The 9 Dark Hours by Lenore Glen Offord

Cover: Felony and Mayhem reprint (2018)

Originally published in 1941

It’s 1941, and San Francisco is pulsing with excitement—with hot jazz, ice-cold cocktails, and the ever-present threat of war. For Cameron Ferris, newly arrived from Tiny Town, Oregon, a seat on the sidelines is thrilling enough, so she’s delighted with her boring job as a file clerk in a warehouse. For a while. But now the while’s up, and Cameron is starting to feel like one of life’s wallflowers. For good or for ill, life is about to provide a cure, in the form of a strange man living in her apartment, kidnappers hanging out on the fire-escape, and all traces of her life scrubbed clean. Who is Cameron Ferris? Has she become so unspeakably dull that she simply disappeared? And what can an invisible person do to foil a gang of kidnappers? A highly unusual, thoroughly unnerving tale that sings with the music of the period.

Blurb – Felony and Mayhem (2018 reprint)

My Thoughts

I knew nothing about Lenore Glen Offord until a few days ago when Kate from CrossExaminingCrime mentioned how much she had enjoyed her work. Curious to learn more, I went online and discovered the absolutely gorgeous Felony and Mayhem reprints that came out a couple of years ago. Reader, I couldn’t resist. They were bought, I set aside the other books I was reading and immediately dug in.

Of the titles I picked up, I opted to start with The 9 Dark Hours in part because it was a standalone but also because I was intrigued by its setting. While I have yet to do much travel in the United States outside of the South since moving here a little more than a decade ago, I have spent time in San Fransisco which is a beautiful city. I also was struck by the idea that this would make an interesting contrast with the previous book I read, Baynard Kendrick’s Odor of Violets, as both take place at the point at which America is about to go to war.

The story introduces us to Cameron Ferris, a recent arrival in the city, who is working in a warehouse taking orders for things like ‘barswingles and Hagedorn clamps’ (these, she informs us, are not to be taken literally). It is not particularly glamorous work and she bemoans how nothing interesting ever seems to happen to her.

Cameron is persuaded to take a long weekend by her supervisor at the company who suggests a ‘quiet and decent’ place in the country that his mother had visited and highly recommended. While she instinctively wants to reject the suggestion, she finds she hasn’t the heart to and she packs herself off only to find the place a bust – quite literally in terms of the leaky roof – and so she leaves a day early.

When she returns home she is shocked to discover a ‘perfectly strange man’, just as shocked as her, inside her apartment which appears to have been refurnished…

As hooks for stories go, I felt that this was quite superb. The first chapters do a fine job of letting us get to know Cameron and experience that sense of exhaustion and confusion as she finds her life turned utterly upside down. While I had some immediate thoughts about the scenario, the author creates a sense of continuous discovery as we are presented with new details and learn more about the various characters.

I found Cameron to be a likable and sympathetic protagonist, not only because of the strangeness of the scenario she finds herself in but also because of the way she conducts herself throughout this adventure. She has an entertaining narrative voice, her reflections on the strangeness of her situation or the individuals she is interacting with often having humorous qualities to them.

Although the book might be fairly categorized as a Had I But Known-type story, Cameron’s decision-making is often good and when she does make errors of judgement, her reasons for doing so are usually quite understandable. I think what endears her most to me though is her assertiveness and her willingness to take action when she thinks it right.

I don’t want to spoil too much of what develops from this initial setup but I will say that the scenario Offord imagines is quite exciting and forces Cameron to make judgment calls and quick decisions on a number of occasions. Almost every chapter ends on some small reveal or moment that changes our understanding of the situation or that presents some new challenge, making for a very engaging reading experience.

The explanation for what is going on is quite exciting and it involves some interesting concepts that I hadn’t seen often in works from this era. It is not really the type of story where the reader is engaged with solving a puzzle – rather this is all about exploring the scenario and the action it prompts which builds nicely to a pretty thrilling conclusion. Offord does this really well, making for a very satisfying reading experience.

The Verdict:

The 9 Dark Hours was my first Lenore Glen Offord but I am sure to read more. It’s a funny, exciting and thoroughly readable thriller with a great premise.

Have you read any Lenore Glen Offord? Which of her novels would you recommend?

Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Cover: Penzler Publishing – American Mystery Classics Reprint (2021)

Originally published in 1940
Detective Maclain #3
Preceded by The Whistling Hangman
Followed by Blind Man’s Bluff

Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. 

The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 

Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

My Thoughts

For much of this week the fates seemed to be conspiring to keep me from reading my book club’s latest selection, Odor of Violets. At the start of the week I began reading a copy on my lunch break at work, only to get thrown a curveball when a COVID-quarantining situation left me unable to retrieve it, forcing me to order a second print copy. Which got delayed. Or lost. So with twenty-four hours to go, I had to switch things up, shift to a digital edition and force myself to read it in one sitting.

I mention the background to how I came to read this because I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read this in ideal circumstances and I think it is possible that my reading, particularly my ability to focus, may have been affected. Certainly the plotting was the part of the novel I seemed to absorb the least although it had been much of the draw for me when this book was selected. Whether that reflects on the complexity of the plotting or my own inattention, I cannot say.

Odor of Violets begins by introducing us to Norma Tredwill who has decided she must speak with her ex-husband, the actor Paul Gerente, after beginning to suspect that he may be having an affair with a member of her family. She visits his apartment and is buzzed inside, only to find his dead body lying on the carpet. Someone must have buzzed her inside, but who could that have been and where did they disappear to?

Meanwhile across the city private detective Captain Maclean receives a visit in his office. The visitor, identified as Paul Gerente, has a message from Naval Intelligence seeking Maclean’s assistance in identifying vulnerable points in the city’s defenses. A short while later he visits Gerente’s apartment only to discover another man inside along with the dead body. A man who admits to murdering Gerente…

Odor of Violets, written in 1940, is principally a pulpy, espionage thriller though I was quite pleasantly surprised to realize that it also has elements of the traditional whodunnit. While some developments such as kidnappings and our detective finding themselves in physical peril clearly reflect a pulpy style, there are several occasions where those developments come about because of the detection (or to enable it to occur).

I do really like the conceit of Maclain speaking with a man only to learn that he was already dead. It gets things off to a fun start by introducing the idea of impersonation and also reminding us quite clearly of the wartime backdrop to the story. The success of Maclain’s investigation will, we realize, have a huge impact on national security and it may very well affect America’s contribution to the war. These are pretty compelling stakes and I felt they helped to not only build interest in the detection process but also to introduce a bit of a race against time as we near the end of the story.

As much as I liked this initial hook, I did find the early chapters a little slow and perhaps even a little unfocused. There is a lot going on here and I initially struggled a little with the combination of a domestic and a national security focus, wanting the writer to commit to one or the other. Things pick up considerably with a second murder that uses a pretty novel murder weapon and kick into another gear entirely when, close to the end, a third body turns up in circumstances that are very memorable.

Though I struggled a little to get interested in those early chapters, two things kept me going and engaged with this. The first was that Kendrick’s pulpy writing style is entertaining and ensures that there is plenty of incident to keep the reader engaged. The second, and perhaps more important one, was the character of Maclain himself.

Maclain is a fascinating creation for a number of reasons, not least the depiction of his blindness. While Kendrick’s depiction of sensory compensation can feel a little incredible and overdone, I appreciated firstly that the author attempts to show how a dedicated individual might be able to refine their skills to still make an important contribution – in this case to the war effort.

One of the most striking behaviors Maclain demonstrates seems to be drawn straight from the Sherlock Holmes playbook. On several occasions in the story Maclain draws huge observations about a character based on some small details of their personality or manners. Some of these can be a little fantastical, much like those found in Holmes, but the core idea here is excellent. What’s more, while I think Kendrick uses it a little too often, I think the execution and explanation of those moments is very good.

After a slow start my interest picked up considerably at the time of the second murder and gained still further with the third – which is introduced in quite a wonderfully macabre way. It’s a strong image in a book that’s absolutely packed with them (Kendrick was evidently quite a visual writer) and the moment it is introduced is quite startling. By the end of the book I was quite hooked on the action and keen to see what would happen.

It is, in short, a pretty engaging read – even when I wasn’t always clear exactly what was going on (as a reminder: that may be on me rather than the novel). While I found the direction of the story to be a little unclear at times, I really enjoyed the overall conceit and felt that the idea had been executed very well. Is Maclain a character I would seek out again and again? I am not sure though I will be curious to read any thoughts from others if anyone has any recommendations!

The Verdict:

The 9 Dark Hours was my first Lenore Glen Offord but I am sure to read more. It’s a funny, exciting and thoroughly readable thriller with a great premise.

I struggled to find the thread of the story in the earliest chapter but things picked up for me considerably with the discovery of the secondary murders. Ultimately very solid and readable but the plot itself is less remarkable than its hero.

Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

Deservedly one of the most famous of Poirot’s cases, boasting one of her most interesting victims and some fascinating human drama.

Book Details

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #18
Preceded by Dumb Witness
Followed by Appointment with Death

The Blurb

The tranquility of a luxury cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet under the searing heat of the Egyptian sun, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

A sweeping mystery of love, jealousy, and betrayal, Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s most legendary and timeless works.

I am the subject, Mr. Poirot, of an intolerable persecution. That persecution has got to stop!

My Thoughts

In his excellent book Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, Mark Aldridge notes that while Murder on the Orient Express may be Poirot’s most famous case, Death on the Nile is ‘better suited for the screen than its more famous predecessor’. Part of that is the story’s exotic setting as even if Christie doesn’t spend too long describing the landscapes, there is great scope for filmmakers to create striking visual moments set against the river itself, at tombs or in grand hotels. I think the greater reason though is that this story offers some really intense dramatic scenes and a large cast of interesting supporting characters for Poirot to suspect.

The victim in this story is the beautiful and enormously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway who had travelled to Egypt on her honeymoon. Before making their trip, Linnet had expressed a belief that she hadn’t an enemy in the world but it quickly becomes clear that she was mistaken. She and her husband Simon are followed throughout their trip by Jacqueline who had been her friend, and in a relationship with Simon, until Linnet stole him away from her. While Jacqueline’s presence is upsetting to Linnet, Poirot reminds her that her former friend is breaking no law.

The couple hope to give her the slip by unexpectedly changing their travel plans to board the Karnak and take a cruise down the Nile. They are surprised then when they board to find her already waiting for them. Several attempts on Linnet’s life follow before she is found dead in her cabin having been shot in the head. The most obvious suspect, Jacqueline, had been under guard all night, leaving Poirot with the difficult task of figuring out who aboard the steamer murdered Linnet and why.

There is a lot to love here but I think it begins with the superb, complex characterization of Linnet. She has many admirable traits – her competence and understanding of business as well as her desire to be generous to her friends and yet Poirot notes that her treatment of Jacqueline was cruel. Her claims to be unfairly persecuted ring hollow when she, with everything in the world, took the only thing that mattered to her friend.

While it may seem hard to believe that such a young woman would have enemies, Christie creates a huge cast of characters and gives most a credible motive for murder (or at least for behaving really oddly). Among the most colorful of those characters are Salome Otterbourne, the romance novelist who keeps trying to push her book on Poirot, the young revolutionary Ferguson and the incredibly snobby Mrs Van Schuyler but even the more straightforward figures – such as the trustee of Linnet father’s estate – feel pretty neatly drawn.

Christie also chooses to bring back Colonel Race, a few novels after he met Poirot in Cards on the Table. I quite enjoy Race’s presence here and appreciate that he provides Poirot with an official reason to become involved though I think his reason for being on the Karnak is the novel’s least satisfying element. The subplot with the spy aboard the boat is far from convincing which is no doubt why I had completely forgotten it. It feels like an afterthought and I think Christie should and could have come up with a better reason to have him there or, alternatively, allow that matter to play out entirely in the background.

The other thing that I really admire about this book, and which I have appreciated more upon revisiting it, is how clearly Christie outlines both the various characters’ movements throughout the evening of the murder and also some of the questions that arise. Revisiting this story, I could see the clues that ought to have suggested the solution but I am pretty sure I came nowhere near working it out the first time I read this.

This is one of Christie’s most interesting murders, both in terms of the mechanics of how it was worked and also in terms of the motive behind it. Where some other celebrated Poirot stories have an audacious solution in terms of the trick being used, the one here struck me as really quite credible both in its conception and execution. On a related note, I feel that the way Poirot reaches that truth is equally convincing.

While a couple of the physical clues are a little obscure – I think particularly of a small bottle – and there is a little bit of luck involved, what impressed me most were the psychological aspects of the case. There are some excellent, subtle inferences that can be drawn from characters’ speech and behaviors and revisiting this novel, I was struck by how well those aspects of the solution are set up.

As impressive as this novel is, it is not without a few faults. One of those, the spying subplot, I have already touched on but I think that the secondary murders feel a little rushed and, in the case of the last, seem to strain credibility in terms of how quickly it seems to be carried out. Rather than reinforcing the cleverness of the crime, I felt that those developments reinforced my feeling that the killer is very, very lucky at several points in this story or to put it another way – the investigators are very unlucky. While any case will inevitably involve some elements of luck, it diminishes the sense that a solution is ingenious when you come away feeling that the killer was very fortunate to have everything come into alignment in the way it does.

Still, in spite of those issues I think that Death on the Nile is another excellent entry in what was a run of consistently very, very good Poirot stories (with a very occasional odd exception) Christie wrote in the thirties. While it may not be the pinnacle of her achievement with the character, it is not all too far off…

Frantic by Noël Calef, translated by R. F. Tannenbaum

The Verdict

A rather entertaining crime story, laced with ironic developments and a strong sense of tension.

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud
English translation first published in 1961

The Blurb

Julien Courtois finds himself in a bit of a financial bind. And the only way out is murder. He’s even got the perfect plan. While his secretary believes him to be in his office, he climbs up a rope to an upper floor and stages his victim’s “suicide.” It all works according to plan. But on his way out of the building, he remembers that the rope is still dangling out of the window, leading right down to his office! Rushing back into the building, Julien manages to get stuck in the elevator when the janitor turns off the power for the weekend. At the same time, a young couple steal Julien’s car from in front of the building, and his wife, thinking she’s watching Julien drive off with another woman, assumes the worst. And so begins a torturous set of circumstances. While Julien remains trapped in the elevator, his life gradually becomes unraveled by a vindictive wife and a couple of teenagers playing at being gangsters.

Filmed in 1961 by Louis Malle as Elevator to the Gallows, this classic French novel is a masterpiece of noir tension.

When the noise reached its peak, Julien Courtois, dreamlike, made the gesture he’d rehearsed a hundred times. He put the gun barrel against the loan-shark’s temple and, in the same fraction of a second, pulled the trigger…

My Thoughts

Julien Courtois is a man pushed to his financial limits. He is living well outside his means and has long since exhausted the goodwill and generosity of his friends and family. His most immediately problem however is that he has borrowed a sizable sum from a moneylender that has long since come due. With no prospect of making the payment, his financial troubles are certain to become widely known and ruin seems sure to follow.

Julien Courtois has an audacious plan however that, if it works, ought to erase that debt and enable him to start afresh. He intends to be seen to go into his office at the end of the workday, then quickly scale the outside of his building, murder that moneylender several floors above (retrieving evidence of his debt in the process), and then return to his own moments later to leave for the weekend, giving himself an unbreakable alibi. It seems like a perfect plan and everything seems to have gone smoothly until he remembers he forgot to remove a piece of evidence that will give the whole thing away. Frantically he dashes back inside only to get trapped in the elevator in the now-deserted building…

One of the joys of an inverted mystery for me is trying to figure out what that crucial piece of evidence might be. What makes Frantic particularly entertaining though is that while Julien is focused on that item inside the building, we are made aware of dangers lying outside it that he cannot anticipate. Even knowing what characters are up to, it only becomes clear in the final few chapters of the novel how each of those elements will come together to bring about his destruction. It’s a very satisfying structure which Calef delivers beautifully.

There is lots to enjoy in just the way that this story is set up. For instance, I appreciate that Julien has carefully considered a number of steps in his plan – timing it to perfection and carefully thinking through the problem of how to ensure his debt disappears. It feels like a rather solid plan with lots of attention to detail yet the thing he neglects is, in contrast, so simple that his failure to think of it is all the more striking.

I similarly enjoy the way the other story strands clearly escalate Julien’s problems, often combining in unexpected ways to throw him into deeper jeopardy. There are so many wonderful, ironic moments here and when they are finally brought together it is done brilliantly to deliver a really striking, Ilesian finish.

It should be said that this is not going to be one of those inverted stories where you feel sorry for the protagonist. While Julien clearly exerts a charm on some of those in his life, the book is also clear about his character faults which include womanizing and deceit. Sure, I was entertained following him and I did wonder if he might get free but I never hoped he would get away with murder. What makes it compelling is the tension inherent to this rather incredible situation.

I was perhaps a little more sympathetic to some of the other characters in the story, not least the young woman who takes his car for a joyride with her boyfriend. Though she has committed a crime, I felt I understood her well by the end of the story and also that the resolution of her story was really memorable. I would say that even the most sympathetic characters are still not all that likable and so if you are looking for a mystery story where you will have a character to root for, this is perhaps not the read for you.

Calef balances each of these story strands well, never allowing us to go too long without checking in on the other characters. This not only helps to keep the action moving, it helps balance the tone. This is particularly important given that the characters are in effect operating independently of each other, even if the threads will ultimately overlap, as it allows for a sense of variety.

It was, all-in-all, a rather quick and punchy read. Calef writes in an engaging way, effectively conveying the tension of a situation and describing any moments of action very clearly. Throw in a rather grabbing and imaginative starting point and you have the ingredients for a very readable story which had me engrossed right up to its very effective conclusion.

It’s such a visually-minded story that I find myself excited to go off and watch the movie adaptation. Happily I already own a copy of Elevator to the Gallows (though I have yet to see it) so I will hope to find time to sit down and watch it at some point soon. I will, no doubt, let you know what I think. In the meantime, if you have read the book or seen the movie I’d love to hear what you make of it.

Niagara (Film)

Poster for Niagara

One of my favorite recurring features I have on this blog is my Why I Love video series in which I discuss aspects of crime-themed films I find interesting. The idea of those posts is to celebrate a film so while I have been wanting to discuss the 1953 noir film Niagara, I realized that probably wouldn’t be a good fit. The reason is that while it is an interesting film, I think it is a fundamentally flawed one.

The story was an original one, apparently developed in response to an idea from producer Charles Brackett. He wanted a movie set against the backdrop of the majestic falls. It was apparently screenwriter Walter Reisch who added the murder scheme.

Polly and Ray Cutler are visiting Niagara Falls on a belated honeymoon. When they arrive to check in to their reserved cabin, the manager reveals that the couple occupying it have not checked out as they were supposed to. The manager goes to hurry them along but when Rose tells them that her husband, a Korean War vet who has recently been discharged from an army hospital, has been sick for some days and is finally asleep, Polly offers to switch to a less desirable cabin and allow them to stay longer.

Polly and Ray soon notice signs that the marriage between Rose and George Loomis is far from ideal. During a visit to the Falls, Polly notices Rose in a passionate embrace with a man who is not her husband and later that evening George behaves erratically, storming out of the cabin to snatch and break a record his wife was playing. What they don’t know is that Rose and her young man are plotting to take care of George so that they can be together.

It’s a pretty promising setup for a suspenseful murder story. The early parts of the film use the space of the holiday camp well, contrasting Rose’s warmth and outgoing nature with George’s isolation and seeming misanthropy. We repeatedly see him look through the windows, watching his wife yet not really engaging with her, building up this sense of an isolated and perhaps rather troubled man.

The actors cast for the pivotal roles of Rose and George were Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. They make for an interesting and somewhat mismatched pair. She is youthful, sensuous and beautiful – he seems sharp, bitter and tired. One of the mysteries that this film never quite gets around to explaining is how the pair ended up together in the first place, dropping a mention that she had been a barmaid. Did she love him but tire of his behavior or was she mercenary and unfaithful from the start? Why is murder necessary rather than just divorce? The film never answers those points clearly.

Both actors exude star power though in quite different ways. Monroe’s career was well established by this point but this film marked a transition to an even bigger level of stardom, amplifying the perception of her as a sex symbol. This is sometimes shown in overt moments such as a shower scene and several scenes that take place in and around bed but it is clear throughout much of the rest of the film as well as the camera seems to linger on her, often for several beats after the dramatic content of a shot has been concluded. Some moments, such as when she dreamily sings along to that record she puts on, seem to strain the pace and can feel a little self-indulgent. They can be charming but they do little to tell the story or to enhance our understanding of the character.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara
Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (20th Century Fox)

The editing and cinematic choices place a focus upon aspects of Monroe’s sexuality which may cause some to overlook the quality of the performance she gives. While Monroe fits the femme fatale archetype well, she also makes some interesting acting choices that tease out aspects of Rose’s character. Unfortunately however the character as written feels quite limited, at least in terms of what he gives her to say and do, and so while we spend quite a bit of time with her, I never felt that we really get to know her completely.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors from this era of cinema which no doubt reflects that he had starred in my favorite film of all time just a couple of years before this was made. Like Monroe, he feels like a star and while his performance feels quite constrained at times, perhaps reflecting that he spends much of the film alone or isolated from the characters other than Rose, whenever he is on screen he had my attention, even if he wasn’t the person talking.

The problem in this film is that while Cotten gives a fine rendering of his character’s bitterness and inner turmoil, he feels too big for this part as it appears based on what we know of it. The film needs us to make assumptions about how the film will go and what will happen for a moment late in the film to have its full impact. Instead of surprising however it ends up feeling like an inevitable development, undercutting the power of that moment.

Playing opposite them are Jane Peters as Polly Cutler (who is superb) and Max Showalter as her husband Ray. Their youth and playfulness makes a striking contrast with the personalities of the Loomises, though I found Polly’s warmth and gentle teasing far more pleasant than Ray’s rather tiresome expressions of his jovial nature (which only get worse when the similarly demonstrative figure of Mr. Kettering shows up).

Perhaps the real star of the picture is the view. Niagara Falls is rarely out of sight for much of the film and there are several scenes that show it off to startling effect, made all the more remarkable by the luscious Technicolor film. While I have seen it on film before, it is fascinating to see it so many years ago when the tourism industry was in its infancy. These shots are quite startling and do a lot to convey the power and majesty of the falls which will be important to later developments in the story.

After establishing the characters and the premise, we then observe as Rose and her lover prepare to go through with their plan. One of the things that struck me about this is that while we know their intentions, Hathaway never shares the details of their plan, nor do we ever get to know her lover. As with her relationship with George, this left me with a number of unanswered questions. How did they meet? Was this plan developed now or was it always their intention to murder him? Is Rose serious about him or does she intend him to meet a similar fate in the future?

While I don’t mind that the film is enigmatic on those points, I feel that the distance between us and the plotters prevents a later shift in direction from having the impact it might have done had we been more involved with their plan from the start.

When that moment of transition in the story does come however it feels quite masterful, setting up a pretty effective final act which not only incorporates quite a bit of action, it also features some rather powerful emotional moments too. It’s a pretty effective thriller ending but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t quite fit comfortably with the material that had preceded it.

That sense that the different elements of this film are not working in harmony is a large part of the reason I think it ultimately fails to hit home the way it should have done. The concept here is good and the film often looks really striking, even close to seventy years later, but the balance of those elements unfortunately feels a little off and a moment that the film is meant to build towards falls flat, feeling a little obvious.

It’s not bad. Just not as good as it could so easily have been.

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Verdict

An interesting read with strong characterization, striking setting and careful development of its themes.

Book Details

Originally published in 2018

The Blurb

Brothers Nathan and Bub Bright meet for the first time in months at the remote fence line separating their cattle ranches in the lonely outback. 

Their third brother, Cameron, lies dead at their feet. 

In an isolated belt of Australia, their homes a three-hour drive apart, the brothers were one another’s nearest neighbors. Cameron was the middle child, the one who ran the family homestead. But something made him head out alone under the unrelenting sun.

Nathan, Bub and Nathan’s son return to Cameron’s ranch and to those left behind by his passing: his wife, his daughters, and his mother, as well as their long-time employee and two recently hired seasonal workers.

While they grieve Cameron’s loss, suspicion starts to take hold, and Nathan is forced to examine secrets the family would rather leave in the past. Because if someone forced Cameron to his death, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects.

Their brother didn’t look injured, at least not in the traditional sense. But heat and thirst did terrible things to a person.

My Thoughts

Cameron Bright had been missing for several days when his body is finally found at the stockman’s grave, a remote spot miles from the road on the edge of his vast property. His two brothers, Bub and Nathan, can only assume that he was forced to abandon his vehicle but when they find it functional, full of fuel and a healthy stock of supplies almost ten kilometers away they cannot understand his behavior. Did he get lost walking his own property or was it an intentional decision to kill himself?

As the family prepares for the funeral, Nathan realizes that he may not have known his brother as well as he thought he did. As Nathan learns more about Cameron’s final days, he reflects on the reasons for their strained relationship and uncovers some family secrets. Secrets that may hold the answer to their questions about his death…

Perhaps the most striking aspect of The Lost Man is its setting – the remote and unforgiving Australian outback. Harper does a superb job of conveying the potential loneliness of that life and the difficulties it brings. In a short but very atmospheric prologue, we get a sense of just how isolated this cast of characters are – not only from the nearest settlement but from each other. We quickly learn that their isolation is not just physical but social as the brothers’ relationship with one another have been uneasy for years.

The horrific circumstances of Cameron’s death are also conveyed quite strikingly, setting up some difficult problems for the reader to solve. It is a seemingly incomprehensible death. If suicide was intended why choose to suffer for hours when he had firearms at home. If it was murder, why are there no signs of a struggle. The question of whether it is murder is only resolved in the final pages of the novel meaning that we are searching for a reason for an event without a certainty of what exactly it was.

Given a lack of material evidence our focus instead is drawn to the characters. Whether it was suicide or murder, it seems quite clear that the reason must lie in understanding Cameron, the state of his relationships with others and the events that led up to his death. This process unfolds quite slowly and in a seemingly unstructured way with details emerging in conversations or observations made from some of his personal effects rather than as the result of an investigative process. It feels quite natural and credible, though those who come to this primarily looking for detection may feel a little frustrated by that pacing.

The early chapters in particular seemed to me quite slow, perhaps because I had anticipated more of an investigative structure or maybe because I was slow to warm to Nathan whose perspective we follow. He seems initially quite cold and bitter, both in his response to the death but also in terms of the way he is living his life in near-total isolation. That is reflected in the way others frequently express their concern for his well-being, wondering if he might be drawn to end his life the way his brother seems to have done.

It was only once we began to explore his past in greater detail that I began to appreciate the subtleties of that character and their development. Events in the past and the present are layered together with Harper often introducing an idea and then flashing back (or jumping forward) to show how it connects. This helps suggest a sense of near-constant discovery as our understanding of these men grows with each reveal.

Smartly Harper does not rely on shock but each realization feels like a natural development from what we learned pages before. The result is not dissimilar to seeing a picture slowly coming into focus and I found it to be quite a compelling reading experience.

That is not to say that the overall plot is predictable. If you were to have asked me to guess at what the truth might be a few chapters into the novel, I am sure I would have anticipated very little of the actual solution. In fact there is one element of the solution that I didn’t come close to guessing and which provided the one really huge shock of the book. While the clueing of that aspect of the solution feels a little slight, I still found that reveal very satisfying and felt it tied things together very powerfully.

The Lost Man is an interesting and rich read that prioritizes careful character development and a sense of setting. Those who come to it hoping primarily to engage with it as a puzzle may find it a little too careful and deliberate in its pacing or struggle with the lack of a focused investigative structure. Those who appreciate the development of character and theme however will find that there is much to admire here.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Book Details

Originally published in 2015

The Blurb

Winner of the 2016 EDGAR, AGATHA, MACAVITY and H.R.F.KEATING crime writing awards, this real-life detective story investigates how Agatha Christie and colleagues in a mysterious literary club transformed crime fiction.

Detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties have long been stereotyped as cosily conventional. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Golden Age of Murder tells for the first time the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars. A gripping real-life detective story, it investigates how Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie and their colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

Crime novelist and current Detection Club President Martin Edwards rewrites the history of crime fiction with unique authority, transforming our understanding of detective stories, and the brilliant but tormented men and women who wrote them.

The Verdict

A fascinating exploration of the Detection Club and the role its members played in developing detective fiction in its Golden Age. Highly recommended.

This is the perfect moment for a cold case review of the Detection Club: to unmask the Golden Age writers and their work, against the backdrop of the extraordinary times in which they lived.

My Thoughts

One of the challenges in writing about a book that has been as celebrated as Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is figuring out how to approach it. It strikes me that if you are reading this blog (which you are), you are likely already interested in what is dubbed detective fiction’s Golden Age. It also seems to me quite likely that you may have read this already.

Nor can I say that my opinion of the book will likely stand out from the other opinions that have been offered about it. The work is a very enjoyable and well-researched history of the formation of the Detection Club and the part that its members played in developing the British detective novel in the period between the two world wars.

Odds are then that this may make for a pretty unimaginative review but I feel there is still some value in sharing some thoughts, though I will endeavor to keep them brief. After all, there may be some (like myself) who are late in coming to this work.

Edwards begins his work before the creation of the Detective Club, devoting his first few chapters to exploring the early writing careers of Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and Agatha Christie. These three are some of the most familiar writers of this period but it is necessary to understand the personalities of the figures most instrumental in the group’s creation. Their personalities loom large in the organization’s early years and feature frequently throughout the rest of the book.

After discussing how the Detection Club came to be founded and describing some of its rituals and rules, Edwards expands his focus to feature the many other figures who were its members. Given the number of members it is natural that some are afforded more space than others. Some, such as A. A. Milne and Baroness Orczy, are only mentioned briefly, while others’ careers get more substantial coverage. It seemed clear to me that this reflects their contribution to the development of the detective fiction and I didn’t feel that there were any obvious omissions.

Edwards often groups figures together around a common theme. For example, the fourteenth chapter deals with the impact of World War I on the members, providing biographical notes for Henry Wade, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy and Christopher Bush. It was this material that often proved the most interesting to me as several of the names and the works discussed were unfamiliar to me.

More on that in a moment…

Another source of joy for me were the notes at the end of each chapter. Edwards will quote a sentence he has written and provide additional background. In some cases that means referencing the works he consulted in his research, in others it might mean providing additional reflections on a point beyond the scope of this work. I found these to be very informative and I appreciate that these are used well to provide additional detail that could otherwise slow the work down or distract from the theme of the chapter.

Overall I was impressed by the range of themes Edwards is able to explore in the book and I particularly appreciated the way he would tie developments in the genre to the bigger socio-political events happening at that time. We get to read about how members of the Detection Club responded to the Spanish Civil War, the abdication crisis and the financial turmoil of the 1930s. Some of those stories I had heard before but there was much that was new and fascinating to me. There is also plenty of discussion of the real-life crime cases that fascinated the members and the works that they inspired.

Other than wishing that sometimes there were a few more details about some of those more elusive figures, my only other complaint is a rather minor one. While Edwards usually avoids detailing plots in full, there are a few references to works that I think give a little too much of the books’ solutions or endings away either by direct comment or in comparison. While this is rare and those elements are often referenced to illustrate broader points about the development of the genre or on a theme, do take care and be prepared to skim.

Overall though I had a really good time with The Golden Age of Murder and I felt I came away from it with a stronger understanding of the Detection Club and an interest in its members many of whom I am completely unfamiliar with. That is something I would love to correct and so, as my Twitter followers may be aware, I have decided to embark on an ambitious challenge for myself to read and review at least one work by each of its members.

My intention is that I will be tackling the members roughly in the order of the year of their admission to the club. Often multiple members were admitted in a calendar year and when that’s the case I’ll tackle them in whatever order suits me best. I will try to pick a book I haven’t read that was published prior to their admission though on occasion I will settle for whatever I can afford or easily acquire.

And that brings me to the bit where I want to enlist your help. While I have pretty good ideas of what I might read for Berkeley or Carr, there are plenty of figures whose work I am less familiar with. From time to time I may be asking for recommendations either here or on Twitter and I will appreciate your input. Which starts now.

My intention is to begin this series by reading a work by the Detection Club’s first President, G. K. Chesterton. The reason I am starting with him rather than Sayers or Berkeley is that while I have read a few of his short stories, I am not particularly familiar with his work. So, what G. K. Chesterton novel or short story collection would you recommend? I’d love to hear what you think!

The Late Bill Smith by Andrew Garve

The Verdict

An undemanding but highly readable light thriller with an emphasis on a romance. A diverting but minor work.

Book Details

Originally published in 1971

The Blurb

NOTE: I consider the blurb to be a little spoilery – read with caution!

We are introduced to a young man as he literally drops on to the balcony of an unknown pretty young woman. Bill Smith was doing quite all right as a successful sales executive until he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and overheard a conversation he shouldn’t have. But Bill Smith didn’t know that. All he knew, with growing certitude, was that someone wanted him dead. It was fortunate that the girl on whose balcony Bill Smith landed believed his story for with her help he was able to devise an ingenious plot to evade his pursuers – permanently. And then, on the brink of success, he found he had to do a lot of accounting he hadn’t bargained for…

Not the least part of the entertainment of this lively suspense story is Andrew Garve’s description of a guided tour to Greece.

It was the flat – its position, and above all its balcony – that changed the course of Sue Hammond’s life on a warm night in September.

My Thoughts

Sue Hammond is relaxing in her flat one evening when a young man with a bloodied face drops down onto her balcony and asks for her help. She is understandably wary of the stranger but listens to his story as he tells her that he has been chased by a couple of men who he believes were intending to kill him.

The stranger is Bill Smith, a salesman for a steel manufacturer. He explains that this is not the first attempt there has been on his life, though he has no idea why his life should be in danger. When Bill learns that Sue works for a tour agency and is about to leave on a cruise to Greece, he proposes that he join the tour as a way of putting some distance between himself and his problems. She agrees, making the arrangements.

Given the comparatively brief length of this work, I don’t intend to go into much detail beyond this initial setup – to do so risks spoiling too much of the story (the blurb I quote above gives away far more than I would ordinary like to). What I do feel able to say is that the bulk of the story concerns Smith’s attempts to decide what to do next and the fallout from the decision he takes.

The Late Bill Smith is a work of suspense – there’s no prospect of deducing the answer to the mystery of why anyone would want to kill Bill – the reader may guess at it but the evidence is only presented a page or two before the solution is presented to them. Nor are any of Bill’s actions particularly unexpected. Even if the reader has skipped over the blurb, the solution to his problem seems obvious from the start – the reader will just have to wait for it to occur to him.

Instead this story unfolds in a way that puts me in mind of romantic suspense films like Charade and North by Northwest. We have a couple who are in a relatively far-fetched situation that are clearly attracted to one another but where there is some level of distrust. While the reader will hopefully be interested in the mystery of the problem that Bill is trying to solve, that romantic strand of the story is more of the focus. The book’s dramatic moments and decisions are concerned with that relationship rather than the action or solving that problem.

How satisfying you find that approach will depend a lot on how much you like the two lead characters and want them to end up together. For my part, I rather liked Sue who is practical and level-headed but I felt that she is a little passive – she is there to be a sounding-board for Bill and to react to his ideas.

Bill is a more dynamic figure, benefitting a little from the mystery around his background. He gets to exert his agency at several points, making decisions that shift the course of the story and also present him in an increasingly heroic light. While his feelings for Sue also seem to suddenly appear, I felt it fit with the character’s more impulsive nature. It probably didn’t hurt either that I had no difficulty imagining him as sort of Roger Thornhill-type complete with a breezy, mid-Atlantic style of speech, even if the character physically doesn’t resemble Grant.

It’s a scenario that offers a lot of promise but I think the execution isn’t quite there. That relationship has moments of charm but unfortunately we just don’t get enough of it. While we get some fun moments at the start and end of the book, the pair do not interact much in the midsection of the story. That’s necessary for an aspect of the plot but it was still a little unsatisfactory for me. I wished that she could have played a little more of a role in the mid-section of the novel and that we could have got to see her feelings for Bill develop a little more slowly. I would suggest that we are told that she falls in love with him rather than get to observe it take place.

Returning to the thriller aspects of the story, I think there is some interesting material here. The work is reflective of the period in which it is written which added some interest for me reading it fifty years after it was first published. The solution to why Bill is in danger is not unexpected, even if it is not really clued, but I enjoyed seeing what happened and, in particular, the final chapters in which the problem is resolved. Expect that the thrills will be decidedly low-key though as there is not much in the way of action to be found here with the emphasis falling on the romance.

I couldn’t help but think as I closed the book that while it was an entertaining, light read, that this was a story that felt more appropriate for the big screen than for the printed page. Aspects of that solution could have been suggested visually much earlier in the story than they are in the text where those elements immediately stand out and the development of that key relationship could have been inferred in looks shared, even when they are not talking directly.

Still, while I think The Late Bill Smith is a rather slight read, it was nonetheless an enjoyable one. It’s not nearly as interesting a read as my last Garve (The File on Lester) but it is a quick and undemanding read. Exactly the sort of thing I was looking for as we rang in the New Year. Speaking of which, I hope everyone who reads this had a good New Year and I wish you all the best for the year to come!

Have you read anything by Paul Winterton (who wrote as Roger Bax, Paul Somers and Andrew Garve)? Are there any titles you would recommend for my next one?

Murder Gives a Lovely Light by John Stephen Strange

Image and blurb from Dust Jackets LLC

The Verdict

A very solid puzzle mystery offering plenty of suspects. The ending may not shock but I enjoyed the process of reaching it.

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
George Honegger #1
Followed by All Men Are Liars

The Blurb

The death of Simeon Rede, an elderly invalid, came as no surprise to his lovely young wife and his daughter, who had long anticipated a heart attack. However, the combination of a stolen bracelet and a discharged maid, through a strange chain of circumstances, arouses suspicion in Police Inspector Honegger. Further investigation confirmed his suspicion of Rede’s murder. Unfortunately, the Rede family was an involved one and its associations many, and Honegger found himself with a surfeit of suspects. Here is one of the most cleverly plotted and ably characterized mystery stories of the present day – a story that will be read and discussed with enthusiasm for many months to come.

“Ask Mrs Simeon Rede what she put in the Ovaltine the night Mr Rede died.”

My Thoughts

One of the things I love most about my vintage crime fiction hobby is that feeling you get when you try a new author for the first time, particularly when they are someone you haven’t heard of before. There’s a sense of excited curiosity about what may lie in store, elevated when you come to them with little to no knowledge at all. That was the case with Murder Gives a Lovely Light and its author, John Stephen Strange (actually Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett) which was part of a stack of Crime Club hardcovers I received as a gift from my very thoughtful wife.

Simeon Rede had been a successful investment broker until a financial scandal involving one of his employees threatened his reputation. Though he handled the crisis with strength and determination, making up missing funds out of his own pocket, the stresses took their toll, causing serious heart issues that nearly killed him and leaving him an invalid.

It therefore comes as little surprise to his wife or daughter when, after returning from the opera, they find him dead from the heart attack they had anticipated since that day. When the police receive an anonymous note alleging that Rede’s wife had poisoned his nightly Ovaltine, Lieutenant Honegger decides that the matter merits closer examination and soon learns that there were a number of people who might benefit from his death…

The reader is ahead of Honegger in that respect as Strange carefully introduces them to each of the characters prior to Rede’s death and supplies their reasons. Some are quite obviously stated, others might be inferred, but before long we have a pretty large cast of possible suspects ranging from members of his household to friends and a former business partner.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the size of that cast of characters. On the positive side, they are sufficiently well-defined that I had no difficulty remembering who each was and the nature of their relationship to Rede. I similarly appreciated that the motives this sets up for each feel varied and I also really liked that our victim was presented in a largely favorable light with almost everyone speaking well of him. In fact I found I liked him all the more as the novel went on which is unusual for the victim.

The more negative aspect of this large cast is that there are several characters who, though defined, have little presence within the story which seems to discount them as possible murderers. I think the story might have benefited a little from trimming some of those characters’ involvement to add greater depth to others but even when a character could be discounted as a suspect, they often contributed to the plot in other ways making it hard to pinpoint where the cuts could have been made most easily.

Perhaps the least defined significant character is the detective, George Honegger. I felt that we get a very good sense of his investigative style and personality, particularly in the way he pursues this case when there is clearly political pressure on him to abandon it. Other than the brief appearance of a wife, I felt there was little sense of the character beyond his professional responsibilities.

Fortunately this is the sort of case that suits that focus on method and work rate rather than the investigator’s personality. For one thing, progress is shown to be slow and the investigation unfolds over a number of weeks – often interrupted by other cases Honegger finds himself assigned to work. Perhaps the most striking aspect of it is that the investigation occurs in spite of having little physical evidence to justify it. Indeed, we only really get something approaching proof that Rede was murdered in the last third of the novel and several stages of the investigation are defined by their lack of a piece of evidence rather than an object that has been found or a piece of witness testimony.

I enjoyed the process of following Honegger as he explores the limited evidence he has and tries to extract information from a group of individuals who initially seem to resist the notion that a murder has taken place at all. There is some nice organizational detail as we hear about the tails he puts on suspects and a second murder adds considerable interest later in the novel.

The solution did not surprise me – I had pegged the murderer from close to the start of the book based on some structural choices – but I appreciated that there were clues that I missed, one of which struck me as rather clever. I was particularly pleased that everything struck me as being properly clued when the truth was revealed, making the conclusion feel really quite tidy. Those who want to be surprised might be disappointed, but it does hang together very well.

Overall I am happy to say that my first encounter with John Stephen Strange was a rather good one. I had little challenge staying engaged with the investigation, finishing it in a single sitting. I am curious to try more of her work so I doubt this will be the last you’ll read about her work here.

Have you read anything by John Stephen Strange? I would, as always, appreciate your thoughts and recommendations.