So Much Blood by Simon Brett

Originally published in 1976
Charles Paris #2
Preceded by Cast, in Order of Disappearance
Followed by Star Trap

Appearing in his own one-man show on Thomas Hood at the Edinburgh Festival, middle-aged actor Charles Paris finds himself falling for a gorgeous young girl with navy-blue eyes. He also finds himself being dragged into a complex murder investigation involving the death of a fading pop star, a bomb scare in Holyrood Palace and a suicide leap from the top of the Rock.


It had been a few years since I last read a Charles Paris mystery so, inspired by having recently binged several of the radio adaptations starring Bill Nighy, I decided to keep going in order and pick with the second in the series – So Much Blood.

I had read the novel a little more than a decade ago during a period where I was rediscovering my love of the genre. I happened to pick up one of the books (this was one of the earliest, if not the first I read) by chance when looking for something quick and easy to read during a lunch break and soon found myself tracking down all of the others. The books even led me to write some of my first reviews of mystery fiction as I wrote up my thoughts on each of the books on Shelfari. Sadly I never kept copies of them elsewhere so I can’t say with any great confidence how I originally received this.

So Much Blood finds Charles heading to the Edinburgh festival fringe where he is to perform his one-man show about the poet and humorist Thomas Hood. As a last-minute stand-in, he has been set up with lodgings along with many of the performers from the Derby University Dramatic Society who are preparing for their own show, Mary, Queen of Sots.

During the rehearsals however calamity strikes when during the stabbing of Rizzio one of the prop knives turns out to be all too real and effective. The victim is a former pop star who in addition to playing the play’s murder victim has composed the music for the production. While the death appears to be a tragic accident, Charles becomes suspicious when he learns of a previous accident on set and decides to flex his investigative muscles…

While I am unsure how I originally received this book, one thing I am certain of is that I came to this with a greater appreciation of some of the references made than I had the first time around. Part of the reason for this is that I recently read Denise Mina’s novella Rizzio which explores that crime (the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary), helping me better understand some of the historical references made here. The other is that after reading the book the first time I took the opportunity to read some of Hood’s work, giving me a better sense of that much-discussed figure. Though I think you can follow the book without that background, having it made for a richer and more satisfying experience overall.

What impressed me most however is the conceit of the murder in which an actor is killed in circumstances that seem to mirror those of the character he was playing. The unexpected and unwitting murder feels quite shocking, in part because it comes so suddenly and because Brett takes the time to treat the moment seriously, exploring the psychological impact that inadvertently stabbing someone might have on a young person. Though the book is still first and foremost intended to be a comical work, this more emotional material is both powerful and effective while also allowing the novel to play with the ambiguity of whether it was a murder or simply a tragic accident.

Brett does a wonderful job both in conveying a sense of Edinburgh during the busy festival season and also of the amateur, student actor dreaming of turning their passion into a career. He seems to have a really good grip both on the setting and also the type of characters he wants to use to tell that story and while I have some issues with the way a couple of them are used in the story, I was struck by how convincing they were.

Several characters, beside Paris himself and his long-suffering wife Frances, particularly stood out as interesting to me. One, the former owner of the digs where Charles is staying, makes an impression for being so different from most of the other characters in the story and I enjoyed the friendship he forms with him over the course of the adventure.

The other that really stood out to me was the young actress Anna, who Charles quickly shows an interest in and pursues. I have mixed feelings about these scenes which are rather reflective of the period in which the book was written. I think we are meant to read that relationship as sweet and enlivening, at least at first, but there is something rather uncomfortable about the size of that age gap (previous blurbs played up the desirability of her youth) and power relationship between the two. Brett does end up acknowledging and exploring that a little towards the end of the novel, reflecting on Paris’ feelings about her and the relationship, but I wouldn’t blame those who feel uncomfortable with some passages prior to that.

The investigation itself though is superb and stands out to me as one of the best puzzles Brett created for the series. As an amateur with no really applicable skills, Charles tends to rather bungle his way through a mystery, accusing almost every character in turn of the crime. Here he certainly makes his fair share of missteps and poor judgements but he sets about this case quite logically. Though he may struggle to get to the correct solution, the reader is given pretty much everything they need to explain what happened and why. Those answers largely satisfy and while I think the killer will likely not be too tough for seasoned mystery readers to identify, I think the manner of the reveal and the way it plays out are both memorable and satisfying.

My only disappointment, other than the occasional ‘of its time’ moment, are that I think the attempt to draw a few recurring characters into the action feel a little too self-conscious. One in particular seems like an unlikely coincidence, though I understand and appreciate the effect it has on Charles and I would have missed that character. The other, while generating some humorous commentary about unethical billing practices, doesn’t do much and so feels rather redundant to the investigation overall.

Beyond those issues however, I found the book to be rather engaging and entertaining. In terms purely of the quality of the puzzle, I would place this among the author’s best efforts.

The Verdict: Though not perfect, the puzzle is broadly satisfying and I would suggest that this is the best the series has to offer.

He’d Rather Be Dead by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1945
Inspector Littlejohn #9
Preceded by Death in the Night Watches
Followed by The Case of the Scared Rabbits

The mayor of Westcome, Sir Gideon Ware, has a speciality for painting a target on his own back. Most recently, he has gained numerous enemies for transforming the quaint harbour town into a sprawling, manmade boardwalk through a series of bribes, blackmail, and backhand deals.

So when Sir Gideon Ware dies at his annual luncheon, it’s no surprise that foul play is suspected.

Inspector Littlejohn is brought in to investigate the murder, but with so many motives to sort through, the suspect list is endless. And with the Chief Constable covering up critical clues at every turn, Littlejohn is left on his own to get to the bottom of Ware’s murder.

But when a second body is found, Littlejohn’s investigation gets put on a fatal timer.


Sir Gideon Ware came from humble beginnings before striking it rich as a property developer, taking the sleepy harbor town of Westcombe and turning it into a thriving, if garish, holiday destination. It is a change that many of the locals resent, feeling exhausted by the steady stream of holidaymakers most of the year round. In spite of that ill-feeling though, Ware has been able to find success in local politics, becoming the town’s mayor just a few years after first being elected.

He’d Rather Be Dead opens by giving us a brief overview of Ware’s background and career as he prepares to speak at a luncheon he is throwing for local dignitaries. Many of the town’s most prominent people have been seated at his table yet, as we learn, most have reason to loathe their host. As Ware rises to give his speech he shows signs of being unwell, collapsing just a short while later. His appearance and subsequent autopsy points to strychnine poisoning but it is difficult to see how the drug, which should be fast-acting, could have been administered to him when everyone ate from the same communal pots and there is no trace of the poison on any of his dishes.

This is the basis for a case in which the question of how the murder was achieved will be as much a focus as whodunnit. I even briefly considered whether I ought to classify this novel as an impossible crime story; it’s the closest thing I have found in Bellairs’ oeuvre so far, though I would suggest that those reading purely for that aspect of the puzzle are likely to be disappointed but the solid but unexciting explanation as to how it was managed.

Like most of the Bellairs novels I have read the author’s greatest interest seems to lie in trying to capture a sense of a place and the people who might reside in it. The victim, Ware, should rank among his best creations (up there with the wonderfully-drawn Harry Dodd) for some of the complexities and contradictions in his character. He feels dimensional and realistic, reminding me of a few people I have met in my own life, and the author does a fine job of exploring the gap between how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by those who have come to rely on him.

This attention to characterization is replicated throughout the rest of the novel’s cast of characters with even some of the most incidental of figures given unexpected depth or personality traits that help to bring them, and the story’s setting, vividly to life. Their resentments that we learn of in the course of Littlejohn’s investigation feel credible and realistic to this sort of town setting and I enjoyed the process of uncovering those secrets and building fuller portraits of each of the figures involved in the case.

One particular source of pleasure for me was in the depiction of the local police who make for rather colorful figures. I am used to these figures quickly becoming anonymous once they call in the assistance of Scotland Yard but I was rather pleased to realize that they would actually be given some prominence in the story. Bellairs captures the tensions between two of the most important police figures in the story, once again helping to build that sense that Westcombe might be a real place.

As wonderful as the character development is, the actual procedural aspects of the case are unfortunately a little less exciting. There was certainly some interest for me in that central question of how the poison could have been administered but I felt that the investigation was rather straightforward with little to cause unexpected shifts in focus or thinking.

It perhaps didn’t help that I think the killer’s identity becomes clear rather earlier in the story than I think Bellairs believed it would as our focus quickly narrows to just a couple of serious suspects thanks to some of the more technical components of the case. I am the last person to complain about an obvious killer but the book isn’t set up to read as an inverted story and aside from the rather awkward shift to a first person account right at its end, does little to capture that killer’s perspective or voice.

Nor does it help that the solution as to how the crime was committed turns out to be quite practical and straightforward, making it feel a little less clever than I had hoped. What’s more, discovering that nature of that solution only makes the solution as to whodunnit even more obvious long before we actually reach the novel’s conclusion.

Bellairs, to his credit, does try to add some dramatic elements to the book’s conclusion, giving us one of the few moments of surprise in the novel, but then undercuts its effect with that strange choice to cut to a first person account from the murderer. This, written in a rather formal and old-fashioned way, feels stylistically strange and also a little redundant as very little of what is revealed was unknown to us. The one thing that this could have given us was an exploration of the emotional angle but here he misses and we never get any deep contemplation of that aspect of the killer’s crimes. It’s a missed opportunity that also blunts the impact the author might otherwise have achieved with the remainder of the ending.

These disappointments, both in terms of the investigation and its resolution, unfortunately waste what was one of the author’s most intriguing setups and some truly marvelous character development. He’d Rather Be Dead is still quite readable with some beautifully observed moments but those reading primarily for the puzzle are likely to be a little disappointed by how straightforward the case becomes.

The Verdict: One of the authors’ most promising setups is not fully realized thanks to some straightforward plotting that indicates the solution far too early. The rich setting and interesting characters compensate somewhat.


Further Reading: Rekha and Kate discussed the book in a spoiler-filled buddy read at Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime.

Anjana at Superfluous Reading also admired Bellairs’ characterizations here in their review.

Bev at My Reader’s Block shared my dissatisfaction with the final few chapters and also seemed to find that the killer’s identity leapt out at them.

The Detection Club Project: John Rhode – The Claverton Affair

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.
Image Credit: John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) by Howard Coster (1930) © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#11: John Rhode

He possessed enough scientific, medical and practical know-how to set in motion an almost never-ending conveyer belt of ingenious methods for committing murder.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile

Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.

Spiderman Pointing Image - labeled as John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye

In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.

Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.

I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.

My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.

Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…

The Claverton Affair by John Rhode

Originally published in 1933
Dr. Priestley #15
Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery
Followed by The Venner Crime

After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.

But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .


This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.

When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?

One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.

The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.

Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.

A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.

This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.

Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.

As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.

The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.

That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).

The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.


Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.

Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.


Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.

Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light (TV)

Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Negative Reaction
Followed by Playback

Originally broadcast October 27, 1974

Written by Howard Berk
Directed by Harvey Hart

Plot Summary

Colonel Rumford is the commandant of a military academy that is struggling to maintain enrollment as fewer young men consider a career in the military. When the chairman informs him that he will push ahead with his plan to make the school into a co-educational university and dismiss him, Rumford kills him, making the death appear to be a tragic accident. Unfortunately for Rumford, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo investigating the case…

My Thoughts

The Prisoner is one of my favorite television shows of all time and it has been one I have often revisited over the years. I hugely enjoy McGoohan’s intensity and charisma in the lead role of Number Six – a former spy who finds himself in a strange village where an antagonist, Number Two, plays games with him to try to learn his secrets. It was a format that really suited McGoohan’s abilities as an actor, typically pitting him one-on-one for intense interactions with other charismatic actors as they each try to break the other’s will.

While Rumford’s status as a killer leads to us wanting him to fail rather than triumph, that intense battle of wills is very much a part of this Columbo story, making McGoohan ideal casting for the part. This would be recognized after the fact with McGoohan picking up an Emmy for his performance. Perhaps the bigger sign of his success though is that he would return several times over the years that followed, not only contributing to the show as an actor and winning another Emmy but also as a writer and director.

It’s curious to think though that this episode could have turned out quite differently. According to Shooting Columbo, the original actor cast to play the role of Colonel Rumford was Ed Asner who dropped out after Peter Falk’s contract dispute led to delays in shooting. While Asner was certainly a fantastic performer, I find it hard to imagine anyone playing the part quite as well as McGoohan – an actor every bit as unpredictable and fascinating as Falk himself.

There’s lots to love about the interactions between these two intense performers. McGoohan’s role requires him at times to act with great force and show his anger but he balances these beautifully with moments in which he tries to ingratiate, placate and gently lead Columbo to the positions he hopes he will take. Those moments could easily have been played with high energy to draw your attention to them but instead McGoohan underplays them, allowing us to see him think and similarly observe how Falk is responding. At other points Falk takes the lead, encouraging us to wonder what lies beneath his questions but also how his counterpart is responding.

The relationship reminded me a little of a waltz with both characters trying to lead while also retaining their sense of grace and poise. McGoohan’s Rumford could so easily have gone into a hammy, over-the-top militarism – and he certainly has moments where we see flashes of that – but he also plays with subtext, allowing us into his character’s head and, in the process, rendering him as a significantly more complex and interesting individual than I think he would have been based on the script alone.

Falk seems to be noticeably engaged with this script and performance turning in an equally restrained and dry performance of his own. There are moments of comedy – hand Falk a map or a couple of bread rolls and he will inevitably make something amusing happen but while those moments can be pretty funny, they feel noticeably scaled back. My feeling is that Falk would often add to the comedic business of an episode when he wasn’t sure if it was working – here he seems to trust that the material will work. Which it does.

One of the ideas I like most about this episode is Columbo’s decision to place himself in the barracks, spontaneously deciding to stay on site. This not only allows the production to make the most of the setting, the striking Citadel campus in Charleston, South Carolina, but it also provides some entertaining moments as a disheveled Columbo is startled awake by the reveille or trying to borrow socks off some of the residents.

I think it also allows us to see a slightly different Columbo than we often see in these episodes as he is so clearly out of his element and comfort zone. This exposure to new pressures provides an opportunity to see some newer sides to this character even after four seasons. On a similar note, I also really enjoyed the character’s interactions with his very frustrated subordinates who clearly are used to the detective’s chaotic methods and just want to go home – we so often focus on Columbo working a case alone that it’s always interesting to get these little moments that give insight into how he is viewed by his colleagues.

In terms of the scripting, I think that the episode is surprisingly tight for a ninety minute story with little sense of any extraneous materiale. While I know from reading David Koenig’s book that a scene was added at McGoohan’s request, I was struck by how integrated it feels to the rest of the production. While it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot much, it does enrich the characters and give us a better understanding both of their dynamic and also some of the workings of the academy itself.

My only qualms about the plot are that I feel that the Colonel doesn’t really have a solid endgame in committing the murder. While I admire the way he anticipates and controls the scene in the lead up to the ‘accident’, I feel there are legitimate questions to be asked about just how things would have unfolded had Columbo never been assigned the case. Would the school have survived with its significantly declining enrollment? Would no one on the board have been aware of what the victim, Haynes, had in mind for the school? What would he have done if Haynes had not responded to his manipulations prior to the murder?

While I think you can ask some questions of the episode’s premise, I do really appreciate the slow build-up to the end. This is not the type of story that has a gotcha moment or some dramatic trick or reveal but rather it is much more like Columbo is operating a slowly tightening noose working its way the killer’s neck, leaving him confused and at a loss for how to get out until it is too late and the evidence seems to utterly incriminate him.

This makes for a splendid and compelling conclusion to a really interesting case. McGoohan proves to be inspired casting as the killer and I really enjoyed the rapport the two lead actors share. It is easy to see why the producers would bring him back several times in the years to come – it’s a great performance.

The Verdict: While not the flashiest or starriest of Columbo stories, this is a compelling and entertaining tale featuring a wonderful performance from Patrick McGoohan.

Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Originally published in 1975
Inspector Morse #1
Followed by Last Seen Wearing

The death of Sylvia Kaye figured dramatically in Thursday afternoon’s edition of the Oxford Mail. By Friday evening Inspector Morse had informed the nation that the police were looking for a dangerous man – facing charges of willful murder, sexual assault and rape.

But as the obvious leads fade into twilight and darkness, Morse becomes more and more convinced that passion holds the key…


I was still a toddler when the Inspector Morse television show debuted. By the time I had grown up and become a mystery fan myself it was already a cultural phenomenon and nearing its conclusion after more than a decade on our screens. If memory serves I started with the end – a rather rotten way to begin as I had little sense of the characters and the final story is rather different – and went back to watch the others when they were released on VHS in one of those partwork magazine series that were so popular around that time. The point here is that, like many, I first became familiar with Morse on screen as portrayed by John Thaw so when I finally got around to experiencing Dexter’s original novels during my time away at college the experience came as a bit of a shock.

Last Bus to Woodstock was the first of those Morse novels. There are, of course, many things that Dexter’s Morse has in common with his television equivalent; from the start we see his interest in music, beer and crossword puzzles. While Thaw could be gruff and irritable however, Dexter’s original conception of his character was younger, more abrasive and – as we see in this initial outing and will certainly come back to later in this post – a bit of a letch around women.

The case in this novel concerns the brutal murder of Sylvia Kane, a young woman whose body is discovered outside a pub. The medical examination shows signs of rape while the cause of death was a savage blow to the head. With no witnesses to the murder itself, Morse’s only lead is a report that Kane had been trying to catch a bus with another woman earlier that evening. The problem lies in figuring out who that might be and how they relate to the crime itself…

It has been a number of years since I read this and my memories of this one are pretty dim so I was a little surprised to realize how graphic Dexter would be about the condition of the corpse and in the way her death would be discussed by the investigators. Much is made, for instance, of the notion that she was not wearing a bra and – in what is easily the most uncomfortable passage in the book – Morse speculates on whether, given the lack of evidence to show a struggle, she may have wanted to have been raped.

It is not entirely clear from the text alone whether Dexter intended this to try to accurately capture the way these men might talk or it is a statement of the author’s own views on the matter (for the record, I believe it is the former). What is notable though is that the idea goes unacknowledged and unchallenged making it, at times, a rather uncomfortable read. This is not helped by the way that most of the female characters are treated as objects by the male characters, often in the most inappropriate circumstances.

To give one example, there is a second death later in the novel and the victim is a woman. Morse’s immediate response to seeing the body is to note, with surprise, ‘how attractive she must have been’. It’s not just Morse either – earlier in the novel there is a moment where Lewis considers his thirteen year old daughter’s ‘nice little figure’ after considering how the first corpse resembled a glamor shot in a ‘girlie magazine’. It all feels rather sordid and while there is a point to the explicitness in the portrayal of the violence Sylvia has suffered, it feels as if the reader is being invited to view her as something of a deserving victim.

Fortunately the rest of the book does have a number of other points of interest in terms of the puzzle itself. Dexter’s writing seems to exhibit examples of both the detective and the psychological approaches to mystery fiction in about equal measure, positioning this book as an interesting bridge point between those two styles.

Morse tackles the clues in a structured and thoughtful way, spotting important details that help him to slowly piece the puzzle together. He considers not only what he knows but he can presume based upon the evidence he has gathered as we see most memorably in one of the novel’s strongest sequences in which, suffering the aftermath of an injury, he works through a series of thoughts to attempt to construct a profile of a figure from the case. It makes for one of the novel’s most interesting and compelling moments, heightened by the character’s clear instability at that time, and it was nice to see our detective exercising some good, solid, logical thought.

One other thing I really like about this book, and the series as a whole, is that it doesn’t try to make Morse infallible. There are a number of moments in this book in which we see Morse stumble and become confused, misinterpreting something or taking the evidence in the wrong direction. Those obviously stretch the story out a little but they are understandable and also often illustrate something of Morse’s character and his approach as a detective.

If Morse is a little different from his television version, Lewis feels like an entirely new character. Where the TV version was younger and a university graduate, the version in the books is older, settled down and interested in learning more. His relationship with Morse is, inevitably, a little different but, I would argue, in a good way. Later books would adjust the presentation of the character and his relationship with Morse to more closely mimic that found in the television series between Thaw and Whately but as much as I enjoy that dynamic, I think the younger detective paired with a more seasoned policeman works just as well.

As for the mystery, the novel does a rather good job of piecing things together to make for an intriguing solution. I really loved the way that Morse makes logical deductions from the few scant facts he has been given to weave into a rather ingenious solution. I found the subtle clueing to be every bit as impressive as I remembered and found some other aspects of the ending to be very impactful.

Judged purely for its puzzle, Last Bus to Woodstock impresses. It offers a cleverly structured solution and Dexter spaces out the developments well, making this a very engaging read. Some will find it easy to focus purely on this and ignore the stuck in their time moments or treat them as moments illustrative of the characters Dexter had created. Others will feel less comfortable. I highlight them to make you aware that they are there so that you can decide for yourself.

The Verdict: Morse’s first case offers a satisfying puzzle that leads to a powerful and memorable conclusion. Better would be to come but as a debut it’s pretty successful. Readers may want to consider starting with one of the later novels however where, if memory serves, the character was presented a little less abrasively.


Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offered his thoughts on the story and its themes in this review.


Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, older reprints are still available such as the 1996 Ivy Books paperback (0804114900) and the 1997 Pan Books paperback (978-1447299073 – the edition pictured above).

The Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert R. Rohmer

Originally published in 1978.
English translation first published in 1987.

Far from his work and family in Japan, Professor Daigo is watching an autumn storm from the salon of the Château Chantal. But it is only when the power is cut that he becomes aware of a woman, also Japanese, to whose elegant melancholy he is instantly drawn.

Intoxicated by the darkness and his desire, Daigo finds himself sharing a secret that his mysterious partner can equal with a confidence of her own: they both want another person dead. Before he knows it, Daigo has struck a bargain that could separate him from this bewitching woman for ever. And it is a bargain of which he barely understands the half…


The premise of The Third Lady may seem somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. Both stories feature characters who, upon a chance meeting, happen to share their secret desire to be rid of someone. Both also feature that moment in which the character we have been following comes to realize that the theoretical discussion they had has been brought into reality and have to decide if they will uphold their end of the bargain. While this work may share some significant plot elements, the way Natsuki presents and develops those ideas ends up feeling quite distinct from Highsmith’s, establishing it clearly as its own work.

The most obvious place we can see those differences is in the way in which the characters find themselves forming that murder pact. In The Third Lady, Professor Daigo is spending time in the salon of his hotel in France when the power goes out, leaving him in the darkness. In that moment he becomes aware that a woman, also apparently Japanese, is in the room with him. Excited by the darkness, her perfume, and the anonymity of their encounter, Daigo talks with her and in the course of their conversation she shares her desire to see a woman she holds responsible for the death of her beloved murdered. He in turn expresses his wish that his superior in his university faculty die for his role in covering up how a candy company was responsible for giving children cancer. Their confidences shared, the pair part before power is restored leaving Daigo with strong, sensual memories of the encounter but no knowledge of the woman’s appearance (beyond her pierced ears) or true identity.

When Daigo’s supervisor is killed just a short while later he suspects that what he had assumed was a theoretical discussion was actually an agreement. Desiring to meet the mysterious woman again, he undertakes to carry out the other murder. As he does so, he wonders who among the people in his victim’s life that woman might be and resolves to try and make contact with her after carrying out the crime.

One of the key differences here is in the tone and motivations of the characters in this pivotal moment in the story. Highsmith pitches her encounter as a moment of frustrated fantasy in which the characters talk at cross purposes, one taking that conversation seriously while the other believes (or convinces themselves) that they are not talking seriously. For Natsuki’s characters however it is a highly meaningful moment, inexplicably linked to a moment of intense but unfulfilled sexual desire.

Where Strangers on a Train becomes a novel of suspense, The Third Lady feels more like a meditation on how someone can be affected by that type of desire. Daigo seeks to kill out of the hope that in doing so it will enable him to encounter this woman again and complete that encounter. By the end of the novel the feverish search to discover the woman’s identity has taken on the same degree of importance as the thriller elements of he plot, incorporating elements of the detective story into the novel.

Another difference I perceive between the two books is the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. Highsmith’s Guy Haines is someone the reader is supposed to relate to. We are invited to understand his frustrations at his situation and why he would be so angry that he might have that foolish conversation on the train, even if his victim – while annoying and obviously tormenting him – makes for a bit of a figure of pity.

In contrast the reader is more likely to sympathize with Daigo’s feelings towards Professor Yoshimi whose crime is clearly a terrible one, particularly as it involves children, even if they disapprove of the ends to which he would go to remove him. Yet the more we see of Daigo, the less sympathetic he becomes. This is not just because the thing motivating him is so clearly a base instinct but that we realize he is willing to throw away his home life based on this one short encounter.

It’s at this point that I probably should say I find the initial encounter the least convincing part of the book. I felt Natsuki did establish the role that the unknown played in elevating the sense of excitement in that moment but the physical components to that scene feel a little contrived. It’s not that I don’t understand the effect that such an encounter might have but that the acceleration of the scene felt extremely jarring in the context of the conversation the pair were sharing.

The other key aspect of The Third Lady which distinguishes it is the emphasis it places upon its story elements. While the reader does follow Daigo as he comes to realize what may be expected of him and as he plots how to accomplish his task, the search for the woman’s true identity is given equal weight. Indeed, as we near the end of the novel it becomes nearly its whole focus. While that is appropriate to the themes Natsuki is exploring, this may disappoint those who come to this primarily for its crime elements as those moments are really minimized in the context of the novel overall.

The book’s later chapters also attempt to add a secondary perspective on the crime as we follow the detectives investigating the murders. This technique is often used to good effect in inverted stories to heighten the tension and produce that cat and mouse game but here it feels like an afterthought with little of importance revealed in these chapters. Indeed these chapters only seem to remove focus from Daigo, slowing down his story while adding little to the narrative overall. I felt that the book might have benefited from just inferring the details of the investigation in conversation with Daigo (as is done quite successfully in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon).

The bigger problem though with the book is its final destination: a final chapter that feels simultaneously sensational and yet unsurprising. My issue with the way the story is resolved is not that I found it quite predictable in terms of the information learned or that I found the scene that preceded it to be utterly unbelievable on an behavioral level, but that it is the sort of ending where the more you consider it, the harder it is to make sense of how things turned out and, in particular, the mentality of the characters.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that in the end the characters became like dolls, contorted into uncomfortable roles because of the demands of the moment rather than because it fit what we might expect a person to do in those circumstances. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the middle of the book and had been interested both in its concept and also characters.

The Verdict: Natsuki’s novel offers an intriguing twist on a classic mystery concept but I struggled with its awkward, contorted start and finish.


Second Opinions: John @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one over a decade ago, responding not only to the power of its ending but noting its success as a study of the illusions of love and obsession.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops (my copy set me back $6) or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1990 paperback edition from Mandarin.

Case Closed, Volume 8: Who is the Night Baron? by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 8
Preceded by The Case of the Moonlight Sonata
Followed by Kidnappings, Shootings, & Drownings… Oh My!

Conan enters a mystery contest where he must be the first to discover the true identity of the enigmatic Night Baron. But the fun and games end when the contest turns into a real-life murder.

Later, Rachel’s high school teacher is about to get married. But the wedding bells stop ringing when someone tries to murder the beautiful bride.

All the clues are there — can you figure out whodunit before Conan does?


It’s been a few months since I last read and posted about a volume of Case Closed so I was pleased to get back to it this week, even if this volume begins with the conclusion to an underwhelming adventure from the last one. For the benefit of those who do not remember that was the Pro Soccer Player Case which concerned the kidnapping of a star player’s sibling shortly before a big game with a demand that the player throw the game for their safe return.

When I discussed the first part of this story I noted that it did not feel particularly complex but I hoped that I would find some of that complexity in the remaining parts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that we get just one chapter to resolve things in, that doesn’t really happen. In fact I was surprised at just how easily the story is resolved – at least in terms of the detection process. There is an attempt to delve into some more emotional material that, while not entirely successful, was an interesting note to end things on.

The next story, the Night Baron Murder Case, inspires the title of this collection and I felt that it was the more interesting of the two complete stories here. Doctor Agasa was meant to attend an event being held at a fancy hotel but when one of his party gets sick he transfers the reservations to Jimmy, Richard and Rachel. When they arrive at the hotel however they discover that only half of the costs were covered but they have an opportunity to get the rest of their stay paid for if they are the first to work out which of the other guests was the organizer of the trip and has styled themselves as the Night Baron – a recurring character from the detective novels written by Jimmy’s father.

This is a pretty convoluted setup as is reflected by how awkwardly that paragraph read but once you accept it there is plenty to enjoy here. The setup with the guests all trying to play detective is entertaining enough, particularly as we see them all trying to read far too much into every little interaction, but things really pick up when we get to the really striking murder scene in which the victim falls to their death to be impaled on a statue and we realize that there is a proper locked room problem to solve.

The problem concerns how a killer could have murdered the victim inside their hotel room and left, closing the security bar behind them. While the setup to this problem is quite simple, Aoyama does a really good job of explaining the process by which the trick is achieved with some clear and effective illustrations. While it’s not the most dazzling solution to this sort of problem, it is perfectly pitched for the audience and the medium. I also appreciated though that solving the locked room is not the end of the puzzle – there are other well-clued aspects of the case to put together, making the solution to this one feel quite cleverly-worked.

The supporting material concerning the treasure hunt aspect of the case, while amusing, is less interesting though it does complicate the central investigation quite nicely. I did enjoy Richard’s arrogant posturing, playing off his growing reputation as a super sleuth, and I also enjoyed that this story gives Rachel a reason to conduct her own investigation, allowing her to contribute to the solution.

The final story, the Poisoned Bride Case, is a shorter story that takes place during the wedding of one of Rachel and Jimmy’s teachers. In the lead up to the ceremony the bride is brought a bag of drinks, sipping on one through a straw as she is visited by friends, family and the groom. When she collapses they realize that someone has poisoned her drink but the question is which of the party could have done that.

There are some interesting elements to this case, not least that Conan and Rachel have much of the time recorded on film. I also thought that the discussion of the timing of the incident was done well (and, once again, utilized a very effective timeline graphic). The case’s solution is quite clever although the clueing to one part of it is rather subtle; I did come away from this thinking I’d like to revisit the story with its anime adaptation to see if that works better in motion.

Where I feel that this story doesn’t work quite so well is in its attempt to incorporate a more emotional storytelling element. It’s not that the idea is a bad one – in fact, I feel that some of the elements used pay off very effectively – but that I am not sure I can really buy how this case is finally resolved after all that has gone before it. Still, the path to that solution is interesting and I did love the timing element to this case.

As for the series’ ongoing stories, neither of the complete stories in this volume do much to move them forward. The concluding chapter to the Pro Soccer Player Case does at least deal with some of Rachel’s feelings toward Jimmy but while it is nice to get them addressed, it doesn’t progress our understanding of that relationship much. The mystery of Jimmy’s transformation into Conan is not touched at all. As I have no doubt written before, I do not expect much movement in these plot threads given that I have close to another eighty volumes to read to get caught up, but it does feel strange to go so long without being referenced. I am hoping that a story addresses this soon to remind us that presumably Jimmy doesn’t want to stay an elementary school student for the rest of his life…

The Verdict: I felt that this was a pretty solid volume. The two complete stories are both engaging and offer intriguing and pretty well-clued puzzles for the reader to solve with the Night Baron Murder Case being particularly effective. Only the first chapter, the conclusion to the story from the previous volume, disappoints but being so short it was easy to overlook.

My Brother’s Killer by Jean Potts

Originally published in 1975

Garth Sullivan lives in the same brownstone as his brother Howdy and his wife, Pamela. Garth once had a career as a woodworker, but that ended when Howdy accidentally caused the slicing of his two fingers. He once had Pamela, too. But now all he has is hate. A festering hate that only grows stronger with each dinner date. But Garth has a plan. It’s a great plan, a wonderful plan. All he has to do to rid himself of Howdy is to fake his own death, and wait for the perfect moment to kill him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take Eunice into consideration. Eunice is their less-than-attractive neighbor, and she is in love with Garth. So when she sees him outside the building after everyone else thinks he’s dead, she vows to keep his secret. But some secrets just can’t be kept…


Garth Sullivan has resented his happy-go-lucky brother Howdy since they were children, in part because their mother seemed to favor Howdy and excuse the various injuries he dealt Garth. Since then Howdy has caused several more serious injuries including the loss of several fingers in an act of drunken carelessness, rendering Garth unable to pursue his passion for woodworking. For Garth however the deepest cut was how, when his relationship with his girlfriend Pam was floundering in the aftermath of the accident, Howdy seemed to steal her from him leading to the pair eventually marrying.

What adds to Garth’s problems is that he cannot seem to get away from Howdy as the pair live in the same building and he is frequently asked to socialize with them. Howdy, seemingly oblivious to Garth’s upset, has even taken to suggesting that romance might be in the offing with their awkward neighbor Eunice, trying to throw them together. What transforms Garth’s sentiments from sibling resentments to a murderous rage is an incident involving an item which, unbeknownst to Howdy, has a great significance for Garth…

My Brother’s Killer, the last of Jean Potts’ crime novels, is a story told in an inverted style in which we follow Garth as he schemes to bring about his brother’s murder as a prelude to starting a new life for himself. After carefully setting out how those tensions came about, we then see Garth starting to execute his scheme though we have little sense of what he exactly he is planning at that point – only his end goal.

As a storytelling technique this is quite exciting as it certainly creates a sense of mystery concerning the significance of his preparations. Much of the early intrigue lies in trying to understand just what his plan entails as we also get to know these characters better and understand the complex emotional dynamics at play in the various relationships, not only between the brothers but also the other residents of the brownstone in which they live.

After the first stage of Garth’s plan is pulled off however our focus on his actions is relaxed and he begins to operate in the background with our focus falling instead on those in his brother’s orbit. This can be quite effective, particularly in exploring the ways in which they react to what he has done, but with this shift in focus I think the piece loses some of its energy and bite. There is, of course, still plenty of tension and suspense but the awkward introduction of several new characters, Lenny and David, at this stage in the story slows things down and threatens to draw our attention away from the novel’s central conflict.

The introduction of David in particular feels odd as it attempts to graft a more sympathetic hero-figure onto a story featuring more nuanced, complex characters. Potts has to work hard to integrate him into the story and I struggled at points to understand why that character would choose to get involved in the way he does here.

I was more interested in the reactions of those who had known Garth well, particularly Eunice who we know nursed an unrequited love for her neighbor. Potts does a fine job of showing the complexities and contradictions within her character and I appreciate also that there are some moments that show her resourcefulness and explore her feelings towards him.

Perhaps the least developed of the characters, at least in the way he is presented to us, is Howdy. Of all the characters in the brownstone, he seems to be given the least to do and he seems oblivious to the dangers facing him for most of the story. This is perhaps necessary for the purposes of the plot but it also means that while we come to understand Garth’s perspective about Howdy, we know far less about how the latter feels about his brother. That is not necessarily a problem as our focus is really on Garth’s perceptions of that relationship and how that motivates him to want to murder but it does feel like we learn about his character primarily through others’ thoughts and actions rather than his own which isn’t as tidy as it might have been.

While I found that the plot seemed to slow as David comes to the fore, there are still some moments of excitement though the book’s conclusion felt a little rushed and anticlimactic after so much buildup. There are certainly some interesting emotional notes generated by its ending, but though I think Potts provides a really compelling resolution to that story, I couldn’t help but feel that we might have got there sooner and that this moment might have benefited by less unnecessary buildup and a greater focus on the brothers themselves.

The Verdict: I enjoyed the scenario Potts creates and her exploration of Garth’s character and resentments but I felt that the storytelling lost a little focus after the novel’s midpoint. While this may have been necessary to stretch out the story, I would have preferred it be shorter and more tightly focused on its compelling central relationship.


Second Opinions: Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently featured the title as one of his Friday Forgotten Books. While the review is not exactly a rave, it describes the book as a good example of Potts’ craft as a storyteller.

Elsewhere, A Hot Cup of Pleasure featured a short review of the book in a post about three of Potts’ works. One point made that interested me was the suggestion that we can understand Garth’s anger toward his brother, which I agree with, those I think we are bound to lose that sympathy with him later in the story.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was recently reprinted by Stark House in a twofer edition along with The Diehard, another novel by Potts I have yet to review on this blog. Your local bookseller should be able to order you a copy with the ISBN 978-1-951473-74-7.

Columbo: Negative Reaction (TV)

Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by An Exercise in Fatality
Followed by By Dawn’s Early Light

Originally broadcast October 15, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

Photographer Frank Galesko is tired of Frances, his ‘domineering, nagging, suffocating’ wife and perhaps a little interested in Lorna, his pretty, young assistant. Determined to be rid of her, he stages her kidnapping and ransom with the aid of an associate and kills her, framing the man who unwittingly helped him pull it off. He seems to have crafted an unbreakable alibi for himself. Unfortunately for Frank, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

My Thoughts

There are some Columbo killers whose names you see on the titles and think to yourself that they were obviously perfect casting for the killer. People like Donald Pleasance and Leonard Nimoy come to mind. It’s not just that they are good at playing menacing but that you can imagine how the back and forth between them and Falk will likely play out. There is a second type of Columbo killer though that can be equally successful when pulled off – the actor who is cast against type. It is this second type of successful antagonist that we find in Negative Reaction.

As much as I enjoy Dick van Dyke as an entertainer, I didn’t have high expectations when I saw that he was the killer in this episode. I think of van Dyke as a charming, urbane and playful performer and so it was hard to imagine him as ruthless or cruel. My expectation was that the production would use his affability as a way to obscure his character’s nature – leaning into his likeability – but the episode actually goes the other way, emphasizing the character’s cruelty in one of the most brutal and calculating murders seen on the show to date (minus the actual killing of course).

There is a certain shock value to seeing loveable family entertainer Dick van Dyke behaving that way which does help make that opening feel all the more arresting but the performance and the setup doesn’t rely on that. Galesko’s plan itself is interesting, seeing the killer recruit an unwitting accomplice to help him pull off his crime. It’s a fascinating structure that helps to stress just how carefully this character has planned his murder, and it does create one of the more intriguing alibi problems that Columbo has encountered to date.

While the sequence in which Galesko sets up a photograph to suggest a false time of death is presented as a centerpiece, the cleverest aspect of the crime to me was the way he plays the kidnapping angle. This is partly because it does help sell the broader story but it’s also because of the way the scene plays out with the character appearing to try to avoid talking about it. So often in these sorts of stories the killer will draw attention to themselves by trying to force a memory onto someone, perhaps by asking them to look at the time, so it feels quite novel to see it play out the other way here. What’s more, I feel that this scene is built upon some pretty accurate psychology – we do tend to pay more attention to those things we are supposed not to notice.

Galesko’s choice of associate is similarly very clever (and also quite cruel). While I think many would question what they were being asked to do, that character’s situation is such that you can understand why they wouldn’t think too much about it and instead just accept it on face value. Here once again I feel Galesko’s cunning and brutality as a killer is really sold and I felt that this part of the plot is paid off well, even if a key moment of violence doesn’t entirely convince in the portrayal of its consequences (though here, again, I love the way it drives home Galesko’s ruthlessness and dedication to his aims).

So that’s close to full marks to this episode and to van Dyke for its portrayal of the murder scheme. This gets things off to a fine start and sets up an intriguing problem for Columbo to try to work through. Firstly, can he see through Galesko and what he has been willing to do in order to appear to be an innocent victim? Second, how can he break his seemingly tight alibi? Then lastly, how will he prove the photographer masterminded the whole thing?

What intrigues me here is that Galesko once again underplays his hand, avoiding excessive displays of grief and not even doing much to cover up his interest in Lorna. This is perhaps a reflection of the character’s arrogance – he believes his alibi is so strong that he believes he cannot be caught. In any case, it is another instance of how van Dyke plays against expectations to create a character who must rank among the least likeable of the villains the show had created up until this point.

Falk has a very solid episode, getting quite a lot of comical material to work with. Much of this is in the familiar but fertile ground of Columbo being judged by his disheveled appearance – in this case there is a misunderstanding with his vehicle and, later in the episode, confusion at a soup kitchen. None of this is unexpected but Falk’s delivery and reactions are good and while I suspect there is some padding there, both scenes are important enough in other regards to keep that from being too evident and they don’t slow the episode down too much either.

On more original ground, there is an amusing sequence in which Columbo tries to question a witness while driving which works very nicely. It is nice to see the show giving Falk something fresh to play with and the scene is pitched at just about the right length, getting a few goes at the gag before moving on.

Columbo’s investigation is similarly well-pitched, delivering several interesting lines of inquiry and interactions with some colorful characters. What really impresses though is that this is one of the strongest cases that our hero has built up against a suspect up to this point in the series. Over the course of the episode we see him pick up on small tells, none of them significant enough in their own right to prove anything but which taken together put him on the right track.

Some of those tells are based on observing Galesko’s behavior which, as I noted earlier, is hardly that of the grieving husband but Columbo is also responsible for generating some of those moments. One of the more memorable examples of this comes with his behavior at the funeral but there are plenty of other examples as well.

All of this builds to a very clever example of a gotcha moment – perhaps the show’s best one since Suitable for Framing. It involves a piece of trickery which I usually don’t love but here the trick is a great one, made better by it operating to incriminate his adversary on several levels. After watching van Dyke’s Galesko comfortably wriggle free of each of Columbo’s attempts to snare him throughout the episode, seeing him trapped so conclusively feels devastating and unlikely some other examples, I don’t see how he can ever talk his way out of it in any kind of a convincing way at trial. It’s a very satisfying way to conclude this case.

I may have been a little apprehensive about what I would get when I started this episode but I am happy to say that I felt all of my expectations were exceeded. This is a very solid case with one of the most detestable killers the show had created, brilliantly realized with an unexpected piece of casting. While it is still a little early for me to be thinking about ranking Columbo episodes, I will be surprised if it isn’t at the upper end of my list whenever I make it.

The Verdict: Far better than I had expected. The investigation is interesting and though it is one of the longer episodes, I was surprised when I realized it was one of the longer ones – the time seemed to fly by!

The Protégé by Charlotte Armstrong

Originally published in 1970

Seventy-four-year-old widow Mrs. Moffat lives in a quiet and idyllic California town, accustomed to routine and solitude in her country home. But everything changes when she runs into a charismatic young transient in church one Sunday morning. He claims to be Simon Warren, the son of a former neighbor and the best friend of Mrs. Moffat’s own grandson, who mysteriously vanished years ago.

Longing to repair the emotional wounds of the past, the enchanted Mrs. Moffat welcomes Simon into her home. But he’s not received nearly as well by her friends or her granddaughter, Zen, whose suspicions about Simon, and the potential threat he poses, are willfully ignored by her grandmother. Now, as the young man calmly insinuates himself into a comfortable new life, a test of wills between the stubborn old woman and her increasingly apprehensive granddaughter begins.

What no one understands is that Mrs. Moffat isn’t a silly woman: She knows precisely what she wants from her unlikely “friendship” with the untrustworthy Simon. But as a dawning fear arises, Mrs. Moffat, Zen, and perhaps even Simon will find themselves in an inescapable trap of their own making.


Charlotte Armstrong is one of those writers I have quickly come to regard as a blog favorite since first encountering her work a few years ago. Prior to reading this book, I had previously read and written about three other novels each of which I have loved for different reasons. One constant in all three however was that she crafts fascinating scenarios in which there are clearly defined points of tension and we wait to see when those tensions will be triggered and how things will change when they do.

The Protégé similarly offers a scenario that would appear to be laden with possibilities and obvious points of tension and revelation. The book concerns Mrs. Moffat, a seventy-four year old woman who lives alone, who is surprised when a young man sits next to her at church and introduces himself as the boy who used to live next door. Against her instincts she finds herself having tea with him, then allowing him to clear out a cottage on her property, and finally allowing him to move into it.

Among the questions we are invited to consider is whether this young man is really Simon at all. On the one hand, he is able to talk about things that no stranger could have known, yet he is evasive at times when talking about his past. Might he have been affected by a wartime experience or be resolving some other trauma? And then, if not, why does he seem to have such a hold on Mrs. Moffat?

This scenario seems to invite a discussion about elder abuse and exploitation – a serious topic that is not often addressed quite so directly in crime fiction – but the book never really presents that relationship with much ambiguity. This is partly because much of the story is told from the perspective of Mrs. Moffat herself so we are aware of what she is thinking and feeling at most of the key points in the story. While others may wonder if she is being exploited or if Simon has some designs on her, we know enough of her state of mind that I didn’t share their sense of ambiguity. This is compounded when we begin to get passages written by Simon or that follow him, providing early answers to those key questions. From that point onwards the dramatic focus of the book falls on the less interesting and suspenseful question of how the people around Mrs. Moffat will respond to what they are perceiving to be taking place.

In spite of feeling a little disappointed by these structural choices, Armstrong is as readable as ever. While I think the choice to follow Mrs. Moffat so closely doesn’t help the creation of suspense, she does a superb job of capturing her protagonist’s thoughts and feelings more generally. Some of the book’s most interesting moments can be found in the quiet and thoughtful development of that relationship between those two characters and in tracking the way it changes both characters.

Perhaps the least effective parts of the book are those that most directly address the concerns of the period in which it was written. This is not so much an instance of attitudes or the language being of its time (though there is a little of the latter in the speech of the characters) but rather the awkward attempts to discuss how society was changing. There were a few points in the text where I was put in mind of some later Christie works such as Passenger to Frankfurt in that I understood what Armstrong was trying to talk about but I felt the framework of those discussions was sometimes muddled and that her attempts to get into the minds of her younger characters were not as successful as they might have been.

It should probably be said that this was Armstrong’s final work, published posthumously, and I am a little curious if this was its intended final state or if there were further revisions planned but never completed.

While I can say it is the least successful of her works I have read to date, I should say it is still an intriguing, characterful read – particularly if approached as a work of literary fiction. Looking at this through a genre lens though, I think it feels like a missed opportunity to explore a concept that could have been really unsettling and suspenseful.

The Verdict: More compelling as a character and situation study than a work of genre fiction, this may not be among Armstrong’s finest novels but it is still very readable.


Second Opinions: Curtis Evans @ The Passing Tramp reflects on where this book sits in the context of Armstrong’s wider career.


Interested in finding a copy to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. An eBook version of the book is available from MysteriousPress.