The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey

The Verdict

An intriguing and unusual variation on the inverted form making for a wonderfully suspenseful read.

Book Details

Originally published in 1949
Collected with The Body on the Sidewalk by Stark House

The Blurb

We know that Vivian Haines intends to commit murder this weekend. She tells us so. But who is her intended victim? Could it be her wealthy aunt, who is supposed to leave her half her fortune one day? Or her frivolous sister and her seemingly penniless boyfriend? Or perhaps her aunt’s mousy companion, or her long-suffering chauffeur? Or Vivian’s own fiancé, the fastidious Cuthbert? All we know is what Vivian tells us as her efforts to plan and execute the perfect murder are constantly thwarted. Now Vivian is beginning to panic. Could one of them suspect her? Could one of them be planning to kill her before she can murder them first?

All I wanted was to be happy like other people. But instead I was destined to be a murderess.

My Thoughts

I never quite know how best to handle writing about the collections of novels and novellas done by publishers such as Stark House. I am aware that most readers coming to The Reluctant Murderer will be curious about the value of the package overall and yet I bristle a little at the prospect of writing about them as a pair, particularly as they were not conceived in that way (and, in this case, they are presented out of publication order). The plan then is to tackle them separately but I will try and get to the other by the end of November so that those who want to know what I think of the volume as a whole will have a better sense of that.

So, why did I start with The Reluctant Murderer? It is not, as you might suspect, that I wanted to start at the beginning or that I simply enjoy being contrary. I was attracted to its rather unusual premise which seemed to offer a slightly different take on the inverted mystery than I have come across before.

Vivian Haines receives a note from her sister Anne instructing her to get on a commuter train on Friday afternoon and spend the weekend with her. Their Aunt Maud has paid an unannounced visit to her home, prompting Anne to organize an impromptu family reunion. While Anne acknowledges that the weekend will be ‘deadly’, given Maud’s various strong opinions about matters like drinking and smoking, the sisters are also aware that as they are likely to be the only heirs to Aunt Maud’s fortune they need to put up with it to keep her happy. After all, as Anne notes, ‘half a million is still half a million – especially with prices like they are!’

Anne’s first reaction to this invitation is not to express her dread but instead it prompts her to realize that murder might be the answer to her problems. What we are not told at this point however is what the problem is that she is trying to fix and who she intends to kill. In the chapters that follow we will observe her actions as she tries to carry out her plan and try to deduce the answers to those questions and work out what she is trying to achieve. In other words, this is a blend of a whydunnit and who’dyawannadoitto. Yes, I am open to a better name for that latter one…

The novel is narrated by Vivian herself which was a smart choice, not only because it allows us to hear her internal monologue and understand her character better but because it makes it easier for Carey to obfuscate her meaning at times without it feeling like the reader is being cheated or manipulated. To give one example, Vivian is able to describe an early attempt to kill that goes awry without mentioning exactly who she was aiming at – with a third-person narration style it would feel odd for us not be given all of those details whereas in the first person it reads a little more naturally because our focus is on Vivian’s feelings – her fears and hopes – rather than describing the physical action.

The other advantage of this style is it allows us to really explore Vivian’s psychological state as she responds to what she perceives happening around her. I felt the depiction of her growing sense of fear and paranoia as she wonders if others are onto her is really effective and, once again, the choice to stick close to her and experience events from her perspective means that we are not afforded the comfort of a dispassionate third person perspective on events. Like Vivian, I found myself thoroughly suspicious of everyone else as the story went on as I wondered exactly what each character had in mind.

One of the other aspects of this setup I admired is that Vivian is shown to be a complex and dimensional character worthy of our interest. It quickly seems clear that she is quite sharp, independent and resourceful which had me wondering just what could have prompted her to feel that she needed to carry out the murder at all. This only served to increase my interest in understanding the different relationships at play within the house and learning more about the other characters.

As with Vivian, I felt that Carey does a good job of fleshing out the other characters who make up the house party. While some feature more prominently than others, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp of each of the individuals, their various secrets and relationships to one another by the end and I enjoyed the process of discovering that information.

My only complaint really with the setup is that I think the author is a little too effective in laying the groundwork for the reveal of who Vivian’s intended victim might be. There was a sentiment expressed early in the novel that stood out a little too much and so while I had some suspicions of what other characters may be up to, I felt pretty clear from the beginning as to who the intended victim was. Happily the question of why was a little harder to solve and I found the eventual explanation to be quite satisfying.

I felt that the clueing to that solution was fine overall, though I would suggest that this book reads better as a work of suspense rather than detective fiction. That reflects that there is more of a focus here on intent and exploring our would-be killer’s mental state than there is on the action taking place. Similarly I think that the resolution will feel more satisfactory when looked at through that psychological lens than viewed through a criminous one.

Overall I enjoyed this first taste of Carey’s work which struck me as a rather ambitious debut work. My plan is to tackle The Body on the Sidewalk as my next Carey read but if anyone has any recommendations for where to go after that I’d be glad to read your thoughts!

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

The Verdict

An excellent inverted mystery featuring interesting characters and a wonderful ending.

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Anthony Bathurst #27
Preceded by They Never Came Back
Followed by Glittering Prizes

The Blurb

Hubert Grant is a fairly unpleasant man. He also thinks he is happily married.

Dorothy Grant despises her husband but finds consolation in the handsome Laurence Weston. In order for the lovers to be happy, however, the intolerable Hubert needs to be cut out of the picture. Permanently.

Dorothy and Laurence start plotting. But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and by the end of the scheming, there will be more than one body. Enter detective extraordinaire Anthony Bathurst . . .

“…I’ve made up my mind – once and for all. I’ll get rid of the brute.”

My Thoughts

It was inevitable that Such Bright Disguises would be my next Brian Flynn novel, ever since I read that it was an inverted mystery. As I understand it, this makes the novel something of a rarity in the Flynn oeuvre which is a shame as I think this is a great example of the sub-genre.

Such Bright Disguises is a novel that is comprised of three distinct sections. The first, titled ‘Hubert’, begins in the days running up to Christmas as Dorothy Grant sits at home awaiting the arrival of a luxury hamper filled with treats selected by her husband Hubert for their festivities. Rather than looking forward to some time with her husband, daughter and their friends, Dorothy is dreading it. She wishes instead that she could be sharing the season with her lover Laurence.

After illustrating the building sense of resentment within the Grant household, Flynn provides an incident that will spark the young couple to decide on murder as the solution to their problem. This section concludes shortly after that first murder takes place.

It takes Flynn some time to get to the point where his characters will decide upon murder but these early chapters do set up some important plotting points that we will return to later in the novel. They also do an excellent job of exploring these characters and their relationships with one another.

I was really impressed by the quality of Flynn’s characterizations of Dorothy, Hubert and Laurence. Part of the reason for this is the author’s unusually frank depiction of a crumbling marriage and infidelity, capturing the resentments and desires, particularly those of a married woman, in a way that feels quite surprising. That is not to say that readers are encouraged to sympathize with Dorothy – some of her thoughts about possibly abandoning her daughter in favor of her lover put pay to that – but I do think we are meant to empathize with her feelings of being bullied and stifled by a husband who views her purely as an ornament.

While Flynn does outline the events leading up to the murder, we do not witness the event itself or get much detailed discussion of the investigation at this point in the story. This is not uncommon in inverted stories of this period and I think this reflects that he is more interested in the characters’ mindsets and some elements of the planning than in exploring the violent details of the murder. There is a little ambiguity in a few elements of the plan, some of which will be explained later (very cleverly in the case of one element) though I felt that the novel never sufficiently addressed the involvement of a woman in the events of that night.

The second section, ‘Laurence’, picks up shortly after the murder and explores what becomes of the couple as they attempt to start a life together. As is often the case in inverted mysteries, the act of murder is shown to have create some pretty significant psychological stress for those involved. Flynn does an excellent job of depicting those stresses and the different ways that Laurence and Dorothy respond to them.

In addition to this psychological drama, Flynn also introduces a new element to the story that not only heightens some of those tensions but also provides a more typical mystery question for the reader to consider. While the answer to that question is unlikely to surprise readers in itself, I felt Flynn uses this element of the story cleverly within the context of the novel as a whole.

Further complications come with the delivery of those additional bodies that are promised in the blurb quoted above. While I anticipated these developments, their introduction did provide a bit of a wow moment for me in how sharply the story turns and transforms as it enters its final part.

Anthony Bathurst makes his brief appearance in this section which follows an investigation into all of the events that had preceded it. This section of the book is far shorter than either of the other two parts – according to my eBook copy it starts at the 75% point – and readers should not anticipate a particularly complex investigation. There is not the sort of case where there are a lot of witnesses or suspects for Bathurst to interview and so this phase of the story feels quite compact and, because of the nature of what is discovered, surprisingly punchy.

Flynn presents some fascinating moments and story beats here as plot points are connected and we come to understand exactly what has taken place. The conclusion he reaches did not surprise me as it seemed to be a natural fit to the conditions that preceded it and yet I was still impressed by the neatness of the plotting here and the boldness of the storytelling.

If I have a slight disappointment about the resolution, it is only that I had thought of two possible alternate endings and solutions to the mystery element of the novel that I think might have taken that idea even further. By the time we reach this third part I recognized that one of these was impossible but I felt my other idea would have still fitted all the facts of the case and would have had the benefit of being a little less predictable than the actual solution. Still, while I may mourn what I see as a missed opportunity with regards the ending, I think what we get is really pretty special.

If Frances, Dorothy’s young daughter, were to describe Such Bright Disguises she would no doubt brand it as being ‘simply wizard’. While the pacing is careful and deliberate, the characters are beautifully drawn and the story is cleverly structured, building to a very strong conclusion. While those who are looking primarily for a detective story may want to check out some different Flynn titles first, lovers of inverted mysteries are unlikely to be disappointed.

Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

The Verdict

Amusing school satire and a cleverly timetabled crime made Death at the Opera a thoroughly engaging read for me.

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Mrs. Bradley #5
Preceded by The Saltmarsh Murders
Followed by The Devil at Saxon Wall

The Blurb

Hillmaston School has chosen The Mikado for their next school performance and, in recognition of her generous offer to finance the production, their meek and self-effacing arithmetic mistress is offered a key role. But when she disappears mid-way through the opening night performance and is later found dead, unconventional psychoanalyst Mrs. Bradley is called in to investigate. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the hapless teacher had quite a number of enemies—all with a motive for murder…

“She’s dead,” said Moira. “I found out – I found her – in the interval I went for a drink – I didn’t like to spoil the show – I – she… Oh, they’ll hang him! And he can’t die! He can’t!”

My Thoughts

Back when I shared my Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries list, one area I managed to overlook was the world of amateur dramatics. It was not a deliberate omission but it was a pretty big one given that novels from the Golden Age of Detection often seem to feature characters whose background in student theatricals or Christmas skits is used to explain their ability to pull off sensational disguises, even if front of those who know them best.

Had I read today’s book prior to writing that post I can say that it almost certainly would have featured as the plot centers on a school production of The Mikado at the progressive, co-educational Hillmaston School. Most of the roles are to be played by the teaching faculty though a few students are recruited for the juvenile parts and everyone seems to be looking forward to the occasion. Perhaps none more than Miss Ferris, the Arithmetic Mistress, who offered to finance the production herself and was offered the part of Katisha, an elderly maid who is betrothed to Nanki-Poo, the young hero.

It is a surprise then when she fails to appear shortly before she is to go on stage, forcing another actress to take her place. When her body is found drowned in a wash basin the other staff want to believe it was an accident or suicide but the headmaster has other ideas. He decides to contact Mrs. Bradley and brings her in to investigate the matter under the guise of hiring her as a temporary replacement to see out the term…

Death at the Opera really caught my attention right from the very start with the very humorous scene in which the faculty sit and debate what to choose for their next theatrical piece. I have remarked before on how well Mitchell captures the school setting and I think this is the best example of that I have found to date. In just a handful of pages we get a strong sense of the school and the types of individuals that work there based on their interactions and the desires they express, helping to establish those characters as credible, dimensional figures.

The pages that follow do a good job of teasing out and exploring some of those character relationships, adding to the sense of depth as we learn more about each of them. The discoveries include secret passions and rivalries which not only do a good job of setting up and teasing the murder to come but help give that sense of a group of coworkers who know each other very well from years of working together.

The discovery of the body is certainly a dramatic moment and I think the circumstances in which it happens are quite striking. While the reader will naturally be aware that it is murder, I appreciated that this was a scenario in which it was feasible that others might interpret it differently which prompts some interesting exchanges and gives Mrs. Bradley a little more room to pry than might have been the case with a stabbing or shooting.

Mrs. Bradley’s investigation is interview-heavy but there are so many discoveries and revelations, whether in the form of new pieces of evidence or reflections and interpretations of what we have, that our understanding of the situation seems to be in near-continuous movement. This is a very good thing and I think it is part of the reason that I found this to be so engaging, especially when coupled with some of our protagonist’s rather unconventional attitudes and behaviors.

The questions that absorb her interest concern characters’ movements on the night of the murder and uncovering any past animosities. These are interesting questions and I appreciated the way each was handled. Before long we have a good mix of suspects of consider and, adding to the novelty, this is a rare example of a case involving a real text that will inform our understanding of characters’ movements during the night in question. For those who are less keen on Gilbert and Sullivan, rest assured that those details will be spelled out for you too long before we get to the big reveal.

Speaking of the big reveal, now’s probably a good time to mention that this is a case of a novel that pulls that off in its very last line much as Ellery Queen did in The French Powder Mystery. I feel though that this one manages to do it with a little added drama. It’s partly that the way it is revealed feels a little less contrived than in the Queen novel but I also appreciate the circumstances in which it is revealed which feels very fitting overall.

On the other hand, while I find the solution quite delightful in some respects I have to confess that the motive here doesn’t remotely stack up or make much sense. If it were anyone other than Mrs. Bradley investigating this I might feel a little underwhelmed or cheated but it does fit her rather well and I felt that the method used was explained clearly.

While I cannot completely overlook how silly the matter of the motive feels, I do appreciate the tone of the piece overall and I find it to be a really entertaining story. It’s easily my favorite of the Mrs. Bradley stories I have read to date, feeling it balanced the humorous and mysterious elements together very well. I am sure I will be returning to Gladys Mitchell again soon without a doubt!

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

This clever tale boasts one of Christie’s most distinctive victims and a broadly satisfying conclusion.

Book Details

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #17
Preceded by Murder in the Mews
Followed by Death on the Nile

This has also been published as Poirot Loses a Client.

The Blurb

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot investigates the very suspicious death of an elderly spinster who, fearing the very worst, had written to the great detective prior to her demise.

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

But though Miss Arundel’s death surprised no one, something else did. The provisions of her will gave rise to varying emotions, astonishment, pleasurable excitement, deep condemnation, fury, despair, anger and general gossip.

My Thoughts

I need to start this post by acknowledging the elephant in this room. I forgot that the short story collection Murder in the Mews followed Cards on the Table. There is, of course, no excuse for this oversight which really amounts to carelessness on my part. Rest assured that this will be rectified in the coming weeks! Now, on with the story…

Emily Arundell’s nephew and nieces are visiting her to spend the Easter weekend at her home in the country. During their stay Emily meets with a shocking accident when she tumbles down her stairs having apparently slipped on her terrier’s ball. Fortunately she emerges just badly bruised but as she thinks over the affair she becomes increasingly concerned that it might not be an accident.

Emily decides to take the precaution of writing to Hercule Poirot to seek his advice. Unfortunately for her the letter is not posted until after she dies several weeks later. When he, accompanied by his friend Hastings, travels to Market Basing, he learns that she was widely believed to have died of a malady that had nearly killed her a year and a half earlier. Poirot however suspects that Miss Arundell had reason to think an attempt had been made on her life and wonders if the would-be killer might have tried again…

The opening chapters of this book are quite remarkable and do a fantastic job of introducing us to Emily and the members of her family and household who will be our principal suspects. There are some absolutely fantastic turns of phrase employed in Christie’s prose that give the narration a somewhat sardonic tone. One favorite of mine is that after describing how Miss Lawson, Miss Arundel’s companion, had professed ignorance that she would be named as the principal beneficiary of the will there is a paragraph break before the narrator adds ‘A lot of people, of course, did not believe this.’

Similarly I think Christie’s depiction of Emily Arundell feels really boldly drawn, in the best possible way. Between her love of her dog, Bob, and her extremely particular way that she organizes the household festivities and makes the bedroom arrangements (giving priority to her nephew over her niece because ‘In Miss Arundell’s day, women took second place’), we quickly build a strong picture of her. Indeed, I might well suggest that I consider her to be one of Christie’s most dimensional victims – helped by the fact hat we not only encounter her prior to the crime but she feels present in much of what follows as characters debate what her wishes or intentions might have been and we focus on the question of what she must have thought prior to her death.

I also really like the mechanism of Poirot becoming engaged in this case when a piece of mail is belatedly delivered to him. This is not only intriguing in itself as a question – why does this letter suddenly appear months after the death – but I appreciate that Poirot seems to regard it as a matter of honor to investigate as a result. It is curious to consider whether he would have had the same curiosity had the letter arrived when it was intended. Would there have been enough to catch his attention?

Poirot’s investigations take the form of a series of interviews but there is little sense of repetition or stagnation here. Each interviewee presents something new that pushes our understanding of the case forwards either by presenting some new piece of evidence or by clarifying or complicating the relationships within the family. Presentationally there is also the novelty that Poirot engages in a variety of minor deceptions to encourage those suspects to talk to him prompting a couple of comical moments where Hastings expresses his dismay at such unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of his friend.

The supporting characters are arguably a little less dimensional than the victim but each makes a strong impression and has a very clearly defined personality (an exception is Miss Peabody, Emily’s friend who has some wonderfully sharp dialogue, but she is not a suspect). Few come off particularly sympathetically but I felt there were nuances in the characterizations, particularly that of the Greek physician Dr. Tanios who is presented as a subject of much suspicion largely because of his nationality.

Even Emily’s little terrier, Bob, feels pleasingly characterful – helped by Hasting’s decision to interpret his barking. This is peak self-induglent Hastings behavior and I am absolutely in love with it, in part because Christie doesn’t overdo it and limits it to just a couple of scenes. It’s odd but I think it speaks perfectly to his romantic and imaginative character.

The solution is quite clever and I liked some of the subtle clueing that pointed to the solution. While the relevance of a particular clue may elude some readers, I think the way it is visually suggested is superb and certainly appeals to the imagination. Similarly, I think that the choice of villain is an interesting one and I appreciate in revisiting this very nearly in order how it feels quite unexpected in the context of the previous few novels. Poirot’s explanation is clear and struck me as holding together pretty well.

Unfortunately this post cannot be entirely positive.

There is a clue that is revealed midway through the novel that is predicated on someone doing something incredibly odd while wearing something that seems to make no sense. This aspect of the story bothers me every time I revisit it and I have never managed to make peace with it yet. I really dislike how contrived the situation feels and the idea that it exists purely for the benefit of the reader rather than because it makes any sense for the characters involved.

The other objection I have to the book is its use of a racist expression which is quoted for the title of Chapter Eighteen and casually used by Poirot himself in conversation with Hastings. I think it is that latter part which is what makes me most uncomfortable with this – Poirot is, after all, the hero and so I don’t like to think of him in such a light.

It’s really disappointing because in almost every other regard Dumb Witness is superb. After all, it boasts one of Christie’s most memorable victims, a puzzling premise and a rather clever solution.

The Bowstring Murders by John Dickson Carr (as Carr Dickson)

The Verdict

Offers up a rather good puzzle with some ingenious features, though a few aspects of the investigation feel underdone.

Book Details

Originally published in 1933 under the pseudonym Carr Dickson (some later reissues change the author’s name to Carter Dickson, the pseudonym the author would use for his Merrivale series).

The Blurb

Dotty old Lord Rayle doted on his priceless collection of medieval battle gear at Bowstring Castle. But some ironic knave who didn’t give a hoot about chivalry donned a mail glove and strangled him with his own bowstring. When the dastard also struck down two of Lord Rayle’s armor-bearers, things really came unhinged!

Enter John Gaunt

The boozy-but-brilliant sleuth picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the crafty challenger. The clues weren’t linked and the facts didn’t mesh – but this champion was determined to find the chink in the murderer’s armor!

Look here, I may be wrong. But I think that sooner or later something mad and ugly and dangerous is going to blow up in that place. I warn you –!

My Thoughts

Bowstring Castle is said to contain one of the country’s best collections of medieval armor and weaponry, housed in the building’s armory. The castle is owned by Lord Rayle, a somewhat eccentric and forgetful man, whose strangled body is discovered within the armory by his daughter. There were just two possible entrances to the space, one observed at all times by Dr. Tairlaine, the other covered in a thick layer of dust, so how did the killer manage to commit the crime?

The Bowstring Murders was published at a transitional moment in John Dickson Carr’s career. It was written a year after the penultimate Henri Bencolin novel (he wouldn’t write the final one until 1937) and one year before he introduced Sir Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders. Meanwhile he had recently published the first two Gideon Fell mysteries – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery.

This book therefore seems to herald a move from the Grand Guignol-style of the Bencolin stories set in France to something more puzzle-focused and comedic with an English setting – in other words, the formula for Carr’s Merrivale tales. I think you can see Sir John Gaunt, the sleuth in this story, as embodying that transition as the text references he mentions that he has just returned from France himself when he is brought into this case.

Carr’s growing interest in English tradition and history seems to be reflected in the design of Bowstring Castle, the setting for this story. Not only is this clearly meant to be a historic building, inhabited by members of the British aristocracy, but it is something of a museum – particularly the wing of the Castle in which the murder will take place which houses a collection of armor and medieval weaponry. While such a setting might seem suggestive of a gothic atmosphere, Carr never really takes it in that direction. Instead he focuses on the history and the eccentricity of the space.

In addition to these physical elements of the past, there is also some discussion of how the world is changing and not, Carr seems to say, for the better. One example of this might be the discussion of how the cinematic hero had changed with Francis bitterly reflecting that Larry Kestevan is successful because he is surly and suggesting that while a hero’s masculinity used to be shown by having them punch a villain, in those days they were more likely to punch the heroine.

I think though that the strongest clues to the importance of this theme to Carr lie in the character of his sleuth – John Gaunt. The name, of course, recalls one of the most important figures from England’s Middle Ages, Sir John of Gaunt, from whom all of the kings would be descended until the War of the Roses. Shakespeare would depict John of Gaunt in his play Richard II in which he makes the famed ‘Scepter’d Isle’ speech and so his name has these strong historical and cultural connections with England’s past.

This is coupled with the notion that Gaunt, who is shown to possess a brilliant mind, has rejected working with Scotland Yard because of their insistence on utilizing modern, scientific methods rather than deduction. They, in turn, disapproved of his heavy drinking and how he has exercised his own judgment in the past to allow a murderer to get away. In other words, he is an eccentric individual in a world that no longer prizes those qualities, preferring conformity. A theme which Carr would return to again and again in the years to come.

I quite enjoyed getting to know Gaunt and was rather disappointed to realize that this would be the character’s only outing. While he is less colorful than H. M., I enjoyed following his thinking as he broke the case down and explained the connections between the multiple murders. Though he enters the story midway through the novel, Carr employs one of his favorite devices of having characters discuss him repeatedly before he does (as he would do with Dr. Fell in Till Death Do Us Part) which gives that moment greater impact and helps us feel that we get to know him by reputation.

Lord Rayle himself is shown to be an eccentric figure, though in his case the depiction is intended to be comical. Much of this worked for me, such as the nonsensical approach he takes to trying to safeguard some of his possessions and his foggy, disconnected dialogue with his guests where he seems to lurch from one topic to another. He makes quite a big impact in just a few pages to the point where, once he is murdered, there is a sense that the novel loses a little of its playfulness and eccentricity. None of the other characters, except perhaps Gaunt himself, feel anywhere near so large.

Happily the puzzle is quite a good one which goes some way toward making up for this. The circumstances of that crime, given that it takes place in a room in which another person is present who says that they didn’t see anything, are intriguing and the barriers to using those two exits are explained quite effectively. I was certainly baffled as to what had happened and will confess that I did not come anywhere near the solution beyond guessing the identity of the murderer.

That solution has some rather ingenious elements and I could appreciate, once it was explained, how it came together so neatly. If I had a complaint it was that I felt that, though Carr’s descriptions are pretty good, the book would have benefitted from a plan of the armory area. This is actually referenced within the story itself as a character talks about how confusing the space is and a map is made for their benefit. While I do not think that seeing a map would have resulted in me working out the solution, it might have led to me understanding some relational geography a little earlier.

I do have to commend Carr though on many other aspects of his solution. There not only are some pretty interesting ideas used to help explain some oddities in the three deaths, I particularly appreciated that this is one of those cases where perspective proves to be quite important. Aspects of the crimes are mystifying when seen from the detective’s perspective but once you understand the sequence of choices from those of the killer everything comes together very tidily indeed.

What keeps it from being perfect is not then the solution but what comes before it. There is some sloppiness in some early parts of the investigation, particularly the lack of consideration that the other character in the room might be the killer. After all, that would be the simplest solution and there is never really any explanation given for why the police do not take that possibility seriously (particularly given the weakness of the first victim).

The other weakness for me was that the killer’s identity seems quite apparent from very early in the novel. I don’t know if that is because I recognized some behavior on their part as being the sort of thing Carr killers often do or if it reflects that it is hard to take any of the other suspects seriously.

Still, while I think the novel has a few flaws that keep it from being a top-tier Carr, I still found it to be a thoroughly engaging read. It’s a very solid puzzle with a few ingenious features that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the other, more lauded Carr title from that same year.

Further Reading

Forgot I hadn’t copy-pasted this section when I first posted.

Ben @ The Green Capsule describes this as an ‘interesting but brief chapter in Carr’s career’ which I think is a nice way of summing it up. I agree with everything he put in his spoilers section at the bottom of his excellent review.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also admires the ingenuity of the solution here and makes a good point about the dodgy dialect employed for the servants. The comparison with an Anthony Boucher sleuth makes me interested to try some of those stories!

Gold Mask by Edogawa Rampo, translated by William Varteresian

The Verdict

More an adventure-thriller than a fair play detective story, though it does what it does very well.

Book Details

Originally published from 1930-31 in King magazine as 黄金仮面
English translation first published in 2019

The actual blurb to the Kurodahan Press translation contains a very significant spoiler about a key plot point from this story. Instead of reproducing that blurb, as I would usually do, I have opted to provide my own below.

Plot Summary

Detective Akechi Kogorō is called upon to investigate a crime spree orchestrated by a figure seen wearing a golden mask and cloak. On several occasions the Gold Mask is seen committing audacious thefts and is cornered only to miraculously disappear, baffling the police and striking fear into the public’s imagination.

Taken aback, the girl had gone pale and taken her leave of the man. She said, however, that his face, like that of an old gilt Buddha, had absolutely, positively been wrought of expressionless gold.

My Thoughts

Before I start to discuss this book I feel I ought to reiterate a warning I provided in the book details section of this post. Gold Mask is a novel that is constructed around a surprising reveal that occurs about two thirds of the way into the story. Rather unfortunately the blurb to the English-language translation from Kurodahan Press tells the prospective reader exactly what that is, hence why I felt the need to provide a plot summary of my own.

I wanted to draw readers’ attention to this for a few reasons. Firstly, to warn those who wish to avoid being spoiled to handle this with caution (I would also suggest not looking at the table of contents too closely for much the same reason). I would not suggest that the novel necessarily needs that reveal to entertain and engage readers – the book being as much about the process and sense of adventure as the ultimate destination – but it’s a nice moment, handled pretty well and so why rid it of its impact unless you have to? That is not to say that I blame or criticize the publishers for their choice here. Given the potential draw that this idea presents it is unsurprising that a publisher would emphasize it in their marketing.

The other reason is that I want to emphasize that I will be doing my best to avoid directly referring to that part of the story in the main body of the review. This does limit my capacity to talk about the handling of that reveal and that part of the story a little but honestly, I think it happens so late in the story in any case that my feelings about it feel quite secondary to my interest in the plot which, like The Black Lizard, is a great example of a pulpy, detective thriller with lashings of danger and adventure.

With that out of the way, it’s time to discuss the book itself. This was originally published as a serialized novel and so the style is quite punchy, the narrator often directly talking to the reader and teasing things to come or driving home the strangeness of a moment, and each chapter seems to end on a cliffhanger or moment that suggests an escalation of the danger facing Akechi. It makes for excellent, page-turning fare offering plenty of disguises, double bluffs and tricks with identity as the story seems to get progressively grander and wider in scale as we near its conclusion.

The book begins by establishing Gold Mask as a sort of odd urban legend that spreads after a young girl in Ginza claims to have seen a man in the mask looking through a shop window and further sightings take place around Tokyo. Things escalate however when during the Gold Mask steals a pearl during a great exhibition and is chased into a theater where a theatrical production about his legend happens to be underway. The police chase him and eventually corner him on the roof of a building that is surrounded on all sides yet he somehow manages to evade detection and vanish into the night. A feat he repeats on several subsequent occasions.

It is for this reason, as well as a couple of other moments in the novel, that I opted to categorized this as an impossible crime novel though I will add the caveat that I do not think this really reads as such. Rampo’s emphasis falls consistently upon the adventure elements of the story rather than the detection, but I enjoy the way this story tries to surprise the reader with improbable identity reveals and disappearances from right under Akechi’s nose.

On a similar note, I also enjoy the battle of wits element that Rampo creates between his hero and the Gold Mask as each tries to best the other. This becomes increasingly direct in the later parts of the novel, leading to some entertaining exchanges and culminating in a very fitting and enjoyable conclusion that feels appropriate to all that had come before it.

The image of the figure with the expressionless golden mask is a pleasingly visual one and I had little difficulty imagining him chased through a gallery or standing threateningly in a window. The lack of any facial details is a powerful idea and I think the novel sells the strangeness of that image well, making it clear why the public interest in this figure would grow so strong and how his sudden appearance might seem quite haunting and unsettling.

The only dissatisfaction I feel with this aspect of the story gets us into solid spoiler territory and so I am afraid I will need to be a little vague here. I feel that Rampo’s efforts to emphasize that Akechi is brilliant and heroic require a slight diminishment in Gold Mask’s character. It is quite understandable that this might would have been Rampo’s method of storytelling but I feel it is sometimes a little unnecessary.

Other than that, I found this to be another example of an entertaining, if sometimes quite far-fetched, story stuffed full of reversals of fortune and bravery that I think may well be worth your time. I would still recommend The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows as a better place to start with getting to know the author’s works.

The Ninth Enemy by Francis Vivian

The Verdict

The Ninth Enemy sets up interesting situations but resolves them too early. While I was surprised by the ending, my issues with the killer’s motive left me unsatisfied.

Book Details

Originally published in 1948
Inspector Knollis #4
Preceded by The Threefold Cord
Followed by The Laughing Dog

The Blurb

Inspector Knollis of Scotland Yard is hoping for a nice quiet weekend in the country. Instead he is embroiled in a murder case—the death by gunshot of local bigwig Richard Huntingdon.

Jean, the dead man’s wife, discovers the body in dense woods near a river. Knollis soon learns that Jean’s previous husband also met an untimely end, not that she is the only suspect. Despite his reputation for good deeds, Huntingdon had enemies in the district, including the progressive Bishop of Northcote. And it turns out the late Mr. Huntingdon was intimately involved with a grade-A femme fatale

Knollis, along with the redoubtable Sergeant Ellis, has to deal with a plethora of puzzling clues before solving this bucolic case of Murder most Foul. Key to the mystery is a toy yacht found floating on the river near the body—a craft almost identical to the gift recently received—anonymously—by Huntingdon’s young daughter, Dorrie.

“It would seem that Richard Huntingdon has had his hour upon the stage. Requiescat in pace!”

My Thoughts

Inspector Knollis is looking forward to enjoying a short break from work when he finds himself brought into a local murder case. The victim, Richard Huntingdon, is a prominent local figure who made a fortune as the founder of an engineering company before getting involved in a variety of civic organizations. His main passion though is to speak to the town’s youth to advocate for a return to chivalric values, frequently appearing in the local paper.

Huntingdon’s body is discovered near the edge of the local dam when his wife Jean hurries there in response to a message she received saying her daughter had met with a terrible accident. Instead of finding her daughter Dorrie, she finds he has been shot and a toy boat resembling her daughter’s floats in the water nearby. Dorrie is soon found to be safe and sound at a friend’s party raising all sorts of questions about the circumstances of Richard’s death.

Among the questions we need to ponder are whether Richard really left a message for Jean about Dorrie and, if so, why was he mistaken? Who killed Richard and why? What happened to Jean’s first husband years earlier? Who anonymously sent Dorrie her toy yacht for her birthday? There is, in short, a lot to dig into.

The Ninth Enemy gets off to an excellent start, quickly setting out its problems and starting to unravel some of the complex background to this case and the individuals involved in it. We learn a lot in those early chapters, particularly concerning some of the interpersonal relationships between the members of the Huntingdon family and their circle of friends which take some time to fully unpick. While some of these are perhaps a little more easily guessed than the author presumably intends, I still found it entertaining to watch Knollis at work as he carefully untangles these and gets to grips with the cast of suspects.

While some characters interested and puzzled me more than others, I appreciated that efforts are made to present a variety of types and several of the characters struck me as offering an interesting ambiguity. This is most clearly the case with our victim who we slowly get to know by hearing how the various characters perceive him. Those portraits are not always sympathetic but they do allow the reader to slowly build up a picture of the complex web of relationships and allow for some intriguing nuances in characterization that make him feel more credible as a creation. That strikes me as impressive in a novel where the victim is dead before we even begin reading.

Similarly I quite enjoyed following Knollis’ efforts as he tries to methodically work through each of his leads and interviews the various suspects. The character, while not particularly dynamic, is a strong example of the thoughtful detective and his behavior is often quite fun, if not altogether funny.

The problems come once the initial rush of activity subsides and we have most of the facts of the case at our disposal. From that point onwards the pacing of the story comes to feel noticeably slow as there are relatively few new clues for our detectives to come across.

My biggest issue with the book however relates to a decision Knollis makes to not look for the murder weapon midway through the investigation that just seems utterly bizarre to me. Several of his colleagues suggest that they ought to seek it out but he argues back that to look for it would be pointless as the accused would almost certainly claim it wasn’t theirs.

The reason I take issue with this is not that I think that Knollis’ claim is necessarily incorrect but that he then goes on to direct his underlings to conduct a search for a different item only tangentially related to the case. A consequence of this choice is that the storytelling, which had previously been quite direct, suddenly seems to noticeably stretch out and slow down.

As for the solution, I will admit that it caught me quite off guard and there were some aspects of it I quite appreciated. The problem is that the killer’s motivations feel a little silly and their plan seems poorly thought out to me. Unfortunately I think the surprise at the killer’s identity is offset for me by the feeling that the reason I failed to guess at it is that their plan is utterly ridiculous.

It’s a shame because I will say that I really had been enjoying the novel up until the midpoint and had been quite excited to see where it was headed. Certainly I liked this well enough to feel interested to try some other Vivian works in the future – if anyone has a suggestion for one that might be more to my liking I’d be happy to give it a try.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

The Verdict

One of the best Carrs I have read to date, this is every bit as good as its reputation offering a scenario full of twists and turns and a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Dr. Gideon Fell #15
Preceded by Death Turns the Tables
Followed by He Who Whispers

The Blurb

Crime author Dick Markham is in love again; his fiancée the mysterious newcomer to the village, Lesley Grant. When Grant accidentally shoots the fortune teller through the side of his tent at the local fair – following a very strange reaction to his predictions – Markham is reluctantly brought into a scheme to expose his betrothed as a suspected serial husband poisoner.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller – and chief accuser – is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

Thinking the matter over afterwards, Dick Markham might have seen omens or portents in the summer thunderstorm, in the fortune-teller’s tent, in the shooting-range, in half a dozen other things at that bazaar.

My Thoughts

In my four years of crime fiction blogging, I cannot recall being as excited about a vintage crime reprint as I was when I heard that Till Death Do Us Part would be reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. I had previously enjoyed the story in the form of the very faithful BBC Radio adaptation starring Donald Sinden but I was looking forward to getting to read the story properly for myself. Little wonder then that when the package arrived on my doorstep last weekend I immediately put everything else to one side and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting.

Crime writer Dick Markham arrives at a village fête with Lesley Grant, a woman who has only lived in the area for a matter of months. We learn that the couple have just become engaged and are planning to share the good news later that day. Before they do however they decide they will enjoy some of the attractions and they head to the fortune teller’s booth where a man billed as The Great Swami promises to tell their fortunes.

Lesley enters the tent while Dick chats to the Major who is operating the shooting range next to it. He shares his good news but is surprised when Lesley emerges from the tent looking upset. Dick heads inside to speak to the Swami but before he can learn anything a gunshot is fired through the canvas. He emerges to find Lesley asserting that the rifle, which she had not wanted to hold, had fired by accident. It all seems pretty suspicious, particularly when he receives a telephone call from the doctor asking him to visit his patient who has some information to share with him about his bride to be…

This is a really intriguing setup because of the way it plays around with information. There is the information about Dick’s engagement which we learn may be distressing to at least one other inhabitant of the village, then there’s the information about the Swami’s identity and then there’s the information he has about Lesley. These opening pages are packed with revelations, each serving to shift our understanding of the situation and what is happening long before the murder even takes place. I love the sense of discovery in these early chapters and would suggest that the best way to enjoy this story is to just throw yourself straight into it and be surprised.

The murder comes pretty early in this one and does present an impossibility of sorts, though I do not want to overplay this element of the story. While it’s certainly there and does involve some well-clued details, I think what makes this a compelling story is not so much the mechanics of the crime as the tensions and suspicions it brings about in the various characters.

The story follows Dick’s perspective and so we experience his growing doubts and worries about Lesley as he battles with things he comes to learn and suspect. Carr does this well, incorporating some elements of domestic suspense into the story as Dick grapples with whether he can trust Lesley, how his feelings for her might be affected by what he is told and how he should interact with her moving forwards.

The decision to closely follow Dick means that we are kept at a slight distance not only from Lesley but also from Dr. Gideon Fell who enters the story shortly after the body is found though he is talked about several times prior to that. This is an effective technique as it serves to remind us of Fell’s reputation as a genius for solving impossible crimes, heightening our anticipation for the moment of his arrival. Even once he does appear our focus remains on Dick with some of Fell’s ideas and deductions being kept under wraps until near the end when he swoops in to bring about a resolution. Still, while Fell is utilized in a more limited way than some other of his stories I find him utterly engaging whenever he does appear and would consider this one of his best outings that I have read to date.

One aspect of the novel that I think is very striking is its depiction of life within the confines of an English village. There is of course the depiction of a village festival with their sometimes quite clunky stalls and games as well as the idea that someone might be a bigger celebrity in a small village than they would be in a more urban area hence all of the attention that the villagers pay to Dick. This also feeds into some aspects of the case and in some of the tensions surrounding Dick’s relationship with Lesley. After all the village is a small place and people will gossip, adding pressure to an already tricky situation.

The solution, when it is presented, is a clever one though I admit to finding a few of the crucial details a little tricky to visualize at first. Some aspects of this though are very clever, particularly those relating to what is observed around the time that the gunshot is fired. While Carr has been more ingenious, I do appreciate how the story comes together overall.

What I think seals its status for me as one of the best I have read to date is the manner of the resolution. This is not just an exciting scene which follows a little burst of action, I feel that the construction of this sequence is exceptional and makes very good use once again of the distance between Dick and Fell, building up to a really powerful conclusion that provides some solid closure.

Overall then I have to unimaginatively concur with those voices who suggest that this is one of the best Dr. Fell mysteries. While I wish I had something a little more creative to say about it, all I can really offer is my belief that this holds together really well and that it was a joy to experience again even knowing the solution. This is about as highly recommended as they come.

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

The Verdict

A bleak but powerful story of how a crime looms over the life of the man who committed it.

Book Details

Originally published in 1926

The Blurb

Most famous for his Hornblower series, C.S. Forester wrote three seminal psychological thrillers at the start of his career that took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

In Payment Deferred set in 1926, William Marble, a bank clerk living in south London with his wife Annie and their two children, is desperately worried about money and is in grave danger of losing his house and job. An unexpected visit by a young relative with an inheritance tempts William to commit a heinous crime.

Note: Do be warned that almost every modern blurb basically gives away aspects of the ending. The blurb reproduced above is from an ebook edition (the cover is the first edition which I sadly do not own) and so they do not go together – I decided though it was preferable to mix and match than throw around unnecessary spoilers!

But now that there was a chance of escape the danger in which he stood was forced home upon him, making him shudder involuntarily a little and setting his heart thumping heavily in his chest.

My Thoughts

The story begins with Mr. Marble facing imminent financial ruin. He has become badly overextended, borrowing heavily against future earnings but he has reached the point where payments are coming due that he knows he cannot meet. Then unexpectedly a possible source of salvation seems to present itself. 

The Marble family receives a visit from their Australian nephew who has just arrived in London. When he happens to pull out his wallet Mr. Marble notices that said nephew’s wallet is bulging as he had cashed a security upon arriving in the city. At first he hopes he might be able to convince his guest to stand him a loan or gift but when he offers resistance and happens to mention that they are the only people who know him in the country, Marble decides to commit murder and buries his victim in his garden.

The action I have described takes place in just a handful of pages at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book explores the aftermath of that crime as we learn what Marble does after his murder and experience the growing sense of dread he feels that he will be caught and hanged for his crime. This near-mania is captured really well, depicting the obsession and dread in such a way that we feel how relentless it is without having to endure that ourselves.

One way we can look at this novel is as a character study of a murderer, exploring how the criminal act appears to have changed him as a man. Certainly there is a sense that this action sets him on a dark path to destruction, an idea that is not uncommon in inverted crime stories (for a later take on the same idea you might see Crofts’ Antidote to Venom or Simon Brett’s A Shock to the System). I think though that what makes Forester’s novel interesting beyond its relatively early publication date is the chilling idea that murder has not changed Mr. Marble as significantly as we might expect.

Although we only know Marble for a few pages prior to the murder we do get signs as to his degeneracy. His relationship with his wife is hardly warm while his manufacturing of complaints to allow him to punish his children and send them to bed so he can start drinking is not the action of a caring father. These tendencies certainly become more pronounced, often as a consequence of his feelings of fear and desperation, but those aspects of his character were already there.

Often characters of this type are portrayed as somewhat emasculated or domineered within their home. We might think of Dr. Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought, published just a few years after this, for an example of that sort of portrayal. In contrast it seems quite unusual to find that our murderous head of the family here, while often ineffective, is genuinely loved and respected by his wife. She is not portrayed as a particularly strong individual and modern readers may feel frustrated that she seems to submit to her ill-treatment but I found the portrayal credible, particularly in her conflicted reactions to some of the developments later in the story.

The characters of the children, while clearly playing secondary roles, each get moments that explore how they react to the changes that take place in their household. This was, for me, some of the most interesting material in the novel because I feel it is here that the work is at its least predictable. Given that this novel, while possessing a short page count, takes place over a spread of several years we do get to see some significant growth in each character and I feel that they are used very thoughtfully in exploring Marble’s own story.

The Marble family’s circumstances undergo a considerable transformation throughout this novel and this allows Forester some room for social commentary, particularly in relation to matters of class. Some of these observations are quite familiar such as the idea that the nouveau riche may prize an item for its perceived status regardless of how tasteful it is but there are also some sharp comments about financial companies, middle managers and nosy neighbors.

While the book offers some satirical notes, I should emphasize that there is very little lightness or levity. It is not simply that Marble is an unpleasant man but that it becomes increasingly clear as you read that you are not heading for anything approaching a happy ending. While it may not be obvious how doom will come, it is clear that punishment of a sort will come. I think it would be fair to say that the book does deliver in that regard with Forester delivering a really punchy and effective conclusion that I think will satisfy fans of Francis Iles and other writers of his ilk.

The only other negative I might offer is that there is a financial action Marble takes at an early point in the novel that is quite technical and which Forester explains in more depth than some readers might wish. I understand why he felt the need to do so but the presentation feels quite dry and does little to provide clarity for those who would not already understand the basic idea. Still, this plays out over just a handful of pages and once explained is essentially not referred to again.

Overall I was really glad that I gave this book a try. While the tone is never light and there is a pervading sense of doom, Forester writes in an engaging way and I appreciated that there were several developments that I simply could not have anticipated at the start. As an example of an inverted crime story I found it even more interesting, particularly given it predates Malice Aforethought, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the sub-genre.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

The Verdict

An entertaining theatrical mystery feels like a significant improvement from Alleyn’s first outing, even if the case itself seems rather slim.

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Inspector Alleyn #2
Preceded by A Man Lay Dead
Followed by The Nursing Home Murder

The Blurb

Inspector Roderick Alleyn has been invited to an opening night, a new play in which two characters quarrel and then struggle for a gun, with predictably sad results. Even sadder, the gun was not, in fact, loaded with blanks. And when it comes to interviewing witnesses, actors can be a deceptive lot . . .

“I want to say,” said Gardener, “that I know I’ve killed him; but, before God, Mr. Alleyn, I didn’t load that revolver.”

My Thoughts

It has taken me quite a while to get around to reading Enter A Murderer, perhaps reflecting that I had been left somewhat cold by its predecessor and felt in no rush to get back to Alleyn. I suggested in that post one of my biggest problems with the book was that I felt I simply didn’t connect with Marsh’s detective, feeling that I never really got to know him. This second installment doesn’t exactly flesh him out in terms of supplying details of his life or backstory, nor does it make him much more heroic or likable. Still, I felt that I finally had a much better grasp on what Marsh was trying to do with the character by the end of this novel and I am happy to report that I found this a much more satisfying experience as a result.

At least part of the reason for that shift lies in my choice to listen to this, at least in part, as an audiobook. While I didn’t listen to the whole book that way, I appreciated the excellent reading given by James Saxon. Suddenly being able to hear his voice as Alleyn helped me catch the sarcasm and sardonic inflection laced into much of his dialogue, bringing it to life for me and giving me a much better understanding of his character. It probably doesn’t hurt either that I think the case itself offers a significant improvement on Alleyn’s previous one.

Arthur Surbonadier is the nephew of Jacob Saint, a former actor who had transitioned into theatrical management and now presides over the Unicorn theater. In spite of their family bonds however the pair enjoy a frosty relationship that has recently taken a turn for the worse when Arthur has discovered that he has been passed over for the hero part in The Rat and the Beaver in favor of his rival Felix Gardener. Tensions between Arthur and Felix are particularly high as the pair are vying for the hand of the company’s leading lady, the beautiful Stephanie Vaughan and so when he meets his uncle, Arthur decides to play at blackmail in the hope of changing the bill.

Inspector Alleyn happens to be in the audience for a performance of the play as a guest of his friend Nigel Bathgate and he gets a glimpse of some of the tensions within the company for himself when the pair visit Gardener backstage before the show. Things take a turn late in the production however during a scene in which Gardener and Surbonadier tussle with a gun as the firearm discharges a real bullet, killing Gardener. While the audience marvel at the realism of the performance as the curtain comes down, Alleyn is already heading backstage. He has recognized that Surbonadier’s death scene was no performance…

Though the earliest moments of Enter a Murderer feel soaked in melodrama, there is something quite intriguing about the way the book opens with the blackmail demands. Marsh keeps it brief, using it to establish one of the points of personal tension (and hinting at another), neatly positioning the reader to expect further developments.

Marsh suggests a state of building tension and foreboding throughout the performance as we may come to anticipate the murder based on the atmosphere backstage. That moment, when it comes, is handled quite strikingly and I couldn’t help but be pleased with the simple yet intriguing circumstances surrounding it. The idea of setting up a murder by proxy is a clever one made all the more so when you consider the events that precede it lead to the victim actually loading the gun themselves in full view of the audience. As problems go, this seemed like a pretty good place to start.

While I had been a little concerned that the opening to the novel seemed to push a single suspect, it soon becomes apparent that there are several other characters with reason to kill Surbonadier. The challenge here then is to learn what exactly those motives might be. The actual solution, while not especially surprising, shows cunning and explained very clearly.

Marsh seems to have a pretty good handle on the theatrical types she fills her story with, making them colorful and dramatic enough in their interactions to amuse without stretching into parody. Though the cast of characters is relatively small, most seem to be used very thoughtfully in terms of their roles within the story.

What will stay with me most though is the feeling that as I follow Alleyn and Bathgate, the case brought out aspects of each’s characters. One favorite moment for me came in Chapter 9 when Alleyn has a conversation with Stephanie Vaughan about how he feels about his suspects, drawing an intriguing parallel with jigsaw puzzles.

There are, of course, a couple aspects of the story that don’t entirely work for me. One of these is that Nigel Bathgate is often incredibly dense, completely ignoring some strong evidence because it doesn’t fit with his worldview. A good example relates to his chivalrous belief in Vaughan’s absolute innocence and ignoring any evidence that does not fit that opinion.

The other is that the dialogue does occasionally become quite stylized and overblown. This is one of those things I can forgive well enough but it is appreciated to have options.

Overall, I was delighted to find that I enjoyed this one far more than the previous one, liking the characters and the scenario all the better.