Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

HouseofRainThe titular House of Rain is a striking three-story building in the shape of the Chinese character for Rain constructed on a mountain in Taiwan. It was designed for a wealthy car dealer who intended to retire there with his wife, daughter and father. The father died soon after they moved in however and some time later the others were murdered in horrific fashion.

Death in the House of Rain takes place around the time of the first anniversary of those tragic events. The house has now passed into the possession of that entrepreneur’s brother, an academic, who lives there with his daughter. The daughter invites her college friends to come and stay for the weekend while the professor asks Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy and amateur detective, to help him work out the truth behind his brother’s murder.

Isolated when falling rocks block off the road, the residents of the house soon find that they are being picked off one by one as members of the party turn up dead in locked rooms. Ruoping Lin will not only need to solve that historical crime, he must also figure out how and why people are being murdered to prevent more deaths from occurring.

Death in the House of Rain is a very fast-paced read, managing to pack multiple locked room murders into a relatively brief page count while making each death seem quite striking and distinct. Several of these deaths feature some pretty macabre elements and a sense of doom seems to hang over the house, building anticipation of what is to come and that no one is truly safe.

It is those macabre touches that really stood out to me and give the novel much of its personality. The first death that happens in the present day was particularly effective as Lin does not show us the moment of death but rather the build up to it and then subsequently the bloody aftermath. I found this to be quite chilling and was happy that when an explanation for what happened is finally given that it didn’t diminish those feelings but rather that it lived up to this strange and grotesque scene.

Our primary sleuth, Ruoping Lin, does not make a particularly big impression either positively or negatively for much of the story. He is certainly not a showy figure, nor is he too closely involved with the events that take place. When the moment comes for him to explain what has happened he offers a very credible and ingenious account of what has happened and so I felt he fulfilled his role well. I will add that I loved the way he uses a landmark impossible crime text to support his reasoning.

We are given a pretty wide assortment of characters and it is not clear who are suspects and who are victims. Lin establishes the idea that any one of these characters might die early in the story and develops some interesting back stories for some of them that make them more than a stock set of types.

Perhaps the most striking character however is the house itself. I am growing more accustomed to the idea of peculiar architecture coinciding with impossible crimes but the house here is easily the most curious and foreboding of the ones I have encountered in impossible crime novels so far. Not only is the shape of the house genuinely eccentric, the building feels wonderfully detailed. There are multiple pages of plans (if you are reading the Kindle version be aware that these come before the table of contents so your device may skip over them) and I was struck by just how important the physical space was to establishing the tone and the events of the story.

While I was impressed by the book as a whole, I do have to note that there is an element of coincidence in several of the deaths. Any one of these deaths on their own would be unlikely but some may feel that it stretches credibility to have several such deaths all occurring in a short space of time. I appreciated that the author anticipates this complaint however and builds a rationale for his plot into his story that struck me as cleverly reasoned and sufficiently convincing for me to overlook it.

I was particularly pleased however by the coda to the book in which Lin takes us back to the initial murders from a year earlier and provides an explanation for what took place there. I felt that this made for a particularly satisfying and punchy ending that wrapped things up very tidily and provided a strong sense of closure.

Having read rave reviews of this novel when it first came out, I can only be sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading it for myself. This was my first experience of Szu-Yen Lin’s work and I can only hope that some other novels may eventually make it into English-language translation in the future as I found it to be a very exciting and compelling read.

 

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

CoronersLunchThe Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.

The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.

I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.

The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.

Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.

When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level.  Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.

Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.

I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.

What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.

While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.

I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.

The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard

GravediggersFrédéric Dard has been on my list of authors I wanted to try for an age so when I read that The Gravediggers’ Bread was an inverted novel I couldn’t resist starting there.

The book’s premise bears some similarities to James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least in terms of the initial scenario. Some elements and moments may seem familiar – particularly a biting of a lip that draws blood during a kiss – which led me to wonder if this was an intentional homage. Ultimately though the two novels take quite different paths and should be considered entirely separate works.

The story concerns a young man, Blaise, who is visiting a small provincial town in the hopes of securing a sales job for a factory. On arriving he discovers that he has got there too late and someone else was already hired. He is telephoning the friend who encouraged him to try to let him know the bad news when he discovers a woman’s wallet. When he returns it to her, the woman’s husband suggests that he could take him on to assist with sales for his funeral business. Blaise does not care much for the work but is drawn to the man’s wife and chooses to stay for her sake.

The Gravediggers’ Bread is a very short novel being just 160 pages long so I want to avoid going into too much detail about what prompts the crime or the circumstances in which it is done. What I can say is that there is a murder committed by the narrator and we follow Blaise’s attempts to avoid detection. While the identity of the victim will likely be quite obvious, the circumstances of the death and particularly the cover up are entertaining.

Where the novel is most successful is the building of tension as the reader wonders just how Blaise may be caught. Dard builds suspense very effectively in the second half of the novel in a couple of ways. Firstly by reminding us how precarious his position would be should the murder be discovered and secondly by allowing the reader clues as to some of the ways that might happen. But even then Dard has a further twist or two in store for the reader. Even if you work out where this story will ultimately be headed, the execution of these moments is quite sublime, building to a very satisfying conclusion.

While the characterizations within this story initially seem quite simple and familiar, I was surprised by some of the depth that Dard is able to give the relationships between Blaise, the undertaker and his wife given the short page count. Blaise’s role in particular is complex, befitting his role as the narrator, and we may question whether he is as different from the undertaker as he imagines.

There is a moment in the development of that relationship that did leave me somewhat uncomfortable and a little unsure how to interpret it. There is a moment where Blaise exercises some force to initiate a sexual encounter, apparently against the other character’s will. While it seems to begin without consent, following the encounter it never seems to be referred to and Blaise implies that part of the reason for this is the inadequacies of her husband as a lover.

Now Blaise is certainly not a hero, no matter how he may perceive himself and it should be said that the character is the narrator and may not be capable of putting his actions in any sort of context. It is certainly not surprising that this character would not be troubled by his actions and there are some possible character-based explanations for her acceptance of this treatment but as his narrative and perception of those events is never challenged and her feelings are never explained, it is left to linger uncomfortably a little like with a comparable scene in Gone With The Wind. At least for me.

Though I found Germaine’s reaction problematic, I can’t deny that their relationship is interesting and it becomes only more so as the novel nears its conclusion. Dard’s plotting is excellent and while I have read enough inverted stories not to be surprised by the conclusion, it is one of the better examples of that type of ending to an inverted mystery. I think fans of noir fiction will also appreciate elements of that ending too.

Dard creates some striking moments in this story and shows an admirable economy in his plotting. The 160 pages seem to whizz by and each plot twist is superbly executed, even if you pick up on clues as to where this story is going. I was left feeling very satisfied by the resolution to the novel and felt that it struck some interesting and, at times, provocative points in terms of its characterizations.

I am interested to try some other works by Dard and if anyone has any recommendations (in English translation, please) I would be very happy to receive them.

Review copy provided by the publisher. The novel is being published by Pushkin Vertigo in the UK on June 28 and in the US on August 28.

Calamity at Harwood by George Bellairs

HarwoodIt is 1938 and property developer Solomon Burt’s car happens to break down on the road between London and Brighton. He is initially frustrated at an unexpected delay until he sees a stately home in a very promising setting. After making enquiries, he sees the opportunity to snap up the property by purchasing and calling in the landowner’s loans and goes about dividing the home up into luxury flats.

Several years later the redevelopment is finished and the flats are being let but during the building the contractors had complained that it was haunted. Among the signs were strange noises being heard and items being moved around. When the new residents witness similar events several are spooked and look to terminate their leases early.

Then one night Burt is seen being dunked in the pond, supposedly by those ghosts, before being thrown to his death from the top of the staircase a short while later. The staircase was observed by multiple witnesses within moments of the death, all of whom insist that none of the residents could have been placed to commit the murder. While this seems to tie in with the idea of a haunting, Littlejohn is certain that Burt was killed by someone living and sets about to prove it.

While this may sound like Bellairs is entering impossible crime territory, I would caution that this novel really doesn’t read that way. The author certainly gives little attention to exploring the sequence of events that led to Burt’s death preferring to spend time asking how and why it has been made to seem as though Harwood is haunted and the motives for the murder. As puzzles go, this is certainly the most interesting one I have seen so far from Bellairs and I enjoyed discovering just how these events fitted together.

Bellairs creates a curious mix of residents to populate these flats including and Austrian archaeologist and his two strapping assistants, an actress, a playwright, an American couple and a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom is completely deaf. These characters feel appropriately distinctive and, unlike in the other Bellairs novels I have read, seem surprisingly cosmopolitan as all of them are newly settled in the countryside.

While this sounds like a promising array of suspects, I would once again offer a small caution that Bellairs deviates from some of the structure and beats of the traditional whodunit, opting instead to develop his story as more of a thriller or adventure. There are clues present and the attentive reader can certainly beat Littlejohn to discovering what is going on, but we soon move beyond questions of alibi into simply trying to understand how each of the facts we have connect. I do think there is some stronger plotting on show here than I am used to with Bellairs’ work and while there are some familiar ideas on display from other books and works of the period, I think he stitches these together into a pretty entertaining narrative.

Littlejohn is on decent form, though he exhibits a little less personality than in some of his later appearances. There is an interesting moment late in the novel where he takes an action with little thought for the way it will affect the person he’s speaking to that feels curiously unresolved and incomplete. This struck me as a missed opportunity to have the character perform some reflection but it goes completely without notice which is a shame.

Littlejohn does spend quite a lot of time bossing his deputy Cromwell around who was a character I believe I was encountering for the first time here. A few of those requests did seem to venture way across a line, such as ordering him to draw up a bath for him and stand in the room as he washed himself so they could talk over the case. Cromwell is quite competent though and does make some solid contributions to this case – I do think Littlejohn benefits from the companionship and having a sounding board to bounce ideas off here.

Though Calamity at Harwood is not the best example of a traditional detective story because of some aspects of its storytelling that emphasize moments of revelation over deduction, I do think it is a very competent thriller and builds to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I was particularly drawn to the strangeness of the circumstances of the death and found getting the answers to what had happened to be really quite satisfying and interesting.

Is it that knockout Bellairs read I keep searching for? Not quite, but if the premise sounds promising or you like works set on the home front during World War II this may appeal. It certainly feels a lot closer to that ideal than most of the others I have read so far. If you do plan on reading it though I would suggest skipping reading the blurbs however on print and e-book copies as they do give away a substantial detail that is only revealed late in the novel.

Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen

MoscowNoirFeeling somewhat inspired by the start of the FIFA World Cup today which is, of course, being held in Russia I figured I’d take a look at some crime fiction from the region. My choice turned out to be quite simple – I had previously enjoyed an Akashic Noir collection of short stories based in Prague and when I saw this collection set in Moscow I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to pick it up.

The collection is much more uneven than Prague Noir and there are several stories that I think would be a stretch to consider as falling within the traditional scope of the genre. The tone of some stories is more grim and depressing than it is cynical or mysterious. I found the third part of the collection featuring stories with a father and son component to be particularly rough reading.

Still, there are some points of interest in the collection. Looking at it as a whole, I am particularly struck by how it is the shortest stories here that seem the most fresh, bold and interesting. There we see often impressionistic touches in the prose or plotting and some really impressive exploration of theme. In particular, I would recommend In the New Development and The Point of No Return as highlights. I just wish that the collection overall had been a little more consistent in quality.

Continue reading “Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen”

Santa Fe Mourning by Amanda Allen

SantaFeSanta Fe Mourning is the first book in a new series of historical mysteries set in 1920s New Mexico. This setting caught my eye because while the time period is a familiar one for murder mysteries, I was intrigued by the Southwestern locale which I haven’t seen done before in a historical setting.

Allen’s protagonist, Madeline Vaughn-Alwin, has come from a wealthy background but after her husband dies in the First World War she settles in Santa Fe where she works as an artist to her family’s disapproval. There she has established a circle of friends and built a home.

The novel begins with Maddie returning home by train after a trip to New York. At the station she is met by Eddie, the son of the Native American couple she employs as her gardener and cook. He has some bruising on his face and she soon hears that relations between Eddie and his father have deteriorated, the latter having become increasingly erratic in his behavior, while she was away and that his mother is contemplating sending his sisters away to a convent school.

Soon Tomas Anaya is discovered dead near a speakeasy, covered with blood from what looks to have been a brutal beating. Eddie is arrested on suspicion of murdering his father and Maddie, feeling sorry for the family, decides to intervene to try to comfort them and make sure that Eddie is not mistreated or wrongly convicted for a crime she cannot believe he would have committed.

This brings me to the aspect of the book that I responded to most positively: that Maddie becomes involved not because she wants to snoop or out of a sense of danger, though she does exhibit a little of the latter as she gets deeper into the case, but because she has compassion for the family who live and work with her.

This is shown in the initial actions that she takes of trying to work out a way to expedite the release of the corpse to the family so that they can carry out the funeral rites and finding a lawyer to help Eddie come home to his family. What makes this approach feel so refreshing to me was because it feels truthful, simple and organic. I also appreciated the way it establishes and develops the novel’s central theme about how we experience and react to great losses because Maddie’s experience of losing her husband is part of what drives her to act.

Allen’s focus on that theme was, for me, the most successful aspect of the novel and I was fascinated by the various examples of characters who have suffered some loss and experience a rebirth or a new sense of purpose. In some cases this plays out quite subtly such as Maddie herself because when the novel begins she is already part way through that journey – in others it can be quite dramatic as when we learn more about the Anaya family’s past. This is variations on a theme but done very well with each subplot complementing the others.

Another aspect of the book that I think is successful is the author’s attention to historical and cultural details which feels authentic and quite on point. Some may quibble about the level of freedom that Maddie has at times, though I think Allen does address that by having her seek out her best friend to serve as a chaperone for some of the adventure. I do think that the background of the story feels very well conceived and I appreciated that she is able to give us some real locations and individuals without making it feel like a research project.

Unfortunately as much as I appreciated the themes and the setting, I cannot be quite so glowing about the novel as a piece of mystery fiction.

To be clear, I think the book is an entertaining read and I think the plot is clever and I appreciate that it is clearly developed out of the novel’s setting but there is little in the way of misdirection. Part of this reflects that the author spends a lot of time establishing the character and the dynamics of her household and circle of friends but I think the bigger problem is that almost all of the characters are ruled out as suspects from the beginning.

Even if you do work out the murderer’s identity you do still need to figure out how and why this has happened but here, once again, I think the attentive reader will be able to infer the solution quite early in the novel. This is a pity because there are some good ideas here and I think one aspect of the solution is quite neatly set up and revealed but I think the story would have benefited from devoting a little more time to building up the alternative killers.

While this frustrates me, I will say that this was not a deal killer. I found the book entertaining and enjoyed its setting and the way the author developed her ideas. I also liked that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, setting up a second volume nicely should this one prove to be a success. My hope is though that when that one does come out that a little more time will be given over to creating red herrings and alternative suspects to beef up the mystery element of the novel.

For those who like a dash of adventure in their mystery fiction or stories set in this time period or area of the world, I do think there is quite a lot to enjoy here.

The Lake House by John Rhode

LakeHouseNot being content to wait for the release of The Paddington Mystery in the United States later this month, I decided to go ahead and seek out a John Rhode novel through the interlibrary loan system to get my Dr. Priestley fix. The Lake House was the first title to find its way to me which I was pretty happy about given how Nick Fuller rates it as one of the stronger Rhodes of the 1940s.

The story concerns the death of George Potterne in his lake house late at night. Earlier in the evening he had contacted the Police, asking Sergeant Wryde to visit him there at eleven as he wished to make a serious complaint. When Wryde arrives he discovers the door ajar and Potterne lying with his head on his desk, shot in the back.

Soon Jimmy Waghorn, newly appointed as Superintendent, arrives on the scene to conduct what will be his first major investigation in the role. He quickly and competently sets about documenting the crime scene, noting scorch marks on the back of the dead man’s chair, footprints on the sooty floor of the cabin, a pistol case with one of the pair missing and fragments of a will in the fire grate. Curiously both the butler and the dead man’s wife are not at home, the former having disappeared on the evening of the murder while the latter has supposedly travelled to France for her health.

One of the most surprising things about this novel for me was how straightforward its plot seemed to be in comparison with the other Priestley stories I had read. For instance, the crime scene was quite accessible in the evening of the murder while the physical evidence of the crime scene seems to be leading us in a clear direction. Nor does there seem to be anything particularly strange or complex about the case beyond the question of how an assailant came to murder Potterne with his own weapon.

In spite of its apparent simplicity, I enjoyed the early part of the book and was pleased that Jimmy is shown to be quite competent and feel his thinking, while inevitably flawed to allow Priestley to solve the case, really seems quite well-reasoned. Even more surprising, he is allowed to progress quite some way into his investigation before Priestley makes his appearance and even then the two surprise by taking fairly similar views of the case and its evidence.

Of course, however simple things appear it is clear that there must be more to the case than meets the eye. The reader therefore needs to first consider how Jimmy’s suggestion for what happened is flawed before turning their mind to thinking up a better explanation using all of the facts of the case.

The correct explanation is certainly ingeniously worked and manages to take what is a seemingly simple crime and convincingly showing that it could only have been performed in a complex way. I do agree with Nick that the killer’s identity does seem to be quite straightforward though that didn’t bother me as I was interested to see how it would be managed. Though there are some echoes of another famous mystery story in the solution, I found it to be a very well described and cleverly worked solution and felt it resolved things very nicely.

While the premise for the story may not be as immediately grabbing as, say, Death at Breakfast or Mystery at Olympia, I found it to be tightly plotted and was impressed with the richness of its characterizations, both of the victim and the various suspects we encounter. I haven’t read enough Rhode yet to have a sense of just how good he could be but I think this compares favorably with each of the three reissued novels I have read and it leaves me excited to try some other of his works from this period.

This book was published in the United States under the title Secret of the Lake House.