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

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

#12: Victor Whitechurch

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

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder at the Pageant (1930)

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

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

Excerpt from the lengthy blurb of the 1987 Dover reprint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Couple at the Table by Sophie Hannah

Originally published in 2022

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

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

Jane has no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to the book’s solution…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opportunist by Elyse Friedman

Originally published 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Originally published 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on Bastille Day by Pierre Siniac, translated by John Pugmire

Originally published in 1981 as Un assassin, ça va, ça vient
English translation first published in 2022

It is the night of July 14th—Bastille Day—and in a house in Esbly, sixty kilometres from Paris, owned by Camille Feuillard, his ex-mistress is heard screaming his name as three bullets are fired into her skull at midnight, her body is seen being hoisted onto a hook in the ceiling, and her photograph flung to the ground and smashed.

Meanwhile, in Place de la Bastille in Paris, Camille is seen by reliable witnesses dancing with a redhead non-stop for an hour and a half, starting well before midnight.

Under intense questioning, Feuillard proclaims his innocence and cites his cast iron alibi. However, when drunk or injected with a truth serum, he describes murdering his ex-mistress, down to the last detail.

What is the truth? Is he schizophrenic? How can he have been in two places at once? Was he framed? If so, how and by whom?

I read Pierre Siniac’s Death on Bastille Day a couple of weeks ago, neglecting to make any notes as I read with the intention that I would post my thoughts pretty soon thereafter. Inevitably the demands of real life got in the way of those plans, keeping me from getting around to it until now, several books later and with the memory already fading a little (this is not a reflection of the quality of the book but rather how busy I have been). In normal circumstances I’d probably skip doing a write-up at all but as there do not seem to be any English language reviews of this title to date, I felt I ought to post something to get the conversation started and at least make readers aware that this book is out there.

The novella, a translation of Pierre Siniac’s Un assassin, ça va, ça vient, introduces us to Camille Feuillard who runs the Paris Porno theater where he stages elaborate erotic tableaux. These, it should be stressed, are referenced but not described and so his profession is used to illustrate his character rather than for the titillation of the reader.

Feuillard is something of an aging playboy, having had a string of mistresses over the years. He has recently become smitten with a seventeen year old and has ended things on rather bad terms with his previous mistress, Lise. The latter is convinced that Feuillard intends to kill her to ensure a completely clean break and talks with a friend about her desire to take action before he does to prevent it.

As it happens Lise is fated to die, being found brutally murdered in one of Camille’s houses in the French countryside some sixty miles outside of Paris. Camille would be the obvious suspect having been identified both by a witness and also by the deceased woman in her dying cries yet he happens to have an unbreakable alibi: at the time of the murder he was seen by multiple witnesses dancing in the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris. Both witnesses were close enough to see him clearly and knew him well enough to be certain of their identification.

Complicating matters, it seems that when Camille is drunk and later, when submitted to a truth serum, he will describe the murder in vivid and accurate detail. Under these influence he will admit to committing the crime but cannot explain how he could have managed to appear to be in two places at once and then, when sober, he reiterates his clear alibi.

At this point I will say that had this novella simply relied on the initial problem I am not sure that I would have found the case that intriguing. After all, it is quite easy to think that such a case could well boil down to the simple explanation that someone lied or was mistaken, though Siniac does at least provide multiple witnesses to make that less likely. It is the additional complication of the admissions of guilt that adds interest to the case, making it a little more complex while really driving home that there is something more to the problem than a bit of dodgy testimony.

The other thing that I think helps sell this problem is that later in the novella Siniac allows us to follow the two witnesses as they make serious and apparently sincere efforts to prove their claims. If we accept that they are acting in good faith and that there will be some complex explanation for the affair, the situation becomes significantly more interesting. For the most part I think Siniac delivers on that promise here.

I think Siniac also does a solid job of creating a cast of pretty credible characters for his story. Camille is certainly a vibrant character with a striking (if not particularly pleasant) personality and I really liked the pair of young witnesses and enjoyed how they come together to try to prove his innocence. A few of the other important characters do not stand out quite so much but I think the author does a good job of efficiently conveying their backgrounds, personalities and relationships to the other characters.

I was less enamored however of the more characters who are tasked with investigating the crime. That is not a reflection of their personalities which are similarly colorful, particularly the former private investigator who is desperate to get his license back, but that I feel that they are used in an overly functional way. On a few occasions, I felt that their choices were not grounded in their personalities but rather the needs of the story, particularly in the passages that give us that additional complication of the confession.

The other issue I have with in connection with that behavior is that I find the truth serum element of the plot a little hard to take with the seriousness I believe Siniac means us to. Leaving aside the question of whether such an action would be ethical (for the record: it’s not), my problem here is that I don’t believe such methods actually work to create the sort of credible, indisputable testimony needed to sell the impossibility. Clearly from the context of this story, Siniac believes that we should treat it as such but to me it feels a little ridiculous and pulpy and any time characters reference it I find myself taking them that little bit less seriously.

Thankfully such moments are infrequent and I was able to concentrate on the more general ideas being presented which struck me as being pretty clever. The explanation the author concocts for the business is certainly quite neat and is clued well, doing a good job of fitting the facts we have been given. Only one element of the solution felt a little underhand at first reading but even there, when I reread some key passages I found Siniac had set things up carefully, playing fair. I ultimately came away from this feeling that I could and should have reasoned through what had happened before the truth is revealed, making the moment of realization a pretty satisfying one for me. Those who are primarily focused on the idea of the puzzle should find plenty to like here.

The Verdict: An intriguing puzzle mystery with a rather clever solution.

Venice Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Originally published in 2012

From the introduction by Maxim Jakubowski:

It’s one of the most famous cities in the world. Immortalized by writers throughout the years, frozen in amber by film and photography, the picturesque survivor of a wild history whose centuries encompass splendor, decay, pestilence, beauty, and never-ending wonders. A city built on water, whose geographical position once saw it rule the world and form a vital crossing point between West and East. A city of merchants, artists, glamour, abject poverty, philosophers, corrupt nobles, refugees, courtesans, and unforgettable lovers, buffeted by the tides of wars, a unique place whose architecture is a subtle palette reflecting the successive waves of settlers, invaders, religions, and short-term rulers . . .

Change in this most curious of cities is something almost imperceptible and invisible to the naked eye. Walking just a few minutes away from the Rialto Bridge, for instance, and losing yourself in backstreets, where the canals and small connecting bridges leave just enough space to pass along the buildings without falling into the water, it’s as if you are stepping into a past century altogether, with no indication whatsoever of modernity. You wade through a labyrinth of stone, water, and wrought-iron bridges, and after dark feel part of another world where electricity isn’t yet invented, a most unsettle feeling nothing can prepare you for . . .”

I have written about a few of the Akashic Noir series on this blog before but Venice Noir marks the first time I have read a volume about a city that I have actually visited myself. While that was a number of years ago (in the mid-nineties), I have some pretty clear memories of that trip and of spending time in the city. Thankfully my experiences were far more positive than those encountered by those visiting the city in most of these stories.

This volume, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, makes the possibly controversial choice to include a number of writers who hail from outside Italy. This was a conscious choice on the part of the editor who suggests in his introduction that it reflects his feeling that ‘Venice belongs to the world’ and it is certainly an interesting one, allowing the collection to see the city both through the eyes of its yearlong inhabitants and those visiting. The contrast between those perspectives and the way the city is seen is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection and, to my surprise, is presented in a largely consistent manner between the various stories.

As I have noted with some of the other collections, the Akashic range adopts a rather broad interpretation of noir allowing for gritty crime stories but also stories that focus on it as an attitude or stylistic choice. This collection is no exception, offering up a range of approaches and styles. There are, for instance, two rather quirky stories told from the perspectives of the city’s biggest population – its rats. While there are some common elements, it is striking how different those two stories are from one another in some of their other features.

Some of the offerings are more serious such as the opening tale, Cloudy Water, which explores a rather unusual criminal enterprise that seems quite specific to its setting. Many of the other stories in the collection similarly emerge from aspects of their setting, making for a rather distinctive collection.

The general standard of writing in the collection is very high though there are several stories that had more limited appeal for me personally either based on characterization or their development of their themes. An example of the latter would be Francesco Ferracin’s The Comedy is Over which is certainly effective in its examination of how a woman’s traumatic experience leads her to seek revenge or Desdemona Undicesima by Isabella Santacroce which has an almost hypnotic quality as the narrator repeatedly revisits moments and ideas in a loop.

More stories hit than miss though and when it gets it right, the results can be really compelling. Perhaps my favorite of the stories is Commissario Clelia Vinci by Barbara Baraldi. This story, which is one of two told from the perspective of a law enforcement officer, is one of the longer efforts and benefits from the time that can be given to exploring the character’s backstory while she works on a difficult murder case. I was particularly struck by the idea that the story explores that the actions of law enforcement can have unintended consequences and I felt that the journey she goes on here was quite powerful.

The other one I really liked was Signor Gauke’s Tongue, which is one of the stories that most strongly features the city as a location. While some aspects of that story could arguably occur anywhere, Mike Hodges peppers their story with references to buildings and their history as well as some of the more notable figures associated with the city. I enjoyed discovering the secrets that story’s protagonist was holding and learning the significance of its title.

The balance of styles, between the humorous and the more serious, is very good. While the stories are grouped together along common themes I never felt that it was repeating itself as I have occasionally with some of the other entries in this series. I appreciate that intention to offer variety and while not every story is a winner, all are readable and interesting.

The Verdict: A very solid and varied collection of stories, most of which utilize its distinctive setting well.

click for individual story reviews

Reprint of the Year 2022: Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Last week I shared some thoughts about one of the most recent reprints of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, The End of Andrew Harrison. In that post I noted that I really appreciate the idea that the entirety of his output will at some point be available again and that each new set of titles moves us closer to that. It is worth pointing out though that I doubt I would have encountered Crofts at all had it not been for a crime fiction imprint that takes a different, ‘curated’ approach to its releases.

Ranges like the British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics are wonderful tools for discovery. Readers may well pick up a copy of The Mad Hatter Mystery or It Walks By Night based on already knowing and loving the author but by giving the impression of careful selection and the implication that the title is one of the highlights of that author’s work, it also provides an easy jumping on point. It is, in essence, a literary tasting menu.

Earlier this year I treated myself to a subscription to Penzler Publishing’s American Mystery Classics range through The Mysterious Bookshop. I would get a copy of whatever titles they put out with the knowledge that I’d be getting some authors I’d already know of and others that would be completely new to me. Roger Scarlett, the author of this novel, fell neatly into that second category.

I might not have picked up this book had it just been one of a half dozen titles by the author on a shelf. Indeed I would likely never have looked closely at it at all (one of the few knocks I’d make on this publication is that the image of the cat on the cover gives the book a much cozier appearance than its reality). As part of an ongoing range which has had far more hits than misses for me however I find myself more willing to give a book the benefit of the doubt and at least give it a chance to impress me.

Which Cat’s Paw did.

The story concerns the murder of a septuagenarian who is visited at his Boston mansion by members of his extended family, all hoping that they will be remembered in his will. When he shares some information at his birthday party however they are appalled and before the night is out he has been murdered.

Scarlett gives us family tensions, unspoken secrets and a cast of characters all seemingly having been pushed to desperation. It’s a very solid base for a mystery. What I appreciated here though is that while there are some familiar elements here, it feels like Scarlett is trying to give the suspects a range of backstories. Learning what those are is as exciting as discovering the solution to the mystery overall.

With much of the novel devoted to getting to know the victim and the suspects, I think that they feel particularly dimensional and well developed. It is this focus on character that makes this book such a pleasure to read and helped me really invest in discovering the truth. That solution, when it comes, is well constructed and clued, helping the book deliver a nice, punchy conclusion with an excellent final page reveal.

It was a great read and I am grateful to the American Mystery Classics range for selecting this and helping me to encounter it. I came away from the book excited to read more Roger Scarlett in the future. Now I just have to wait for someone to go ahead and reprint them…

Holmes on Film: Murder by Decree (1979)

Recently I started a new series of posts in which I look at film and television works that use the character of Sherlock Holmes, either directly or indirectly. I kicked the series off with a look at two very early shorts – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) and A Canine Sherlock (1912), each of which I would describe as Holmes-adjacent works, using the idea of Holmes but little else about the character.

The subject of today’s post, while also not an adaptation of a canonical Holmes story, sees the character – and Dr. Watson – fully represented. I watched it for the first time in preparation for this post and found it interesting enough that I decided to give it a second viewing later that day. Indeed, I think it may well feature my favorite rendering of one of Doyle’s characters.

Now, on with the movie…

Murder by Decree Blu Ray cover

Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree was not the Great Detective’s first run-in with Jack the Ripper. A little more than a decade earlier James Hill had made A Study in Terror which had starred John Neville as Sherlock Holmes which I have seen but am yet to review on this blog. Interestingly two actors from that production also appear in this – Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay, the latter reprising the same role as Inspector Lestrade.

The first thing to note about Murder by Decree is the intensity of violence represented on screen. Each of the murders that we see feel vicious, with that sense being enhanced by the repeated use of steady-cam sequences in which we seem to be seeing those scenes as the killer. This is where watching the film for a second time however gave me a little extra clarity – that choice helps to imply violence that we do not directly see, adding to the sense of horror while also allowing the director to hold back a little.

On the topic of the violence, let’s also take a moment to reflect on how this (and other works that use the Whitechapel Murders) treats the fact that it is using some real historical figures. There is a school of thought, actually voiced here by Watson in one scene, that the victims can just be turned into props and their worth as individuals can be lost.

The popular conception of the Ripper is examined and explored. We are reminded that class insulated some from the panic that was a part of people’s daily lives for a while. For example, one character comments on how the wealthy seem to revel in exploring the back alleys of the East End where the murders have taken place.

I also appreciate that the film tries to emphasize that the five women murdered were people rather than just victims. The poverty in the East End is represented very effectively, helping to demonstrate the difficulty of the lives of many in the area, and there is an effort to explore their individual circumstances and give at least a couple of them more proactive roles in the story. Yet it’s hard to escape that this is still ultimately fictionalizing real people and that our focus is still ultimately on the question of who the Ripper was. I think it is more tastefully handled than some other fictional explorations of the murders but I can understand those who have trouble with the idea.

Let’s turn then to the characters tasked with solving this mystery – Holmes and Watson. Christopher Plummer had appeared as Sherlock Holmes a short while earlier in a production of Silver Blaze but this is not a continuation of that portrayal which the actor had been less than satisfied with.

I really like a lot about Plummer’s performance here. His Holmes has moments where he appears detached or reluctant to engage, most notably in a scene near the start where he engages with a group of men seeking to hire him. Once the case begins in earnest however it is striking how emotional he becomes, working himself in a fury at several points in the story. Since watching the film I have read a fair bit of criticism of this aspect of his portrayal and I can certainly understand that what we see here isn’t often reflected in the Holmes canon. I think though it is not in itself inconsistent – Holmes’ reluctance to ally himself with the rich and powerful is an undercurrent in several stories and so, by extension, is the idea that he might be appalled by the injustices that he witnesses in this adventure. Those moments and, at points, tears feel earned by the extremity of the situation that he has become involved in and later, by his feeling of culpability in at least a couple of the women’s fates.

There is perhaps a little more truth to the suggestion that his Holmes intuits more than he detects. Like many of the Holmes stories, this is structured more as an adventure than a detective story – at least as far as Holmes is concerned. Many of his actions here are directly following up on ideas of leads suggested to him and the few scenes in which we see our heroes thinking through the case, the ideas being discussed belong to Watson. Holmes it turns out is thinking things through internally rather than voicing them to the viewer. Still, for the viewer however there is an opportunity to play detective as they are provided clues as to the motives behind everything in good time before Holmes reveals the solution (and some unseen legwork he has done to prove the things the viewer could only suspect).

I also really enjoyed the lighter moments Plummer gets, whether demonstrating that he is not completely defenseless when rejecting a revolver from Watson or sharing a carriage ride with him. While the tone of this story does not allow for many overtly humorous scenes, when we do get one it helps provide a bit of tonal balance and reminds us that Holmes is invigorated by the act of investigation. What I like most about the performance though is the sense of affection for Watson that is present throughout the picture.

James Mason’s take on the character of Watson is of an inherently noble, if somewhat stuffy, figure. That stuffiness is not necessarily intended to be ridiculous however, rather perhaps a little naïve. Several of the situations and conclusions reached in this story, for instance, defy his imagination and appall him. At one point in the story he puts himself in trouble, in part because he does not perceive the danger someone might pose to him. Yet while he may err at points or suggest a painfully straightforward solution to a complex problem, he is no buffoon. Instead he is a moral champion, urging Holmes to get involved in the case in the first place, and a good friend – throwing himself into danger to save him.

It is a splendid rendering of the character that I think may well be my favorite take on the part I have come across so far (which is all the more impressive given some of the others to have played the role). I found myself wishing that there had been further films with Plummer and Mason given how well the pair worked together.

As for the rest of the cast, quality abounds. This is a strikingly starry picture with familiar faces throughout. From the stars like Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings, and Genevieve Bujold to even the smaller parts such as June Brown’s appearance as Annie Chapman. While some performances attract the attention more than others (Bujold is superb and while the material doesn’t do much to test John Gielgud, he is dazzling in his brief appearance), I felt there was no weak link or obviously miscast character.

Where I do have complaints is with some aspects of the direction and editing. To be clear, there are some wonderful moments that I think show skill and imagination in how they are constructed. I already referenced the effectiveness of the steady-cam photography and there are similarly effective shots in the lengthy carriage ride Holmes and Watson take and in the dockland scenes (particularly one in which Holmes talks with an unseen informant). There are also some really effective attempts to recreate some locations, most notably the location of the final murder.

Yet there are some moments that feel very awkward. Sudden cuts in the sound as one scene feeds into another such as the lead into the first murder we witness or the choice to shoot some scenes in such a way that we get a very good look at a shadowy individual’s very distinctive features. This coupled with some curiously relaxed pacing, particularly in its talky denouement, soft and smeary cinematography, and the gallery of stars post-credits sequence (admittedly a very unimportant feature of the film), often makes it feel more TV than movie in its style and scope.

While I think the pace of the piece could have been a bit sharper at points, when the film is working it goes marvelously. The performances from the two leads are terrific, their chemistry among the best of any Holmes and Watson, and the solution can be reasoned out – even if it takes some unseen evidence gathered by Holmes to prove his case. It certainly ranks among the better Holmes films I have seen and I am glad that taking on this project prompted me to go ahead and finally watch my copy.

Reprint of the Year 2022: The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

As we approach the end of this year it is a pleasure to once again be asked to put forward a few nominations for what I consider to be my reprints of the year. Happily the first of my picks was particularly easy this year as among the titles this year was a book that I reviewed several years ago and have been eager to see others be able to get their hands on: Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison.

There’s a lot I really love about this story but I think my interest in it started with learning it was one of just a couple of attempts from Crofts at writing an impossible crime. What particularly interests me about Crofts’ approach is that rather than trying to sustain an impossibility across an entire novel it is instead set up and broken down all in the course of about forty pages.

The problem here is a sealed and bolted cabin on board a boat. The only other entrance to the cabin is a porthole, helpfully pictured on the front of this reprint edition. When the body of Andrew Harrison, a prominent and wealthy man who had only just reappeared after inexplicably vanishing for a few days, is discovered inside that cabin it appears completely impossible that anyone could have gained entry.

Crofts’ series detective, Inspector French, is tasked with working out exactly what had happened and he does so in his typical, methodical fashion. It is this, rather than the situation itself, that makes this part of the book so compelling. Rather than dealing with an impossibility on a more conceptual level, French will break it apart through attention to detail and repeated, rigorous testing of his ideas.

It proves fascinating to read and is, for me, one of the highest points of Crofts’ writing. Those forty pages tell you everything you need to know about the character, the way he thinks and approaches solving a crime. I couldn’t work this one out myself, making the moment where he pieces it together all the more satisfying.

As excellent as that chapter is, it is just one piece – albeit a highlight – of a wider case. The question of whodunit is every bit as important as that of how the matter was done. It is a pleasure following French’s investigation as he pieces together the story of Harrison’s sudden disappearance and the timeline of the murder itself. The pacing of the case is superb with Crofts regularly introducing new discoveries that keep the reader from getting too far ahead of the meticulous detective. It is, in short, one of the most tightly plotted of all of the Crofts stories I have read.

I nominate The End of Andrew Harrison in part because of its quality as a book but also because I want to emphasize how much I have appreciated this run of reprints. While some Crofts titles have been easy to come across as cheap vintage reprints, others proved much trickier. This was one of those, in part perhaps because of that status as one of his few impossible crimes. From memory I paid somewhere around the $50 price for a battered copy of this and when I read it, I was frustrated that the higher price tag and lack of easy availability would keep others from picking it up themselves.

I am delighted therefore to see this return to print and finally be available for others to read and enjoy. I hope that even if you don’t vote for this (which, to be clear, you should), that you give this one a try. If you do, let me know what you make of it. I’m eager to read what others think of it!

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Bellos

Originally published in 1961 as Le Monte-Change
English translation first published in 2016

Trouble is the last thing Albert needs. Traveling back to his childhood home on Christmas Eve to mourn his mother’s death, he finds the loneliness and nostalgia of his Parisian quartier unbearable. Until, that evening, he encounters a beautiful, seemingly innocent woman at a brasserie, and his spirits are lifted.

Still, something about the woman disturbs him. Where is the father of her child? And what are those two red stains on her sleeve? When she invites him back to her apartment, Albert thinks he’s in luck. But a monstrous scene awaits them, and he finds himself lured into the darkness against his better judgment.

Unravelling like a paranoid nightmare, Bird in a Cage melds existentialist drama with thrilling noir to tell the story of a man trapped in a prison of his own making.

Long-term followers of this blog will know that I have become something of a Dard fan over the years. Though incredibly prolific, only a small handful of his works have been translated into English so far and so, with no sign of any new translations in the offing, I have been carefully rationing the remaining titles. That meant that I came to this just as the next Dard on my bookshelf without bothering to read the book’s blurb. In a happy accident I had picked out a book set almost entirely on Christmas Eve and the early hours of Christmas morning without even realizing it. A piece of fortunate timing!

That setting is anything but background as the fact that this takes place during the festive period is important to both the plot and the themes of the novel. Dard’s protagonist, Albert, has returned to the home he shared with his mother. He is mourning her death which occurred while he was away and struggles with the emptiness of the house, deciding instead to walk the streets of Paris where he picks up the titular Christmas tree ornament and then tries to distract himself with dinner at a restaurant.

During his meal he is struck by the appearance of a woman sat at a nearby table with her young daughter. She looks just like his lost love, though he knows it cannot be her as she is dead. Instinctively he starts to follow her before contriving a meeting at a movie theater, getting involved in her own Christmas plans.

I will choose to stop my recap at this early point in the story to protect you from spoilers. It’s hard to go into any detail about the setup, in particular its criminous elements, without heavily spoiling the experience. While Dard is more about mood and tone than plot (for reasons I’ll hopefully be able to explain in a moment), I think this is one of those books best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. You will almost certainly be ahead of Albert as he lives through that one crazy night, particularly if you read carefully, but there are a few surprises that are worth preserving.

Instead let’s focus on the character of Albert. He is one of those tricky characters who is often sympathetic without being particularly likeable. I suspect many readers would be able to relate to his feeling of loneliness and isolation at a first holiday spent without a parent and Dard’s description of the discomfort of a familiar setting is very effective. Similarly I think the idea that a lost love could haunt you, particularly when you are already in a melancholy mood, is understandable. Yet while we may empathize with his state of mind at the start of this story, readers may soon find his behavior to be generally unsettling and intense.

Dard tells the story through Albert’s voice as so when he follows the woman and her daughter through the streets of Paris and contrives that meeting, the reader may well feel complicit in an act of stalking. This is very effective, particularly as we witness his observations first-hand, but it also made me rather uncomfortable, particularly as I worried where this story was headed (and where the act of criminality might be found).

The character of the woman is seen primarily through Albert’s eyes and experiences, casting her primarily as an object of fascination and desire. While I think we get to know Albert well over the course of the book, she remains somewhat harder to know. I think that this fits the style of story that Dard is telling here which is based in part on the idea that she is a stranger to Albert but it may frustrate some readers who will no doubt want to understand her, and her choices, better as the story unfolds.

The book’s blurb describes what follows as a ‘paranoid nightmare’ which fits the book well. Once these characters meet and begin to converse the story accelerates, building a genuinely mysterious and interesting situation for Albert to try to work through. My expectation coming to the book was that it would be a thriller and there certainly are some of those elements, albeit rendered with a decidedly noir style, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a proper puzzle lying below the surface. The question is an interesting one, even if the protagonist never quite asks it directly themselves and the nature of that question isn’t clear until close to the end. Happily though the solution is quite ingenious and clued pretty well.

However as good as that puzzle is, it should be stressed that Dard doesn’t place the focus on it but rather on the experiences of the person caught up in the situation. This is what I was meaning earlier when I said that Dard’s work isn’t primarily about the plot, even when his stories are as cleverly constructed as this one (and, it should be said, many of them aren’t).

Like much noir fiction, Dard makes use of a considerable amount of foreshadowing, often dropping pretty sizeable hints as to the secrets that his characters might have. That is not accidental or poor writing on the part of the author but rather a deliberate choice to build tension and anticipation about where the story might be headed. Tonally we may suspect that Albert is doomed from the start of the story, the question is how will we get there.

Those who read crime fiction for mood, tone, and the development of themes will likely find Dard’s writing here effective. Not only is there a really strong sense of place and time, but the book is told in a sort of unworldly, early morning haze as characters get caught up in the moment and find themselves in trouble. For those who long to be surprised by a book however it can be a little deflating as the reader is likely to be ahead of the characters throughout most of the book (with the possible exception of the bigger explanation here). After all, if you can’t anticipate at least one of the two or three big secrets here then you likely weren’t reading very carefully.

In terms of the Dard works I have read to date, I think that this was ultimately one of the most satisfying although I will caveat that by noting that I found other stories easier to engage with initially because of my discomfort with Albert as a protagonist. I might not suggest this as a first Dard – I think Crush is a more accessible starting point – but I do think it’s a superbly crafted book.

The Verdict: A really satisfying read though I think there are better books to pick if you are starting out with the author because of the rather unsettling behavior of the protagonist.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? The English translation was published a few years ago so if you are looking for a physical copy, you will likely have to order a copy through your local bookstore. If you do, the ISBN number is 9781782271994.