The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Mill-Race
E. C. R. Lorac
Originally Published 1952
Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead (US)
Inspector MacDonald #36
Preceded by The Dog It Was That Died
Followed by Crook O’Lune

I have not previously written about any works by E. C. R. Lorac though that does not mean that I was entirely uninitiated when I picked up Murder in the Mill-Race. I own copies of each of the other Lorac titles released as part of the British Library Crime Classics and have made several attempts to read them. Somehow I just could not get into them and so they stay sat on my shelf waiting for me to give them another try.

I had little intention of reading Murder in the Mill-Race but it happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was about to leave for a weekend trip with my family when a bundle of ARCs arrived. I expected to have little time for reading but took the books anyway only to find when we got to our room that it had a really comfortable balcony that was the perfect place to read. The laptop wasn’t charged and the other book was a Bellairs (and I generally don’t read the same author back-to-back) so Lorac suddenly appeared at the top of the pile…

Murder in the Mill-Race begins by introducing us to Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife who have recently relocated to North Devon for the sake of his health. He establishes a practice in Milham and gets to know the locals, including Sister Monica – the warden of the children’s home who he takes a pretty quick dislike to.

Several months later she is discovered floating in the mill-race (for the sake of those who, like me, have no clue what this is it apparently is the channel of moving water next to a mill that turns its wheel – the book and introduction both assume the reader will know what this is). The local authorities would like to believe that the death was an accident and yet no one seems able to explain how she might have contrived to hit the back of her head and fall in the water. Inspector MacDonald is summoned and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, uncovering some local secrets including a previous suspicious death in the same place.

I should perhaps start by saying that I clearly enjoyed this a lot more than the other Lorac titles I tried to read. For one thing I completed this. A totally relaxing environment probably helped a little but I particularly appreciated the way Lorac depicts her setting. She so perfectly captures the stagnation of a rural village setting and the relationships between gentry and villager in that period that I found it a pretty immersive read and had little trouble believing that these locations and characters might exist.

I rarely make notes while reading but I wanted to share one moment that I found particularly effective. Emmeline Braithwaite, in talking to Anne Ferens, tells her how welcome she and Raymond are because they are the first ‘people from the outside world’ to have settled in the area in a quarter of a century. I found this sentiment to be a really interesting one as I don’t think it had ever really struck home with me quite how static communities could still be at the midpoint of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find it interesting how quickly the pair are integrated into village life, seeming to view MacDonald as an outsider themselves (particularly Raymond).

Several other reviewers (linked below) have commented on how they liked Raymond as an investigator and found the sudden switch from establishing his perspective to that of Chief Inspector MacDonald to be jarring. I have some sympathy for this though I think Lorac’s decision to introduce us to some of the personalities within the village prior to the crime being committed was a solid choice. After all, given the way the locals clam up once Sister Monica is dead it is helpful to get a sense of what they really think while she is still living and vexing them.

The actual circumstances of the murder are not particularly dazzling or memorable. This is perhaps appropriate given there is supposed to be considerable question about whether it is even a murder at all but it does mean that those initial phases of the investigation do not feel particularly remarkable.

MacDonald’s arrival gives the investigation some energy and I think sets the story on a more interesting course, though it does not present the reader with much in the way of clearly defined (or rather signposted) clues. Instead we observe the locals, hear what they say and choose not to say, and generally get a sense of the relationships between the different parties involved.

It resulted in a reading experience that reminded me more of Rendell than the more puzzle-focused Christie. I do feel that the reader is given the information they need to work out the killer’s identity (I say that in part because I did just that) but that relevant information tends to be buried and we are given little interpretation of those facts until MacDonald summarizes his findings. In other words, Lorac avoids giving us the opportunity to learn what information MacDonald views as relevant and makes solving the case a little bit tougher.

Rekha comments on finding MacDonald unlikeable and I can certainly see why he might inspire that reaction. Just as we do not follow his investigation very closely, I similarly felt that we get much of a sense of his character from this story. Now, I will say that this was a very late entry in a long-running series so there may have been an expectation that most readers would know him already but I did not get the sense of him as being a particularly dynamic or interesting sleuth off the back of this outing.

I did like the solution Lorac provides for the story and I do think it is both credible and interesting on a character level. I had no problem accepting MacDonald’s reasoning for his summation of the case but I will say that this part of the book struck me as a little dry and drawn out.

I think it’s fair to say that Murder in the Mill-Race exceeded my expectations by being a pretty solid case, even if the telling of that story was, at times, a little dry. What I appreciated most about it was the way Lorac is able to depict a community reacting to tragedy in ways both positive and negative, making those reactions feel credible and interesting. While not perfect, it’s enough to make me give those Lorac paperbacks a second chance.

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his thoughts on this last year which are broadly positive. I do agree with his comments about the sort of false start Lorac gives us where one investigator is replaced by another.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was less enthusiastic, finding Inspector MacDonald’s investigative style grating.

Countdown John falls somewhere in the middle, finding it readable but quite ordinary while Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime felt that the crime was not one the reader could solve themselves.

Finally, if you are looking for an interesting look at the life and career of E. C. R. Lorac I can recommend this overview by Curtis Evans.

A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

A Knife for Harry Dodd
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1953
Inspector Littlejohn #21
Preceded by Half-Mast for the Deemster
Followed by Corpses in Enderby

A little while ago I made a list of how often I had reviewed works by particular authors and I was surprised to see that George Bellairs had come in second place. While nearly half a year has passed since I read anything by him, I have been looking for an opportunity to return to his work and when I saw that Agora were planning to reissue this one I couldn’t resist requesting a review copy.

Inspector Littlejohn is asked to investigate the death of Harry Dodd, a man who was discovered stabbed in the back when apparently on his way back from the pub. It turns out that Harry’s brother is a Member of Parliament with ambitions for very high office and while the crime itself seems like the sort the local police might handle, he desires for it to generate as little scandal as possible.

When Littlejohn arrives in the village he learns more about Harry’s somewhat unusual living arrangements. It turns out that he had a one-night stand with his typist that had been discovered and he had been divorced and given a payoff to leave his position with the family business. While he had no feelings for the woman, he decided to stand by her and acquired a cottage where he lived with her and her mother, making her a regular allowance.

Initially it is hard to understand why Harry might have been a target for murder but Littlejohn, in pursuing a few loose ends, uncovers more about his life which considerably broadens the scope of the investigation. What follows is a story that feels more procedural as we try to sort out the nature of relationships and understand how the various plot threads connect to each other.

I have often remarked on how one of Bellairs’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to create credible characters. This skill is once again clearly in evidence here not only in the array of suspects he presents us with but in the character of the victim himself who really looms over this whole narrative.

Harry Dodd is not a character who gets murdered and then fades into the background. He is clearly an eccentric but also deeply complex man. At first I was a little skeptical about the way that he had been imagined here, finding some contradictions in how he was being presented. I soon realized that these were entirely intentional and that a significant part of the story would deal with resolving these different images of Harry to understand exactly who he was and what his values were.

That journey was, for me, a deeply satisfying one, revealing him to be a complex and layered figure. In her review (linked below), Kate at CrossExaminingCrime remarks on how complicated a portrayal it is of a man who has been unfaithful to his wife. While I would point out that Bellairs is not necessarily flattering in the way he depicts Dorothy Nicholls or her mother, I agree that it is far more candid and clear in its discussion of these issues than I might have expected (though he uses the phrase Menage a Trois in a way I have not encountered before which caused a little confusion on this reader’s part at first!).

The cast of characters that Bellairs creates to be suspects and witnesses are just as memorable and come from an interesting mix of social classes and professions. Each feel well observed, particularly Dodd’s politician brother who as a socialist is embarrassed by his family’s links to industry and marriage into one of the county’s oldest families.

Bellairs develops his story well and there are a number of interesting and unexpected twists, even if I felt that the guilty party was clear long before any evidence turned up to link them to the crime. Part of the reason for that is because the narrative is complex with a relatively large cast of characters and a winding focus, there are relatively few figures who are around long enough to be truly credible. For that reason I think it’s helpful to think of this as a procedural – the destination is no more important than the journey to get to that point. Thankfully that journey turns out to be a fascinating one.

There are perhaps one or two too many murders, leading to a few feeling rushed and overshadowed by the more important ones. Still, they do at least contribute to the main thrust of the narrative and one does spin the story off in a really interesting new direction.

I also felt a little frustrated that a few characters’ fates are essentially left unresolved with them disappearing from the narrative after a while. I could understand why this would be desirable given they had no direct role to play in the case as it changed but it would have been nice to have at least a little information about what happened to them.

On the other hand, I think the ending packs some real emotional resonance and I was pleased to find that a few things I felt were sure to be loose ends were wrapped up more tidily than I could have hoped. It made for a very satisfying conclusion to what I would regard as one of the best novels I have read by Bellairs, sitting comfortably alongside The Dead Shall Be Raised (this is the more interesting case, that had the more interesting setting).

A copy was provided by the publisher, Agora Books, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of murder in the title (What)

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book a lot saying that the mystery becomes “bigger and more intricate than you expect”. She also praises the complex depiction of Harry Dodd.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was also full of praise for this book saying that the “the quirk factor and the humor was at an all-time high”.

The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett

The Liar in the Library
Simon Brett
Originally Published 2017
Fethering Mystery #18
Preceded by The Killing in the Cafe
Followed by The Killer in the Choir

I have mentioned before about my bad habit of buying sets of books for a rainy day. Often I seize on sales or secondhand book store finds but sometimes I just decide to go all-in on an author. Simon Brett is one such writer.

I credit Brett’s Charles Paris mysteries as being one of the series that inspired me to become a fan of crime fiction. Recognizing that I find his work engaging, I invested in copies of most of his other books though I had never quite got around to reading them until recently.

Now here I am diverging from my usual approach to trying a new series as I normally like to read a series in order. It’s not that I have any problem with people dipping into a series – it’s just what works for me as I like to see how a series concept, its characters and themes develop over time. What prompted me to break sequence for this book however was the news that is was about to be reissued by Black Thorn Books. It seemed to me that it might be a good idea to try and time a review around the time that edition came out…

The book opens at Fethering Library where Burton St. Clair, the author of the bestseller Stray Leaves in Autumn, is giving a somewhat pretentious talk about his work to a small gathering of avid readers and writers. Among them is Jude though she does not think much of his masterpiece, nor of the man himself having known him some years previously when he had been married to one of her friends and gone by the name Al Sinclair.

After a couple of awkward moments in the question and answer portion of the evening, the attendees enjoy a glass of wine and the chance to socialize. Burton comes to talk with her and offers her a lift home which she initially accepts but she flees the car when he makes a pass at her. She walks home instead, sends a brief email to his ex-wife mentioning the meeting, takes a quick shower (in the hopes of washing away any traces of his wandering hands) and heads to bed.

She is surprised when the Police turn up at her door the next day. They tell her that St. Clair was found dead in his car, still parked outside the library, and they came to speak with her as the last person to see him alive. She soon realizes that they consider her a suspect, particularly when they hear about how they had known each other in the past, and she decides to do a bit of snooping around herself in the hope that she can prove herself innocent…

Having your sleuth investigate to prove their innocence is a pretty familiar starting point for a mystery but I think Brett uses it pretty effectively here. The circumstances of the murder are certainly suspicious and while we may never suspect Jude based on experienced her viewpoint of events, we can certainly see why it looks bad for her. The victim died in the place she left him. When further details of how he died come out things look even worse. Yet Brett does not go overboard with the sleuth under suspicion trope – the Police certainly don’t press her as hard as we might suppose. Instead she is being proactive, trying to get ahead of their questions.

Jude serves as the novels’ primary investigator, at least for its first half, but the other series regular Carole also gets in on the act later in the story. Being my first taste of the series I didn’t know much about either character prior to coming to this but Brett describes them well enough that I found it easy to get a grip on who they were and the differences between them. For the similarly uninitiated: Jude works as a healer and has had multiple relationships while Carole used to work in the civil service and likes to dote on her grandchildren. It is a sort of chalk and cheese relationship, yet they seem to get on pretty well, even though we don’t see much of them working together here.

The focus of their investigations is on finding someone else who knew St. Clair and, quite crucially, that he possessed a dangerous allergy to walnuts. This latter point is a substantial part of the reason Jude comes under suspicion and for much of the book she appears to be the only person who might have known that piece of information (though she claims she was unaware of it). This leads Jude and Carole to meet with several characters who might be suspects including a few members of the writing community – an aspiring but resentful writer, an airy, pretentious literary retreat organizer and a rather self-involved academic type – each of whom feel well-observed, no doubt drawing on Brett’s considerable experience of writer-types.

We also get several scenes set in the Fethering library and discussions of the challenges and changes taking place in British libraries. While there is often a comic edge to how Brett presents this information, I think he paints a pretty accurate picture of the funding challenges currently being felt by British libraries and the way the sector has responded to them with an emphasis on more services and activities being led by volunteers.

Another theme Brett discusses is that of eastern European immigration and the xenophobia that has arisen in some communities. Here I think the approach feels a little more awkwardly handled, in part because of the way Zosia, a barmaid, is used. She is used to describe the problem but the choice to present all of the information from a single perspective makes it feel a little static and awkward. It may have been better to have multiple voices discussing the issue or at least have some of the reflections about perceptions of the Polish community be made by Carole.

While the investigation presents some interesting perspectives on these issues, it is perhaps less clue-driven than some readers might hope. In fact clues are rather thin on the ground for most of the book with the solution basically emerging from questioning in the investigation. I don’t mind this approach but it does seem a little at odds with the golden age style Brett directly evokes throughout the story, feeling more procedural in nature.

That being said, I did appreciate that there is a cleverly placed clue that I totally failed to notice the significance of but which would point to the murderer’s identity for those who do pick up on it. It is directly addressed during the confrontation with the murderer so armchair detectives do at least have a chance of solving it, even if I wish there were a few more clues!

Overall I would describe my first taste of Fethering to be successful. Certainly I liked the way Brett is able to evoke the feeling of life in a community and I was interested in the relationship between Jude and Carole, even if they didn’t interact quite as much as I would have hoped here. I am sure that I will make further trips to Fethering so if you are well-versed in the series and are able to make recommendations I would appreciate them!

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor reviews this at In Search of the Classic Mystery describing it as an ‘easy, fun read’.

After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson

After Dark, My Sweet
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1955

The inspiration to tackle the subject of today’s post came from JJ who I credit as the blogger who first turned me onto the works of Jim Thompson. In the comments section of my Nothing More Than Murder review he suggested that I should make this an early read and because he is a man who knows (and rates) his Thompson, I knew well enough to listen to him.

The story concerns a drifter, William Collins, who has recently been released from a mental institution. He is in a bar one afternoon when he meets Fay, a widow with a drinking problem whose attitudes toward him seem to shift unpredictably.

She introduces him to a man she calls Uncle Bud who has a plan that he believes will make them all rich. They will kidnap the son of a wealthy family and ransom him back to them. It seems a simple enough idea and Bud assures them that he will be able to leverage his contacts on the force to help them stay ahead of the law. But then everything begins to go wrong when the boy gets sick…

One of the things that I have found most exciting about Thompson’s writing is his ability to create compelling and complex characters to narrate his stories. Sometimes they appear on the face of things to be quite simple or straightforward and yet I think the reader is always aware that because the stories are being told in that character’s voice, things may not be quite as they appear.

Collie, as William Collins prefers to be known, is a great case in point. We recognize from early on that he is potentially quite a dangerous man. He is self-aware enough to know that he needs help but risks falling into difficult situations by being unable to read others well. He can be quite sensitive, being quick to anger when he feels he has become the butt of a joke or is being treated unfairly, but there is also a sense that he would like to find a place where he can fit in and be comfortable.

He is not a particularly likeable character, clearly being quite unstable and capable of violence, though he can come off favorably in comparison with the company he keeps. Fay is a mean drunk and cuts a rather sad figure, though I could understand why Collie was drawn to her. It is clear that he doesn’t entirely understand what she is thinking or planning but I think we are given enough information to make our own judgments of her character and get a sense as to where she is headed.

The star of the show for me however was Uncle Bud, the man who plans this misguided operation. Some crime stories feature fantastically complicated plots with multiple moving pieces involved but Bud’s plan is really quite simple. He is confident, in part because of his aforementioned ties to the police force, but also because he thinks he is the smartest person in the room.

Thompson creates a fascinating power struggle between Collie and Bud as the two men wrestle to take hold of the situation when things begin to turn bad. They clash over several aspects of the plan and it is clear that they do not trust each other and have different visions of how their situation will end, setting things up for a pretty explosive conclusion.

The dynamics between these three conspirators is what drives the novel forward and provides the chief source of interest rather than the plot itself which is, in contrast, relatively simple. In fact you might say that the story contains remarkably little incident. Instead the bulk of the book focuses on the way those few incidents affect the relationships between the characters and cause them to change the way they are interacting.

It makes for pretty compelling reading, particularly once we get a solid handle on what the nature of the conflict between the characters will end up being. Thompson does a splendid job of creating different, distinct points of contention and suspicion between the three characters, setting up a situation where it seems disaster is imminent.

There are no great shocks, even in the resolution, but the writing has a wonderfully direct quality that just drew me in and fascinated me. The ending works because it feels earned and properly hinted at in various points throughout the novel. It perhaps isn’t quite as striking or appalling as Pop. 1280, my favorite of the three Thompsons I have read so far, but I enjoyed it enormously and feel pretty comfortable saying I liked it more than Nothing More Than Murder.

Death in Paradise: Series Three

The third series of Death in Paradise is the first to ring significant changes to the cast. Ben Miller departs early in the series to be replaced by Kris Marshall who at this point was best known for his role in the long-running sitcom My Family.

Time for what may possibly be a controversial opinion: I prefer DI Goodman to DI Poole. This is not saying anything negative about Ben Miller who is entertaining but rather that I think Goodman brings something new and interesting to the show.

Where Poole tried to retain his sense of structure and British identity, Goodman is trying to reinvent himself. The comedy comes from his misjudged attempts to integrate to life on Saint-Marie which I think offers more room for the character to grow.

I think it helps as well that this season sets a high standard in terms of the stories it is telling. There are several stories that have striking premises such as Ye of Little Faith, The Early Bird and Rue Morgue and I appreciated that the secondary characters seem to get a little more to do this season.

Next time around I’ll be looking at the show’s fourth season which will bring further changes to the cast.

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series Three”

You Owe Me A Murder by Eileen Cook

You Owe Me A Murder
Eileen Cook
Originally Published 2019

While teen fiction is new to this blog and hasn’t made up much of my reading in the past three or four years, I should say that hasn’t always been the case. Back when I started book blogging about six or seven years ago I shared a book blog and podcast with my wife where we pretty much exclusively talked and wrote about teen fiction.

The subject of today’s post, You Owe Me A Murder, is an example of a type of teen fiction that reimagines or is inspired by works classic literature. Some of these works will do little more than simply transpose the events of a novel into a new setting while others use this approach to discover and develop new themes and ideas, often ending up in quite different places or finding new relevance and connections in a classic story for younger readers.

I have written before about how much I enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train both in its original form and in the film adaptation so when I came across this new teen novel I couldn’t resist picking up a copy. I was curious to see what elements of the story Cook would retain and how she would rework it to suit today’s younger readers.

The book begins with seventeen year old Kim who is with a small party of students from school who are about to take a trip to London. We learn that back when she signed up for the trip she was excited to spend time with her boyfriend Connor but that since then they have broken up and he is now dating one of her friends. In short, she is dreading the trip, expecting to be uncomfortable and miserable for the next few weeks.

As she waits for her flight to be ready she meets Nicki, a slightly older British girl. The two girls connect and share their frustrations about their lives and situations over a stolen bottle of vodka. Nicki encourages her to talk about her feelings about Connor, inspiring her to write a list of reasons Connor has to die, and shares some of her own complaints about her alcoholic mother. By the time she emerges off the flight she is feeling brighter and more optimistic (albeit with a little bit of a hangover) and is ready for the possibility of a new romance when one comes up. But then Connor falls in front of a train and Kim begins to worry that maybe her new friend is responsible.

And then she receives an anonymous note telling her “You’re welcome”…

The setup is clearly right out of Highsmith though with some updates to account for shifts in the way we travel and to reflect the protagonist’s (younger) age and changing societal norms. Guy was angry at his wife because he was trapped in a marriage preventing him from moving on but Kim’s frustrations at feeling humiliated by her ex, compounded by this being a first boyfriend are relatable. Later in the book we learn further details both of their relationship and how they broke up that add complexity to this aspect of the story which is welcome, helping us understand exactly why Kim is so shaken by the ending of this relationship.

The trip to London is also used quite well because of what it represents for Kim. She is travelling to a place in which she has no support network to fall back on, even if we learn quite early on how inadequate her parents are in this regard, helping us to understand how she will find herself in such a precarious position by the midpoint of the book. It also offers her opportunities however, even if she does not see them at first, to exert some independence and control over her life.

One of the most interesting changes Cook makes to the setup is to have Nicki want her own mother dead rather than a stepfather. Bruno in Highsmith’s original could argue that he was protecting his mother (although I would suggest that he simply doesn’t want to share his mother’s affections or the imposition of control over his drinking and lifestyle) but Nicki is pushing for the elimination of a barrier to her independence. Because she is asking for the elimination of her own kin, the request seems all the more shocking and wrong but it also creates an interesting parallel between Kim and Nicki – the former may be appalled by the idea of killing anyone but she of all people can relate to the idea of feeling that your life is being ruined by a parent (hers is a mommy blogger who has put her whole life up for public consumption on the internet).

On the whole I consider the adjustments the author makes to the initial premise to be successful. She translates the setting and concept well, adjusting it to suit these younger protagonists and to draw out themes of independence and privacy in an internet age that fit comfortably alongside the core plot and feel relevant to today’s generation of teens. Arguably the changes she makes do make Kim blameless in a way that it would be hard to say Guy was in the original story but I think that is fine, particularly given that she blames herself anyway and that the author intends to develop the story in a different direction in the final third.

I have no intentions of spoiling what Cook does differently but I will say that I think the book builds to a strong and exciting conclusion that feels in tune with the themes developed throughout the novel. Cook does a fine job of developing the sense of a teen who feels trapped in a situation that she cannot control. There are a few moments that I think will surprise readers, particularly those who have no experience of the original work or movie. The ending is a little tidy for my tastes but I think it is effective and will satisfy most readers and I loved that there is a surprise mystery element here that is properly clued throughout the novel.

While I enjoyed the work on the whole, there were a few elements that I think missed the mark for me. The biggest issue for me was that there are a few uses of British slang that didn’t quite sound natural. While it has been a few years since I lived in England, a few expressions didn’t feel properly applied or seemed a little dated (I grew up in the eighties and I don’t recall anyone under the age of 30 referring to being ‘on the dole’ – I can’t imagine that this expression has come back). This won’t bother many readers, particularly those enchanted with all things British, but it sometimes made Nicki read a little false to me (though there are plenty of examples of slang used perfectly!).

My other issue with the book is that Nicki, as an antagonist, feels a little flat. Some of this is the result of a direct comparison with Bruno but I think there is also an issue that she exists to manipulate the main character rather than feeling like a fully-fledged character in her own right. While Kim expands as a character the more time we spend with her, Nicki becomes less complex and interesting as we learn more. This probably fits the tone of the book but the more in control Nicki seems, the less interesting and complex she becomes.

In spite of these complaints, I do think this is one of the more successful reimaginings of a classic novel for teen readers that I have encountered. It does a solid job of presenting its themes and ideas for its audience and rather than simply updating the setting or language it does feel like it is its own work that develops in its own way, albeit from a familiar starting point.