House of Beauty by Melba Escobar, translated by Elizabeth Bryer

The Verdict

A powerful read, though it is more successful as a work exploring the impact of crime than as a detective story.

Book Details

Originally published in 2015 as La Casa de la Belleza
English translation first published in 2018

The Blurb

House of Beauty is a high-end salon in Bogotá’s exclusive Zona Rosa area, and Karen is one of its best beauticians. But there is more to her role than the best way to apply wax, or how to give the perfect massage. Her clients share their most intimate secrets with her. She knows all about their breast implants, their weekends in Miami, their divorces and affairs.

One rainy afternoon a teenage girl turns up for a treatment with Karen, dressed in her school uniform and smelling of alcohol. The very next day, the girl is found dead.

Karen was the last person to see the girl alive, and the girl’s mother is desperate to find out what she knows. Most important of all: who was her daughter going to meet that night?

LA CASA DE LA BELLEZA was written in silver lettering. I peeped inside out of simple curiosity. I think it was the name that attracted me. House of Beauty.

My Thoughts

Typically I like to write my reviews within a few days, preferably a few hours, of finishing a book. Unfortunately the past couple of weeks have been so busy that, while I have finished several books, I have not had a chance to sit down and write about any of them until now. That is hardly an ideal set of circumstances for a book blogger, so I apologize in advance if these thoughts seem a little vaguer than usual.

House of Beauty is narrated by Claire Dalvard, a psychoanalyst who has recently returned to Colombia after living in France for a number of years. While walking the city’s streets one afternoon, Claire stumbles upon the House of Beauty, a high-end salon, where she meets Karen whose beauty and tranquility she finds quite striking and impulsively she asks for a treatment.

Over a series of appointments Claire gets to know Karen better and learns more of her story, including the circumstances by which she came to start working there. We also learn that one of her customers at about that time was Sabrina Guzmán, a teenaged schoolgirl, who arrived at the salon smelling of brandy and requesting a Brazilian wax as her boyfriend would be taking her to dinner and ‘the night would conclude in a five-star hotel’.

Sabrina is found dead a few days later. The coroner’s verdict is that she committed suicide but her mother refuses to accept it, heading to the House of Beauty to meet with Karen in the hope of learning more about her final hours. Karen knows the name of Sabrina’s boyfriend but that alone cannot guarantee justice as the family find themselves contending with police bureaucracy and the boyfriend’s powerful friends…

The translation of House of Beauty was marketed as a crime story and it is easy to see why. The death of Sabrina provides a focus for the narrative and several characters do engage in an investigative process, even if it ends up being a largely informal one. However those who approach this novel primarily as a genre piece will likely feel a little underwhelmed by the experience. While the reader will have a complete understanding of the case by the end of this novel, they may well feel short-changed by the process by which the truth is revealed.

Instead I would suggest that this is far more satisfying when viewed not as a crime that the reader is trying to solve but rather as an exploration of how a crime can impact those whose lives it touches and of the challenges some can face in finding justice. At its most effective, this book can be a powerful and deeply uncomfortable read, emphasizing that those with power exploit it and showing how their actions are enabled by those around them.

Some of the most unsettling chapters are those which are written from the point of view of Sabrina, the murdered girl, as imagined by Claire. These are very short, taking us slowly up to the point at which she is killed. They are heartbreaking, not only because of what physically happens to her (which is horrific) but because we learn how she is emotionally responding to it and the reader will recognize, long before she does, that what she believes is happening and what is are quite different things.

Sabrina is not the only victim in this story and there is at least one other story thread that may well upset readers. While it can make for tough reading, I do think Escobar uses those moments to effectively illustrate those themes I mentioned above.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel though, for me, was the development of the cast of characters many of whom are more complicated than they initially appear. Part of the reason for this is the thoughtful use of the narrative structure with Claire telling the story from the imagined perspectives of those more directly caught up in the events, but I also think it reflects that some of the characters are either untruthful or simply do not understand themselves.

One of the problems of talking about the plot of this book is that much of what I want to discuss most falls into serious spoiler territory. While I have indicated that I don’t think this is best read as a plot-driven story, I obviously want to avoid spoiling it for those who do. This is a little unfortunate though because my biggest problems with the book all relate to its ending.

The problem, being as vague as possible, is that towards the end of the novel there is an effort to provide us with a crime story resolution – to provide a clear solution and resolution to the case. Personally I found the wrapping up of the story to be a little muddled, perhaps because of the narrative structure I had appreciated so much in the earlier stages of the novel, and I found myself having to reread passages to be sure I understood it. In particular, there was one aspect of the resolution I liked quite a lot but felt had not been set up well enough to feel entirely satisfactory.

That struck me as a bit of a shame because while this read was at times a discomforting one, I found many aspects of the book to be really quite effective and I appreciated that this book thoughtfully explores issues related to gender, race and class. As much as I wanted to love the resolution and appreciated some of its ideas, I felt that a few key elements were a little rushed and so didn’t quite have the impact that I might otherwise have expected them to.

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

The Verdict

A very entertaining and surprisingly well-clued mystery marred only by its ridiculously cartoony villain.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

No visitors. No nights spent elsewhere. No disturbing the rich and famous residents. These are the rules for Jules Larsen’s new job apartment sitting at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile buildings. Recently heartbroken—and just plain broke—Jules is taken in by the splendor and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
 
As she gets to know the occupants and staff, Jules is drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who reminds her so much of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew has a dark history hidden beneath its gleaming façade, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day when Ingrid seemingly vanishes.
 
Searching for the truth, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s sordid past. But by uncovering the secrets within its walls, Jules exposes herself to untold terrors. Because once you’re in, the Bartholomew doesn’t want you to leave….

That’s when it hits me: I get to live here. In the goddamn Bartholomew, of all places. In an apartment beyond my wildest dreams.

Even better, I’ll be getting paid to do it.

My Thoughts

Things have not been going well for Jules. After losing her job, her apartment and her boyfriend in a single day, she has been surviving thanks to the generosity of a friend. With just a few hundred dollars left in the bank, she replies to an ad looking for an apartment sitter and is astonished to find that the property is a two-floor luxury apartment at the Bartholomew – a storied property supposed to be the home to some of America’s most famous figures. When she learns that she will be paid $12,000 to live there for three months, it seems too good to be true.

While Jules initially ignores some red flags it soon becomes clear that something weird is going on. Suspicion turns more serious following the disappearance of a fellow resident. Ignoring some pretty clear directives from the property manager, Jules decides to investigate…

The most striking element of the book is its setting, the Bartholomew. Sager does an excellent job of giving us a potted history of this fictional building, explaining its reputation and also the draw it holds for Jules. It is not just a matter of the building’s famous yet secretive clientele or that its exterior had appeared in countless movies but that it was the setting for a book she cherished while growing up – a rags-to-riches story where a girl moves to Manhattan and finds romance and success.

Sager does a good job of setting the scene without falling into the trap of cataloging the furnishings. The few detailed descriptions we get however are both interesting and meaningful. I was particularly drawn to an idea he returns to several times throughout the novel of the wallpaper in a part of the apartment, using it as a metaphor to explore Jules’ changing feelings about the space as we go from fantasy to horror narrative. These touches work nicely, feeding into some broader themes that the novel will develop such as how appearances can be deceptive, and help to make the building itself feel like a character within the novel.

Jules makes for a solid protagonist for this sort of story. Her background of short-term misfortune and a longer-standing sense of loss about the disappearance of her sister years before is arguably a little emotionally manipulative but it works, not only to build empathy with her situation but also to help explain why she overlooks the many red flags thrown up in her interview. Sager doesn’t try to make out that Jules is unaware of these issues – they are directly put to her by her best friend – but she overlooks them because she doesn’t have an alternative. She comes to the Bartholomew out of desperation and a desire to reinvent her life. It may be foolish but I felt that it was quite understandable and it helped me like her.

The novel takes the form of a slow realization and acceptance that something is wrong within the building. This is partly a matter of acknowledging some of those earlier red flags but the unexpected disappearance of Ingrid, another resident, becomes the catalyst for her to start an investigation. It’s an interesting problem and while concern escalates into fear rather quickly, I could understand why the circumstances surrounding that disappearance feel odd enough to prompt that worry.

While the key points of this mystery are clued, I should emphasize that the style does not emphasize deduction or reasoning but rather reads like a suspense story as Jules asks questions, forms alliances and places herself in danger through her prying. There are a few moments where I suspect the reader will be aware that she is making ill-advised choices but that is part of what makes it so compelling.

The secretive nature of the building’s clientele means that we do not spend much time with most of the other residents but there are a few that do stand out. One is the young and handsome Doctor Nick who lives next door and whose advice she seeks as she wants to learn more about the building. That relationship adds an element of flirtation and romance to the novel, though I would suggest that it is not worth reading this novel for that alone.

While several of the other guests and staff make an impression, none do so quite so much as Greta Manville – the author of that book which Jules was obsessed with. Their interactions are initially quite sparky but subsequently seem to grow warmer. It’s an intriguing relationship and I enjoyed trying to work out exactly who Greta was and why she behaves in the rather cold and brusque way she does at the start of the novel.

There are a number of secrets for Jules, and us as readers, to discover and I enjoyed much of the journey, even if it does venture into some pretty wild territory at points. There are certainly some fantastical ideas here but I was struck upon doing some research, that the main ideas hung together reasonably well. In fact, while Jules never really takes us back over the case, upon careful consideration I recognized the points in the novel where the appropriate clues were set up.

That is not to say that everything is resolved. The novel leaves one question unanswered and I am uncertain as to how deliberate that is meant to be. Were we meant to be uncertain or will there be a sequel some day? As far as I can tell this was conceived as a standalone so presumably the question is meant to linger. It’s not particularly satisfying as a narrative technique goes, but I understand what prompted it.

As much as I was entertained by the audacity of the idea here, I do think that the antagonist – once identified to the reader – becomes a rather broad and ‘colorful’ creation which undermines that premise a little. It certainly became hard for me to take that character seriously from that point onwards. Fortunately that coincides with the book taking a heavy shift towards focusing on its plot. And, happily, lie the book’s real strengths…

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, adapted by Kate McAll

Production Details

Recorded April 2021 by LA Theatre Works
Adapted from Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links by Kate McAll

Starring Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot and Simon Helberg as Captain Hastings

The Blurb

In Christie’s clever and beautifully crafted tale, Detective Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld summoning him to France. Upon their arrival, Poirot and his companion, Arthur Hastings, find they are too late. Plus, to complicate things further, certain facts just don’t add up.

The Verdict

A fine adaptation of a middling Poirot novel.

My Thoughts

Typically I try to avoid putting up multiple posts on the same day but today I decided to make an exception to share a few thoughts about this radio adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. The reason for my urgency is that the production is streaming for free on the LA Theatre Works website for the next day or so and while there is an option to buy a download of the production for $4.99 (or on CD for $29.99), that may be a stretch for some people’s budgets right now.

The Murder on the Links was the second Hercule Poirot novel and while it is not one of my favorite Christie adventures, I think it is a sensible choice for adaptation. There are a few reasons for that but one is that in addition to its central puzzle, the story offers appealing elements of romance and comedy while the presence of Hastings enables for some voiceover to help convey a sense of the story’s action. The other is that while there are a few clever ideas in the story, there are some elements of the story that can be reduced or eliminated without diminishing the mystery.

The adventure begins with Poirot and Hastings on their way to France at the request of Paul Renauld, a very rich man who writes to them with some urgency. When the pair arrive they learn that they were too late to prevent the danger hinted at in the letter – Mrs Renauld tells them that in the early hours of the morning two masked men had broken into their home and abducted him. At the request of the local police, Poirot agrees to stay and assist in the investigation.

The adaptation struck me as a relatively faithful one and I think it managed to avoid the trap of utilizing narration too often. Instead the focus is on the interactions Poirot and Hastings have with the suspects as they learn the secrets of the Renauld family and their neighbors and begin to piece the case together.

One of the main reasons I was so keen to listen to this production was that it sees Alfred Molina return to the role of Poirot after twenty years, albeit this time listeners can rest assured that this is a traditional, period Poirot piece meaning he is unable to rely on his trusty netbook computer or VHS tape evidence! As I expected, Molina turns in a great performance, portraying the character with an appropriate mixture of warmth and self-assuredness, particularly in his interactions with Captain Hastings. When called on to deliver exposition or explain deductions he does so brilliantly, laying out the reasoning with appropriate clarity and emphasis to make the solution easy to follow. It’s a great performance and it leads me to hope that LA Theatre Works will bring him back to do other installments in the series in the future.

I felt that Simon Helberg embodies Hastings’ vigor and romanticism quite nicely. While there is a little stiffness to his English accent that took me a little getting used to, I felt the excellent chemistry he shared with Molina and his wife Jocelyn Towne who plays his love interest, ‘Cinderella’, helped me easily overlook it. She also is great, superbly capturing the character’s flirtatious playfulness. It is easy to understand why Hastings becomes so enamored of her.

While I was less familiar with other members of the cast, I felt that there were not any weak performances and I had no awareness of the few cases where actors were portraying multiple roles. My only note of disappointment is that while Kevin Daniels does a good job portraying Detective Giraud’s arrogance and dismissive attitude towards Poirot, a few aspects of that rivalry were downplayed, presumably for the sake of time. None of these moments were particularly essential but I did miss them a little.

My only other complaints are inherent to the source material – those who love the original novel are unlikely to feel disappointed! Overall then I found this to be a really fine adaptation that I can only hope leads to others featuring Molina’s Poirot.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Verdict

A largely entertaining thriller which takes inspiration from a classic but manages to do its own thing with the basic concept.

Book Details

Originally published in 2015

The Blurb

In a tantalizing set-up reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train… On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. Ted and his wife were a mismatch from the start—he the rich businessman, she the artistic free spirit—a contrast that once inflamed their passion, but has now become a cliché.

But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily’s twisted bond grows stronger as they begin to plot Miranda’s demise. But there are a few things about Lily’s past that she hasn’t shared with Ted, namely her experience in the art and craft of murder, a journey that began in her very precocious youth.

Suddenly these co-conspirators are embroiled in a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, one they both cannot survive . . . with a shrewd and very determined detective on their tail.

Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner than God intended? 

My Thoughts

Ted Severson is waiting for a long haul flight when he meets and starts talking with Lily Kintner. Bonding over drinks, the pair agree to play a game where they will only tell the truth to each other. He tells her about the state of his marriage after he discovered his wife Miranda has been cheating on him with the man building the couple’s new luxury home. When Lily asks Ted what he will do about it he suggests that he really wants to kill her and is surprised when she offers to help.

It’s a setup that pays homage to one of my favorite novels, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, though I should stress Swanson will ultimately take his story in quite a different direction. While that story placed her two would-be killers at odds with one another in a twisted relationship of dependency and resentment, Swanson’s characters by contrast are far more stable and composed. There is also a difference in the aspects of the situation the author finds interesting. While Highsmith focuses on the decay of a relationship, Swanson places his focus on exploring Lily’s history and her psychology.

He does this by frequently switching perspectives, initially alternating between Ted and Lily before eventually bringing some other voices into the story. This allows the author to explore the contrast between how something appears and its reality, at times offering second perspectives on things we have already experienced. At several points in the story this is used quite effectively to change our understanding of what is happening and to move the action in a different direction.

While I do not want to be too specific about the specific plot developments, I would suggest that the narrative has two distinct phases. The first involves the planning of the murder and our learning more about Lily’s past. This is slower and more characterful, with a focus on understanding the different personalities at play. There is a noticeable shift that occurs about halfway through the novel however that sees the novel take on a greater focus on the action and it incorporates some elements of peril for the characters.

I enjoyed aspects of both approaches, though on balance I found the second half of the novel more unpredictable and engaging. I was taken quite off-guard by how quickly the story accelerates and I appreciated the expansion of the narration to include some additional perspectives. This not only appealed because of the variety it adds but because it gives the reader a sense of discovery as they can suddenly make connections that expand and complicate the story.

One of the other aspects of that second half of the novel that I particularly enjoyed is the cat and mouse game that several of the characters begin to engage in. Swanson handles this really well, allowing us to see one character make their moves and then, in the following chapter, we see a different character prepare and respond. I anticipated some developments and was surprised by others but even when I felt I knew where things were headed I was generally pleased by how it was realized.

Of the characters we get to know in the course of the novel, Lily was the most interesting to me. There are some aspects of that story that are pretty dark and potentially triggering but I felt that by the end of the novel I had a clear understanding of who she was and what lay behind those actions. That is not to say though that this character is always relatable or that the reader is expected to be sympathetic to them – I don’t think any of the characters here come off particularly well in that regard however.

It’s that last point that I feel makes the book ultimately work. Swanson creates a cast of people the reader is bound not to like. Rather than making us love these characters and want their happiness, our interest is in exploring their machinations and seeing how they will be brought down.

The novel builds a sense of tension well as the story approaches its conclusion and I was gripped by the chapters exploring the fallout from what happens. After several big twists earlier in the story, that moment felt quite tidy and surprisingly straightforward in comparison but I think that partly reflects how clearly some elements had been set in place earlier.

That is not to say however that I loved everything about this novel. One of my biggest issues with it was with one of the book’s earliest scenes.

While I came to understand the emotions and reasonings behind many of Lily’s actions, I still find the initial conversation between Ted and Lily rather contrived. While some things we learn later in the novel help give that moment new context, I struggled to believe that the conversation would play out as neatly as it does. That may seem strange given my love of Highsmith’s story but there I feel there are some very clear reasons that the suggestion of murder could be lightly brought up and in fact the plot hinges to some extent on the idea that one character was engaging with that conversation purely as fantasy. Here that is far from the case: Ted is taking it seriously. That’s a difficult idea for me to take seriously and I’m afraid that, much as I wanted to, I was never entirely happy with how that scene plays out.

I also found the frequent references to the size or shape of characters’ breasts quite odd and a little off-putting. At first I wondered if this reflected something about the character of Ted but this apparent objectification continues into other strands of the novel. Perhaps the strangest of these is the habit of a police detective of writing lewd limericks about the people of interest in the case. That at least is more understandable from a plotting perspective but I am really not sure why they were deemed necessary or what they were intended to convey.

In spite of those complaints, I do want to commend this book for not only finding inspiration in a classic but figuring out how to take that premise in quite a different direction. Overall, I found this to be a pretty engaging thriller and enjoyed many of the developments and reveals the story has to offer.

The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur

The Verdict

This does a fine job of introducing the characters and the premise, even if the case is not one of their strongest.

Book Details

Originally published in 1964
The Three Investigators #1
Followed by The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot

The Blurb

Finding a genuine haunted house for a movie set sounds like fun — and a great way to generate publicity for the Three Investigators’ new detective agency. But when the boys arrive for an overnight visit at Terror Castle — home of a deceased horror-movie actor — they soon find out how the place got its name!

We are prepared to solve any puzzle, riddle, mystery, enigma or conundrum which may be brought to us. Hence the question mark will be our trademark. Three question marks together will always stand for The Three Investigators.

My Thoughts

Some of you may have deduced that lately I have found myself in a bit of a reading slump. That is not actually reflected in the posts I have made on this blog but rather the absence of new material. This past fortnight I have found myself either abandoning books or, in one case, finishing it but deciding against writing a post as I have no wish to vent my dislike of something I was never likely to enjoy anyway and which I was reading for a professional obligation.

I have previously shared the importance of the Three Investigators stories to my first becoming interested in mystery fiction and have made a habit of acquiring any copies I come across in second-hand bookshops. When I recently stumbled onto a copy of The Secret of Terror Castle, the first in that series, the timing seemed auspicious and I decided the time was right to revisit one of the old favorites…

The story outlines the formation of the investigative team after Jupiter Jones wins the rights to the use of a gold-plated limo and a rather starchy (but ultimately quite lovable) chauffeur for a month. Hearing that movie director Alfred Hitchcock is in town in search of a haunted house for his new picture, Jones proposes that the three try to find one that will suit his needs.

The house they find is the ominously-named Terror Castle, the former home of a silent movie star who died in a mysterious accident many years earlier. The house seems to unsettle anyone who steps foot in it after dark which the trio confirms when their own initial expedition meets with failure as the boys find themselves fleeing in terror. Determined not to fail however, Jones pushes his friends to return and discover the house’s secrets.

One of the surprises for me in revisiting this was that the process of forming the investigative team is essentially glossed over. The competition where Jones wins the limo provides the means but we are told that this is something that he had long thought about and it is presented as something of a fait accompli where he tells his friends and they basically just go along with the idea. That would clearly not work in a teen or young adult book but it feels pretty appropriate in this context, particularly as it reinforces that Jones can be rather domineering.

He is the standout member of the team, displaying a much stronger personality than either of the other investigators. While the other two are basically defined by their roles – the bookish one and the sporty one – Jones is given something of a backstory to justify some of his skills, such as a talent for mimicry which is used rather amusingly early in this story. My memory is that the others fare better in some of the subsequent stories but the choice to focus on one character is probably the right one for an introductory story as it does rather streamline the decision-making process.

I enjoy a lot about the early chapters of the book with the attempt to get into the studios to see Mr. Hitchcock being a particular delight. While they enjoy a great degree of luck and some elements that might frankly be described as pure fantasy (why exactly is a schoolmate working as his secretary?), it makes for pretty amusing reading and gets things off to a promising start. There is even a hint of a rivalry with another kid from school that will be called back nicely later in the story.

While I enjoy the way Arthur pulls the elements into place, I think the premise for this adventure is rather weak. There is, of course, the practical question of why Hitchcock would not be aware of a house in his immediate vicinity that meets the needs of his production. Even if we accept that though, I think that there is a broader question as to why, having established that the house is pretty freaky, they need to explain why to meet their client’s needs. Sure, Jupe gives a justification for this in the book but it isn’t very convincing – at least to this now-adult reader.

Fortunately the setting for the story, the titular Terror Castle, is appealing and intriguing enough to get me to overlook my issues with the setup. The question of why the house is able to elicit a sense of terror in those inside it is an intriguing one and I quite enjoyed the explanation for the house’s reputation, even if the explanations for a few individual components of that are a little less convincing.

Along the way we get to follow some rather solid investigative work done by the boys, turning up some pretty good clues. An encounter with a neighbor offers some particularly strong examples of this and while they are unlikely to trouble adult readers, this is exactly the sort of material that caught my imagination and really appealed to me when I was first reading this as a preteen.

It is this aspect of clueing that I think is the reason this series retains much of its appeal for me as an adult. While this is clearly a simple mystery by adult standards and there are some childish aspects to the setup, Arthur never talks down to his readers. Nor are we asked to believe that his child protagonists have unnatural abilities (or luck) – instead they use observation and deduction to work out what is going on.

While The Secret of Terror Castle may not be one of the best Three Investigators mysteries, it is still a really enjoyable, engaging read and, more importantly, it sets things up beautifully for the adventures to follow. There is even a nice lead-in to the next adventure which, if memory serves, is rather a good one…

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

A rather uneven collection of stories. Those who feel that Christie works best as a novelist will find little here to challenge their belief.

Book Details

This was originally published in 1937 and collections four short works published between 1932 and 1937
An edition was published in the US as Dead Man’s Mirror though that edition excludes The Incredible Theft.
Hercule Poirot #16
Preceded by Cards on the Table
Followed by Dumb Witness

The Blurb

How did a woman holding a pistol in her right hand manage to shoot herself in the left temple? What was the link between a ghost sighting and the disappearance of top secret military plans? How did the bullet that killed Sir Gervase shatter a mirror in another part of the room? And should the beautiful Valentine Chantry flee for her life from the holiday island of Rhodes?

Hercule Poirot is faced with four mystifying cases—each a miniature classic of characterization, incident, and suspense.

“Good night for a murder,” remarked Japp with professional interest. “Nobody would hear a shot, for instance, on a night like this.”

My Thoughts

When I posted my review of Dumb Witness a little over a month ago I noted that I had goofed in my efforts to reread the Poirot stories in order as I had managed to overlook this short story collection. Well, such a mistake could not be left uncorrected – particularly given how much I want to get on and reread Death on the Nile – so let’s crack on and discuss the four stories that comprise Murder on the Mews.

The opening adventure lends its title to the collection and concerns a death that occurs during the height of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. When Barbara Allen does not respond to knocks at her locked door, her housemate sends for the police. When the door is opened they find her lying dead of a bullet wound to the side of her head, a gun loosely in her hand. At first glance it seems like a case of suicide and yet there are some inconsistencies in the scene. How, for instance, could she hold the gun in her right hand but shoot herself in the left side of her head?

This is the first of three stories in the collection that style themselves as impossible situations and of those three, I think it is possibly the most successful of them. Though the length of the story necessitates some simplicity and the mechanics are pretty straightforward, Christie does give some thought to why this would be a locked room problem in the first place, devising a pretty convincing reason for that by the end.

There are, of course, flaws. I doubt that I will court much outrage by asserting that I think Christie was far more suited to the novel than the short story. One of the reasons for that is her writing style will often become overly economical such as in an early exchange where the flatmate casually drops into conversation, in argument against the idea of suicide by gunshot, that they had a lengthy discussion about possible methods of suicide which that she had been quite emphatic that she couldn’t shoot herself. While I understand the need for that part of the story, I do think that the writing feels very functional.

I should probably acknowledge that there is an argument concerning whether the absence of the key to her bedroom does perhaps undermine the impassability of that entrance. Still, why it may not be the purest example of the form, I do think that the story does do something interesting with it. Though I am not wholly convicted that the scheme makes sense, I do admire the story for trying something a little different and I appreciate the interesting framing Poirot puts on what the mastermind of it all was attempting to do.

I would characterize the second story, The Incredible Theft, as a pastiche or homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories (specifically The Adventures of the Naval Treaty) that we know had played an important role in inspiring Christie to write and enjoy mystery fiction. The action is centered upon the theft of some secret plans from a senior government minister’s home. The problem is that the plans had been out from the safe for just a few moments and no one was in the room at the time while each of the entrances were monitored at the time the crime must have taken place.

This is another story that seems to be an impossible crime, albeit one that is presented as an espionage story. In this case we have a room whose entrances are under observation by two different parties. In spite of that impossible setup however, I would suggest that the case underwhelms when read as an impossible crime – particularly in light of its solution.

It was this story that prompted me to muse on the difficulty of assessing the quality of a solution when reviewing a story you have previously read. It has been probably twenty years since I last read this short story and I didn’t recall much about it (unlike the other three stories which I remembered pretty well) but much of the solution occurred to me immediately. Was that because I remembered the problem, even if I didn’t recall any of the other details? I can’t rule it out. I can say though that the solution here strikes me as unimaginative and disappointing.

Dead Man’s Mirror on the other hand is a much more entertaining example of a locked room problem. In this story Poirot receives a summons from the highly eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Poirot journeys to his home where he meets the members of his household who, strangely, do not seem to be expecting him. When the obsessively-punctual Sir Gervase does not arrive when the dinner gong is sounded the group break into his locked study to find him dead and the word sorry scrawled on a sheet of paper. The key to the door is in Sir Gervase’s pocket and the only other entrance to the room is also locked and bolted so is this suicide or was it murder?

Of the stories in this collection, this felt the most substantial to me offering a much more developed cast of characters and a more complex solution than any of the others possess. That is reflected in some of the complexities of the various characters’ relationships, as we are prompted not only to consider the suspects’ relationships with the deceased but with one another. I enjoyed getting to know this cast of characters, several of whom felt quite boldly drawn. For instance, I would suggest that even though Sir Gervase never appears to the reader, he is far more of a personality and presence than anyone who appears in the previous story.

The solution is similarly pleasingly complex with Poirot presented with multiple clues and several aspects of the crime scene requiring explanation. While I think that there are some aspects of the crime that were not entirely convincing (the reason for the telegram being sent is particularly poor in my opinion) and the explanation of the motive felt initially quite shaky until it was given more detail at the end of the story, I appreciate that this feels a much more substantial effort than any of the other stories in the collection.

So, why don’t I find it as impressive a locked room as Murder in the Mews? I think it boils down to a matter of originality. That story, while far less complex than this, is using the locked room in an unusual way. This story does something far more familiar with it and so while the execution is fine enough, it felt significantly less ambitious and interesting to me.

This brings me to the final story in the collection, Triangle at Rhodes. This concerns two couples who Poirot gets to know while on holiday. He witnesses the couples’ interactions and anticipates what is likely to occur based on those observations. When the inevitable occurs, Poirot then explains what happened and ensures justice is done.

While each of the three previous stories could be described as a novella, this is definitely a short story. While its is the narrowest of the four stories however, I find it to be one of the more successful. That is partly because it recognizes the limitations of its page count, narrowing the focus to a matter of character and psychology. I also think it is one of the better examples of Christie anticipating the reader and engaging in a game with them.

The flaw in the story for me is a rather unexpected one: I don’t think Poirot reads like himself. There is a speech he gives where he compares what he is witnessing to other crimes he has encountered that struck me as far more the sort of thing that Miss Marple or Ariadne Oliver might say. I also think it a little unsatisfactory that Poirot abdicates himself of responsibility once he has issued a warning of sorts – while I understand why that happens to serve the plot, I think he could and should have done more to block the crime from happening. (ROT13: Uvf nethzrag gung ur unf vffhrq n jneavat naq gur pevzr vf varivgnoyr vf abg fb zhpu gur ceboyrz – engure V srry gung ur jneaf gur jebat crefba, pubbfvat gb fcrnx gb gur nppbzcyvpr vafgrnq bs gur ivpgvz.)

Still, in spite of those gripes I think the story is told at a near-perfect pace and does a wonderful job of capturing the building sense that a crime is inevitable and I do recall being quite shocked when I read this the first time around. While I think that this collection is unfortunately a little uneven, this does it end on something of a high note and it is the story that has stayed with me most strongly in the years since I last read it.

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

The Verdict

A fine continuation of Maud’s story. The historical crimes were considerably more interesting to me though than her experiences on vacation.

Book Details

Originally published in 2020 as Äldre dam med mörka hemligheter
English translation first published in 2021
An Elderly Lady #2
Preceded by An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

The Blurb

Just when things have finally cooled down for 88-year-old Maud after the disturbing discovery of a dead body in her apartment in Gothenburg, a couple of detectives return to her doorstep. Though Maud dodges their questions with the skill of an Olympic gymnast a fifth of her age, she wonders if suspicion has fallen on her, little old lady that she is. The truth is, ever since Maud was a girl, death has seemed to follow her.

In these six interlocking stories, memories of unfortunate incidents from Maud’s past keep bubbling to the surface. Meanwhile, certain Problems in the present require immediate attention. Luckily, Maud is no stranger to taking matters into her own hands . . . even if it means she has to get a little blood on them in the process.

Maud had automatically reverted to her best defense: the confused old lady.

My Thoughts

When I read An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good a few years ago I rather assumed that it would be a one off. Its concept of an octogenarian serial killer is a fascinating one but the danger with any unorthodox concept like that the material risks seeming rather ridiculous when repeated too often. After all, how many inventive methods could a woman in her late eighties employ without getting caught?

Tursten’s second volume of stories is not without problems but repetition is thankfully not one of them. The author smartly structures the collection in such a way that we are looking back to murders committed earlier in her life. This not only helps to keep the material fresh, it also enables us to explore some of the events responsible for shaping Maud and turning her into a killer. I would note that in my review of the first volume I complained that the lack of an explanation of that development was the biggest issue with that collection, so it’s lovely to see that addressed so directly here.

This collection presents us with Maud at different stages of her life from childhood to the present day. While she is clearly experiencing some quite distinct challenges at each age, the core nature of the character is evident throughout and we see the seeds of some behaviors that would develop later.

One of the most interesting aspects of Maud’s character is that she is never presented as a simple villain or sick individual, particularly in this set of stories. While Maud does kill, she never does so for pleasure but it is often because she is either trying to help someone, fix a problem or remove a threat. The stories in this collection present examples of each of those circumstances.

Usually when I write about short story collections I tend to break my review into sections discussing each of the short stories. In this case however that approach doesn’t really feel appropriate as Tursten integrates each of the stories into that bigger narrative of Maud reflecting on things that have happened in her life during a plane flight to South Africa. As such it feels more appropriate to discuss them as chapters in a somewhat episodic story rather than as individual tales.

Maud’s experiences on the plane appear in the background of each of the early stories as she is sometimes jolted awake or addressed by airline staff or fellow passengers, pulling her back into the present. Those memories are not presented as pleasurable – one of them certainly seems to upset her – but rather the drifting thoughts of an elderly lady who has been under a considerable amount of stress.

The cause of that stress is the aftermath of the police investigation into the events at the end of the previous collection. It’s quite credible and explained pretty well but I would suggest that readers would be advised to make sure they have read The Antique Dealer’s Death before starting this to enable them to clearly follow the action and understand the exact nature of the pressures she has been under.

The first five stories in the collection therefore deal with Maud’s experiences during the flight and her memories of those earlier crimes. Each of these maintains the high standards set by the stories in the previous collection and I appreciate that the author is clearly wanting to explore different sides to Maud as a character.

The Truth About Charlotte, the fourth story in the collection, struck me as one of the most fascinating on a character level in either collection. While the revelations about what happened to her will likely not surprise many, they are executed very well and I did enjoy that hint of ambiguity in the final pages.

The other story that really stood out to me was Little Maud Sets a Trap. This is the story set earliest in Maud’s life to date and it sees her responding to the actions of a couple of brutish boys who are making life miserable in her home. This was a story that I felt did a particularly fine job of exploring Maud’s emotions and helping us understand why she does not view herself as monstrous.

The other three stories are all good and each does a fine job of explaining the characters’ growths. Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the book’s final, and longest, chapter to fully appreciate them.

The only chapter that didn’t really work for me, at least as a piece of crime fiction, was the book’s final and longest story: “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa”. This was not because it was uninteresting as a character study but rather because so much of the story is given over to exploring Maud’s feelings about her tour and the people she is traveling with. It doesn’t help that the pacing feels very slow and deliberate, often seeming to stretch things out.

That approach is understandable, particularly given the contemplative tone of the collection’s framing structure, but it does present a rather significant stylistic shift. I am unconvinced whether it is wholly successful though I appreciate that this story does show some other aspects of her character such as her compassion and her ability to present an image of herself that will be palatable for others.

Still, while the story may be a little less criminous or morally complex than some of the other stories in this collection, the book did strike me as on the whole Maud remains a charming and entertaining creation. I would not object if a third volume were to appear but, if not, this is a satisfying way to fill out and explore that character.

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C. W. Grafton

The Verdict

An entertaining blend of pulpy, hard-boiled fiction and the comical.

Book Details

Originally published in 1943

The Blurb

Short, chubby, and awkward with members of the opposite sex, Gil Henry is the youngest partner in a small law firm, not a hard-boiled sleuth. So when an attractive young woman named Ruth McClure walks into his office and asks him to investigate the value of the stock she inherited from her father, he thinks nothing of it—until someone makes an attempt on his life.

Soon Gil is inadvertently embroiled in a classic American scandal, subterfuge, and murder. He’s beaten, shot, and stabbed, as his colleagues and enemies try to stop him from seeing the case through to the end. Surrounded by adversaries, he teams up with Ruth and her secretive brother to find answers to the questions someone desperately wants to keep him from asking.

In this portrait of America on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, C.W. Grafton—himself a lawyer and the father of prolific mystery writer Sue Grafton—pens an award-winning historical crime fiction that combines humor and the hard-boiled style and will keep readers guessing until its thrilling conclusion.

“I want you to find out for me how much some stock is worth.”

My Thoughts

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope may, if you follow a variety of vintage mystery blogs, have cropped up on your feed several times over the past few weeks. That was because, as several of those posts noted, it was a selection for a book club and at this point I can probably reveal that I was responsible for making that selection. The reason I put it forward was not that I had any real knowledge of the author (I had never read anything by either C. W. or Sue Grafton prior to this) but because I wanted to finally get around to trying one of those Library of Congress Crime Classics I have had sitting on my shelf.

The novel concerns Gil Henry, a junior partner in a law firm, who stumbles into a mysterious situation when he is approached by a beautiful young woman named Ruth who is seeking his advice. She tells him how when her father recently died he left her some shares in the company he had worked for. Shortly afterwards she received a visit from her father’s employer who offered to buy them from her and take care of his legal papers. The curious thing is that the offer was for considerably more than those shares were valued leading her to wonder if she might be better holding onto them.

Gil begins the story fairly disinterested in the case but things quickly escalate when he learns that someone had broken into Ruth’s home while she was meeting with him and then, just a short time later, an attempt seems to be made on his life. He soon comes to the opinion that there is a mystery there to unravel though and he tries to find some answers, running into the law, resistance from his own client and several sets of fists.

If you have read some of the reviews posted you may have noticed that the book provoked some quite strong opinions from us. There were some among us who had a great time with the book, some much less so. I think a large part of the reason for that split lies in the character of Gil and the style of narration that Grafton employs here.

While I have seen some, including the introduction to the book, describe this as a work of noir fiction, I think it would be more accurate to say that it is a novel told in a punchy, hard-boiled style. The distinction here is that I feel it is a choice of style and presentation rather than offering a cynical outlook on the world. While Gil is frequently played by others and left to look a little foolish, I don’t think that the book offers anything approaching that cynical view of humanity or even the institutions we create.

This is married with some deeply sarcastic commentary on the action offered in Gil’s narration. This, along with his behavior, becomes increasingly pronounced throughout the novel until by the end of the book he is throwing himself into the action, playing hardball with the authorities and flirting outrageously with some of the female characters. I found this initially a little jarring until I realized that this is a junior, rather corporate lawyer seeing a chance to play Perry Mason, evoking that character’s earlier and rather looser approach to observing the legal niceties. Once I saw it from that perspective I found myself embracing it and relishing some of Gil’s more caustic observations, even if I found his actual voice and interactions with others a little more wearying.

Admittedly the action can get a little silly at points. Others have pointed to the string of concussions that Gil receives and just shakes off in the course of this story as being quite ridiculous. I have to concede they have a point. Still, I embraced that to an extent as a reflection of its somewhat pulpy origins and I appreciated that, while at times ridiculous, it is a pretty effective method for stopping a scene rather than letting it run on and on.

I should also probably acknowledge that the mysterious elements of the story fall short of the fair play standard. At the same time though that didn’t really bother me because I felt Grafton established much of the background to the story extremely well near the beginning. This is particularly impressive as this case involves a few rather technical ideas that are of exactly the sort that usually stump me yet are conveyed quite simply in just a handful of pages. I really respected just how well the author managed to condense that information and use it in a way that seemed both clear and logical in the context of this scenario and these characters.

The explanation for what has happened, when given, feels similarly very clear and easy-to-follow. I felt it was particularly effective when presenting reasons for why things may turn out the way that they did and I think that the book makes great use of the nursery rhyme reference in its title. It really feels quite fitting…

The only aspect of the ending that didn’t quite work for me was an awkward attempt to shoehorn a romantic development in where none really fit. While that does offer a few moments of amusement, I am not sure that I knew those characters well enough at that point to truly invest in that aspect of their lives.

In spite of those small criticisms, I do have to note that I found this to be really rather enjoyable. There are some creative and fun concepts at play making this a quick, page-turning sort of read that delivers on the action. While I might not offer it up to those who are looking for puzzle plots, this is quite readable and thoroughly absorbing overall. I might even go off in search of a copy of the next in the series!

Further Reading

Other Book Clubber takes can be found at In Search of the Classic Mystery, CrossExaminingCrime and AhSweetMystery.

Blogiversary: 4 Years Old

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

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

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

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

Let’s see how I did:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

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

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

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

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

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

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

Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo

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

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

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

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

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

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

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

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

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

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

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

Looking Ahead To Year Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey

The Verdict

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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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