A Graveyard to Let by Carter Dickson

GraveyardtoLetFrederick Manning is a successful and respectable businessman but his children have become concerned that he is acting erratically and may be keeping a mistress. There are even rumors circulating that he may be embezzling money from his charitable foundation. When they confront him about it he says he will reveal a secret at a dinner to which he has invited Sir Henry Merrivale with the promise that he will perform ‘a miracle’.

At dinner he upsets them by talking about how little he wanted children though he says he will make some provision for them and implies he will be disappearing soon. Then the next morning as the Police sirens approach he calmly dives into the swimming pool fully clothed and when the party look for him in the pool they find he has vanished leaving all of his clothes behind.

Up until now I have stuck tightly to those novels that John Dickson Carr published under his own name because of how much I have enjoyed the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. I never doubted I would get around to trying some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories but there was always some book I wanted to get to first.

The reason I have deviated from this approach comes down to the premise of this story that grabbed my imagination from the moment I heard Dan describe it on an episode of the impossible crimes mystery podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles. The idea of a disappearance from within a swimming pool seemed an entirely novel take on the idea of someone vanishing from inside an observed room and I was really curious how Dickson would manage it.

Since learning about this novel I have, as it happens, encountered a short story by Ed Hoch with a similar premise albeit that has someone appearing out of a swimming pool. Both stories are excellent and make good use of this concept to create striking moments that appeal to the imagination. I did have a moment’s worry that the solutions might be similar too but I was very happy to discover that they take create distinctly different answers to these challenges.

I really admired the way Carr sets a mood and builds up a sense of anticipation in the novel’s early chapters. By opening the novel in a moment of conflict we are thrown right into the story and have to make judgments about the characters involved. I certainly was curious what could be driving Manning to be so blunt and cruel to his children and wanted to know more about their relationships with him.

The moment in which he disappears is wonderfully theatrical right down to the detail of his underpants bobbing up to the surface. It is perhaps not one of Carr’s trickier puzzles – the method used is quite simple and may occur to some readers pretty quickly – but it is logically worked through and clearly explained at the end.

Even if the reader can work out the way in which the vanishing was worked they will still have plenty of details to pick up on while we may also wonder where he has gone and what he is planning. While the second half of the novel is much less flashy than the first it can be just as exciting and mysterious, packing in some very enjoyable reveals.

I also found the novel to be really quite funny, though I do acknowledge that humor is highly subjective. Not every joke hits and a few of them, such as his reason for visiting Washington, may be predicted but there are amusing moments spread throughout the narrative.

One of my favorite sequences comes near the start of the novel where Sir Henry messes with a police officer near the turnstiles in a subway station by suggesting that he can use a voodoo incantation to walk through turnstyles without paying the fare. It is not only amusingly written, there is a puzzle there that readers may ponder about how a trick was pulled off. That method wouldn’t work today but I could still appreciate the cleverness of the idea and the grudge the officer holds is referred to at several later points in the story with amusing effect.

While I can understand why this story isn’t more highly rated, given its simpler solution, I found the case to be thoroughly enjoyable. The scenario is bold and imaginative and I enjoyed my time spent with these characters. It is certainly one of the most entertaining experiences I have had reading Carr and I would happily recommend this to anyone who comes across an affordable copy.

Death Going Down By María Angélica Bosco

DGDSince starting this blog last year I have had some really positive experiences with the Pushkin Vertigo novels I have tried. I love how this range is bringing back works into print from different regions of the world and I have gushed about the beautiful cover designs that adorn these titles. While much of my collection is electronic these days, these gorgeous volumes are ones I make the effort to purchase physical copies of.

María Angélica Bosco is an author I was not familiar with before acquiring this book but the cover proudly declares that she is known as ‘the Argentinian Agatha Christie’ and we all know that this is never, EVER a misleading piece of advertising copy. Anyhow…

Death Going Down was Bosco’s first detective story. It begins with a man returns home in the early hours of the morning after a night on the town to discover a dead body of a woman in the elevator who has apparently taken cyanide. She does not live in the apartment building yet she has a key.

There are no signs of a struggle which raises the question: why would a woman go to an apartment block she does not live in and commit suicide in an elevator?

On the case are Inspector Ericourt and Blasi, a pair of Police investigators who are never really introduced to the reader. I was a little surprised when I realized that this was their first appearance in a novel because I had expected a little more focus on establishing these characters but the only description we really get is that one is ‘a corpulent middle-aged man’ and a ‘younger man’. The other scant details we get have to emerge later in the novel through conversation.

The cast of suspects fares a little better though the characterizations often feel somewhat broad and unsympathetic. Several of the male characters come off as controlling and misogynistic while the caretaker’s wife is nosy and an immigrant woman is quiet and defers to her brother. The reader is unlikely to find anyone to sympathize with here and so whatever interest there is will have to come from the case itself.

That is not to say however that these characters are uninteresting. Bosco gives most of her characters at least one secret they are concealing either from the investigation or from the other people in their lives that Ericourt and Blasi will be able to discover at key points in the narrative. Not all of these will surprise but these small discoveries contribute to the sense that the investigation is making progress and help us understand some of the relationships between the suspects.

This sense of small, incremental progress characterizes the investigation as a whole in that it is quite slowly paced and based on trying to make sense out of confusion by bringing those secrets into the open. The detectives are not cut in the rigorous mold of an Inspector French, nor do they approach things from a psychological angle. Instead they rely on a mix of intuition and experience as they make connections between the pieces of information they have at their disposal to try to come up with a theory that will make sense of all of the facts of the case.

I did not inherently dislike this approach but I do question its execution here. Unfortunately I felt that the pacing was surprisingly slow at points for a novella that is just 150 pages long and which contains multiple murders by its end. Furthermore I was disappointed by the solution that Bosco presents us with, feeling that the choice of murderer was obvious and uninspired. There was at least one suspect that I felt would have been a more interesting choice and several that would have been more surprising. Instead the ending feels comfortable, predictable and safe which are not the attributes I associate with this particular range of novels.

Death Going Down may not have lived up to my high expectations but it does at least have a few things going for it. The first is its post-war Argentine setting which I think is effectively conveyed even with Bosco’s economical storytelling style. While I think the killer’s identity was a bore, I appreciated that their plan is quite clever and stood a good chance of going undetected if an element of it had not gone wrong. Finally I did find some of the suspects’ secrets that are uncovered to be interesting, even if the process of discovering them is a little drawn out.

Though I didn’t love this title, I would be interested in sampling some more of her work from later in her career. Unfortunately this seems to be the only one of her works to have been translated into English so I doubt there will be much chance of that happening any time soon.

The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

AndrewHarrisonFreeman Wills Crofts is perhaps not the first name that will spring to mind if you are asked to list Locked Room mystery novelists and with some good reason. Out of the dozens of novels he wrote, just two are locked room mysteries and neither of these are currently available in print.

It seems strange though that he did not write more widely in the subgenre because based on this and my previous experiences reading his work it seems like a natural fit for his methodical, reasoned approach to detective fiction. Certainly the locked room devised here is of a high quality and I thoroughly enjoyed following how it was solved.

The prominent financier Andrew Harrison disappears after arriving back in England following a business trip to Paris. This prompts speculation in the papers that his company was in financial trouble and he has absconded. After waiting in the hope that he would send a message, the family contact Scotland Yard who task French to the case.

Everyone is surprised when Harrison suddenly sends word a few days later that he is fine and that a message he sent had failed to arrive. A short while later however Harrison throws a small party on his houseboat and when he cannot be roused in the morning he is discovered dead in his locked cabin of an apparent suicide. French is back on the case and suspects foul play!

The locked room element of the story is very cleverly conceived and explained with superb clarity. The murder takes place in Harrison’s cabin which is deadbolted from the inside. Testing demonstrates that there is no way to pull the deadbolt closed from outside the room. The only other physical entrance to the room would be the porthole but this presents its own difficulties as it has been tightly closed. The porthole which only opens inwardly is designed to prevent it being swung shut and has to be pushed securely into place with force as there is no handle on the outside of the glass.

The physical boundaries to this room are clearly established and I will admit that I was thoroughly stumped as to how Crofts would explain this murder. I was curious how Inspector French would handle a locked room mystery but I should not have been surprised that it would be with methodical, careful experimentation and testing of different theories. In just forty pages the detective is able to work through this puzzle with impressive reasoning to reach a very neat explanation that proves both that it was murder and also how the crime was worked.

Once French knows how the crime was done he proceeds to focus his efforts on understanding who could have carried out the crime. Certainly there are plenty of suspects on hand as Harrison, while not monstrous, is a cold, hard man who has fractious relationships with all of his family. On top of those suspects we must also consider business rivals and disgruntled investors.

The question of whodunit is far from an afterthought and I would suggest it is just as cleverly devised as the locked room itself. French believes that there must be some link between Harrison’s strange disappearance and the financier’s subsequent murder yet the timeline makes the nature of that connection are hard to understand.

Here Crofts’ plotting is quite sublime and, much like I found with The Sea Mystery, the case steadily evolves throughout the novel to become something quite different from  what seemed likely at the outset. If you are not a fan of the author’s style then this is not likely to convert you to the cause but those who appreciate his incremental, detail-driven approach will find a lot to enjoy here.

Sometimes I have been frustrated by the pacing of a French investigation, feeling that the logical path he follows means that the alert reader may be far ahead of the detective but here I feel Crofts sets his pace perfectly. There are regular discoveries of information as French tests new theories and once Crofts provides the reader with all they need to solve the case he moves quickly to the conclusion. Against expectations based on those previous experiences, this is one of the most tightly plotted Crofts novels I have read to date.

That is not to say that every aspect of this works perfectly. One problem I have with the novel is that a character who is introduced to us as a character we are meant to relate to at the start of the story is essentially dropped at about the halfway point, apparently being forgotten.

In one sense this is understandable as the character has little else to contribute but does serve a role as the outsider who is needed to start things in motion by reporting the disappearance to the Yard. The frustration for me is that the character is one of the more interesting and likable in the book and having been encouraged to care about him, we are left wondering what would have become of him. It did strike me that, if this were a Carr novel, he would almost certainly be ending the novel married off and while I can grumble about that happy-couple finish, it does at least provide some closure.

The other significant complaint would be that French is given rather a large piece of help from a character as we enter the concluding portion of the novel that helps him identify the killer. Some may feel that this in some way suggests that the detective doesn’t really solve the case himself. I would argue that he works out all of the most important features of what happened and he is responsible for figuring out what had happened, even if he needs a little help in identifying the culprit.

Overall I found The End of Andrew Harrison to be a thoroughly engaging read, both as a detective story and also, more specifically, as an example of a locked room. Crofts engineers his problem well, coming up with a striking and credible solution, and working a strong mystery around it. I came away feeling impressed by Crofts’ approach to the subgenre and wishing that he had returned to it more frequently. Sadly he wrote just one other locked room novel, Sudden Death, and given the prices of that one and the lack of library copies available I doubt I will be getting around to it any time soon. Maybe some day, though..

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On a mode of transportation (Where)

This book was released in the United States as The Futile Alibi.

Death Knocks Three Times by Anthony Gilbert

DeathKnocksI cannot say that Anthony Gilbert is a new author to me. After all, I did love Portrait of a Murderer (written as Anne Meredith, another of her pseudonyms) enough to make it a Book of the Month last year and I knew that I wanted to return to her writing sooner rather than later to get a taste of her other types of work.

The selection of this particular title however was entirely as a result of reading a fantastic review of this title that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote for her blog. I cannot say exactly what elements of the story grabbed my attention – perhaps it was the promise of a dark and biting conclusion – but I decided to go in search of a copy and found, to my delight, that this seems to be one of the few GAD novels I had no difficulty finding in a public library. Hurrah!

The novel opens with our sleuth, the thoroughly disreputable lawyer Arthur Crook arriving at a country house in the middle of a storm seeking shelter. The house is owned by an elderly colonel who refuses to move with the times and never has much company except his novelist nephew who visits several times a year in the hope it may lead to an inheritance at some future point.

During his stay Crook notices that the antique bathtub seems to be a deathtrap and comments on this fact to said Colonel. Several days later, after a visit from his nephew, the man is found dead in said bath with his neck broken.

A short while later an aunt of the novelist dies in a strange accident, just after he had paid a visit to see her. That leaves him with one surviving relative and when she starts receiving death threats she sends for a friendly advisor to help her figure out who may be behind it and what she should do. We are forced to wonder if said nephew’s family going through a run of misfortune or is someone giving fate a helping hand?

Death Knocks Three Times is not an inverted mystery although you may be forgiven for thinking you know who the killer is the whole time you are reading it. This is because Gilbert structures this book cleverly to lead the reader at all times to feel that they know where this is headed but because we are never definitively told what happened we have to remain open-minded to other possibilities.

This should be a limiting, narrow approach but I found it to be quite the opposite as instead of looking to eliminate suspects we are forced to consider who else might have a motive for committing these crimes to make a sense of each death. The story is very cleverly plotted and had me doubting my own (as it happens, quite correct) theory of what happened almost the whole way through.

I also really appreciated the blend of characters that Gilbert introduces to this story. Most of them may be described as unsympathetic but it is fascinating learning their stories and discovering their histories. My feelings about characters shifted at points in the novel as new information came to light about them, making them feel very human.

Readers who enjoy historical details will appreciate the references to petrol and sugar rationing that feature at points in this novel while others may appreciate some of the satirical comments about ‘artistic’ writers. Though this is a serious story, parts of the novel can be quite amusing and well-observed while the tension generated by the arrival of the anonymous letters is quite gripping.

If I were looking for criticisms, I do think that Crook is perhaps not effectively introduced for readers like myself who are new to the character. When I picked up the book I didn’t initially realize that he would be the sleuth in this story. In fact with his grim comments about how the Colonel’s bathtub could be used to murder someone, I was half expecting him to turn out to be the killer.

These are quite small complaints however in the scheme of things. Death Knocks Three Times is a clever, engaging story that contains some wonderful ideas, moments and revelations. I had little problem getting excited by the story and even though I thought I had identified the killer and their motive, the episodic structure of this mystery had me wondering if I had missed something.

Overall, I think this is a very exciting tale containing some wonderful ideas. The plot is complex but not convoluted and I think the author stitches the incidents in her story together in a convincing and compelling way to build to a great conclusion. I certainly expect that I will be returning to Gilbert again in the future so if anyone has any suggestions for stories to prioritize I’d be glad to hear them!

And, once again, thank you Kate for your review. I enjoyed this one enormously!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Won an award of any sort (Why) – Book of the Month: Cross Examining Crime

Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards

HolidayMysteriesThe idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.

In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.

There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.

As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Law in terms of the general quality of the stories collected.

Continue reading “Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards”

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

BetelNutBack at the start of Summer I read and reviewed the first of Ovidia Yu’s historical mysteries set in interwar Singapore, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, which I found to be a charming and entertaining read with a surprising amount of thematic depth. I was left feeling optimistic about this second novel and have looked forward to picking up where that story left off and finding out what happened to its appealing series sleuth, Su Lin.

At the start of The Betel Nut Tree Mystery the Police are providing protection for a wedding party on the new Governor’s orders. The bride groom gives his protectors a scare when he fakes a bloody death but there is nothing to laugh about when he is found dead a short while later, apparently poisoned.

Though Su Lin demonstrated her ability as a sleuth in the previous novel, here she is has returned to performing light housekeeping and secretarial jobs in spite of her hoping to be placed in active duty once again. As such it takes her a while to find herself in the thick of the investigation although she is well placed to observe much of what is happening and we may feel as much in the dark about Le Froi’s motives for doing this as Su Lin herself.

Le Froi remains quite an enigmatic figure throughout this second book. We are given more information about his life in the course of this story, albeit from a possibly untrustworthy source, but have yet to hear his own perspective on events before he came to Singapore or about his reasons for making certain choices since arriving. I appreciate the slow and subtle exploration of his character across these two books and that even at the end of this he remains quite an enigmatic figure. This is only right as the stories are Su Lin’s but I will be intrigued to get some answers about his life in a future installment.

The author provides us with a healthy array of suspects and there are a good mix of motives to consider. More impressively however the author once again manages to simultaneously have these characters behave abominably towards Su Lin or each other and still have the reader feel moments of sympathy for them, however fleeting. I think Yu captures the complexities of people and their relationships very well and makes the game of working out their relationships with each other and to the dead man quite compelling.

These characters have an interesting mix of secrets they are trying to conceal that Su Lin will draw out in the course of this story. As in the first novel, Su Lin finds herself spending time with the suspects informally in their hotel. Most of the family are wary of her ties to the Police but find themselves giving away information in spite of themselves in their interactions with each other and in a couple of cases quite deliberately sharing information about each other with her or Le Froi.

One of the elements of this series that I think particularly stands out is the handling of the racial tensions and relationships within Singapore. It was handled well in the first novel but here it comes to the fore, always being handled in subtle and naturalistic ways, as we learn about the impact international events such as the rise of fascism in Germany or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria are having within the Empire and, in particular, upon life in the multi-ethnic Singapore.

The event that hangs most over the novel however is the abdication crisis that occurred when as Edward VII resigned his office to marry an American divorcee. We not only hear references to the events in conversations but there are even some direct parallels between their situation and that of the would-be bride, Nicole Covington who had also seen two relationships end in less than ideal fashion. It had never occured to me that the impact of this event would stretch so far. As with the previous novel, these sorts of historical details are impeccably researched and I think it is one of the most distinctive features of the series.

The most important feature of any historical mystery is the case to be solved and I am happy to say that this is well plotted and has some intriguing twists and turns. Arguably the identity of the culprit is clued a little too effectively in the chapters leading up to the reveal but the journey to that moment is gripping and executed perfectly making for a very satisfying conclusion to what is an enjoyable and entertaining mystery. I can only hope that more adventures lie in store for Su Lin!

Review copy provided by the publisher. The Betel Nut Tree Mystery is already available as an ebook and will be released in paperback on October 16, 2018.

Nice Day for a Murder by C. A. Broadribb


Nice Day for a Murder opens at a family barbecue being held in Newtown in Sydney at the home of Steve, a visual artist. The family gathers to see his home and meet his new flatmate and almost all are secretly hoping that their dreaded Aunt Val will skip the event. They are all to be disappointed as she turns up, angrily criticising her daughter and immediately starts criticising the decoration, food choices and declares that she wants to take a pill for her headache and lie down.

When it comes time to serve the food the family decide to let her continue to sleep. Later in the event Steve’s brother Ben, a journalist, is coming back from the bathroom when he notices Aunt Val has a red lump on her forehead and her purse is lying open. On closer examination they find that she is dead and so all of the family members still at the event are called in to speak with the police.

From this point onwards we primarily follow Ben as he finds himself becoming the focus of the Police’s investigation. This is in part due to misfortune but also largely a result of his own inept handling of his interviews, coming off as defensive and evasive as he insists that he didn’t murder his aunt long before any post-mortem tests come back.

While Ben does possess some research skills and has professional experience of how to follow-up leads he is not a skillful investigator, rather Broadribb pitches him as a slightly irritable everyman who has been caught up in an unpleasant situation that he makes worse by his own inability to let justice take its course. This can make him a rather frustrating protagonist and yet I quite appreciated that his investigation doesn’t run entirely smoothly and that he makes mistakes as it helps to sell that this is a real amateur playing detective.

We spend only a couple of pages in the company of Aunt Val but it is easy to believe that such a character would irritate and offend all around her. The woman is established as being highly judgmental and lacking in any warmth or empathy while her relationships with her daughter and ex-husband are messy at best. Broadribb gives us several clear suspects to consider which is more than I might expect in a novella that is just 108 pages long though really there are just a couple who merit serious consideration.

It is here that I probably should address the issue of length because the novel’s page count plays a significant role both in the book’s strengths and in creating its weaknesses. Such a short page count means that almost anything that might be considered extraneous is not present: we jump right in at the start of the party and the book ends with the killer’s identity becoming known but even those two pivotal scenes are a couple of pages long at most.

This aggressive pacing is quite enticing in that it encourages the author to condense character relationships which can feel quite refreshing but some of the clues and important revelations feel a little rushed. In a few cases, characters’ motives are established in just a few paragraphs while the novella’s ending is so abrupt that it makes the piece feel unfinished. The approach lends itself to a punchy reading experience but I couldn’t help but feel it was a slightly incomplete one and I am not entirely certain that the reader gets enough information to be able to deduce an important element of the conclusion.

In spite of these frustrations, I did admire the author’s willingness to really trim down her narrative and I was pleasantly surprised at how strong some of the characterization is. One of my favorite sequences comes during Aunt Val’s funeral as Ben’s mother speaks affectionately about her dead sister and Ben thinks about the ways that her statements are either misleading or lies as I think it speaks well to the sometimes awkward nature of family relationships.

Nice Day for a Murder is a very competent, fast-paced mystery that had no difficulty holding my attention. While I think the streamlined storytelling style can be quite refreshing in the start and body of the novella, I do wish that the ending was not quite so abrupt and a little more time had been given over to explaining how Ben worked out some aspects of the solution. This does get close to being a very good read but issues with the pacing and balance threw it off.

Note: An edit to this review was made in response to a comment. In that same comment Santosh posts an explanation of the logic of the conclusion that I agree makes sense and is accurate to the story. I do still think though that the ending is abrupt and that the reader cannot expect to work out a character’s identity before the end (though they may guess).