The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

bmd
The Beast Must Die
Nicholas Blake
Originally Published 1938
Nigel Strangeways #4
Preceded by There’s Trouble Brewing
Followed by The Smiler with the Knife

I should probably start out this review with a bit of an apology. What you are about to read will likely be a little more disjointed than my usual sort of review. I have spent the best part of two days working on this one but I am not truly satisfied with my efforts.

Part of the reason that I have found this novel so hard to write about is that it is difficult to avoid spoiling the novel’s twists. The Beast Must Die doesn’t even really become a Nigel Strangeways mystery until just before the halfway point so even discussing his role and purpose in the book risks taking me heavily into spoiler territory.

Having tried this multiple ways now I find I am incapable of discussing the book without at least giving away the nature of that first twist. If you want to come to this completely unspoiled here is my potted review: The Beast Must Die is an entertaining and interesting novel. I found the scenario quite compelling and felt Blake’s portrayal of Cairnes’ grief at the loss of his son to be credible and powerful. You don’t need to have read any of the previous Strangeways novels – this stands on its own – and I think it deserves its place on the CWA’s Top 100 list.

Mild spoilers follow (though nothing more than in many of the book’s blurbs). You have been warned!

In its earliest chapters The Beast Must Die appears to be an inverted mystery novel. I say appears to be because this novel can be classified as a pseudo-inverted story. What I mean by this is that Blake adopts many of the common elements, themes and stylistic choices of the form but when a murder does take place it is not done in the way we were anticipating and the would-be killer swears his innocence.

That would-be killer is Frank Cairnes, a successful mystery novelist whose life was destroyed when his young son is killed in a hit and run. Devastated at his loss, Cairnes vows he will discover who was responsible and kill them himself. In these early chapters which are styled as part of a diary he is keeping we follow his efforts to track down information and find the guilty party.

He comes to believe that the man responsible was George Rattery and sets about trying to get close enough to him to find evidence supporting his suspicions before he acts. In doing so he comes into close contact with members of Rattery’s family including Rattery’s own son Phil. Eventually he becomes certain that George was responsible and the diary portion of the novel concludes with a description of his plan to eliminate him.

At this point in the novel Blake switches perspective, moving from that first person diary-style account to third person narration. This switch is necessary because from this point in the story onwards we are no longer reading an inverted mystery but a more conventional form of detective novel in which we will be hunting for a killer. Basic facts of the crime need to be clearly established.

The second phase of the novel picks up at the point at which Cairnes attempts to implement his murder scheme and things unravel around him. Before long Rattery is found dead by a completely different method but Cairnes is aware that he will soon come under suspicion. He reaches out to Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help in handling this situation and in the hope that he might prove his innocence.

A little while ago I encountered another mystery novel that adopted a similar structure – George Limnelius’ The Medbury Fort Murder. In that instance I felt that the transition between the two styles was awkward and counterproductive while the time spent on the inverted section of the story seemed to lead nowhere.

Blake’s treatment of the same basic idea is far more successful here and I think it comes down to two reasons. The first is that the two phases of the novel each feel more clearly defined, providing a more natural transition between the two styles. The other reason that it works is that the discovery that Cairnes’ plot failed does not render the events of those early chapters redundant. Cairnes’ actions expose him to police scrutiny, causing him to contact Strangeways for assistance, while these chapters also pack a truly powerful punch on an emotional level.

These chapters are also interesting in that they present us with a situation that is fairly unusual for an inverted tale in having Cairnes become close to his victim’s family and friends. This sometimes presents complications such as when he wonders about the extent to which he is using another character and in others it helps stiffen his resolve. This not only adds to the interest in these early chapters, it also presents some interesting complications later in the story when Cairnes’ identity becomes known.

The detective phase of the novel is also handled extremely well and here, once again, Blake’s careful development of the novel’s structure pays off. Nigel’s introduction into the story is handled smoothly and feels at least reasonably credible. Because he already knows Cairnes and we have already become familiar with the other suspects we are able to get quickly stuck into the case.

The investigation is perhaps not the most dynamic or surprising I have read. Characters’ motivations are clear from the outset and there are few really surprising moments. The interest lies in exploring characters’ psychology and relationships, both of which Blake does extremely well.

This is not my first encounter with Nigel Strangeways – I have previous read short stories in the British Library anthologies Murder at the Manor and The Long Arm of the Law – but as both stories were extremely short I had little conception of the character. I will say that he has some attributes I often find frustrating such as his being another instance of the overly literate detective, but I think that is balanced well with other elements of his character. I also appreciated his relationship with his practical wife who joins him on this trip and makes her own contributions to this case.

This brings me to the even more tricky topic of the novel’s ending and the revelation of the killer’s identity. I think Blake achieves a memorable conclusion to his novel and I appreciated how Strangeways decides to handle their unmasking. It felt that it fit the tone of the overall piece and I think it is fair.

I do however have some problems with some aspects of how the killer conducted themselves, finding one choice particularly reckless. It didn’t necessarily damage the credibility of the solution and I think it makes sense based on their characterization but it did make me wonder why anyone would take on that degree of risk.

While I question that choice on a character level, I think it was the right choice for the novel. It certainly contributes to the ending, helping to make it a memorable and powerful conclusion to what is quite a remarkable and inventive read. Highly recommended.

Other Views

This novel has unsurprisingly been reviewed and written about extensively including by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, Margot’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Past Offences, Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery and Tipping My Fedora.

JJ has a review of the book planned for tomorrow at his blog The Invisible Event so be sure to check it out and see whether we agree!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Includes letter/s or diary extracts (or similar items) (What)

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

Rendell
A Demon in My View
Ruth Rendell
Originally Published 1976

I have written before about how one of my earliest crime fiction memories was seeing my mother reading Ruth Rendell books while she waited to pick us up from events. Well, my parents are in town for the holidays and they thoughtfully came bearing a stack of those Arrow paperbacks (sadly not pictured – I couldn’t find a good enough scan of those covers).

Many of the titles were Wexford novels but the volume that caught my eye first was the standalone novel, A Demon in My View. The book was an award winner, winning the author her first CWA Golden Dagger for Best Crime Novel in 1976, but what intrigued me was that it clearly was an inverted crime novel.

Arthur Johnson works as a clerk and assists his building’s landlord by collecting the rent each week. While he seems meek and timid, we learn that he is a psychopath who murdered several women years earlier before finding a way of channeling his aggressions, dressing up a mannequin which he keeps in the building’s basement and strangling it. Doing this he has managed to repress his murderous urges and is living a comfortable, if isolated life.

His comfortable world is threatened however when the landlord informs him that another man with the same last name and first initial, Anthony Johnson, will be moving into the building. For one thing, Anthony never seems to leave the building and his room overlooks the entrance to the cellar which prevents him from making his visits to that mannequin. For another, Arthur dreads the possibility that the two men’s mail may be mixed up and that he may open a letter meant for his neighbor instead.

Rendell’s Arthur is an intriguing creation being terrifying in his apparent normalcy. He is certainly odd, insisting on observing formalities and holding some strong if unspoken views on race, nationality and religion, but he holds down a regular job and gives his neighbors no cause to suspect him. He can seem rather sad and pathetic, we are told Anthony feels quite sorry for him, and I think we can understand his sense of inferiority and rage, even if he is unaware of it.

Though this story focuses on Arthur’s journey from the point of Anthony’s arrival, Rendell does find time to depict and explore his first murder in enough detail to give a sense of how he came to be this way. She does not present the reader with a potted explanation but rather provides us with the evidence and allows us to piece it together for ourselves. I found this to be quite effective and I appreciated that she depicts what is necessary to establish the character but does not feel the need to show us each instance of violence.

By contrast, Anthony’s life seems messy and chaotic. The psychology student who studies psychopaths seems far more focused on his love life than on paying attention to the others in the building with him. In many ways he seems an opposite of Arthur and it is no surprise that the two men do not get on together.

This novel is really the story of how the rivalry and tension between these two men ultimately proves destructive to them. I appreciated Rendell’s construction of a series of small actions, perceived as aggressions, that creates chaos and confusion. It is easy to understand both men’s worries and motivations and how their actions impact each other.

Rendell writes sympathetically to both characters, describing events in the third person but infusing the narration with their thoughts, feelings and observations. This does mean that we spend quite a bit of time inside Arthur’s head, experiencing things from his perspective and hearing his casual observations that are peppered with intolerant and judgmental thoughts. At other points we see how he can take a small, perhaps rather thoughtless event and perceive it to be something quite different.

Some may find the time spent inside Arthur’s head to be unsettling or feel that it makes for a rather unpleasant reading experience. For my part I can certainly understand it causing discomfort though I think the author created a compelling, credible character and sells the idea of killing as a compulsion.

One element of the novel that I found to be particularly interesting is the idea that pain and harm are often not caused intentionally but through oversight or thoughtlessness. This rang true to me and I think Rendell develops this theme very cleverly, constructing a story in which the intended effects of an action often turn out to be quite different from their actual consequences.

In addition to the two Johnsons, Rendell creates a wide and varied cast of characters with strong personality types to inhabit this converted house. While there was no breakout character for me, I think she succeeds in creating the sense of a real community within the building and using that to demonstrate Arthur’s sense of isolation.

Having discussed the setup, characters and approach that the story takes, I should perhaps say a word about the way it concludes. Since finishing the book I have read several reviews that describe its ending as disappointing. I disagree with that assessment but I understand what they mean.

The reason is that Rendell was not really writing a mystery novel but rather a crime novel. Sure, there are questions about whether and how the murderer might get caught but her interest is in how the crimes affect the perpetrator and the community around them rather than delivering action or a more traditional puzzle to solve.

For me the ending possessed a powerful bluntness and I think it plays beautifully into the themes of the novel as a whole. I appreciated that Rendell foreshadows this moment at a couple of points within the novel so, rather than coming from nowhere, it is a logical development of the plot and consequence of a character’s actions.

While A Demon In My View may be a little dark and unsettling for some readers, I think it is a striking example of the inverted crime form. The character of Arthur feels credible and I think Rendell does an excellent job of pointing out some of the contradictions within him. Based on this experience, I can only hope that there are a few other Rendell inverted crime stories sitting waiting for me in this stack.

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

ColourofMurder
The Colour of Murder
Julian Symons
Originally Published 1957

Julian Symons is a writer whose name was known to me more in connection with his literary criticism than in terms of his own creative writing. This is in spite of this novel’s reputation with it not only winning the highest award from the Crime Writers’ Association in 1957 but also being included on their Top 100 list in 1990. Happily the book’s imminent rerelease gave me an opportunity to acquaint myself with his work.

The Colour of Murder opens with a story being related by John Wilkins to a psychiatrist. The circumstances of this are not immediately apparent but as the reader progresses in the narrative it will become clearer where the story appears to be headed.

John Wilkins works in the Complaints department of a Department Store where he has proved himself competent but has yet to achieve the recognition he wishes for. His relationship with his wife is cold and stale with neither of them really getting what they want from it. His life is turned upside down however when he meets a young woman who works in the library and flirts with her, impulsively deciding to tell her that he is single.

As he recounts what happened and his reasons for ending up in a seaside hotel the reader will have a strong sense that this is not a simple psychiatric consultation but an evaluation. By the end of the first part of the novel Wilkins will find himself accused of murder in circumstances that make him look guilty although this first section stops short of telling us exactly what occurred.

There are a few reasons for this abrupt cut in the story but one of them is that the second part of the story shifts style to become more of a legal drama. Wilkins’ mother and uncle consult a solicitor and hire a detective agency to investigate what happened to attempt to find evidence of his innocence. We as readers cannot be entirely sure whether he is innocent or not and so we are forced to make our own judgments based on our interpretations of what he has told his psychiatrist and the evidence given during the trial.

The transition between the two styles of narrative works very effectively and prompts the reader to make their own psychological evaluation. While this book certainly belongs to the psychological crime tradition rather than the puzzle mystery approach, the reader is capable of making several inferences that should help them get to the truth of what happened. The answer is confirmed to the reader in a short third section at the end of the novel which, while hardly shocking, is very competently delivered.

The chief strength of the novel lies in its very effective characterization. Kate in her excellent review suggests that this novel is a descendent of Malice Aforethought and I think this is most clearly seen in the characterization of John Wilkins. Both he and Dr. Bickleigh are moderately successful but appear to be stagnating professionally, sexually frustrated (though Wilkins is much less forward with women) and see their spouse as an obstacle to a new relationship. In each case they are dominated and arguably emasculated by their wives and indulge in an element of fantasy in their idle moments.

There are however some important differences and distinctions between the two characters that make it clear that this is something new. Where Bickleigh is cold and plans a murder in advance (and in a very cruel way), Wilkins is notable for his questionable mental stability. We may well wonder, much as his barrister does, whether he may have a cause to plea insanity and certainly the crime that is committed does not seem to have been premeditated.

As I read I couldn’t help but think that Wilkins is a man who grew up at precisely the wrong time for someone of his temperament. He belongs to the younger generation and yet his values are distinctly those of the pre-war generation. He is discontent with fifties domesticity and yet even if he were cut free of those obligations it is hard to imagine him successfully engaging with the type of woman he desires. He is too awkward and insular to ever be comfortable socially.

Wilkins’ wife is an intriguing character in that while she is shown to be domineering and unaffectionate, Symons takes the time to give us the information we need to understand her better, leaving the reader to connect the dots. She is certainly a materialistic figure, valuing a quality of life that she feels envious that others were able to enjoy, and yet there are moments where she does appear to actually want her marriage to be warmer and more affectionate. She quarrels with John’s mother and yet it is clear that she wants to be accepted. She is an interesting, complicated creation and while her psychology is not the focus of the novel, I appreciate that she is treated with more complexity than you might assume from her introduction.

Sheila, the young librarian who becomes the object of John’s affections, makes a similarly straightforward first impression but as she features less directly in the novel I think she does not quite possess the same depth of characterization. I did enjoy the process of figuring out how she felt about him and the glimpses of her life and circle of friends.

The court case itself is one of the highlights of the novel and features some very exciting moments. Symons is able to avoid repeating ideas or phrases and to keep the action moving quickly. We are left to wonder what the outcome of the case will be, particularly following several very dramatic revelations, and I think the ending of the second section and the third have a certain power.

Overall my first taste of Julian Symons’ work was very positive. He is able to make a potentially rather unpleasant lead character compelling and convincing while injecting his story with a surprising amount of wit. I would certainly suggest this to fans of the more psychological approach to crime fiction advanced in novels by Iles and Rendell.

No doubt I will get around to reading The Belting Inheritance, the other Symons novel being republished by the British Library, soon and I can imagine dipping into some of his other works. If you have read any of Symons’ work, do you have any favorites you would recommend?

Review copy provided by the publisher. The British Library Crime Classics edition will be published in Britain and America on February 5, 2019.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Adventures
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1892
Sherlock Holmes #3
Preceded by The Sign of Four
Followed by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinman
Bertie and the Tinman
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1987
Bertie Prince of Wales #1
Followed by Bertie and the Seven Bodies

I am typically a little wary of historical mystery novels that feature historical figures or events prominently. There are certainly some very good stories that have used them thoughtfully but all too often I feel that it becomes an excuse to indulge in historical celebrity-spotting. While Bertie and the Tinman features a number of real life figures I am happy to say that they are generally used in a very thoughtful and restrained way.

The premise of this short series from Peter Lovesey was that Bertie, the Prince of Wales, fancied himself an amateur detective and had several adventures that he recorded in book form and had sealed away for a hundred years to avoid causing any disgrace. This period now being at an end, we are reading what purports to be a historical account complete with a charming editor’s note at the end that suggests that there are reasons to doubt its authenticity (not least that we should doubt that Bertie possessed the drive to complete a manuscript himself) and outlines the fates of the various characters following the end of this adventure.

The incident that this story revolves around is actually drawn from the history books, the apparent suicide of famed jockey Fred Archer as a result of delirium brought on by illness. Lovesey weaves his narrative around those historical details very skillfully to create a rich and believable story. The question is why a man who was regarded as the most skilled rider of his era would suddenly commit suicide when he seemed to be recovering from a bout of illness. While I do not share Lovesey’s love of sporting history, I think this initial premise is intriguing and certainly it provides a cast of colorful characters for us to encounter.

Bertie, the Prince of Wales, is on the face of it rather an unlikely detective and I did worry that I would find it hard to take him seriously in that role or that there would be some alterations to his character to make it work. Instead Lovesey makes a virtue of those deficiencies, presenting us with a slightly different model of investigator. He is not a great thinker, though he is certainly intelligent, nor does he possess much drive or application in conducting his investigations as at several points he hands off work to others to perform on his behalf.

He does possess the advantage of access and status however that will prove a boon to him in his investigations. In addition, he is genuinely intrigued by the circumstances of this mystery and concerned for Archer’s reputation in death. The combination of those traits made him credible to me and I appreciated that Lovesey does not gloss over his flaws.

In fact it is those flaws within Bertie that make him the most compelling aspect of this story as he has one of those wonderful narrative voices that drips with personality. This is a man who feels frustrated in his position, keen to acquire a purpose and meaningful duties yet often acting quite irresponsibly. He can be quite self-aware and charming yet he can also be an incorrigible ass, particularly in the way he treats his wife. The result is a hero, of sorts, that we can laugh with and at but whose investigation is serious and credible.

There are some memorable moments along the way, not least when his mother makes an appearance as well as some of his bedroom antics (which are written to tread the line perfectly, being more bawdy than explicit). The biographical details of Bertie’s life are well researched and the novel touches on many aspects of Victorian life and culture including the music hall scene and spiritualism.

As entertaining as Lovesey’s prose and dialog can be, I think that judged purely on the mystery elements the book would be found wanting. Perhaps because Bertie possesses more limited powers of deduction than the likes of Cribb, the solution to the mystery is unlikely to dazzle or shock the reader. Alternatively, perhaps Lovesey’s care to ensure that the solution fits the historical facts is responsible. Either way, the final third of the book lacks much of the spark and excitements of the earlier sections though I was charmed by his use of a challenge to the reader presented in the form of a bathtub realization.

Ultimately it is the charm of the novel that carries the day and makes it easy to overlook some of the weaknesses of the mystery at its heart. Bertie is instantly recognizable, credible and amusing so it is never a chore to spend time in his company while Lovesey’s attention to the details of the historical setting and character is superb. A very entertaining effort.

Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles

Malice
Malice Aforethought
Francis Iles (aka. Anthony Berkeley)
Originally Published 1931

And so I reach another milestone for the blog. This marks my hundredth review since starting the blog back in October last year and I knew I wanted to pick something special to mark the occasion. Given my love of inverted crime novels it could only be a matter of time before I tackled one of the biggest titles in the sub-genre, Malice Aforethought.

This novel written by Anthony Berkeley Cox under the pseudonym Frances Iles was not the first inverted mystery to be written but it did play a significant role in popularizing the psychological, inverted approach to mystery fiction. In addition there is a style of storytelling employed that is quite distinctive, leading to other stories that adopt a similar approach being described as Ilesian. In short, we are dealing with a significant work here.

Malice Aforethought introduces us to Dr. Bickleigh, a country doctor who has decided that he wants to murder his wife. In the course of the first few chapters we get a sense of both his and his wife’s respective characters and the specific events that have led him to feel that way. It should be said that while he comes to this conclusion there will be a long way to go before he actually commits the murder but this thought, conceived after being bossed around at a tennis party his wife has organized, represents a shift in his thinking and the start of a new, dark path for him.

The opening chapters allow us to start to build a psychological portrait of the man and the forces that are shaping him. We learn more about the nature of his marriage to Julia, his desires and some of the complexes that he possesses. As effective as those chapters are, I think his character is best developed in his interactions with others as we see the way he treats some of the villagers rather than in the more explanatory passages.

Bickleigh is an intriguing protagonist because while he does some horrible stuff and is plainly not a nice man, there are points at which you might feel quite sympathetic towards him. This is a man who is longing for something his life cannot give him, in part because of his limited means and social standing and who in marrying upwards has placed himself in a position where he feels and is made to feel inferior to his domineering wife.

In many ways Julia is an even more interesting psychological portrait than Bickleigh because the narration is not as sympathetic to her character, forcing the reader to make their own judgments about some of her actions. We may question why she married Bickleigh in the first place, how she feels about him at the point the story begins, what she is looking for from life and what she is really intending when he first asks her for a divorce. Like her husband, our feelings about her may shift at points and even now I am not entirely sure how I feel about her.

Many of the other women in Bickleigh’s life are similarly hard to pin down. Madeleine, the young woman who has just moved to the Hall at the start of the novel, is also hard to get a definitive read on. Often her actions seem to contradict themselves, sometimes seeming to encourage Bickleigh’s interest while at others pushing him away. And then there’s Ivy… It strikes me that while Bickleigh may be an interesting protagonist, it is the women he is drawn to and their responses to him that I find to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel.

But to return to Bickleigh, the first half of the novel sees him conceive and execute a plan to kill his wife. Knowing that he will be responsible, our interest then will be not only understanding why he will do this but how it shall be done. The second half of the novel focuses on the consequences of that act both legally and also in terms of the way his wife’s death will be interpreted.

I found both parts of this novel to make for compelling reading and enjoyed seeing how Bickleigh’s plans would unfold. His plans are, on the face of it, quite ingenious and while there are a few small mistakes made, this only builds anticipation for the courtroom scene towards the end of the novel. The reader is likely going to have an idea of the issues with his defence that will be exploited. Instead the author subverts some of those expectations, delivering an ending that is surprising even when you know a surprise is coming. It is done quite masterfully and I think that ending is probably the greatest reason that this novel stands out as a seminal work in the sub-genre.

So, after saying all that surely this work must stand as my favorite inverted mystery? Not quite, though it comes close. I was certainly gripped and highly entertained, devouring the whole thing in a single sitting. Bickleigh is certainly an interesting protagonist and I enjoyed learning what drove him and where he would go but his plan, while certainly audacious, is also quite technical and much of his plan remains entirely in his control.

It is certainly a very satisfying adventure though and I certainly think it deserves to be held up as a classic of the crime genre. Unfortunately it currently seems to be out of print though apparently Macmillan will be releasing a collector’s hardcover in 2019. I am certain I’ll be picking up another copy to add to my permanent collection.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Features a courtroom scene (Where)

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComes
Death Comes as the End
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1944

I have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

morbid
A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters
Originally Published 1977
Brother Cadfael #1
Followed by One Corpse Too Many

What causes a book or a character to become popular? In the case of the Cadfael books, perhaps a better question would be to ask what caused them to cease to be so.

I am a child of the nineties and for those who were interested in mystery fiction in that period, Brother Cadfael was one of the biggest names in the genre. While I didn’t watch the television series, Ellis Peters’ novels were a fixture in the mystery sections of any competent booksellers and I remember other historical mysteries being sold with recommendations from TV star Derek Jacobi emblazoned on their covers so clearly the character had a following.

In the decades that have followed the series seems to have suffered a decline. Some of that would be an inevitable result of the television series having long since ended but from I also feel there has been a rising critical sentiment expressed towards the books. Take for instance this review of the book I’m writing about today from Puzzle Doctor in which he expresses the view that this is something of a snoozefest as well as not being a very well plotted mystery or this more tepid one from Rhapsody in Books which likens it to drinking light beer.

I first read A Morbid Taste for Bones when I went off to university, pilfering a copy from my father’s bookshelf (long since returned, I should add). My memories of the novel were quite positive so I was curious to see whether, having since become much more widely read in the genre, I would think it held up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still felt it did though, reading it with some of those criticisms in mind I can certainly acknowledge that there are some very valid criticisms to be made. Before I do so however I should probably outline the book for those few readers who didn’t try it back in its heyday.

Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who, upon his return, has opted for a monastic life of tending to the gardens at the abbey of Shrewsbury. The book opens with one of his fellow monks claiming to have had a vision of an obscure Welsh saint. This prompts the abbot to a party to set out on a journey to Gwytherin to claim her remains as a relic for their order and while Cadfael is a skeptic of this mission, he arranges to come along to act as an interpreter for these English-speaking monks.

After easily winning the assent of both the local church and secular authorities, they assume that it will be an easy matter to convince the community to relinquish the body but they encounter some unexpected resistance from a village leader. When that man is found murdered, Cadfael finds he is suspicious of everybody except the man blamed for the crime and starts to investigate.

Well, I say investigate but beyond looking at the body, inferring some aspects of how the man died and presenting a strong reason why the accused was innocent, his investigation mostly consists of setting traps that don’t work. In this respect I grant that Puzzle Doctor has a valid point – the mystery elements are weak and the plotting is far simpler than fans of historical mysteries may be used to. I think however that to judge the book purely as a mystery sort of misses the point.

Ellis Peters did not invent the historical mystery but she is widely credited with their popularization. What I think makes her work important is that she is able to create and sustain a series detective in a pre-industrial setting, creating a background that provides him with the skills he will need to be a credible investigator and finding natural ways to bring him into each case.

We may take it for granted these days that crimes took place in every period of history and could be solved but I think readers accept this because of Peters’ efforts. Even if later authors refined the techniques and improved on her style or storytelling approach, telling more conventional mysteries, Peters demonstrated that a character could credibly prove that someone committed a crime by looking at evidence and making logical deductions. She proved that if you provide readers with characters they could connect to, that they would be able to appreciate a story set in a period or region they may not know very much about.

Let’s go back to the specific details of this book. Cadfael is able to deduce from the state of the victim’s clothes, the geography of the crime scene, the appearance of the arrow and his personal knowledge of the suspect that they would be extremely unlikely to have committed the murder in the way assumed. From that he is able to suppose that if the person the evidence suggests did not do it then the evidence has been made to suggest it for a reason. None of this involves forensics or psychological analysis and yet from these judgments a whole set of ideas arise that will inform the rest of the investigation.

The critics are right to charge that the mystery is simplistic but then we need to keep this book in the context of the era in which it was written. Peters had every reason to question whether audiences would accept that a figure from this period could possibly engage in anything approaching ratiocination and the fact that the mysteries and their solutions are more simplistic reflects an effort to ensure that audiences could accept that.

Similarly, the introduction of romantic subplots may come off as manipulative and repetitive but it is hardly without precedent in the mystery genre. How many times did Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, for instance, end a story with seemingly doomed lovers pledging themselves to each other? I don’t think the two romances in this novel are particularly interesting but I equally don’t find them objectionable – they just provide credible character motivations.

What I do find compelling are the politics of the ecclesiastical characters and the cynicism the author ascribes to some of their motives. Writing about religious characters can be inherently tricky, particularly when discussing some aspects of belief that some readers may find difficult to take seriously such as the background given to Saint Winifred, but Peters manages to avoid making blanket statements and instead focuses on the individual decision making of human characters. Other books, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose may take these ideas further and do more interesting things with them but I think Peters deserves credit for integrating them into her own work.

The other most frequent complaint about the novel relates to its pacing which is certainly leisurely. The murder does take place until well into the novel, meaning that the first part of the book is largely about an argument. I believe that this not only reflects that the book is conceived of as a mixture of historical fiction and mystery fiction, discussing themes of sainthood and the development of religious tradition in addition to telling its mystery story rather than conceiving of the historical themes and the mystery itself as a single cohesive idea. Remove the murder from this book and I think the story still works as a historical and theological drama. Remover the debates and the mystery would still make sense. The problem for the reader is that if you’re not interested in one of those two elements then whole chunks of this novel are bound to be dry reading.

To take all of these points together, I think it is clear why this book and the series it spawned was groundbreaking at the time and why it found an audience. A consequence of its success has been that the second and third generations of historical mystery writers do not feel the need to simplify or to convince their readers that a medieval person really could solve these sorts of crimes and this, as a result, feels a little old fashioned and awkward.

Personally I still enjoy the book immensely, in large part because I do find the religious politics so interesting and also because I liked the characterization of several supporting characters. I do recognize though that such things have a fairly narrow appeal and I would certainly not suggest that just because a book is historically significant means that it should be liked. Its popularity in the nineties was exaggerated and I think its ubiquity is at least partly responsible for the subsequent backlash against it.

Lastly, for those who haven’t tried it but are interested, I can recommend the excellent audio book reading by the marvellous Patrick Tull. This is one of those great cases of the right narrator being given a book that suits their style and I think he does a wonderful job with this material. The simple approach to plotting makes this easy to digest in audio format and I think his gravelly voice is absolutely perfect for Cadfael.

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

Kiss
A Kiss Before Dying
Ira Levin
Originally Published 1953

As many of you will know, one of my long-term aims has been to seek out lots of inverted mysteries with the idea of at some point making a top five list. I hate to spoil my future work before I’ve even really started it but as things stand A Kiss Before Dying is easily the best inverted crime novel that I have read. Suffice it to say that when the time comes, this may place in that list.

Ira Levin’s story is broken into three sections, each of them titled for a woman. The first of these is told from the perspective of a male character who is dating the daughter of a prominent industrialist. He receives the undesirable news that she has become pregnant and, realizing that her father will likely disown her if he learns about this, pushes her to take some pills to make their problem go away.

When she tells him the next day that the pills didn’t work, he begins to panic. He agrees that they should get married but persuades her that they need to wait for the weekend. And in those few days he plots another way to get rid of his problem.

As for those other two sections – I want to be careful not to spoil anything too much. I can say that the second section sees the victim’s sister arrive in town with the hope of proving that she did not commit suicide and to identify her murderer. This section is really quite wonderfully written and pulled off a reveal that I think was one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve had reading in a while. As for that final section, all I shall say is that it’s named for the third sister and centers around her interactions with the killer.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.

I was similarly impressed by the character of the killer, who is one of the coldest, most calculating figures I’ve yet to encounter in an inverted mystery. Sometimes when a character is written that way it becomes hard to understand why anyone would like him and be taken in by him, yet here it is clear that those traits are part of what enables him to seem devoted and caring. When he does kill his girlfriend it is all the more vicious and terrible because of the way he has manipulated her and, in that moment, the reader realizes that this is not the action of a selfish, frightened man who doesn’t want his dreams to come to an end but those of a sociopath who sees his girlfriend as a dead end to be disposed of. It is chilling stuff.

I also appreciated that the character’s plan is not allowed to go flawlessly in spite of the killer’s cold efficiency. He endures a couple of false starts and we see him having to rethink and recalculate how he will achieve his ends. My only issue with this first section of the novel is a moment in which he plays a piece of music on the jukebox which reinforces his intent, though his victim doesn’t recognize that in the moment. The author emphasizes the thematic relevance of the song by quoting portions of the lyrics while the action of the scene takes place. I can forgive it however as I do think it has a purpose. Later in the book Levin uses the same technique at a crucial point to much better effect and that moment would not work without the author having already used the technique once.

The second and the third sections of the novel are just as gripping as the opening as we wonder whether the killer can be identified and then, in the final section, what they will do next. There are a couple of moments that I think are genuinely shocking and because it is as much a thriller as it is a mystery novel, we may wonder if the killer will even be apprehended at all.

While the killer is a fascinating figure, the supporting characters Levin creates stand out just as much. Each of the three Kingship sisters are distinctive and credible, each having their own set of daddy issues created by their domineering father. I never struggled to believe that they would fall into the murderer’s orbit, nor that he would be able to manipulate them and I appreciated that Levin allows us the time to get to know each of them to make those interactions credible.

Similarly I appreciated the complex character of Leo Kingship, a man who is responsible for his daughters’ isolation and who we see transform a little as a result of his experiences. It would be easy to make a relatively minor character like this fit a standard type and yet Levin allows him to have conflicting tendencies and motivations. Some other relatively minor supporting characters receive similar thoughtful treatment.

The novel builds to an absolute belter of a conclusion that not only resolves our immediate questions of what will happen to the various characters but also recalls one of the book’s most striking images, providing some thematic closure as well. It makes for a remarkable end to a remarkable book that I think will stay with me for some time.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)