The Little Detective: Case Updates

Last week I decided I would take a short break from reading mystery fiction to (briefly) explore some other interests. Well, I didn’t end up reading as widely as I hoped although I did start to work my way through my hefty backlog of Doctor Who audio dramas but here I am back and raring to talk mysteries again.

Today’s post however won’t be about books but rather about the ways I have been able to share my enjoyment of mysteries with my daughter over the past few weeks.

Now, let me start by saying that I do not force mystery stories onto my daughter! I occasionally will point out one when we are looking for a new book but I let her tell me what she wants to read. Lately however she has been showing a growing interest in detective stories.

Part of the reason for that was the Outfoxed board game I blogged about recently which continues to be a hit with her but I think the biggest leap forward came courtesy of a Netflix TV show – The InBESTigators.

The InBESTigators is an Australian children’s television show about a group of elementary-aged kids who decide to start an investigation agency after solving a case at their school.

Each episode contains two short cases, recounted in the form of vlogs made after the cases are solved. One or two of the team will recount what happened and there are lots of short cutaways to show the things they remember and to bring the action to life.

The cases are, of course, entirely of the sort of crimes that would be appropriate for that age group. Missing backpacks, stolen snacks and so on. Many hinge on a central problem of how or why things happened in a particular way. As viewers find out, not everything is a case of someone acting with bad intent – often a particular set of strange circumstances will create the impression something has happened.

To give an example of a case – the first one involves a tin of money disappearing from a shelf behind where one of the InBESTigators is standing. No one else is in the room, the child placed the money on the shelf themselves and they could see that nobody entered.

The result is a surprisingly charming series, helped by the energy, colorful personalities and likeability of the four young leads. The decision to use lots of very short sequences gives the episodes a frantic feel that was more comfortable for my daughter than me but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories generally involved some pretty sound logical reasoning.

Now, obviously these cases are not going to challenge a teen or adult viewer but as an introduction to the idea of mystery stories as a game that you can play it is hard to beat.

So, this past weekend was Father’s Day and my wife and kid decided that they wanted to give me a day that had a detective theme. They set up a game for us to play where we would work as a team to crack a case – the theft of some valuable jewels.

The game was, of course, mostly set up at my daughter’s level. Suspects were crossed off when they told us they had an alibi and we worked out by process of elimination who was the guilty party.

To obtain clues we had to do games, find items around the house and solve some puzzles. It was a lot of fun made all the sweeter when we were rewarded with snacks for a job well done and my daughter is keen to don her fedora again to repeat the experience soon.

As Father’s Days go it was pretty special and I feel very grateful for the love and attention shown to me!

Jonathan Creek: The House of Monkeys (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast June 7, 1996

Season One, Episode Five
Preceded by No Trace of Tracy
Followed by Danse Macabre (Season Two)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

An interesting twist of familiar locked room elements.


My Thoughts

Dr. Elliot Strange is a scientist who shares his country home with his wife, son and daughter-in-law and a variety of different types of domesticated primates. He is at work in his locked study when there are the sounds of a struggle and shouting. Fearing the worst and unable to open the study door, his wife exits the building and looks through the locked window where she sees him dead, impaled with a samurai sword.

The House of Monkeys concludes the first season of Jonathan Creek and it is, in my opinion, its most consciously traditional tale. While other stories had used familiar elements, they generally attempted to do something that seemed consciously modern, quirky or different. For instance, the previous locked room story had featured a nuclear bunker – not exactly an element common to this sort of story.

This story on the other hand picks the most traditional and familiar of locked room murder settings – the study in a country house. While some aspects of the setting are certainly odd, the most obvious of these being the presence of a variety of domesticated primates, even those seem to be a conspicuous nod to one of the earliest locked room stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

While the setup may be traditional however, the story contains some other elements that were extremely relevant to the period in which it was made. Much as the previous episode, No Trace of Tracy, referenced the growing movement for environmental activism, this story features references to animal rights activists. Elements like these help to make the more traditional elements of the stories feel fresh and also really ground them in the period in which they were made.

Of all of the things that have surprised me in revisiting this first season, I think I am most surprised by how of its moment it feels. Part of that reflects the look of the episodes and the equipment Maddy and Jonathan use, but I think these cultural moments are also part of it. I will be curious to see if I feel the same way about the later seasons – my memory was that there were less “ripped from the headlines” elements as the show went on.

The locked room puzzle, while seemingly simple, works pretty well. I think it speaks to how much it grabbed me when I first watched it that I could remember every aspect of the solution based on a single viewing from over twenty years earlier (the only mistake I made was thinking it was Colin Baker rather than Charles Kay playing the victim). It is logical, cleverly worked and well explained.

I also enjoyed the way that Jonathan and Maddy end up working alongside the police – an aspect of this story that both feels more traditional and that seems to set it apart from the others in the season. I particularly appreciated the character of DI Masterson played by Selina Cadell who, while not a particularly lively character, does have an interestingly no nonsense demeanor.

The only issue I have with the murder plot and the detection of the killer is that there is a rather silly plot development that is used to explain several aspects of the setup and provide some excitement as we near the endgame. I think the way that clue manifests, once again, makes some logical sense but it does unfortunately seem a little silly and ridiculous in the way it is executed visually.

In addition to its main mystery plotline, this episode also pushes Jonathan and Maddy into some new territory with regards their relationship. This is, as usual, done largely comically but I think the execution is very good, striking the right note between playing to the tension while remaining accessible and funny to those who have not been following the series from the beginning.

The guest cast are mostly pretty good, particularly Annette Crosbie (still best known for One Foot in the Grave) who plays the victim’s rather practical, straightforward spouse. That practicality comes out in some interesting and, at times, unexpected ways and makes her seem a rather unusual figure.

The House of Monkeys is, I feel, one of the more successful episodes in this first season. Its traditional elements may appear unimaginative but I think Renwick combines them well to make something that feels more fresh and interesting than they would otherwise do on their own.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Hercule Poirot #6
Preceded by The Big Four
Followed by Peril at End House

The Blurb

When the luxurious Blue Train arrives at Nice, a guard attempts to wake serene Ruth Kettering from her slumbers. But she will never wake again—for a heavy blow has killed her, disfiguring her features almost beyond recognition. What is more, her precious rubies are missing.

The prime suspect is Ruth’s estranged husband, Derek. Yet Hercule Poirot is not convinced, so he stages an eerie reenactment of the journey, complete with the murderer on board. .

The Verdict

This dull mystery plot has never really sparked any excitement in me. Sadly this time is no different.


My Thoughts

Ruth Kettering, an American heiress, is in an unhappy marriage to an English aristocrat. Her father, Rufus van Aldin, gifts her a fabulous ruby – The Heart of Fire. He advises her to keep it at home but instead she decides to take it with her on a trip on board the Blue Train through France.

During the train’s journey Ruth’s body is discovered in her compartment having been strangled and the jewel has vanished. Poirot, still in retirement and also travelling on board the train, is asked by her father to take on the case. He agrees to take on the case, comparing himself to a retired doctor who has stumbled upon someone needing medical treatment.

According to several sources I have read this novel was one of Christie’s least favorites and unfortunately I rather share her feelings (although I suspect her reasons were rather different from mine). A month or so ago I tweeted about how I have spent the past two decades of my life attempting to listen to the BBC Radio adaptation of this novel and never made it all the way through. Part of that is that I really just don’t dig that production but it also reflects that this plot is, for me, a bit of a snooze.

Let’s start with some positive comments about the book – while I do not love the mystery, I think Christie’s writing continued to mature and the prose is pretty engaging. Actually one of the reasons I think I had no problem concentrating on the book was because her narration was sharp, clear and generally quite entertaining. The radio adaptation loses that and instead forces you to focus on the more melodramatic elements in characters’ conversations with each other.

I also quite like the way Poirot is brought into this story and the awkward relationship he forms with van Aldin. One of the things I think that this story conveys very effectively is that Poirot considers the dead woman (and the truth) to be his client rather than the man who hired him. There are several points at which Poirot asserts himself over his employer and in those moments I think make him appear rather heroic.

Unfortunately here I rather run out of good things to say about a book that shares some of my least favorite traits of the thrillers she was writing in this decade.

Let’s start with the character of Katherine who serves as the replacement Hastings for this story. I actually rather liked the idea of Katherine – the former companion who was left a huge bequest by her last employer and who is now travelling. It makes for an appealing backstory but I really do not love the way she is provided with a really unconvincing romance. This is partly because I just don’t see why that relationship would work for her but mostly I think it overwrites the character’s actual arc of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (I don’t actually buy that either but the two resolutions seem completely incompatible with each other).

The second relates to the setup to the murder plot which feels far too forced and mechanical. Part of the problem is, I think, that we are given too much information about the suspects and possible motives from the start. While Poirot still has things to do, the closed circle nature of this crime feels all the more evident and I do feel there are chapters in the middle of the book that seem to drag as though the investigation is being stretched out.

The biggest other issues I have with the book though veer far more into the spoilery territory of discussing the villain or villains of the piece. Some of the clues given struck me as rather unconvincing such as a dropped cigarette case which is discussed in depth yet seems to me to be far less clearly incriminating than the novel suggests. Throw in a rather unexciting group of suspects and you have a recipe for a book that just seemed to drag on for me.

I had come to The Mystery of the Blue Train hoping that my feelings towards it might have changed with time or familiarity. Sadly they have not. Still the good news for me is that I have nothing but fond memories of our next Poirot story – Peril at End House. Hopefully I will find it holds up!

The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Book Details

Originally published 2015

The Blurb

The Sherlock Holmes Book, the latest in DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, tackles the most “elementary” of subjects — the world of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes Book is packed with witty illustrations, clear graphics, and memorable quotes that make it the perfect Sherlock Holmes guide, covering every case of the world’s greatest detective, from A Study in Scarlet to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, placing the stories in a wider context. Stories include at-a-glance flowcharts that show how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, and character guides provide handy reference for readers and an invaluable resource for fans of the Sherlock Holmes films and TV series.

The Sherlock Holmes Book holds a magnifying glass to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

The Verdict

An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.


My Thoughts

Dorling Kindersley’s Big Ideas, Simply Explained series is intended to provide broad and accessible introductions to a range of different topics. Other volumes had tackled topics like Politics, Philosophy and the works of Shakespeare, breaking down ideas to make them easily accessible and identifying key themes and developments.

The books are typically large format hardcovers (though there is a paperback version of this title), have a common layout and feature attractive graphics, charts and easy-to-read information boxes. While they can be read cover-to-cover, they are equally well suited to being dipped into as a more casual, coffee-table sort of read.

The Sherlock Holmes Book sticks pretty close to this formula. Its opening chapters provide biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the key characters in the series – Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Professor Moriarty. These are done well, offering some analysis into their characters and reference some of the real life figures that were sources of inspiration for them.

Following this we get to the meat of the book – a story-by-story exploration of the chronological canon of Holmes novels and short stories. Every one of the original stories is outlined and discussed with diagrams illustrating key deductions, plot points and relationships. In addition there are often sections that will explore a key reference or theme in more detail such as opium use, phrenology or myths about hell hounds.

At this point I probably should address the book’s ideal audience. The material here, while interesting and entertaining, is perhaps best pitched at the more casual Holmes fan rather than the complete newcomer or the aficionado. The inclusion of the solutions means that the entries should be read after reading the respective story and while I found some points of interest, the most seasoned Holmes enthusiasts will likely already know most of the material here.

In my own case I intend to make use of the book to browse in instances where I need to quickly refresh myself on a solution, make sure I am thinking of a correct title or to check a character name or identity. While I also own the ebook version, I much prefer to use the physical edition which is much easier to browse and more attractively laid out. The pricing is currently quite different however so if you are interested be sure to take a look at the sample pages to see which version suits you best (the physical edition can be sampled here).

The final fifth of the book discusses the enduring popularity and legacy of the character as well as his appearances in other forms, media and continuation novels. These cover many of the major releases through 2015 (it ends with Mr. Holmes) and unexpectedly for me this was the part of the book that offered me the most new information. There were several productions I was completely unaware of and I found myself making a list of other adaptations, reworkings and continuations to seek out.

Overall I am happy I picked up copies of this handsome book though I did so at a heavy discount. I enjoyed dipping into various entries and while I was aware of much of the information here already, I know this would have been enormously useful to me when I first began to delve deeper into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it will have much value for you depends on how well you already know the canon and your interest in delving a little deeper into the background to the creation of those stories. For those with a stronger interest they might be better to look to some of the more scholarly works and journal articles about the series.

Jonathan Creek: No Trace of Tracy (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast May 31, 1997

Season One, Episode Four
Preceded by The Reconstituted Corpse
Followed by The House of Monkeys

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

The Verdict

One of Jonathan’s least colorful cases but the logic is sound and I appreciate how it continues to build Jonathan and Maddy’s relationship.


My Thoughts

Roy Pilgrim is an aging rock star who had been a part of the band Edwin Drood in the seventies. After coming back home from a jog outdoors, Roy notices his door is open and when he investigates he is struck from behind. He wakes up some time later chained to a radiator and then spends hours waiting for someone to come to rescue him.

Meanwhile teenaged fan Tracy is getting ready to meet her idol having received a letter from him. She is seen arriving at his home by some other teens and she enters. When she does not return home her parents contact the police who arrive at the house to investigate. When they and Pilgrim’s fiancee Francine enter they find Roy still handcuffed. He tells them that he never wrote the letter and that he never saw her enter the building. The question then is what happened to Tracy…

This story is a different sort of case to those we have seen in the previous three episodes. Each of those were presented as murder investigations but No Trace of Tracy instead places its focus on explaining the apparently inexplicable. If we accept that Roy really was knocked unconscious as we were shown and was awake as he appeared to be, how could he not see Tracy arrive at his home?

As such this represents an interesting change of pace for the series and I appreciate that it places a focus on the contradictions of these two credible accounts of what happened. By directly showing us the sequence of events leading up to Roy being attacked we are encouraged to view them as accurate and so it is clear that something more devious or unusual must be behind the incident.

This case, like many of the best Creek cases, boils down to an exploration of several small and seemingly innocuous details. Building on these small curiosities, Jonathan and the viewer can begin to make some logical inferences that change our understanding of what we are seeing. This is, for me, the show’s great idea and I think this episode presents us with several strong examples of it.

The deductions are all pretty clever. While I think the case is simpler than those in either of the two previous episodes, the focus on a single aspect of the case does place added attention on Jonathan’s process of logically working through the significance of each of those small details that seem out of place. In terms of the main mystery plot I think this episode works rather well although it should be said that this is the least whimsical episode of the first season.

I also appreciate the growing tensions between Maddy and Jonathan that we see develop during this episode. Those tensions had been hinted at in the B-plot in the previous story but there are a few moments in this story that seem to bring them into an even more direct focus. I think this gives their respective feelings and assumptions about their relationship a greater clarity while also suggesting that this relationship continues to change and evolve as they work closer together. It helps that there are a few very funny moments along the way.

Unfortunately I am a little less enamored of some of the other elements of this episode. The tree bonding antics at Hogs Belly Farm are rather broad and veer away from the quirky sweet spot that is so comfortable for the series. Comedy is, of course, subjective and others may well have loved this but in my opinion Jacob and Polly feel too consciously comedic and over-the-top to take seriously.

I also think that some aspects of Roy’s character have perhaps not aged well, particularly in light of events over the past decade. In particular the assertion that Roy likes them young, while important to the plot, sits pretty uncomfortably given it attracts no further comment or discussion. Ralph Brown is good in the part though, adding to the character’s credibility.

In terms of its mystery plotting I think No Trace of Tracy represents one of the stronger efforts in this first season of the show. The case is not only a welcome change of pace, it features a few genuinely puzzling elements and the solution is simple but clever and absolutely fair game for the viewer. The broadness of the comedy and the relatively bland backdrop for the story perhaps keep it from being one of the highlights of the season but it is clever enough that it didn’t struggle to keep my interest.

One by One They Disappeared by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1929
Inspector Collier #1
Followed by The Night of Fear

The Blurb

Elbert J. Pakenham of New York City is among just nine survivors of the sinking of the Coptic – not counting his black cat Jehosaphat. The benevolent Mr. Pakenham has made his fellow survivors joint beneficiaries in his will, his nephew having recently passed away. But it seems that someone is unwilling to share the fortune, as the heirs start to die under mysterious circumstances . . .

Then Mr. Pakenham himself disappears, and Inspector Collier of Scotland Yard suspects dirty work. When a trap is laid that seriously wounds his best friend at the Yard, Superintendent Trask, Collier is certain his suspicions are correct. Into his net are drawn a charming young woman, Corinna Lacy, and her cousin and trustee, Wilfred Stark; a landed gentleman of dubious reputation, Gilbert Freyne, and his sister-in-law, Gladys; an Italian nobleman of ancient lineage and depleted estate, Count Olivieri; and a Bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. But Collier will need some unexpected feline assistance before the case is solved.

The Verdict

A lively tontine tale with some entertaining but rather far-fetched plot developments. While this was the first Collier novel published, I would start with a later title and come back to this.


My Thoughts

There are some elements of golden age mysteries that just seem to excite me. At the top of that list would be any mention of curare, that mysterious and rare poison that every English aristocrat seemed to possess a jar of. Right behind that though would be the tontine will.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term or idea, a tontine will designates a certain group of individuals as the beneficiaries. At the moment of death the surviving members would be paid an equal share of the bequest. This is, of course, mystery fiction gold because you instantly create a situation in which the characters all share an equally powerful motive to remove the other members to increase the size of their portion.

One by One They Disappeared involves just such a will. Elbert Pakenham, a wealthy American, had a narrow escape with death when he and eight other passengers survive the sinking of the Coptic during a transatlantic voyage. Each year he had thrown a dinner for his fellow survivors in England, bestowing them with small gifts. Then, realizing he is aging and that he has no one else to leave the money to, he announces that he has made all of his fellow survivors joint heirs in his will.

This story begins with the dinner the year after this announcement has been made. Pakenham is dismayed to find that only a couple of the survivors show up to that year’s dinner. When one of the survivors dies in a suspicious fall in a place he had no reason to be, Collier suspects foul play and soon discovers that several of the other beneficiaries had also disappeared.

As setups for this sort of story go, I think this gets things off to a promising start. For one thing, I appreciated that we come into this murder plot after it is already well underway. For one thing, it does mean that our sleuth can see a pattern emerging and allows for the suspect pool to be whittled down to a more manageable number.

The sort of informal role that Inspector Collier has at the beginning is a little awkward as he really has no standing to investigate the case at that point. On the other hand, I think Dalton does provide us with some convincing reasons for him to become interested in the case and by the time things get more serious he does have a more formal part to play.

This is, of course, Collier’s first outing as a detective and I was a little surprised that Dalton does not seem to spend much time establishing his character. Instead she really just throws us straight into the case and introduces him as we learn about and follow his efforts to investigate the crime. Still, I think the essential qualities of his character are communicated to the reader in the way we see him deal with the other characters and the consideration he shows throughout the investigation. He is not necessarily a strong character but I think he is a thoroughly likeable one.

The other characters were, for me, a little more inconsistent. Pakenham is certainly an interesting figure and I appreciated the way he is shown to respond to the situation that develops. He ends up playing an important and active role in the story which I did not expect and I think his involvement did lend an extra level of interest to the situation.

The suspects however are a largely different matter. Their personalities and characters are displayed to the reader from their first appearances, making spotting the culprit frustratingly easy. The shadier figures instantly stand out while others can be immediately dismissed because of their involvement in a secondary, romantic plotline.

As with the other Dalton novels I have read, this does have a certain direct quality that helps make it a page-turning read. There is a sense that Collier is constantly edging nearer to catching the killer and while the action in the plot is fairly limited, I did appreciate that there are a few moments of excitement as we near the conclusion.

As for that conclusion, well – I think that the story shares some stylistic elements with the thrillers Christie was writing in this period. That sort of storytelling is not a particular favorite for me and I think there are a few aspects of the explanation that seemed a little confusing but here I cannot go into any more detail without spoiling which, of course, I have no wish to do.

So, where does that leave One by One They Disappeared? I think it is clear that this is an early work and there are a few rougher edges. For instance, the suspects feel a little flat and the decision to pull the story to a conclusion seemed rather arbitrary.

It isn’t bad – I would certainly reach for it ahead of most of those Christie thrillers. What keeps me from a more enthusiastic recommendation is that I have already come across other Dalton novels I liked more. I would far more readily recommend either The Art School Murders and The Condamine Case, both of which feel more refined works. Still, this is a fun and quick read and while I would suggest getting to know Collier through other stories first, this is a good, solid read worth circling back to.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Story Details

Originally published 1844
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #3
Preceded by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

The Verdict

A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.


My Thoughts

The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.

The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.

The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.

We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.

If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.

Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.

I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.

Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.

Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.

I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well and makes this my favorite story in the trio.

Jonathan Creek: The Reconstituted Corpse (TV)

Episode Details

First Broadcast May 24, 1997

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Jack in the Box
Followed by No Trace of Tracy

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

Though the image of a body appearing in a previously empty wardrobe is intriguing, I felt unsatisfied by the explanation.


My Thoughts

Zola Zbzewski goes onto a television show to promote her autobiography. The book, Finding My Form, details her experiences undergoing plastic surgery and discusses her affair with her plastic surgeon. During the interview he is produced as a surprise guest and angrily accuses her of lying, threatening to destroy her.

A short while later the surgeon is found murdered in his home and Zola has become a prime suspect. Maddy takes an interest in the case and begins to look to prove her innocence but the situation become more complicated when her body is found in a wardrobe that Maddy had just transported up several flights of stairs at her home and that had previously been empty.

While it is the less mechanically interesting of the two deaths, I do want to start with the murder of the surgeon. I think Renwick does a good job of giving us a good understanding of the background to that crime in just a few short scenes. The murder itself offers little to grab the imagination – it is a simple killing – but it does provide enough of a hook to involve Maddy in the case and allow for a short investigation.

During that investigation we get to meet the other members of Zbzewski’s household and circle of friends, setting things up for the second investigation. This does mean that we can jump into exploring that second death much faster and focus on the mechanics rather than defining relationships but I do think structurally it is awkward to have the second case be the more imaginative one.

If the first death is mundane, the second is much more in Jonathan’s usual line of seemingly fantastic crimes. Of all of the cases so far, this is the one that seems to be most like a magic trick – a reversal of the traditional disappearing person in a box trick. Certainly that moment in which the body is discovered is one that I could vividly remember from watching this the first time it aired so it clearly caught my imagination then.

Sadly I can’t really speak to how clever it is because I also had a vivid recollection of its solution. I can say though that while I think the explanation is interesting, I do not feel that every aspect of that solution was properly clued or that the explanation really feels satisfying although it seems quite logical. Instead this second death, while it appeals more to the imagination than the first, feels almost like an afterthought – an impossibility added to a more conventional case to make it fit the show’s style.

That is frustrating to me because there is a much better idea used here that I think gets overshadowed by the novelty of that corpse in the wardrobe. What impressed me was the way Renwick makes use of a familiar plot point that you see in many older works but finds a way to update it to fit into a more modern era. The result is that this element feels quite fresh here and is, for me, the most clever part of the case.

I think the other reason that this story doesn’t quite work for me is the amount of time given over to its b-plot: Maddy’s awkward blind date and the pair’s subsequent awkward interactions. Nigel Planer is entertaining and the way Jonathan gets worked into the date scene is amusing but the time given to it feels excessive given it neither moves the overall mystery plot or the relationship between Jonathan and Maddy forward much at all.

Other than the image of the body in the wardrobe, the most memorable moments of the episode all belong to that b-plot. That strikes me as unfortunate because it made me more aware of my lack of engagement in the main storyline. While there are certainly a few good moments and ideas here, I found the case to be rather unsatisfying, particularly when compared to its immediate predecessor.

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain

Book Details

Originally published 1959
87th Precinct #10
Preceded by ’til Death
Followed by Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

The Blurb

For a wealthy businessman, a kidnapping puts him in a predicament as troubling as any he has ever experienced. For Detective Steve Carella and the men at the 87th Precinct, their troubles are even worse. Their only hope is that he will play ball—at least long enough for them to catch the perps before the kidnapping turns into a homicide.

The Verdict

A punchy read that develops some powerful themes well but its conclusion feels rushed.


My Thoughts

King’s Ransom is the story of a businessman who is plotting to take over the firm he works for. We learn how he has been silently acquiring extra shares and that he has mortgaged everything he owns to enable him to buy enough extra shares to enable him to take over the company in one decisive move.

While he makes some final arrangements to send his assistant to complete the purchase he receives a phone call from a group of kidnappers who claim to have grabbed his eight year old son, Bobby, who had been playing outside with his chauffeur’s son, Jeff. The kidnappers demand hundreds of thousands of dollars for his safe return but when Bobby turns up, it becomes clear that they grabbed the wrong child…

I first became interested in reading this book nearly a decade ago when I first watched Kurosawa’s film adaptation, High and Low. That film remains one of my favorite crime movies ever and I had been curious to read the source material to see how faithful the film adaptation was and what new elements were introduced. A recent repeat viewing reminded me of that ambition and after failing to get through Cop Hater, I decided to ignore my typical discomfort at reading a series out of order to jump ahead to the book I most wanted to read.

One of the things that interests me most about this story are the choices that McBain makes about which elements he chooses to focus on. Perhaps the most striking example of this is that Jeff’s father remains largely in the background throughout the novel, only making one short but extremely memorable interjection. That is not only a strong storytelling choice in the way it forces so much emotion into a single moment, it also reflects that this story is about Douglas King as much as it is about the crime itself.

McBain further demonstrates this by his decision to reveal the identities of the kidnappers very early in the story. While we do not spend much time with them, we understand their motives and their reactions to the way their plan is unfolding. By giving this to us very early in the story, we are encouraged to instead see the moral debate about King’s responsibility for Jeff’s fate as its focus.

I should say at this point that this debate is not exactly evenly balanced. For pretty much every character in this book there is no question at all of what King ought to do. McBain emphasizes this by giving several of the other characters around him moments in which they critique him and urge him to become involved and save the boy.

On the other hand, McBain is also able to really give us a strong sense of exactly what the impact of paying that ransom would be on King. The moments leading up to the first ransom call for instance went into quite some detail about how he was overextending himself to grab this opportunity to buy a controlling interest in the firm. We also see that his rivals within the company are aware that he had this move planned, meaning that if he cannot close his deal then he will almost certainly be ousted and his career would be essentially over. Sure, he’s not in the right but when he argues it comes from a point of understandable desperation.

Although the events of the novel are obviously a consequence of the kidnapping, it seems fair to suggest that King’s Ransom is as much a piece of human drama or character study as it is a crime novel. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are those passages in which we learn about his personal history. The story related to his marriage, for instance, gives us a clear motivation for him to place such importance on financial and career success and while I cannot say I liked him for this (or anything – the man is pretty cold and rigid), I did feel I understood the character better from those moments.

The other major character in the King household who makes a significant impact on the story is his wife, Diane. The discussions between this pair are not only hugely important to the development of the plot, they also do a great job of expressing and exploring the themes of the piece. I was also interested in some of the choices she makes in the course of this story which I think are both powerful and decisive.

The kidnappers are, in contrast, less developed as characters. We spend comparatively little time with them and of them really just two stood out as being more dimensional. I think that is fine considering that the details of the crime are largely designed as background material but those hoping for a juicy motive will likely be disappointed.

On a more positive note, there are some rather interesting ideas about using some technology that must have been fairly new at this time and I think McBain explains these well. Some of these ideas seem quite creative and I think they make an otherwise fairly mundane kidnapping case seem that little bit more exciting.

So, where does that leave me overall? Well, I think the plotting and the development of the novel’s key themes are superb. While I think it cannot reach some of the emotional heights of the movie High and Low such as its rushed ending (the movie has a more satisfying conclusion in my opinion), the book is so punchily written that I had great difficulty putting it down.

No doubt I will make a return trip to Isola soon and hopefully in doing so I will get to know the various detectives a little bit better.

Jonathan Creek: Jack in the Box

Episode Details

First broadcast May 17, 1997

Season One, Episode Two
Preceded by The Wrestler’s Tomb
Followed by The Reconstituted Corpse

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

Key Guest Cast

Maureen O’Brien is perhaps best known for her role as Vicki, one of the earliest companions on Doctor Who. In addition to her acting work, O’Brien was also a mystery writer and I have reviewed several of her excellent novels here. Check out Close-Up On Death and Mask of Betrayal for more information. I recommend both!

The Verdict

A fine impossible murder puzzle with a clever and well-explained solution.


My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed The Wrestler’s Tomb, I think this second episode is an improvement on it in pretty much every respect. From the background of the case to the characters involved and the central impossibility, I think this is a really engaging and entertaining hour of television.

Jack Holiday, played by John Bluthal from The Vicar of Dibley, is an aging comic actor whose life has been touched with personal tragedy. Around a decade earlier his first wife was found murdered in a back street while Jack was filming abroad. Alan Rokesmith was arrested and convicted of the murder but is freed thanks to a media campaign led by Maddy who argued that the evidence was circumstantial.

Shortly after Rokesmith is freed he disappears and Holiday is found dead in a sealed bunker from an apparently self-inflicted gun wound. His second wife disagrees, pointing the finger at Rokesmith and blaming Maddy for his release. Maddy decides to recruit Jonathan to take a look at the scene in the hope of convincing her that it was suicide. When evidence is produced though that shows he could not have killed himself, Jonathan has to find out how Holiday could have been killed inside a bunker that was firmly locked from the inside.

One of the disappointments about the first episode for me was that it wasn’t really an impossible crime story. Well, this does give us a much stronger and clearer impossibility to resolve and I think it is a good one. A large part of the reason I really rate it well is that the show does an excellent job of showing the physical space, demonstrating that the lock was solid and in tact and exploring a variety of possible explanations, only to dismiss each of them as flawed.

After establishing that the door really was locked, the next most important point is that the possibility of suicide is clearly and decisively dismissed. I found the sequence in which that happens to be really quite good, in part because it ties into material we had already seen that might otherwise have felt a little irrelevant and demonstrates it in a pretty humorous way.

With these basic facts of the case established, Jonathan and Maddy are able to start exploring more creative explanations. Here I think Renwick does an excellent job of balancing the need to consider a variety of options with not dwelling on any of them too long.

Now at this point I ought to confess to having been unable to solve the crime – a particularly pitiful effort on my part given I have actually seen this story before. The important point though is that Renwick plays fair and gives the viewer enough to work out the explanation for themselves. The result is a strong explanation that manages to be simultaneously clever mechanically yet simple enough to explain and follow.

The other aspect of this episode that particularly stands out to me is its portrayal of its victim, the aging comic whose physical comedy style has fallen decidedly out of fashion. Jonathan for instance makes his distaste for Jack’s work pretty clear when he is alone with Maddy and we get a little taste of his work in the form of the commercial that opens the episode.

While his comedy style may be broad and dated, the character himself is well drawn and recognizable – particularly for those of us who grew up on the saucy British comedies of the sixties and seventies. I think the depiction of his frustrations at having fallen out of vogue and of the way he was used in the commercial are quite relatable and take the character in a surprisingly interesting and poignant direction.

Similarly, I found the character of Jack’s second wife – played by Maureen O’Brien – to also have a pleasing complexity. We soon learn that Kirsten had been Jack’s secretary for years prior to marrying him and her pride in how her husband had brought amusement to so many people is plain to see. It is easy to understand why she decides to write to Maddy and why she blames her for the death.

Jonathan and Maddy’s investigation has several interesting twists and turns. Once again both play an active and pretty equal role in investigating the case (though Jonathan will ultimately solve it as usual) and there are some entertaining relationship-building and simple comedic scenes shared between the two.

Overall then I have very little negative to say about this episode. I think it does an awful lot right to build an interesting scenario and provide us with a compelling solution. While I tried to think of some negatives to throw out there about this story, the most I can come up with is that I think some of the Rokesmith material plays out a little too directly. Still, some directness in the storytelling is understandable given that this case has to be set up and resolved in less than an hour which I think is done very well.

This just leaves me with one last (pretty irrelevant) question – does anyone happen to know for sure where this was filmed? I feel that I have seen Jack’s cottage which leads me to think it may have been shot in Cornwall or Devon.