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 Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

This collection was originally published in 1893. It contains stories published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893.

Sherlock Holmes #4
Preceded by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Hound of the Baskervilles

Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.

The Blurb

In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.

Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.

Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .

The Verdict

Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.


My Thoughts

Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.

The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.

Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1890
Sherlock Holmes #2
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Also titled The Sign of the Four

I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.

The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.

The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.

Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.

The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.

I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.

As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.

I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.

The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.

I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.

The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.

In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.

In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.

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)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

double
Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

scarlet
A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1947
Sherlock Holmes #1
Followed by The Sign of Four

Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.

The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.

They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…

When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.

Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.

What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.

Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.

The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.

On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.

What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.

The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.

Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

CloudsofWitness
Clouds of Witness
Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally Published 1926
Lord Peter Wimsey #2
Preceded by Whose Body?
Followed by Unnatural Death

There was a point about two-thirds of the way into Clouds of Witness where I wondered to myself why I hadn’t rated it more highly when I first read it. You see, while I have fond memories of the Lord Peter stories from my early forays into detective fiction I have very little memory of the first few stories.

The setup is rather promising as Lord Peter, upon returning from a trip to Sicily, learns that his brother has been arrested and is set to be tried for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. After quickly gathering some details from a newspaper account, he returns to the family home to poke around with the help of his detective friend Inspector Parker.

Lord Peter’s brother claims that he had confronted Cathcart earlier in the evening about an accusation of cheating at cards. He expects Cathcart to defend himself but instead he walks out saying that he was calling the engagement off anyway. After a restless evening he took a walk and on returning to the house stumbled over the body. He refuses to give any kind of alibi while the sister has locked herself away in her room. Lord Peter will have to save a man who is doing nothing to save himself with little help from his family.

The early part of the story showcase Peter’s methodical approach as they track footprints, follow trails and identify clues around the household. This process is not flashy and there are few surprises with much of their work simply confirming observations already made but I do think Sayers effectively communicates the pressure of needing to find something to clear the brother’s name.

These chapters also provide some much-needed context for Lord Peter, giving the reader a greater sense of who he is and what forces have molded him. I commented in my review of the first novel that the character struck me as flippant and frustrating and while those attributes still exist in this second outing, the character seems softened by comparison with his brother Gerald and their mother not to mention some of the others from their social set.

Sayers also makes some interesting choices in some of the settings she chooses to place him into in the course of this adventure, using the contrast or absurdity of a situation to draw out different parts of his character. A trip to a socialist club for instance not only gives a glimpse into some of Peter’s social and political views, it also fleshes out his relationship with another character and provides some interesting plot developments. He can certainly still be annoying, evasive and appear snobbish but there were more moments in this story where I actually liked him which feels like a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that I felt that the mystery had a promising beginning and I do think that the story touches on some interesting ideas about honor and social values that make it a surprisingly rich read. The problem is that it never takes the material in an unexpected direction.

An example of the sort of thing I am talking about relates to the question of Gerald’s lack of an alibi. There is an obvious explanation that the reader is likely to immediately think of and, what’s more, that Lord Peter considers for a moment in an abstract sense but he never tries applying that idea to the situation. He ought to at least suspect what that explanation may be and yet he seems utterly surprised when the idea suddenly occurs later in the story. There are plenty of other examples.

There is a frustrating disconnect between Lord Peter’s imagination on small details such as the possible meanings of fragments of a letter and his ability to see the bigger picture. If this were rooted in a character issue like his closeness to the investigation then that may have been more understandable but instead it feels like a convenient way to try to slow a story down.

The eventual explanation for what happened on the night of Cathcart’s death is completely underwhelming after chapters of careful investigation and speculation. Too much of the resolution is delivered to Lord Peter rather than proved by his stitching together clues to form a convincing narrative, feeling like a missed opportunity. While there are some very exciting and dramatic moments around the case, those hoping for a solid puzzle to unravel may feel underwhelmed by how little there is ultimately to discover.

There is no denying however that the ending is delivered with some style and while I could get frustrated at pages of solid French writing (translated shortly afterwards into English), I think the effect works nicely to give the sense of a much wider world beyond the events shown here. There is a rather charming and unexpected coda which not only places a fun cap on this story but also goes some way towards showing us Lord Peter and Parkers’ respective personalities.

There are some entertaining adventure sequences throughout the novel with a highlight involving a careless fall that puts Lord Peter’s life in jeopardy. I thought Sayers’ writing clear and easy to follow while the tension of the situation is brilliantly conveyed. I similarly appreciated a very brave action that Lord Peter takes towards the end of the novel which speaks to the character’s sense of dedication and commitment to grow.

For all of its faults, Clouds of Witness is a more entertaining and interesting work than its predecessor. Sayers’ mystery lacks a punchy or unexpected resolution but there are some entertaining action sequences built around it and some nice character moments for Lord Peter. I look forward to reading the next story, Unnatural Death, which is another one I barely remember but which I hope will prove a more complete and challenging work.

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.