The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #5
Preceded by Lord Peter Views the Body
Followed by Strong Poison

The Blurb

Even the Bellona Club’s most devoted members would never call it lively. Its atmosphere is that of a morgue—or, at best, a funeral parlor—and on Armistice Day the gloom is only heightened. Veterans of the Great War gather at the Bellona not to hash over old victories, but to stare into their whiskies and complain about old injuries, shrinking pensions, and the lingering effects of shell shock. Though he acts jolly, Lord Peter Wimsey finds the holiday grim. And this Armistice Day, death has come to join the festivities.
 
The aged General Fentiman—a hero of the Crimean War—expires sitting up in his favorite chair. Across town, his sister dies on the same day, throwing the General’s half-million-pound inheritance into turmoil. As the nation celebrates and suspicions run riot, Lord Peter must discover what kind of soldier would have the nerve to murder a general.

The Verdict

One of my favorite Sayers titles. This is a cleverly structured mystery with some powerful discussion about the effects the Great War was still having on those who had served a decade later.


My Thoughts

This is the book I was waiting to get to in my big reread of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories. While it has been years since I had last read the book, I remember it really clearly because the excellent 1970s television adaptation with Ian Carmichael was one of the very first televised mystery stories I ever watched. Even though the production values are rather dated, I still regularly rewatch it out of a mixture of appreciation for the performances and nostalgia for that first viewing.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the story is its hook – the way Lord Peter becomes involved in the case. The book opens at the Armistace Day commemorations at the rather crusty Bellona Club. During the celebrations General Fentiman is found dead sat in an armchair having apparently expired some hours earlier.

It turns out that on the same day General Fentiman died his much wealthier sister also passed away. Though the pair were somewhat estranged, she had made arrangements in her will that if he survived her that he would inherit the bulk of her estate. That would then pass down to his heirs. If she survived him then they would get a much smaller amount with the bulk passing to her niece. Lord Peter, who was at the club when the body was discovered, is asked by the General’s solicitor if he could make some discrete enquiries at the club to try and work out the precise time of death.

I would have been around ten or eleven when I first saw that TV adaptation so I saw this at a very early point in my journey to become a mysteries fan. This was the very first time I realized that a mystery story could ask a question other than whodunit – in this case, asking when a death occurred. While timing can certainly be a really important factor in a mystery, the idea of using it as the starting point for a story is far more impressive and while the story does expand to incorporate some more traditional elements, Sayers does an excellent job of sustaining interest in this initial question and also explaining the legal issue in an accessible way.

Compared to the three previous Wimsey novels this is a far more complex and intricately constructed story. Sayers structures her story around several relatively simple problems, each of which has a binary resolution. For instance, either the General died first or his sister did, either a character knew something or they did not and so on. The complexity comes from the need to piece each of those little questions together and seeing how what we learn impacts on our understanding of that bigger picture.

The solution is not particularly complex but I find it to be quite satisfying. I love that the reader is able to go back and see how crucial information has been layered into the story and, particularly, how the other characters are responding to the developments in the case or their perceptions of them. I think the explanation for what has happened, when given, is clever and makes a good deal of sense.

The other element of this story that really stands out to me is its discussion of the impact that the Great War had on a generation of young men. This is first addressed in its discussion of the Armistace Day commemoration and the different attitudes held by those marking the event. For the General and his professional soldier son, the commemorations are a celebration whereas for Lord Peter and George Fentiman, who was badly gassed in the war and suffers from shellshock, it is something to be endured – a reminder of a recent trauma they have not yet been able to resolve.

We have previously seen Sayers touch on the horrors of that war in one of the most striking sequences in the first Lord Peter novel, Whose Body?, but that sequence really exists to illustrate an aspect of his character. Here Sayers touches on the broader experiences of a generation, most of whom did not have Lord Peter’s personal resources and would need to try to hold down a job and support a family. George’s attitudes and stubborn rejections of any help offered can be frustrating but I find them completely understandable and I consider both him and his family to be really thoughtfuly characterized throughout the novel.

In several of my previous reviews of this series I noted that Lord Peter himself can be rather difficult to like because of his frustrating habit to be flippant and speak in a string of witty remarks. Sayers seemed to tone this down as the series went on and I think that trend continued with this novel. He still is more than capable of offering up a bon mot but that seems to be less the focus than the fact he cares for George and, most important of all, discovering the truth and securing justice. This is the version of the character I like best because I think the character is at his most appealing when he is fighting for someone rather than simply pursuing a hobby.

So, what are the problems with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club? I can’t find many. The only one I can offer up falls heavily into spoiler territory, relating to an aspect of the resolution of the story. Personally I believe that moment is consistent with everything that Sayers has established about everyone involved in that moment but I can understand why it might leave some readers cold.

ROT-13 (Really do not read this unless you have read the book): V unir ab qvssvphygl va oryvrivat gung gur qbpgbe, n sbezre zvyvgnel zna, jbhyq erpbtavmr gung ur unq orra genccrq naq jbhyq evfx gur qvfubabe bs gjb jbzra vs gur znggre unq gb or chefhrq va pbheg. Guvf vqrn gung qrngu vf n pbagnzvanag gung jvyy qrfgebl gur yvirf bs gubfr jub ner oebhtug vagb pbagnpg jvgu vg ehaf guebhtubhg guvf obbx naq vf pyrneyl ersyrpgrq va gur gvgyr naq qvnybt va gur fgbel jurer punenpgref pnaabg oevat gurzfryirf gb ersre gb n qrngu – vg vf fvzcyl na hacyrnfnag rirag.

Juvyr gur ynpx bs na neerfg znl srry yvxr n ynpx bs n erfbyhgvba, V guvax vs lbh pbafvqre gur bgure punenpgref vaibyirq va gur fgbel nyy bs gurz jbhyq cersre gung gur znggre tb ab shegure. V guvax vg vf bayl gur ernqre jub znl cbgragvnyyl jnag n fgebatre erfcbafr gb gur pevzr va fhpu n fvghngvba.

Nqq va gung lbh trg nyyhfvbaf gb gur vqrn gung gur gjb fvqrf bs gur snzvyl jvyy riraghnyyl or wbvarq gbtrgure naq lbh qb unir n frggvat bs gur jbeyq gb evtugf, rira vs gur zrnaf fvgf bhgfvqr gur sbezny yrtny cebprff.

Given the importance that this book has for me as part of my journey to becoming a fan of the genre I was anticipating rereading it and I am happy to say that it more than lives up to those memories. In my opinion it is the richest and most interesting of Sayers’ works up until this point and well worth your time if you have never read it before.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

When Paul enters university in early 1970s Pittsburgh, it’s with the hope of moving past the recent death of his father. Sensitive, insecure, and incomprehensible to his grieving family, Paul feels isolated and alone. When he meets the worldly Julian in his freshman ethics class, Paul is immediately drawn to his classmate’s effortless charm.

Paul sees Julian as his sole intellectual equal—an ally against the conventional world he finds so suffocating. Paul will stop at nothing to prove himself worthy of their friendship, because with Julian life is more invigorating than Paul could ever have imagined. But as charismatic as he can choose to be, Julian is also volatile and capriciously cruel, and Paul becomes increasingly afraid that he can never live up to what Julian expects of him.

As their friendship spirals into all-consuming intimacy, they each learn the lengths to which the other will go in order to stay together, their obsession ultimately hurtling them toward an act of irrevocable violence.

Unfolding with a propulsive ferocity, These Violent Delights is an exquisitely plotted excavation of the depths of human desire and the darkness it can bring forth in us.

The Verdict

Exquiste character building and a palpable sense of tension make this a really powerful read. Like most other reviews I have to note that this will particularly appeal to fans of Highsmith.


My Thoughts

These Violent Delights begins with a murder. In a prologue we follow Charlie as he realizes late at night that his car won’t start. He is relieved when two young men, Paul and Julian, offer him a ride home and he gladly accepts a Thermos of hot soup, ignoring its soapy taste. As they talk however he begins to feel something is off. Charlie cannot do anything however as the effects of the drug in the soup set in, causing him to lose control of his body. He cannot understand why these two men, who he has never met, would be doing this to him.

The novel is about those two men and it explores the events in their life and the people around them that have shaped them into who they are and the intense relationship that develops between them. This is a work grounded in its exploration of character and discussions of theme rather than a work focused on exploring the mechanics of murder.

That is reflected in the decision to place the details of what happens on that night at the front of the book. This not only serves to hook readers into wanting to know about what led up to that moment, it also allows the narrative to skip over the actual mechanics of the murder. By getting them out of the way at the front and not repeating them, the reader is encouraged to focus on the characters’ feelings and the changes in their relationship that take place during and as a consquence of this event.

By external appearances Paul and Julian are quite dissimilar. Paul, who comes from a working class background, is awkward and insular. His family note, for example, that he has never really had a friend and they worry for him, particular given his father’s suicide less than a year earlier. By contrast Julian, whose father is a government official, exudes an easy confidence and charm. He is much wealthier, indulgent and clearly intrigued by his new friend’s expression of a philosophical worldview. Paul meanwhile is attracted to Julian’s beauty and that confidence. He desperately wants Julian’s love, even if he considers himself unworthy of it.

I think Nemerever does an exceptional job making each character feel credible and dimensional and establishing the reasons why they become so dependent upon one another. That relationship changes throughout the novel, in response to the events each is experiencing in their lives, and at each stage I felt the nature of the relationship and the reasons for the alterations taking place to it were clearly communicated and thoughtfully explored.

That attention to detail extends to the secondary characters in the story. The characters in both Paul and Julian’s families each possess strong personalities and feel quite credible. Perhaps the best example of this would be Julian’s parents whose disinterest in the happiness of their son marks them out as being quite unsympathetic. Yet while they are certainly not likable, I think we understand them well through the things we come to learn about them such as how they seem to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritage. We can see them as characters determined to conform in order to gain social acceptance.

Nemerever also skillfully explores the ambiguities in his characters and their relationships with one another, sometimes offering alternative readings or perspectives on them. Like Paul, I spent much of the book uncertain of the extent to which Julian was serious in his romantic interest in him. While I had a clear idea by the end of the book what Julian was getting from Paul, that ambiguity about Julian’s feelings clearly affects Paul and causes him to become more dependent on receiving that attention and affection, only making the relationship feel more intense and unstable. And all the time we are waiting to see when they will start to plan their murder and why certain choices are made.

While it takes a while to get to the murder in the story, the seeds of that idea are quite apparent both in terms of the characters and some of the specifics of their plan. What is least apparent until the moment it happens is the psychological context of that moment and how Paul and Julian are thinking about the act. That question of what the murder represented to each of them and why they decided to do it is really quite thought-provoking. I think Nemerever handles that question well, and it is from this point in the story that I feel the reader will understand the characters and their thoughts better than they understand themselves.

The point at which the murder takes place is the start of the novel’s endgame. I think the author does an incredible job addressing their themes in this section of the novel and, once again, I was struck by the thoughtful and credible characterizations of both Paul and Julian. I was most struck though by the ending to their story which seemed to wrap things up pretty perfectly.

I have little negative to offer about it at all. I might perhaps have ended the book a few pages earlier after a particularly powerful moment had taken place given how well that moment is written. In spite of saying that though I can see the significance of the ending and think it does feel fitting to the overall flow of the story.

My only other note would be that while this work may begin with a murder, readers should be prepared that it is not structured like a genre work. While there is a body and an investigation, the book is more interested in exploring how it affects the characters rather than detailing the way everything is connected by the investigators. That being said, I think the investigation – while clearly a secondary element of the plot – is quite effectively written in some other respects and while we are certainly kept distant from it, the reader is given enough to follow their thinking and suppositions.

As you can tell I found this to be a really thoughtful and engaging exploration of an obsessional relationship and the terrible things it inspires its participants to do. The book addresses some really interesting themes and ideas and features some exceptional character development. It is a remarkable debut novel. I look forward to seeing what the author does next, whether it is linked to the genre or not.

Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

Constable Guard Thyself! by Henry Wade

Book Details

Originally published in 1935

Inspector Poole #5
Preceded by Mist on the Saltings
Followed by The High Sheriff

The Blurb

Two threats from a newly released convict – a poacher framed on a murder charge – put Captain Scole, Chief Constable of Brodshire, on his guard. Special men are assigned to protect him.

But four days later, Captain Scole is found shot through the head at his desk in Police Headquarters.

A full week later, young Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard is called in to follow a cold trail in the face of open hostility from the local police. And the further he explores the murder, the more baffling it becomes.

Could Scole’s First World War past be catching up with him – or something much closer to home? 

The Verdict

A thoroughly interesting (and thorough) procedural complete with a compelling impossible murder situation.


My Thoughts

Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers of the Golden Age so I cannot really explain why it has been well over a year since I last read one of his books. I had been intending to get back to him again for the past few months but got an extra little push when I noticed several of his books listed in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement. After reading the descriptions of the impossibilities this seemed like the one that intrigued me most based on the apparent audacity of the crime committed.

That crime is the murder of a Chief Constable within his office in the police station. Junior officers are present in the corridor outside when they hear shots and dash inside. There they find Scole dead having been shot in the forehead, yet there is no sign of the murderer in the room. They could not have escaped through the only door without passing the officers, nor is it easy to see how they could have got in or out through the window given the office is on the first floor and there are no signs of anyone having touched the old drainpipe which seems to be the only thing an intruder could grip onto.

Suspicion quickly falls on Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had made several threats of violence to Scole including once in person. Years earlier Scole had been responsible for sending Hinde to prison causing considerable resentment. What doesn’t make sense though is why Hinde waited to commit murder when he had already had the opportunity and how could he have got through the police station when officers had been placed on alert to look out for him.

Scole’s subordinates are keen to get to work and find his killer and initially resist calls to summon assistance from the Yard but when they are unable to track down Hinde and with their investigation stalled they reluctantly recognize that they need help. Inspector Poole is dispatched and decides to take the case back to the beginning to look at all their base assumptions, taking no fact for granted.

While this book does contain a solid impossible crime story, it is important to stress that it is first and foremost a police procedural. What this means is that we have lots of care taken to establish the critical points of the investigation, checking over important details, carefully comparing pieces of information to make sure that they fit together and ruling out other lines of inquiry. This type of storytelling will appeal to those who like to focus on the details of the investigation but may feel a little slow for those seeking action or big reveals. I enjoyed the story but I would accept that it is quite deliberate in its pacing, although I found the sensation of circling ever tighter around the killer to be quite compelling.

I have now read several stories featuring Inspector Poole and I am increasingly coming to appreciate him as a sleuth. He is a detective of the Inspector French school, albeit a little more fallible in his reasoning. At several points in this story we see him make well-reasoned but incorrect guesses about what might have happened, only to see his theories crumble around him. That fallibility only adds to the book’s strong sense of realism and makes me like him all the more.

Wade not only draws Poole well but also creates a convincing group of policemen to fill the station. While there is not a lot of diversity in the conceptions of those characters, I think each is portrayed quite thoughtfully and credibly. Their squabbles and resentments all feel well observed and I had little difficulty in believing that the reactions of those characters were realistic. Similarly those characters beyond the police station are also portrayed thoughtfully and manage to make significant impact, even when they only appear in a single sequence or phase of the novel.

I was also impressed by the rich themes Wade works into this book, some of which feel quite heavy. While I think this book works simply as a really engaging puzzle story, I think the author thoughtfully raises and tackles a number of challenging topics, some of which feel quite modern.

Reading this I was struck by the thought that this book must have been in the works at about the time a national debate was taking place around the future of policing. In 1932 Lord Trenchard, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had presented his white paper with recommendations to reform policing and in the same year that this book was published the Police College at Hendon accepted its first cohort of trainees. There was some quite strong reaction to these reforms at the time however, prompting some heated debate about the future of policing.

Given the themes of this novel, which discusses issues concerning police recruitment and heirarchies, the tension between the civilian and military mindsets of policing and issues of malpractice, I do wonder if Wade was intending this work to be supportive of the need to professionalize and reform the police. It does seem clear that Wade places much of the blame for the events of this story on Scole and his uncompromising military mindset.

I do continue to find Wade’s discussion of social and political issues to be quite fascinating, in large part because they seem so at odds with the way I often see them described. Typically Wade is portrayed as a conservative, establishment figure which certainly matches his own social background and yet I continue to find his works to offer support for a more progressive view of justice. This book is certainly no exception, discussing the way excessive punishment and a lack of support can lead to greater odds of the individual returning to a life of crime or violence. Add in the discussion of police malpractice and this work does feel quite progressive for its era and at odds with the general picture so often painted of Wade (four years later he wrote an even more pointed work addressing the causes of recidivism, Released for Death, which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Having discussed the book as a procedural, I do want to take a moment to address the impossible crime elements of the story. Those were after all the reason I was inspired to pick up this Wade.

While I stand by my earlier comment that this book is first and foremost a procedural, the impossible element of the story is quite pleasing and handled pretty well. The physical circumstances of the crime scene are explained well, as is the forensic evidence left at the scene. Though the investigation does hit several dead ends early on, I enjoyed following Poole as he tried to reason through the difference ways someone might have gained access, only to stumble when he realized why that plan did not work. We do drift away from the circumstances of the crime scene in the middle of the novel but I had confidence that there would be a thorough explanation of what happened later on and I was not disappointed.

That explanation may not be particularly dramatic or imaginative but I think it is detailed and convincing. Unfortunately I have to concur with Martin Edwards and J. F. Norris (see his review linked below) that Wade is a little heavy-handed in some of the clues he drops to the murderer’s identity at the start of the novel. I suspect he was assuming that readers would read this as an inverted-style story (or else ROT13: Abg pbafvqre n cbyvprzna orpnhfr bs n gehfg va nhgubevgl) and fail to register their significance. Unfortunately though it did stand out just a little too much for me. Still, even if you recognize the killer it is still satisfying to piece the other parts of this puzzle together.

Overall I was really pleased I made the choice to pick this book for my return to Wade. While its slow and methodical pacing will not suit every reader, the author crafted an interesting scenario with an equally interesting conclusion.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books also enjoyed this, finding it “fascinating on all levels”. He does raise a good point about the need for a character directory!

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name describes it as ‘an interesting portrait of Police work’ though he notes that a couple of early clues give the murderer’s identity away too easily.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World also praises the book, saying it has all of Wade’s merits.

Jonathan Creek: Black Canary (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 24 December, 1998
1998 Christmas Special
Preceded by Mother Redcap (Season Two)
Followed by The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish (Season Three)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Rik Mayall makes his first appearance as DI Gideon Pryke, a Police Investigator who is every bit as brilliant as Jonathan. Mayall was one of the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy movement in the 80s, featuring in some of the decade’s most popular shows such as The Young Ones, Comic Strip Presents and The New Statesman. This was apparently his first acting role after he experienced a traumatic quad biking accident that had left him in a coma for five days. He would make a further appearance in show around fifteen years later in the episode The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb.

The Verdict

The first TV special feels deserving of that title, giving Jonathan a brilliant rival to spar with and a pretty challenging case to solve.


My Thoughts

Marella Carney was one of the stars of the magic circuit, performing as the Black Canary, before a tragic accident led to her early retirement. Marella’s daughter contacts Jonathan to ask for his help in explaining the strange circumstances surrounding her sudden suicide. We learn that Marella’s wheelchair-bound husband Jerry was dozing in the conservatory when he woke to see her standing in the snowy garden arguing with a limping man. Suddenly she brandishes a shotgun, causing the man to run away, before turning it on herself moments later and shooting herself. Distraught, Jerry tries to get outside and when he does he notices that the only footprints that have been left in the snow are Marella’s…

Throughout its first season and most of its second Jonathan Creek stories were about fifty minute, standalone stories. The exception to that was a two-part story in the second season (The Problems at Gallows Gate) which I regard as fundamentally misconceived with many of its problems arising from the change in running time and issues of pacing. Black Canary, the show’s first Christmas special, would also be essentially double-length and could very easily have fallen into many of the same traps that Gallows Gate had. Instead Renwick delivered a story that not only felt tailored to its running time but also actually deserving of the label “special”.

To describe why this works I think it is important to pose a question: What do we want from a Jonathan Creek TV special?

The answer couldn’t simply be more Jonathan Creek. The show had by this point established a pretty solid rhythm and formula with an impossibility mixed with some comedic material and some will they/won’t they banter between Jonathan and Maddy. The Gallows Gate two-parter had shown that simply adding more running time into a story doesn’t make it more baffling or compelling.

Instead I think the answer lies in using that extra time to create a story that is bigger and more complex than you can typically tell. That doesn’t necessarily mean bigger in terms of the stakes of the show but bigger in the sense of telling Black Canary takes just such an approach and goes a step further by introducing a character who is capable of disrupting the show’s typical pacing, allowing for a different tone and unsettling the usual dynamics within our investigative team.

Much of my love for this episode stems from this character, DI Gideon Pryke, who represents a brilliant challenge to Jonathan. Pryke is, like Jonathan, incredibly brilliant with an ability to quickly assess and process information and see small details that would pass others by. As a consequence of that he is frequently one step ahead of Jonathan meaning that he has genuine competition to solve this case. It is, for the most part, fairly cordial although Jonathan is clearly frustrated by Pryke’s initial patronizing dismissal of him as the amateur who must be tolerated. Yet by the end their deductions are feeding each other, spurring each other on to crack the case. It is a really fun dynamic and one that I think enhances rather than diminishes Jonathan as a sleuth.

Rik Mayall gives a superb performance in the part, managing to not only portray Pryke as a good rival to Jonathan but ultimately a very effective detective. While the character is certainly arrogant, an attribute found in many of Mayall’s most celebrated characters, he is also surprisingly charming and ultimately quite gracious. This friendly rivalry reminded me somewhat of the one between Poirot and Giraud found in Murder on the Links although there is less of a stylistic difference between Creek and Pryke.

Turning to the actual details of the case, Renwick also makes some very smart choices in the way he sets up this story. One of the reasons that I have been rather vague about the details of this story in this post is that at the start of the story he leaves us with a lot of intriguing threads and pieces of information to think about. The seasoned viewer is likely to make some solid deductions from some of these and may feel that they are far ahead of the sleuths, only to find that there are a number of early reveals, some of which actually spin the story off in different directions.

This is the real benefit of the expanded running time – Renwick has the option here to develop clues that lead to other clues or sometimes cause you to rethink the way you are looking at them. The result is a story that feels much more complex than any Creek has tackled up until this point, building a sense that this story is more complex than it appears.

That feeling is borne out by the solution which is, for the most part, quite clever and logical. While the means by which the impossibility is achieved is not directly clued, I feel the viewer can infer what happened from some of the other clues around the crime scene. I enjoyed the way in which the solution is revealed with the two sleuths working in tandem to deliver the explanation which felt a rather charming way to not only close out the mystery but to show that the two had come together and a respect had formed. It is a nice moment that made me wish he had been brought back sooner so we could see more of that tag-team sleuthing that I found so enjoyable to watch.

While I think most of the mystery plot works well there are a few elements that I think are less successful. One aspect of the storyline, Jonathan and Maddy’s betting about whether Pryke’s assistant is male or female, feels pretty inappropriate and does not reflect brilliantly on those characters. It is another instance of the comedic elements of the show feeling really dated, though unlike some of the other examples I have pointed to this would not have been unusual content for the era it was produced in.

The other element that I think wouldn’t be written in exactly the same way today is Adam Klaus’ misbehavior with a costume designer working on his show. In particular, his behavior with a small recording device without her knowledge. Clearly we are intended to view this as a boorish and sleazy behavior when it is more of a violation of her body. Aside from that initial scene however I think that story thread does have some very amusing moments that I do think serve as a nice balance to the much more serious mystery material while the eventual payoff to that thread stands up pretty well.

With the exception of those two issues, I think much of the rest of the episode holds together really very well and proves that the show could work in a longer format. I think the hook of the disappearing footprints is fun and handled pretty well and I do enjoy the sort of haunting, spooky quality the episode channels at several points with the camera often dwelling on that rather eerie statue of Marella by the stairs.

The biggest reason I hold this episode in such high regard though is Mayall’s performance as Pryke. The character fits alongside Creek perfectly and, revisiting this episode, I found myself wishing that we had seen him more often. It is, in my opinion, one of the best guest performances on the show and I think that difficult relationship is perhaps the episode’s most memorable elements.

Which brings me to the end of my current run of Jonathan Creek posts. I plan on taking a short break from writing about the show until after the New Year when I plan on offering up some thoughts on The Curious Tale of Mr Spearfish.

Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Henry Gamadge #3
Preceded by Deadly Nightshade
Followed by The House Without the Door

The Blurb

One hundred years earlier, a beautiful guest had disappeared from the wealthy Vauregard household, along with the second volume in a set of the collected works of Byron. Improbably enough, both guest and book seem to have reappeared, with neither having aged a day. The elderly Mr. Vauregard is inclined to believe the young woman’s story of having vacationed on an astral plane. But his dubious niece calls in Henry Gamadge, gentleman-sleuth, expert in rare books, and sufficiently well-bred to avoid distressing the Vauregard sensibilities.

As Gamadge soon discovers, delicate sensibilities abound chez Vauregard, where the household includes an aging actress with ties to a spiritualist sect and a shy beauty with a shady (if crippled) fiance. As always in this delightful series, Gamadge comes up trumps, but only after careful study of the other players’ cards.

The Verdict

I love the premise of this mystery but sadly found that it never realizes its potential. There are better Gamadge stories than this.


My Thoughts

Rare books expert and amateur sleuth Henry Gamadge receives a visit from a young woman who wants his help. Her uncle, Mr. Vauregard, is one of the wealthiest men in New York and, until recently, lived alone in their family home. He now has a young female ward who he insists is the same woman that family stories say disappeared from their walled back garden a hundred years earlier with the second volume in a set of the collected poetry of Byron. He believes that she has travelled on the astral plane, pointing to her period clothing and the book she carried with her which was one of a presentational set that was specially produced.

Gamadge immediately suspects that this is an imposter – the question is what they are hoping to gain and how they acquired the information and a seemingly authentic copy of the book necesssary to pull off this deception. Keen to avoid the indignity of a public scandal or offending their uncle, they hope Gamadge will be able to prove the fraud and enable them to handle the matter quietly.

After a brief investigation however Gamadge finds himself investigating a case of murder…

Before I get to talking about the details of this book I feel like I need to take a moment to address what this book is not. You see, the reason I picked this book to read this week was because it is featured in Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders with the entry describing the disappearance of the young woman from that garden a hundred years earlier. As I read however I found myself utterly baffled, not by the mystery itself but rather why it merited inclusion. Surely, I reasoned, I am going to find that the explanation entry will say that it’s not an impossibility at all.

It does not. After much thought and revisiting both the book and the entries several times I still cannot understand why Adey views this as a legitimate impossibility. For one thing, it is never really investigated at all in the course of the novel because it is irrelevant to the problem that Gamadge is attempting to solve. For another, we are talking about an event that essentially was unwitnessed and for which the only evidence is that no one ever saw the girl or the book again. Let me suggest that you really shouldn’t be reading this for the impossibility alone and accordingly I have decided not to categorize it as such here.

Of course it is not Elizabeth Daly’s fault that I read this book expecting something quite different than what I got so, putting that disappointment to one side, I am going to try to judge it on its own merits.

One of the problems of Gamadge is that his expertise and skillset is so specific that he can feel like a rather unlikely sleuth. I think this case though is a really credible one for him to become involved in. We have clients who see that the best avenue for convincing their uncle about the fraud is to disprove the authenticity of the book, not the woman. In addition to the rather technical points of that investigation however, we can see this in more human terms because there is the question of who orchestrated this deception and why. This, for me, was the most compelling aspect of the investigation – even once we have a body on our hands.

The murder occurs, as the title suggests, in the second of the novel’s three volumes and sends the investigation in a somewhat different direction. This is important for sustaining Gamadge’s involvement in the case – he is the first on the scene and recognizes that members of the family may need his help and advice – but the circumstances surrounding the murder itself are not particularly compelling.

Where the first section of the novel delves into family history and relationships, the material that follows this murder feels more focused on discovering motive and opportunity. The solution to what happened is rather uninspiring and is reached more through persistance, attempts to undermine alibis and a willingness to lay traps by dropping hints about what he knows. In short, those who are hoping for some solid detection are going to be disappointed as there is relatively little application of deductive reasoning here. I think it would be fair to say that Gamadge does not so much solve this case as he does stir things up before waiting to see where everything lands. That approach is fine for an adventure story but much less satisfying when read as detective fiction.

This is a shame because there is some material here that I think is interesting and relatively original. I really like the premise of someone disappearing and reappearing in exactly the same place years later having not aged a day, even if it is not really the focus here. It perhaps is not sufficient to sustain an entire novel but I find the idea appealing and would love to read a story that did it with a shorter timespan (perhaps a decade or two rather than a century) to allow for actual witnesses. I am sure it must exist so please feel free to let me know of any such titles in the comments.

I also enjoyed the cast of characters, several of whom are quite eccentric and theatrical. I think Daly does a solid job of establishing their distinct personalities and I could understand why Gamadge wants to protect them. Certainly their company is entertaining enough if you are reading this as an adventure but because Gamadge is protective of them, it frustrates that he never really applies pressure or closely questions anyone.

All of which is to say that I ultimately found Murders in Volume 2 to be a deeply underwhelming read, even if I was quite engaged for much of it. The central premise of the investigation holds some promise and feels quite unusual but there just isn’t enough payoff here to make the time spent with it worthwhile. There are better Daly novels out there.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books notes how this was out of print for years and declares he has solved the mystery of why. He has less patience for the discussion of Webster than I had but I broadly agree with his review.

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Book Details

Originally published in 2007

Some ebook editions include Abbott’s short story Policy that this novel was based upon.

The Blurb

A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protégée the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet–as long as she doesn’t take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protégée scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.

The Verdict

An enjoyable exploration of some of the common themes and tropes of noir fiction.


My Thoughts

This week has not exactly turned out as I had planned. I had a bunch of vacation days that I could take so I decided that I would take several days this week. The plan was that this would allow me to be able to stay up late and watch the election, get some sleep once it was all called and then take a few relaxing days to recover, catch up on reading and blogging. I am still pretty much in the first stage of that plan. Thankfully I still have the weekend to recover!

So, why am I telling you this? Well, I read Queenpin on Tuesday morning before heading to work. It has been a sleepless few days since then as I have been transfixed by coverage, finding myself unable to concentrate on anything else. Point of illustration – right now I have the coverage on the TV muted in the background. As a result, I suspect whatever careful and considered analysis I might have offered about the details of the book has disappeared from my mind to be replaced by vote margins in the various counties around where I live (which as of the time of writing appears in recount territory).

This is a shame because Queenpin is a book that deserves thoughtful thematic analysis. No doubt I will have to revisit it at some point though I would like to try some of Abbott’s other works first.

Queenpin is the story of a young, unnamed woman who takes a job as a bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub that her father also works at. He is oblivious to the illegal activities taking place there but she realizes that the owners are connected and, when she is asked to produce a second set of books, engaged in a dangerous game with their bosses. Gloria Denton comes by regularly to inspect the books and collect the bosses’ share of the take. She quickly spots what they are up to but, having taken a shine to the narrator and recognizing that she is smart and capable, opts to exclude her from the punishment and take her on as an assistant.

Gloria teaches the narrator the basics and gets her started with a few collection gigs. She is provided with a home, beautiful clothes and lots of other luxuries. Her life seems pretty comfortable but then she has the misfortune of meeting a young and reckless man and before long she finds herself making some questionable and dangerous decisions…

Queenpin is a work that seeks to deconstruct and reassess the central tropes and relationships of noir storytelling. Abbott transforms the typical structure of such stories by flipping the usual gender assignments, providing us with a female protagonist and mentor and, in Vic, a homme fatale. In the wrong hands this could have been an excuse for a gimmicky type of storytelling but Abbott uses this idea to explore deeper ideas relating to the career expectations based on gender and class in this period, social mobility, consumerism and of female sexuality.

The decision to not provide a name for the protagonist is an interesting one. I think it is intended to remind us that our focus is not so much on the individual but the idea of what she represents. She is as much an archetype as Walter Huff or Frank Chambers. But Abbott isn’t going to craft multiple novels to explore that idea – instead she does it in just one book, providing us with a model for an ambitious and competent everywoman who wants to make herself something more.

To emphasize that this character is not a one-off, even within the world she has created, Abbott creates Gloria – a character who inhabits a familiar world of gangsters. Where the protagonist remains somewhat hazily drawn, Gloria is described in very clear detail and established as successful and inspiring. She is a woman who has lasted in a tough and violent world, outlasting several of her peers, and retains a sense of dignity and style. It is clear that our protagonist views her as a model for who she wants to be, though she does not always listen to the advice she is given.

The development of the main character’s criminal career is intriguing though it is not really the focus of the book. We do get some interesting discussion of money laundering but the focus of the book is more on interpersonal relationships.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the relationship between the protagonist and Gloria. Gloria takes a number of risks and provides a lot to the main character throughout this novel. It begins with the trouble she takes to protect her from being caught up in the reprisals against her bosses but she goes much further, dressing her, giving her jewelry, a home and a car. She raises her up and remakes her as the woman she thinks she should be.

There are several possible interpretations of these choices. She could simply be seeing potential in her, crafting her into a version of herself to make it possible to step back from (or expand) her professional activities. She might also feel protective of her, seeing something of herself in her and seeking to strengthen her. Or, and this is the one I find most convincing, she may actually have fallen in love with her and be trying to turn her into an ideal lover. If it is the last of these options, I think the relationship is probably never consumated, though I suspect that the main character is aware of her power over her and comes to exploit it.

What I find most compelling about this last possibility is that, if true, it raises an interesting parallel with the main character’s own misguided relationship. Throughout the novel Gloria advises her to avoid romantic or flirtatious entanglements, suggesting that they would compromise her and make her weak. We see evidence of that in her misguided relationship with Vic, a character whose appeal is a little hard for me to perceive though I understand that her feelings are simply beyond her control and she is simply drawn to him. Is Gloria’s advice given out of jealousy or possessiveness or is it simply good advice that she herself is failing to follow. I am not entirely sure what I think but I found this ambiguity to be really interesting.

By comparison her relationship with Vic is much flatter and while I understand its importance to the plot, this is the least complex aspect of the novel. Perhaps that reflects that this is simply a more familiar relationship with a pretty direct reversal of the usual gender roles. Much of the material that is added to this novel in expanding it from its original short story form relates to this aspect of the story and at times it does feel a little like padding. Still, I think the payoff to this aspect of the story is satisfying and I enjoyed the reflections on it towards the end of the novel.

Overall I felt that Queenpin was a clever and largely satisfying exploration of theme and situation. Is it revolutionary? Perhaps not, but I think the more familiar aspects of the plot are necessary to allow for commentary and reflection on noir tropes. It certainly left me curious to try some of Abbott’s other work which I gather is more contemporary. If you have any recommendations please feel free to share!

Murder in the Gunroom by H. Beam Piper

Book Details

Originally published in 1953

The Blurb

The Lane Fleming collection of early pistols and revolvers was one of the best in the country. When Fleming was found dead on the floor of his locked gunroom, a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver in his hand, the coroner’s verdict was “death by accident.” But Gladys Fleming had her doubts. Enough at any rate to engage Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand—better known just as Jeff—private detective and a pistol-collector himself, to catalogue, appraise, and negotiate the sale of her late husband’s collection.

There were a number of people who had wanted the collection. The question was: had anyone wanted it badly enough to kill Fleming? And if so, how had he done it? Here is a mystery, told against the fascinating background of old guns and gun-collecting, which is rapid-fire without being hysterical, exciting without losing its contact with reason, and which introduces a personable and intelligent new private detective. It is a story that will keep your nerves on a hair trigger even if you don’t know the difference between a cased pair of Paterson .34’s and a Texas .40 with a ramming-lever.

The Verdict

No standout elements but no significant flaws either. A competent, pulpy detective story.


My Thoughts

Earlier this week I found myself caught in a tricky situation where I found myself with time to read but without any of the books I was working on to hand. This problem called for a quick and fast read and so I turned to Project Gutenberg to find something I could devour in a couple of hours to take my mind off other things. This was the book I stumbled upon.

Murder in the Gunroom is apparently the only mystery novel by H. Beam Piper, a writer best known as an author of science fiction. Blending detective fiction structure with a pulpy style (including its resolution), the book opens with Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand, a private detective, being approached by a widow who is seeking assistance in valuing her husband’s enormous collection of antique pistols and revolvers for sale. What he is not commissioned to do directly, yet clearly underlies the request, is to discretely look into the strange circumstances of her husband’s death.

Lane Fleming was found dead in his gunroom having apparently accidentally discharged a loaded antique pistol while cleaning it. It seems inconceivable that a man who was an authority on firearms could have failed to notice that the weapon was loaded making the coroner’s verdict of accidental death highly suspect. Either it was suicide, though there seems to have been no cause for that, or else it was murder.

Given that many of the reviews of this book that I have read hinge on the author’s enthusiasm for firearms and the passages in the book that discuss them I feel that I ought to start by commenting on this aspect of the book. I am not in any way a gun enthusiast so I can understand finding this material unappealing. I would point out though that the reader does not need to have any knowledge of guns whatsoever to understand the key points in this mystery. That material really only serves as background, mostly consisting of name checks for particular items within the collection. The mystery itself requires no technical knowledge of firearms at all and I found that my lack of interest in guns was no more of an impediment to enjoying this book than my lack of interest in bridge is to Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table (which is a far more technically-demanding work).

Piper’s decision to open with the conversation in which Rand is hired is a solid one, in part because it enables him to condense a lot of the key points of interest into just a short conversation. More importantly though it provides us with opportunities to see Rand’s perception and reasoning at work. Take the indirect way he is hired to work this case: there is never any conversation in which the widow expresses any doubt that the death was an accident but Rand’s reasoning that she must intend for him to look into it is clear and logical. Similarly in some of the early conversations he has with the family’s lawyer and members of the household we see how he uses tact and cunning to provide exactly the right arguments that will gain him the access he needs while minimizing their suspicions about his activities.

Rand is a clever and insightful detective but there are also certainly some pulpy elements to his characterization. I was particularly struck by the statement in his initial description where we are told ‘women instinctively suspected that he would make a most satisfying lover’ and while we don’t see much more of that side of the character in this book, there are a couple of action scenes including a shootout near the end that emphasize his toughness and own skill with a firearm.

Before we can get to that shootout however Rand will need to conduct an investigation and question both members of the deceased’s household and several prominent people within the local community. I did find it interesting, given that this first murder was not a crime that required any great deal of physical strength, that the women in the household never come under any scrutiny as possible killers although they do feature frequently in the story. Instead Rand settles on two possible areas for a motive – either something to do with his business or his gun collection.

While it may appear to be limiting to restrict the investigation to just two broad areas of motive, there are several distinct angles within each of those ideas, several of which I found quite interesting. Further interest and complications are added with the introduction of a second and much clearer case of murder that takes place relatively early in the novel.

In terms of the characterizations of the suspects, each have distinct personalities and roles within the story which makes it easy to tell them apart. Piper does a solid job of setting up several credible alternative murderers for the reader to consider and while I think the puzzle is not the most complex I have ever encountered, I think the solution is fair and clued effectively.

Overall I enjoyed Murder in the Gunroom more than I think I would have expected had you described the book’s central elements to me. It is not particularly challenging, nor does it have many standout features but nor does it possess any significant flaws. It is simply a pretty solid detective story and, in these stressful times, that was exactly what I wanted.

Texas by the Tail by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published 1965

The Blurb

To everyone he’s every played dice with, Mitch Corley seems like the luckiest guy around. But in truth, Corley’s fast hands are the only gift fate’s ever given him. He’s never held down a steady job, and when it comes to women, his luck might just be the worst of all — his girlfriend and partner-in-crime Red would double-cross him in a heartbeat if she knew just how short on cash they really were. And if Red ever finds out about the wife Corley neglected to mention, there’s a good chance that Corley might not survive the night. 

At first, Mitch was sure Texas would be the perfect place for him and Red to run their game — there are players in nearly every back room and side-street across the state and here, the pockets run just a little deeper. But Corley forgot about one thing: Texans don’t forgive easily. And there’s nothing they hate more than a cheater.

The Verdict

Perhaps Thompson was trying something different here – unfortunately it doesn’t work. Underwhelming novel with only slight connections to the genre and issues with tone.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that my experiences with Jim Thompson’s work have generally been very positive. I have appreciated his bold characterizations, compelling situations and his ability to satirize aspects of American life. Given that most of his works are told from the perspectives of the criminous, it should be unsurprising that I – a fan of inverted crime storytelling – have become a fan of his.

In Texas by the Tail, protagonist Mitch Corley is a man with a problem. He and his girlfriend Red travel between casinos, trying to hustle rich folk in games of dice. While Red thinks they have a tidy sum stashed away, Mitch knows the reality is different and he is in desperate need of a big win. The pair head to Texas in search of bigger stakes and bigger winnings, only to find that the Lone Star State is a place where it is dangerous to cross a man…

Texas by the Tail is not, unfortunately, much of a crime story. To be fair to Thompson I am pretty sure that it was never intended to be. Perhaps it is meant to be a character study, both of its protagonist, Mitch, and of Texas’ biggest urban centers. I also can understand the suggestion that some make that it is intended to be a comedy, albeit one rendered in the ironic style we may now associate with the Coen brothers’ films.

Is there criminal activity? Sure, there’s a little but it is really never the focus of the book. As Mitch reminds us at points throughout the story, he isn’t a cheat. He doesn’t play with loaded dice – he has simply become very, very good at manipulating them and the people he plays with. As such this doesn’t exactly fit with the general themes of my blog. For that reason I think it best to acknowledge up front that this is neither a mystery nor a crime story and try to assess instead whether it is interesting on its own terms and within the wider context of the author’s work.

Thompson’s protagonists tend to be portrayed as either sociopaths or schlubs. Mitch is perhaps closer to the latter, though I think he is never made to look as foolish as say Joe Wilmot in Nothing More Than Murder or most of the cast of The Kill-Off. Instead Mitch is better seen as a desperate man trying to hold everything together. He may have made poor decisions but he is clearly trying his best to do right by everyone.

The exception to that statement, and the barrier to my liking Mitch, is his treatment of Red. There are a couple of very uncomfortable scenes in the book in which we see him disciplining her by administering some spankings. This is hardly unique to this book as an event – other Thompson novels often feature instances of domestic violence – but this doesn’t fit comfortably with the comical tone found throughout much of the rest of the book. In this respect it doesn’t feel like commentary on impotence and masculinity as it does when we see Lou Ford engage in it, nor can we dismiss it as playful given Red notes how much he hurt her later in the novel. As such, it just left me deeply uncomfortable while offering little in the way of insight.

There are clearly some signs that Thompson was trying to offer up something deep or profound at points, usually in the form of commentary in the narration. I felt most were trite and offered little of the insight or satire I am used to finding in his novels. Of course, not every book needs to be deep or offer those sorts of commentaries yet I feel it is necessary in the type of novel Thompson writes – without that depth those moments simply feel exploitative and prurient.

Still, while I may not love Mitch he is clearly not intended to be seen as cruel or sociopathic. Those labels can be better applied to the men Mitch moves among – the wealthy elites of Texas. They are by far the most ruthless, cold and cruel characters in the book. We see several such characters, observing not only their comfortable lifestyles but also how vicious they can be when they feel they have been crossed. Yet I think it is safe to say that they are also playing by their own set of rules and while some moments may feel capricious, typically the reader understands why they are acting the way they do.

While some of the interactions between Mitch and these characters can be interesting, I cannot say that I found any of them to be particularly compelling or memorable as characters. Perhaps that reflects that these characters are neither complex nor conflicted – they are who they appear to be from the outside.

I would suggest that the most interesting aspect of these characters is not their own personalities but to observe how they differ from the characters we have seen in other Thompson works. One of the main differences between this and those other works is that it takes place almost exclusively in the big urban centers of Texas which does allow Thompson to offer commentary on those places and the folk that inhabit them.

While I do not think you could accuse Thompson of densely plotting this novel, he does at least convey a sense that it is building towards a moment of reckoning. Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of a noose tightening around Mitch as his options are slowly whittled away and it looks increasingly likely that he will lose the things he cares for most. Frankly it was the sense that the book was building towards something that kept me engaged, hoping that Thompson would deliver a strong payoff to his story.

Sadly I feel that the book falls short even in this regard. What I find particularly frustrating is that there is a moment right towards the end of the book that would have provided the sort of kick that I have come to expect from a Thompson novel. Instead the ending feels at odds with much of what has preceded it. Taken with other aspects of the novel that diverge from Thompson’s typical style – the more likable protagonist and capery, comedic tone – we might view this as an attempt by the author to do something a bit different. Generally that self-awareness should be commended on the part of an author but unfortunately I just do not think that it works in this instance.

The result is a book that strikes me as lacking a clear sense of focus and purpose with too little to say to be regarded as a serious work while not being funny enough to be viewed purely as comedy. Readable, certainly, but not particularly enjoyable. It is, in my opinion, a decidedly lesser work with limited appeal for crime fans and one that I would suggest is best saved for later, deeper cuts into the author’s bibliography.

Jonathan Creek: Mother Redcap

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 1998

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by The Problems at Gallows Gate (Episodes Four and Five)
Followed by Black Canary (TV Movie)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Key Guest Cast

Brian Murphy is best remembered by this writer as George from the seventies sitcoms Man About the House and its spinoff, George and Mildred. While he has had a long career, this is one of his few crime credits.

This is one of Nicola Walker’s earlier TV performances. She had a long-running role on the BBC spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in the US) and, more recently, appeared as a lead in Unforgotten. She also gave a standout guest performance in an episode in the first season of Luther.

The Verdict

This story is excellently paced, doing a good job of balancing a cold case and a case in the present day. A strong ending to this second season.


My Thoughts

A judge involved in the sentencing of a gang of Chinese criminals is given police protection when a threat is made that he will be dead by the morning. The windows are barred and police are placed throughout the home and on the grounds to offer protection. The bedroom door, the only entrance to the room, is under observation from a pair of police officers at all times throughout the night.

At 6am a crash is heard from inside the bedroom and the police run inside. The judge is lying on the floor dead with a small wound in his chest which is covered in blood. As the doctor confirms the murder can only have occured moments earlier yet there is no sign of a weapon or a killer anywhere inside the room or on the grounds. The only thing that is found is a torn piece of fingernail.

Meanwhile Maddy is approached by an Estate Agent who asks her to collaborate with him in an investigation into a series of mysterious deaths that took place in a bedroom above a London hostelry, The Mother Redcap, in the 1940s. Seven men died after looking out of a window, each apparently being scared to death by what they saw. The pub has been on the market for decades but its reputation has made it impossible to find a buyer.

These two strange cases will inevitably overlap – the question is how and why.

The first thing to say about Mother Redcap is that it represents a quick return to form for the show after the messy two-part story that preceded it. This is noticeably tighter and much more focused on developing its core puzzle, with remarkably little padding. While I do have a couple of issues with a few details of the plot, I think this matches the quality of the first three episodes in the season very well and were it placed on the other side of The Problems at Gallows Gate I would clearly be talking about a run of four excellent stories.

Given that today’s Hallowe’en, let’s start by discussing the rather spooky events at the Mother Redcap pub. This represents a new sort of case for the show – the cold case – and it is introduced pretty effectively. There is a strong sense of atmosphere both in the recounting of what happened and in the subsequent visits to the derelict building, helped by some strong low-light cinematography. While I would suggest that this plotline skirts the edge of being fair play based on a piece of information being provided only a few moments before the solution, the viewer certainly is given enough to work out the general idea of what may have been done and the motive, even if the exact method or mechanism used can only be an educated guess.

While the episode in general is less comedic than any of the others in the season, this story thread is the source for the most overtly comedic aspects of the plot. Namely Maddy’s uncomfortable interactions with her estate agent source who she fails to listen closely to when he tells her he is a nudist. I have complained about several of the comedic subplots in this season but this one, while not exactly hilarious, at least feels in balance with the other elements of the story and nicely parallels Jonathan’s own disappointing interactions with a possible romantic interest later in the episode.

As for the main mystery, I think the episode is once again very effective in setting out the constraints in which the crime took place. This is done very economically in the opening with a montage that demonstrates that it should be impossible for someone to get in and out of that room undetected, particularly with the judge’s wife sleeping somewhat restlessly next to him. Even though I remembered much of the solution, I still found the puzzle to be compelling on repeat viewing with several points of interest for Jonathan to consider when he is pulled into the case.

In most respects I find the solution to this to be quite satisfying. The few issues I have all relate to small, spoilery points and none were significant enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the story.

ROT-13: Gurer ner frireny nfcrpgf bs gur cybg gung vaibyir yhpx – obgu tbbq naq onq (qrcraqvat ba jurgure lbh ner Wbanguna be bhe xvyyre). Sbe vafgnapr, gur qebccvat bs gur svatreanvy vf rabezbhfyl hayhpxl sbe gur xvyyre naq vf gur bayl yvax Wbanguna unf orgjrra gur gjb ybpngvbaf. Fvzvyneyl, gur xvyyre unf n fgebxr bs yhpx va svaqvat bar bs gur srj crbcyr jub pna rkcynva gur xvyyvat zrgubq hfrq nyy gubfr lrnef ntb gubhtu V fhccbfr gung vf nppbhagrq sbe va gurve univat orra vaibyirq onpx gura.

With the exception of these small issues, I found Mother Redcap to be another strong entry in what I still regard as the show’s best season. I think it is very atmospheric, close to perfectly paced, features a strong secondary mystery and it does a fine job of integrating the comedic subplot into the main storyline so that they complement each other.

Both of the cases are clever and explained quite effectively. Indeed – I think I appreciate how well constructed this story is all the more on repeat viewing as I noticed some of the small details (ROT-13: Gur jnl bhe xvyyre vf njner bs gur gvzr gung gur nynez jvyy tb bss naq gvzrf gurve npgvbaf gb or ba gur fprar juvyr qrynlvat gur bgure cbyvpr gb znxr fher ab bar bofreirf gur fgnoovat).