Discussing The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

I read The Black Spectacles very shortly after starting this blog. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was the first book I read specifically for this blog (my very first few posts were written about books I had already read), when I reviewed it as The Problem of the Green Capsule.

As many of you know, and have been excited about, it has recently been reprinted as part of the British Library Crime Classics range, and when I reread it, I knew I wanted to revisit it here somehow. I decided though that I didn’t want to just write a new blog post – instead I’d add a second entry to my series of video posts discussing vintage crime novels (the first being about my favorite crime novel, A Kiss Before Dying).

Slight spoiler alert: I still loved it. Thoughts follow – feel free to share your own feelings about the book below!

The Detection Club Project: Hugh Walpole – The Killer and the Slain

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.

#13: Hugh Walpole

Cigarette card image of Hugh Walpole
Image Credit: Sir Hugh Walpole, probably after Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

He yearned to be one of the great and the good of the literary establishment, and an invitation to join the prestigious new Detection Club boosted his fragile ego. Yet throughout his life he remained an outsider.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Hugh Walpole was a household name, writing bestselling fiction in a variety of styles and genre. From ghost stories to bildungsroman, family saga to gothic horror. He penned literary biographies, plays, and the screenplay for the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield (we’ll come back to that last one later on in this post).

His celebrity extended to popular lecture tours, and he was keen to be in the public eye. Wodehouse dismissed his career as ‘two thirds publicity’, commenting that he was always endorsing books and speaking at luncheons. Others have described his generosity as a patron, privately offering financial support to younger writers – although some friends felt that he was too encouraging of some mediocre talents.

In some ways Hugh Walpole’s career seems to have mimicked that of another founder member of the Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts. Like Crofts, Walpole was tremendously popular in his day – when the Detection Club did their first round robin story, he was regarded as the lead name in a project that also featured Sayers, Berkeley, Christie, E. C. Bentley, and Knox.

Today Walpole has essentially been forgotten. While that is not necessarily surprising in the context of detective fiction, of which he was only an occasional author. After becoming a huge success in the twenties, in the thirties Walpole’s work began to be dismissed as dated or insubstantial. When he died in 1941, an anonymous obituary in the Times described his style as workmanlike. This would, no doubt, have devastated Walpole.

The book I’ll be discussing today, The Killer and the Slain, was published the year following his death and, Edwards argues, the combination of wartime publication and the author’s death meant it was ‘destined for obscurity’. This is a tremendous shame because it is an absolute gem of a read and certainly my favorite of the books I have read so far as part of this project.

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Originally published in 1942

As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.

The Killer and the Slain is not a work of detective fiction. It has clear crime elements – the murder that we see committed – but its focus is more on the conditions that lead John Talbot to murder and the way that the crime affects him subsequently. The reason I would suggest that it sits on the edge of the genre is its incorporation of supernatural elements, whether they are real or some kind of psychological manifestation, reminding me somewhat of James Hoggs’ The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The novel, narrated by Talbot as a reflection and account of his life written in his final days, tells of his bullying at school by the far more popular Jimmie Tunstall. Jimmie would insist on calling him ‘Jacko’, make fun of him and his creative endeavors to the other boys, and physically harassed him, making Talbot really uncomfortable. Jimmie insisted that he was really awfully fond of Talbot, dismissing his complaints as sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. When Talbot finally makes another friend, Jimmie sabotages it. Talbot is relieved when the torment finally ends and he leaves school to take over his parents’ antiques business and to try to make a success of himself as an author.

His world will come crashing down years later however when, having started a family and found some moderate success as a writer, his path crosses once again with Jimmie when the latter takes a home near his and insists on socializing together. Talbot is unable to resist and feels that a cycle of bullying is about to start once more, leading him to murder as a form of self-preservation. In its aftermath however he finds that the act has fundamentally changed him and he begins to turn into the man he has killed.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the book was how much of Walpole is in the character of John Talbot. We read Talbot’s insecurities about the quality of his work, only thinking one of his novels an artistic success, and we see how he craves recognition. Talbot, like Walpole, was miserable at school, struggles to find acceptance, and literary success at first. There is also a rather fascinating brief passage in which Talbot dissects the qualities of the 1935 David Copperfield adaptation that Walpole himself had written:

It’s a long picture, Copperfield. Little Bartholomew and Rathbone as Murdstone were as good as ever. Pity they had to get an American for Micawber. The first half of the picture is much the best.

I was also struck by the rather open discussion of sex, lust, and frankness about infidelity that runs throughout the novel. These themes are not unique to this book, but it avoids euphemism in many instances, addressing the themes quite directly. Jimmie’s lust for life and sex is mirrored by Talbot’s inexperience and discomfort, leading the latter to settle for a loveless, unequal marriage which he enters despite his bride’s warning that she doesn’t love him, hoping that his love will eventually be reciprocated.

There was even some suggestion of erotic undertones to the pair’s relationship. One of the inciting incidents that sets Talbot against Jimmie is the trauma of the latter exposing him while getting changed for swimming, and we are told that Talbot is deeply uncomfortable with Jimmie’s touch. The relationship between the pair is highly controlling, with Jimmie delighting in Talbot’s discomfort and talking of possessing him and discussing the especial bond they share. When Jimmie discovers Talbot’s writing, he suggests the introduction of ‘a bit of skirt’ to liven things up, and he delights in causing Talbot great discomfort with graphic descriptions of his infidelities. It is as though Jimmie recognizes that Talbot is either asexual or homosexual and is taking pleasure at teasing him, knowing that Talbot is too uptight to recognize it in himself.

The early chapters of the book set up the building tension between the pair and the specific circumstances that will lead to murder. That moment is really quite dramatically and suddenly realized, the circumstances fitting Talbot’s character really well while also setting up a little intrigue that will be used later in the story.

The focus of the narrative though is not on the murder itself but the transformation that occurs to Talbot afterwards. Talbot who has seemed uptight, prim, and awkward up until this point, becomes coarser, lustier, and warmer in his relationships with others. There are some predictable ways that this plays out but also some more interesting and subtle ones, like the shift in his marriage and relationship with his son. Walpole portrays that shift very effectively, using it to suggest a sense of liberation for his protagonist, not dissimilar to how murder alters the protagonist in Simon Brett’s much later book, A Shock to the System.

We can take a supernatural reading of what happens and suggest that Talbot has been possessed by Jimmie’s spirit. Certainly many of his behaviors seem to evoke things Jimmie would say or do, and others perceive the increased similarities too. At times Talbot starts to act contrary to his wishes, almost as if he is struggling to control an external force that is making him act a certain way. Another, more psychological reading would be that Talbot has experienced a mental break, caused by the stresses of what he has done, and it has resulted in some split within his personality. Guilt makes him imagine his victim and he is, to some degree, punishing himself by destroying the things that he loves the most.

Here, once again, I was reminded of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (a book I need to reread and write about at some point soon). That story split its narrative in two, presenting two different readings of action, one psychological and the other supernatural. In contrast, Walpole combines his two narratives into one, having the character himself represent his perceptions of what is happening to him while occasionally giving us perspectives of others in conversation. This works very well as it embraces the strengths of the first person perspective, showing us what Talbot believes is happening while acknowledging that he might simply be going mad.

The final aspect of this book that I want to reflect on is its discussion of World War II and specifically of Hitler. The events of the first half of the book take place over a span of years starting with Talbot’s childhood and moving through his marriage into midlife. Hitler gets his first mention after Jimmie has returned into his life, with Talbot reflecting on the uncertainties of the world and thinking unhappily of Hitler ‘planning cold ruin and bitter destruction’.

The next mention happens after Talbot has committed his murder and is pondering just why he is changing. He tells us that for years he had hated the Nazis ‘almost with hysteria’ but when he hears two elderly people raging about Hitler, he begins to feel compelled to defend him, wishing to argue that Germany has been wronged and that she had to act to do what’s best for their country. Later in the novel he becomes more outspoken and full-throated in his advocacy of Hitler and his ideas, drawing considerable disapproval, and describes himself as ‘Hitler’s forerunner of vengeance’.

Talbot sees parallels between himself and Hitler. He is sympathetic to him because Talbot wants to justify his own actions. Aggression, in his case cold-blooded murder, was required because of a wider, unfair situation. He is asserting that he had to do what was needed for his family’s interests – to protect his son from Jimmie’s influence and his wife from being seduced. Acts of aggression are, he thinks, justified by being treated poorly and ‘spat on’.

Towards the end of the novel Walpole has one of the most likeable characters in the novel directly confront Talbot, forcefully condemning Hitler as one of the ‘strongest instruments of evil the world has seen for hundreds of years’, and telling him he must reject that same evil inside himself. This moment was not only necessary from the point of providing a condemnation of a regime with which Britain was at war, it also ties back into the novel’s theme that the potential for evil lies within everyone.

This brings me to the least satisfying part of the novel, that of its end. Having realized his themes, Walpole has to provide a resolution to his narrative but that presents some challenges. One is that its ending cannot really surprise while staying true to its themes. That doesn’t necessarily bother me – I often enjoy seeing an inevitable ending realized – but the issue here is one of execution. A decision taken at the end requires Walpole to abruptly shift to a different storytelling style and it feels a little clumsy and awkward, particularly given how quickly he wraps everything up. Had the author used other storytelling styles earlier in the novel, this shift would have felt less stark, but the execution here feels quite sudden and inelegant in consequence.

In spite of my disappointment in its last few pages, I have to say that I view this book as a triumph and that this has been one of the most engaging reads I’ve undertaken on this project so far. Though it is not in any way a detective story, I appreciate its focus on developing and exploring its protagonist and admire the quality of storytelling on display. I’ll be curious to read more Walpole in the future, though I know only a fraction of his work lies within the genre. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be glad of them.

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One (Game)

Today’s post is coming to you considerably later than I initially planned. When Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One was released in late 2021 I started playing it immediately with every intention of reviewing it here. Obviously it is no longer 2021 and another game, a remastered and reimagined version of The Awakened came out quite recently. Whoops.

Basically I was logging a few hours of gameplay every week in the first few months it came out, only slowing down as my other life commitments took off. I actually only had a few cases left to solve when I found all my spare time having to go towards my grad school studies, so when I completed my last remaining bit of coursework late last week I set about finishing the game and pulling this video review together.

I end the video by mentioning that I expect I’ll do more of these in the future but rest assured now I have a little free time (well, until classes start up again in three weeks time) it will be devoted to finally catching up on some quality reading and blogging time!

Holmes on Film: Holmes & Watson (2018)

When I started thinking about doing this series of posts I didn’t plan on getting to Holmes & Watson early. Actually, to be more accurate, I didn’t expect that I’d stick with the series long enough to get to it at all.

So, why did I watch it at all? As it happens though I was ending a DVR service where it had been recorded and I thought it better to watch it before I lost it than to have to potentially pay to rent it in the future. There was also a little bit of me that thought maybe the critics and audiences at the time got it wrong and it might be worth a reevaluation. It helped that after five years my memory of the trailer had almost completely faded.

I began to suspect that my hopes would be dashed shortly into the piece but kept going, thinking I ought to give Ferrell and Reilly a chance. Early glimpses of Fiennes and Ferris also had me at least curious about the other members of the cast and to see what they would do. By about halfway through all hope had gone and I found I was watching for a different reason. Now I had to finish the film and post about it, just to be sure that I would never have to watch it again…

Now, on with the movie…

Holmes & Watson

The film opens with a short prologue that tries to give the sleuth a backstory, establishing a framing theme for the picture of Holmes’ struggles to find friendship. Watson is, of course, the exception but the film’s take on the relationship is that he is simply so in awe of Holmes’ abilities that he never speaks up for himself or the way he is being treated.

The concept of focusing on Holmes and Watson as a friendship, albeit a rather more dysfunctional one here than elsewhere, can work quite well. Billy Wilder’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes for instance is at least as much about the nature of that friendship as the mystery, and both of the Robert Downey Jr. films make that relationship central to their themes. It’s also quite central to the plot of Sherlock Gnomes, an animated movie released earlier that same year.

Holmes & Watson is somewhat different in that it is clearly intended to play as a comedy and only adopts the structure of a mystery adventure as a vehicle for silliness. While there is a case they are nominally investigating, a corpse stuffed into a giant cake and the prospect of a plot against Queen Victoria, there is really no deduction or plot to speak of at all beyond the testing of that friendship.

There are some Holmes-specific gags. For example, we are treated to several gags playing on the idea that Holmes hasn’t entirely devised his signature look yet. Low-hanging stuff. There are also several parodies of the Downey-style visual representation of Holmes’ previsioning of action which felt a little bit fresher, though where they are headed will quickly be apparent.

Most of the gags though were based on the concepts that Holmes is socially (and sexually) inept and that Watson is desperate to ingratiate himself to people more brilliant than himself. All this is delivered with copious amounts of childish bickering. This is a formula that worked quite well for the stars in other movies, both of whom can deliver a funny line. Unfortunately here there are just none to be found and the stars’ starched but awkward accent work doesn’t help much either.

The scripted gags which came closest to working for me concerned Victorian science and medicine. Reilly and Rebecca Hall’s enthusiastic delivery of that material does at least make it punchy, and those exchanges do go somewhere unexpected during an autopsy. Most of the laughs I had though came at the bodies of the newspaper articles briefly thrown up on screen, some of which are far sharper than any of the material found in the script.

The supporting cast, which contains a number of familiar faces in addition to those named, also fare poorly. It is hard to imagine how so many talented people found themselves attached to this movie. Fiennes could have been interesting casting as a Moriarty, and I did at least enjoy the symmetry of making Hugh Laurie its Mycroft (for those who haven’t seen it, his former comedy partner Stephen Fry plays the part opposite Downey). Rob Brydon fares a little bit better as a rather frustrated Lestrade, but few are given much to work with.

It’s all a bit of a mess and a waste of some otherwise pretty talented individuals. It’s also not even the funniest film about the dysfunctional and unequal partnership of Holmes and Watson to have been released in 2018 but more on that another day…

A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

Originally published in 1954

Frank “Dolly” Dillon has a job he hates, working sales and collections for Pay-E-Zee Stores, a wife named Joyce he can’t stand, and an account balance that barely allows him to pay the bills each month. Working door-to-door one day, trying to eke money out of folk with even less of it than he has, Dolly crosses paths with a beautiful young woman named Mona Farrell. Mona’s being forced by her aunt to do things she doesn’t like, with men she doesn’t know — she wants out, any way she can get it. And to a man who wants nothing of what he has, Mona sure looks like something he actually does.

Soon Dolly and Mona find themselves involved in a scheme of robbery, murder and mayhem that makes Dolly’s blood run cold. As Dolly’s plans begin to unravel, his mind soon follows.

I hadn’t planned on getting back to posting on this blog for another few weeks when my first semester of grad school will be done but those plans were upended when I read this book and found myself desperate to talk about it.

First, a little background. I first encountered Jim Thompson after starting this blog and I have reviewed everything I have read. If you’re interested, you can track back through the posts archive and see what I have made of the works I have tackled so far. This title was suggested to me by JJ from The Invisible Event about a year ago and while Thompson has been on the back burner for a while, mostly because my posting has been so irregular this past half year, I knew that when I did I would make a point to get to this one first.

I’m glad I did because this may be the most effective and satisfying of all of the Thompson novels I’ve read to date.

We follow Frank “Dolly” Dillon, a door-to-door salesman who is trying to make a buck or collect on accounts owed. One day he encounters Mona Farrell at one of the homes he is visiting. He is instantly struck by her beauty and is surprised when the older woman she lives with tries to make a deal to let him spend some time with her in her bedroom in exchange for the silver service he is trying to sell. He learns from Mona that such arrangements are a regular part of her life.

Dolly accepts but becomes uncomfortable at the arrangement, opting to just talk with her. Awkwardly he promises he will return at some future point to visit Mona again though he has little intention of keeping that promise. Shortly afterwards though Dolly finds himself in jeopardy and is surprised when Mona comes to his rescue with a big stack of cash, apparently taken from the old lady. She tells Dolly that there is more where that came from and he begins to think of a plan to acquire that, and possibly Mona too at the same time.

Dolly, like many Thompson protagonists, is a bit of a good ol’ boy. He is irresponsible financially, fiddling with the accounts he’s meant to be collecting. He can be charming, with people rarely knowing how much he dislikes them because he covers it up with bonhomie. And then he has a wife he doesn’t treat well, and a bit of a roving eye for the ladies.

Dolly is, to put it simply, a loathsome, misogynistic brute. That is a common playbook for Thompson protagonists who often begin a novel appearing a bit cheeky and roguish but whose sociopathy really only comes into focus as we spend an extended period of time with them. The difference here, and what makes this book so compelling, is that Dolly is much more than just a devil with an angel’s face. He’s a twisted, complicated, confused and confusing, mess of a man. The sort of man who initially appears confident but one we will soon see is less in control than he seems.

At the heart of that contradiction in Dolly’s character is his attitude towards women. We know that he is attracted to Mona because of her youthful beauty. We also gather that she is just the latest in a very long line of women, many of whom he has married and divorced. It soon becomes clear that what attracts Dolly to these women is their apparent purity but that by being with him and expressing their own desires, he will inevitably come to find them repulsive and want to move on. It’s a surprisingly rich and critical portrait of that sort of man and one which Thompson absolutely nails here.

The reader may find individual things Dolly does to be quirky or intriguing but unlike other villains such as Nick Corey, Dolly’s brutishness is on full display for the reader from close to the start of the novel. There is never really any possibility of liking Dolly, but we will likely be interested to discover just what he is up to and how events will pan out.

The other significant difference between Dolly and Nick is that our protagonist in this novel lacks the latter’s inventiveness and ingenuity. Dolly is a small time sort of guy, and while he may have some ambitions, he is juggling frantically, just trying to keep all the balls in the air. We expect him to fail but it is not immediately clear how he will get the comeuppance he clearly deserves.

His plan, when we get to see it, is hardly ingenious and the reader will likely see where Thompson is headed. What makes the plan interesting is not its components or its complexity but what it says about Dolly. Thompson is often at his most powerful when showing how people can use others’ weaknesses, fears, and prejudices to get others to do what they want. This is that sort of a story.

After an initial crime is committed, we get to follow Dolly as he tries to keep things together and avoid people’s suspicions. Thompson packs in several interesting developments that propel the story in slightly different directions, keeping the novel from feeling predictable.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel though is a narrative device that Thompson deploys at several points in the novel. At several key points, typically when we are about to encounter a significant criminous action on the part of Dolly, we switch from a first person present narration to a memoir format, presented from a slightly different and mysterious alternative voice. Only after the event is described do we jump back to the novel’s typical narration style but with a small time jump having taken place.

Given that the accounts have some overlap but give us key details from only one of its narrative voices, the reader cannot be certain of the truthfulness of anything they read. This illustrates the unreliability of the narrator by demonstrating the conflict between accounts but it also serves as an interesting exploration of the subtle differences that might exist between a pure internal voice and the way we seek to present information to others.

This brings me to the book’s highly unusual ending. Or should that be endings. The first time I read the final chapter I found myself doing a bit of a double-take and I ended up rereading the pages several times to make sure that I understood what was being presented to me. Having given us two narrative voices, separated into chapters, this final chapter presses them together, leading the reader to two apparently different resolutions. It’s a little confusing and I felt at first that it is trying a little too hard to be literary in its style, but I liked it more as I reflected on that ending more.

What I like most about the resolution is how perfectly it ties into the range of themes that Thompson has developed throughout the novel. It isn’t clean and tidy and I can understand why some will hate it, but I think it fits this novel brilliantly.

The Verdict: Though A Hell of a Woman is not as fun as Pop. 1280 or as shocking as The Killer Inside Me, I think it deserves to be talked about as a work on a comparable level. Thompson’s skill here is characterization, scratching at the surface of an apparently straightforward character to reveal unexpected depth and complexity.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book has been reprinted a number of times over the years. While you are unlikely to find it on store shelves, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780316403733.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

5 Forthcoming Vintage Mystery Reprints I’m Excited About

With my week of leisure coming to an end and a bit of uncertainty about how much time I’ll have to blog over the next few months, I wanted to focus on something positive and think about the books I’m most looking forward to getting – even if it may be a while until I get to them.

Below are the five reprints I am most looking forward to seeing arrive on my doorstep – restricting myself to one title per imprint to spread the love around. The eagle-eyed among you may see a sixth title that goes beyond the brief but as it is clearly genre-related, I think it fits here all the same. Consider it a bonus pick!

Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

British Library Crime Classics – April 10, 2023 (UK)

It’s been a while since I have picked up anything new from the British Library Crime Classics range – mostly because I had cut back on importing copies from the UK and the US editions are released with a delay. I ended up breaking that self-imposed rule to get hold of John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles for an upcoming book club. Of course, once you order one you might as well get a slightly bigger package…

Unlike some of the other upcoming titles, this one is completely unknown to me which adds intrigue for me. This novel, the only one by Houston, appears to be a country house mystery in which a scientist is murdered in his study during a house party. The most novel aspect of this book for me is its conscious playing with time, as suggested by its title, as apparently it will cover twelve hours of events leading up to the murder and twelve of investigation.

Death of a Stray Cat & An Affair of the Heart by Jean Potts

Stark House Mystery Classics – May 19, 2023

Last year I had my first encounter with Jean Potts and while I had a couple of reservations about a few aspects of that story, I was excited enough to go out and buy copies of each of the other reprint collections published by Stark House. This volume, published next month, is the next and offers up two more stories from the author, each containing elements that intrigue me.

Of the two, the one that appeals most to me from the description is An Affair of the Heart – a story in which an advertising agent is found dead from an apparent heart attack in his mistress’ apartment. The question is why he didn’t have his heart pills with him, particularly as he had recently survived a heart attack.

I find mysteries in which it’s not even initially clear that a murder has taken place at all to be interesting so I am really interested to see what Potts does with this premise. That I’ll get a second story into the bargain makes this all the more appealing!

The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrelle

Library of Congress Crime Classics – June 6, 2023

Sometimes the joy of a reprint is getting access to a book that was completely inaccessible. Most of the time though, for me, it’s about getting it in the format you’d prefer to read.

Jacques Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine has long been in the public domain so this is not a case of the former. Instead what excites me here is getting a print edition that will have been properly proof-read. I am even quite looking forward to the footnotes which I know have been quite divisive with readers in previous publications.

As for what the book’s about – it’s a short story collection featuring a detective who solves crimes by the rigorous application of logic. I’ve never read it and I am aware that the quality is not entirely consistent but I will be excited to give it a try for myself.

The Devil’s Flute Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Pushkin Vertigo – June 29, 2023 (UK), July 4, 2023 (US)

While I haven’t quite got around to reading all of the Yokomizo novels I have on my shelf, I have been really excited by these new translations from Pushkin Vertigo. I am likely to tackle the next one, The Devil’s Flute Murders, before going back to the two I have yet to read because I find its premise pretty appealing.

The mystery takes place in the home of a brooding, troubled composer who has recently been found dead. His family have gathered to try to contact his spirit but when one of their number is found killed, Kosuke Kindaichi is called upon to investigate.

The chief appeal factor for me here is the idea referenced in one of the blurbs that the composer’s most famous piece is one that utterly chills all those who hear it. I am hoping that this leans into that sense of dread to create an atmospheric read. I am hoping to get to this one pretty quickly after publication!

Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot

American Mystery Classics – October 3, 2023

Unlike the other titles on this list, I already own a copy of Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. So, why am I excited to buy another one? Well, I think it boils down to formatting but also because knowing it will be widely available gives me that little extra push to settle down and read it. Why? Because it’s great to know that when you are done reading it that others will be able to do so as well and you can talk with others about it.

The book is a highly recommended example of the impossible crime story, set in the snowy wilds of New England. It features a séance to contact the dead husband of the medium but things seem to go wrong with the dead man’s spirit apparently inhabiting the body of one of the guests.

There’s lots to interest me here but if there’s one element that particularly grabs me it’s the evocation of the supernatural. After several years of reading people rave about this (it was second in the 1981 Locked Room Library list), I am excited to finally get around to reading this for myself.

How to Survive a Classic Crime Novel by Kate Jackson

British Library Publishing – June 8, 2023 (UK)

Those who have been counting carefully will note that this is the sixth book on my list which basically means it’s an extra. The reason is that it isn’t a reprint but rather an original humorous work discussing the lessons that can be learned from reading lots of vintage mysteries. And, for those who are unaware, Kate Jackson (who blogs at Cross Examining Crime) is a prolific reader of vintage mysteries.

I’m looking forward to seeing what lessons Kate extracts from the books I have already read but also to learning about writers and novels that will be entirely new to me. From the blurb alone I already have found one I’m excited to read myself. This will be another case of a title that causes me to break my self-imposed “no imports” rule!

For more about this title check out Kate’s 1,500th blog post from a few months ago where she trails this title.

So, there you have the books I am most excited to get my hands on soon. What are you looking forward to?

The Detection Club Project: Victor Whitechurch – Murder at the Pageant

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.

#12: Victor Whitechurch

Whitechurch was supposedly the first detective story writer to devote such care to his description of police procedure that he checked the authenticity of his manuscripts with Scotland Yard.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

One of my goals in undertaking this project to acquaint myself with each of the members of the Detection Club was to encounter some writers from the Golden Age who were completely unknown to me. Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch fits that bill perfectly.

Though he is referenced a couple of times in The Golden Age of Murder, discussion of his life and work is pretty thin. That may perhaps reflect that he died just a few years after the start of the club or that he was not such a strong personality as some other founder members of that club. After briefly outlining his series character and listing him as one of the Christian members of the Club, the next time he is mentioned is to note the vacancy caused by his death. His seat would be filled by Gladys Mitchell.

Whitechurch had a series detective, Thorpe Hazell, who was unusual in being a detective with a specialty topic – railway crimes. I previously read one of his stories, The Affair of the Corridor Express in the Blood on the Tracks collection issued by the British Library. A quick glance at my review of that book saw me praise the tightness of its construction and select it as one of the two highlights of the collection along with the offering from R. Austin Freeman.

Edwards highlights an unusual aspect of this character, his health fanaticism, with a pretty amusing description of a passage from a story. He also notes that Whitechurch was notable for his attention to police procedure, supposedly checking the authenticity of his work with Scotland Yard.

While I don’t know that I would have guessed that Whitechurch had gone to those lengths off the back of either of my experiences of his work, it is certainly noticeable that the story I picked to read by him, Murder at the Pageant, reads at least in part as a police procedural. Though the central sleuth is working in a private capacity, we are privy to the progress of that official investigation and read details of some of the exhaustive, detail-driven aspects of what is done.

Murder at the Pageant would turn out to be one of the last novels by Whitechurch but I suspect I will be seeking out more of his work in the future…

(For those curious to learn more about Whitechurch, consider checking out this post on the Promoting Crime Fiction blog).

Murder at the Pageant (1930)

The pageant was held, amid great ceremony and pomp, at Frimley Manor, and it featured the reenactment of Queen Anne’s visit to the great country estate in 1705. Visitors flocked to see the lavishly costumed affair, especially the ritual carrying of Queen Anne in a sedan chair from the entrance gate of the estate to the front steps of the great house.

Mrs. Cresswell, a guest of Sir Harry Lynwood, Lord of Frimley Manor, grandly impersonated the Queen, dazzling the crowd with her spectacular pearl necklace. But her performance in the sedan chair would soon be upstaged. In the dead of night, under an eerily fading moon, the chair would be discovered with a new occupant: a dying man, whose last words were “The… line.”

Excerpt from the lengthy blurb of the 1987 Dover reprint.

I should probably start by explaining that I had initially planned to tackle Victor L. Whitechurch some months ago. Indeed I even trailed those plans, only to hit an unexpected snag when I got about a third of the way in to discover that the cheap secondhand copy I’d found had been rendered unreadable by a previous, careless reader. Consider that a lesson learned to flip all the way through any purchases as soon as received…

The cost of buying a second copy wasn’t a problem – as noted above, this is one of the titles that is in pretty plentiful (and affordable) supply – but it did take a while for a new copy to arrive. Long enough that I would need to start over from scratch.

As it happens that didn’t turn out to be a bad thing. As the title indicates, this book takes place following a historical pageant – the reenactment of a monarch’s visit to the country estate where it is set. What have I been up to over the past few months? Well, a big chunk of that was spent researching historical reenactments as part of my college studies. While this book can’t be said to give much insight into the practice, I appreciated the subject matter all the more for that as well as the book’s somewhat comic depiction of the inconsistent commitment to authenticity among the participants.

After enjoying the festivities commemorating that monarch’s visit, the owners of the estate and some of their guests retire to relax and dine together. Later that night however one of them, retired intelligence officer Captain Roger Bristow, is surprised to observe two individuals running from the manor carrying the sedan chair that had been central to the pageant. They flee on being discovered in another unlikely vehicle, leaving Bristow to discover one of the other guests on the point of death who leaves a somewhat cryptic message with his final breath.

Bristow is an interesting choice of protagonist as he is both amateur and professional. He has no formal standing in the case for much of the novel and yet the police are aware of his abilities and skill as an investigator. This enables him to sit on the edge of the investigation, avoid being too beholden to the process of police procedure, and yet he is still diligent and thorough in his approach to detection. Indeed the character he reminded me most of was the earlier version of Inspector French, where corners were sometimes cut for practical reasons but the investigation was thorough and detailed with a focus on following each investigative thread to its end. Like French, Bristow is not a particularly colorful figure (aside from the occasional allusion to his past career) but he inspires confidence while avoiding coming off as arrogant.

Bristow’s investigative efforts are mirrored by an official police investigation which we also follow. Those characters are well drawn with Whitechurch doing a fine job of illustrating the dynamics between the individuals working the case and their way of working.

These two investigations run parallel throughout the novel. At some points we follow the police investigation more closely, at other times Bristow. These two investigations are not exactly in competition, though there are points at which one investigation has information withheld from the other. This works quite nicely and adds some additional interest, particularly in the final third of the novel as we move toward the endgame.

One slight curious note is that while there is a murder and a jewel theft to consider, we spend much of our time focused on the latter. There are reasons given for that choice – namely the investigators work on the assumption that the one was a product of the other – but I did find it a touch odd that Whitechurch doesn’t focus more on the murder element of his plot. Indeed it’s surprisingly easy to forget that one happened at all for big chunks of the story.

I did appreciate the cast of characters that Whitechurch creates to populate Frimley Manor. As with the investigators, none are particularly colorful yet they represent a solid mix of upper class types and present a range of possibilities for the reader to consider.

In terms of the puzzle itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how solid it seemed. There is, for instance, some neat misdirection and I enjoyed following Bristow as he pieced the thing together from the information we are given. My only real disappointment lay within the dying words aspect of the story which is – not all that puzzling. Still, as the main deductive process does not utilize it, the disappointment was short-lived.

Overall, I was largely impressed with this encounter with Whitechurch. While this is by no means a flashy mystery, I felt it presented a neat twist on the manor mystery and I enjoyed following along with the investigation. Indeed my biggest question really is why this has yet to secure a reprint. Should it ever do so, or if you ever stumble on a cheap secondhand copy, I think it’s worth a look!

The Couple at the Table by Sophie Hannah

Originally published in 2022

Jane and William are enjoying their honeymoon at an exclusive couples-only resort…

…until Jane receives a chilling note warning her to “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” At dinner that night, five other couples are present, and none of their tables is any nearer or farther away than any of the others. It’s almost as if someone has set the scene in order to make the warning note meaningless—but why would anyone do that?

Jane has no idea.

But someone in this dining room will be dead before breakfast, and all the evidence will suggest that no one there that night could have possibly committed the crime.

Shortly before her murder, newlywed Jane received an anonymous note warning her to be wary of the couple seated at ‘the table nearest to yours’. This note caused her to become highly agitated and suspicious of each of the other guests staying at the upscale Tevendon Estate Resort, a set of holiday cottages on her father’s estate. A big part of the reason for this is the wording of the note; Jane’s table had been moved to be the center of a circle, each other table equally distant from their own.

The Couple at the Table initially caught my attention because of the puzzle related to this anonymous note. I find ambiguities in language, whether deliberate or accidental, to be interesting and the example Sophie Hannah crafts for this story is quite intriguing. Is the wording of a note of warning deliberately unhelpful, intended to agitate its reader, or has someone reacted to nullify its meaning?

The novel begins some months after Jane’s murder – a brutal stabbing committed in their holiday cottage later that day. The problem for the police is that almost all of the suspects were dining together at the time of the murder and give each other alibis. Meanwhile the one suspect who has no alibi, her new husband William, has one piece of forensic evidence that seems to prove his innocence. The investigation seems hopelessly stalled until one suspect, William’s ex-wife, decides to try to provoke a reaction on the part of the killer.

The novel proceeds to weave backwards and forwards in time, mixing first person narration from Lucy, William’s ex-wife, with third person accounts of the past. I found this mix of styles and points in time to be ultimately quite frustrating. While executed well enough on a technical level to avoid being overly confusing, I felt it did not contribute much to the experience of the novel overall. The only reason I could think to employ it was to try to make us empathize more with Lucy’s situation or to place more credibility in her narrative, yet I did not think that either was necessary. I would have found it more interesting to either play with multiple perspectives and let us hear different characters’ voices or to stick to the third person throughout.

Of all the characters in the story, Lucy comes across as the most complex, in part because of her backstory which naturally engenders some sympathy. I was interested to see precisely how her split from William had come about and to better understand some of the choices she had made both at the resort and in the months that followed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Lucy has somewhat complicated feelings about the murder as demonstrated by the letter to the murderer that opens the novel. As a suspect herself, she wants a line drawn under the killing to enable her to move forward with her life yet she is also grateful to a killer who may have taken vengeance for her. The challenge she has in navigating those feelings was the most interesting and successful aspect of the novel for me.

In contrast, we barely get to know many of the other people staying at Tevendon beyond the victim. Courtesy of the flashbacks, we do get to know Jane a little but mostly from the hours leading up to her death where she is agitated and showing signs of paranoia. I never felt that I understood what she had seen in William, nor did I really understand her choices more generally as a character, leaving me feeling somewhat flat with regards her in ways I never felt with Linnet Ridgeway in Death on the Nile.

Most of the other guests are unmemorable, both in terms of their backstories or their involvement in the action of this story. Given that they are absent from the present day material until close to the end of the novel, I found it hard to have any strong feelings or thoughts about any of them. This was not only a challenge in terms of considering those characters as suspects, it was disappointing from the perspective of justifying some of the revelations made towards the end of the book. Given where this story will ultimately head, I think the reader needs to have a strong sense of what motivates some of these characters to really buy into the explanation we will be given.

Which brings me to the book’s solution…

All the way through the book I had a concern that we were headed for a twist ending I had seen done before. Happily the author doesn’t go there but unfortunately I did not find the actual explanation that is delivered to be a satisfying one. That partly reflects that the killer’s identity, while not the one I feared, is not a surprise either. But it also reflects that to get there we must accept a clue that I just don’t think works as described and a pretty flimsy motivation for murder.

On the latter, I’d say that is not necessarily a surprise as few in the cast of suspects have anything approaching a solid reason to want Lucy dead. This is not the case of a novelist ignoring some great suspect in favor of a weak ‘surprise’ one but rather never putting in enough detail to completely sell the idea they have as being enough to get that character to that point.

It’s harder to talk about the clue I struggled with, in part because to describe it well enough for readers to identify it means explaining it, which is obviously not desirable. Instead of being specific, I’ll generalize and say that it is a clue related to a matter of language. I have thought about it a lot since reading this, talking it over with friends who have also read the book, and I just don’t get where the book expects me to be. It’s not exactly devastating to the case, but I found it a little silly not so much in its conception but in the explanation given. That is unfortunate because the rest of the solution relies on elements of coincidence and characters behaving in unusual ways so it doesn’t do much to help with selling the credibility of the ending, at least for me.

Unfortunately while I was intrigued by the initial scenario, I found it hard to overlook my issues with the book’s solution. It’s possible that others may find aspects of the solution more credible than I did or be more satisfied by the reveal of the killer but I struggled to invest in the solution and came away underwhelmed.

What I did appreciate though was the character of Lucy. I felt the author walked a rather challenging path with this character, giving her some interesting, harder edges. She is easy to sympathize with while being quite hard to like. I appreciated the complexities here and was interested to see her try to work through her feelings about the murder. I just wished that the other characters challenged me in that same way.

The Verdict: This book offers a promising scenario but, sadly, I found the solution to be disappointing in terms of some of the character motivations. I was impressed enough with the character of Lucy however to be interested to try some other works by the author if anyone has any suggestions!

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780063257702.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Opportunist by Elyse Friedman

Originally published 2022

When Alana Shropshire’s seventy-six-year-old father, Ed, starts dating Kelly, his twenty-eight-year-old nurse, a flurry of messages arrive from Alana’s brothers, urging her to help “protect Dad” from the young interloper. Alana knows that what Teddy and Martin really want to protect is their father’s fortune, and she tells them she couldn’t care less about the May–December romance. Long estranged from her privileged family, Alana, a hardworking single mom, has more important things to worry about.

But when Ed and Kelly’s wedding is announced, Teddy and Martin kick into hyperdrive and persuade Alana to fly to their father’s West Coast island retreat to perform one simple task in their plan to make the gold digger go away. Kelly, however, proves a lot more wily than expected, and Alana becomes entangled in an increasingly dangerous scheme full of secrets and surprises. Just how far will her siblings go to retain control?

Smart, entertaining and brimming with shocking twists and turns, The Opportunist is both a thrill ride of a story and a razor-sharp view of who wields power in the world.

Hello reader! It’s been a while and I can’t promise I’m about to start blogging again with any regularity but with my university’s Spring Break week ahead, I might be able to get at least one or two posts out there before the work piles up again. Before I begin I should admit that I started this post a few days after my last one so it’s been a while since I finished reading this. As I’ve noted before, that’s far from my preferred way of doing these but I figured this was better than nothing, particularly as I have another busy few weeks ahead. With that short note out of the way, let’s get on with discussing The Opportunist

Alana has been estranged from her family for years so, when she starts getting panicked messages from her brothers that her wealthy father is engaged to his much younger nurse, she has little interest in helping to protect the family fortune. After getting frustrated with her dodging their emails, one of her brothers decides to visit her with a proposal: he wants Alana to make Kelly, their father’s fiancée, a sizeable financial offer to call off the marriage and leave town. The money used would be theirs but they would be able to deny involvement if things went badly, preserving their relationship and their source of income. For her trouble, Alana would receive a sizeable chunk of money that would enable her to provide for her daughter’s medical needs.

Upon arriving at the family’s island retreat, Alana gets to work but soon finds that her task will be harder than it might have initially seemed as Kelly is quite aware of what is going on. As frustrations mount with the brothers and the wedding nears, conversation turns to other ways to ensure that the marriage doesn’t take place. The question is whether the brothers can outmaneuver her before it is too late…

The Opportunist blends elements of family drama with the psychological crime story (the Highsmith comparison on the front is fitting). Structurally it can be classified as an inverted-style story, in that the reader learns who carries out any crimes almost immediately following their taking place. In some cases we are made aware of characters’ plans in advance of their attempts to carry them off, and this builds suspense and allows the author to play with the reader and have them question how the key conflicts here will play out and who will come out on top.

The battle of wits structure is a promising one, even if it threatens to render Alana a bystander early in the novel. Her estrangement from her family means that her investment in the outcome feels rather weak and left me a little concerned that she might observe the action more than she participated in it. Happily most of my concerns on that score were not borne out as she is significantly more active in the second half of the novel and her motivations become stronger, helping us understand her better and strengthening her stakes in the story’s outcome.

In spite of that character development, I was struck by the feeling that Alana was a surprisingly difficult character to root for, at least in that early part of the novel. For instance, we are aware that she has been consciously trying to make her way on her own without her rich father’s help, yet the cause of the disagreement only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. While some of her background, particularly her choice of work, helps soften her, she remains a tough and uncompromising individual, lacking the cast of friends and confidants who might have brought out some warmth. To give an example, Alana’s daughter is a truly important figure in her life yet she is kept distant and the reader never really gets to know her. We only see Alana’s love for her. Yet that is what is important to the character and ultimately, once we reach that end point and understand her background, it does make sense.

The pair of brothers were less interesting to me. It is quickly apparent that Alana had good reason to want to be rid of them and nothing that follows is likely to make you sympathize with them. Alana may have some common interests with them, but it is still clear that both brothers are pretty unpleasant characters and we are supposed to hope they will not find happy endings.

The father is a much more interesting study, in part because there is a striking contrast between the man we meet and Alana’s memories of him. We see that his health issues have weakened him and perhaps contributed to his reliance on his young nurse, and knowing how he is in the present may make us all the more curious about what precisely caused Alana to resent him so strongly.

Friedman does provide a really powerful explanation. Flashback sequences later in the novel do an excellent job of teasing out the nature of the conflict and also give us a much stronger understanding of who he was prior to those serious health issues. As the father comes more strongly into focus, so do the novel’s core themes. What we learn is not necessarily surprising as Friedman lays the groundwork for that, but we certainly understand the reasons Alana hates him and has kept her distance.

For those concerned that this might simply be a story about family secrets, rest assured that there are crimes and murder here although this is very much a crime, rather than a detection story. That is reinforced by the choice to show us a murder so we are quite aware of who committed it and how. It’s an interesting choice as it does undermine some of the mystery, though it does mean that we get to observe others’ reactions in the knowledge of what the truth is.

All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. As with some of the revelations along the way, when we get to the novel’s endgame, the revelations feel inevitable. I suspect that the writer intended to surprise but while I didn’t experience that, there is some satisfaction to that inevitability as it means that the themes feel complete and the totality of the picture comes clearly into view.

On the other hand, I look at aspects of the plot and I find myself questioning characters’ decisions. Forgive my vagueness here but it’s necessary to avoid directly spoiling the characters and the situations they put themselves in that I found incredible. There is one character in particular who undertakes some things that I found hard to reconcile with aspects of their background, though I do understand their motivation to do so. Honestly, I can’t decide how I feel about that.

Does it satisfy? Truthfully, I don’t know. One of the reasons I felt okay writing this post close to two months after finishing the book is that I am still trying to figure out if I liked that ending or not. While that may sound like a negative, I should stress though that I am still thinking about the book two months after finishing it which means that it made an impact. I appreciate and admire its boldness, even if I am uncertain if I liked it overall as a novel.

What I certainly can praise is its construction. One of the things that I find myself thinking about is how some seemingly small or irrelevant details actually hint at so much more. Some day I would like to reread this, knowing how it concludes, to truly take in and appreciate the craftsmanship and care in how this has been set up.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780778386957.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Originally published 2021

If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father? This is the dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings.

The Delaneys are fixtures in their community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all of their friends. They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. So why are Stan and Joy so miserable?

The four Delaney children―Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke―were tennis stars in their own right, yet as their father will tell you, none of them had what it took to go all the way. But that’s okay, now that they’re all successful grown-ups and there is the wonderful possibility of grandchildren on the horizon.

One night a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. The Delaneys are more than happy to give her the small kindness she sorely needs. If only that was all she wanted.

Later, when Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Stan. But for someone who claims to be innocent, he, like many spouses, seems to have a lot to hide. Two of the Delaney children think their father is innocent, two are not so sure―but as the two sides square off against each other in perhaps their biggest match ever, all of the Delaneys will start to reexamine their shared family history in a very new light.

From time to time I have to begin a post about a book with a reminder that Mysteries Ahoy! is a blog that exists primarily to consider novels and short story collections through the lens of the mystery and suspense genres. This is never intended to be a negative note but rather to acknowledge at the outset that I will ultimately be assessing a book in the context of a genre and the expectations that come with it and sometimes that may be, unfairly, to a work’s detriment. I think that certainly applies in the case of Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall.

The divide between genre fiction and literary fiction can sometimes feel a little artificial and often comes down to perceptions of artistic value. It will surprise no one to read that I do not regard genre fiction as inferior or less artistically valid than literary fiction – rather I think that it simply conveys some expectations that the reader can have with a book about the experience that they are likely to have reading it.

Apples Never Fall is a work that contains some significant mystery elements. It is the story of a woman’s inexplicable disappearance from her family home, the exploration of the past in search of the truth, and an examination of family relationships to try to find a motive for murder. We have formal investigators working the case, interrogations, speculations about guilt, and ultimately an airing of secrets. Yet structurally it also diverges from the form in a crucial way that means that those coming to this hoping to play armchair detective and solve a mysterious situation are likely to feel a bit short-changed.

Discussion of why those readers approaching this purely from a genre perspective are likely to be disappointed is tricky as the reasons are buried in final few chapters of the story. To discuss them even vaguely or try to identify analogous titles, risks spoiling the book’s conclusion which, naturally, I don’t want to do. I think the book’s conclusion works when considered in the context of the book’s themes and structure and do not want to suggest that it is a weakness in any respect other than as an example of the mystery genre itself.

Okay, enough foreword (seriously, it’s threatening to become about half of this post) – let’s discuss Apples Never Fall.

The book concerns the disappearance of Joy Delaney from her family home. For years Joy and Stan Delaney, both skilled tennis players, had run a successful academy together. Joy would take care of the bookkeeping while Stan coached the players, including their four children who were also each great players though none ended up competing at the highest levels for reasons we discover in the course of the novel. Now the pair have sold that business and are struggling to adjust to retired life together.

The sudden disappearance of Joy from the home is accompanied by an oddly worded text to her four adult children and when a piece of evidence is discovered in the home by their cleaner a week later, the police become involved. The investigation ends up dividing the siblings, each reacting to it differently. Some however question whether it may have been linked to a previous incident in their parents’ lives from months earlier in which they let a mysterious young woman into their home who seemed to quickly embed herself into their lives.

Let’s tackle the two mysterious elements chronologically starting with the stranger, Savannah. Of the two storylines I found this to be the more intriguing, even if it is not ultimately the focal point of the novel. That is partly because several of the Delaney children suspect that there may be a link between the two incidents which confers upon it a greater degree of mystery than if we were simply reading this sequentially. I think the other reason is that there are several different possible interpretations to where this part of the story might be headed that I think Moriarty does a good job of balancing.

Questions raised by this story thread include is Savannah really who she claims to be? Is she being truthful in her story about the events that led her to knock on the Delaney’s door? Are her actions helping out in the Delaney home really just repaying them for their kindness or is this a way of making them dependent on her? Is this a prelude to some act of exploitation? And, most importantly, how and why is she not still present in the Delaney home at the time of the disappearance?

It also helps that this part of the novel also contains one of the strongest sequences in the novel: the really uncomfortable Father’s Day brunch. This occurs a short while after Savannah has arrived and the children are struggling with the idea of this stranger in their parents’ home. During the meal they try to figure out her deal but end up revealing quite a bit about their own lives too. The centerpiece of this part of the story though is a really powerful and perhaps unsettling exchange in which Stan slowly dissects the characters of each of his children through a detailed examination of their tennis careers. This is not only a really dramatic moment in the story, it also reveals a huge amount about both them and him in a way that feels really true to each of their characters.

Moriarty’s character work is the great strength of this novel and I really appreciated the complexity given to the characters of each of the children. The four clearly share some similar, familial traits yet each is distinctive and are living quite different lives as adults. I was particularly taken with the way Moriarty uses their relationship with the sport to illustrate aspects of who they were, who they are now and the values they hold while the conflicts they each face in their lives are similarly distinctive and credible.

Similarly the relationship between Joy and Stan is really layered and complex. As we explore the events of the past six months, we learn more about the stresses and strains that have built up within that relationship. I found it interesting to see those tensions build, and see how the conflicts would play out whether expressed directly or, more often, indirectly. Once again the crucial description here is that the character work feels very credible and I appreciated that Moriarty avoids giving us an easy, direct read on them and where their stories are headed until shortly before the end.

The only weak link here for me in terms of the credibility of the characterization was that of Savannah. There were aspects of her story that certainly surprised me in ways that I found quite satisfying, yet there are also some parts of her story that I found less convincing, at least in relation to an important aspect of her past that is linked to her character’s motivation. On the other hand, some of her actions are really interesting and while I may have found the destination a little underwhelming, I found the journey to reach it to be an interesting one.

The mystery about what happened to Joy is, in contrast, does not provide quite the same degree of variety in terms of its ideas and story beats. It would, of course, be unrealistic for the police to focus on anyone other than Stan in the circumstances that Moriarty establishes and while I think there are some surprises in the final explanation, I do not find the ending particularly satisfying as a resolution to this mystery plot. On a thematic and character level however, when you disregard any expectations of this as a mystery novel, that ending feels far more satisfying.

The Verdict: If you approach Apples Never Fall purely as a work of mystery fiction you may find its resolution underwhelming. That would be unfortunate as Moriarty’s characterization and development of theme here is superb and makes this a really rich and interesting examination of a family in crisis.