Originally published in 2012 Rowland Sinclair #3 Preceded by A Decline in Prophets Followed by Paving the New Road
It is 1933 and wealthy Australian artist Rowland Sinclair is enjoying a leisurely sojourn in the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. As ever, he is accompanied by his entourage – a poet, a fellow painter and a brazen sculptress. The Depression-era troubles of the wider world seem far away. Until long-time Sinclair family ally and employee Harry Simpson disappears.
Rowland must leave for the High Country to find Harry. He encounters resentful stockmen, dangerous gangsters and threatening belligerence all round. With his trusted friends’ help, he uncovers a dark conspiracy which suddenly renders the beautiful Australian outback very sinister…
The characterizations and setting are great. The case however seems to meander a little, making this entertaining but not as good as either preceding novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first two outings with Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist who finds himself getting caught up in mysteries while trying to navigate an awkward relationship with his disapproving older brother. I had actually intended to get to this one soon after the last but as often happens with my TBR pile, I find new things to add on top and can lose track of an enjoyable series in favor of the new. Happily I stumbled across it at just the right time, particularly as I felt keen to read a historical mystery, and ended up devouring it in a day.
After having an escape from a group of toughs in his home, Rowland Sinclair is summoned to see his brother Wilfred who makes two requests of him. The first is to cast a vote in his role as a director of a company. The other however is to journey into the High Country in search of an aboriginal employee who disappeared without a trace after being sent to take investigate a matter on Sinclair lands. The people he visited suggest he had gone on walkabout but Wil points out that behavior is quite unlike Harry who is usually responsible and communicative.
The book is at its best in the chapters in which we see Rowland and his friends roughing it in the countryside in search of Harry. This not only inspires some very effective descriptions of the landscape and the isolation of working the land and gives Gentill an opportunity to explore some different types of characters than we have seen in the series up until this point.
One consequence of Rowland being pulled out of his comfortable setting is that it reminds us that we have tended to view him through the lens of his family. In particular, his very conservative brother Wil. Compared to him Rowland certainly comes off as being much more down to earth but when he is thrown into a rough, rural setting we see him struggle to figure out how to talk with and deal with the people (and, quite memorably, the wildlife) he finds there.
Where his previous adventure saw Rowland making a choice to take a cruise that led him into adventure, here he finds himself quite unwillingly drawn into events. While he cares about Harry and wants to make sure he is safe, he is not enthused about undertaking this trip, nor about being pushed to take on additional responsibilities as a company director at an upcoming board meeting. Still, while this adventure will push him into some uncomfortable situations, I think it also works well to demonstrate some sides to his character that we have not really seen before as well as giving us further insight into his early life and that of his deceased brother Aubrey.
All of Rowland’s friends return and make appearances in this story which is welcome. That little family of characters that surround and support Rowland provide much of the series’ energy and heart. There are even some events that threaten to disrupt or at least complicate his relationship with Edna. That relationship still strikes me as quite charming and I will confess to being fully invested in wanting to see that realized (if you have read further in this series than me, please do not spoil me on whether I will be happy with the way it develops).
The relationship that interests me most however is not with his circle of friends but his complicated feelings towards his elder brother. The two men are clearly quite different in temprement, outlook and political sympathies. They have different views on what their role in society should be and how they can best represent their family. At times their relationship can become quite acrimonious and bitter – indeed, we get several such moments in this story. Yet you also see the bond the two men have, their shared experiences, and I am always struck by how real that relationship seems. That relationship seems to sit at the heart of this series – at least in these early installments – and it is this aspect of the books that I am most curious to see how it develops.
As much as I love the character content and the setting, I do have to comment on the mystery plot itself and here I am afraid I was a little disappointed. I have already indicated that I think the early part of the book with Rowly investigating the disappearance is really quite effective and engaging. The problems for me occur in the book’s back half. That is partly because the action relocates to the city, taking away the book’s most distinctive element, but it is also because the villain of the piece did not strike me as particularly convincing or stand up well in comparison with those in the first two books while their motivations felt somewhat generic.
The other reason I think the second half is weaker than the first is that Rowland loses his direct motivation to become engaged with the mystery. That is reflected in how he seems to become responsive rather than proactive from this point in the story and from that point on things seem to happen to him rather than feeling like he is choosing to engage with a mystery.
Still, Rowland remains a really fantastic creation and while I think this case is uneven, I cannot help but admire Gentill’s approach to characterization or giving us a sense of Australian society in the 1930s. While I preferred the first two novels which set a very high standard, the good bits here are very good. I feel keen to see how this series continues to develop and I look forward to reading the next installment – Paving the New Road – to see what the rest of this tumultous decade has in store for the Sinclair brothers.
Originally published 1935 Hugh Rennert #3 Preceded by The Cat Screams Followed by Murder on the Tropic
The journey of the Mexico City-bound Pullman seems ill-fated from the outset ― what with the engine troubles and the threat of an impending railway strike ― but no one aboard expects the terror that will descend upon the luxury train between Laredo and its destination. First a man dies as the vehicle passes through a dark tunnel and then, just as United States Customs Agent Hugh Rennert begins to investigate, the train comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the desert.
More deaths follow as night falls, and when it becomes clear that a murderer is on the loose, the stationary cars transform into an isolated hall of horrors. The varied and intriguing cast of passengers begins to panic, but Rennert remains calm and collected, untangling the web of motives in a desperate search for the culprit. Will he be able to unmask the killer before the voyage ends?
A suspenseful whodunnit that charts a path through the Mexican wilderness, Vultures in the Sky highlights the best aspects of the Golden Age mystery, mixing classical detective work with a tense, closed-circle setting. The third novel in Todd Downing’s Hugh Rennert series (which can be enjoyed in any order), it shows an undeservedly forgotten author working at the top of his craft.
A triumph of setting and style – Downing’s story has a clever plot and accelerates towards a thrilling conclusion.
Todd Downing was unknown to me prior to picking up Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book discusses Downing’s life and the influences on his writing but at that time I was initially interested in it for its reproductions of the reviews he wrote about detective fiction in the 1930s for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper.
As I read more about Downing’s own biography and unusual background (at least in the context of writers of the Golden Age) I became interested in him as a writer – a feeling only amplified by the reviews I have read written by fellow bloggers. After taking a look over several of his titles I decided to make this one my first for two reasons. Firstly because it features a train journey which could tie in with an upcoming train-related post and also because this book is being reissued in print at the end of the year as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I have used the AMC cover image for this review to match the others on my dedicated page for that range but for the purposes of this review I read the previous Coachwhip edition, limited copies of which are still currently available on Amazon.
Vultures in the Sky takes place aboard a train travelling from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. During the journey US Customs Agent Hugh Rennert is approached by a passenger who tells him that his wife, who has departed the train, overheard a conversation where one passenger was issuing a cryptic threat to another. A short while later the train passes through a tunnel and the carriage is thrown into complete darkness. When the train emerges the man who had made the threat lies dead though the means is unclear at first. It will take a second death to confirm that a murderer is aboard the train and they are likely to strike again…
The train is a perfect cauldron for resentments and mistrust to grow, particularly given the nature of the barren and unforgiving landscape the train is moving through. There may be a killer aboard but to leave the train would spell likely death from the elements.
Downing’s descriptions of the Mexican landscape are superb, not only evoking a sense of place but also the political tension that was still palpable a decade after the Mexican revolution. This only feeds into the nervous tension already being felt by the passengers and the threat of being interrogated by the local police when they reach their destination serves as a credible motivation for them to cooperate with Rennert’s investigation. As for the train’s staff, they are motivated to keep the train running so it can reach its destination before a staff strike kicks in.
The train is filled with quite an interesting mix of characters, several of whom seem to be hiding secrets. Rennert’s job is to tease out those secrets and discover who might have a connection to the deceased. Even when a passenger seems to be cooperative though there is always a question about whether there is more that is left unsaid or whether they are being entirely truthful.
Rennert makes for a pretty engaging sleuth. Clearly smart and perceptive, he applies pressure to the other passengers with reasoning, making the case for why they should cooperate with him and also getting the train’s staff on his side. His personality never distracts from the case itself and he remains focused on working through the facts logically to tease out an explanation.
While typically mystery novels begin with their most interesting murder, Vultures in the Sky‘s murder only seem to grow in interest. That partly reflects that it takes a while for us to get definite confirmation of murder but also because the seeming acceleration in killings adds a sense of pressure and tension to the affair.
Tension continues to build as our cast of suspects begins to thin out and there are several external factors at play that only add to the pressure. One of these, referenced in the blurb above, is that the train suddenly stops in the middle of the desert. This adds a sense of dread that something is about to happen, once again drawing on some aspects of what was happening in Mexico at the time, but it also adds pressure for the killer who is trapped aboard a train with a detective who is edging towards the truth.
This and several other external factors have an impact on the investigation, only serving to increase the tension and setting up an exciting conclusion to the story. I felt that conclusion lived up to my hopes, being not only a compelling resolution to the mystery but also quite thrilling in its application of pressure, not letting up until the final few pages. Downing answered all of the questions I had and delivered a killer I didn’t see coming.
Overall my first experience of Downing was a really positive one. I loved his attention to building a sense of place and his careful puzzle plotting and I look forward to reading more by him in the future.
Season Two, Episode One Preceded by The House of Monkeys(Season One) Followed by Time Waits for Norman
Written by David Renwick Directed by Sandy Johnson
Key Guest Cast
Peter Davison is one of the most familiar faces on British television first becoming known for his role in All Creatures Great and Small before replacing Tom Baker in Doctor Who. He has also been a frequent face in genre productions, memorably playing Margery Allingham’s Campion, Peter Lovesey’s DC Davies and making several appearances as Inspector Christmas in TheMrs Bradley Mysteries.
This story was one of my favorites on original broadcast and remains my go-to pick when I am wanting to revisit the show. Great concept, explained well.
As much as I enjoyed revisiting the first season of Jonathan Creek, my strongest memories of the show lie in its second season. I remember several of the stories in this season quite vividly and, of those, none sticks in my memory more than Danse Macabre.
The episode begins with Maddy receiving a visit from Stephen Claithorne, a priest who wants her help to understand a strange event that took place at his home. His mother-in-law, the famous horror novelist Emma Lazarus, was visiting along with her husband and bodyguard and while he had to attend a meeting, the rest of the family took part in a fancy dress party. They return to the house where an intruder takes her husband’s skeleton costume and shoots Lazarus dead in her bedroom.
Her daughter Lorna runs to the bedroom where she is knocked unconscious. Caught by surprise as the household stirs, the disguised figure picks up Lorna and carries her to the garage where she uses her unconscious body as a human shield, closing the garage door as the police pull up and surround the building. When they open the garage door they find Lorna stirring but no sign of the skeleton figure at all. This begs the question – who was in the skeleton costume and how did they escape?
This central problem fascinated me at fourteen and even now, knowing the solution, I continue to find it very appealing. Certainly a big part of that lies in the horror trappings, both literal – as in the corny costumes the characters are wearing for the party – but also the idea of the home invasion and a vanishing act that seems to suggest the figure was a ghost or spirit. I think the real reason though that this continues to delight me is that when you revisit it with an awareness of the solution you can admire just how effectively the trick has been worked.
One of the things that struck me watching this again was that had I paused frequently and made notes, I could have solved several aspects of the case early on. In a sense the episode acknowledges this by having Jonathan solve many aspects of the question of how it was worked without him ever setting foot in the house. Assuming that the camera is not lying to us, we should have a pretty good idea of who is in that garage as it closes. The reason I think it works is that this action plays out with a considerable sense of pace, never really allowing the viewer the time to pause and think the problem through.
How clever is the solution to what happened in that garage? Well, I think it is rather ingenious and explained quite effectively. Like many impossibilities you can see how it could all have gone horribly wrong and yet you can also understand exactly how the vanishing was achieved and appreciate the audacity of the idea.
The episode even includes a second mysterious and rather gruesome mystery concerning the disappearance of something from within a coffin. Here I feel the episode perhaps leans into its horror theming a little too much, particularly given its somewhat hokey explanation, though it does add an additional layer of complication at a moment in the story where everything might otherwise seem to be getting a little clearer.
The performances from the guest cast are fine with Peter Davison standing out as Claithorne from the moment he first appears. He not only recounts the strange events well, he also has to serve a sort of moral role in this episode as the one figure who is definitely outside of the whole affair. While Claithorne is a rather dry individual, Davison does at least draw out a little humor in his reactions to the characters around him and injects a role that might otherwise have seemed quite flat with life.
In addition to the main mystery plot, Jonathan is having to deal with the demands of his irresponsible, egotistical boss. This is the story that brings Adam Klaus back, now played by Stuart Milligan, and I was struck by some of the differences in the portrayal compared with Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Where Head came off as cocky and suave, Milligan shows him as rather more inept and bragadocious. Still a pig, certainly, but one we can count on usually ending up on bottom when difficult situations arise.
His storyline here makes for a solid reintroduction to the character and while his bedroom behavior is hardly unexpected, those elements of the story are executed pretty well. It is hard to imagine how he thinks he can get away with it all however and it is nice to see another character really put him on the ropes in an episode.
Overall I am happy to say that this first episode of Season Two lived up to both my expectations and my memory. The answer as to how the trick is worked is really quite clever and visually I still find this to be one of the most convincing stories in the series. Do I entirely buy the motivations for what happens? Probably not though I think that reflects the imagination of the crime itself which is, in my opinion, this case’s biggest draw and one of the reasons this remains one of my favorite episodes.
Everyone agreed Evelyn Marsh wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned. Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” The rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in that first line. A psychological character study, it’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it.
A lot of the elements used are familiar but Clemens combines them skillfully and executes them well.
Evelyn Marsh begins with the title character accidentally committing what is described as a murder. In actual fact she has unintentionally killed a gopher that was menacing her garden. While that may read like the literary equivalent of a clickbait headline, the use of the word ‘murder’ is both clever and useful as it tells us a lot about Evelyn as a character and her values.
This is important because Evelyn Marsh is, at its heart, a character study. What it is principally interested in and what it teases so effectively in its first line is how a woman can go from crying over a dead animal and insisting on giving it a burial to committing a second, deliberate murder. The victim’s identity is unknown both to the reader and to Evelyn at this point in the novel so we follow along as we see her interact with other characters, see potential triggers and situations being created and wonder exactly what will be the moment that will send her over the edge. In short, we are looking an example of the whydunit style of inverted mystery.
Looked at it from the outside, Evelyn Marsh’s life is enviable. She lives in a gorgeous home, her husband earns a comfortable salary from the law practice he took on from her father meaning she wants for little and she has recently begun to exhibit and sell her artwork – something that brings her great pleasure, even if the financial rewards of that so far have been relatively modest. She however perceives that life slightly differently, particularly her marriage which has become cold since the children left home.
In the early chapters of the novel, Clemens carefully establishes each aspect of her life and several of the relationships that are most important to her. The reader may perceive some familiar storytelling seeds being sewn that suggest how the story will take its turn but because there are several such strands, it is not obvious which will be the ultimate trigger. Nor are those threads as predictable as they initially appear – Clemens overlaps some of those storylines, leading them to impact on each other which pushes the work into some less expected directions as Evelyn plans and executes her murder and responds to an investigation.
Unusually for this sort of story, I found the act of murder to be the least compelling aspect of the book. It is, of course, necessary and it has been planned but after chapters of building anticipation, the act itself happens quickly, as does the staging of the scene, and before you know it we have moved onto the investigative portion of the book. This is not a bad thing however because it is this final section of the book that feels the most engaging and interesting.
Where the early part of the book dealt with familiar ideas and story beats, albeit presenting them with twists, this final section feels like it is doing its own thing. It manages to do so with a focus on character with each new development seeming to probe and illustrate different aspects of Evelyn’s personality and we see her undergo a sort of transformation as a result.
Having diverged from the more familiar plot points and beats of the inverted crime story by this point, we find ourselves in rather unexpected territory about just how each of the plot threads will be resolved. I found this to be quite exciting and enjoyed following the path of the investigation and trying to predict how the story might end. I was not disappointed with that conclusion which not only felt interesting on a character level, it also felt like a satisfying final statement on the book’s central themes.
Overall I enjoyed Evelyn Marsh a lot and found it to be a clever psychological exploration of how a woman comes to commit a murder. While many of the ingredients will be familiar, Clemens combines them in unexpected ways to produce a character-driven story that exceeded my expectations.
Originally published in 1933 Superintendent Wilson #10 Preceded by A Lesson in Crime Followed by Death in the Quarry
It is said that dead men tell no tales, but sometimes sudden death is the means of bringing well-hidden tales to light. It is so in this story; for out of the seemingly accidental death of the unknown old man who called on Philip Blakeway at Hampstead comes the clearing-up of an old crime. How Captain John Jay really died, how Ann Burton set out to look for her missing father, and how Superintendent Wilson unravelled the tangle, you will read in this book, in which you will find not only a detective story in Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s best manner, but also another example of their habit of writing about people who behave like real men and women, and not merely figures whom the author moves about at his pleasure.
An intriguing inverted story scenario is spoiled by a dull investigation and a lack of interest in exploring the character of its killer. Ends strong but takes too long getting there.
After several years of financial worries, Philip Blakeway seems to finally be living comfortably. He has married a wealthy widow who is able to keep him and sustain his business, though he could easily afford to live a life of leisure. Even her children’s lack of warmth towards him does not seem to seriously bother him and he hopes to make some progress with his relationship with her son while she is away for a few days.
All that comfort seems to evaporate however when he spots a seafaring man at a religious gathering while out on a walk – a situation that becomes even more worrying when that man follows him home and asks for an audience. Blakeway asks for the man to be shown into his library and gives the servants the night off, even though he will be having a few friends over later that evening. He goes ahead with the party as planned, staging a scene where he happens upon the mariner robbing his bedroom and they struggle, causing the mariner’s gun to go off and kill him. We know however that this is murder – what we do not know is why Philip felt driven to commit the act.
I first learned about this book several months ago in the chapter on Inverted Mysteries in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. While Edwards’ short essay on the book is not exactly glowing, he describes it as ‘good enough’ to make it feel disappointing that the authors did not return to the form. Always keen to try a new author’s take on this type of story, particularly those from the Golden Age, I couldn’t resist snapping up a copy. I am pretty sure I did so before I even finished the article.
The book gets off to a strong start with a chapter that establishes Blakeway and his new lifestyle. While it is quite clear that we are not given the full story and that secrets are lurking in his past, this chapter does help to give us a sense of the man and what he values. It also goes some way to laying the foundations for the later revelations about his past and his relationship to the man who will be murdered.
By choosing to give us this introduction and the events leading up to the meeting with the victim at his home before jumping forwards a few hours, picking up the story at the moment of the shooting, the authors add an additional layer of mystery to the proceedings. We can infer from the circumstances of that meeting that the victim posed some sort of threat to Blakeway and his security yet we do not know the nature of that threat or whether those secrets truly died with the mariner. Nor do we really know much about the victim himself beyond a physical description and our knowledge of the fear he creates in Blakeway. In short, this choice to not show us exactly what happened works pretty well to build a sense of uncertainty and emphasize that the book’s central questions relate to the relationship between those two men.
We then follow Blakeway as he answers police questions and then receives a blackmail request. This is a relatively common plot point in this sort of mystery and it often inspires additional plot developments but here the authors do not really exploit it. After being raised near the start of the novel, this plot point really slips out of view to the extent that, when it was referenced again late in the book it had completely slipped from my mind.
The reason it slipped my mind and struck me as pretty unimportant reflects that the bulk of the novel feels really rather unstructured. While we might think of those middle chapters of the novel as showing how Blakeway responds to some external pressures, the story seems to ooze towards its conclusion rather than feel like it is being driven towards it. There is a sense of a building series of pressures but no sense of an antagonist for Blakeway to pitch his wits against or the need to construct a cover-up. While that may be realistic, it does not make for particularly compelling storytelling. The entry of Superintendent Wilson late in the day does little to help this.
Martin Edwards describes him as dull and I cannot really disagree. His role in this story is fairly minimal, reflecting that he is brought into the affair late in the day, but he does not have much personality or bring much force to bear on the investigation. He really just works out a probable (and correct) explanation from a distance. Even that however feels rather anticlimactic and, once again, it never feels as if he is engaged with the other characters in the story.
While the process of getting to the explanation is rather dry, the content of that explanation is rather more interesting. I was certainly surprised to learn one element motivating the crime which is fairly clued and was intrigued to see how another character would respond. It sets up an interesting final few chapters that feel less predictable than what has come before while not losing sight of the characters or the relationships that had been established earlier in the novel.
As interesting as the start and end of the novel are, I feel that I cannot really recommend it. It is not just that the plotting is sometimes a little loose with some elements, like the threat of blackmail, being raised but then forgotten for much of the story. I think the problems lie in the choice to prevent the reader from really getting to know Blakeway. Following the murder he seems emotionally remote, even when we are being shown how he is responding to events. That works in terms of sustaining the mystery about why he has resorted to murder but it does mean that for much of the book the character feels more like a cipher than a fully-dimensional person and I think it kept me from really caring about his fate.
Have you read anything by the Coles? If so, what is your opinion of their writing? Are there any books you would recommend to me?
Originally published in 1933 Hercule Poirot #9 Preceded by Peril at End House Followed by Murder on the Orient Express
Also known as Thirteen at Dinner
When Lord Edgware is found murdered the police are baffled. His estranged actress wife was seen visiting him just before his death and Hercule Poirot himself heard her brag of her plan to “get rid” of him.
But how could she have stabbed Lord Edgware in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? It’s a case that almost proves to be too much for the great Poirot.
By no means a classic story but the plot has a few interesting features while the characterizations are pretty good.
Lord Edgeware Dies begins with Poirot and Hastings attending a theatrical performance at which they witness an impersonation of the actress Jane Wilkinson by Carlotta Adams. As it happens Wilkinson is in the audience and afterwards loudly voices her frustrations towards her husband, Lord Edgeware, who refuses to grant her a divorce, declaring that she would willingly murder him. Later she approaches Poirot and begs him to intervene for her by visiting him and making a case for why it would benefit him to divorce her. He is persuaded and tries to set up an appointment, only to be told Lord Edgeware needs to meet that day instead.
In their meeting Lord Edgeware declares he withdrew his opposition to divorce some time before and had written to Jane agreeing to proceed. Poirot is confused but breaks the good news to Jane who is delighted. The next morning however Inspector Japp visits Poirot to tell him that Edgeware was murdered in his home and Wilkinson was witnessed visiting him that night. The problem is that another group of witnesses can confirm that she was present at a party at exactly the same time some miles away.
Up until just a few years ago when I first discovered GAD blogs, I would have likely cited Lord Edgeware Dies as one of the classic Poirot novels. I should say that was not based upon my own assessment but rather my perception of what others thought of the novel. I was rather surprised when I learned that its standing was lower than I had anticipated and, incidentally, broadly in line with my own opinion of the novel.
The reason for my belief that this must be a classic was that the novel was one of the first four adapted when Poirot returned to our television screens in its glossier, star-studded TV movie format. The other three books – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Evil Under the Sun and Murder in Mesopotamia were all clearly highly regarded so I naturally assumed that this one must be of a similar status. Knowing no other Christie fans at that time, I simply assumed that I must be the outlier and that I simply didn’t get it.
Before I dig into the problems I had with the novel both then and now, let me take a moment to point to some of the things I think it gets right. First, I really enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings in this novel which blends moments of warmth with a fair number of moments when Poirot is being quite insufferable towards his friend. The pair share quite a few amusing exchanges with each other and I think that sense of their being friends enjoying each others’ company on this investigation comes over well. Japp similarly fares well with the novel doing a good job of capturing the teasing, frustrated relationship between him and Poirot.
I also think that Christie does a pretty good job of conveying both Jane Wilkinson’s appeal and also her rather enigmatic qualities to the reader, helping them understand the differing opinions of her character held by others. While I do not think she is quite as magnetic a figure as Nick in Peril at End House, the interpretation of her personality and actions by Poirot and others is central to this novel.
As much as I appreciated these aspects of characterization, I feel that the book is much less successful in terms of its plotting. To be clear, I do not have a problem with the logic of the solution – Christie’s explanation of the crime made sense for me and seemed quite credible as a sequence of events. Instead, my issues with it are more structural and based on Poirot’s own responses to the facts of the case.
I do not think I will be spoiling anything for first-time readers by saying that Christie spells out rather openly near the beginning a possible explanation for what happened. Readers well-versed in her work will likely spot some implications of the setup and notice how they might lead to some opportunities for murder but even those less familiar with her work will likely be able to make some logical deductions about the crime based on what we learn. Of course, the reader will also probably realize that it is unlikely that they will have solved the whole thing just a couple of chapters in.
One problem I have is that Poirot really does not consider the most obvious and simple explanation for what has happened for much of the novel, instead positing a more complicated solution. Even when parts idea falls through he never stops to think what the simplest solution to the puzzle might be, making him appear rather dense or stubborn. That is certainly not the Poirot I think of and does not show him in a particularly strong or brilliant light.
Indeed I was rather struck that Christie never really seems to consider that the reader might simply not read the evidence in exactly the same way as Poirot. For that reason there never really is any attempt to hide the facts associated with the real solution and instead it just seems to be assumed that it will never occur to the reader.
I also felt it was strange that there are several aspects of this book that do seem to parallel or mimic aspects of a previous and then quite recent novel by the same author. This immediate repetition feels rather unfortunate and seems to keep the book from feeling as original as it could have done, also causing some unflattering comparisons with that other – and in my opinion, superior – novel.
When we do get to the end of the novel I am struck by the sense of being rather underwhelmed. That is not because the book is bad – there are some very well written moments and ideas to be found here but the misdirection simply did not work for me here making for a disappointing experience.
Overall then, though I would not suggest that this is my favorite Poirot, I should stress that I consider it to be far from the worst. Even the elements that don’t really work here are at least quite interesting while Christie creates several interesting characters who do stand out as being quite effectively developed, particularly Jane and Carlotta, while the motive for the crime is reasonably clever.
Originally published in 1981. Also published as Death of a Perfect Mother.
At the very moment that Lill Hodsden was describing her two sons (‘We think the world of each other: they’d do anything for me’) Gordon and his brother Brian were plotting darkly at home.
Next Saturday, on her way back from the pub, they planned a sharp blow on the back of Lill’s head and maybe a twist of rope around her throat. What a beautiful empty future they would have!
But Lill’s garrotted body was discovered two days early on Thursday night. Gordon and Brian were incredulous that someone else had got there first for a bizarre twist of fate was going to bring the mother’s boys full circle…
Unpleasant with a predictable conclusion that is clearly meant to surprise. I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon…
Lill Hodsden is regarded as common and cheap by most of the inhabitants of Todmarsh. Her husband, Fred, is oblivious to her carrying on with other men and to the presents she has received in return for her favors and seems to not care about her controlling behavior. Her sons however deeply resent it and worry that she will never let go of them and allow them to become independent.
One day Gordon, the eldest son, suggests to his brother Brian that they should kill her. Brian, assuming he is joking, plays along only to find that he is serious. After talking it over they develop a plan and test some elements. Then just two days before they were to go through with the deed she is found garrotted in the very alley they had planned to commit the murder in.
I actually picked up Mother’s Boy in error after finding a copy of the blurb that omitted the last paragraph. Assuming that this would be a straightforward inverted mystery, I got hold of a copy only to find as I was partway through that other suspects were appearing, each with their own deepset grudges against Lill. Still, even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting I decided to press on with it and see it to its conclusion.
I rather wish I hadn’t bothered.
Mother’s Boys is a depressing read that lacks wit and contains several depictions of various -isms that were made for uncomfortable reading, even though I perceive the author’s intent was to critique those small-minded attitudes. Certainly those opinions tend to come out of the mouths of characters who are established as nasty pieces of work. Which turns out to be just about everyone, making for some quite depressing reading at times.
Unfortunately however I think those efforts to satirize or illustrate those racist attitudes are undermined by the attempt to comically describe the fictional island that the book’s black character came from in terms of savagery (they have, of course, recently been cannibals and plump tourists still occasionally go missing) and ignorance (they have mistakenly come to believe George Eliot a Christian saint based on a missionary’s book collection). It is a frustrating choice because, if that was not there, I might well be lauding the author’s efforts to address racism, both spoken and unspoken, in society.
The book has other, more structural issues however that are evident right from its first chapter. This book has to do something that is quite difficult – convince us that two sons, who are believed to dote on their mother, would negotiate and conspire a murder plan in a single conversation. This might have been set up by an obvious pressure point on that relationship such as a particular slight given or a specific provocation but instead it is brought up quite bluntly and with no build up at all. This renders the whole conversation unnervingly neat and artificial which might not be a problem if the whole book was written in that style. The problem is that it really doesn’t sit comfortably with the social realism approach adopted in almost every other aspect of the novel. Accordingly it feels quite forced, as though the author is simply setting up the chess board to favor the moves they intend to make.
In addition the plan they devise is in no way creative or devious. It simply amounts to making it appear that they are both in a busy pub while one slips a short distance away to carry out the crime and returns. There is so little about this that is unique or interesting that I was actually relatively relieved when the author began to introduce some other suspects. My hope was that even if this wasn’t the inverted masterpiece I hoped for, maybe we would get a good detective story out of this setup instead.
Here Barnard at least sets up some promising possibilities as we see Lill manage to aggravate almost everyone in her community in the hours leading up to her murder in different ways. There is a pretty diverse set of motives to consider and by the time you get to that murder the reader will likely be relieved that they will no longer have to spend any more time in Lill’s obnoxious company.
It is easy to understand why Lill upsets so many people. Her behavior is loud, crude and overly familiar, lacking the sorts of boundaries that help people navigate social situations. Barnard seems to imply that there is some classist snobbery on display in others’ responses to her. We notice that other characters are just as forward, just as insensitive or interfering and yet they do not inspire quite the same level of ire as Lill. I think this idea is interesting and yet, because it is never directly addressed in the narration it is not clear if it is intentional or if I have simply read it into the text. I rather hope it is the former.
One aspect of the work that Barnard definitely intends is to present his detectives as impatient for results and judgmental towards the people they are speaking with. This is not unique to this work but I think it works particularly well here, especially given those other themes I found in the book. This not only adds to those themes within the novel, it also leads to the investigation developing rather atypically as the reader cannot be sure whether they will find the truth or not.
But that brings me to the novel’s biggest problems which, rather unfortunately, all lie with the book’s solution. To start with, the mystery is not exactly a carefully plotted puzzle. The detectives never really get into the matter of analyzing characters’ movements. Indeed most of the suspects are simply identified as possible based on their motive. This undermines the reader’s ability to process this as a puzzle mystery – we end the case simply without knowing much about the suspects.
At the same time, there is one solution that actually stands out as being quite obvious. I do not consider myself as being particularly brilliant or inspired for reaching it early in the book and later developments clearly seem to confirm it. It is simply that there is never any serious attempt made to make that conclusion seem impossible, almost as if the author considered it so brilliant that he assumed no one could possibly conceive of it. I might almost wonder if that was deliberate except the ending is so clearly framed as though it were a surprise that it appears the author must have believed he had hidden the signs hinting at it.
So rather unfortunately I found myself quite frustrated by this book. Barnard creates some striking and vivid characters and the themes it develops are interesting but the mystery feels unfocused and the tone feels inconsistent. I have several other books by Barnard in my TBR pile so I am sure I will give him another try but this experience doesn’t leave me excited. If anyone has any Barnard suggestions however I would be happy to receive them!
When his father dies, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly rich and trendy London neighborhood. Cash poor, Carl rents the upstairs room and kitchen to the first person he interviews, Dermot McKinnon. That is mistake number one. Mistake number two is keeping the bizarre collection of homeopathic and alternative “cures” that his father left in the medicine cabinet, including a stash of controversial diet pills. Mistake number three is selling fifty of those diet pills to a friend, who is then found dead.
Dermot seizes a nefarious opportunity and begins to blackmail Carl, refusing to pay rent, and creepily invading Carl’s space. Ingeniously weaving together two storylines that finally merge in a shocking turn, Ruth Rendell describes one man’s spiral into darkness—and murder—as he falls victim to a diabolical foe he cannot escape.
An interesting exploration of how a character can find themselves trapped in a situation where they feel murder is the only way out.
Carl Martin has just published his first novel when he makes the fateful choice to offer the upstairs rooms to let. He accepts the very first offer on the room from Dermot, an assistant at a vet’s clinic, and is looking forward to getting some extra income to tide him over while he works on his new book.
Carl’s friend Stacey is worried about whether some recent weight gain will keep her from getting more acting roles. She spots some pills that had belonged to Carl’s deceased father and offers him fifty pounds for them which he accepts. When she is found dead in her flat and the pills are identified as the cause of death Carl feels terrible but his situation gets worse when Dermot lets him know he witnessed the transaction and would like to renegotiate the terms of his tenancy…
Dark Corners was published a short time after Rendell’s death and contains many of the hallmarks of her approach to the inverted crime story. Instead of focusing on a single, terrible decision in a character’s life we see it as an escalation of bad choices made under increasing pressure. Carl does not begin the book as a bad man – he is simply an increasingly desperate one who finds himself in a situation where he has no way out.
Rendell handles this character study very well and the reader may well find themselves experiencing some amount of empathy for Carl, at least at some points in the story. One reason for this is that Carl clearly never intends any harm to his friend who asks for the pills. The other is that Dermot is shown to be a hypocrit who is enjoying being able to exert power over someone else. As Carl’s life becomes harder and harder, readers are likely going to understand why he feels under enormous pressure and why his options feel so limited.
What I think makes Carl such an interesting figure is that he could so clearly be anyone. Looking at comments on Goodreads a common complaint about the book from readers is that he could easily have had a different outcome if he had responded differently to Dermot’s threats, yet I feel that is the whole point of the book. If you consider them at the moment he makes them, his decisions appear quite reasonable and typically the least painful of the options he has on offer. It is only because we have the distance and are not personally involved that we can also see how he is working himself into an impossible corner.
Dermot is similarly quite an intriguing character being portrayed more as odd than dangerous. In some respects he is reminiscent of Arthur, the serial killer in A Demon in My View. He is socially awkward, fixated on particular aspects of an interaction and suffering from an inferiority complex. I found Dermot a consistently credible and well-observed creation and had no difficulty at all in picturing him or believing in his choices.
While the main plotline of the book feels compelling and credible, it can be harder to see the point of some of the secondary plots. One of these involves Tom, an older man who has started to ride around London using his free bus pass on the various routes as a hobby. I thought that this is an interesting idea and appreciated how well-observed this character seems yet this thread never connects back to the main story at all.
Another involves Lizzie, a young woman who is secretly staying in the victim’s apartment and taking her things. This at least feels better linked to the main plot and while it seems to pull away from the Carl and Dermot story. If it is a less compelling story than Carl’s it reflects that the other characters involved in that storyline feel rather more functional, lacking much of the dimension that she or Dermot have.
Though it may appear that Lizzie’s storyline also feels like a distraction from the main thrust of the plot I feel that this thread develops some similar ideas to those found in Carl’s. Hers is also a story about the consequences of decisions taken and while I feel that there is not quite enough payoff for the story thread as it develops, I do think it complements that main storyline.
It is that development of theme that I find to be the most successful aspect of this novel. Rendell’s most central characters feel credible and well-observed and I found the slow escalation of a situation to be quite compelling. While it is perhaps not as tidily plotted as some of her best work, the character development and exploration of a situation were more than enough to keep me engaged.
Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010 Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann. All episodes written by Neil Cross.
Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.
Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast
When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.
Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.
The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.
After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.
Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.
I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.
The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.
Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.
While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.
Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!
Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.
As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.
Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.
A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.
After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.
The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.
Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.
I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.
While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.
The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.
A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…
Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.
Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.
The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.
Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.
An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.
With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.
The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.
Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.
Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.
The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.
The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.
I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).
To inherit her family fortune, beautiful Miss Caroline Ross must marry before her twenty-fifth birthday. But she has found only two breeds of husband: violent drunks and irresponsible dandies. To evade wedded agony, she chooses a spouse not long for this world—a convicted murderer with just a few hours left until his date with the hangman. But clever, cold-hearted Caroline does not yet realize it is her neck around which the noose is tightening and that she risks facing a life sentence far grimmer than one at Newgate jail.
Attempts to blend romance and mystery but does neither well.
It was recently pointed out to me that it has been a while since I last read and reviewed anything by John Dickson Carr on this blog. A quick look back through my posts shows that it has been almost exactly a year since I shared thoughts on The Mad Hatter Mystery and I have added quite a few books to my library since then thanks to the Polygon, British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics reprints.
Unfortunately I chose to overlook all of those other Carr titles I owned in favor of The Bride of Newgate.
The book is a historical mystery set in Georgian England. It opens with a young woman, Miss Caroline Ross, traveling to Newgate Prison to marry a convicted murderer about to be hanged. She is not seeking this marriage for love but rather to fulfil the terms of a will that requires her to marry by her next birthday to inherit a fortune. By marrying Dick Darwent, a condemned man, she hopes to get the fortune without losing her independence. Unfortunately for her Dick’s sentence will soon after be quashed and he will turn out to be a rather longer-term investment than she had presumed.
In the process of securing his release, we learn Dick’s own story which introduces us to the mystery elements of the story. We hear how he found himself blamed for a murder he did not commit after waking up in a room that subsequently vanishes and we follow as he attempts to find the real guilty party and bring them to justice.
The best bit about the book for me is its opening. While Caroline’s complaints about the idea of being married are clearly intended to read rather comically (and establish her as a Katherina-type), her scheme is rather novel and explained well. Similarly the reasons for how Dick comes to escape the noose, however far-fetched they may be, are also extremely easy to follow. Were this a straightforward romance story I could see this as being quite a promising starting point.
The problem is that Carr is writing a murder mystery and those elements of the story never feel quite so clearly explained or defined. There is a reason that the Open Road Media blurb quoted above makes absolutely no mention of the mystery elements of the story – they are much harder to describe consicely. There is a sort of impossibility, in terms of a crime scene that vanishes, and yet that too feels rather vague. The best aspect of it, the idea that the room could not have been disturbed because it is covered in cobwebs, is appealing as an idea and yet feels underutilized as the investigation gets underway.
Not that there is much of an investigation, at least in a structured way. The Bride of Newgate strikes me as a story cut in the adventure mold as there is a heavy focus on the idea of duelling. There are multiple duel scenes laced throughout the story, each featuring different adversaries and all of which left me quite cold. They are neither particularly thrilling, nor are they witty or interesting in some other way, particularly as they feel rather repetitive. Instead they just seem to get in the way of the mystery itself, distracting you from the puzzle that is presumably intended as the story’s focus.
Carr’s protagonist, Dick Darwent, is neither particularly interesting or relatable. While we may initially sympathize with him as having been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, his aggression towards Caroline, herself not a sympathetic character, comes off as quite bitter and unpleasant. Particularly when he does things like threaten her with exercising his husbandly rights. Caroline’s own feelings in the matter are particularly confusing and I never felt I understood exactly why she was drawn to him.
As for the historical details, they’re fine. I appreciated the author’s note at the end in which Carr outlines his sources and it is clear that he enjoyed that aspect of putting together the novel. Some historical details are integrated well into the text, others have a tendency to feel like an author cramming that research onto the page somehow, but I did feel that there was an attempt to evoke a sense of time and place, albeit in a way that felt rather literary in style.
I will say that I appreciated that the details of Dick and Caroline’s respective backstories are quite specific to this period of time, meaning that this is an instance where a historical mystery’s plot arises out of the period rather than simply transposing a whodunnit onto a historical setting. Given that Carr is one of the earliest authors to play with the idea of writing a historical mystery, I think it is to his credit that he seems to be interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by setting his story in a different time rather than treating it as a novelty.
For all my complaints though, I do have to acknowledge that Carr does at least conclude his story quite tidily. The explanations given do pull all of the various threads of the story together and I was convinced that the trick, although quite a simple one, could have been managed. The problem was that by that point I was all too eager to be done with the book to care…