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 Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Circle
The Invisible Circle
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1996

Several months ago in the comments section of my review of The Seventh Hypothesis I came to a realization about Paul Halter’s novels. I have sometimes struggled with the theatrical, gothic elements in his novels because they seem contrived for the reader’s entertainment rather than because they make the killer’s plans better.

The Invisible Circle, like The Seventh Hypothesis, is a consciously theatrical mystery. What I mean by this is that the theatrical elements of the scenario Halter creates are intentionally created by a character within the story to appear theatrical rather than to try to convince us that supernatural events are actually occurring.

There are multiple theatrical aspects to Halter’s scenario which are introduced early in the story, each evoking Arthurian legends. Before the characters even arrive on the island off the coast of Cornwall they are aware that the area is reputed to be the real location of King Arthur’s castle. Later the eventual victim gives each of the characters an Arthurian name, tells them that he will be murdered within an hour, identifies a killer and proceeds to lock himself within a room telling everyone that he must not be disturbed within that time. When he is discovered, he is found stabbed to death with a sword that they had previously seen firmly lodged in a stone.

Though I had been worried that those theatrical elements would be an afterthought or used as little more than color for this mystery I was very pleased when I realized that they had significance to piecing together what was happening and why it was happening. By the end of the novel we understand why the killer decides to create an apparently impossible crime and even if we think their actions are improbable, they are at least logical.

The puzzle of the murder itself is rather brilliant, benefiting in part by the other characters being able to clearly establish the geography of the room and its contents prior to it being sealed with the victim inside. This is a side effect of the theatricality or artificiality of the premise of the murder – because it is announced by the victim the characters are able to state definitively what they witnessed within the room and that no one interfered with the door during the hour in which the murder took place. The reader has to not only work out how the killer gained access to the room but also how they extracted the sword from the stone during that hour.

My usual stumbling block with these sorts of impossible crimes, particularly from Halter, is in understanding the killer’s thinking. My expectation is not that the crime is likely to have been committed in the way described but that the characters’ actions make sense given their motive and the resources at their disposal. I think Halter does a very good job of creating a solid explanation for why the killer decides to carry out a murder in this fashion and that he plays absolutely fair with the reader in laying the clues for us to deduce what is going on. I may not consider such a murder likely but I could understand how it might make sense to the killer to commit their crime that way.

Mechanically I think there are some aspects of the crime that work extremely well. Certainly I think the mystery of how the sword in the stone could have been used is cleverly explained. Also I was in no doubt of the killer’s movements and that they had the opportunity to carry out the murder which helped make the solution even more credible.

Now that is not to say that isn’t at least some coincidence and luck involved in the killer’s plans coming together. Their plan ultimately has some flaws, one of which is that once you attack the situation logically the killer’s identity becomes clear even if their motivation is not immediately so. Still, while I correctly guessed at the killer’s identity very early in the story it took me a while to feel like I could prove it.

The bigger issue is that there is a key aspect of the plot that relies on some astonishingly poor observational skills on the part of the cast of characters. Reviews by Puzzle Doctor and Ben both identify this as something that would be hard to believe could work as effectively as it does here and they are each right to do so. It didn’t bother me given that Halter signposts the theatricality of this scenario and that once you understand what has happened it can be used as evidence to solve the bigger mystery but I would agree that the killer gets extremely, almost unbelievably, lucky in that moment.

Having voiced my appreciation for Halter’s plotting and use of the Arthurian legends, I must say that the novel is less impressive in terms of its cast of characters. With the exception of Madge, the host’s niece, they feel functional rather than three-dimensional. I think this is appropriate for the type of plot Halter creates here but I mention it because this approach to characterization is not to everyone’s tastes.

So, where does that leave me overall? The Invisible Circle is not my favorite Halter novel but I think it is one of the most enjoyable. The pacing is brisk and each chapter seems to end with a fresh revelation that spins the case off in a new direction or makes the scenario seem even more dramatic.

Though I think the killer’s plan was enormously risky, I think Halter does explain the reasoning behind it and I appreciated that it plays fair, providing a solution that the reader can work out by a process of logical deduction. For those reasons I could overlook the killer taking what seems like several enormous risks and appreciate what they brought to this otherwise very cleverly constructed story.

Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady Killer
Lady Killer
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1942

I had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.

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 Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

CoronersLunch
The Coroner’s Lunch
Colin Cotterill
Originally Published 2004
Dr. Siri Paiboun #1
Followed by Thirty-Three Teeth

The Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.

The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.

I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.

The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.

Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.

When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level.  Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.

Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.

I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.

What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.

While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.

I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.

The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi, translated by Sadako Mizuguchi

TheInformer
The Informer
Akimitsu Takagi
Originally Published 1971

Shigeo Segawa had been a successful stock trader for several years before disgracing himself when he was caught trading with company money. After trying to strike out on business on his own and failing we find him at the novel’s start working for his family business making a tenth of his former salary.

By chance he runs into an old acquaintance who tells him about a job opportunity that she had heard about. She sets up an appointment with what seems to be a fledgling company selling massage machines to executives. His meeting goes well and he receives a job offer with far more lucrative terms than he would expect and accepts, albeit with some reservations. Soon he learns that his position will not just be selling those machines but that he has been hired to carry out an act of industrial espionage.

This is my first experience reading anything by Akimitsu Takagi, a fairly prolific Japanese author of the post-war period and I came to it with relatively little knowledge of the type of story I would be reading.

The tone and storytelling in the opening chapters seems to indicate that we will be experiencing an inverted or psychological crime story as the reader anticipates everything going wrong. One review I read compared the themes and style of the first third of the novel to Mamet’s work which is an observation I wish I could claim was my own. At the point that everything goes wrong our point of perspective shifts to that of Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, one of Takagi’s series characters, who is tasked with investigating a murder and we realize that while what we have read will help us identify the killer, it is probably not going to be Shigeo.

Rather than trying to categorize the story by its storytelling style, I think this is better addressed in terms of its thematic discussion. The Informer is a story that addresses the changing nature of Japanese business and the values associated with that in the post-war period. In this sense it reminds me a lot of some of Kurosawa’s more cynical, modern dramas that would portray figures you would expect to be respectable as verging on degeneracy such as his Drunken Angel.

This is reflected in the cast of characters Takagi creates who might be described as varying dark shades of gray. There are numerous instances of what would have been regarded as sexual immorality and adultery, financial malpractice as well as manipulation and coercion. There are several instances in the novel where characters voice a lack of respect for the older generation which implies a broader cultural degeneracy infiltrating the workplace. Even the victim is hard to sympathize with if we can believe some of the information his wife’s sister shares with Shigeo.

The novel also evokes a strong sense of place and time, giving Takagi’s view of the business world of this time. Industrial espionage is rife with companies seeking any advantage they can find in a difficult economy. There are still hints of an older, highly paternalistic culture however that comes through in the way an employer seeks to protect the interests of one of his employees suggesting that this is Japan in transition. If you enjoy social history or reading about other cultures then you may well find these aspects of the book to be quite compelling.

Turning back to the mystery plot itself, I spent a good portion of the book absolutely certain of who must be responsible only to feel quite ridiculous when the final reveal comes. This reflects that the plot makes a certain amount of sense, though be prepared for the discussion of what happened to feel a little abrupt. Also, the fate of a key character is left unresolved so be prepared if you must have total closure! This may not be for you.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this work though is the writer’s ability to evoke psychology and put the reader in the head of his key characters as they process the situations they find themselves in and react. While this is a third person narrative, we get to share in Shigeo’s understanding of what is happening to him and follow his emotional reactions and reasoning as he makes his decisions. We are never left wondering why he responds the way he does, even when it causes more trouble for him, and I was anxious to know whether Saburo would catch the killer and how it would all be resolved for Shigeo.

The result is a novel that I felt made for fascinating reading although it is more of a suspense novel than a detective story. The setting is striking and the book conveyed a strong sense of time, place and culture. The circumstances of the crime are intriguing though I will say that the question of mechanics is not considered at all by either detective or writer. It made for a striking first impression of Akimitsu Takagi’s work, though I am disappointed to discover that only two of his other books were ever translated into English so unless someone goes ahead and starts commissioning some more I’ll never be able to read them myself.

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

NecessaryEvil
A Necessary Evil
Abir Mukherjee
Originally Published 2017
Sam Wyndham #2
Preceded by A Rising Man
Followed by Smoke and Ashes

Abir Mukherjee’s first mystery novel, A Rising Man, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Because I read it several months before starting this blog though I have never really shared my thoughts about it.

That novel is a superb historical mystery that is set in India in the years immediately following the First World War. There are many reasons to recommend it, not least the author’s ability to convey a strong sense of place and culture and the two remarkable main characters. It is a page-turning read and one I find myself regularly recommending on the staff picks rack at my place of work.

A Necessary Evil is a sequel to that book and I am surprised and happy to be able to say I found it an even stronger read than the first one, though I think readers would be best served by starting at the beginning. Before I explain why, I ought to tell you a little bit about its plot.

The book begins close to a year after the events of the previous novel. The heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore seeks out Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee (who, it turns out, is an old school friend) to consult them about some strange letters he has received that seem to suggest a threat to his life. As they discuss the matter his car is attacked in an ambush and he is killed.

While Wyndham is able to track down the assassin it is clear that further investigation is needed to understand why this has happened and how it was possible for an ambush to take place when the route they were travelling had not been prearranged. Though political considerations make it impossible to formally continue their investigation, Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore in search of answers.

The novel contains an excellent mystery plot but it also reads like a thriller, particularly in the final chapters which have a page-turning, race against time quality. This is not a change of style but rather reflects how the circumstances of the novel manage to amplify the tension at key moments.

In each novel Wyndham is in a position where he is an outsider. In A Rising Man he is a stranger to India, learning to navigate Indian society while trying to solve a murder. Here he finds himself in a country where he has no legal authority and may be given the order to stop and to return home. He is isolated, has few resources he can call on and is treated with suspicion by almost everyone he encounters.

I also appreciated that Mukherjee reduces the amount of discussion of Wyndham’s opium addiction in this second book, though it remains an important part of his character and of the plotting. As a result the calmer, clearer Wyndham is able to show more of his detective skills as he works to understand the complex relationships within the palace and learn about the circumstances of the prince’s death.

His assistant Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, so named because none of his British colleagues can pronounce his actual name, remains a delight and gets a few moments to shine. I appreciate his steadiness as a secondary investigator and I like his relationship with Wyndham which is generally respectful and constructive.

A secondary character makes a return from the first book and she makes an important contribution to the investigation. Her involvement helps to reinforce one of the series’ most potent themes – that social status shifts and can be a matter of perspective.

That idea is crystallized in a wonderful exchange in the very first chapter of the book when the Prince points out to Wyndham that the question of precedence between the Indian prince, the British policeman representing the crown and his Indian sergeant from the priest caste is far from simple. Throughout the novel we see Wyndham confronting his own lack of status within Sambalpore as he is unable to gain access to people he wishes to speak with, impeding his investigation.

Speaking of that investigation, the mystery here is a good one and very well plotted. Mukherjee creates an intriguing cast of characters and while the identity of the villain didn’t surprise me, I felt the resolution was extremely powerful and effective.

The best historical mysteries do not simply entertain but they educate, inform and speak to aspects of our culture and society. A Necessary Evil does this, discussing aspects of British rule in India without becoming polemical and exploring fascinating themes such as of the nature of justice and the transience of social status. Its characters are compelling, as is the case they are investigating. If you haven’t tried the first one, I’d definitely recommend starting there (there are references made to events that take place at the end of the previous novel) and just know that you will be in for a treat when you get to the second. Highly recommended.

A copy of the novel was provided by the publishers through NetGalley for review though I have also purchased my own copy.

The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis

Servant
The Servant of Death
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1932
Inspector Wilton Jacks #3
Preceded by The Capital City Murder
Followed by Cries in the Night

At the very start of 2018, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a review of Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book sounded fascinating and I duly ordered a copy but one of the things I appreciated most about Kate’s review was that she pulled out books that Evans liked as suggested reading for some of her fellow bloggers.

Kate’s reasoning for suggesting this book for me was quite simple: it is an inverted mystery and I make little secret of my love of this sub-genre. In what is something of a first for me, I was taken aback when right before the final chapter I was commanded to stop reading and decide how the murderer will be caught. Yes, there is a challenge to the reader in an inverted mystery!

The story is told from the perspective of Eyliffe Trent Van Maarden, a man born into a notable family who has managed through poor fortune and judgment to go from a comfortable existence to becoming heavily indebted to a lawyer he went to college with who loaned him money. He has lost his investments, his family home and now lives as a tenant of that lawyer, paying him monthly installments that barely touch the principal of the loan.

One possible way out would be through marriage to a childhood sweetheart who has become a wealthy widow. Eyliffe has been biding his time before making romantic overtures to her to try to make sure of his feelings. Unfortunately for him, while he has been thinking about making his move that same lawyer friend has been actively wooing her and Eyliffe is sure that it will just be a matter of time before they get married. Unless something were to happen to him first…

As with many of the strongest inverted mysteries, the book is essentially a character study of a criminal that forces the reader to assess that character and determine how and why they have made the choice to take a life. You might argue that Eyliffe is made by circumstance, his actions borne out of a sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, his sense that he is a victim and his paranoia may be skewing his perception of events. I would suggest that here it is the second of those options and I think this view is only reinforced by events that occur in the immediate aftermath of that murder.

Eyliffe is, as we have established, living on extremely reduced means and in humiliating circumstances. While we are told that he has realized that he loves Madeline, we might equally well think that he has decided that she could be his saving and his way to retain face and status. Given those circumstances, he seems a credible candidate to morph into a killer.

While Downing’s short review will try to sell you on the idea that he has committed a seemingly perfect crime, I think that is an exaggeration. The crime, while efficient, is hardly ingenious in its creation or execution. Certainly it seems unlikely that anyone might track him down based on the initial evidence but it is not particularly hard to figure out how they might trace the crime back to him. The journey to that point is entertaining though and I think there are some excellent false leads and developments dropped in along the way.

What I think makes this story interesting and what I think gives it a rather different tone are the ways in which we see Eyliffe’s crimes affecting his mood and behavior as the novel goes on. The tone is sometimes haunting, sometimes a little melodramatic, but I think it is effective and helps explain why he makes some of his choices, particularly in the final third of the novel.

With so much of the focus falling on Eyliffe and his actions, it will likely not be surprising that few other characters get much attention. Of those that do feature, Madeline is probably granted the most space but I did not feel we really got to know her. She is less important as a character in her own right than she is as an influence on our murderer and indeed she is written out of much of the second half of the novel.

One character who does make a big impression is the young law clerk Veede who lives in the same building as Eyliffe and has decided that he will study criminology in the hopes of finding his boss’ killer. Keep in mind that while a police investigation does take place in this novel, in fact featuring Wallis’ series detective, almost all of that sleuthing takes place in the background. This makes Veede the most visible threat to Eyliffe’s safety and because we have little idea what information he has been able to confirm or what he has deduced from it, we cannot know for sure how far along the case against him has become.

When Eyliffe is undone, as all criminals in inverted mysteries inevitably are, it happens quickly. I appreciated the opportunity to pause to consider the evidence and I liked the solution of how he would get caught a lot, feeling that it was tidy, simple and well explained. I also appreciated that there are some aspects of this story that give the book a strong sense of place and time, such as the suggestion that a scientific test might be applied to this case to identify the killer or establish a suspect’s guilty.

Overall, I felt that The Servant of Death was one of the stronger examples of the inverted mystery form I’ve read yet. Wallis creates a memorable killer and I think his reasoning for that person’s actions throughout the novel make sense, even if we might view some of those choices as being bizarrely risky or foolish. It sadly is not in print so if the concept of this one interests you, do keep in mind that it may be tricky or slow to track down. I do think it is worth it however for those that do.

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

Kiss
A Kiss Before Dying
Ira Levin
Originally Published 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade

HeirPresumptive
Heir Presumptive
Henry Wade
Originally Published 1935

While I have intended to only write about an author once a month, it turns out that this is destined to be one of those rules that I will be routinely breaking. Heir Presumptive is the second Henry Wade novel I read this month following his later novel Too Soon to Die and I am happy to report that this was a far more pleasurably experience for me.

This book is, of course, yet another example of my beloved inverted mystery form although it is presented with a bit of a twist. As I alluded to in a Twitter post this weekend, I have struggled to think of a way to address that twist without revealing exactly what it is. Rather than risk spoiling the ride, I will simply say that while I saw it coming early in the book I felt it was beautifully executed and left me feeling extremely satisfied with the tone and balance of the book as a whole.

The novel begins by introducing us to Eustace Hendel, a man who had trained as a Doctor but was given an inheritance by a wealthy older woman he romanced that allowed him to give up his profession and pursue a playboy lifestyle. We learn that times have become hard for him and he is increasingly feeling the pinch as moneylenders are refusing further loans and he is having to make further economies in his lifestyle. Things are seeming hopeless for poor Eustace.

Then he receives an unexpected piece of news. Two of his cousins die unexpectedly in a swimming accident off the coast of Cornwall and suddenly Eustace finds himself just a few steps away from inheriting a title and a sizeable fortune. The only people ahead of his are his cousin, Captain David Hendel, and his terminally ill son, Desmond. If he can just find a way to eliminate David he is sure that he will comfortably outlive Desmond and his money problems will be over.

This novel can really be divided into three distinct phases. The first involves Eustace’s efforts to kill his cousin. This section is arguably the slowest of the three featuring a lengthy section in which Eustace goes deer-stalking yet it is also very suspenseful as we wonder how he will manage to pull this off without drawing attention to himself. The method used is perhaps not ingenious but it is gutsy and I felt the murder and its immediate aftermath was really quite chilling both for Eustace and for us.

The second phase of the novel sees Eustace initially feeling quite confident but soon he begins to realize that his inheritance may not go quite so smoothly as he had hoped and that he may need to take some further action. This phase does not go entirely as the reader may expect and sets up the novel’s really strong third and final phase.

Eustace is an intriguing creation because, unlike many murderers in inverted mysteries he is hardly a great criminal mind. For one thing, it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t really understand some of the intricacies of inheritance law and the entail of the family estates. Nor is he particularly charming or witty. Yet, as in many of the best inverted mysteries, the author does manage to make him a character you might feel a tiny amount of empathy for.

It is clear that though Eustace does do a terrible, vicious thing, he is not a natural killer. Nor is his life particularly enviable. While he perceives himself to have a positive, loving relationship it is clear to the reader that he is viewed only in terms of the material possessions he can provide for that girlfriend he is so desperate to keep. Kate compares her to Lady Macbeth and I think that comparison is really apt. Like Macbeth, by the end of the story we might almost wonder if Eustace is more victim than a villain…

As the novel goes on the reader will increasingly notice that Eustace does not have the level of control over his situation that he presumes. This manifests itself in several forms, not least the responses of other characters to Eustace. Here I feel Wade is particularly effective as his style of narration, a sympathetic third person, means that the reader will be drawing inferences from things that are taking place that Eustace is not aware of. They will know that his position is far more precarious than he realizes.

This all builds up to a smashing conclusion that works whether it comes as a surprise to you or if you have been expecting it for a while. I absolutely loved it and felt that it tied things together perfectly. Well, almost everything. There is one aspect of the story that I felt was left strangely unresolved given how often it is referred to in the course of the novel. I must say I am glad that Wade didn’t make use of that story point in the way I had feared and while it may be a little untidy, I won’t complain too much.

Finally, I must confess that the image I have used for this review does not match my edition which was the modern e-book reissue. Those Murder Room covers are so simple graphically that I couldn’t get excited about featuring one and then when I found the gorgeous one used here I couldn’t resist switching. If I am ever in a position to collect a printed copy of this, that is the cover I’d be aiming to possess…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a trip/vacation/cruise, etc. (When)