The Heel of Achilles by E. and M. A. Radford

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

Doctor Manson #8
Preceded by John Kyleing Died
Followed by Look in at Murder

The Blurb

The trouble began during a holiday in Paignton. When Jack met Mary, his future wife, he also met James Sprogson, a charming villain bent on destroying the couple’s happiness. Mary distrusted Sprogson but Jack regarded him as a good fellow who drank and gambled a little too much, perhaps, but was harmless and likeable. However, Jack’s association with Sprogson was to lead to robbery, blackmail and, at last, murder.

The Verdict

A very solid inverted mystery – though it is stronger on the forensic analysis than in terms of its character development or exploration.


My Thoughts

This past week I have had inverted mysteries on the brain. A big part of the reason for that was my experiencing reading R. Austin Freeman’s The Singing Bone which I found a thoroughly enjoyable experience. As it happens one of the authors of the book I am discussing today, Edwin Radford, was a fan of the Thorndyke mysteries too and this work feels like a conscious homage to those stories.

The Heel of Achilles introduces us to Jack, a young mechanic who is desperately saving so he can afford to open his own garage and get married. He befriends James Sprogson, a man his fiancée instantly recognizes as a disreputable sort but who he dismisses as being just a little fond of his drink. When Jack is invited along on a job to earn something extra he happily agrees, not realizing that he is being invited along on a robbery.

As it happens everything quickly goes wrong and Jack finds himself handed the loot while Sprogson is dragged off to prison. Implicated in the crime, Jack has to start a new life for himself under an assumed name and for a while he seems to be safe. That is until he runs into Sprogson again and receives the first in a series of blackmail demands.

Inevitably Jack comes to realize that he cannot go on making payments to Sprogson and decides that he must get rid of his tormentor. Being a reader of mystery novels, Jack recognizes some of the common mistakes made by murderers in stories and he is determined not to repeat them.

I think blackmail works well as a motivation for murder in inverted mystery stories because it can engender some sympathy for the murderer. Particularly if, as with Jack, they never intended to commit a serious crime in the first place and have no easy way out of the mess they find themselves in. We may not agree with his choice but I think readers would understand his desperation.

I also appreciated that the authors made the murder a planned action and consciously avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls. In quite some detail they cover each of the problems Jack predicts and the actions he takes to erase or alter evidence to suit the story he is trying to tell. His plan is intricate and yet the alert reader will probably detect several loose ends. The question is what will lead the detectives to Jack?

The Radfords adopt a similar structure to that used by Freeman in his inverted short stories, breaking his novel into two sections. The first thirty percent of the novel portrays the events leading up to and including the crime being committed, following the actions of the murderer. The remainder of the story, wonderfully titled ‘Cherchez l’homme’, is told exclusively from the perspective of Dr. Manson, the forensic investigator.

Once again I was put in mind of Freeman and in particular his detective Dr. Thorndyke when Manson enters the story. Most obviously, both men are forensic scientists but each also carries a small mobile laboratory in a case to the crime scenes. Their personalities are, however, a little different as Manson strikes me as a more sharp and prickly personality than Thorndyke.

One aspect of the novel and the characterization of Manson that I really appreciated is that the Radfords do not make their sleuth infallible. There are several occasions in the story where he either misses or misinterprets a piece of evidence (though his reasoning is usually correct – he just lacks a piece of information that the reader had) and each of those is marked with a endnote. It is almost like a reverse cluefinder where the authors draw attention to his various mistakes. I think that this choice makes his behavior and professional skills feel more credible while it also helps the reader feel confident that Jack is not just going to be caught because of his ineptitude as a murderer.

The choice to only give us the perspective of the investigator in this second half of the book makes a lot of sense given the nature of the crime and Jack’s plan. It does mean though that the Radfords never really explore the impact of the crime on the person committing it which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly is fairly unusual for a work of this length to pass over the opportunity to develop a cat-and-mouse game between the criminal and detectives.

It is perhaps this aspect of the book that is most responsible for making me feel it must have been a little old-fashioned, even at the point when it was first published. It feels much more focused on the business of forensic investigation than exploring crime as an experience and when an emotional component is introduced, the tone struck is more in keeping with melodrama than an attempt at realism.

I would advise potential readers of this to ignore the original publication date and instead consider this in the context of a few other forensically-minded characters. If you enjoy Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories or John Rhode’s Dr. Priestley mysteries, I suspect you will find a lot to admire and enjoy here. The presentation of the forensic techniques and applied reasoning are very good and while the storytelling style is slow and deliberate, each development in the case is clearly explained and explored.

The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published in 1943
Inspector Hugh Collier #10
The publication order of the Collier stories seems a little confusing to me – in his excellent introduction to the book, Curtis says it is the tenth by his reckoning so we’ll go with that.

The Blurb

Artists’ model Althea Greville was, in life, known as something of a femme fatale. But the phrase becomes only too literal. What initially appears to be red paint leads instead to Althea’s dead body, murdered in Morosini’s renowned school of art. Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard is called in, but two more murder victims follow, one of them a female student at the school, stabbed to death at a cinema. After many a twist, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle to identify a murderer operating under cover of England’s World War Two black-out.

The Verdict

A quick-paced and entertaining detective story.


My Thoughts

I am always excited to see when Dean Street Press announce a new set of titles, particularly when they feature an author that is entirely new to me. Recently they have started releasing some works by Moray Dalton (a pen name for Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) and, of course, I jumped right on them – picking up several titles.

The one that grabbed my attention most was this title, in large part because of its setting. For one thing the case is set during wartime – more on that in a moment – but also because of the art school setting. One of the ways I have spent my enforced confinement to the home over the past month is filming and editing art instructional videos for my wife’s students so I find myself in an arty mood at the moment.

The novel is set at an art school located about forty minutes outside London in the small market town of Scanbridge. The school is owned by an Italian artist whose interest in the institution has waned over the years as he makes only infrequent visits, preferring the more vibrant cultural and social life found in the capital. As a consequence the school is facing a bleak future thanks to the effect of the war and the ‘absurdly high’ fees.

It opens with the wife of the building’s caretaker unlocking and opening up the school building in an early November morning only to discover a woman lying dead on the classroom floor. One of the masters identifies her as the life model he had engaged from London and the local police, recognizing (and perhaps hoping) that the crime may have roots outside their jurisdiction, decides to send for Scotland Yard to investigate.

While the prospect of the locked school building may sound like the starting point for a locked room mystery, I should stress that it is acknowledged early in the book that there are several individuals who possess keys to the building. Those questions of access do factor into the mystery but are by no means a key focus of the story.

Instead Inspector Collier’s focus falls on exploring the history of the murdered woman and that of the individuals who make up the school’s teaching staff and student body. While the student body is a reasonably large group of characters, our attention is narrowed to just a couple of witnesses (the mechanism for that is a little contrived but I will take a little streamlining over the prospect of dozens of identical interactions).

This is not the sort of mystery that presents the reader with much in the way of physical clues – most of the information gained comes in conversation. Being so interview-driven works to the book’s advantage as Dalton’s detective, Collier, is charming and highly personable, using his interpersonal skills to ease people into revealing information to him.

The second murder, when it comes, added an additional layer of interest for me and leads to some of the book’s strongest exchanges. For instance, it is following that incident that Collier finally manages to meet with Mr. Morosini who proves a rather highly strung interviewee and who is easily the book’s most colorful character.

The aspect of the book that intrigued me most however was its setting and Dalton’s presentation of how wartime conditions affect both the fortunes of the school and the investigation. The latter is particularly well done in moments such as when Collier acknowledging that some usual approaches to crime solving, such as discreetly tailing a suspect, are just impossible in the blackout.

This brings me, a little reluctantly, to discuss the book’s conclusion which I have somewhat mixed feelings about. The reveal of the killer struck me as a little anticlimactic, in part because I think there is an argument to be made that Collier really doesn’t do much to bring that about. He certainly connects the dots at the right time but I was not entirely convinced that the character could have known for sure without that. That being said, other aspects of the conclusion make it quite an exciting and dramatic read.

The motive, when revealed, is powerful and a secondary plot is wrapped up in a way that I felt was quite pleasing and gave some characters an appropriately happy ending. It made for a nice closure to the story and I appreciated the way Dalton gives us a glimpse into how some characters’ lives have changed since they were caught up in The Art School Murders.

Overall, I found this to be a quick, engaging and entertaining read. I have, of course, indulged my Dean Street Press habit and purchased all of the other Moray Dalton titles currently available. Based on this experience I am very confident that I will be reading more from this author in the next few months.

Further Reading

This superb essay from Curtis Evans, the writer of the introduction to the Dean Street Press edition, touches on both blackouts in crime fiction and this book specifically.

The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published 1912.
This volume collected stories originally published from 1909 to 1911.

Dr. Thorndyke #5
Preceded by The Mystery of 31 New Inn
Followed by A Silent Witness

The Blurb

Silas has diamonds in the heel of his shoe. He is a thief, but until the night he meets Oscar Brodski on the footpath near his house, he has never considered murder. A diamond dealer, Brodski’s pockets bulge with more precious stones than Silas has ever dreamed of, and they will be his with one swift, violent act. Silas does the deed and arranges the diamond dealer’s body to make the death look accidental. He has provided for every contingency—except for the arrival of a doctor named Thorndyke.

In this collection of stories, the reader knows the killer’s identity long before the ingenious medical detective enters the scene. These are brilliant early examples of open mysteries, in which the question is not whodunit—but how will he get caught?

The Verdict

A key text in the development of the inverted mystery which includes several entertaining short stories.


My Thoughts

In the introduction to The Singing Bone, R. Austin Freeman takes the credit for inventing what he terms the inverted mystery novel when he wrote his short story The Case of Oscar Brodski. He suggests that this was something of a experiment – an attempt to refocus the reader’s attention from whodunnit to the question of how they would be caught.

Freeman’s reason for experimenting with the form was to reject the artificiality of the detective story with its focus on who did the crime and instead create something more realistic. The suspense would not come in waiting for the reveal but rather in smaller, incremental moments in which we see the killer’s deceptions coming undone.

Freeman wrote of his project:

Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.

R. Austin Freeman – Preface to The Singing Bone

While Freeman did not invent the idea of following a criminal as they conduct a crime, he does create a format that retained the structure of a detective story that would prove to be a model for later authors. Crofts, for example, follows the structure of splitting some of his inverted stories in half such as in Antidote to Venom, beginning by following the criminal and then switching to the investigator.

I have previously read and reviewed the earliest of the inverted stories, The Case of Oscar Brodski, on this blog but I wanted to go back and read the rest of the collection. This week I was given a little push towards doing that when I agreed to prepare for about inverted crime novels (more on that at a future time). It seemed to me that I couldn’t approach that without a fuller experience of Freeman so this jumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

Dr. Thorndyke is not the most animated sleuth around but Freeman’s stories are far from dull. The cases themselves and the process of deductive reasoning built on forensic evidence he uses can be really novel and entertaining. In a few cases, such as The Echo of a Mutiny, complex ideas are communicated and used very effectively.

I also appreciate that while Thorndyke is always successful at discovering everything the physical evidence has to offer there is no guarantee that the criminal will be held accountable. This not only adds an additional layer of interest to each story, it is also an acknowledgement that forensic scientists do not solve crimes themselves and also that sometimes you can find the killer but be unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found points of interest in each story in the collection but some particularly appealed. A Case of Premeditation engaged me with its challenges to the reader – something I had never encountered in an inverted story – and while I think Thorndyke guesses at some aspects of the case, it is very entertaining.

I also loved A Wastrel’s Romance which I think has an entertaining scenario and some charming character choices. Finally, I recommend The Case of Oscar Brodski for its importance to the development of the form.

On the whole I think that this is a very effective collection that left me keen to read more Freeman. Sure, the sleuth himself is a little dry but the situations Freeman creates are both colorful and interesting.

I offer more detailed thoughts on each of the individual stories on the second page of this review.

Read more

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Opinions

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Knife by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1932.
Dr Hailey #14.
Preceded by The White Arrow.
Followed by Case of the Red-Haired Girl.

The Blurb

“It’s a chance between murder which cannot have taken place and suicide, the manner of which is doubtful,” Mary said, when Sir Dyce Chalfont was found lying on his back, a green-handled knife gripped securely in his hand. At first the reader has a feeling it served him right ; Sir Dyce had a cruel streak in his nature – but – MURDER!

And then more murders – one, two, three of them – and all the while Dr. Hailey is probing every nook and corner. For him the green knife possessed a special and strange significance, and because of this he was able to solve as perplexing a mystery as ever found its way between the covers of a book.

The Verdict

The setup of the impossibility is quite marvellous – shame that the other aspects of the novel keep it from being as entertaining as it should be.


My Thoughts

The subject of today’s post is the book I thought that I had left at work (see my last post for more on that). Well, I was delighted to find it had just slid under the passenger seat in my car which means that I will get to write about it sooner. This is welcome as this book gives me PLENTY to want to write about.

Dr. Hailey is visited by a young woman who he met while caring for the fantastically wealthy Sir Dyce Chalfont the previous year. She asks if he will visit him to intercede on her behalf to help her avoid financial ruin after a speculation threatens to ruin her. Hailey agrees but finds Chalfont will not budge. A short while later screams are heard coming from his bedroom which is found locked with a barricade set up behind the door.

When the door is forced Chalfont is found dead with a stab wound in the back of his shoulder and a green knife lies nearby. The windows are bolted and a search produces no secret passage or hidden compartment. Unlikely as it seems, suicide seems to be the likely conclusion but then the impossible scene repeats itself another two times…

Of course the first place to start in discussing the novel is that impossibility. The scenario Wynne creates is wonderfully puzzling because it feels so complete. Every possible entrance to the room just seems to be accounted for as do everyone’s movements. Throw in the repetition and it becomes even more baffling.

Like TomCat whose excellent review is linked to below, I was perplexed by the question of how the murderer managed to get away each time. I certainly got nowhere near the solution myself!

This book was the fourteenth to feature Wynne’s sleuth, Dr. Hailey. While we spend quite a lot of time in his company, I did not feel that I knew much about him other than he was old, a little weak physically and that he has a fairly quiet demeanor, at least in comparison with the character more formally investigating the murders. Given that the character had been well established by this point, it may be that Wynne presumed readers already were familiar with him though it may reflect that he is more interested in the situation he creates than his characters.

The best comparison I could think of would be Rhodes’ Dr. Priestley in some of his earlier cases, though Hailey is a little more active and empathic towards the people involved in the case. He asks an occasional question, ventures some possible interpretations of evidence, but rarely dominates the proceedings except in the final couple of chapters and a thrilling sequence in which he finds himself trapped in the dark.

While Wynne’s plot is intriguing in a mechanical sense, unfortunately the psychological and character elements are simply not anyway near as satisfying.

A huge part of the story hinges on Chalfont’s mental state particularly in relation to his marriage to his young wife and questions he may have had about his child’s paternity. Certainly those questions hang over much of the story and Wynne tries to deal with them in a much more frank and psychological way than I might expect of a book published in 1932.

The problem is that some of that supposed analysis just makes no sense at all. One idea that particularly baffled me is that Chalfont may have disinherited his wife and willed his fortunes to the man he believed cuckolded him because he believed that man would be more likely to have his child’s best interests at heart. No amount of earnest discussions among learned authority figures could possibly convince me that makes sense yet it is returned to on several occasions.

Generally speaking the characterizations struck me as flat with few characters making much of an impression on me. Indeed there were a couple I struggled to distinguish, often having to flick back a few pages to remind myself of who they were. Pretty impressive given how small this cast of characters is.

The other issue that the novel has is one of pacing, particularly in the section of the novel between the third murder and Hailey accusing the murderer. On the one hand there is something to be said for the thorough way in which Wynne works through each possible explanation to discount it but I couldn’t help but think some could have been presented in a much more compact or at least more entertaining way.

Things thankfully liven up in the final couple of chapters as Dr. Hailey presents his case. I would argue that there are still aspects of these chapters that are needlessly drawn out – his efforts to answer and provide proof on several supporting questions – but there is a sense of movement and the key question is so baffling that I was desperate to know how it was worked.

Happily in this respect Wynne delivers, providing the reader with a clever method of killing that I think is pretty well clued although I can’t imagine beating Hailey to that solution. The reader may have to stretch their disbelief that the killer could pull off their trick several times over. Still, once Hailey begins to explain I could see all of the connections including a few Wynne never spells out clearly himself.

That is not to say however that every aspect of the ending satisfies. One of the biggest problems with the book is that the evidence for the killer’s identity is purely circumstantial. Basically the killer will give in at a point where they still had a pretty good chance to make a go of it. It isn’t a disastrous way to end the novel but it is an underwhelming one, particularly given ingenuity of the crime itself.

While I was disappointed by some aspects of the prose and character development, I was impressed by the solid plot construction and – in particular – the cunning impossible murders. This was my first encounter with Wynne and I am likely to have at least one more as I own a copy of Murder of a Lady which was released a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Just don’t expect me to rush to read it…

Second Opinions

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time offers some praise for the impossibilities but notes that the overwrought writing and characterizations will be a barrier for many readers.

Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally Published as La Mort Vient De Nulle Part (French) in 1943
English translation published in 2020

The Blurb

Is Breule Manor cursed? Can a strange incantation predicting the time of death release an occult spirit to murder time and time again, in impossible circumstances and with no clues? As the terror gets closer, an amateur detective stumbles across the astonishing solution. Recognised as one of the great books of the French Golden Age, the story will grab you, baffle you and amuse you.

The Verdict

Though short, Death out of Nowhere is packed with superb ideas and a genuinely astonishing solution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

Death out of Nowhere begins at a gathering of four friends – a journalist, novelist, school supervisor and clerk – at the manor belonging to another of their mutual friends, the Baron Pierre de Maleves.

During a discussion about crime fiction Beaurieux, the school supervisor, makes a bet that he can commit a ‘perfect crime’ at the hour of a friend’s choosing. The friend accepts and tells him to do it immediately which he does, performing a small series of actions involving a handkerchief, a funnel, some playing cards and exclaims “and the Emperor be damned”. Moments later a shot rings out and a short while later the Baron’s great-uncle is found dead in a locked and bolted room with no weapon to be found.

Let me start by saying that the opening chapters of this novella are an absolute hoot. The book opens with the group bickering about crime stories with the dialog poking fun at some of the conventions and excesses of the genre. This is one of my favorite tropes in crime fiction – the self-aware discussion of the genre to make us aware that these characters are already aware of the tricks and promising, hopefully, something fresh. Gensoul and Grenier handle this well and I think the resulting novella does a fine job of fulfilling that promise.

The idea of the impossible crime bet is an appealing one and, once again, introduced quite effectively. Beaurieux has been highly animated in conversation and when he grabs LeBellec, the clerk, by the wrists and declares “All of a sudden, I feel like killing someone” I felt energized and excited by what struck me as a moment of quite wonderfully controlled yet dramatic madness and I wondered what that moment was setting up.

The ritual itself is interesting in its simplicity and immediately raises a number of questions about what happened, whether the murder was supposed to happen and what might happen next. I was highly engaged by the questions posed and while I had some guesses, I didn’t come close to answering them. Well, except that last one. There will be more murders…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.

On the topic of those guests, it should be said that this book does not have a character formally designated as the sleuth and in whose good nature and truthfulness we can wholeheartedly trust. This does open up the possibility that any of the small cast might have been involved although the nature of their various alibis makes finding a suspect who had means and opportunity seem almost impossible.

I would also say that as you might expect from a work of this length, characterization of the various suspects and victims is fairly simplistic. The four friends do all have distinct personality types but exist mostly to fill functions in the story. I think in this case it works well and ultimately suits the tone and style of the story the authors were seeking to tell. In other words, come to this book for its plot and ideas rather than its characters and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution, when it is revealed, is one of the more audacious I have encountered in impossible crime fiction yet I think it is mechanically credible, particularly given the way it is executed here. It is perhaps the type of solution that it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with organically but I do think it is justified when you look back at the material with knowledge of what the solution will be although few of the most important clues are signposted.

My only complaint with the plotting comes with a mechanical reveal that takes place in chapter fourteen which hinges on an understanding of how something works that I didn’t think had been described. Had that been critical to understanding all of the murders I might have been less willing to forgive it and I will concede that this may just hinge on my own ignorance and may have been more apparent to other readers.

Putting that complaint to one side, I loved many other parts of the conclusion and think it did a fine job of making a complicated series of events understandable and credible. The explanation occurs after a flurry of excitement and here, once again, the authors do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of energy and intellectual curiosity.

Overall I must once again give John Pugmire and Locked Room International credit for translating this work and making it available for us to enjoy. While it is short, it has so many fantastic ideas at work that I felt thoroughly satisfied with my experience reading it. I had never heard of this novella or its authors prior to the announcement of its release being made so it was a particular delight to get to come to this with no foreknowledge or expectations and I can only hope that they continue for a long time to come.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event liked this overall, saying that it won’t be for everyone (and suggesting that it doesn’t really play fair).

(Apologies if the formatting is off on this post – I edited it on my cell after posting to add the link)

Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells

Book Details

Originally published 1936
Fleming Stone #45
Preceded by Money Musk
Followed by The Mystery of the Tarn

The Blurb

Murder, stalking among the rare and valuable volumes of a bookshop, provides Fleming Stone with one of his most dangerous and stirring cases.

Keith Ramsay decided he would have to give up his job as Philip Balfour’s librarian because he was falling in love with his employer’s wife, alli. But before he could act on his decision, Philip is found murdered in the backroom of Sewall’s bookstore– and Keith is suspect number one. However, when police discover that a rare volume, worth one hundred thousand dollars, is missing, other people and varying motives add to the complexity of the case.

The Verdict

Wells creates a promising setup for a story but it seems to go nowhere while taking forever to do so.


My Thoughts

The opening chapters of Murder in the Bookshop seemed to promise a lot. From the early descriptions of the soon-to-be-murdered Philip Balfour and his dysfunctional marriage to the man’s strange response to his librarian declaring his love for Balfour’s young wife, these chapters seemed to be pacey and packed with surprises as well as some wonderfully witty asides.

I was delighted to find that the murder happened so early in the book and really intrigued by the the circumstances that led up to it. Everything seemed quite bizarre and the circle of suspects seemed so limited that I was really curious where the story was headed.

Unfortunately the investigation that followed failed to live up to the promise of those early chapters.

Wells creates a relatively small cast of characters but they feel rather stuffed and lifeless. Take the relationship between the widow, Alli, and the librarian, Keith. By all accounts this ought to be an intense and passionate affair – after all, he has tried to throw away his career for it and their inability to walk away from it threatens to destroy them both here, yet we never really get much of a sense of how they came to like each other. I suspect that the reason may be that they are both young and in the same space but while that may explain the attraction, it is certainly not enough of a reason to make me root for their success as a couple.

That may not be a problem were the point of the book to make us doubt that one or either of the pair were acting in good faith but that is clearly not the case. Wells makes it clear that they are meant to be romantic heroes, showing us too much from their perspective to make us (or Stone) doubt them, and in the process eliminates two of our remarkably small cast of suspects.

It soon became apparent that there would only be a handful of characters who could prove significant to the case at all. Balfour’s household is so small and his interests are so limited that while he may be unpleasant there simply are not many who have a reason to murder. A development just a few chapters later whittles down our options ever further and while that moment is, for me, the most striking passage in the book it also signals the point at which the plot largely ceases to move forwards.

By this point in the story Wells’ sleuth, Fleming Stone, has already entered the picture. This is one of the later entries in a long series of novels and presumably by this stage the character already had his devotees. Unfortunately it seems that being a long-established character little thought was given here to conveying his personality to those encountering him for the first time. We learn relatively little about him here beyond the general description given when he is initially engaged.

I think it would be fair to say that the middle section of the book is not exactly overstuffed with clues or dramatic developments. Instead it is mostly occupied with the search for a missing rare book. A rare book that, I firmly believe, could not possibly exist.

A Pedantic and Utterly Pointless Diversion Into The Specifics of this McGuffin (Possibility of Spoilers too)

The book he supposedly signed is a small tome comparing the taxation policies of Britain and the United States. Now, I risk having egg on my face here in the incredibly unlikely event that said work exists. If that happens so be it but if I can’t whine about this here I have no outlet for this nonsense. I should add that I am no expert on what I am about to write but if I am, as I believe, right about this then doesn’t that make it even more egregious?

The book in question is one that has been signed by Button Gwinnett. So far, so good. His signature is famously the rarest of all the founding fathers which reflects that he died in a duel less than a year after the Declaration of Independence while he was still a young man. I could certainly understand the desire on the part of the collector to acquire anything signed by this man, particularly given the personality of the victim. I should add that had Wells just said “a book signed by Button Gwinnett” I would likely be celebrating this detail rather than devoting a third of my post to whining about it.

The problems I have lie with the other details given about the book. It has been quite a few years since I studied the revolutionary period but I am pretty sure that prior to the Articles of Confederation there was no United States government tax. For the record, I am also pretty sure that the Articles of Confederation didn’t grant those powers either – the states were responsible for creating a common treasury to pay the government’s expenses which was one of the reasons the thing didn’t work and was replaced with the US Constitution. But I digress from my digression…

The problem here is that those Articles of Confederation were debated, codified and passed into law about half a year after Gwinnett died.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… Perhaps this book details the state of taxation law in each of the thirteen colonies. This is a possibility I suppose but were I considering publishing such a small volume I might at least wait to see how the war was progressing before investing my time and money in researching, writing and printing such a volume.

This struck me as so obvious when reading the book that I was absolutely certain that it would prove critical. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment when it would be revealed that the book was a fake in the first place. How could Keith not have serious questions about that book? Did that mean that everyone was planning to pull a con on Philip Balfour? Such a moment obviously never came.

This is likely going to be an issue that will bother next to no one but it utterly distracted me.

Diversion Over

If the middle section of the book is a little slow and lacking in relevancy (much like the preceding few paragraphs of this review), the sudden acceleration of pace and tension in the final few chapters could easily give you whiplash.

These final few chapters are at least pretty engaging and I do think Wells does a good job of creating a sense of tension. Unfortunately then we get to the reveal of the villain of the piece and I am sorry to say that while I think it is at least hinted, I am afraid I just can’t buy it.

Clearly I found Murder in the Bookshop to be a very frustrating read. It is quite possible that your experience will differ. Wells often displays witty turns of phrase and set up an interesting situation, even if the investigation never quite matched up to my expectations. Finally, while he is quite bland here, I did at least want to know Stone a little better and suspect the character may not have been shown to his best advantage.

I liked those early chapters enough that I think I owe Wells a second look. If anyone has a title they want to particularly recommend I would be glad to hear them. Just don’t expect me to rush out to find a copy – I think I need a small break before trying Wells again.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated that Wells is able to stitch together several outlandish elements well to create something cohesive.

FictionFan was less impressed, finding elements of the story quite messy although they appreciated the lighter moments.

Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery was also disappointed by the plotting.