A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Book Details

Originally published in 1977

The Blurb

On Valentine’s Day, four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda, and Giles – were murdered in the space of 15 minutes. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, shot them one by one in the blue light of a televised performance of Don Giovanni.

When Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch arrests Miss Parchman two weeks later, he discovers a second tragedy: the key to the Valentine’s Day massacre, a private humiliation Eunice Parchman has guarded all her life.

A brilliant rendering of character, motive, and the heady discovery of truth, A Judgement in Stone is among Ruth Rendell’s finest psychological thrillers.

The Verdict

This fascinating whydunnit is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

My Thoughts

A Judgement in Stone opens with a statement, quoted above, that names the person who will commit murder, their victims and also provides a motive for the killings. There is no trickery in that opening statement and yet, in spite of possessing this knowledge, I think that this book can still be described as a whydunnit. The truth that Rendell exposes in this novel is that events are complex and that while you may know what triggered an action, to truly understand them requires exploration of some underlying conditions.

There are no shocks or surprise twists. The author carefully foreshadows almost every development and the reader will likely guess at many of the connections that will be made. And yet A Judgement in Stone is utterly compelling.

After briefly explaining where this story will end – with the murder of an upper middle-class family in their home by their servant while watching a televised recording of an opera – Rendell then takes us back to the point where the Coverdales first encounter Eunice. She explains the circumstances that led them to hire her, overlooking some deficiencies and reservations, and their initial feelings about her. We also learn more about Eunice herself, her past and how she came to find herself in service despite having no background.

There are multiple points in the story where we can see how things might have gone very differently had a character made a marginally different decision, acted with a little more caution or with a greater understanding of a situation. This lends the narrative some of the tension-building effects of the Had I But Known style of storytelling as we are told that something is significant and then try to imagine how these elements will eventually tie together.

To give one of the earliest and simplest examples highlighted in the narration, had a character known London postcodes a little better they would have seen through Eunice’s reference and never employed her in the first place. Rendell does not just explain that this mistake was made, she gives us background to the conditions that caused it in the first place. In doing so it reveals that becoming a murderer was far from a certain outcome for Eunice and that it was not caused by just one event or circumstance but a number of contributory factors.

Rendell writes this story in the third person but her narrator, while writing with an extensive knowledge of the crime, is not omniscient. There are small moments of imprecision and speculation within the narration, typically about details that are presumably irrelevant to the case. Nor are they entirely impartial as the narrator occasionally offers subtle judgements concerning the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. The result is quite intriguing as we have a narrator with hints of a personality and yet no identity, almost suggesting that we are reading a journalistic account of a crime by someone who has reconstructed it after the fact.

Rendell does not encourage sympathy towards her killer, nor necessarily towards the victims. They are not presented as deserving their fates and yet it is clear that the narrator feels they have some culpability in the outcome because of their inability to understand a character from a radically different background to their own.

While Eunice may not be presented in a sympathetic light, Rendell does not paint her in an overtly villainous light either. That may seem remarkable given some of the information we learn about her early in the book but I think it also reflects that there is another character who is more mindfully malicious in the narrative. That character is a really striking study in the contrast between how someone may see themselves and their actual role and much of the book’s sharpest moments concern this character. She is a superb creation and one of the most disturbing credible monsters I have encountered to date in Rendell’s fiction.

It is fascinating to follow these characters interactions and to watch Rendell slowly push each piece into place before delivering the sequence of terrible events we have been anticipating since that first line. What adds to the tension is that from the start we are aware of a date on which it will all happen – Valentine’s Day – and so as we track through the various events we become increasingly aware of how close that date is.

It doesn’t last long and Rendell doesn’t draw out the descriptions of the violence. The focus is not so much on what happens as on the way characters respond to it. If these pages are difficult reading that reflects that the atmosphere and sense of anticipation leading into that moment is so strong that the murder feels like a sharp release of tension. It is quick and devastating but done very well.

Overall then I have little hesitation in suggesting that this is an example of a novel that actually lives up to its reputation. For years people have been telling me I should seek it out and now that I have I can only say they were right. This is one of the best examples of a whydunnit that I have read to date and I commend it to anyone with an interest in crime stories.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praises this novel in an interesting review in which she draws particular attention to its discussion of ‘the servant problem’.

Moira @ ClothesinBooks wrote this post about the novel when Rendell passed away several years ago in which she describes why this novel is her favorite by the author.

Rich @ Past Offences describes the book as a ‘study in inevitability’ which is a lovely way to put it.

Jose @ A Crime Is Afoot also noted the book’s similarities to the true crime style and praises the book’s psychological approach to exploring its characters.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

Originally Published in 1902
Sherlock Holmes #5
Preceded by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Blurb

The country doctor had come to 221B Baker Street, the famous lodgings of Sherlock Holmes, with an eerie tale—the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the devil-beast that haunted the lonely moors around the Baskervilles’ ancestral home. The tale warned the descendants of that ancient family never to venture out on the moor. But Sir Charles Baskerville was now dead—and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Would the new heir of the Baskervilles meet the same dreadful fate?

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, are faced with their most terrifying case in this wonderful classic of masterful detection and bone-chilling suspense.

The Verdict

While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.


My Thoughts

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer. He has come to consult him on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville who had been found dead on the grounds surrounding his home on Dartmoor.

The direct cause of death was a heart attack but Mortimer notes that his friend’s face seemed to be frozen in an expression of terror. Near the body the enormous footprint of a hound was found, leading some to speculate that he may have been killed by the demonic beast said to have been responsible for the premature death of many of Sir Charles’ ancestors.

Sir Charles’ heir has recently arrived in London and intends to take up the property but has received a warning urging him not to visit the moors. Holmes agrees to meet with him and, upon learning of some strange occurrences surrounding him, he decides he will send Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor to protect him and to try and uncover the truth of what is going on.

If Sherlock Holmes is, for many people, The Detective then The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be The Detective Novel. It is a work that has enjoyed a tremendous reach thanks to countless adaptations and the clear influence it has had over many subsequent works in the genre. The only comparable titles I can think of in the genre would be Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.

I have previously shared my opinion that Holmes is a character that really doesn’t suit long form fiction as well as the short story. Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four have points of interest but I feel each has a structural problem. For those unfamiliar with those books, at the midpoint of each Holmes identifies a crucial figure and the remainder of the books becomes a historical tale explaining the background to the events we have witnessed.

What this means in practice is that only the first half of each book is a mystery – the remainder is explanation. The case, it seems, concludes long before the novel does. Given how energetic and driven the Holmes chapters are, the sudden switch to a slower historical storytelling feels very jarring and only emphasizes how little tension or sense of discovery there is in the second half of each book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has quite a different structure and it is all the better for it. Rather than try to sustain Holmes’ bursts of energy throughout an entire novel, Doyle opts to keep him in the background for much of the more routine parts of the investigation and has Watson take the lead.

The decision to split up Holmes and Watson is to the benefit of both characters. Watson, able to act with more freedom and less scrutiny than usual in these stories, is given a chance to interview each of the characters involved at a more leisurely pace, share his own ideas about the case, and even have a memorable late night adventure of his own on the moors.

Holmes is then able to swoop back into the story at a critical point close to the end of the book and take over the investigation. At that point we have been so eagerly anticipating his direct involvement in the case that it makes that moment feel even more important and exciting. As he reenters the story very late in the proceedings, Doyle is able to naturally sustain Holmes’ incredible energy to build a pacy, action-driven and pretty satisfying conclusion.

The Hound of the Baskervilles not only fixes the principal problems with its two predecessors, it also retains one of the elements that was most successful in them. Each of the preceding novels contained horrific elements whether that was the gory message written on a wall in blood in A Study in Scarlet or Sholto’s terrible sense of fear in The Sign of Four. This novel also evokes a sense of fear but incorporates a stronger sense of the supernatural, particularly in those passages that describe the hound itself. Where previous stories have seen Holmes explain the inexplicable, here he has to rationalize what appears diabolical.

The most obvious horror element is the hound itself. Doyle does a lot well, including giving an intriguing origin for the beast and tying it to the victim’s own family history. Throw in the desolate landscape of the moors and you have something that I think really strikes the imagination. While part of the reason that this story gets adapted so often is the plotting, this story also features some really strong visual storytelling and plenty of elements that evoke a sense of atmosphere.

While I think this is a significant improvement on the two novels that went before it, I do have to point to some elements that I do not find entirely successful. The first of these is a crucial issue with the villain’s plans. Doyle himself clearly recognizes this – he actually has Holmes point it out and describe the problem – but then he flubs the opportunity to actually answer this, simply dismissing it as something they would have addressed later.

Is it unrealistic that someone may enact a plan without having every element thought through? Perhaps not. But I find it difficult to accept that someone would accept the degree of risk their plan entails with no certainty of the benefit. While I am no fan of the detective not having all the answers, surely someone could have provided one after the fact. It just feels very untidy.

Similarly there is an issue that Watson identifies at the end that Holmes tries to answer through conjecture. While the explanation Holmes posits would fit the facts, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to fit in with the other things we know about the villain’s personality.

My final issue with the book is that there is a moment where everyone seems to show a pretty breathtaking lack of humanity (ROT13: Gur qvfpbirel gung n qrnq obql vf abg Onfxreivyyr ohg gur pbaivpg). While this would certainly fit with the character of Holmes himself, I was surprised that others did not seem to be affected in any way by what has happened – particularly Watson.

Now others may suggest that this, like many of the Holmes stories, is more adventure than detective story. There is at least a grain of truth to this, particularly in the middle section of the book. In these chapters we do learn a few important points that seem to point to the guilty party but there are quite a few red herrings too.

I feel however that this is one of those cases where many of Holmes’ observations are grounded in solid, logical thought. Sure, the villain’s identity feels obvious from the start but Holmes’ reasons for dismissing the supernatural explanation and for forming his ideas about what was happening could be easily replicated by the reader being based on the application of some simple ideas and logic.

Though not perfect, The Hound of the Baskervilles feels like a much more cohesive story than either of the two previous novels. When I reviewed each of them I counselled that those new to Holmes would be best served to skip over those novels and return to them after reading the short stories. Clearly I am not advising the same here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only one of the most famous Holmes stories, it is one of his more entertaining ones too.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published 1926.
Hercule Poirot #4
Preceded by Poirot Investigates
Followed by The Big Four

The Blurb

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.

However the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information, but before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death. Luckily one of Roger’s friends and the newest resident to retire to this normally quiet village takes over—none other than Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

The Verdict

Right considered a classic and one of Christie’s greatest achievements. Make sure you read it before the solution is spoiled for you.


My Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I realized that today’s post would see this blog reach another important milestone. This would be the three hundredth book I would have read and written about on this blog – not a bad achievement to reach in about two and a half years.

It seems to me that when I hit a milestone I should find a book to write about that is a little special (particularly as I wasn’t actively blogging a few months back when this site would have hit its second blogiversary).

When I hit 50 I reviewed a very early Italian inverted crime story, The Priest’s Hat. 100 saw me read what is probably the most influential inverted mystery, Malice Aforethought. Unfortunately I messed up with 200 (I miscounted and passed it before I realized it was coming up) so I was determined that this time I would make sure to find another landmark title to write about.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

This novel is frequently (and, in my opinion, deservedly) voted one of the best crime novels of all time and it is certainly one of Christie’s most famous. An unfortunate consequence of that fame is that it is really easy to get spoiled about the solution.

Generally I try to avoid giving away significant spoilers about the solutions to stories and, of course, I will attempt to do so again here. That being said, if by chance you are someone who has never experienced this story I would urge you to skip reading the rest of the review and get hold of a copy as soon as possible. Then obviously come back here and let me know what you think of it.

So to briefly recap the scenario: Roger Ackroyd is a rich industrialist who has been romantically associated with a wealthy widow whose husband died a year earlier. After she unexpectedly dies of an overdose of veronal, presumed to have been suicide, Dr. Sheppard meets with the distressed Ackroyd in his study where he hears that she had confided in Ackroyd that she had murdered her husband and was being blackmailed. During that conversation a letter is delivered to the study and Ackroyd opens and reads it, finding it is a suicide letter. Ackroyd asks him to leave so he can read it alone and Sheppard leaves, returning to his home.

When Sheppard gets back he receives a telephone call claiming that Ackroyd is dead and races back to Fernly Park. He gets there to find that the butler denies having called him at all and upon entering the study they find him dead at his desk having been stabbed with a curved knife from his own collection.

Poirot, now living in the country as Sheppard’s neighbor, agrees to a request from Ackroyd’s niece to end his retirement and find her uncle’s murderer…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd departs from the setup Christie had established in the previous Poirot adventures by returning the detective to relative obscurity. This recalls the circumstances of his first appearance back in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, reinstating him as an outsider. To illustrate this, Christie has the locals speculate about the new neighbor and has the narrator, Sheppard, suspect that he must have been a hairdresser – an idea that he returns to at several points later in the narrative.

This is a Poirot then who felt that he had given up on detecting but finds a case thrust upon him. It is an intriguing idea but not always a wholly convincing one. It is hard to imagine the relatively vital Poirot of The Murder on the Links deciding on retirement, let alone a life of growing ‘vegetable marrows’ in the English countryside. In my opinion, this story would make a whole lot more sense had Christie placed it between Poirot’s first and second cases – but I suppose there was a desire to keep Poirot’s story moving forward, even if it didn’t feel like a natural evolution for that character.

If we ignore the continuity however it is an interesting starting point and gives Poirot’s story a depth that I think was missing from The Murder on the Links. Poirot’s arc here then will be that he begins determined to maintain his obscurity and then, drawn reluctantly into the case, finds he must prove his abilities and solve it only to find that he cannot return to retirement. This is not only an interesting character journey in respect to this novel, it also serves as an opportunity to relaunch the character (perhaps anticipating that a change of publisher might bring a new audience).

The absence of Hastings reinforces this arc and is an obvious difference between this novel and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Where Poirot had a champion and enthusiastic colleague in Hastings, Sheppard is reluctant to get involved in the investigation and on several occasions makes comments that suggest he doubts the detective’s abilities.

Though he does provide Poirot with information, particularly with regards the events on the night of the murder, Sheppard is less an assistant than someone who is documenting the case. This allows us to get a sense of the household and community affected by the murder. As the village doctor, he is able to mingle freely with the other characters and record their actions and opinions in a way that Hastings could not while Poirot’s odd lines of questioning seem all the more eccentric without that prior knowledge and friendship.

Compared with Hastings, Sheppard may seem to be somewhat lacking in personality. While I have a tremendous fondness for Captain Hastings, his previous appearances each had moments that grated on me. In The Murder on the Links he acts thoughtlessly, bumbling his way through the investigation. In contrast, Sheppard’s conservative and deliberate personality feels quite refreshing and while he is less lively, his narration does contain a few amusingly caustic remarks about others involved in the case.

In revisiting this novel I was particularly interested to see how the case would hold up given I could remember its solution so clearly. I am happy to report that I came away just as impressed with its construction as the first few times I experienced it.

The first thing that grabs me is the way Christie provides us with an interesting historical crime but almost immediately gives us a clear solution with the murderer’s identity, the motive and means. The idea that one crime begets another (whether directly or indirectly) is one that runs throughout Christie’s work and prompts several of her most interesting novels. I love that she leaves us with the tantalizing idea that Ackroyd had in his possession a letter naming the likely murderer and I think every reader encountering the novel for the first time must share the frustration that Sheppard is asked to leave before the name is read.

While the cast of suspects is not Christie’s most colorful collection of personalities, I think most are well defined and there are several good prospects among them. Each have secrets they are keeping from Poirot and Christie keeps the pace of the revelations steady, at each stage making it increasingly difficult to see who could have done the crime.

One of my favorite characters is not really a suspect at all but Sheppard’s older spinster sister, the gossipy Caroline. A favorite running gag is the doctor’s exasperation that no matter how quickly he returns to his home she seems to already have his news before he gets there. Similarly I enjoy that, while he is ultimately fond of her, he frequently complains about her in his narration.

All of which, I suppose, brings me to the ending.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is generally considered to be a classic work it is not without its detractors. The most common complaint is the idea that the book simply does not play fair with the reader. This was one of the aspects of the book I was most interested to consider in revisiting it.

In my opinion the ending Christie gives us is absolutely fair and appropriately clued. Not only is each aspect of the solution clearly referenced earlier in the text, I think the solution Poirot gives is the only one that makes logical sense in the context of the information we have.

That is not to say that I think the reader should guess it. Rather the solution is clever because Christie understands her readers and predicts how they are likely to respond to and interpret those clues. It is certainly cunning and creative but it is not, in my opinion, cheating.

The only weakness I can point to in the ending is that I don’t love Poirot’s resolution of the matter which doesn’t feel earned to me. That is quickly forgotten however as in every other respect the ending is a triumph.

Overall I was happy to find that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of those novels that actually matched up to my teenage recollections and its enormous reputation. It is not Christie’s most creative scenario, though it is certainly very clever, nor does it have her most colorful characters or setting but it has one of her very best solutions.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offers a short but glowing review, defending it as playing completely fair. I clearly agree with his comments about revisiting it.

Moira @ Clothes in Books writes about the book for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, making some excellent points about its social context that I wish I had been smart enough to think of myself.

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not reviewed the book but did share a wonderful essay also as part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers about his experiences with the novel and how it was spoiled for him (he doesn’t spoil the solution but be careful in the comments!).

Amazingly I couldn’t find a post from Christi-anado Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery focusing on just this book (if it’s there, I apologize – it’s already the early hours of the morning and I may be overlooking it). He does however list it on his Five Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled post!

Finally there are some shorter reviews from Nick @ The Grandest Game, Jose @ A Crime is Afoot, Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet (complete with fantastic cover reproductions of the various Swedish reprints)

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)

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers
Strangers on a Train
Patricia Highsmith
Originally Published 1950

Most of the time on this blog I write from the perspective of someone who is encountering a story for the first time. In those few instances where I have revisited a book, I have done so many years after reading it for the first time which helps me to approach it fresh.

Strangers on a Train is a very different case. It is a book I have read three times in the space of four years having previously seen the Hitchcock film adaptation a number of times. It is possible that this review may read a little differently than many of my others as a result.

Each time I have read this book I have done so from a slightly different perspective. The first time I recall looking for the differences between the movie and its source material. The second, I was looking at in a more structural sense, looking to understand Highsmith’s themes and perspective on her characters. What motivated this third look at the book, other than the desire to simply enjoy it once again, was to see whether I would consider it to be an inverted mystery or if it is something else.

Before I start to discuss that question and the book’s themes, I need to describe what it is about. The book concerns a meeting on a train between two men and the way that meeting affects their lives. One, Guy Haines, is a celebrated architect trapped in a marriage to his unfaithful wife Miriam while the other, Charles Bruno, is a playboy who is doted on by his mother and feels deeply resentful of his stepfather for controlling his allowance.

During the journey Bruno proposes that the pair exchange murders, each committing a crime to which they have no obvious personal tie. While Guy does not really take Bruno seriously, a while afterwards he receives letters from Bruno reminding him of this plan. When Miriam is murdered he does not go to the police and tells himself that it is coincidence. Some weeks pass and then Bruno starts to contact him, pressuring him to fulfil his end of the bargain.

If you have seen the famous movie version of this story be aware that the stories diverge after this point leading to decidedly different conclusions and developing somewhat different themes. What remains constant is the toxic relationship between Guy and Bruno which in the book has hints of homoeroticism (the film is far more overt) and a murder plot that, were it not for Bruno’s obsessive behavior towards Guy, would be almost certain to work.

We see the danger early in the novel, even when Guy is oblivious to it, because we can see that Bruno feels bound to Guy and that once that murder is committed that bond becomes even the stronger. From that moment Guy is the only person who can really understand Bruno and the guilt that eats away at him only leads to him indulging more heavily in his self-destructive vices.

Raymond Chandler apparently considered this novel to be ‘a silly little story’ which boggles my mind. Certainly the idea of the murder swap could be treated as little more than a colorful story hook but Highsmith does not use it that way, instead developing the idea that Guy becomes trapped by his inaction and compelled into following a particular course. To me it is really rich in character and theme and develops its plot with a powerful predictability where the reader can see where the tale is ultimately headed, even if they are not sure how it will get there.

I find both characters to be interesting in their own right though they become compelling in combination. Guy is cautious, practical and sturdy while Bruno dreams and seeks to find something that will give him a sense of happiness and fulfilment. One of my favorite passages in the book relates to one of Bruno’s ambitions for how he might spend his money by giving away a sizeable sum to a random beggar. He has developed a romantic image of a way in which he can achieve a sense of personal satisfaction and yet the reality of human nature turns it grubby and disappointing. In fact I would suggest that Bruno is happier imagining his stepfather dead than he is at any point once he begins to enact his plan.

With so much of a focus falling on Guy and Bruno, it is perhaps inevitable that the other characters feel far less dimensional. Only Guy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Anne comes off as a fully realized character though I felt a little disappointed that Highsmith does not directly address her situation at the end of the novel or allow her to play a more direct role in the conclusion. In spite of this I found her to be very sympathetic and I did appreciate that she is presented as a professional woman in her own right. It was easy to see why Guy so desperately wants to be with her.

I mentioned in my introduction that part of my motivation in revisiting this book now was to consider whether it is an inverted mystery. I think, on balance, that it is although I would say that because there is a sense of forces inexorably pushing the characters towards an outcome that there are few developments in the narrative that are truly surprising. Nor does Gerrard, the Bruno family’s private detective, really exercise much deductive reasoning during his investigation and, in any case, we spend surprisingly little time with him.

In spite of that however the reader can engage with the story by pondering what evidence might exist and how it may be interpreted. There is even the question of how the relationship between Guy and Bruno will be resolved. As much as I love the movie version of this story, I think the book takes a more interesting and subtle approach to the latter and while I wish that the ending had struck a slightly different tone in places, I think it very effectively resolves the main themes of the novel.

While Highsmith’s text is sometimes a little ponderous, particularly during Bruno’s drunken outbursts, I am impressed by how polished it feels considering it is a first novel and I do think that those moments fit the character even if they drag on a little. I am particularly struck by how well she captures a sense of paranoia and the different ways that guilt can affect a person, making the reader feel Guy’s hopelessness at being trapped in a situation that threatens to destroy him completely.

I said earlier in this review that it is rare for me to revisit a book. It is even rarer for me to get more out of it on subsequent reads. That I have found it a rewarding enough experience to revisit it twice now speaks to the book’s striking premise, bold characterization and interesting discussion of guilt and justice. The only thing that is likely to keep me from revisiting it any time soon is the sense that I should probably try reading another Highsmith at some point…

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.