Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

This collection was originally published in 2015

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. 

I was a late convert to the mystery short story. Read some of my earliest posts on this blog and you’ll see that I express a certain wariness about this form of mystery story, believing that the short length wouldn’t allow for the sort of complex case that would interest me.

The British Library mystery anthologies were a large part of the reason that my opinions on the form began to change. I started reading them just to experience a wide range of authors but was pleasantly surprised by how rich and interesting some of the tales were.

One of the things I like most about the range is the idea of grouping stories around a common theme. Other collections have been themed on topics like manor house murders, railway mysteries or science-driven cases. It can be interesting to see the different directions and approaches writers would take on a common theme or element, brilliantly illustrating their style and personality as a writer.

Capital Crimes is a collection that contains some very strong mystery stories, some from familiar names but several from writers who were new to me. I will share some thoughts on each story in a moment but talking about them as a group, I felt that the quality was pretty consistently high. Where I think the collection falls down is in its representation of its theme – while the stories here happen in London, I rarely felt that the stories delivered the sort of strong sense of place that I expected.

My expectations had been for something along the line of Akashic’s city-based Noir series (to be clear, this was an expectation for approach – not for tone). Stories you read and notice aspects of the city in with stories set in very distinctive places or communities. The difference, of course, is that those stories tend to be written specifically for that collection with that sense of place in mind – I imagine that finding suitable stories for this collection must have been much harder.

While the stories rarely give a sense of a specific place, they tend to be better at evoking a sense of a metropolis. Stories draw upon the anonymity of the city and the mass of people that live and work there. They frequently reflect the fears people must have felt about living in these relatively new urban spaces, particularly of being alone even when you are surrounded by millions of people.

The most effective stories in this collection for me were the ones that explored those ideas. Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask is fantastically sinister and unsettling and is brilliantly complemented by E. M. Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels. John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground explores the widespread panic caused by a series of motiveless murders on mass transit while H. C. Bailey’s The Little House may not be a puzzle mystery, but it a very effective and unsettling piece of writing.

There are relatively few misses in the collection. J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street felt too fantastical, as did Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, while Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, though effective, reads like a horror story. Even these stories though are perfectly readable though it is a little unfortunate that they all fall near the start of the collection.

The stories offer a good mix of approaches and styles and while I think other volumes offered a clearer representation of their theme, I think most who pick up Capital Crimes will find plenty here to enjoy. Thoughts on the individual stories follow after the page break!

INDIVIDUAL STORY REVIEWS

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by Don Ward

Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the motion picture Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which was itself an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization has been widely attributed to Don Ward.

This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.

Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.

But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.

Excerpt from the inside cover “What this Story is about” page – cut short to prevent spoiling the details of the plot.
The map on the back cover of the Dell paperback
Mapback 262: This map of the apartment is hardly essential but captures the space well, though a crucial object, the trunk, is conspicuous in its absence.

A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.

When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.

I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.

Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.

To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.

Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…

Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.

The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.

A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.

Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.

It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.

While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.

Case Closed, Volume 7: The Case of the Moonlight Sonata by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 7
Preceded by The Last Loan
Followed by Who is the Night Baron?

On a remote island, a job request comes in from a pianist who’s been dead for over 10 years. Can Conan solve the case of the cursed piano?

And later, a mysterious woman shows up claiming to be Jimmy’s girlfriend. The only problem is, Conan’s never seen her before in his life!

Today’s post is brought to you by my need to get a bit of an early night tonight. Rather than rush jotting down thoughts on one of the novels I have read, I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the next volume in the manga detective series Case Closed.

As you may recall, the previous volume ended with an incomplete story and this volume begins with the conclusion to that adventure. As a quick recap of the premise, a famous writer was found murdered in his hotel room during a fire festival. The obvious suspect is a fellow writer who had been lodging with him but he has a seemingly unbreakable alibi – there is photographic evidence that he had been attending the festivities that night with our heroes actually appearing in one of the snaps themselves.

I noted last time out that the previous volume had ended with the reader having everything they needed to work out the solution to the case and I stand by that assertion. It’s done pretty well, and I certainly enjoyed its ideas and following it to its conclusion, but I think it suffers from delivering exactly what I had expected. There is no new evidence here, nor any surprising twists or moments of action and I think I would likely have felt a little underwhelmed had I waited any length of time between finishing the previous volume and starting this one.

The bulk of the book is given over to the next story which is the only complete one in the volume – The Case of the Moonlight Sonata. This begins with Richard Moore receiving a letter which prompts him to travel to Tsukikage Island.

When he arrives he learns that the sender, a famous pianist, had died over a decade before after apparently going mad, killing his family and playing his piano while his house burned to the ground with him inside. When the same tune is heard and the island’s mayor is found dead it seems that history has been repeating itself and, of course, further murders follow.

There were some aspects of this story I enjoyed a lot. I think particularly of the history of the piano and the somewhat eerie suggestion that there might be a supernatural explanation for what is taking place. While I am never going to take that seriously in anything purporting to be a fair-play detective story, it does create a fantastic atmosphere and tone for the piece that I think makes its early chapters particularly engaging to read.

I also enjoyed the pacing of the case with a number of murders happening in very quick succession. This helps to emphasize how out of control the situation is and it did have me gripped to see what would happen next. Unfortunately I think that fast pacing is also responsible for some of what I don’t like about the story – I think a couple of elements of the solution just don’t work for me.

One of them is related to the musical piece that is associated with the killings. I had really loved this as an idea running through the adventure so I was a little disappointed with a revelation that occurs in one of the later volumes that I felt detracted from it.

Another is related to the killer’s identity. On the one hand I really liked the handling and discussion of the killer’s motivations which gave them a surprising amount of emotional depth and characterization. I also think that, while an aspect of the solution had the potential to have not aged well, the motive for it did make sense to me. The problem is that I’m not sure there’s anything approaching a clue to that in the version that I read. That may reflect changes made in the English language translation, which would not be the author’s fault, but it did keep the reveal from feeling entirely satisfactory.

The last is that I feel the way Richard and the others are brought into this story feels rather contrived and unconvincing. It’s not just that on getting said note his first instinct is to bring two children with him but that on reflection I cannot see a good reason why Richard would receive that note. That includes the attempt at a justification made by Conan on the case’s last page.

None of these three issues are serious enough for me to suggest that the story doesn’t work, but I do think that the final product never quite matches up to the promise I felt in its more atmospheric first half. Of all of the stories I have read so far however, I think this is the one I am most interested to watch the anime adaptation of as I can imagine that the musical elements would be very appealing.

This brings us to the final story in the volume which will be completed in the next installment. This sees a teenaged girl turn up at Richard’s home asking to talk to Jimmy. When she is asked about her reasons, she declares that she is his girlfriend. This is news to our hero who has never seen her before!

It’s a pretty entertaining way to open the story and I enjoyed Rachel’s bursts of jealousy as she becomes certain that Jimmy must be secretly seeing her. Perhaps more than anything though I appreciated that once again we were getting an acknowledgment that Jimmy’s absence is presenting problems and requires some extra explanation, and I think you’d be right to suggest that there is an element of filling space to this story thread, it does feel a little overdue to address the idea that Rachel is taking a lot on trust and clearly must be missing him.

There’s some other enjoyable comedic moments, such as a pretty ridiculous ‘invention’ from the Doc that comes in handy in this story and Conan’s foiled attempts to try to speak to Rachel amused too. As for the case – I enjoyed some of the early, admittedly rather simple deductions made from looking around the apartment. It’s not particularly complex but unlike the story that opened this volume, I felt that I still have more to learn in the next installment before I’ll be able to solve it which does make the way this is split feel a little less frustrating.

Also, you do get a nice little note about one of my favorite detectives – Columbo – to end the volume along with a recommendation of the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, so it at least ends on a bit of a high.

While I did enjoy this volume, I do have to stress that this is by far the most frustrating one I have encountered so far and the reason is the division of the stories into these volumes. While Moonlight Sonata feels like a substantial work, neither of the other cases feel weighty or puzzling enough to match it. If you’re reading these in order (as I have previously recommended and am doing) this is not much of a problem, but if you’re planning just to dip into occasional volumes, I think only getting one complete story could be a little frustrating. For that reason I’d suggest having the next volume readily to hand…

The Verdict: A bit of a mixed bag for me. I liked the complete story and thought it did some interesting things but the stories on either side feel a little slight by comparison.

Second Opinions: I linked to it above but check out Isaac Stump’s Solving the Mystery of Murder blog where they are writing about and ranking all of the Detective Conan Cases, tackling them in order. I’m not going to keep pace with these but I have enjoyed reading over the posts and comparing how we felt about each of the volumes I have read so far.

The Detection Club Project: Freeman Wills Crofts – Crime at Guildford

Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd, © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Crofts, like Rhodes, understood industry better than most detective novelists, and his descriptions of how businessmen (and they almost always were men) operate is as convincing as any of the period.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Several years ago in anticipation of the first anniversary of starting doing this blog I began to compile some data about the books I had read and reviewed. I was quite surprised to learn that my most read author was not, as I expected, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but an author that had been completely unknown to me when I began blogging – Freeman Wills Crofts.

The reason for the surprise was not just a matter of his profile but that my first few experiences of his writing were not overwhelming successes. My first few reviews, Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, praise aspects of the plotting but were less than complimentary about his series detective, Inspector French. In fact one of the reasons I recommended the latter was because it hardly featured him at all!

What I soon came to appreciate though was Crofts’ ingenuity and that he was one of a handful of writers who were laying the foundations for what would become the modern day police procedural. His plots are often inventive and feature enormous attention to detail both in the planning and detection. I rarely, if ever, come away from a Crofts novel with issues with the mechanics of the crime!

Arguably his flaws as a writer lie in his characters who can feel rather flat and functional, none more so than Inspector French. While other series detectives often suggest a life beyond their job, Inspector French seems to just love details and we rarely get a sense of his recreational time beyond an occasional mention of slippers, newspapers and his love of things mechanical (in the book I will be discussing below he says he has a small metalworking space which feels downright intimate by the author’s usual standards).

Perhaps it is a case of the character reflecting his creator. It was hard to find a good quote about Crofts in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, not because he isn’t mentioned but because he doesn’t seem to have prompted the sorts of strong feelings that a Gorell or Berkeley could do. Instead he comes off as decent, conscientious and hardworking with an appreciation for structure, mechanics and order – all of which is reflected in the works themselves.

While enormously popular in the twenties, Crofts fell out of the public eye in the decades that followed and was saddled with the label of being a ‘humdrum’ writer. I understand the complaint but I cannot agree with it because that term suggests staleness and repetition that I simply don’t see in the author’s work.

What excites me about Crofts and keeps me coming back to him again and again is that he doesn’t just adhere to a formula. Instead his style constantly evolves as he experiments and plays with new ideas. Take for example his handful of inverted mysteries, each of which is written in a completely different style and have distinctly different structures. Similarly you can find examples of traditional detective stories, thrillers, locked room mysteries and even a detective story for children.

Humdrum? Not he.

The Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1935
Inspector French #13
Preceded by Mystery on Southampton Water
Followed by The Loss of the Jane Vosper
Also known as The Crime at Nornes and Inspector French and the Crime at Guildford

A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.

Cover and blurb from Collins Crime Club reprint

The Crime at Guildford turned out to be a great choice for this project as I think it perfectly illustrates almost every aspect of the author’s writing, both positive and negative. This starts with the choice of setting.

Like many of Crofts’ works, the case is involved with the world of business. In this case, a jewelry firm that has found itself in a precarious financial situation. The book begins with a private meeting between several of the most significant shareholders to coordinate an approach to take on the company’s financial troubles at the next meeting. There are several possibilities suggested. These include declaring bankruptcy and restructuring and issuing new shares but there is also an option to sell a large number of precious stones that the company has acquired over the years. Unable to reach an agreement, the group agree to spend a weekend together at one of their homes and they decide to invite along the company’s accountant to give them more information.

The weekend goes ahead but when the accountant is found dead in a guest bedroom in suspicious circumstances the local police are called in. Meanwhile Inspector French is called to the company when the safe is opened the next day and all the jewels of value are found to be missing. Believing the two cases to be linked, French tries to work out the nature of that connection…

Crofts is convincing in describing the practical workings of a business and does a good job of outlining the situation the company faces. While the shareholders themselves may seem a little stiff and formal, particularly in those early discussions, the concerns they voice are all easy to understand and we quickly gain a good understanding of the broader situation faced by the company and why the murder and the theft of the jewels could spell ruin.

There is also a lot of well-observed detail in the descriptions of the mechanism and business practices related to the company’s safe. The way that information is shared with the reader can sometimes feel a little dry but it is necessary to understand the nature of the problem that Inspector French will have to solve: how could a thief gain access to the safe when it required the use of two keys, both of which must have been with their respective holders attending the gathering. It also helps us to eliminate some possible explanations and focus our attention, perhaps a little artificially, on our smaller group of suspects.

French’s investigation is both slow and careful, as is his handling of those suspects. He isn’t prone to making wild accusations or impulsive decisions – instead he follows the evidence carefully, develops theories, tests them and refines them. It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned.

The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.

Those explanations are strikingly clever. Take for instance the question of how the safe was breached. The solution to that problem is highly creative and it certainly would work. I would actually go so far as to suggest that this is a rare instance of a technical solution that still feels as clever today as it must have done when it was written over eighty-five years ago.

Other aspects of the solution similarly impress but what really appeals to me is how logical it all is and how neatly everything seems to fit together. When the final piece to the puzzle is presented and things finally make sense, I felt both a huge sense of satisfaction at the tidiness of that solution and delight that it was predicated on a simple but clever idea that just hadn’t occured to me but is, in retrospect, obvious. That, for me, is the ideal in terms of plotting.

The Verdict: The Crime at Guildford is not the flashiest of reads (perhaps reflected in its rather bland title) but it is ultimately a very satisfying one and very illustrative of Crofts’ style as a writer.

The Red Death Murders by Jim Noy

Originally published in 2022

The pestilence known as the Red Death had devastated Prince Prospero’s lands, and so he retired to his isolated castle with several hundred friends to outwait the blight in safety. Here, they distracted themselves from the horror outside the walls with decadent revelry and voluptuous self-indulgence.

Now, the handful of loyal men who remain realise that they have merely exchanged one danger for another: a masked figure robed in scarlet stalks the shadowy halls, launching a violent attack on the prince before apparently evaporating in front of witnesses.

When one of their number is found slain in a room sealed on the inside, Sir William Collingwood vows to unmask the murderer in their midst. But what sense can be made of the apparently unexplainable deaths that follow? Why commit murder in the middle of a plague? And how do you catch a killer who can seemingly walk through walls and vanish into thin air?

Jim Noy is someone who knows their impossible crime stories. For those who are unfamiliar with Jim, he has blogged for a number of years at The Invisible Event where he writes interesting and engaging articles, not only about works by familiar names like John Dickson Carr but also many lesser-known authors working in the sub-genre. He’s hosted the Golden Age crime podcast In GAD We Trust, appeared on the Shedunnit podcast to talk about locked room mysteries and presented on the topic at Bodies from the Library conference. He is, in short, something of an authority on the impossible crime mystery, boasting an extensive knowledge of what has been done already. When I learned that he had written his own impossible crime novel I was excited to see what he had come up with.

The Red Death Murders takes place in an isolated castle during an outbreak of a terrible pestilence which has swept across the land. Prince Prospero has gathered hundreds of nobles to engage in revels and debauchery while the plague spreads outside the castle gates. As time has worn on their number has dwindled until, at the start of this story, just a handful of individuals remain. They soon learn that their numbers have been depleted once again when the body of one of the prince’s most respected retainers is found dead in a locked privy. Deep slits on each wrist suggest suicide but Sir William Collingwood has his doubts, believing it to be murder instead. Before he can get to the bottom of that murder however further killings occur…

Perhaps the best place to start in discussing the book itself is in the material that inspired it. Edgar Allan Poe is often credited as being a founding father of detective fiction so Noy’s choice to utilize elements from The Masque of the Red Death, one of his most iconic works from outside the genre, and expand upon them to tell his own impossible crime story feels quite inspired. It also worked particularly well for this reader as that is probably my favorite of Poe’s works and it doesn’t hurt that the concepts at the heart of the story feel particularly relevant given the events of the past couple of years.

Noy does a superb job of explaining the history and the politics of the fictional realm in which the story is set and helping us understand enough about the disease to know how it may be transmitted. While all of the action in the novel takes place within the confines of the castle, he manages to convey the idea that there is a land beyond its walls. This has the interesting double effect of creating a contrast between the characters we are observing and those outside while also reminding us that the events within the castle could have consequences far beyond it.

While the population of the castle has dwindled at the point at which we join the tale, I was pleased by the dimensionality of those inhabiting it. Each of the characters we encounter possesses a strong and distinct personality, making it easy to recall who they are and how they feel about one another. I felt that there were some interesting tensions within the group and I enjoyed how my understanding of them evolved over the course of the book.

The nature of the threat faced by those within the castle means that almost all of the characters will ultimately appear to take active roles in trying to stop further murders. There are however a couple of figures in particular who we soon come to see as central to that investigation – Sir William Collingwood and Thomas, one of the few servants remaining. The pair come to form a sort of double-act with Sir William taking the lead and Thomas acting as support. I enjoyed this structure quite a lot and I appreciated that Noy makes Thomas naive because of youth and inexperience rather than stupid, allowing him to make some insightful observations of his own during the investigation.

Thomas is the point of identification for the reader. Noy makes good use of this character as a mechanism to ask questions and receive information, particularly related to the history of the world and the various characters, while also making him appealing. My feelings toward the character grew stronger as the book went on and really sucked me into the action towards the end of the book as I desperately wanted him to survive.

Turning to the crimes, Noy offers up a variety of interesting impossibilities and problems for the reader to solve. These seem to build and accelerate as we near the end of the book, creating a sense that some of the characters may be facing some very real dangers if they cannot work out what has been going on, adding to the excitement.

The first murder in the privy makes for an intriguing and rather unusual opening problem. While there is an element of the sealing of that space that was a little challenging to visualize, I loved the way the circumstances of the death are carefully teased apart and its logical contradictions are exposed. I was even more intrigued when a rather important piece of evidence disappears, adding to the intrigue of the situation. While some of the theorizing about how the door could have been sealed with a murder victim inside are quite detailed and I found it a little challenging to visualize, the final explanation of how and why the crime took place struck me as quite ingenious.

My favorite of the other problems involves a poisoning during which everyone appears to have drunk from the same cup. Though a simpler problem, I think it is laid out well and I enjoyed its solution which struck me as quite clever and quite logical given the facts.

Noy tells his story well, finding a good balance between providing detail of the investigation and new incident to keep the action moving forward. I think information is rationed and dispensed at a good, steady pace and I appreciated that the reader is given a lot of material to work with, even if it takes a while to fully understand how our clues relate to each other.

Did I guess the answer? No, I’m afraid that I was completely outsmarted at every turn but I was delighted to realize looking back at the book that I had the information but simply failed to piece it together properly. That solution is clever and satisfying, not simply on a technical level but on a character and emotional level as well.

Overall I am happy to say that I had a really entertaining time with The Red Death Murders. I think Noy expands on the short story really well, not only creating an interesting backdrop for a murder story but filling it with a compelling cast of characters. It all works rather well and while I think there was a little scope to trim down the false solutions towards the end of the novel, I was pleasantly surprised at how neatly and satisfyingly it is all tied up in the end.

The Verdict: This strong, if rather ambitious, first impossible crime novels showcases the author’s appreciation for the subgenre and ingenuity. The setting is realized well and I found the overall solution both creative and satisfying. Fans of the impossible crime subgenre will find this well worth the read!

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Originally published in 2022

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 

Will Chen plans to steal them back.

A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago. 

His crew is every heist archetype one can imag­ine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a premed student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down. 

Because if they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves but yet another thwarted at­tempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.

Equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, Portrait of a Thief is a cultural heist and an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary cri­tique of the lingering effects of colonialism.

It will likely come as little surprise to many of you, particularly those well-versed in my love of inverted crime stories, that I also have a great appreciation for heist stories. Whether the job is big or small, there is something inherently entertaining in watching a group of characters – often from quite different backgrounds – come together to plan and execute a crime. Particularly when those characters inevitably mess up, go off script or face an unexpected obstacle or three that will make them have to adjust those carefully laid plans on the fly.

Portrait of a Thief, like many heist stories, is first and foremost a lot of fun. It gives the reader all the story beats they might expect from the genre such as those temporary setbacks and fallings out between the group as well as moments of action, romance and suspense. In addition to the fun however it is also a thoughtful, provocative work that addresses serious questions about colonialism, cultural identity and the need to belong.

Will Chen, an art history student at Harvard, is approached by a woman who offers him a lucrative but seemingly impossible job. She wants him to steal five priceless sculptures looted from China centuries earlier and now located in museums across the globe.

He won’t have to do it alone. He quickly assembles a crew, each member contributing their own special skills to the operation whether that be hacking, driving or sleight of hand. They all hope to get their cut of a fifty million dollar payment should they succeed but several have their own personal reasons for getting involved too which range from the practical to the ideological.

One of the things I loved most about Portrait of a Thief was the sense that though these five characters share some similarities in aspects of their backgrounds, they possess very distinct personalities and concerns. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the book are the range of perspectives we encounter on how each character feels about their American and Chinese identities, reflected both in their motivations for getting involved but also how they intend to live when the job is done. This not only enriches some of the book’s thematic discussions, it also reinforces that these characters are individuals who have had quite different life experiences from each other.

This book digs deep into the lives of these five young people, exploring what has motivated them to get involved as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future. While some begin the book as strangers to one another, several already have connections to one another at the start of the story while other links develop as it goes on. The author does a splendid job of portraying how those relationships slowly evolve and are shaped by the common experience of plotting this heist, and I appreciate that several of those relationships feel really quite deep and meaningful by the end of the novel.

While I liked all five members of the team, the one I found to be the most interesting was Daniel, the only labeled as ‘the thief’ in the blurb. What drew me most to this character is his fascinating personal history and his complex relationship with his father who, as the world’s leading expert on Chinese artwork, is set up to be in opposition to our heroes for a substantial part of the story. I really enjoyed learning more about those characters and their uncomfortable relationship and by the end of the novel I felt particularly invested in what the outcome to that plot thread would be.

The idea that lies at the heart of the novel is that there are many cultural artefacts in the hands of public and private museums that are there because of theft, looting or other illegal trades. The pieces that the team are being commissioned to steal and return to China are pieces of great cultural significance, having originally been displayed as a set, and so for Will at least this is about righting an injustice and it seems to be presented almost as a sense of duty for him.

I found the discussions of those ideas to be quite thoughtful, particularly some opinions voiced toward the end of the novel, and I once again appreciated that the author offers us a range of views not only on the specific matter of ownership but also on the relationships between objects and the cultures from which they were created or developed.

The development of the characters and the themes the novel discusses are closely intertwined with that of the book’s exciting heist storyline. As problems occur we see the different members of the group interact and read how they respond to those central questions about identity and belonging. Often their personalities become clearer in how they react to those adversities, with problems prompting conflicts and introspection. Li does a great job of finding a strong balance between the exciting heist elements and those quieter, character-driven moments.

While I found the result to be both engaging and provocative, there were a couple of elements that were less successful for me. The first were the car racing scenes which felt a little disconnected from the rest of the action and only added to the sense that the action could become rather too slick in places. They are certainly quite exciting and yet they do seem to distract from the other elements of the heist at times.

Perhaps a bigger challenge is the credibility of Will and his friends being approached in the first place. I tried to consider what might prompt a wealthy Chinese woman to hire someone with no practical experience and expect them to pull off a truly difficult job.

My biggest question though left at the end of the novel is pretty simple: why, when we are exploring the lives and desires of all five members, is the title in the singular. It seems quite odd and it makes me wonder which of the characters the portrait is intended to be of.

The Verdict: This entertaining and provocative heist story mixes some enteratining action with some thoughtful development of ideas, and does both brilliantly.

Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Originally published in 1931
Inspector Kane #3
Preceded by The Back Bay Murders
Followed by Murder Among the Angells

Martin Greenough’s walled-off mansion is the last remaining holdout in the Boston parkland known as the Fenway―and the fact that it eluded condemnation by the city is a testament to the elderly bachelor’s great wealth. Childless and nearing the end of his life, he surrounds himself with only his cat, his servants, and a friend, Mrs. Warden―to say nothing of the circle of extended family members whose lives he both subsidizes and rules from afar, the nieces and nephews who all seem to be more fond of Uncle Mart’s money than they are of his character.

On the eve of his birthday, Greenough requests the presence of his heirs at his home, insisting that he has something important to discuss. Before that discussion can take place, though, the man is murdered in his study. In one way or another nearly everyone there would benefit by his death, and none gathered seem terribly upset by it, so finding the culprit is no easy task for Inspector Kane of the Boston PD. But as he untangles the threads and unburies dark family secrets, the discovery of a bizarre clue might hold the key to solving the crime.

Cover and blurb from 2022 reprint from Penzler Publishing

A few weeks ago I happened to learn that The Mysterious Bookstore offers a monthly subscription deal where you can get the latest volume from their American Mystery Classics range shipped direct to your home. As this information happened to reach me within moments of me receiving a paycheck, I quickly succumbed to the inevitable and placed my order and I was pleased when I returned home yesterday to find a copy of Cat’s Paw waiting for me. Accordingly all plans to review some of those three or four books I read last week went out the window as this went straight to the top of the TBR pile and I found myself polishing it off in an evening.

The novel was the third of a small handful of books written by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair under the name of Roger Scarlett during the early 1930s. It is a traditional detective story concerning the murder of a wealthy man during his birthday festivities at his mansion. That was exactly the sort of book I was looking to read so I was excited to give it a try and see if I could solve the puzzle.

The victim is Mart Greenough, a septugenarian bachelor who is frequently visited by his extended family members, all of whom hope to benefit from his will. Mart is, perhaps to their frustration, in pretty good health. With his birthday approaching he decides that he will host a party to share some personal news with those relatives. That news shocks and appalls his family members and before the night is out he is found shot dead by the windows of his study.

Mart’s death occurs relatively late in the novel which gives us plenty of time to get to know our victim. While he certainly exhibits some fussy, controlling and difficult behavior, I felt he was an entertaining character to spend time with and I enjoyed getting to know him and understand his relationships with the suspects.

It doesn’t take us long to start to get to know his guests and to learn some details of the secrets they have been keeping that could lead to murder. One aspect of this that I appreciated was that those reasons feel surprisingly varied, making for a much richer reading experience. I enjoyed observing these characters’ behaviors to try and spot clues as to what their issues were likely to be and I similarly enjoyed the circumstances in which several of them are exposed. There is a great sense of discovery in the chapters leading up to the murder, giving the piece a nice pace.

Pacing is one of the strengths of this book in general thanks to a structural decision to tell this story by following the action during the party, presenting information to the reader in an informed third person narration, rather than have it be discovered through questioning. This choice encourages the reader to become more engaged with the narrative, looking for clues as to where the story may be headed, and also allows some of those secrets to emerge quite naturally in moments of conflict rather than simply being discovered during the investigation. My only issue with this approach is that the short first chapter, in which we meet the investigators and learn about the status of the murder case, feels largely redundant and adds little to our ultimate understanding of what is going on, particularly given how long it will be until we meet those characters again.

Turning to the circumstances of the murder themselves, the crime scene is relatively simple. The time of death is quickly established, as is the murder weapon meaning we can devote our attention pretty much exclusively to the question of who committed the crime. As I note above, the murder takes place after we learn most of the characters’ secrets and have observed their behavior so we do not have much evidence to gather – rather our task is to piece together what we have and to draw logical inferences from it.

I particularly appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the discovery of the body, starting with Mart’s announcement to his family members. After chapters of build-up we see how the circumstances for murder seem to be aligning. It certainly helps to build anticipation for that moment and I thoroughly enjoyed looking for clues in the next few chapters as we follow our suspects right up to the point that the body is discovered.

The investigation that follows is relatively brief, reflecting that we already know many of the facts of the case by this stage. Inspector Kane, having learned the facts of the case, proceeds to walk us logically through them, helping the reader see how they are connected and what inferences can be made from them. It’s pretty well done, though one consequence of this approach is that the detectives themselves didn’t make much of an impression on me. I would be curious to see if the previous volumes had devoted a little more time to developing these characters.

I think the authors do a good job of creating a solution that feels clued and logical, though I must note that I was not entirely convinced by the motive (though I accept the authors do play fair and properly set it up). I admired the construction of the puzzle overall however, particularly the way in which the authors pull off a great final page reveal that will provide a nice, punchy finish for those who don’t see the solution coming.

The Verdict: An entertaining puzzle-driven detective story, that plays fair and is told in a pretty engaging way. Another very solid entry in the American Mystery Classics range that leaves me curious to try some of the authors’ other works.

A Press of Suspects by Andrew Garve

Originally published in 1951
Original published in the US as By-Line for Murder

When the Foreign Editor of London’s Morning Call newspaper resigns, his assistant Edgar Jessop seems, at least to himself, the obvious choice to replace him. Particularly as he has been passed over for promotion on so many occasions in the past.

Jessop is, therefore, outraged to learn that one of the young, upstart reporters, Cardew, is to be awared the position, and Jessop is to be shipped off to Malaya to report on the recent disturbances: a seeming punishment for all his years of hard work.

Driven to despair, Jessop hatches a plan to take revenge on the staff at the Morning Call. When one of the journalists is poisoned, the whole press-team become suspects to murder. For no one would suspect shy, retiring Jessop of this heinous crime, would they? It is up to Chief Inspector Haines to investigate…

Cover and blurb from the Bello reprint.

It’s been a little while since I last posted on the blog as the demands of real life have kept me too busy to read. The good news is that the past few days I was able to take a short break with my family and while I was not able to read as much as I would have liked, I did read quite a bit more than I expected. Not all of my reading would fall within the remits of this blog but there were two or three titles you should expect to see thoughts on within the next week or so.

The book I am writing about today was actually the last of the books I finished but I decided to start with it for a couple of reasons. One is that, as those who know me well will have predicted, it is an inverted mystery and I take great pleasure in reading and writing about those. The other is that the book has hardly been reviewed online and so it seemed more important to get my thoughts down about it while they were still pretty fresh in my mind.

Andrew Garve was one of several pseudonyms used by the journalist Paul Winterton for writing crime fiction. I have previously read and reviewed other books written as Garve and also as Roger Bax for this blog and found most of the titles I have tried so far to be interesting and entertaining. While I have several of his works on my TBR pile, this one interested me particularly as it draws heavily on Winterton’s own background working for newspapers as the story is set in the newsroom of the Morning Call newspaper.

We encounter our murderer, Edgar Jessop, near the start of the story as we learn a little of his background at the paper and come to understand what will drive him to murder. This is a seasoned journalist who has come to expect that if he works diligently, acts inoffensively and bides his time he will surely find himself promoted to a senior position. Instead he is passed over in favor of younger, greener journalists he has supervised and trained.

Insult is added to injury when, after meeting with the editor, he is informed that while he was recommended by his superior to take over as Foreign Editor, the paper has chosen to go with someone with more travel experience. Cardew, a man widely believed to be having an affair with the editor’s wife, will take the job while Jessop is to be sent on assignment to Malaya as the first stop on a tour of Southeast Asia to get some field experience. Insulted and concerned that his editor is shipping him off as a first step towards dismissal, the resentment in Jessop grows not only towards the editor but to several other senior journalists at the paper. After enduring a restless night, Jessop decides on a plan to take his revenge by eliminating those he holds responsible…

The most successful part of A Press of Suspects is the strong sense of place the author is able to create for the reader, both as a physical location but also in terms of the people who inhabit it. Some of the observations are entertaining, such as the security guard’s reaction to questioning about whether any of the journalists arrived early, others are more informative such as detailing the way expenses were worked and the varying degrees of latitude allowed to the reporters. The setting really comes to life and while we closely follow just a handful of characters, we are continually reminded that the organization itself is much bigger.

In addition to the strong sense of place, this book also feels strongly tied to the moment in which it is set. Frequent references to the war and the way that altered how the journalists worked are made, reminding us that those days were still recent at the time of writing. Jessop, who continued to work as a journalist throughout the conflict, resents the admiration towards those who fought as they are not sitting back and waiting their turn as he did but actively pursuing advancement. I was impressed that this was not just a matter of background but rather they become quite integral to some developments that take place later in the story.

As I read I began to compare this book to a much later effort by the writer Simon Brett, A Shock to the System, which similarly takes place at a time of some social change within the workplace. The idea that a seemingly mild-mannered man would become increasingly enraged by perceptions of injustice that the rules of the game have changed is a strong one and here Garve ties it into other developments in Jessop’s life, giving the strong impression that the character suffers a complete mental breakdown. There is a crucial difference however in how the two stories are handled that I think keeps this from being as successful as it could have been.

While Garve opts to let us in on the secret of the murderer’s identity from close to the start, allowing us to experience the chain of thoughts that lead him to kill, we do not see him planning and executing the details of each murder. Those are provided to us once the police begin their investigations and so we are kept at a distance from Jessop while the murders are carried out.

There can, of course, be some benefits to taking that approach. One is that we are able to follow the action from the investigator’s side as we try to piece together exactly what happened. The problem here though is that we know too much of what Jessop wants to be truly baffled. For example, the first murder that gets committed has a solid method and the reasoning behind it makes sense yet I couldn’t help but feel that it would be more engaging to follow along with the investigation in ignorance of the motive given the simplicity of the method itself.

Later in the novel, when another murder takes place, there is similarly an opportunity to build some tension and suspense as we might have followed Jessop as he tries to evade detection to execute his plan. Instead Garve has us puzzle over what exactly he has done and while there is some shock from the horror of what he has done, it takes just a few moments for the investigators to be able to explain it.

The other thing that I think holds this story back is that Jessop himself is not a particularly interesting murderer. Once we understand the nature of his resentments there is not much more to learn about him as a man. Nor do we see much introspection about what he has done or consideration of how committing those murders may have changed him as a man. The further attempts at murder play less as developments in his personality or as considered acts of desperation than further evidence of a complete breakdown. He is, in short, a character who becomes less interesting as the novel goes on.

As for the question of how this will be resolved, I felt generally satisfied by the explanation though some may feel (with justification) that it feels rather tangential. The reader may well recognize the likely issue, even if it is never really discussed in the book until it is used. If there is some disappointment here though, it is that Jessop’s behavior in general at that point in the story seems to make his detection inevitable even if this particular issue was not discovered which does detract a little from that moment.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this that work do so beautifully. It offers some superb commentary on the relationship between the press and those in power as well as of corruption and laziness in Fleet Street. The characters who inhabit that office, with the exception of Jessop himself, feel quite dimensional and credible and I enjoyed experiencing their bafflement as they find themselves under suspicion.

For those interested in the setting there is much to enjoy here but those seeking an inverted mystery by this writer would be better served by starting with either Blueprint for Murder or Disposing of Henry.

The Verdict: Enjoyable but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may well have worked better as a conventional detective story.

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1949

Charismatic businessman and patriarch Aristide Leonides has been poisoned in his own home. Charles Hayward hoped to marry Leonides’ granddaughter Sophia, yet instead finds himself in the midst of a dangerous mystery. The eye of suspicion falls heavily on Aristide’s second wife – the cuckoo in the nest was decades younger than her husband, and perhaps she couldn’t wait a few more years for the hefty inheritance she was due. The atmosphere inside the great house is thick with intrigue, and Charles is scrambling for the truth when a second attempted murder shocks the family to their core. Surely the killer couldn’t be among them? It appears that the murderer knows the Leonides family all too well, and their reign of terror is far from over…

Cover and description from Folio Society edition (2021) – I don’t normally link to publisher websites but you can get a better picture of the cover and some of the illustrations within here.

In my first few years of running this blog I embarked on a reading project to read and write about all of the non-series Christie novels. I got off to a pretty good start but as is often the case with these ongoing efforts, the project stalled when I hit a book I really didn’t enjoy (no names here – I’ll try it again at some point in the future and will, no doubt, absolutely love it). I ended up starting to reread the Poirot novels and got caught up in that, doing a pretty good job of reading about one a month.

So, why am I interrupting that run to write about Crooked House? Well, there are a few reasons but chief among them is that I finally broke down and bought some of the gorgeous Folio Society reprints of Christie’s works and as I didn’t want to jump ahead to Five Little Pigs, reading this next seemed like the smart choice. It also helped that this is one of the more highly regarded titles that I hadn’t read before in spite of now owning (checks shelves) four copies of it.

Charles Hayward meets Sophia Leonides while in Cairo during World War II. The pair are attracted to one another and Charles would have proposed except that he did not want to burden her with an engagement while he was still on foreign service. He plans instead to seek her out upon his return to England.

When he returns he reads in the newspapers about the death of her grandfather, Aristide Leonidies – a hugely successful businessman. He meets with Sophia again who tells him that she cannot marry him as it appears that her grandfather may have been murdered as someone had replaced his insulin with his eserine-based eye drops. She is concerned that unless the matter is resolved without scandal, that to be connected with Sophia might cause Charles and his family harm.

Charles visits his father, an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, to learn more about the case and becomes informally involved with the investigation. He hopes that if he can find the truth it will remove the impediment to their marriage so they can finally be together.

One of the challenges with any amateur sleuth story is coming up with a compelling reason for that character to investigate. Christie’s solution here is one of the best I have come across, combining high personal stakes with a connection to the formal investigation which allows for multiple levels of access as Charles shifts from family friend to informal police helper and back again, sometimes within the same interaction.

The biggest objection to such a setup is that it is rather unprofessional on the part of the police. This is not so much with regards his presence in the house, which Sophia could easily rescind if she wished, but the sharing of information with a man who is intimately connected with someone who ought to be one of the suspects. As unwise as that may be, I am not surprised that Sir Arthur would be willing to do that given the circumstances and his desire to protect and help his son.

The setting for the story, the curious Three Gables house in which all of the Leonides family are living, is as interesting as its inhabitants. Sophia describes it as crooked and while I was initially unsure exactly how that was meant, I appreciated that the aptness of that word as a description becomes more and more apparent as the story unfolds. I also love how the house can be seen as a reflection of the family that inhabit it.

I found the Leonides family to be a really interesting mix of individuals. It is not just that they have a variety of occupations and personality types but that Christie explores the complexities of their relationships with each other. Resentments have clearly existed for years but while Aristide was alive they were manageable. In his absence however they begin to be voiced as the balance within the group breaks down. It’s a fascinating study of family dynamics and while this family may have some rather unusual figures within it, I felt those relationships were really well-observed and far more subtle than they initially may seem.

The problem with discussing those characters as individuals in any depth is that I would run the risk of spilling their secrets. Instead let me say that even the characters who are given the least to do make an impression and that I found it unusually easy to keep straight how each of the characters were related to one another. I don’t think any of the family are particularly likable – even Sophia, who is by far the most appealing of the group courtesy of Charles’ feelings for her, has moments where she can seem quite sharp – but I enjoyed learning more about them and seeing their personalities emerge as they respond to the events, some of which are pretty surprising.

The investigation itself is not based so much on any material evidence as it is on understanding the psychology and relationships that exist between these people. There is little focus, for instance, on the matter of who had the opportunity to switch the medication. Instead Charles is given a list of characteristics by those formal investigators that he should look out for in his interactions with the various suspects.

That list of characteristics will prove important and I do commend Christie on ultimately following through on them and in fact referring back to them during the reveal at the end of the novel, but I do question how credible they are. It is quite daring of Christie to be as specific as she is here and I think it speaks to her confidence that her solution would be surprising regardless. I do think however that the idea we should simply be looking for someone to match the profile strikes me as inadequate as an investigatory technique, limiting the scope of investigation before the evidence has been fully collected, even if it happens to be proved correct by subsequent events.

While I may have some issues with the parameters of Charles’ investigation, there are some aspects of it that I really love. One of my favorites is a moment in which he reflects on the efficacy of being silent, rather than asking questions. That idea is so rarely seen in detective fiction and yet I know how effective it can be as a method of getting someone to open up to you, so I enjoyed how it is used here.

I also really enjoyed how one of the characters, a young girl who is playing detective, refers to the conventions of the detective fiction genre. That sort of self-awareness can often be a dangerous indulgence in the genre but it works well here because of that character’s personality and interests.

The conclusion is smart and struck me as quite satisfying, at least on a thematic level. I could see how it fit with the evidence and list of character traits we were given and to that extent it struck me as fair. I do question a little whether it would have felt that way without the killer performing an apparently motiveless and illogical action and without that list of character traits.

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Still, in spite of those reservations I cannot deny that I found this to be a really satisfying read. I loved its concept, the cast of characters within the Leonides household and their complex, twisting relationships, and I admired how straightforward Christie is at many points in the book. The resolution is striking and powerful and most importantly, it feels earned by what has come before.

The Verdict: A superb read containing one of Christie’s most interesting casts of characters. It is easy to see why Christie regarded this as one of her best works.

Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun, translated by Janet Hong

Originally published in 2019 as 레몬
English translation first published in 2021

In the summer of 2002, when Korea is abuzz over hosting the FIFA World Cup, eighteen-year-old Kim Hae-on is killed in what becomes known as the High School Beauty Murder. Two suspects quickly emerge: rich kid Shin Jeongjun, whose car Hae-on was last seen in, and delivery boy Han Manu, who witnessed her there just a few hours before her death. But when Jeongjun’s alibi checks out, and no evidence can be pinned on Manu, the case goes cold.
 
Seventeen years pass without any resolution for those close to Hae-on, and the grief and uncertainty take a cruel toll on her younger sister, Da-on, in particular. Unable to move on with her life, Da-on tries in her own twisted way to recover some of what she’s lost, ultimately setting out to find the truth of what happened. 
 
Shifting between the perspectives of Da-on and two of Hae-on’s classmates struck in different ways by her otherworldly beauty, Lemon ostensibly takes the shape of a crime novel. But identifying the perpetrator is not the main objective here: Kwon Yeo-sun uses this well-worn form to craft a searing, timely exploration of privilege, jealousy, trauma, and how we live with the wrongs we have endured and inflicted in turn.

Cover and blurb from Other Press edition

I hope you will forgive me starting out by talking about my own blogging process but I think in the instance of Lemon it will be important to consider. This blog, Mysteries Ahoy!, is devoted to discussing works that fall within the very broad and rather imprecise category we term ‘mystery fiction’. I personally interpret that term more widely than some and over the years I have written and posted about works that I think sit on the edge of that genre or that have, at best, genre elements.

The compromise that I typically come to when writing about such works is that I will try and assess them within the context of the genre. I may reference aspects of the book I have enjoyed that fall without that but the focus will usually be on those parts of a work that I think will most directly appeal to genre fans. In writing about Lemon however I think I am going to find that approach tested because while the book may be described as ‘ostensibly tak[ing] the shape of a crime novel’ in its blurb, I think that description misrepresents the themes the author is exploring and the approach they have taken. Or, to put it another way, I would be doing this work a bit of a disservice.

A crime certainly does lie at the heart of Lemon: the murder of teenaged Kim Hae-on. This crime impacts every character in the novel and drives all of the action and the development of each of the characters and yet the novel is not focused on discovering the truth of what happened but rather exploring the impact that crime has had upon the lives of those who were involved. There are no definitive answers given so while the reader will likely finish the book with a sense of who was guilty and why, there is enough ambiguity to allow for other plausible explanations.

The novella is told from the perspective of three different characters: the girl’s sister, Da-on, and two of Hae-on’s classmates. Unlike many books with multiple narrators, the author does not tell the reader who is narrating each chapter – the only information we get is a date and a keyword, the meaning of which will only become clear at the end of each section. I initially found this to be a confusing and perhaps frustrating choice though I quickly came to identify the voices by the context of what was being said.

One interesting consequence of the use of this multiple narrator approach is that the reader will be able to see a contrast between how each character perceives themselves and the way they are viewed by others. This allows our understanding of some of the key figures in the book to shift as we gain additional context. In fact when I finished reading I felt that I wanted to revisit the earlier chapters to reassess them in the light of information I had learned later in the book.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novella for me was its depiction of the intense grief felt by the victim’s mother and sister. The way that this manifests, particularly in the case of the mother, is unusual but it is all the more powerful for that. The book captures that way that grief can be awkward and uncomfortable, and that society can sometimes struggle to know how to respond to it – particularly when it is as raw as it is here. I felt that the author captured those emotions powerfully, connecting me to those characters and their struggles.

I was also quite struck by the scenes involving the character who is supposed to have been the last person to see Hae-on alive, the delivery driver Han Manu. Our first experience of this character is an account of his interrogation by the police based on Da-on’s knowledge and imagination – an interesting idea as it means we have little sense of how reliable or accurate that scene could be. I think that scene does illustrate quite cleverly how a poor interrogation could produce a misleading impression and I thought that the author did a good job of exploring how the consequences of that experience would affect him for the rest of his life, leaving him in an awkward space where he was suspected but unable to prove himself innocent.

Some of the other characters in the story however felt less carefully defined, particularly the other male suspect – Shin Jeongjun. I had little sense of him as a figure and so while I learned some details about his character, I felt that he remained somewhat two-dimensional to me at the end. Similarly I felt that I didn’t really as complete an understanding of Taerin’s character as I would like. Perhaps the biggest questions though revolve around the victim, Hae-on, and while I felt I understood what she did, I was left at the end of the book feeling I didn’t understand why she behaved as she did.

It is that sense that too much remains unexplained or unanswered that keeps this from feeling truly satisfying when looked at through that mystery or crime novel lens. Those questions are simply not of interest to the author and are tangential to the journey that she intends to lead us on. This isn’t a work about the search for the truth but rather an examination of grief and how a lack of resolution affects everyone involved in the case. Viewed at from that perspective it can be an intriguing work but readers who want firm answers and a strong narrative structure may feel a little frustrated.

The Verdict: With an emphasis on theme over narrative, Lemon is an intriguing read but those expecting a genre read may find themselves frustrated.