Rizzio by Denise Mina

Originally published in 2021.

The Blurb

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power. 

Rizzio first came to my attention a little over a week ago when I read a review of the work by Fictionophile while on my lunch break. Minutes later when I got back to work I came across a copy and, struck by the coincidence, I decided to check it out. It was fate, right?

The novella depicts the events of March 9, 1566 when David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators in front of the Queen during an attempted coup. It’s a short work and rather than attempting to depict every moment of that night, Mina focuses on the most dramatic moments and those that best illustrate some of the motivations and tensions at play within the various groups of individuals that night.

The events of the evening are certainly dramatic and for those who do not already know the tale, will likely contain a few surprises as we follow how the events unfold and are ultimately resolved. As interesting as the events are however, I think the real point of focus is meant to be on the individuals involved in those events and exploring their motivations, thoughts and feelings at points during that night.

One idea that I think sits at the heart of this novel is that the idea that history is wrought by the ‘Great Men’ is a false one. Those people who viewed themselves as Statesmen were ultimately just men, often operating out of personal jealousies or for gain rather than the higher motivations they try to ascribe to their actions. They also rarely exercised the level of control over events that they believed that they had – history often comes down to fluke and coincidence rather than intentional planning and its effects are often wider than they may initially seem (we are reminded at the end of the novella that Mary’s child is James I of England).

I think Mina presents a pretty convincing case for that in the characters of Ruthven and Darnley, carefully exploring not only how these characters perceive themselves and their actions but how they are seen by those around them and some of the contradictions between what they say and how they act. By the end of the novella I felt I had a really clear understanding of these characters as well as several other figures around Holyrood at that time and I was struck by just how dimensional many of those portraits are given how short this piece is overall.

The other theme that resonated with me was the idea that history can easily be turned into mythology. The novella’s final chapter drives this notion home by bringing things forward several centuries and discussing how this moment in history was perceived by readers of Sir Walter Scott and has come to be viewed centuries after it happened. In contrast, Mina seems to want to strip it of that distance and some of the romance of history and to show it as borne of a relatable human desire and emotion. That this was something that happened to real people.

One method Mina uses to try and connect to these characters as people is to not try and reproduce sixteenth century language but to have them speak in direct, sometimes quite coarse or violent language. This emphasizes both the danger they are in but also the emotions that they were experiencing, even when they are not always entirely aware of them. A good case in point would be Darnley where the reader may well perceive subtext to some of his comments and concerns that he clearly does not understand or see himself.

While I know that some dislike the idea of historical fiction written in modern language, I do think it can be very effective and certainly here I think it is. Not only does it bring the violence of the situation quite vividly to life, it also helps to highlight and address many of Mina’s themes and the connections to issues still being experienced in Scotland today.

It helps too that some of Mina’s phrases are fantastically concise and effective. One of my favorites was the description of Henry Yair as ‘a killing spree looking for an excuse’ which conveys a lot about the intensity and attitudes held by that character.

Perhaps surprisingly, the least compelling character in the whole piece is the one who gives his name to it. While we learn a little of Rizzio’s background and more about his relationships with several of the characters, I never felt that the secretary made much of an impact at all as an individual. Instead, all we really get to learn about him is the fear he shows in the moments before his death.

It could be that was Mina’s point – that the murder was never really about Rizzio but that his arrest and murder was just a pretext for the events of that evening. Either way, this story quickly moves beyond the incident to explore many of the tensions within the Scottish court at this time.

One comment I have seen in several reviews of the work is that some wish that the work was longer. While I can understand that desire to have more, I am not sure that the additional detail would have benefitted the work. The reason that this worked for me was that it feels so tight and so focused on exploring those themes and ideas. I find it hard to think what could have been added that wouldn’t have just slowed the story down.

Rizzio won’t be to everyone’s taste. For one thing it isn’t really a mystery at all but rather a historical crime story. For another, I would suggest that it is a work where theme is more important than action as shown by the way it speeds through the conclusion to that night’s violence. It is an interesting piece though that I think has some intriguing things to say about how we view the past, the people who lived then as well as the political and social movements of long ago.

The Verdict: A thoughtful exploration of how history is made and later interpreted.

Why I Love… Memories of Murder

A few months ago I shared my thoughts on the animated movie, The Great Mouse Detective. This month I discuss the reasons I admire the decidedly not-for-kids procedural film Memories of Murder directed by Bong Joon Ho. Clearly I am trying to illustrate the breadth of my taste in crime-related films… Expect the next installment to fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Whether you share my love of this film or not, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. Please feel free to share your opinions in the comments below.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt by Edgar Allan Poe

Originally Published in 1842
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #2
Preceded by The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Followed by The Purloined Letter

This is the first murder mystery based on the details of a real crime. It first appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.

A little over a year ago I wrote about the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. At that time I had every expectation I would blog about all three stories and actually read this one in preparation for that. Unfortunately that was right about the time real life got in the way of my blogging and by the time I was ready to write about it, the memories had faded too much to put anything accurate or coherent together.

Well, this week I decided to go ahead and read it again so the story is now fresh in my mind. I don’t know if I can promise that my thoughts are all that more coherent than they would have been a year ago though…

Like its predecessor, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is more of a long short story than a novella. It is also narrated by the same nameless friend of Dupin who is still in awe of his friend’s ability to use ratiocination to logically work through and posit explanations for crimes.

One significant difference between this and the other two Dupin stories is that both the narrator and sleuth do not at any point leave their sitting room to investigate the crime. Instead they will be armchair detectives, gleaning and then reinterpreting the facts given in the reports appearing in the city’s newspapers.

The crime in this story is quite famously drawn on a real unsolved case that had occurred several years before Poe wrote this. That victim was Mary Cecilia Rogers, a cigar girl who disappeared once, then reappeared when she returned from an apparent elopement, before disappearing for good three years later. Several days after that second disappearance her body was found floating in the Hudson River having appeared to have been murdered.

As you may have noticed from the title Poe gave his story, he makes little attempt to disguise the source of his inspiration. You don’t need to be a genius detective to see the links between the names Marie Rogêt and Mary Rogers. And even if you missed it, Poe’s narrator directly makes the connection for the reader just a couple of paragraphs in.

Most of the essential points of the case are presented here as they were – the changes he introduces are mostly incidental. Names are altered. The location is changed but the most essential points are the same.

For this reason many have pointed to the story as being one of the first instances of a crime writer finding inspiration in a famous, real-life crime. In a technical sense I think that it true but I would suggest that there is a gulf between what Poe is doing here and what, for example, Agatha Christie does in The Murder on the Links or Dorothy L. Sayers in Strong Poison. Where those writers took inspiration as a starting point for a narrative, Poe is fictionalizing here to enable him to posit his own ‘very rigorous analysis’ of a real crime.

I think it is clear that this is his intent from some of the storytelling decisions Poe makes. Most tellingly, once Dupin gleans everything he can from the newspaper reports the story simply stops. He identifies what he thinks is the logical explanation of the crime but does not create any additional evidence or provide us with any sort of an ending in which his deductions can be proved.

Similarly the device of telling us what happened through an extended newspaper report that has been constructed from the information gleaned from other previous newspaper reporting feels rather clunky and formal. We are simply presented with long blocks of uninterrupted reporting with little opportunity for characterization or comment. I believe that had storytelling been Poe’s primary concern or interest there would have been some form of interviews or at least a visit to the scene of the crime.

Poe however is primarily interested in the idea that processes of logical reasoning are more important than interaction with the evidence. That belief in the process is not unique to Poe – it is not difficult to see it reflected in the approaches taken at times by Holmes or Poirot – but Poe’s dedication to it can come at the expense of engaging storytelling and certainly I believe that is the case here.

I don’t think it helps much that the case itself is nowhere near as mysterious as that in the previous story in spite of Dupin’s claims that this is ‘a far more intricate case’. There is nothing approaching an impossibility in the crime and while the police may not have been able to produce a clear resolution to the case, some overlooked clues do rather stand out in the reporting to the point where the police appear astonishingly incompetent for not considering them.

For instance, there is a point at which Dupin presents several additional paragraphs from previous newspaper reports that were omitted in the main account of the crime. There are several points in those accounts that are so clearly presenting a possible alternative explanation of the crime that it is incredible when our narrator claims:

Upon reading these various extracts, they not only seemed to me to be irrelevant, but I could perceive no mode in which any one of them could be brought to bear in the matter in hand.

The only possible explanation for his thinking the clues irrelevant is that our narrator is an idiot.

While I get the need for the sidekick to be continually amazed by the mental prowess of the detective, it hardly feels earned at that moment. He has certainly shown diligence and solid reasoning but every deduction is reasonable and replicable by the reader.

On a similar note, some of Dupin’s blanket assertions can seem rather silly. For instance I can only echo JJ’s bafflement at the idea that ruffians are more likely to possess handkerchiefs than shirts (and I’ll refer you to the wonderful, spoilery conversation he had with Christian about this story).

There are a few deductive moments however that feel more impressive. I was particularly taken with the inferences Dupin draws from a description of some of the victim’s effects. Delivered without hyperbole, it comes off as a thoughtful and credible block contributing to our understanding of what has happened.

Unfortunately there were just not enough of those moments for me to feel fully engaged in this story. While the real case may have gripped America for months, this fictionalized version felt rather too dry and academic and I never really felt connected to the events of the crime.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is certainly another significant work in the development of the detective story. While the illustrations of ratiocination may not be as spellbinding as those in Poe’s previous Dupin story, the process is illustrated well and help to further establish the armchair detective model we would see emulated half a century later by Conan Doyle. I just wish that Poe had been a little less focused on proving a point and taken greater care to give us a compelling story with a satisfying resolution.

The Verdict: As important to the development of the detective story as the previous Dupin mystery but nowhere near as engaging.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Originally Published 1943

Walter Huff was an insurance salesman with an unfailing instinct for clients who might be in trouble, and his instinct led him to Phyllis Nirdlinger. Phyllis wanted to buy an accident policy on her husband. Then she wanted her husband to have an accident. Walter wanted Phyllis. To get her, he would arrange the perfect murder and betray everything he had ever lived for.

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)