment greater impact and helps us feel that we get to know him by reputation.

Lord Rayle himself is shown to be an eccentric figure, though in his case the depiction is intended to be comical. Much of this worked for me, such as the nonsensical approach he takes to trying to safeguard some of his possessions and his foggy, disconnected dialogue with his guests where he seems to lurch from one topic to another. He makes quite a big impact in just a few pages to the point where, once he is murdered, there is a sense that the novel loses a little of its playfulness and eccentricity. None of the other characters, except perhaps Gaunt himself, feel anywhere near so large.

Happily the puzzle is quite a good one which goes some way toward making up for this. The circumstances of that crime, given that it takes place in a room in which another person is present who says that they didn’t see anything, are intriguing and the barriers to using those two exits are explained quite effectively. I was certainly baffled as to what had happened and will confess that I did not come anywhere near the solution beyond guessing the identity of the murderer.

That solution has some rather ingenious elements and I could appreciate, once it was explained, how it came together so neatly. If I had a complaint it was that I felt that, though Carr’s descriptions are pretty good, the book would have benefitted from a plan of the armory area. This is actually referenced within the story itself as a character talks about how confusing the space is and a map is made for their benefit. While I do not think that seeing a map would have resulted in me working out the solution, it might have led to me understanding some relational geography a little earlier.

I do have to commend Carr though on many other aspects of his solution. There not only are some pretty interesting ideas used to help explain some oddities in the three deaths, I particularly appreciated that this is one of those cases where perspective proves to be quite important. Aspects of the crimes are mystifying when seen from the detective’s perspective but once you understand the sequence of choices from those of the killer everything comes together very tidily indeed.

What keeps it from being perfect is not then the solution but what comes before it. There is some sloppiness in some early parts of the investigation, particularly the lack of consideration that the other character in the room might be the killer. After all, that would be the simplest solution and there is never really any explanation given for why the police do not take that possibility seriously (particularly given the weakness of the first victim).

The other weakness for me was that the killer’s identity seems quite apparent from very early in the novel. I don’t know if that is because I recognized some behavior on their part as being the sort of thing Carr killers often do or if it reflects that it is hard to take any of the other suspects seriously.

Still, while I think the novel has a few flaws that keep it from being a top-tier Carr, I still found it to be a thoroughly engaging read. It’s a very solid puzzle with a few ingenious features that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the other, more lauded Carr title from that same year.

Further Reading

Forgot I hadn’t copy-pasted this section when I first posted.

Ben @ The Green Capsule describes this as an ‘interesting but brief chapter in Carr’s career’ which I think is a nice way of summing it up. I agree with everything he put in his spoilers section at the bottom of his excellent review.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also admires the ingenuity of the solution here and makes a good point about the dodgy dialect employed for the servants. The comparison with an Anthony Boucher sleuth makes me interested to try some of those stories!