The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

TheSeaMysteryAfter working through each of the inverted Inspector French stories, about two months ago I had my first taste of a more traditionally structured Crofts story with The Box Office Murders. While I liked aspects of that story, I had found French to play a frustratingly passive role in that adventure so I was happy to see that here he is right in the thick of things.

A man and his son are out fishing on the water when their lines snag a large object. Eventually they manage to pull it up to the surface and find that it is a crate. When it is opened a body is discovered inside with its face so badly disfigured it is impossible to identify it. Inspector French is sent from the Yard to try to discover the dead man’s identity and uncover what has happened.

I thought the opening was really intriguing and I appreciated Crofts’ point that were it not for the accident of the fishing line this would have been a truly ingenious and likely undetectable murder. I was struck by just how well Crofts manages to reserve information to build that sense of curiosity in the reader about just what is going on or where this story is headed.

The early part of the novel are procedure and mechanics-driven as Inspector French sets about working out the likely point and method by which the crate entered the water based on the timing of the tides. This sort of thing that has the potential to feel quite dry so I was very pleasantly surprised by just how lively this portion of the investigation is. Crofts does a very good job of providing the reader with enough information to understand what is happening without bogging them down in the exact calculations and details.

Once we get past the first phase of the investigation Crofts introduces us to a small cast of characters but it is initially far from clear who is a suspect or why they would have sought to murder the victim. I was pleased that these characters have pretty distinctive personalities and that a limited cast size does not result in a limited whodunit.

The genius of this story is that it does not confront us with a problem in chapter one that the reader will solve at the end of the book but that it is a slow evolution of problems, each emerging from the last. This not only creates a sensation of methodical, logical progress but it also means that it is hard for the reader to predict just where the tale is headed.

Once we have established the mechanics of how the body made its way down river the question turns to trying to establish the identity of the victim and the possible motives for that person’s death. While the investigation is still very methodical and focused on opportunity, I was pleased that importance was placed on trying to establish the killer’s motivation. I also appreciated the way that our understanding of characters’ relationships evolves over the course of the book, making the reader reassess what they may have assumed they knew.

The actual solution to the story is quite clever and while I think the logical, methodical path French follows means that it is unlikely the solution will wow anyone, I did appreciate Crofts’ use of misdirection earlier in the novel. I also appreciated that the methods French does use are quite varied ranging from some physical experiments to some crafty interrogation techniques. As with The Box Office Murders, he seems willing enough to employ some extra-legal methods to acquire information (French’s felonious exploits in search of truth ended up being the focus on conversation in the comments on that post).

So, what doesn’t work? Honestly it is hard to think of much. Had I read The Cask already which supposedly utilizes a number of the same plot points I imagine I might feel frustrated that the author was repeating themselves so soon. I might add that I think one character’s pigheadedness is taken to extremes but I found that to be understandable enough given their personality.

While this is not my favorite Crofts title that I have read so far, I do think it is very successful and a really strong detective story. I appreciated how varied the investigation becomes and think it does show the strengths of French as a character and of Crofts’ skill at making a complex puzzle seem clear and easy to understand.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

WhoseBodyDorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries hold a special place in my heart. My father was a huge fan and introduced the stories to me through the Carmichael and Petherbridge television adaptations in my early teens. They were probably the first GAD novels I read and while I didn’t appreciate that at the time, I do give them credit for inspiring me to try more.

At the point I am writing this however it has been well over a decade since I last read any of the novels. Given how much more widely read I have become in the detective genre since then I have been curious to see whether the series would still hold up and what I would make of them in the context of the other Golden Age fiction I have read.

The decision to kick things off with Whose Body? was an easy one, and not just because it is the very first of the Wimsey novels to be published. The real reason I started with this one is that it’s the only one that I had no memory of at all. I knew I had read it but I could only remember the question over the identity of the body and even then that was only in the loosest of details.

Of course once I began to read some of the details came back to me although, it must be said, I was surprised how few of the moments that felt familiar are plot points. Instead it was the little moments and asides in the novel that fleshed out the characters or struck me as amusing such as Bunter’s apologetic note to Lord Peter as he recounted how he served his brandy and cigars to a servant he was looking to get information from or the very affecting sequence in which we see Lord Peter experience flashbacks to his wartime experience.

Perhaps that reflects that the novel finds more interest in its character relationships and moments of levity than from its plotting which is relatively pedestrian. I can say that this is only the second best-plotted mysterious body left in someone else’s room story I have read in the past month (for a slightly more interesting use of this starting point see John Rhode’s The Paddington Mystery which was published two years later).

The plot is as follows: Lord Peter goes to inspect a body that has been found in a bathtub. The occupants of the home claim that the man’s identity is unknown to them and cannot account for his presence there. There is some suspicion that the body may belong to a prominent financier who went missing at about the same time the body showed up but when the man’s wife comes to identify the body she is sure it is not her husband.

Lord Peter becomes sure that the disappearance of the financier and the appearance of this corpse must be linked but the challenge for him, and the reader, is to figure out what was done and how. This is initially quite an intriguing question but I felt that mechanically the crime was quite simple while the cast of characters was small enough that, once you are sure there was some foul play, there were limited choices in who to suspect. In short, the crime itself is a bit of a flop and held limited interest for me.

Let’s turn instead then to the central, recurring characters and the obvious place to start is Lord Peter. Rereading this I was surprised by just how flippant and frustrating he can be and while I cannot be sure, I suspect that had I started by reading this book with no knowledge of the character or later adventures that I would never have finished this one, let alone gone on to read the series.

In later books it becomes clear that some of the personality he shows here is affectation, designed to throw people off and lead them to not view him as a threat. He is able to use this at times to get suspects to become overconfident, sometimes accidentally betraying themselves. It is a shtick and we certainly see him using his status and flighty persona to help him gain access in a difficult situation. For the most part though it feels much more a part of his personality as he shifts focus between discussing the case and the rare books he wants to buy and so it’s hard not to be frustrated with a character who seems to be treating murder as a game.

There are some moments here where I think we see the character emerge as interesting in his own right, not merely as an investigator, and I particularly appreciate his relationship with his manservant and old army batman Bunter. This, for me, is the heart of the early Wimsey novels and the standout sequence is that flashback to his time in the trenches, worrying that he is hearing the sounds of German tunneling beneath them.

That sequence really tells us so much about this pair and, when we learn that the stress of investigation may be in part responsible for it happening, we get a sense that Lord Peter is not just playing amateur sleuth for kicks but that he is willing to discomfort himself to pursue truth and justice. And in that moment Bunter becomes more than a stock servant with a skill at photography, he becomes a loyal carer and companion.

Sadly a lovely, rich character beat cannot overcome what feels like a very slight and rather routine mystery. Happily Lord Peter would have more interesting cases to come so if you’re new to the character I would suggest jumping in later in his adventures and returning to this at a later point.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An artist/photographer (Who) – Bunter has another professional occupation but he plays a significant role in this investigation.

The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa

LadyKillerThe Lady Killer has been at the very top of my list of books I have wanted to read ever since I read The Master Key, Masako Togawa’s first novel shortly after starting this blog last year. That book was the second novel I gave my Book of the Month award to and remains one of the novels that has stuck with me most since I started Mysteries Ahoy! I found it to be an unsettling read and loved the way Togawa built her characters and themes.

The Lady Killer was the author’s second novel and has previously appeared in English translation. While its subject matter is quite different from that earlier novel, it addresses some similar themes and social issues albeit from a different perspective.

Let’s start though with the title of the piece which can be taken in different ways to refer to different characters. The Lady Killer might be the main character who is a lothario who, when away from his wife, goes out to bars and clubs in search of women to seduce. He keeps records of his ‘kills’ in a diary in which he describes how he seduced the women, evaluates their performance and his own satisfaction with his experiences.

At the start of the novel we see how he seduces a young woman who works as a typist and suffers from depression. The pair spend one evening together and he leaves, never to realize that she becomes pregnant as a result. She does not seek him out and, for a time, that experience seems to give her the strength to go on but eventually she comes to feel hopeless again and commits suicide. When her older sister is told by the police about the pregnancy, she is determined to find out his identity and bring him to justice.

The first part of the novel follows his experiences as he seduces women and slowly begins to notice that some of his previous conquests are turning up dead. There are even some aspects of the crime scene that seem to be arranged to implicate him, leading him to wonder if he may have committed the crimes himself. This means we might interpret the title as referring to someone who kills ladies.

Finally, we are aware through some perspective shifts that a woman is seeking to arrange his downfall, meaning we can interpret it as a killer who is a lady.

I appreciate the ambiguity of the title because it also reflects that an ambiguity in where our sympathies should lie. The male protagonist of the book is clearly not in any way admirable. He values women not for their attributes as people but on a purely physical, mechanical basis and gives no thought at all to the aftermath of his actions. His seductions are not always harmful but they are selfish and predicated on elements of deceit. Yet by the midpoint of the novel we are challenged by our knowledge that he is being unfairly accused of crimes he did not commit.

The second half of the novel sees the introduction of a new pair of characters who are lawyers attempting to prove his innocence at appeal. This section of the novel is paced and told like a procedural with a focus on interviews, collating evidence and using it to try to understand what has happened.

Much like The Master Key, there is no great puzzle for the reader to solve or much mystery about what has taken place. We are let into the mind of the killer too often to be uncertain what their plan is and so the reader should be far ahead of the two lawyers by this point. While there is a very good twist near the end, the reader’s main consideration will be how can they undermine the case against their client with so little evidence in their favor.

I liked the novel a lot and found its characterization and discussion of themes of social isolation and of male and female sexuality to be thoughtful and considered but I do think it is a slightly less polished work than The Master Key. For instance, there are several attempts to get inside the head of a critical character towards the end of the novel that feel somewhat clumsy and juvenile in tone.

That said there are some really interesting moments and ideas in the story that I found to make for a rewarding read and I was impressed by the author’s ability to find the ambiguity in situations and characterizations. I was happy that the novel met my expectations and I hope that Pushkin Press go on to reissue some of her other works in translation.

 

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Lady Killer is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States in October 2018.

The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter

SeventhHypoIn preparing this review I took a moment to go back and read what I had written about previous Halter novels and was shocked by what I found. Folks – it’s been nearly FOUR MONTHS since I last read a Paul Halter.

That was The Phantom Passage, a novel I found to be a little disappointing in the way it was resolved. In the comments JJ suggested that I may want to take a look at The Seventh Hypothesis and I decided, for once, to actually follow-up on a Halter suggestion. I am glad I did because this novel is, to date, my favorite of his works I have read.

The plot is, as can be quite typical of his work, overstuffed with elements which can make it a challenge to summarize. The best I can offer is that Halter presents us with two crimes that, because of some coincidences, appear to be linked.

The novel opens with a policeman having a strange encounter with a man dressed as a medieval plague doctor. Soon afterwards he encounters a man dressed in the manner of a very old-fashioned doctor who addresses him as a confederate worried about where they have hidden a body. The policeman investigates, searching the three bins in turn without finding anything. The doctor pronounces himself a doctor of crime and, upon leaving, directs the policeman to look in a bin again where he finds a corpse.

Later the private secretary of a playwright comes to see Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst to tell them about his concerns regarding a conversation he overheard between his employer and a visitor. He tells them that the pair have made a murder pact in which one will commit a crime and try to blame it on the other. If that wasn’t confusing enough, at a key moment in their conversation one of the pair picked up a doll that resembled a plague doctor, calling back the first case.

In the past I have complained about feeling Halter incorporates too many ideas into a single story, opting for style and theatrical moments rather than logical plot developments. For instance, I took issue with some of the deaths in The Demon of Dartmoor which I felt stretched credibility. The Seventh Hypothesis follows the same pattern of incorporating a lot of ideas and incident into a very short page count and yet here the mixture works with those elements seeming to support each other.

Part of the reason I think it works so well here is the central conceit of the challenge between the playwright and his rival, a renowned actor, into which all of the other elements are folded. Halter wastes no time trying to convince us that what we are seeing may be coincidences or misunderstandings but he establishes at least some points in the secretary’s story to be true. He does this both by having the investigators discover inconsistencies in stories but also by directly showing us conversations between the two suspects, making us aware of their responses to some developments.

JJ calls the interactions between those two characters as being ‘a sumptuous, insanely dizzying whirligig’ and I heartily concur. I found both the report of their conversation and the meetings between them to be thoroughly intriguing and while this apparent narrowing of our field of suspects should be limiting, the construction of the plot helps ensure that the reader can never entirely trust the evidence they have before them.

What creates that ‘whirligig’ feel he alludes to is Halter’s breathless plotting. It is rare for a chapter to pass without a small revelation or incident taking place which changes our understanding of what is happening or significantly moves the case forwards. For instance, there are several further murders that take place after the discovery of that first body, making an already complicated case even harder to unravel. Even the secretary’s report of the conversation he overhears contains two or three significant reversals and revelations.

Halter’s stylistic flourishes are also very well executed, creating an unsettling oddness that may initially seem a little forced and yet fit perfectly into this very theatrical plot Halter constructs. While I enjoyed those early passages in which the doctors in historical dress talk about plague in the city, I did wonder if these existed just to create a sense of atmosphere but I was pleasantly surprised by the way he incorporates those costumes into the plot and makes them feel necessary rather than an indulgence.

The solution to the story is cleverly constructed and quite audacious. Each of the explanations makes sense as logical and consistent with the evidence and I thought some of the ways clues were utilized were quite novel. Some may question whether Twist proves all of his case and I do take their point – the most questionable revelations occur in the epilogue and while I guessed at them I do not know that he could have proved them – but the logical process he describes in reducing his suspect pool in the run up to the accusation makes perfect sense to me and I do think he proves his case mechanically, if not convincingly when it comes to motivation.

 

Given my fairly glowing sentiments about this book I guess the question I am left with is why isn’t this picked as a highlight of Halter’s oeuvre? My feeling is that it probably comes down to how, unlike much of his translated work, the mystery is neither an impossible crime nor a locked room. Aspects of it are certainly incredible and audacious and may look impossible but it is fairly simple to work out how the disappearing and reappearing body may have taken place. The challenge is in knitting all of these elements together to understand why these things occurred.

I enjoyed that challenge a lot and found the book to be stimulating, imaginative and satisfying right up to the conclusion. After this experience I certainly don’t think it will take four months for me to pick up another Halter – the only challenge will be deciding which one. Fortunately I still have a fair amount of his back catalog to work through…

All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch

ABIA word of warning before you begin – this is easily my longest post on the blog to date and, if you follow the Read More link, it contains story-by-story commentary on each of the fifteen cases contained in this volume. I don’t spoil the solutions but I do describe the premise of each story so if you don’t want to know the problems then I’d stay clear of those comments.

All But Impossible first came onto my radar when I read a very positive review of the collection from Puzzle Doctor who is a fan of these short stories which first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine between 1991 and 1999. I was excited and immediately went ahead and added all four volumes onto my wish list but, being an idiot, I wrote them down in reverse order and only realized my mistake when I was two stories into this collection.

Whoops.

I am happy to report though that I thoroughly enjoyed working my way through these stories. The various premises of the stories are varied and genuinely puzzling, almost all of them being impossible crimes or puzzles with an impossible element. There is no repetition between the stories here and many of the solutions are ingenious in their neatness and simplicity.

What particularly impressed me though are the handful of stories that are not only cleverly plotted but which pack an additional punch with a final paragraph revelation that may stick with you. I particularly recommend The Problem of the Country Mailbox and The Problem of the Enormous Owl in that regard.

As with any short story collection there are some weak points though only The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse and The Problem of the Unfound Door really disappointed me, each feeling less imaginative that the other stories in the collection. I would also add that the Kindle edition I read suffers from some issues with the formatting putting unexpected breaks in the middle of paragraphs which were initially quite distracting. Fortunately the quality of the stories here soon had me absorbed enough to overlook it but some may find this frustrating.

Overall I was very impressed with this first taste of Hoch’s work and I will look forward to exploring more of his work. If anyone has any recommendations beyond the Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories I would be glad to hear them!

Continue reading “All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D Hoch”

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirlI enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

The Paddington Mystery by John Rhode

PaddingtonEarlier this year the Collins Crime Club reissued four John Rhode novels featuring his series detective Dr. Lancelot Priestley. If you’re been reading my blog for any length of time you will have seen that I enjoyed each of those releases, albeit to different degrees. So why, you may be asking, has it taken me so long to get around to the last of those four, The Paddington Mystery?

Part of the reason is that among my blogging chums who know their Rhode, this book was universally regarded as the weakest of the four. For instance, Puzzle Doctor wrote in his review that it is not only atypical of Rhode’s usual style but that it commits the crime of being rather dull. Not promising.

Now, I’m not going to say that those reviews are wrong as The Paddington Mystery is certainly the least satisfying of those four novels. In spite of that though I found it to be quite an enjoyable read and some aspects of the novel are pretty successful.

Let’s start with the premise which is simple but very effective. Harold is a young man whose life was mapped out by his father but when the old man dies and leaves him with a less substantial than expected inheritance, he decides to find a small flat in the city and living a generally disreputable life.

One night after being stood up by a lady friend who had made a date with him he returns to that flat in a drunken state to discover a corpse lying on his bed. No one comes forward to claim the body which lacks any kind of identification and there are no signs that anything has been interfered with in the apartment other than the window that was forced. As far as anyone can tell a man who was unknown to the deceased and had no reason to be there jumped in the canal, swam across, forced a window to a flat whose owner he did not know, climbed in and lay down on the bed to die. What’s more, the coroner returns a verdict of a natural death.

What I think Rhode does particularly well here is lay out a situation that is clearly odd and naturally gives us several logical lines of inquiry to follow. I found it interesting that for much of the novel there is no clear suggestion that there has been a crime committed. Instead we are trying to get to grips with a situation that just does not make sense. Harold is not implicated in these events as he has a clear alibi for the time of death and the coroner’s verdict provides further relief but his character is stained and he is contemplating starting a new life overseas to escape the scandal. Fortunately he knows Dr. Priestley whose logical, mathematical mind is equal to the challenge of figuring out just what has taken place.

Given that this was the first Priestley novel, I was very pleasantly surprised that he establishes the story structure here that he will return to throughout the character’s literary life. We open with a short explanation of the crime and then the investigation follows a consultation model in which Priestley provides some direction, the young investigator gathers evidence, chats things over with Priestley, goes in search of more evidence, chats things over with Priestley, follows up his leads and then Priestley reveals what happened. The pacing is somewhat different however reflecting that he gets involved earlier in the story and plays a much more active role in this adventure than he does in any of the other stories I have read so far.

There are some ways in which this novel does distinguish itself from the other Rhode titles I have read. For one, because we spend much of the novel without a clear crime to investigate, Rhode does not devote time to building up suspects. This means that once we know the nature of the crime, the criminal’s identity can be easily inferred by the reader. This makes the revelations in the final few chapters feel a little underwhelming, undermining the impact of its ending.

The novel also adopts a somewhat moralizing tone about Harold’s life of excess and particularly his drinking that feels somewhat puritanical. Frequently we hear him chastising himself for his irresponsibility in throwing away a good friendship and abusing alcohol, giving the novel a strange, chiding tone. It is a very heavy-handed approach and I think it makes Harold a little less likeable than he might otherwise be.

Hanslet gets a mention but does not actually appear as a character here, nor do the various other characters we find fleshing out Priestley’s dinner circle in later novels, but we do get a glimpse of his personal life. His daughter, April, plays an important role within the narrative although she actually is given little to do herself. She is quite likeable anyhow and while I can’t say I was desperate for Harold and April to be reunited, I had no great objections to it either.

The cast of supporting characters are of variable interest, the most promising being Harold’s grouchy, Communist landlord. I do think the lack of fully fleshed out characters has the unfortunate effect of making some aspects of the solution a little simpler than the reader may like. This ties into an overall feeling I had that some aspects of the story, while logically sound, feel quite expected and so the explanations at the end seem to underwhelm.

In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy the process of reading The Paddington Mystery. Priestley is quite lively and fun to follow and I enjoyed his interactions with Harold. I think that the book contains some interesting incidents and a solid premise. Hopefully we will see some other books in this series appear as reprints soon as it would be nice to be able to read some of these titles that are currently very rare and hard to track down. A boy can dream!