Anything to Declare? by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1957
Inspector French #31
Preceded by Many a Slip

A foolproof method for earning a fortune in a short space of time is discovered by some enterprising young men. They haven’t bargained on finding themselves involved in blackmail and then murder. It is up to Inspector French to unravel the threads with his usual flair.

Peter Edgeley has found the return to civilian life after the war challenging. Though he is clearly intelligent and capable, he struggles to take direction and yearns for a break from the drudgery of routine. After being dismissed for insubordination, Edgeley runs into an old friend from before the war who has experienced some similar challenges. That friend however thinks he has the solution and invites Edgeley to join him in his new, but illegal, venture.

Dick Loxton has recently inherited a rather snazzy yacht – it’s gorgeous but devilishly expensive to run. He could sell it and live off the proceeds for a while but he would rather find a way to make it pay and experience a bit of the adventurous life he has also been craving. With the help of a financial backer, he plans to run a small cruising company, taking groups of four or five to Switzerland and back. The real money however won’t be in the human passengers but some cargo he plans to hide on board and smuggle back to England, avoiding customs duty.

The early chapters of the book follow Peter and Dick as they scheme together, meet Dick’s backer, and put their plans into action. Crofts was always superb at carefully laying out the genesis and construction of a scheme and this novel is no exception. While his writing style is rather leisurely, the author’s delight at explaining the technical details of the execution of that plan is quite evident and at times rather infectious. We certainly understand why these two young men are prepared to throw the dice, not so much out of financial desperation but a desire to recapture something they’ve lost.

This matter of how the war changed the men who returned is a common theme in mystery fiction of this period but particularly in the inverted mystery field. Quite often the books that explore this topic can be quite grim reads but interestingly these are not men haunted by what they have done or empowered to commit violence but rather thrillseekers keen to experience excitement and danger once again. Crofts manages to make the pair quite appealing, casting them as rogues rather than villains and allowing us to retain some degree of sympathy with them throughout the whole book.

The other strength of this first part of the book is the credibility of the scheme. Crofts is meticulous about explaining why the scheme might work, outlines some issues that the plotters will need to address, and then sets about providing solutions to them. It’s a very solid, cleverly composed scheme that stands a decent chance of success so long as they don’t have any bad luck. Which, of course, they inevitably do.

After allowing us to follow the planning and execution of the scheme, along with its successful first voyage (incidentally, one of Crofts’ better efforts at travelogue writing), we then see how things begin to come unstuck. The explanation for those circumstances is similarly credible and Crofts does a good job of stringing out that moment, presenting the moment of discovery from the point of view of that witness. From that point onwards the story assumes a more familiar trajectory, setting up a familiar inverted mystery structure.

I have previously described Crofts as something of a master of that form and so it’s quite pleasing to see that in this, his final work published only a few weeks before his death, he returned to that form once more. Structurally and thematically this work is most like Mystery on Southampton Water, though there are still a few moments where he tries something new – most memorably the event that takes place at the end of the first section of the novel and the incorporation of a whodunnit element later in the book.

Unfortunately while I am predisposed to enjoy Crofts’ inverted novels, I feel this is one that falls down on the detection elements with the investigation feeling rushed and unsatisfactory to this reader. Part of that is the awkward conceit that French is trying discretely to assist his protege, Inspector Rollo, to ensure that he lives up to the task having assigned it to him over more experienced peers. This occasionally limits his actions but not in an interesting way while Rollo is so lightly characterized that he makes French look like quite a vibrant personality in contrast.

The bigger problem though is that French just gets really lucky. There are a number of points at the story where French, forced to interpret an aspect of the crime, instinctively guesses at the correct idea or explanation without ever really considering or testing the matter. This feels really lazy and sloppy but more importantly it reduces the opportunity for French to carefully piece together details – usually the strength of Crofts’ writing.

Things get so rushed towards the end that characters we have spent time with in the first half of the novel suddenly get forgotten, their actions and fates referenced but overlooked in favor of other figures from the case. After investing so heavily in them before, this feels disappointing and once again reduces the satisfaction of the ending a little.

That being said, the few clues Crofts provides French are solid and do a nice job of setting up reasons for him to doubt the story he is being fed. One feature I did appreciate was the need to find some way of corroborating what he knows to be true in order to be able to make his final arrest – while the journey to that ending may be a bit rough, I did believe that the case French builds against the story’s villain will stick. That, to this reader, meant that the story ends on a relative high note.

Anything to Declare? would be the final Crofts novel and I felt a little sad when I finally closed this one as, to the best of my knowledge, I have no more inverted stories by him left to read. I still consider him to be one of the strongest of the Golden Age exponents of that style and I love that each of the novels ends up trying to do something different than those that preceded it – even this one which is admittedly the least ambitious of the five novels (ROT-13: Gur ernqre jvyy or fhecevfrq ng gur erprvivat bs n frpbaq oynpxznvy abgr nsgre gur zheqre bs gur svefg oynpxznvyre, creuncf yrnivat gurz gb jbaqre whfg ubj fbzrbar ryfr znl unir yrnearq bs gurve cynaf).

The good news is that while I may have exhausted the well of Crofts inverted mysteries, I have plenty of more conventional detective stories left to read. No doubt I will do so soon as I seem to recall that he was a member of a certain society of mystery writers which readers of this blog have been seeing me write about a lot recently…

The Verdict: While French’s investigation is rushed and, I would argue, a little unsatisfying, it it by no means disastrous. Anything to Declare? is far from a late stain on its author’s career and I can imagine revisiting it in years to come.

Columbo: A Friend in Deed (TV)

Season Three, Episode Eight
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by An Exercise in Fatality (Season Four)

Originally broadcast May 5, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Ben Gazzara

Plot Summary

When Hugh Caldwell kills his wife in the middle of a fight he turns to his friend Mark for help. That assistance takes the form of giving him an alibi while staging the crime scene to tell a different story – that of a murder by an unknown intruder. What Hugh does not realize however is that Mark’s help will come at a price…

My Thoughts

Columbo‘s third season is, in the opinion of this viewer, a bit of a mixed bag. There were some real highs such as Any Old Port in a Storm or Publish or Perish but it also gave us an episode in Mind over Mayhem which is the story I have enjoyed least so far in the series by quite some way. Perhaps it is fitting then that I found the season finale, A Friend in Deed, to be a similarly inconsistent effort with some moments of pure inspiration but a couple of elements that just didn’t work for me.

The best place to begin with this story is its central concept: the cover-up of a murder by a friend of the killer. When this idea is initially introduced I will admit to thinking it was a bit weak and I struggled to accept that Mark would willingly put their freedom in jeopardy by getting involved in a murder cover-up that didn’t benefit him at all. That is partly explained by the idea referenced by several characters that the victim had tormented Hugh which makes his sympathy understandable but had his actions hinged solely on that empathy I think the episode would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Peter S. Fischer has a much cleverer concept in mind that he presents part way into the episode.

That idea is not wholly original but it works nicely because of a structural choice he makes earlier in the episode. The initial setup is so ordinary and simple that it seems inconceivable that the situation as first presented could sustain a whole ninety-five minutes of drama. In what amounts to a nice piece of misdirection, Fischer knows we will be looking for that extra something and gives it to us before then providing an additional reveal that takes the story in an entirely different direction. What’s more it’s at this point that the relationship between Columbo and our criminal mastermind really comes into focus and the games that are being played become more interesting.

The early reveal relates to an aspect of Mark’s background that will not only drive his conflict with Columbo but also give it a rather unique character. I’ll be discussing that further in my spoiler section below but the short version is that I appreciate the intention and while I have some questions about the consequences of that reveal, I do like that it does make this episode and its villain feel a bit different.

Mark is played by Richard Kiley whose portrayal emphasizes the character’s seedy, entitled side. When we are first introduced to him for instance we see him in a gambling establishment enjoying the company of some women who are not his wife and he gives off a rather nonchalant air. The character’s scheme for orchestrating the cover-up is not particularly complex, nor is it all that audacious. That partly reflects that further reveals are to come at that point in the story but also the character’s supreme confidence in himself. It’s a simple and familiar trick but the execution is solid enough.

There are parts of Kiley’s performance I quite enjoy but I do think one of the weaknesses of the script is how ridiculously over-the-top and villainous he can appear. Moments like his snarling down the phone to Hugh to get him to say a particular phrase necessary for their plan or his introduction in that gambling den seem rather silly and cartoonish. On the other hand, there are some wonderful moments, particularly when he is playing off Columbo, and his performance in the crucial gotchya scene is one of the best so far.

Opposite him, Michael McGuire’s Hugh is understandably a bag of nerves. It is his view we initially get of the crime and we follow him as he approaches Mark for help. Given how tightly wound this character becomes as a consquence of what happens, I was sure that we would witness him disintegrate further under pressure as the story goes on but instead I was surprised at how quickly he drops from the story and how our focus falls almost entirely on Mark.

So, what is Mark’s plan? He plans to suggest that the murder happened as a result of a break-in at Hugh’s home by the Bel-Air Burglar – a character all over the news. Once again, a simple enough idea but it’s a solid enough premise for a cover-up. Unfortunately though this takes us to a dive bar setting that I think misses the mark.

Those scenes are clearly intended to be gritty and realistic from the way they are scripted but I think they are let down by some costuming and tonal choices. One of the most striking things about this episode is that while there are some lines of dialogue that I think feel a little silly and playful, there is less of a focus on the comedy content than in many of the episodes in this season with Columbo himself seeming more restrained.

The exception is the business with Artie and Thelma. These scenes in which the two bicker feel like they are intended to be comical yet I felt they came off as silly, perhaps in part because Thelma’s costume seems ridiculous. This in turn makes it harder to take the pair seriously. Matters are not helped by their dialogue which just didn’t ring true to me. Fortunately while I think the manner of Artie’s introduction is poor, I did like the way he is utilized in some of the later scenes in the episode.

Which brings me to that gotchya moment I referenced before. The goal here is that I like to be surprised and, ideally, when that happens to end up frustrated with myself that I overlooked something obvious. The manner of the conclusion here certainly accomplishes that, giving us one of the show’s best gotchya moments since Suitable for Framing. I enjoyed the brazeness of Columbo’s plan, I appreciate the psychology behind that moment and, most importantly, I think those last few minutes of the episode made for some really gripping TV.

The episode does end on a high then but I am left uncertain as to how I feel about this one overall. On a conceptual level I think this is a very clever story and I think it lands its ending but I don’t think it has a consistent tone with some moments coming off as silly rather than amusing.

The Verdict: I feel that a very clever concept is marred a little by some inconsistency of tone. Throw in an uneven performance from the actor playing the episode’s antagonist and you have a recipe for an episode that, while good, doesn’t entirely deliver on its promise.

Aidan Spoils Everything

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Fvzvyneyl, juvyr gurer’f ab pbfg gb vg, V pna’g trg zl urnq nebhaq Znex yrnivat gur trzf nyy arngyl jenccrq hc va uvf tnentr jura ur pbzzvgf uvf zheqre, xabjvat gur pbcf jvyy or fjnezvat nyy bire gur ubhfr. Creuncf jr’er zrnag gb gnxr gung nf n fvta bs gur zna’f gbgny neebtnapr ohg vg frrzf dhvgr fvyyl.

The Detection Club Project: Margaret Cole – The Murder at Crome House

Image Credit: Dame Margaret Isabel Cole by Stella Bowen © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#6: Margaret Cole

Margaret was a dynamic young woman, with a ‘mop of short thick black wavy hair in which is set swarthy complexion, sharp nose and chin and most brilliantly defiant eyes’.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

After tackling half of a short-lived writing partnership last time around, this time around I am taking as my subject one member of a rather more long-lived and prolific crime-writing partnership – Margaret Cole.

Just like last time I pondered whether it would be best to tackle the Coles together as one ‘writer’ or separately. There is always a question of how you identify the aspects of a book that relate to one member of a writing partnership over another. As it happens however the Coles’ method of writing appears to have been relatively unusual as Martin Edwards describes:

The Coles decided to play the detective game together… Having settled a plot in outline, one spouse wrote a first draft which the couple then discussed and worked on together.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Crime historian Curtis Evans in The Spectrum of English Murder, a comparative study of the lives and work of the Coles and fellow Detection Club member Henry Wade, goes into greater detail on this practice and produces a breakdown of which books he believed Margaret and her husband were responsible for based both on sources and textural analysis. The earliest work he attributes primarily to Margaret is the one I will be writing about below – 1927’s The Murder at Crome House.

Based on what I have read both in Edwards’ and Evans’ books, Margaret Cole seems to have been a fascinating individual. Born Margaret Postgate (if that name seems familiar it may be because her brother Raymond would also become a detective fiction writer), she rejected her father’s conservative views and instead ’embraced socialism, atheism, feminism and pipe-smoking’.

Margaret taught for a while before meeting Douglas Cole, an economist, while working on a campaign against conscription. Both would go on to work for the Fabian Society, promoting the cause of democratic socialism. Their courtship and marriage were both quite unusual and both Evans and Edwards’ books do a good job of exploring those aspects of their personal lives.

Douglas was the first to take to writing crime fiction, taking it up during a period recovering from a bout of pneumonia and finishing it when Margaret bet him that he wouldn’t. Detective fiction became a way of supplementing their income from their academic works and the couple became quite prolific over a period of about twenty years with many of their novels featuring series sleuth Superintendent Wilson (I previously reviewed End of an Ancient Mariner from that series).

Martin Edwards’ book paints a picture of Margaret as the most social of the two, comfortable in a wide mix of company which the Detection Club will have certainly offered as many of its members will have been of quite different political persuasions from the couple. It seems though that Margaret enjoyed debating with those other members.

While the Coles produced quite a substantial body of work, eventually their interest in the genre would collapse. Margaret did remain prominent in other aspects of her life however, serving on London County Council’s Education Committee and later the Inner London Education Authority. She would be given an OBE and later MBE in recognition of her services to local government and education.

So, how best to assess the contribution and style of Margaret Cole? Honestly, I am not entirely sure. The best I can think to do is to look at a book they wrote together and then to read the book we know was entirely the work of G. D. H. Cole to see what’s different. To do the latter we will have to wait until I get hold of The Brooklyn Murders. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on The Murder at Crome House.

Her brother – Raymond Postgate

The Murder at Crome House by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole

Originally published in 1927

What would you do if you, a University lecturer with no qualifications for detective work, were suddenly called upon to vindicate a friend’s name by discovering the author of a crime committed nearly six months before, and your only clue led nowhere?  This is the problem which confronted James Flint and his friends in the murder of Sir Harry Wye, for which his stepson had so nearly been hanged; and the story tells how, with no superhuman sleuth or vast scientific apparatus to assist them, but merely by patiently using their wits, the little group at last succeeded in clearing the unfortunate suspect and unmasking a peculiarly atrocious scoundrel.  The unravelling brings them up against many remarkable and entertaining characters, and into exciting situations in which one of them is nearly killed before the end is reached; but the signal fact about this story, unlike most detective yarns, is that it might have happened to any one.

The Murder at Crome House begins with James Flint, an academic, finding an odd photograph of a man appearing to prepare to shoot another man tucked inside a library book. He is disposed to think of the thing as a prank and puts it in the fire only to be surprised with a visit from the previous borrower who has come in search of the picture. Wrongly believing it to be burned, Flint assures him that the picture is no more and is surprised that the man seems pleased and leaves happily. When he discovers the picture again later that day he plans to return it until he learns that the photograph is similar to another that had been evidence in a recently concluded murder trial.

The victim in that trial was Sir Harry Wye, a rather unpleasant rogue who seems to have kept poor company and had his share of enemies. The one accused of his murder had been his stepson, believed lost at sea many years earlier, who returned to England with claims that Wye had cheated him out of an inheritance from his mother. Many in the community believed him guilty but he was spotted elsewhere at about the time of the murder, leaving him to escape the gallows with his life but with his reputation in tatters.

Rather unusually then the authors are presenting us with a story where the crime and much of the investigation has already taken place at the start of the novel. Our role, and that of the amateur sleuths, is not so much to collect the evidence as to weigh it and make connections between the details to test its reliability and build a complete picture of the affair.

The most distinctive aspect of the crime is that initial hook – the rather odd photographs. In some ways this element feels quite modern, seeming to anticipate decades of later works with murders caught on camera, but because the shot is a still rather than a video it feels mechanically quite contrived. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way that this might turn out to be a genuine photograph and so instead we are stuck wondering just how and why this could factor into the case itself and this aspect of the mystery gets sidelined for much of the novel.

Instead our focus is that familiar one of trying to break an alibi. In this case we are presented with several possible suspects but those with the opportunity seem to have no motive while those who might have wanted Wye dead all seem to have been seen some distance from the house at the time of the murder.

Flint initially seems reluctant to get involved but after hearing more about the murder he begins to believe that the stepson’s story, which admittedly sounds quite odd and far-fetched, may be truthful. He and a few others connected with that man decide to work together to seek out evidence that might prove his innocence and uncover the real killer’s identity.

This idea of a group of amateurs all pitching in together to investigate is a rather charming one and while I think the cheery volunteer card is played perhaps once too often, I think it allows for a steady accumulation of evidence. Equally important though is that I believe it helps to reinforce the idea that the murdered man was really not a nice person and that Oliver, foolish as he can seem, is actually quite appealing and sympathetic.

One aspect of the book that passed me by until it was pointed out to me is that our hero, Flint, shares a number of attributes in common with Margaret’s husband Douglas (G. D. H. Cole). It is not just their backgrounds as academics but their temperaments are similar too. While Flint is not the warmest of characters, I quite enjoyed him as a protagonist and found myself wishing that he had been used again as this is, unfortunately, a standalone work.

While Flint strikes me as a pretty engaging protagonist, I found a few of the other characters seemed much less complex and compelling by comparison. Some of that reflects that most are there to serve some plotting purpose, entering to dispense a single piece of information before exiting the stage. In other cases however I think the authors fall into the mistake of writing types and so some characters feel a little generic or clumsily drawn. One passage in particular, concerning a drunken witness, felt a little overwritten while a completely incidental character, a Japanese student, is treated purely as a ‘gag’ and written in a way I found rather cringeworthy.

Other aspects of the story work a little better. While I do think the investigation moves a tad slowly in the middle of the novel, the Coles provide plenty of revelations towards the end, giving the sense that we are building to a final revelation.

That big reveal when it comes was not particularly surprising to me as I felt that the killer’s identity does stand out from close to the start of the novel, but I enjoyed reading this to see just how that character might be caught. Some aspects of that solution are pretty strong though I do think there is an aspect of how it was accomplished that feels rather lazy and ought to have been considered much earlier in the story. Perhaps more importantly, there are a few action-oriented moments towards the end of the piece that I felt did a good job of raising the tension and our anticipation of the villain being caught.

The Verdict: This book has some interesting elements but perhaps takes a little too long getting to its conclusion, rendering it a little anticlimactic.

Second Opinions:

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World found the writing witty but the comparison with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans feels quite apt.

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love by Carlos Allende

Cover for Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love

Originally published in 2022

Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is another one of those books that is rather difficult to put into a genre box. It is, first and foremost, a work of comedic fiction. It is also the story of a relationship. A messed up, difficult relationship but then the two characters who end up in it are rather messed up, difficult people for reasons we’ll come onto. It discusses sexual and cultural identity and the search for belonging, all the while depicting a moment in California and America’s political climate – the start of President Obama’s second term at a point and the speculation about the administration’s stance on gay marriage.

In addition to being all those things, it is also a crime novel.

Allende’s story concerns an almost accidental serial killer. Jignesh never intended to kill anyone but when a former intern at his company mocks him he lashes out. Panicked and needing to figure out a way of disposing of the body – or at least hiding it – he turns to a one-night stand he had been avoiding who just happens to be in possession of a really oversized freezer.

In what quickly turns into a comedy of errors, Jignesh will soon have more bodies on his hands as his attempts to evade detection push him into more and more trouble. Adding to the complications, while Jignesh has a freezer to store the bodies in, he soon finds that he has to move in with that former hook-up, Charlie, in order to have somewhere to keep the freezer. And then, inevitably, Charlie looks in that freezer and finds himself involved too.

So let’s start by talking comedy. As I have often remarked before on this blog, humor is really subjective. Some will absolutely adore how dark this story gets and how awful the two protagonists behave throughout the story. Others are certain not to. My advice here is that if the concept of the book interests you, go check out the sample chapters on Amazon (or another ebook vendor that does samples). Allende’s two narrators maintain consistent voices throughout and so what you get in those three and a half chapters is pretty representative of the tone and style of the whole book.

Personally I found the situations more amusing than the often outrageous and offensive thoughts of the two protagonists. Charlie’s perspective in particular is laden with cringeworthy racial assumptions and stereotypes. I am quite clear that we not meant to think that those are right or laudable but reflections of the character’s prejudice and upbringing, reminding us that someone can be the subject of microaggressions and bullying behavior while happily engaging in them themselves all the while thinking of themselves as an outrageous wit. Still, while this may work as a character study, I found it a little wearying at points.

The construction of the farce however is superb. So often in these sorts of stories, authors will run out of steam in the later parts of the story. Here though Allende does an amazing job of continuing to escalate and both growing the stakes and the dangers his protagonists find themselves in. Even more impressive though is how he avoids the traps of predictability, delivering some plot developments that surprise while feeling absolutely in keeping with out previous understandings of the characters and the situation they are in.

While I may not have always enjoyed their narration, I did find the protagonists interesting and I enjoyed some of the character exploration that takes place often under the surface. That is perhaps necessary as neither Charlie nor Jignesh is particularly introspective, each seeming to make decisions on impulse, but there are still plenty of moments where we get insight, either from the other character or by the author providing the opportunities to read details or subtext into these characters.

That is particularly true in terms of understanding the complex dynamic of their relationship, much of which develops between chapters or goes unspoken. Neither character is particularly interested in the other romantically at the start of the story yet they are in a very different place by the end of the novel. It’s not exactly a love story – Charlie is quite open with us about how transactionally he views his relationship with Jignesh, particularly once he discovers the first body and opts to delay reporting what he has found to the police until after the LA Opera season is over.

I enjoyed the occasional moments of ambiguity in that relationship and how hard it is to ascribe a label to it. That relationship changes, evolving (and perhaps devolving at points) in response to the events of the novel. It feels very well-observed and that messiness and difficulty made their dynamic all the more interesting to me. I never quite knew what these characters would do in response to the other’s actions, making following that relationship all the more compelling.

What surprised me most is that while I am quite clear that Charlie and Jignesh are both terrible people, there are moments where their situation can elicit some genuine sympathy. That partly reflects that other characters are equally terrible or worse, such as most of the people Jignesh works with. I think it also reflects that their problems are all easy to understand and often to sympathize with. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted them to be happy with each other but I did find myself caring about them by the end.

Which brings me neatly to the book’s conclusion. I have previously mentioned that the book continues to escalate and complicate the situation until the final few pages of the book. By the time we reach that end, thing have become so crazy that the reader may be forgiven for wondering just how everything could possibly be tidied up.

The answer is that while there is a resolution and it feels quite satisfying in terms of paying off what has come before, there are a couple of loose ends left untied and resolutions not quite given. There is one aspect of the story which I had been particularly anticipating yet when we reach the conclusion it isn’t referenced at all. Those reading this for those farce elements though are likely to be pleased with how this wraps up and will excuse a little untidiness in a couple of plot threads for the overall effect of the novel’s punchline.

The Verdict – This often-outrageous crime farce won’t appeal to everyone but features some very clever plot construction and a pair of memorable, if not always likable, protagonists.

The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot by Robert Arthur

Originally published 1964
The Three Investigators #2
Preceded by The Secret of Terror Castle
Followed by The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy

Seven talking parrots have vanished into thin air with the Three Investigators in hot pursuit. Together, the three birds can repeat a coded message from beyond the grave. But the boys aren’t the only ones who want to hear the dead man’s secret…

In spite of the introduction promising a ‘spine-chilling adventure’ and the attempt to conjure up some spooky atmosphere with the cover art to this reprint edition (which sadly replaces Alfred Hitchcock with mystery novelist Hector Sebastian), one of the things that struck me most about this second novel was how lacking in atmosphere it felt. While there are certainly some moments of tension and peril for our young heroes, the action here takes place largely in the daylight and there is absolutely no attempt to conjure up any sense of the eerie or supernatural at work. This struck me as a bit of a shame given how that was one of the strengths of the previous volume and, indeed, many of the stories I remember best from this range.

Instead of spooks and eerie old houses, this outing sees our intrepid heroes on the trail of a couple of missing parrots. When they discover one of their potential clients tied up and a car speeding away, they realize that someone is stealing parrots – the question is, why?

While it is important to recognize that these mysteries were written for children, I ought to stress that the mystery angle of this story is pretty neglible. The concept that each parrot had a strange name and had been taught to recite a message by its previous owner is introduced very early and clearly suggests that we are being set up for a treasure hunt rather than a clearly clued puzzle. The book delivers on that, providing lots of adventure but next to no detection.

What makes that a particular shame, at least for this nostalgic reader, is that clues to the treasure hunt feel underwhelming. Some are quite clever, I think particularly of the one delivered by Shakespeare, but it feels that several of the other birds are only there to bulk up the numbers, contributing little to the problem’s resolution. It certainly didn’t match the complex riddle I remembered from the last time I had read the story as a preteen.

The book scores a little better for its action and adventure, such as the fun sequence which opens the novel. This throws us straight into the action as two of our heroes, Jupiter and Peter, arrive to speak with a client only to get a bit of a surprise and find themselves in a bit of unexpected danger. The scene, while admittedly a little silly, does do a fine job of reacquainting us with the characters, their personalities and their goals and also injects a little tension and suspense into the proceedings.

Later chapters follow throw on the promise of this opening, presenting multiple antagonists for our young heroes to overcome. These moments aren’t always subtle or even all that credible but they do help sustain that sense of excitement and provide a little pressure that helps sell the urgency of their investigation.

For me though the real pleasure in this story was not in its plot which I admit to be underwhelmed by on revisiting it, but in the efforts taken to build up the world of our three heroes. While we get flashes of Jupiter’s home in the previous novel, this delves deeply into it, providing a base of operations hidden in a trash heap that this reader, as a preteen, longed to get inside and explore. We also meet Jupiter’s family and get a nice glimpse of their values in the way they interact with a character we encounter in the course of this novel.

I also respected Arthur’s attempts to discuss child poverty and to have our heroes model kindness and empathy in their interactions with the character that affects. While the writing in those passages may feel a little heavy-handed and perhaps a little message-y, the author does make sure that the character is presented with dignity and their experiences are framed in a way that the children reading it could understand.

Still, as much as I like spending time with Jupiter, Peter and Bob, I don’t think this holds up with the best entries in the series. There is very little deduction or even much in the way of observation, and while there is some fun to be had – especially with the charming concept of a children’s telephone information network they call the Ghost-to-Ghost hookup that gets used a couple of times in this story – I wished the story had made the question of why these thefts were taking place a little more mysterious or sustained it for a little longer.

The Verdict: The case itself feels slight with the author giving us too much, too early, reducing the sense of mystery about what’s going on. There are a few nice, adventurous moments but on the whole this didn’t match the quality of its predecessor.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event also viewed this as a step down in quality. Their post is a little spoilery, giving you all of the coded messages, but it makes some excellent points – particularly about the idea that a character in this story is reminiscent of one from Father Brown.

Elsewhere Bev @ My Reader’s Block liked the blend of elements at play here, appreciating the mix of mystery and adventure.

The Night They Killed Joss Varran by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1971
Inspector Littlejohn #48
Preceded by Murder Gone Mad
Followed by Tycoon’s Death-Bed

On the Night that Joss Varran was expected home after a visit to Wormwood Scrubs, his body was found in a ditch right opposite the cottage where he lived with his sister in the silent marshes in the north of the Isle of Man. Chief Superintendent Littlejohn, of Scotland Yard, soon becomes involved in the case as a result of Varran’s recent imprisonment in a London jail. 

Joss Varran had been a sailor on a container ship between Ramsey and Preston and somewhere in his voyages had been caught up in events which had made him a hunted man, not so much by the police as by his partners in crime. From all appearances, he had endeavoured to shake them off by getting himself imprisoned! 

His efforts, however, were in vain and his murder presents a confusing case in the Manx curraghs for Inspector Knell, of the Manx police, and his friends Littlejohn and the Venerable Caesar Kinrade, Archdeacon of Man. 

In the early days of Mysteries Ahoy!, George Bellairs was one of the writers I returned to most frequently. That partly reflected that there were several publishers reissuing them in that period which made new material easy to come by but also that I have found him to be a pretty entertaining writer. While I have yet to come across any works that I might dub a stone-cold classic, I have also not have many really disappointing experiences. Perhaps for that reason I have come to view him as an old reliable that I enjoy checking in with from time to time.

The Night They Killed Joss Varran is by far the most recent of his works I have read to date. It was published in 1971, the start of Bellairs’ final decade of writing, and it is curious to consider how the writer’s style seemed to have changed over the years. This work features many of the hallmarks of the series, being set on the Isle of Man and seeing him interact once more with some of his old friends on the island, but tonally it seems a far cry from some of the author’s lighter, earlier works.

The story concerns the murder of a sailor who has only just returned to the island after spending several years in prison at Wormwood Scrubs. No one should have been aware of his plans to return and it is far from clear quite what might have motivated the murder right outside his home. Keen for an excuse to return to the Isle of Man and see his old friends, Chief Superintendent Littlejohn volunteers to travel there to bring Varran’s prison records and to help with the investigation into his murder.

One of the most striking things about this book to me was the bleak tone struck in many of the interactions Littlejohn has with the locals on the island. Many of the characters are experiencing tough, difficult lives and the book strongly conveyed the idea that many are living in isolation. That bleakness is felt not so much through the descriptions of the physical location, which are surprisingly sparse, but rather in many of the curt social interactions we experience between the characters. It is the dialogue, more than the physical descriptions of places, that really brings the setting to life for me.

There is less humor here than in many of the other novels I have read so far, with the only regular source of light relief coming from some of the interactions around the dinner table at his friend the Archdeacon’s home. This more serious tone is by no means a bad thing, but I found it striking that Bellairs is far more focused on developing his central plot ideas than he had been earlier in his career.

On a similar note, while I think there are elements of the plotting of this story that the reader might deduce, building a puzzle does not seem to be the author’s focus here. For one thing, the title Bellairs gives this book goes a long way to steering the reader towards some critical aspects of the solution, even if they haven’t read the book’s rather revealing blurb. From the near the start the reader should be aware that we are looking for multiple killers but the questions to ask are who did the deed and what were they hoping to achieve by it?

The answers to those questions lies in discovering more about the life and personality of our victim, the late Joss Varran. This character is another in Bellairs’ long line of roguish male murder victims, reminding me a little of Harry Dodd. While we don’t really encounter him alive, I think we are given a strong sense of his character in the conversations about him with some of the other islanders.

The plot Bellairs develops is relatively simple and perhaps predictable given what we already know, though it is interesting to fill in some of the details. We may be able to make a good guess at the sort of motive lying behind the crime from the start of the book but finding the complete story will take a little more time. While those answers may not have surprised me, I found them pretty satisfying and I felt that the author does a good job of walking the reader through the events at the book’s end to piece the story together.

Yet while I felt that the elements of the story make sense, I did wish that the author had taken a slightly less direct approach at times. There is not much in the way of misdirection here and while I acknowledge that there is a puzzle here to solve, it is less a jigsaw than a giant toddler’s floor puzzle. There are so few elements at play that there are only a very limited number of ways you can combine them, perhaps unintentionally pushing the reader towards the solution.

I feel matters are not helped by the rather abrupt ending of the book which comes really quite suddenly. Bellairs does take some time to update the reader on what happened after the crime was solved but it feels so brief that it feels rather perfunctory. This struck me as particularly disappointing as I gather this is the final adventure Littlejohn has on the Isle of Man making this feel like a rather disappointing final bow for Archdeacon Kinrade. It would have been nice to get more of a moment between the old friends and I was disappointed that Kinrade does seem to disappear towards the end of the novel.

The Verdict: While I feel Bellairs rushes his ending, I think the case is quite solid and I enjoyed learning more about our victim. It is hardly a classic work and doesn’t offer much detection but like many other Bellairs novels it is an entertaining one and features some pretty striking characters.

The Case of the Painted Ladies by Brian Flynn

Originally published in 1940
Anthony Bathurst #25
Preceded by The Case of the Faithful Heart
Followed by They Never Came Back

Three remarkable things happen to Aubrey Coventry in one day. First, he is contacted by Wall Street financier Silas Montgomery with a lucrative business proposition – although Montgomery insists on meeting him at two a.m. the following day. Second, at a village garden party, a fortune teller cannot read his future, as he does not have one. And thirdly, a shabbily-dressed man reacts with a vicious snarl when simply asked for a light.

The fortune teller is proven correct when Coventry is found dead in his office the next morning. Private Detective Anthony Bathurst finds himself on the trail of the snarling man, reported to have been following Coventry in the night. To unmask the culprit, however, Bathurst is going to need help from some very special friends…

The last time I read and wrote about one of Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst novels, the sublime Such Bright Disguises, I ended up nominating it for Reprint of the Year. Little wonder then that I have been keen to return to the series but one of the challenges has been trying to figure out what I wanted to read next. With so many already reprinted and with more on the way, we are somewhat spoiled for choice.

Rather than defer to someone else’s judgment, I decided that I would eschew from reading reviews or soliciting recommendations. Instead I would base my choice purely on cover and blurb appeal, ultimately selecting this novel for the rather intriguing set of strange happenings described.

The novel opens by describing how in the course of a single day Aubrey Coventry ends up experiencing several strange events. The first is a telephone call from a leading Wall Street financier seeking a meeting alone in Aubrey’s home in the early hours of the morning. The second, a chilling session with a fortune teller who tells him that he has no future to read. The final, an odd interaction with a shabbily-dressed man in the park who snarls and backs away when Aubrey speaks to him.

The next day Coventry is discovered dead in his office having been murdered in the early hours of the morning after apparently meeting with that financier. No papers seem to have been stolen, nor any valuables as those were kept at his bank.

I quite enjoyed the rather unusual setup that Flynn creates for this story. Rather than trying to establish the victim as someone people would naturally want to kill, the murder of Aubrey seems every bit as odd as the things he had experienced the day before. It appears to be a motiveless crime and so the only leads open for our hero are following up on those strange events to see if any, or all, may be connected with the death.

The results are really quite intriguing and often the information we learn only makes the events seem stranger. Take, for instance, what we learn about the phone call that Aubrey receives to arrange the meeting which begs a further series of questions. Similarly Flynn plays beautifully with the idea of the psychic, creating a strong atmosphere both during Aubrey’s interview and subsequently in Bathurst’s questioning of them. The reader may well wonder quite how they could know as much as they do and wonder if they may possibly have some powers after all.

The plot that Flynn develops arguably reads more like a thriller than a typical detective story, though there are many opportunities for the reader to use their deductive skills to get ahead of the narrative. I suspect it would be hard though for anyone to predict quite where this story is ultimately headed until they are quite some way into the novel. That journey is, of course, a large part of the fun.

While some of the moments of deduction feel smart and creative, there are a few points I felt that Bathurst is made to seem brilliant by making MacMorran, in contrast, appear quite unobservant. One of the strongest examples of this for me was a visual clue, given to the reader, in the reproduction of the text from a torn note. Bathurst’s reasoning in that scene is perfectly fine but MacMorran’s fawning over his brilliance, rather than building up the character’s achievement seems to serve to make it feel like our hero is very late to tell us something we have likely already figured out for ourselves.

I liked a lot of what happens in this story though I think there are some points where Flynn’s language is distractingly odd. One akward sentence that stood out particularly to me was when Bathurst makes a comment about a blind person needing to utilize their other ‘sense assets’ to compensate for their lack of sight. Still, for the most part it works quite nicely.

Perhaps the aspect of the story I appreciate most though is its willingness to break conventions and expectations. I particularly enjoyed the way the story references some other great fictional detectives, even having some appear directly in the book’s wonderfully inventive, if utterly far-fetched, denouement.

The Verdict: This is, ultimately, primarily a fun read and I am glad I gave it a try. While it lacks the inventiveness of some of Flynn’s other plots I have read and reviewed here, there is plenty to entertain. Still, for those new to the author I might suggest checking out one of his other novels instead.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery is the authority on Brian Flynn and, of course, they pen the introductions found in the Dean Street Press reprints. They describe this one as a ‘fine outing for Bathurst, loads of fun’ and explain why one aspect of this book’s denouement is very unusual if not unique.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests that while some aspects of the plot don’t stand up to more detailed scrutiny, it is another example of ‘Flynn’s mission to simply write good, imaginative and above all entertaining detective fiction’.

Columbo: Swan Song (TV)

Season Three, Episode Seven
Preceded by Mind Over Mayhem
Followed by A Friend in Deed

Originally broadcast March 3, 1974

Teleplay by David Rayfiel from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross
Directed by Nicholas Colasanto

Plot Summary

Gospel singer Tommy Brown is one of the most popular musical artists in America but he is frustrated that he cannot enjoy the benefits of his fame. His wife, Edna, has a hold over him and is keeping him performing for a pittance with a threat of blackmail. Tommy decides to dispose of his wife by staging an elaborate accident but unfortunately for him Lieutenant Columbo is assigned to the case.

Famous Faces

The part of Tommy Brown was written for country music star Johnny Cash (left) who had already been active as a recording artist for close to two decades when this was filmed.

Ida Lupino plays Tommy’s wife, Edna. She had previously appeared in an earlier episode, Short Fuse, and she had starred in the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

My Thoughts

The plot is one of the simpler ones from this season of Columbo. As is often the case with the show, we spend quite a bit of time following the killer as he plans and executes his murder. In this case we watch Johnny Cash’s Tommy as he finishes up a concert and prepares to travel to LA. I think his target will be pretty evident to viewers along with his motive but the question in those early scenes is just how does he plan of disposing of them.

It quickly becomes clear that Tommy is not one of the world’s great thinkers and his plan is somewhat reflective of that. Compared to the other plots from this season, the crime is messy. Most Columbo criminals try to assemble an undetectable crime or an unbreakable alibi – Tommy opts instead to try to mask his crime with its sheer audacity. It makes no sense that anyone would choose the method he uses, therefore the explanation for what happened must surely be something more logical.

Tommy’s plan does rather strain the resources of a network television show in this period – I think particularly of a sequence in which there is an attempt to suggest some movement with camera shaking and lighting that looks a little clumsy and unconvincing. In spite of those faults however I really appreciate how different it feels and I like some of the messiness of the crime.

More than anything though I just like how Tommy feels so different from the blend of technocrats and sneering business types who are the show’s usual picks to be murderers. His artistic temperament and folksiness mean that many of the typical episode beats – the confrontations and the deflections – play a little differently. Tommy is annoyed by the detective’s repeated questions, sure, but he doesn’t think himself above him. Once again it makes for a nice contrast with the more typical villain.

Johnny Cash is interesting casting in this part. We quickly learn that Tommy is a pretty bad guy all round and the part plays so much off aspects of Cash’s own persona that I was a little surprised he was willing to take on the role. Still, there is something authentic and well-observed in the way the character is created and the episode takes full advantage of his musical talents, having him perform at several points.

Falk plays off Cash superbly and I was interested to see the character takes a slightly different, less adversarial take in his line of questioning. The badgering is there, sure, but it gets blamed on the suits not signing off on things until he answers every little point and I like that both characters mirror each other, each putting on a false show of warmth. It’s a nice touch and, once again, feels a bit different.

I noted earlier that the plot is one of the simplest ones the show attempted in this season which is mirrored in the investigation. As is often the case in these stories, Columbo arrives a little late to the crime scene after much of the preliminary investigation is done and a theory as to what happened has already been reached. A huge part of the fun of Columbo is anticipating which small details at the scene he will point to as not quite making sense. The problem here though is that the mistakes feel too glaring and so he is unlikely to surprise the viewer with his deductions. It feels just a little underwhelming.

What the episode misses is that second act twist that complicates a case, taking it in a different direction. Instead we get unnecessary plodding detail, following Columbo into meetings with Tommy’s former commanding officer and a very talkative worker. The scenes themselves are fine and each have some entertaining moments but they don’t really move anything forward or contribute enough to our understanding of the crime or Tommy’s character.

Though the midsection of the episode is a little disappointing in terms of the plotting, I was far more pleased with the way it is resolved. This is one of those stories where we can tell Columbo is certain of the killer’s identity and yet it seems unclear how he will finally catch him. There is an aspect of trap-setting in that resolution to this story which usually frustrates me and yet I absolutely love the clue that finally convinces Columbo he was on the right track after all, enabling him to move in for the capture. Kudos to the episode for delivering an absolutely fair play clue, setting it up both in dialog and visually – I recall noticing it, musing on it and still not recognizing its significance even once the episode more directly draws our attention to it. I love to be fooled and this one did it brilliantly.

My only issue with the ending is that there is what I might describe as a Carsini moment where there is a sympathetic exchange between Columbo and Tommy that doesn’t feel earned or to reflect what has been shown of Tommy’s character throughout the episode. What makes it play even worse, at least for this viewer, is that we know the reasons Tommy had been blackmailed and we have seen evidence that he hasn’t changed much over the years. It may seem a small gripe, particularly given both actors play the scene quite nicely, but it felt a little forced and out of place in an otherwise very tidy conclusion.

Yet in spite of those complaints, I should stress that I think the episode works quite well overall. Part of that is the highly unusual murder means but it mostly reflects that this features a great piece of guest casting with Cash’s portrayal of Tommy being one of the more effective guest turns from the show’s third season.

The Verdict: This solid, if simple, story is enhanced enormously by a great piece of guest casting.

The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The cover to the American Mystery Classics reprint (2022) of The Cape Cod Mystery.

Originally published 1931
Asey Mayo #1
Followed by Death Lights a Candle

Meet Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Settled down from his former life as a seafaring adventurer, Asey is a Jack-of-all-trades who uses his worldly knowledge, folksy wisdom, and plain common sense to solve the most puzzling crimes to strike the peninsula. And in this, his first case, Asey finds himself embroiled in a scandal that will push his deductive powers to their limits.

A massive heatwave is scorching the Northeast, and vacationers from New York and Boston flock to Cape Cod for breezy, cool respite. Then a muckraking journalist is found murdered in the cabin he’s rented for the season, and the summer holiday becomes a nightmare for the local authorities. There are abundant suspects among the out-of-towners flooding the area, but they ultimately fix their sights on beloved local businessman Bill Porter as the murderer―unless Asey Mayo can prove him innocent and find the true killer. 

Our expectations coming to a book can definitely affect our experiences reading it. I have suggested before that my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Malice Aforethought may well have been a consequence of people telling me for several years that I was certain to love it. After so much build-up, the hype was so great that the reality of the book was unlikely to live up to what I had imagined it to be.

I experienced a similar sort of effect when coming to Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery. Admittedly this was not the positive sort of hype but rather some recent interactions with other classic crime fans who were not glowing in their sentiments about other books in this series. Still, I had paid for the thing and when it turned up I was curious enough to give it a couple of chapters and I was initially quite pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I came to it with no preconceptions whatsoever.

The story is set in Cape Cod where Prudence and her young niece Betsy have recently acquired a small holiday home and invited a few friends to stay. The murder takes place in a neighboring property where a bestselling author is found dead, his body covered with a sheet. Unfortunately the local sheriff, a former policeman from Boston who works as a grocery clerk, seems out of his depth and quickly settles on Betsy’s beau, a local businessman named Bill.

While there are flaws with the sheriff’s case, he seems settled on Bill’s guilt. Prudence talks with Asey Mayo, a sharp-witted local handyman who had once travelled the world as a sailor, and the pair decide to try and prove Bill’s innocence by doing a little sleuthing of their own…

Let’s start with the series’ setting because I think that this is one of the most inspired aspects of the book. One of the great things about the idea of setting a mystery series on Cape Cod is that you have the opportunity to have both that country, small town vibe married to some of the anonymity that comes with living somewhere where so many of the people are vacationing. This not only allows the author to introduce whole new casts of characters between books, it also enables the author to play with questions of identity – in the case of this book prompting us to consider who may have actually known the victim.

While I may not have been to Cape Cod, I did feel that Taylor provides the reader both with a sense of the physical space but also the rhythms of life there during the season. There are some neat observations about the way local businesses adjust to cater for their temporary residents and I enjoyed getting to know some of the colorful locals such as that sheriff and also the rather full-of-himself doctor.

I also quite enjoyed some of the early instances of our heroes engaging in simple, logical thinking. A prime example would be the short series of inferences that Prudence is able to make about the body to suggest murder from a few details of the circumstances in which it is found. I quickly found that my expectations were raising and I was quite hopeful that further logical sleuthing would follow.

As I spent more time with the sleuth, Asey Mayo, however I began to find myself frustrated with his folksy manner and the pacing of the story. Part of that is, no doubt, because I tend to dislike rendering dialect with phonetic spellings. We are told early on that Asey speaks in a very distinctive way, dropping whole parts of words, and while the spellings certainly convey that it also meant that I found myself having to slow down at points just to work out what he was saying. Sometimes that was fine as quite a bit of what he says can be quite amusing, but there are points where I found myself wishing that it had been eased back. The voice was strong enough just from the choice of words and sentence structure alone.

Another reason is that Asey is someone who seems to work on hunches and intuition, comparing situations to ones he has experienced before. Now, I think that is a legitimate type of crime-solving intelligence – I certainly don’t object to it with Miss Marple – but it felt that Taylor has her hero fall back on it too often, dulling its impact. That is, in this reader’s opinion, a particular shame as a key moment in the book really leans into that idea and I think it would have had an even greater impact if there had been fewer instances of it.

The final thing that I think doesn’t help is that the mid-section of the novel feels like a bit of a runaround. There certainly are some amusing and clever moments there, such as a very clever trick Asey plays to get someone to talk, but there is also quite a lot of what might be described as ‘business’ or ‘hijinks’. Some of its cute enough but the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace with few moments that shock or take the story in a strikingly different direction.

After finishing I started thinking about Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and how often their books would feature a second killing. While sometimes those may feel like afterthoughts, that device can help to add interest into the second half of a novel and refocus the reader’s mind. Here the energy starts high but seems to drain away with the details, only really picking up in the final few chapters as we reach our denouement.

That strikes me as a bit of a shame because the actual solution is pretty interesting, particularly with regards the motive. Taylor goes on to enhance that conclusion by hitting some unexpected emotional notes towards the very end, tying things up in a surprisingly satisfying and powerful (if perhaps slightly convenient) way.

Were I judging this story purely on the setup and resolution of the crime I suspect I would be viewing it quite favorably. The problem I have with it though is that question of pacing which just didn’t work for me. It’s possible, of course, that it may just have been a poor match for my reading mood. Unfortunately as much as I liked the two ends of the story, the middle just proved too much of a slog for this reader.

The Verdict: Asey is a colorful sleuth and your enjoyment of this novel will likely reflect how much you like that sort of folksy character. While I think there are some neat ideas at play with the solution, the journey to that point exhausted me.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

Originally published in 2021.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy lake, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car – strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.

The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted[…] What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play and what was he not telling investigators?

I suspect that the first time I learned about the strange disappearance of Agatha Christie was in connection with the other great interest of my adult life, the British science fiction show Doctor Who. Several seasons into the revived run of the show there was an episode, The Unicorn and the Wasp, that was centered upon the mystery of the author’s disappearance. I saw and recall enjoying the story well enough but I can’t say I gave much more thought to the real life events that inspired it.

Then a couple of years ago I became conscious that interest in that case seemed to be on the rise. I started stumbling onto articles rehashing the circumstances of the disappearance, podcast episodes, chapters in non-fiction works about the evolution of detective fiction and in various books I read about Christie’s work. What really hit me though was the sudden appearance of fictional treatments of the story such as Andrew Wilson’s A Talent for Murder, this novel and, earlier this year, Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair. None offer as colorful an explanation for the disappearance as The Unicorn and the Wasp, but that there are so many takes on the events suggests that the public awareness of and interest in this strange event continues to grow.

I should probably say at this point that I have little personal interest in the case itself. I certainly believe that the events of an author’s life are often reflected in their work and it can be interesting to muse on how and why that happens, but I don’t regard this case as anywhere near as mysterious as I am clearly meant to. The reason for Christie’s actions has always seemed pretty clear to me, even if we are never going to have the satisfaction of anything approaching a confirmation from the author themselves. Christie avoids the topic in her autobiography and with all those involved now long since deceased, it’s hard to imagine that the matter will ever be closed to everyone’s total satisfaction.

My own reading of the events of those eleven days is pretty close to exactly the one presented by Benedict in this fictionalized account of the disappearance. For the sake of not spoiling those who wish to read and enjoy this book I will avoid stating what that is but I think that reflects that the author is quite thorough in their discussion of the facts of the case. While some aspects of the story are given more prominence than others, I felt that Benedict fits their story around the facts rather than altering them to make their story more dramatic.

The intrigue comes through the contrast they draw between events in the past, as presented in the chapters titled ‘The Manuscript’, a first person account of the Christies’ courtship and marriage told by Agatha, and those set during the eleven day search which follow Archie and are presented in a third-person present tense. The decision to alternate chapters between these two time periods and styles is largely effective. Even if the reader comes to this book with no prior knowledge of Christie’s life, they will quickly detect that the state of that relationship has changed quite significantly and much of the novel focuses on exploring the reasons why that change occurred. It doesn’t build tension as most who approach this will be aware that Agatha lived and wrote for decades after these events, but it does add to the intrigue building about the state of that central relationship.

As a character study into the power dynamics between a husband and wife it can be quite effective, though the conclusions it reaches are unlikely to surprise. Among the factors Benedict explores are the effects of World War I, the birth of a child, and the difficulty in balancing professional and personal obligations. I was not surprised by the identification and treatment of those themes which are generally handled quite thoughtfully.

Yet the discussion feels somewhat incomplete because the story focuses so tightly on this narrow, dramatic window of Christie’s life. Some questions feel unanswered: Could Archie and Agatha have ever been happy? Were their problems unique or representative of wider problems faced in relationships during this period? If so, why was Agatha’s relationship with Max so much more successful?

Some of the more colorful aspects of the case are present but minimalized. The celebrities involved in the search, Sayers and Doyle, are given little more than a name check while the choice to follow Archie rather than the investigators means that our focus is on the building resentment and fear he exhibits. This can be interesting on a character level but it also means that after a while that thread of the novel feels rather static as we wait to move to the story’s denouement.

That short final section of the novel is the most interesting portion of the novel by quite some way. It is in those last few chapters that Agatha’s voice and character is most clearly conveyed and where we see the conflict properly play out. Once again there are few surprises here, at least for this reader, but I think the direct way that Benedict lays out her characters’ positions and feelings is effective and does pay off the main plotline quite nicely. The ending may feel a little abrupt and, as I suggested earlier, the reader may have some outstanding questions but it does feel like a tidy resolution to the themes the author has been developing throughout the book.

In spite of how it may initially appear to those unfamiliar with the story, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie presents no crime to the reader. Well, apart from the unforgivable one of the author unnecessarily spoiling the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Still, as a character study of one of the giants of our favorite genre it can be interesting enough, though I am unconvinced that it adds significantly to our understanding of her personality, nor that of Archie. Others, particularly those less familiar with the story, may disagree however and find Benedict’s explanation of the mystery persuasive enough to make this a rewarding read.

The Verdict: Benedict’s work does a good job of capturing much of the detail of the investigation and does present a pretty solid interpretation of events, though I would suggest it adds little new to the story. Still, it does develop its themes well and those new to the tale may well be interested in how events unfold.