The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1957.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Luane Devore’s days are numbered. All her neighbors in the declining seaside resort town of Manduwoc want her dead. Some, like her young husband Ralph and his girlfriend Danny, want the thousands of dollars she keeps hidden under the mattress she spends her days resting on. Others want her to stop her malicious gossip–some of which could ruin lives.

Told from multiple perspectives, The Kill-Off tells the story of a woman not long for this earth–but who will finally take matters into their own hands, and when?

The Verdict

Some structural interest but the whodunnit aspects of the story did not work for me.

My Thoughts

First, a warning: I will not directly name the killer in my comments below and yet there is no way I can avoid hinting pretty strongly at their identity if I am to discuss the book in any meaningful way. While I think the whodunnit aspect of this book doesn’t really work for reasons I’ll describe below, those seeking to preserve its secrets should probably skip reading the below or jump to the final paragraphs.

The Kill-Off explores the circumstances surrounding the murder of Luane Devore, a woman who nearly everyone in the seaside town of Manduwoc wants dead. The reasons vary but generally fall into one of two categories – they may either hope to gain a little of what is left of her crumbling estate or they have been hurt by her habit of spreading rumors and gossip.

Rather than presenting us with a body and working backwards, Thompson employs a slightly different approach. We begin the novel in the knowledge that Luane is destined to die and each successive chapter shows us the events from the perspective of a different member of the community as we work closer to the moment in which she is killed.

The benefit of this approach is that we get to see just how interconnected those stories can be. Chapter-by-chapter we begin to build a picture of the suspects and see how their stories overlap, often learning that their actions have influenced events we witnessed in the previous chapters. This allows Thompson to develop his themes about life in a small community and the secrets people hold, leading to further discussion about sex, race and exploitation and exposing the worst of humanity in the process.

This overlapping stories technique also helps drive home the idea that Luanne’s gossip-mongering can really do some damage in a small town like this, making us all the more aware of the danger that Luanne has put herself in. The problem for the reader to solve is who will be the one to do the deed and what will their ultimate reason be?

Rather unfortunately I think this aspect of the plotting exposes some of the problems with taking this sort of an approach. While you might think that allocating equal space to each possible suspect would result in them seeming equally credible as killers that turns out to be far from the case. Several characters’ stories seem quite shallow and unfold at such a leisurely pace it seems clear that they cannot be the person we are looking for.

I suspect that this reflects that while this may be structured as a whodunnit, Thompson’s real interest is in exploring character and the psychology of a killer. That killer will be easy to spot, particularly for those well-versed in Thompson’s work, because they share several behaviors and interests in common with his more famous killers. Unfortunately while those other books were able to really dig into exploring the psychology of that character, the approach Thompson takes in The Kill-Off and the need to adhere to a whodunnit structure keeps us from spending extended periods of time with any one character and digging deeper.

Though the whodunnit plotting really didn’t work for me, I did still find things to admire in this novel. This begins with the characterization of our victim, Luane, who comes across strongly in just a dozen or so pages.

Luane’s situation somewhat mirrors that of Manduwoc itself. Just as the town seems to be drifting into decay, so she seems to be a stagnant and decaying figure. She is a hypochondriac who shuts herself in her rooms, interacting with the world through her telephone. She once had considerable property but has frittered it away through her own inaction and poor management while her relationship with her husband has soured, in part because of the way her gossip-mongering has affected his ability to find work.

Thompson depicts her simultaneously as pitiful and hateful. I was surprised when I reflected back on the book that she did not appear in it more given the way her presence is felt throughout and I appreciated that Thompson does not simply cast her as a victim and explores how her life is really a tragedy of her own making.

I also really appreciated the way we the different story threads are brought together in the aftermath of the murder and the various responses characters have to this event. Several of Thompson’s works feature the idea that characters make choices to avoid one problem that only make them seem more guilty of a different or more serious crime and that idea is revisited here quite effectively. This is one area where Thompson’s changes of narrator technique works well as it means the reader frequently has much more knowledge of what is happening than the characters and will anticipate several of these developments.

Finally, there is the ending. The final dozen pages of the book may not pack a surprise but that does not mean that there are ineffective. In these pages the themes of the novel are distilled and driven home, making for a pretty tidy conclusion.

As much as I admire those aspects of the novel, I think its problems lie with a structure that just doesn’t suit Thompson’s style of storytelling. Several characters who narrate chapters feel largely surplus to requirements and I wish they could have been eliminated to make more room to explore some of the other characters in more detail.

Though it has some entertaining and interesting moments, this does strike me as a second tier work. For those looking for biting social commentary and exploration of life in a small town, the author’s Pop. 1280 is a much stronger read, touching on similar themes but in a much sharper way.

MacDeath by Cindy Brown

Book Details

Originally Published 2012
Ivy Meadows #1
Followed by The Sound of Murder

The Blurb

Like every actor, Ivy Meadows knows that Macbeth is cursed. But she’s finally scored her big break, cast as an acrobatic witch in a circus-themed production of Macbeth in Phoenix, Arizona. And though it may not be Broadway, nothing can dampen her enthusiasm—not her flying cauldron, too-tight leotard, or carrot-wielding dictator of a director.

But when one of the cast dies on opening night, Ivy is sure the seeming accident is “murder most foul” and that she’s the perfect person to solve the crime (after all, she does work part-time in her uncle’s detective agency). Undeterred by a poisoned Big Gulp, the threat of being blackballed, and the suddenly too-real curse, Ivy pursues the truth at the risk of her hard-won career — and her life.

The Verdict

An enjoyable theatrical mystery with a fun protagonist but with some weaknesses in its final act.

My Thoughts

The theater is one of my favorite settings for a murder mystery. I think the reason is that when we enter a theater to watch a play we make a conscious decision to ignore any artificiality of the space to absorb the performances and mystery readers are used to making their own, similar choice. After all, mystery fans are used to idea of embracing and enjoying some of the more artificial trappings of the murder mystery. To me the combination of theater and mystery, when done well, can be quite delicious.

MacDeath is a lighthearted adventure that introduces us to Ivy Meadows (real name Olive Ziegwart), an aspiring actress looking for her big break. She thinks she may have found that when she auditions for a role in a stage production of Macbeth at the Phoenix Shakespeare Theater, even when she learns that it will be circus-themed.

Among the cast is Simon Black, a notorious actor with a long list of credits to his name but a history of heavy drinking and difficult behavior on set. He assures Ivy that he has changed his ways and asks her if she would be a surrogate sponsor for him while he is working to make sure he does not suffer a relapse.

While some members of the cast doubt Simon’s commitment, Ivy feels sure that he is sincere so she is surprised when she discovers him dead on his dressing room floor shortly after their opening night performance concludes with an empty bottle of Rémy Martin nearby. The official verdict is alcohol poisoning but Ivy grows suspicious and starts to wonder if there could be a murderer in their company…

A large part of the appeal of this story lies in its entertaining and sympathetic protagonist. Ivy is an inherently likeable character, often making amusing and somewhat self-aware observations. I appreciate that Brown gives Ivy a more complex set of motivations for getting involved than simply “I found the body” or “I must clear my name”. One of the most powerful is grounded in some aspects of the character’s background that are only alluded to at first but become clearer as we get deeper into the novel. This struck me as a pretty organic and convincing way to introduce and explore those ideas so they feel like they lie at the heart of her character.

Ivy gets some support from some more formal and experienced investigators as the novel progresses including her Uncle Bob, a private investigator who gives her a part time job in his office. He does serve a practical (if somewhat oblivious) role in the investigation, giving her advice that helps her develop some skills she uses in her own case, but he is also there to be someone who cares about her while he is also one of the few non-thesps in the cast of characters.

Turning to those characters, Brown creates an interesting mix of theatrical types to serve as suspects. To give a few examples, we have an exacting director who is determined to have an innovative take on the text, a rather controlling stage manager, a local TV celebrity who fancies himself an actor, several experienced thesps who have history working with and being frustrated by him before and a handsome young actor whose strong performance is overshadowed by Simon’s starpower. It makes for a varied and distinctive group and I think Brown does a good job of giving most of the relatively big cast unique motivations.

I found the early chapters of the book in which we get to know them and discover more details about the production to be pretty entertaining and I appreciated the humorous commentary about conceptualizations of Shakespeare. The chapters are relatively short, typically three to five pages long, which keeps things moving at a quick pace and before long we have a body on our hands and enter into the investigative phase of the story.

That investigation is similarly quite entertaining and it takes some interesting twists and turns. That is interspersed with some details about the play’s continued run and also a (sort of) romantic subplot for Ivy though it is more of a connection of the bodies than the souls, for those for whom that sort of thing matters. Brown throws in some further suspicious incidents which are spread out well to maintain interest and make the situation more perilous for Ivy.

Which brings us to the final third of the book. It is unfortunate that my issues with the story lie in the part it is hardest to write about without spoiling what happens – something I do my best to avoid in my reviews. For that reason I will have to write in generalities and hopefully it will convey a sense of my issues.

There are two aspects of this part of the book I did not care for. The first of these is the choice of the murderer and the second is an action that villain takes towards the end which seems to be designed to provoke a sense of jeopardy and excitement for the reader rather than because it makes sense for them to do.

These two issues combine to create a sense that the choice of murderer has been almost arbitrary rather than carefully clued. When I reflected on it after finishing the book I do think this isn’t accurate – there certainly are hints and clues given – but the manner in which they are revealed and they discuss their reasoning didn’t convince me at all.

This is a shame because I liked so much of what had come before and I enjoyed getting to know and spend time with Ivy. Even though those aspects of the conclusion disappointed me, I will say though that I some enjoyed other aspects of these final chapters and was left curious enough to want to try the next installment.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Details

Originally published in 1886.
Also known as: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Blurb

‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’

The Verdict

An unsettling and horrific story which poses interesting ideas about human nature.

Today’s review is likely to be a shorter one which is perhaps appropriate for a story that some may question being included on this blog at all. Certainly were it not for the Detective Club reissue I would probably never have thought to look at this through the lens of detective fiction. Even now I still would primarily describe it as a work of horror or sensation fiction, though I can see how it can be read as a work of detective fiction.

Part of the reason that I think I view the book that way is that its secret is so widely known and a big part of pop culture. Many subsequent books and movies have evoked its key idea, some times as pastiche, others in outright parody, so that it has become as widely known as the iconic secret spilled in The Empire Strikes Back or perhaps the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express. In other words, even if it could once have been read as a mystery I think most people who come to it will already know the answers.

For those who know absolutely nothing about the book, and knowing that many blurbs purposefully avoid describing the plot, let me give you the very basics of the starting premise. A lawyer learns of the crimes of the brutish Edward Hyde and is puzzled by the hold he seems to have on his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll. This prompts him to investigate the matter more directly.

I am not sure when I first learned the secret of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it was certainly long before I had ever actually encountered a copy of the book. As such I cannot really speak to how effective its core mystery is – I came to it already familiar with its secrets. This, it turns out, is not an entirely bad thing as there is still plenty to admire here from the philosophical questions the narrative poses to Stevenson’s quite wonderfully weighty prose and the clever structure of the piece.

The book’s comparative brevity means that it can be read in a single sitting and unlike some other works of the period, it moves at a decent pace and the meaning of the language used is generally clear even when a particular word or phrase is unfamiliar or archaic. Accordingly the book can feel quite modern in some aspects, especially when you consider the psychological themes it explores. While its language may be Victoran, the attitudes and ideas feel more in keeping with the psychological crime fiction of the early-to-mid twentieth century.

As much as I enjoyed the novella, I do have to acknowledge that if viewed purely as a mystery there are some elements here that will frustrate. While I think the explanation given for the strange events is wonderful and bizarre, it does not fit into the usual rules detective fiction plays by.

Viewed alongside the equally macabre and horrific events of a (relatively) contemporary work, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, the events depicted here do not feel much more far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that the reader of this story may well get closer to the solution by themselves by a process of logical deduction, even if they cannot deduce the whole of it. Still, where that story seeks to root itself in something purporting to be reality, this story chooses to embrace the fantastical.

For those looking for a pure genre read I would suggest that you are best avoiding this but for everyone else I would suggest that this is at least worthy of a look, particularly if you are one of the few who does not already know its secrets (and if you don’t, make sure you avoid reading most blurbs or the Goodreads page). Its brevity means it really is not much of a time commitment and I do think it does play with some interesting ideas.

The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard by Hillary Waugh

Book Details

Originally published in 1958.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Beautiful bait.

His name was Andrew. He had married seven women and attended their funerals – each time a little richer. At first that was all they knew about him. But they wondered…

Then they thought of using bait. An eighth wife? A lonely, sulky, attractive girl who needed the money they were willing to pay.

It was a good plan. It began to work. The bait was taken. Too late they realized they could never know how or when she was due to die.

The Verdict

A clever story that blends the best features of the inverted mystery and heist styles.

This past week my wife, daughter and I decided to take advantage of our schedules aligning to enable us to get away for a few days. We spent a lovely few days in Greenville and Asheville (South and North Carolina respectively, visiting the marvellous Downton Abbey exhibit at Biltmore) and amazingly I even found time to actually read a couple of books.

The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard was one of the selections I received as part of my last month’s Coffee and Crime shipment. I had not heard of the story before, nor was the author particularly familiar to me (though I have heard of Last Seen Wearing and suspect I even have a copy of that boxed up somewhere), but I was intrigued by the allusion to the Bluebeard folktale in the title.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it generally goes something like this. A woman marries a powerful noble whose previous wives have all mysteriously disappeared. He then departs on a trip but before leaving he gives her the keys to his chateau, allowing her to go anywhere except for one mysterious room. Inevitably, driven by curiosity, she breaks that rule and upon entering she finds the bodies of each of his previous wives hanging from hooks.

The story is an interesting one that has been frequently reworked over the years and I was curious whether the references would be incidental or if the folk tale would be utilized in a more direct and meaningful way by the novella.

A key difference between that folk tale and this novel is that here we begin the story in the knowledge that Andrew is a killer who is murdering his wives for the insurance money. While we may not have a definite confirmation until later in the story, there is enough evidence pointing to that conclusion from the facts presented to Jack Graham, the insurance salesman who was responsible for selling him his most recent policy, for us to have no doubt of that.

What this means is that our characters are knowingly engaging with a dangerous killer and so, rather than building to a moment of shock, Waugh is building suspense as we see these characters working themselves closer to Andrew. This prompts us to wonder whether he will get wise to their plan and, if so, whether they can keep themselves safe. This is the stuff solid thrillers are made from and unsurprisingly it works well here, particularly once the tensions within the group become clearer.

Jack is pressured by his boss, J. B. Stanford, to run a sting operation to try and snare this insurance fraudster. This, we are told, is not because he thinks he can recover his money but because he feels a sense of anger at being defrauded. It is almost a point of honor for him and he is willing to spend well beyond anything he can hope to recover if he succeeds to make this happen.

Jack’s role is to confirm the identity of this serial wife-murderer based on his memories of the meeting he had with him in the past to sell him that policy. A private investigator, Charles Miles, tracks down some likely individuals and then, once their identity is confirmed, the plan is to entice him to marry Gene Taylor and then to try to catch him in the act of attempting to murder her.

Clearly this plan is both irresponsible and inherently runs a high risk of failure and I would not blame readers for feeling that it seems unlikely. Waugh’s solution is to make a conscious statement that we are throwing logic out of the window. Everyone acknowledges that this plan is foolhardy but they also know that their boss, Stanford, will be driven to seek his revenge regardless.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the story is told of how Stanford refused to hand over his wallet in an armed robbery, essentially daring the criminal to shoot him, only for it to transpire that he had less than five dollars in there – an amount he could easily afford to lose. I feel that story perfectly sums up this character and explains his personality and obsession with catching this man. While that does not exactly excuse some of the more far fetched plot elements here, it certainly goes a long way toward making the characterizations feel pretty logical and consistent.

Rather inevitably complications occur, not least as Jack and Charles are each drawn to Gene and become extremely competitive with each other. This rivalry is largely destructive, not only causing friction as they work to set up their plan but also causing them to become distracted and sometimes to take risks in the hope of blocking the other man’s advances.

At first Gene appears to be more of a plot device or lure than a fully dimensional character and yet I think she is actually one of the most interesting characters in the book. One question that looms over the early part of the story is why she would take the very high risk that she might be murdered and I am pleased to say that when we finally do get an explanation it both makes sense and also helps make her more relatable and likeable. Waugh frequently reminds us that for her this is far from a game – this is a life or death situation – and in doing so draws an interesting comparison with the other characters involved in the scheme.

Jack is arguably a less pleasant person, often seeming quite dismissive of what Gene is telling him that she wants. This is not a particularly pleasant attribute in a character, particularly when there is an allegedly romantic subplot on offer, though he certainly is easier to like than Charles who comes off as a pretty sleazy individual.

The sequences in which they set up their trap for Andrew are really quite fascinating and while the idea of avoiding going to the police feels very dangerous and foolish, the plan they develop and the psychology it relies on convinces. I enjoyed following them as they set things up and wondering just how Andrew would protect himself and escape from danger.

Things get even more compelling once the pair are married and I found myself gripped by the tension whenever it seemed that discovery was inevitable. It builds to an exciting and rather powerful ending that utilizes some other elements of the folk tale in interesting and rather clever ways.

Of course the other character we need to address is Andrew, our killer, who makes for a rather interesting specimen. As with Gene, he initially appears to be a rather simplistic creation who exists to create trouble rather than to respond to those problems. While he is given some character traits, he is often presented more as a looming or threatening presence than as an actual, three-dimensional man. In other circumstances I might be frustrated by the seeming blandness of the antagonist, particularly in an inverted-style story, but here I think it works well because it places the focus on the tensions within our group of protagonists.

The romance between Jack and Gene is treated more as a plot point that affects the plan rather than being developed as a convincing, deep connection between the two characters. That is not unexpected given the compact nature of this story but it did mean that I was not as invested in that relationship working as I could have been, keeping some moments from later in the story from having the sort of impact they might have achieved.

Similarly, I would note that the ending does feel rather rushed given the considerable build up that takes place. That being said, I was satisfied by the mechanics of those final chapters and felt that it hit the most important points, resolving everything.

That brevity and speed is both this story’s greatest strength and its flaw. It is fast-moving, interesting and compelling. I certainly had no difficulty remaining engaged with the story and I wanted to see how it would all be resolved. The least satisfying aspect for me was its underbaked romance but as a mixture of a thriller and heist story it delivered.

Second Opinions

JF Norris @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book noting that Waugh delivers a few tricks that elevate this from ‘a routine B movie plot’.

Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published in 1945.
This title is a standalone.
This book will soon be republished as part of the American Mystery Classics range. That edition is shown to the right of this post but I read an earlier reprint.

The Blurb

Four years after she arrived in Los Angeles, Kitten Agnew has become a star. Though beautiful and talented, she’d be nowhere without Vivien Spender: Hollywood’s most acclaimed director—and its most dangerous. But Kitten knew what she was getting into when she got involved with him; she had heard the stories of Viv’s past discoveries: Once he discarded them, they ended up in a chorus line, a sanatorium, or worse.

She knows enough of his secrets that he wouldn’t dare destroy her career. But he may be willing to kill her. On a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kitten learns that Viv is planning to offer her roommate a part that was meant for her. If she lets him betray her, her career will be over. But fight for the part, and she will be fighting for her life as well.

The Verdict
A superb, suspenseful story which cuts deep into the heart of old Hollywood but its themes are still relevant today.

I first encountered Dorothy B. Hughes’ work when I read The So-Blue Marble, the author’s debut novel which was reprinted last year as one of the earliest novels in the American Mystery Classics range. I loved that book, going so far as to nominate it one of my choices for Reprint of the Year, so I was excited to see that Penzler Press have opted to release another of her novels.

Dread Journey is set on a train that is headed to New York city. Among the passengers are Kitten Agnew, one of America’s biggest film stars, Vivien Spender, the movie mogul who made her a star, and Gratia, the young unknown who he intends to replace her.

The book begins shortly after a moment of revelation for Kitten. She has been assigned to share a compartment with Gratia and notices that she is reading Vivien’s copy of a book he keeps on his bedside table – a book he has long-intended to adapt as his masterpiece and in which she is contracted to play Clavdia, the female lead. This unbreakable contract, signed in the early days of her relationship with Vivien, is now her only leverage to try and ensure that she doesn’t end up like all of his other one-time proteges and that she can walk away on her terms. The price she has set is marriage – not because she loves Viv or wants to be with him but because she knows that will guarantee a divorce settlement and the status of having been Mrs Spender.

Then she learns what had happened to the first Mrs Spender…

The novel opens with Kitten saying to herself that she is afraid. She had felt that she was coming at Vivien from a position of strength but now she realizes that there is a good chance she will never make it to New York at all. Seeing Gratia with the book has made her realize that Vivien expects to be moving forward with his project and since there is no chance of an amicable settlement she begins to believe that he intends to kill her at some point during their journey.

It is this realization that gives the book its title and certainly a strong sense of dread and foreboding hang over the novel. Hughes quickly confirms to the reader that Kitten’s interpretation of the situation and fears are right. Viv is a dangerous man and he has killed before. The book draws its suspense from the question of whether he will manage to do it before they reach New York as we observe each character trying to anticipate the behaviors of the other which, in the process, pulls several of the other passengers into the story.

While the book is obviously set in the era of Hollywood’s studio system, it surprised me just how relevant this story still feels today. Questions of the power of Hollywood executives and the way it is exerted over young stars remain to this day as we have obviously seen in the past few years with Harvey Weinstein and so while the specifics of Kitten’s situation may be of their moment, the ideas it discusses retain their power.

At the heart of this story is the question of agency. Kitten the star has been created by Viv not out of a recognition of her talent but as a response to his infatuation. He has intended to use her and she, in return, recognizes the situation in both its opportunities and risks and is determined to take advantage of it. In this regard Kitten finds herself in an unusual position for a potential victim in a crime story – she is fully aware of the danger she is in, has a means to completely avoid it but refuses to consider it. He promised her that part and she is determined to make him pay for it.

An interesting side effect of this is that it is hard to entirely regard her as a victim. In any other context or situation she would be largely unsympathetic, particularly given her vanity. It just happens that she is placed opposite Vivien, a man who is quite clearly a villain and so, while we may not exactly be rooting for her, we certainly don’t want him to win.

In The So-Blue Marble Hughes gave us two utterly chilling villains but while Vivien is less obviously psychotic than those two brothers, he is arguably even more monstrous. Part of the reason for that is he is so clearly a type of figure we can recognize: the Hollywood svengali who creates starlets only to lose interest in them and destroy them. He justifies this because he believes he made those women the successes they were, raising them from obscurity, teaching them how to act and developing personas for them.

Ultimately each girl lets him down, not because of a lack of talent but because they cannot be the perfect creation he wants to imagine them to be. Once he realizes that he has to move on to repeat the process. The reader may well find themselves imagining what might happen to Gratia several years down the line. Is she actually his perfect Clavdia or is this process doomed to repeat itself over and over? We may also question to what extent he is being driven by lust and to what extent it is actually about his vision for the role. I’d argue it is the former and the latter is a veneer he uses to justify it but I think you could just as easily come up with an argument that he is first and foremost an obsessive, amoral artist.

These two characters are both quite fascinating and I really enjoyed seeing how they surprise each other at points in the story. The plot never really develops in a way that is truly unexpected but rather it sets things up and engages the reader in seeing how these elements and ideas overlap and interact with each other. Hughes sustains this tension well and I think uses it to develop a truly powerful conclusion that absolutely hits the notes I wanted, feeling like the appropriate way to end this story.

I also really appreciated Hughes’ writing style which is quite striking. The trick of making sections of the book just a couple of paragraphs long to provide us with other perspectives is interesting, reminding us of the reality that exists around these characters and also allowing us to see some other roles within the Hollywood system including screenwriters, personal assistants and musicians. Arguably a few characters, those without the direct ties to the action, never really feature in the narrative but even then I think they serve a purpose in that they remind us that these characters’ are existing within a sort of bubble and that their actions will be observed.

Just as in The So-Blue Marble, the prose is frequently poetical and highly impressive but where that book’s poetry could sometimes be a barrier to comprehension, here I think it supports and in some ways drives the story. It is never hard to follow what is going on or the ideas Hughes is driving at. It is a really engrossing and interesting read.

Clearly I loved this book. It is one of the most satisfying books I have encountered since starting this blog and by far the best of the novels I have read from the American Mystery Classics range so far.

It won’t be for everyone who reads this blog – it is first and foremost a suspense story so puzzle-driven readers may want to look elsewhere – but I would certainly strongly recommend it, particularly for those who are new to Hughes.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During trip/vacation/etc. (When)

Death in Dark Glasses by George Bellairs

Death in Dark Glasses by George Bellairs

Originally Published 1952
Inspector Littlejohn #19
Preceded by Death March for Penelope Blow
Followed by Half-Mast for the Deemster

It was meant to be a fool-proof scheme. The victim was a recluse, cut off from the world after the death of his wife. Nobody would think it strange when they didn’t see him. Nobody would make enquiries.Yet even the most meticulous of criminals can be caught out, especially if they don’t leave room for human error.

When a runaway bank clerk sets of a chain of investigation that grows to overwhelming proportions, Littlejohn is called in to handle the situation and the death of Finloe Oates is uncovered.

Murder, impersonation, disappearance, forgery, and embezzlement. Drawn into the bizarre world of the reclusive Finloe, Littlejohn and Cromwell find themselves with more than one mystery to unravel – but will they be able to find the elusive killer?

The Verdict

This solid procedural has an interesting starting point but the ending packs no surprises.

It has been quite a while since I last found time to read and blog so when I did get an opportunity I decided to go to my safe space and pick up a work by one of my favorite authors, George Bellairs.

I really enjoyed the rather bizarre sequence of events that lead to the discovery of a crime in this story. Bellairs begins by telling us about the discovery of a rather small-scale embezzlement scheme at a bank but when the investigation into that crime reveals that another account has been emptied with forged paperwork. Attempts to contact the account holder fail and when they visit the property in person they discover that the reclusive homeowner has vanished and a dead body in the attic.

These opening chapters contain some of Bellairs’ funniest and sharpest writing. I particularly enjoyed the way he lays out the sequence of events that follow the initial discovery of the embezzlement and the response of the guilty party.

While you could look on this introduction as being a rather complicated introduction to the case, I appreciated the idea that a major crime was discovered as a consequence of investigating that rather petty case. Firstly I feel it has the effect of making the concealment of the crime seem that much more impressive. Without that chance discovery there really would have been little chance of the body being discovered for some time. Perhaps more critically though it also allows Bellairs plenty of scope to have some fun with a cast of bank officials, no doubt drawing on his decades of experience as a bank manager.

Once the body is discovered, the book does take a somewhat more serious tone although there are still plenty of comedic observations about the characters as well as on topics like modern art and newspaper columns. Bellairs’ witty approach to telling his crime stories is one of the reasons that I keep coming back to his work and can often help paper over a less-than-thrilling case. Rather unfortunately that is exactly what it does here.

The focus of the investigation does not fall on the body that was discovered but on the missing occupant of the house. While that does make some sense as a focus for a Scotland Yard investigation, it does feel a little odd that we spend so little time focused on that death. That partly reflects that the murder is not particularly notable in terms of the method employed and also that the motive is fairly clear.

Bellairs acknowledges this pretty quickly, confirming any suspicions that the reader may have about why the gas man died. This is for the best as it does at least allow him to refocus the investigation on trying to discover the identity of that killer.

The problem here is that Bellairs sets up a situation that seems to quite clearly point at a solution. There are some gaps in our knowledge but from a very early point in the story the general thrust of the explanation as to who committed the crime and why will be quite obvious – all that remains is to follow Littlejohn’s investigation and discover how the guilty party will be caught.

While the reader may not have been able to anticipate the details of the ending at the start of the novel, Bellairs’ approach of carefully setting up each development means that there are relatively few moments in his story that could constitute a surprise to the alert reader. For that reason I would suggest that this book will have far more appeal to procedural readers than those who are looking to play at being an armchair detective.

One of Bellairs’ strengths as a novelist is his ability to create interesting and well-observed characters and that skill is, once again, quite evident here. In the course of the novel Bellairs introduces us to a mix of interesting characters from a variety of different backgrounds and situations.

These characters are not only interesting in terms of the way they are used in the context of the mystery itself but several possess interesting backstories of their own. I was particularly intrigued by the exploration of the life of the art teacher, Hunt, who lives with his invalid sister. These characters have strong and distinct personalities, doing a great deal to bring this scenario to life.

Littlejohn pursues his case with his typical quiet competence and, as always, he proves good company, even if he is not a particularly characterful sleuth. I do appreciate the way Bellairs is able to portray his steadiness and persistence, both qualities we see at play here, though I do not think that this case challenges him particularly compared to some of his other outings.

My only complaint about his investigation would be that he is gifted an enormously lucky break that he does little to earn. In other stories that might have irritated me but I did appreciate that Bellairs shows Littlejohn’s skill in taking that piece of luck and turning it into a bigger opportunity to progress his case which, in turn, sets up an interesting, if not particularly thrilling, conclusion.

Death in Dark Glasses is an amusing and often quite enjoyable story. Its characters are often quite interesting and the basic scenario Bellairs creates is intriguing enough. If you enjoy Littlejohn you will probably find this a comfortable read but the author has certainly written more complex and compelling cases.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)

Money from Holme by Michael Innes

Book Details

Originally Published in 1964.
This title is currently out of print.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Sebastian Holme was a painter who, as the exhibition catalogue recorded, had met a tragic death during a foreign revolution. Art dealer, Braunkopf, has made a small fortune from the exhibition.

Unfortunately, Holme turns up at the private view in this fascinating mystery of the art world in which Mervyn Cheel, distinguished critic and pointillist painter, lands in very hot water. 

In One Line
A sometimes amusing but dated artistic caper story with weak mystery elements.

My relationship with Michael Innes has been a fairly frustrating one. He is certainly an author who is capable of frustrating me like few others can. At his best he can be witty and clever while the situations he creates are often imaginative and explore interesting ideas yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he was a mystery fiction writer who had little interest in writing mystery stories.

Money from Holme was a later, standalone effort from Innes that might be considered an inverted crime story. It begins with Mervyn Cheel, an art critic, attending an exhibition of Sebastian Holme’s paintings. Holme had been an up-and-coming artist who had been living in Africa when he had been caught up in a revolution and was killed. Much of his work was destroyed in the violence and so the values of his remaining small body of work have rocketed and his celebrity has grown. During the show however Cheel is surprised when he notices a man he is certain is Sebastian Holme attending the show.

Cheel soon learns that Holme did not actually die and so he devises a scheme that he believes will make him rich. Were Holme to return to life in the public’s mind then the prices of his work will inevitably fall. Cheel persuades him to remain dead and work to reproduce the destroyed works of art so that he can try to quietly sell them to collectors as though they were the originals.

Given the nature of Cheel’s plan, I think it is fair to question whether we should really consider this an inverted crime novel at all. As Mervyn Cheel points out at several points in the novel, it is hard to say if he is guilty of any great crime at all for much of the book. He is, after all, trying to sell works that are authentically by the artist he claims them to be, even if the circumstances he describes are not accurate.

Certainly the criminal aspects of this novel are not Innes’ focus. Instead, the most interesting aspect of Money from Holme is its discussion of various aspects of the art world. This touches upon an artist’s relationship to his subject, the commercial realities of art trading and the role of the art critic. Innes’ insights into this world are not exactly unique, nor are they necessarily profound, but the situations the characters find themselves in are clever and they are often explored with wit.

Having now read several Innes inverted stories I have noticed that each has involved a variation on a common theme – the idea of identity substitution. The approach taken here is a little different but it is interesting to see him continuing to play with these sorts of ideas. While Innes had been playing with related themes, each book feels quite distinct.

The treatment of the art world struck me as a little reminiscent of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Shoot Me (the novel which inspired the movie Mortdecai) with the protagonist finding himself in ludicrous situations often of his own devising and borne of his own personal weaknesses, working himself into deeper trouble. Bonfiglioli’s novel is a sharper and funnier read but both books possess an irreverent tone that did a lot to endear them to me.

The jokes that did not land for me were those related to the fictional African nation of Wamba. I can understand why Innes chooses to create a fictional African country rather than locating his action somewhere real – particularly given the rather fluid nature of politics in that decade – and there is some light exploration of British foreign policy but any subtlety is masked by the general presentation of that information, such as the “gag” that the country’s capital is Wamba Wamba. It is not untypical for this era of writing but it is disappointing.

One of the most curious decisions Innes makes is to emphasize how unpleasant his protagonist, the art critic Mervyn Cheel, can be. For instance, early in the book we learn about how he has previously forced his attentions on a woman. His disrespectful attitude towards women is largely treated as a matter of comedy, particularly his proclivity to pinch their bottoms.

While I think we are meant to take this as evidence that he is an unpleasant, unprincipled sort it seems rather odd to see him treated as a bit of a rogue rather than a villain at points in this story. Certainly those moments didn’t strike me as being as sharp comedically as Innes’ discussion of the art world was.

One consequence of Cheel not being a particularly pleasant or likeable character is that we can take some pleasure in his downfall. Although Innes’ story isn’t particularly complex in terms of its structure or plot, the ending he devises did feel fairly satisfying because of how well it reflects the other themes of the story. Dramatically it feels pretty appropriate, providing a fitting and gently comedic resolution to Cheel’s story.

Money from Holme is not a classic work of crime fiction by any means. Even if we ignore some of the problems I have with its dated sense of humor, the plotting is fairly light and Innes’ focus is on developing his comedic situations rather than a tightly structured story. Still, the themes and ideas Innes explores are interesting and quite clever, even if the approach taken is sometimes rather lacking in subtlety.

If you forget that this is described as a crime novel and instead enjoy it as a rather absurd adventure with some crime elements then I think you will likely get a little more out of this. Certainly I enjoyed it more than The Gay Phoenix. For those looking for an inverted crime story by Innes, I would still recommend you look at The New Sonia Wayward instead.