Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little

The Blurb

Who was she? Where was she going? And why?

All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.

As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.

The Verdict

Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.

Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.

The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.

Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.

Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.

One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.

I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.

The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.

You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.

In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.

Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.

I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.

This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…

The Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs

Book Details

Originally published in 1942
Inspector Littlejohn #5
Preceded by The Dead Shall Be Raised
Followed by The Case of the Seven Whistlers

The Blurb

Nathaniel Wall, the local quack doctor, is found hanging in his consulting room in the Norfolk village of Stalden – but this was not a suicide. Wall may not have been a qualified doctor, but his skill as a bonesetter and his commitment to village life were highly valued. Scotland Yard is drafted in to assist. Quickly settling into his accommodation at the village pub, Littlejohn begins to examine the evidence…Against the backdrop of a close-knit village, an intriguing story of ambition, blackmail, fraud, false alibis and botanical trickery unravels.

The Verdict

Solid, middle-of-the-road Littlejohn with few surprises. Bellairs is always good at depicting rural England though and this is no exception.


My Thoughts

I am terrible at sticking to blogging plans. One of the main reasons I stopped doing my monthly review posts was that I never seemed to follow through on any of the things I predicted I would do. Something new and exciting would always crop up to distract me away from them. As anyone who has casually glanced at my TBR Pile will note, there is always a new distraction.

The Murder of a Quack was released as part of a double bill in the British Library Crime Classics range eighteen months ago. At the time I enthusiastically reviewed the first half of the book, The Dead Shall Be Raised, a title that I still regard as one of the best Littlejohn stories I have read. My plan had been to review this work the following month but unfortunately it got forgotten in the excitement of the new. Whoops.

The Wall family have been a fixture in the village of Stalden for centuries. While not formally trained as doctors, they have been trusted for their medical knowledge and alternative remedies. Nathaniel Wall has operated the practice now for many years and seems to be well liked and trusted by the villagers so it is a shock when he is discovered murdered and strung up with his bonesetting equipment in his office. Recognizing that the case has the potential to upset the locals, the police decide to send to the Yard for outside expertise and Inspector Littlejohn is dispatched to look into the matter.

Like the previous story in the collection, this is also a very short work at well under 200 pages. That is about the right length though for this case which, while entertaining, is more straightforward than some of his later works and hinges on a few simple revelations.

In my previous experiences with Bellairs’ work I have found him to be particularly adept at portraying countryside life and this work is no exception. We get to meet a variety of types here from a variety of backgrounds and social standings, giving a sense of the wider community and how people live there and interact with one another. While I am never a fan of exaggerated phonetic spellings to convey a voice which is used frequently here, I do appreciate the thought he gives to representing as broad a range of characters as possible with respect (there is a lovely exchange with regards a charwoman that stood out to me as a highlight).

Littlejohn soon discovers local rivalries and arguments, providing us with at least a handful of suspects, although I found some to be more convincing than others and had no difficulty identifying the culprit and working out the clues that were pointing there. This is perhaps not Littlejohn’s most puzzling case. In spite of that however, I was entertained by the process by which Littlejohn reaches that same result and gratified that my reasoning was proven correct.

While there are no shocking moments in the plot, each development is set up well and there are a few powerful moments with one of the best coming near the end. Bellairs writes well, maintaining a decent pace and balancing action and description effectively. Though I find his style to be more amusing than comical, there are plenty of reasons to smile and chuckle. One of my favorites, though probably quite obscure, accompanies the reveal of the very fitting name of a woman in Cornwall.

Beyond that it is hard to think of much to say about this work (this may be my shortest review here in about two years). It is solid and very representative of the other Littlejohn stories I have read that were written in this period. No big flaws but no strong reasons to seek it out. I certainly enjoyed it and liked it more than Death of a Busybody but found it to have fewer points of interest than the more complex The Dead Shall Be Raised. That story alone justifies the purchase of the British Library’s double feature and is, in my opinion, the chief reason to pick it up. Viewed as a bonus however this is worth the read but if, like me, it takes you eighteen months to get around to it you probably won’t end up beating up on yourself.

The Vicar’s Experiments by Anthony Rolls

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
The American edition was published as Clerical Error that same year

Plot Summary

The Reverend Mr. Pardicott is struck by the idea that he should kill one of his parishioners, Colonel Cargoy. He sets about trying to devise a method by which he can eliminate him and finds his answer in a book of poisons…

The Verdict

Consistently amusing and well observed. Only the final few chapters underwhelm but the journey to that point is witty and entertaining.


My Thoughts

Those of you who listened to my appearance on one of the very early episodes of the In GAD We Trust podcast will be aware that another novel by Anthony Rolls, Family Matters, was largely responsible for my starting this blog. It also was the book that I credit as piquing my interest in inverted crime stories – an interest that you could fairly describe as having transformed into a fully-formed obsession.

Today’s post is not about that book. I will, no doubt, eventually get around to writing about that book in more detail though I feel I ought to save it for one of the big landmark posts. Instead I decided to read and write about Rolls’ first criminous novel which, depending on whether you read the British or American editions is either The Vicar’s Experiments or Clerical Error.

Now, before I go much further I should make it clear that this book is sadly long out of print. As you may expect it is rather expensive to acquire – I found that the American edition is cheaper but even that set me back $50. If this book interests you enough to search it out I strongly suggest looking for both titles and keep an eye on it appearing in some listings as by C. E. Vulliamy (Rolls’ actual name).

Okay, so that is more than enough introduction – what is the book about?

The Vicar’s Experiments introduces us to the Reverend Mr. Pardicott who presides over a small rural parish. He is in the middle of a meeting with Colonel Cargoy, a busybody who makes it his business to object to every proposal on the parish council. Pardicott is enduring the conversation when he is struck by the idea that he should kill the old soldier:

Up to a quarter past three, Mr. Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.

The Vicar’s Experiments, Chapter One

Those seeking a detailed psychological portrait of the murderer will likely be disappointed with the treatment Rolls gives to motive. In the short passage quoted above we see Pardicott snapping as an idea occurs to him he simply cannot or will not shake. He appears to view himself as an instrument acting under some sort of divine instruction and much of what follows seems to only confirm that idea to him.

We do soon see though that Pardicott does have at least one other motivation. Although he himself is married, he has a growing attachment to Cargoy’s much younger wife. Pardicott does not focus on this and indeed, his interest in the experiments he will start to conduct seems to outgrow these beginnings, but they are at least there and I think it is a more satisfying explanation than his simply being mad.

Once Pardicott gets the idea of murder in his head he then sets out to figure out how he will accomplish his deed. Though Pardicott’s motivations for murder are not particularly complex, I found it interesting to follow him as he devised and brought about his plan. The method he decides on is quite novel and while scientifically complex, explained well. Before long the parish has one fewer resident and the question becomes what will happen next. If you are in any doubt, I would invite you to consider the original British title for a clue…

Published just a year after Iles’ enormously influential Malice Aforethought, there do seem to be some similarities between the two works. Both are set in the countryside and strike broadly humorous tones, making light of some pretty dark ideas. Each features someone in a profession traditionally held in esteem behaving badly, involve obscure poisons and in both cases sexual desire is at least a partial motivation for murder.

In spite of those similarities I think it would be a mistake to think The Vicar’s Experiments a derivative work. While psychology is a factor in both books, Rolls emphasizes his own belief that murder is almost always committed by the insane. Iles’ Dr. Bickleigh was clearly a man in control of his faculties, choosing to apply them to a dark purpose. Pardicott has become seduced by an idea that compels him to act and everything he sees appears to reinforce that he is acting in accordance with Providence.

Where much of Malice Aforethought is spent getting to a point where Bickleigh is able to commit the crime, Rolls dispenses of Cargoy early in the narrative. As a consequence of this, much more time is spent exploring what happens after the murder and how the local community responds.

Rolls also places far more importance on the detection of the crime, albeit while employing a rather ineffective sleuth. This investigation is not particularly rigorous, in large part because the person carrying it out is a man of pretty limited imagination and ability. The reader will likely identify multiple loose ends and clues that might point the sleuth in Pardicott’s direction – the question is whether they will notice them and, if so, what they will do.

Rolls is able to sustain much of the lively pacing and work in some humorous moments in the early part of the investigation. One of my favorites is a sequence involving discussion of church architecture which is done very well, featuring some amusing turns of phrase.

There is a definite shift of pace and tone however in the final few chapters of the book. These feel quite noticeably slower than what has gone before and the comedic elements largely disappear. This is understandable given the turn of events in those chapters of the novel and yet it does seem quite sudden and, in my opinion, it is not wholly successful.

I think that endings are often a problem with the more comedic inverted stories. If they were successful there needs to be some form of justice and yet it is hard to provide that while keeping the laughs coming. Those who are able to do it usually manage this by making that moment come quickly with an explosive, ironical reveal. This is part of what makes Malice Aforethought such a memorable read.

The Vicar’s Experiments sustains its comedic tone much longer and more successfully than most. It captures a rural community quite well and there are some very amusing observations and commentaries in the narration. One of my favorites isn’t really a gag at all in the usual sense but rather a sort of in-joke with complaints about the dreary church architecture of Lewis Vulliamy (the author’s grandfather – a fact hidden by the use of the Rolls pseudonym).

I appreciated that the characters are all pretty colorful and distinctive. There are some amusing observations about several of those in professional roles (some of the sharpest relates to the country doctor). On the other hand, the women suffer from not being given much to do and Pardicott’s wife feels largely peripheral to much of the story.

In spite of these flaws, I felt that The Vicar’s Experiments was a really entertaining read. If, like me, you are a fan of Rolls’ Family Matters I think you will find this enjoyable and worth your time. I found it consistently amusing and was impressed by how that tone was sustained for most of the book. The murder plot uses some clever ideas, some of which seem quite inventive, and while the investigation feels quite bumbling in comparison the book remains readable right until the end.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Book Details

Originally published in 1952
Inspector Rivers #8
Preceded by It’s Her Own Funeral
Followed by Murder as a Fine Art

Carol Carnac also wrote E. C. R. Lorac

The Blurb

In Bloomsbury, London, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. The victim of a ruthless murder lies burnt beyond recognition, his possessions and papers destroyed by fire. But there is one strange, yet promising, lead—a lead which suggests the involvement of a skier.

Meanwhile, piercing sunshine beams down on the sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps, where a merry group of holidaymakers are heading towards Lech am Arlberg. Eight men and eight women take to the slopes, but, as the C.I.D. scrambles to crack the perplexing case in Britain, the ski party are soon to become sixteen suspects.

The Verdict

The alpine setting is handled well and adds appeal to a solid but relatively straightforward case.


My Thoughts

It feels rather odd to be reading about snowy holidays with the summer sun beating down on me but I was inspired to push Crossed Skis to the top of the TBR pile after a brief Twitter exchange with another book blogger about Lorac. After sharing that I have found Lorac to be a little inconsistent based on my pretty small sample, I noted that I had been intrigued to read this recent reprint. I was asked to share my thoughts when I did and so I figured I might as well do that sooner rather than later…

The story begins with a group of eight men and eight women departing Britain to travel to Lech in Austria on a skiing holiday. Most of the party do not know each other already but there is a general sense of excitement at a break from the dismal British weather, work and post-war rationing.

As they are on their way, Inspectors Brooks and Rivers are investigating a fire in a boarding house in Bloomsbury and the burnt corpse they find inside. The blaze was devastating, destroying most of the papers and objects within the room and it also rendered the body unidentifiable. The investigators have to identify the body, work out how and why they died and also understand the relevance of the strange impression that has been left outside the window.

The most striking characteristic of the novel is the decision to develop story strands in two separate locations. With the investigation confined to London until near the end of the novel, our pool of suspects are able to interact and enjoy themselves without the knowledge of the crime or the progress that the detectives are making. There are no formal suspect interviews, no structured examinations of movements or alibis. We simply observe how each member of the travel party is acting and, with knowledge of some of the findings in London, draw our own conclusions from that.

It is surprising just how well this approach works. Lorac is able to reveal much of the same information that you might expect to find in a more traditional detective story structure quite organically, often providing us with information without specifically drawing the reader’s attention to it.

On the other hand, the case seemed to have less elements than some of the other Lorac mysteries I have read. That is not to say the solution is simplistic but rather there are less attempts to use misdirection or introduce secondary mysteries to sustain the story. By the end of the novel the reader will be able to solve the mystery using their observations and logical reasoning, even as the Police characters are only learning the critical information for the first time.

I enjoyed both the London and Lech settings and story strands but not equally. While London was the site of the crime, I found I was a little impatient to see those characters make the connections to the traveling party abroad, especially once the basic facts of the case were confirmed. This does not so much reflect any lack of interest in those characters as a preference for the more colorful cast of characters we encounter in that group and for the more unusual Austrian setting.

The traveling party is large but in practice readers will likely consider only a handful of the group as suspects. This is reinforced by the author giving us more time with some characters than others. While I think each of the characters are distinctive, in practice several do feel quite peripheral to the story. The important figures however are colorfully drawn and easily distinguished, each possessing quite distinct personalities.

While the group are generally amicable in their relationships with each other, there are some points of conflict during the trip that do expose their personalities and help us understand them better. In short, I think that the book strikes a good balance between giving us a manageable group of suspects while also reflecting the sense that they are travelling as part of a larger party.

The other aspect of the trip I appreciated was the sense of time and place that Lorac is able to inject into those passages. Some of it are observations about practical details, such as the currency restrictions or arrangements for meals at the hotels, but there are also sections where the characters reflect on the need to behave courteously towards their Austrian hosts and Austria’s desire to open itself back up as a holiday destination after the war. In short, this is a book that feels like a window into the time in which it was written.

While Crossed Skis did not cause me to significantly rethink my feelings about Lorac as a writer, I did find it to be an entertaining read. It boasts a solid, if relatively simple, mystery plot elevated by the unusual story structure and choice of setting.

I imagine that to readers in 1952 the depiction of a continental skiing holiday would likely have felt very exotic and glamorous. Strangely, reading this in lockdown, I cannot help but feel I could understand the appeal of this sort of armchair travel all the more. Certainly I appreciated a chance to be diverted and transported somewhere different – it was just what I needed.

A copy was provided by the publisher for review.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Hercule Poirot #7
Preceded by The Mystery of the Blue Train
Followed by Lord Edgeware Dies

The Blurb

On holiday on the Cornish Riviera, Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear pretty Nick Buckley describe her recent “accidental brushes with death.” First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

So when Poirot finds a bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat, he decides that this girl needs his help. Can he find the would-be killer before he hits his target?

The Verdict

One of my favorites. It is cleverly plotted with a memorable setup and some entertaining interactions between Poirot and Hastings.


My Thoughts

I had not planned to be writing about Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House today but this week I have found myself tremendously distracted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to be checking to see if those test results are in and, as a consequence, I find I cannot really concentrate on anything. Realizing that anything new I read was not going to get a fair hearing, I decided to revisit an old favorite instead.

While I do not typically think of myself as Cornish (my parents both having moved there as adults), I spent my entire childhood living there. As a consequence any time I encounter a book that is set there it tends to stand out and stick in my memory. Peril at End House stands out all the more as the first novel I can remember reading to be set there. That is not to say that I think the setting comes through particularly in the prose – it is really just a series of place names – but at the time that gave it a huge amount of novelty, grabbing my attention for long enough for me to notice the superb plotting.

The story begins with Poirot and Hastings holidaying together in a hotel in Cornwall. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Nick Buckley, who tells them about her frequent narrow escapes from death over the previous few days. During their conversation Nick complains of a wasp flying past her head but Poirot finds a bullet nearby leading him to suspect that she had just survived yet another attempt on her life.

Poirot, although still retired, decides that he will act as Nick’s protector. He meets her friends and, fearing that one of them may be responsible, persuades Nick to invite her cousin Maggie to stay and act as a protector. Unfortunately that act does not prevent a murder from taking place.

One of the things I remember most about the experience of reading this for the first time was my sense of shock at the killer’s identity and their motive. It was a significant enough surprise that I never had any difficulty remembering that solution. I have revisited Peril at End House many times over the years since though and I find that each time I am struck by how very cleverly and carefully it is constructed. This is one of Christie’s purest puzzle plots and I appreciate that it is achieved with some simple but very effective uses of misdirection.

My enjoyment of the story begins with the very organic way in which Poirot is brought into this case. He is not hired or compelled into taking this case but he is a witness and his decision to become involved is a consequence of his feelings of empathy towards Nick and his natural sense of curiosity. In short, I appreciate that this is a case that emerges out of his character and that, as such, it feels like it fits with the more empathic and gallant Poirot that we see at points in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It struck me that this case is the first time we really see Poirot challenged to prevent a murder. This is an idea that Christie returns to in several other Poirot stories, most memorably in my favorite Poirot story The A.B.C. Murders, and I think it suits his character particularly well. This case represents a challenge to him and makes him feel personally involved in its resolution. I think this helps us understand better why he becomes so agitated about any little failures or misjudgments on his own part – here it is less a matter of vanity and more the knowledge that if he fails it could mean death for those he has sworn to protect.

I also really appreciate that this novel brings back Hastings and builds on the sense of friendliness and comradeship we see on display in The Big Four. Here, once again, we get the sense that the two men simply enjoy each others’ company and care about each other. They are, after all, choosing to holiday with each other. There are, of course, plenty of Poirot’s typical little dismissive comments about Hastings’ mental abilities but towards the conclusion we see another little instance of Hastings being valuable to Poirot precisely because he thinks so differently from him and I think he has a much clearer purpose here than in his first few appearances.

Nick is an intriguing character and it is easy to understand why Poirot and Hastings are drawn to want to protect her. She epitomizes that sense of carefree living in the moment that was in vogue at the moment. This carries through into some of the details we learn about her life and those of the set she associates with and, as a result, the story feels quite youthful and energetic. This is not only entertaining, it also reminds us that Poirot and Hastings are of a different generation and that, quite amusingly, Poirot seems more aware of what is in fashion than his considerably younger friend.

The other characters are perhaps a little less fully sketched but each is easily distinguished and several are quite entertaining. There is just one story strand that I think feels disconnected from the others. I cannot identify the character or characters without spoiling their role in the plot but I will say that I find their appearances to be a little tedious and that I find it hard to take seriously as a killer or killers. They are not in it enough however to really irritate me and I can imagine others may find their appearances more entertaining than I did.

The plotting is, as I suggested above, generally very good with Christie pacing out her little moments of surprise and intrigue well. Things build to a close with a rather wonderful set piece sequence that stands out for me as being one of the great Hastings moments and sets up a powerful sequence in which Poirot identifies the killer. Unfortunately a choice made in the ending seems to undermine it a little, not feeling entirely earned, but on the whole I think the story is wrapped up very tidily.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a greater work with a more intricately worked plot and narrative trickery, I find Peril at End House to be the more entertaining read. The situation is clever and I really enjoy the interactions between Poirot and Hastings throughout the book. I am happy to find, each time I revisit it, that it stands up to repeated reads and I am sure that I will find myself reading it again before I reach Curtain in my read-through.

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer

Book Details

Originally published in 1951
Shaffer originally published this under the name Peter Anthony.

Mr Verity #1
Followed by How Doth The Little Crocodile

The Blurb

The little Sussex town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century. And certainly none more baffling— to all except Mr Verity. From the moment he appears this bearded giant— ruthless inquirer, devastating wit and enthusiastic collector of the best sculpture— has matters firmly (if fantastically) under control. Things are certainly complicated, but this is hardly enough to deter Mr Verity. As he himself observes: “when the number of suspects is continually increasing, and the number of corpses remains constant, you get a sort of inflation. The value of your individual suspect becomes hopelessly depreciated. That, for the real detective, is a state of paradise.”

The Verdict

More amusing than raucously funny, but the mystery is solid enough to please puzzle fans.


My Thoughts

It is always exciting when a new British Library Publishing catalog arrives and I get to look through to see what new releases are coming up. I love to look through and pick out the upcoming titles I am most excited about. Sometimes it is because the author is an old favorite but sometimes it is because there is a title you didn’t expect to see at all. That was the case with The Woman in the Wardrobe by playwright Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer is perhaps best remembered for his plays Equus and Amadeus but he also penned several mystery novels under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, sharing writing duties on later volumes with his brother Anthony Shaffer. This first volume however was apparently written by Peter Shaffer alone. These books have been out of print for a long time so it is exciting that the first has been made available again, complete with Nicolas Clerihew Bentley’s lovely illustrations.

The story begins with Mr. Verity observing a man climb into a bedroom window at the Charter Hotel. Thinking this odd, Verity decides to go inside the Hotel to alert the staff to the unusual behavior. Investigating, they discover the door to the room is locked. Once inside, they find a man shot dead, a woman tied up in the wardrobe and the window locked from the inside.

Mr. Verity, who is apparently already a seasoned amateur sleuth, is drafted in to help Inspector Jackson with his investigation. In practice however he quickly seems to take charge, identifying several suspects and leading the questioning. It is not hard to find people who wanted the victim dead – the problem though is understanding how they were able to lock the door and the window from the inside.

Before I get into talking about the plot itself, I should probably mention that this novel strikes a decidedly comedic tone. In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes how Verity is a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ type. I would agree that the character does call back to many of the amateur sleuths of the Golden Age but it is more pastiche than parody. Certainly we should take Verity more seriously than, say, Melville’s Inspector Minto.

Shaffer primarily uses two types of humor in this novel. Much of it is situational, such as the farcical movements of characters back and forth through the supposedly locked room. In his excellent review, Puzzle Doctor rightly suggests that there is something of the West End farce in those scenes and I would agree, although I found it more amusing than raucous.

Incidentally, I was struck when reading this just how well it would probably translate to being adapted into a theatrical production. Much of the action takes place in just a few spaces and most of the important points about the plot are conveyed in conversation rather than description. I never had any difficulty visualizing characters’ movements or actions which is invaluable in any locked room story.

The other strand of humor is more consciously zany, with an attempt to create a sense of the ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is a rather colorful suspect who speaks at length about his obsession with Verity and Jackson – I won’t say exactly what the subject of that obsession is but the passages in which they interact are the most overtly comedic in the novel. I found these pretty funny but I am conscious that they do feel somewhat tangential to the overall plot, particularly given how short the book is.

In addition to being a comical mystery story, The Woman in the Wardrobe is also a locked room mystery. Bob Adey is quoted in the introduction as describing this as ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution’. At this point let me say I agree with the second half of that statement – the solution is very clever indeed – but I disagree with the former.

My issues are largely presentational. Shaffer establishes from a very early point in the novel that while the victim’s room key is locked inside the room, there is a hotel master key unaccounted for. That key would enable anyone to lock the room from the outside, basically undermining the idea that the door is a barrier at all. While I trusted that this would not be the explanation because of Adey’s comment, that master key becomes a bit of a distraction.

My other issue with the locked room is impossible to describe in any details without giving a significant spoiler. The best I can offer is that there is a possible (and fairly obvious) explanation for how the locked door and window could have happened that is dismissed on logical grounds that are, I think, flawed and certainly I found them much less persuasive than Verity or Jackson did.

On the other hand, I do agree with Adey that the actual solution is brilliant (and I will trust him that it was new). Every aspect of that solution is carefully clued and Verity’s explanation given makes perfect sense of each part of the crime scene, overcoming my frustrations about each of the above points. While I do not think that Verity fully disproves the issues I mention above, I think his explanation of his own solution is clever and convincing that ends the novel on a very high note.

The Woman in the Window is a short but entertaining read. I was amused by the comedic elements of the investigation and appreciated the solution which felt clever and imaginative. I enjoyed this enough to hope that the other two Verity stories will follow in the future.

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1945

The Blurb

A deranged killer sends a doctor on a quest for the truth—deep into the recesses of his own mind.

After the death of Inis St. Erme, Dr. Henry Riddle retraces the man’s final moments, searching for the moment of his fatal mis-step. Was it when he and his bride-to-be first set out to elope in Vermont? Or did his deadly error occur later—perhaps when they picked up the terrifying sharp-toothed hitch-hiker, or when the three stopped at “Dead Bridegroom’s Pond” for a picnic?

As he searches for answers, Riddle discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning his sanity and his innocence. After all, he too walked those wild, deserted roads the night of the murder, stranded and struggling to get home to New York City. The more he reflects, his own memories become increasingly uncertain, arresting him with nightmarish intensity and veering into the irrational territory of pure terror—that is until an utterly satisfying solution emerges from the depths, logical enough to send the reader back through the narrative to see the clues they missed.

The Verdict

A suspenseful, atmospheric and unsettling read. The mystery plays fair and has a really clever resolution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

In his excellent introduction to the American Mystery Classics reprint, Joe. R. Lansdale recommends that readers attempt to consume this in a single sitting. The reason is that this is written as one long manuscript without any chapter breaks, almost as a stream of consciousness, and by doing so you allow the narrative to slowly build upon your senses of apprehension and dread.

I opted to follow Lansdale’s advice and I would strongly recommend that you do as well. This book is one of the trippiest and most disconcerting I have read in a while and I agree that it rewards a reader’s undivided attention.

The book is told from the perspective of Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon who is attempting to make sense of a bizarre series of events. These concern Elinor and Inis – a couple who were travelling through Vermont from out-of-state in a plan to elope together and the hitchhiker with a torn ear, sharp teeth and a strange corkscrew walking style that joined them on their journey.

The particular part of Vermont they are in happens to be very remote and Riddle himself is a visitor, having been called into the area to provide care to a gravely ill man. The party decides to stop at the nearby Dead Bridesgroom’s Pond for a picnic but the meal has a violent end as the hitchhiker apparently kills Inis and attempts to murder his fiancée before speeding away in a car containing the corpse.

Dr. Riddle tries to understand is why he did not pass that car when it was seen heading along the road he was stranded on and given there was no turning before it should have passed him. It is a perplexing situation that becomes even stranger when he learns that the man he witnessed walk past him in the forest had been killed a short time earlier when he was struck by the fleeing car.

Rogers writes in a seemingly unfocused style, jumping forwards and backwards in the order of events. This represents his stream of consciousness and also his sense of confusion as he works around different points in the series of events, trying to make some sense of those experiences. The experience is as disorienting for the reader as it is for Riddle and the more we learn, the more confusing those events appear.

This unorthodox storytelling style is one of the most memorable aspects of the book because it is no mere gimmick. The apparent disorder of Riddle’s thoughts helps establish the mood and tone of the piece while also reflecting a key theme of the novel – that our observations may be unreliable as things are not always as they appear.

That idea can be applied to the novel itself as much as its plot. On the surface this appears to be a psychological suspense story with countryside noir elements. Those aspects of the novel are certainly there but beneath them Rogers has crafted an exceptional example of a fair play mystery with clever, logical clues and an audacious solution that you have a reasonable chance of reaching for yourself. It is a remarkable achievement that makes me wish Rogers had been more prolific in the genre.

The plot, themes and tone would be reason enough to read this but they are not the novel’s only strengths. I was struck by Rogers’ depiction of the rural setting and the feeling of being really isolated. This is not only important to the plot, it feeds into the book’s strange sense of atmosphere as we are reminded that you could travel for miles without seeing anyone and that if a killer does still lurk nearby, the characters have little hope of getting help.

This atmosphere seems to thicken the more you read and a slow, inexorable sense of dread grows as the tale nears its conclusion. That ending is as thrilling as it is clever, the tension building right up to the end.

There is plenty more I could say about this book but unfortunately doing so would spoil the book’s surprises. Instead let me sum up by saying that I found this book to be a truly gripping and unpredictable read. I appreciated the clever blend of psychological suspense and fair play mystery with several apparent impossibilities and that wonderful sense of atmosphere Rogers creates.

Strongly recommended.

A copy of the new American Mystery Classics edition was provided by the publisher for review.
The American Mystery Classics edition will be released on July 7th (print) and 9th (digital).

Your Turn, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

Book Details

Originally Published in 1935 as No Hero (US) and Mr. Moto Takes A Hand (UK)

Mr. Moto #1
Followed by Thank You, Mr. Moto

The Blurb

During World War I, Casey Lee was one of the best pilots around. Known for his boldness and bravery, he was heralded as a hero. But now the war’s over, the Depression is on, and Americans no longer have time for public heroes, leaving Lee washed up and desperate for work. When a tobacco company suggests he fly from Japan to North America, a feat which has never been accomplished, Lee jumps at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the idea is abandoned soon after he arrives in Tokyo, and he receives the news in the midst of one of the daily drinking binges with which he now passes the time.

Stranded in a foreign land with wavering loyalty to his home country, Lee has few friends, but his situation changes suddenly when he meets the intriguing Mr. Moto, a Japanese man who takes a particular interest in the down-and-out pilot. By the time he meets Sonya, Moto’s beautiful Russian colleague, Casey has unknowingly entered into a life-threatening plot of international espionage at the service of Japan’s imperial interests ― but will he realize the severity of his situation before it’s too late?

The Verdict

The thriller elements move quickly while the setting is treated much more sympathetically than I expected from a work of this era. While it is perhaps not an essential read, it is certainly an entertaining one.


My Thoughts

American aviator Casey Lee has travelled to Japan under the belief that he will be undertaking a commercial project to fly tobacco across the Pacific. If he could pull it off it would be the first time a pilot had accomplished the feat. Unfortunately he soon learns that the project has fallen through and is preparing to return to America when he is approached by Mr. Moto who asks if he would be prepared to undertake the same project in a Japanese plane.

Soon Lee finds himself travelling by boat rather than air and is surprised to find he is not alone on the ship. Several strange incidents occur during the trip but the most shocking comes when a body is found in his cabin. Finding himself in danger and unsure who to trust, Lee soon realizes that he is caught up in some political games and has to figure out what he ought to do.

While there is a dead body in this novel, I ought to stress that this is really not a conventional detective story or mystery. Rather it has much more in common with the sorts of adventure thrillers you might find from Agatha Christie in this period with an emphasis on incident rather than psychology or even careful clueing.

Casey Lee belongs to that category of thriller protagonists who are sympathetic largely because we are aware that they are caught up in events they cannot control. Still, I think he takes an interesting journey, starting the book as a washed up drunkard and ending it a little more aware of what exactly he wants. He can, at times, be frustrating but I did find myself invested in his fate and hoping he could avoid becoming collateral damage in these political games.

One of the most surprising aspects of the novel for me was how little Mr. Moto actually features in it. While his presence is certainly felt throughout the novel and he is responsible for bringing the protagonist into the adventure, he spends much of the book observing what was happening and takes little in the way of direct action. This reflects that Moto is not a detective – at least not here. He may ask questions and he is seeking an answer but he plays the role of spymaster, recruiting others to do that work for him.

The presentation of the character is generally quite sympathetic with Moto shown to be courteous, mannered and possessing a great deal of humanity. He is a man who is somewhat at odds with the nature of the role he finds himself playing and Marquand does a good job of indicating how he is sometimes uncomfortable with the work he is doing.

In terms of the structure of the story however at times he finds himself acting almost as an antagonist, creating dangers and problems for our protagonist. It is an interesting and often quite ambiguous characterization that is much more richly layered than you may initially assume.

Prior to reading the book I had been concerned whether the characterization of Moto or the Japanese setting might not have aged well. After all, I have read several books from this decade and the ones that followed it that, while seemingly well-intentioned, made some uncomfortable descriptions or uses of language.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that while Japan may at times be presented as mysterious and exotic, Marquand treats the Japanese with a great deal of understanding. Japan is shown to be a country keen to modernize and attain respect and power on the international scene. At the same time, Marquand places that within the context of other nations’ efforts to expand their influence in east Asia, making for a more thoughtful presentation of those issues and Japanese society than you might expect.

Similarly the portrayal of the American characters is not particularly positive and readers will likely understand why Lee is feel disaffected. Even when he starts to feel some patriotic sentiment later in the novel, he remains aware that the American officials he is interacting with are far from helpful and possess their own agenda. Lee’s best interests are a secondary concern for most of the people he interacts with.

All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. The final few chapters of the novel do a pretty good job of increasing the scope of the adventure and applying some additional pressures to the protagonist. This is not so much a case of adding more action elements but rather creating a situation where Lee is caught up in a race against time. This works pretty well and contributed to create a conclusion that I found to be pretty satisfying.

Overall, I was pretty pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. I would repeat my warning that this is really an adventure or thriller rather than a detective story and I think readers should be prepared to be frustrated with Lee’s decision making at points. Still, the adventure is well-told with a few striking moments and I had no difficulty staying engaged.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Hercule Poirot #6
Preceded by The Big Four
Followed by Peril at End House

The Blurb

When the luxurious Blue Train arrives at Nice, a guard attempts to wake serene Ruth Kettering from her slumbers. But she will never wake again—for a heavy blow has killed her, disfiguring her features almost beyond recognition. What is more, her precious rubies are missing.

The prime suspect is Ruth’s estranged husband, Derek. Yet Hercule Poirot is not convinced, so he stages an eerie reenactment of the journey, complete with the murderer on board. .

The Verdict

This dull mystery plot has never really sparked any excitement in me. Sadly this time is no different.


My Thoughts

Ruth Kettering, an American heiress, is in an unhappy marriage to an English aristocrat. Her father, Rufus van Aldin, gifts her a fabulous ruby – The Heart of Fire. He advises her to keep it at home but instead she decides to take it with her on a trip on board the Blue Train through France.

During the train’s journey Ruth’s body is discovered in her compartment having been strangled and the jewel has vanished. Poirot, still in retirement and also travelling on board the train, is asked by her father to take on the case. He agrees to take on the case, comparing himself to a retired doctor who has stumbled upon someone needing medical treatment.

According to several sources I have read this novel was one of Christie’s least favorites and unfortunately I rather share her feelings (although I suspect her reasons were rather different from mine). A month or so ago I tweeted about how I have spent the past two decades of my life attempting to listen to the BBC Radio adaptation of this novel and never made it all the way through. Part of that is that I really just don’t dig that production but it also reflects that this plot is, for me, a bit of a snooze.

Let’s start with some positive comments about the book – while I do not love the mystery, I think Christie’s writing continued to mature and the prose is pretty engaging. Actually one of the reasons I think I had no problem concentrating on the book was because her narration was sharp, clear and generally quite entertaining. The radio adaptation loses that and instead forces you to focus on the more melodramatic elements in characters’ conversations with each other.

I also quite like the way Poirot is brought into this story and the awkward relationship he forms with van Aldin. One of the things I think that this story conveys very effectively is that Poirot considers the dead woman (and the truth) to be his client rather than the man who hired him. There are several points at which Poirot asserts himself over his employer and in those moments I think make him appear rather heroic.

Unfortunately here I rather run out of good things to say about a book that shares some of my least favorite traits of the thrillers she was writing in this decade.

Let’s start with the character of Katherine who serves as the replacement Hastings for this story. I actually rather liked the idea of Katherine – the former companion who was left a huge bequest by her last employer and who is now travelling. It makes for an appealing backstory but I really do not love the way she is provided with a really unconvincing romance. This is partly because I just don’t see why that relationship would work for her but mostly I think it overwrites the character’s actual arc of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (I don’t actually buy that either but the two resolutions seem completely incompatible with each other).

The second relates to the setup to the murder plot which feels far too forced and mechanical. Part of the problem is, I think, that we are given too much information about the suspects and possible motives from the start. While Poirot still has things to do, the closed circle nature of this crime feels all the more evident and I do feel there are chapters in the middle of the book that seem to drag as though the investigation is being stretched out.

The biggest other issues I have with the book though veer far more into the spoilery territory of discussing the villain or villains of the piece. Some of the clues given struck me as rather unconvincing such as a dropped cigarette case which is discussed in depth yet seems to me to be far less clearly incriminating than the novel suggests. Throw in a rather unexciting group of suspects and you have a recipe for a book that just seemed to drag on for me.

I had come to The Mystery of the Blue Train hoping that my feelings towards it might have changed with time or familiarity. Sadly they have not. Still the good news for me is that I have nothing but fond memories of our next Poirot story – Peril at End House. Hopefully I will find it holds up!

One by One They Disappeared by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1929
Inspector Collier #1
Followed by The Night of Fear

The Blurb

Elbert J. Pakenham of New York City is among just nine survivors of the sinking of the Coptic – not counting his black cat Jehosaphat. The benevolent Mr. Pakenham has made his fellow survivors joint beneficiaries in his will, his nephew having recently passed away. But it seems that someone is unwilling to share the fortune, as the heirs start to die under mysterious circumstances . . .

Then Mr. Pakenham himself disappears, and Inspector Collier of Scotland Yard suspects dirty work. When a trap is laid that seriously wounds his best friend at the Yard, Superintendent Trask, Collier is certain his suspicions are correct. Into his net are drawn a charming young woman, Corinna Lacy, and her cousin and trustee, Wilfred Stark; a landed gentleman of dubious reputation, Gilbert Freyne, and his sister-in-law, Gladys; an Italian nobleman of ancient lineage and depleted estate, Count Olivieri; and a Bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. But Collier will need some unexpected feline assistance before the case is solved.

The Verdict

A lively tontine tale with some entertaining but rather far-fetched plot developments. While this was the first Collier novel published, I would start with a later title and come back to this.


My Thoughts

There are some elements of golden age mysteries that just seem to excite me. At the top of that list would be any mention of curare, that mysterious and rare poison that every English aristocrat seemed to possess a jar of. Right behind that though would be the tontine will.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term or idea, a tontine will designates a certain group of individuals as the beneficiaries. At the moment of death the surviving members would be paid an equal share of the bequest. This is, of course, mystery fiction gold because you instantly create a situation in which the characters all share an equally powerful motive to remove the other members to increase the size of their portion.

One by One They Disappeared involves just such a will. Elbert Pakenham, a wealthy American, had a narrow escape with death when he and eight other passengers survive the sinking of the Coptic during a transatlantic voyage. Each year he had thrown a dinner for his fellow survivors in England, bestowing them with small gifts. Then, realizing he is aging and that he has no one else to leave the money to, he announces that he has made all of his fellow survivors joint heirs in his will.

This story begins with the dinner the year after this announcement has been made. Pakenham is dismayed to find that only a couple of the survivors show up to that year’s dinner. When one of the survivors dies in a suspicious fall in a place he had no reason to be, Collier suspects foul play and soon discovers that several of the other beneficiaries had also disappeared.

As setups for this sort of story go, I think this gets things off to a promising start. For one thing, I appreciated that we come into this murder plot after it is already well underway. For one thing, it does mean that our sleuth can see a pattern emerging and allows for the suspect pool to be whittled down to a more manageable number.

The sort of informal role that Inspector Collier has at the beginning is a little awkward as he really has no standing to investigate the case at that point. On the other hand, I think Dalton does provide us with some convincing reasons for him to become interested in the case and by the time things get more serious he does have a more formal part to play.

This is, of course, Collier’s first outing as a detective and I was a little surprised that Dalton does not seem to spend much time establishing his character. Instead she really just throws us straight into the case and introduces him as we learn about and follow his efforts to investigate the crime. Still, I think the essential qualities of his character are communicated to the reader in the way we see him deal with the other characters and the consideration he shows throughout the investigation. He is not necessarily a strong character but I think he is a thoroughly likeable one.

The other characters were, for me, a little more inconsistent. Pakenham is certainly an interesting figure and I appreciated the way he is shown to respond to the situation that develops. He ends up playing an important and active role in the story which I did not expect and I think his involvement did lend an extra level of interest to the situation.

The suspects however are a largely different matter. Their personalities and characters are displayed to the reader from their first appearances, making spotting the culprit frustratingly easy. The shadier figures instantly stand out while others can be immediately dismissed because of their involvement in a secondary, romantic plotline.

As with the other Dalton novels I have read, this does have a certain direct quality that helps make it a page-turning read. There is a sense that Collier is constantly edging nearer to catching the killer and while the action in the plot is fairly limited, I did appreciate that there are a few moments of excitement as we near the conclusion.

As for that conclusion, well – I think that the story shares some stylistic elements with the thrillers Christie was writing in this period. That sort of storytelling is not a particular favorite for me and I think there are a few aspects of the explanation that seemed a little confusing but here I cannot go into any more detail without spoiling which, of course, I have no wish to do.

So, where does that leave One by One They Disappeared? I think it is clear that this is an early work and there are a few rougher edges. For instance, the suspects feel a little flat and the decision to pull the story to a conclusion seemed rather arbitrary.

It isn’t bad – I would certainly reach for it ahead of most of those Christie thrillers. What keeps me from a more enthusiastic recommendation is that I have already come across other Dalton novels I liked more. I would far more readily recommend either The Art School Murders and The Condamine Case, both of which feel more refined works. Still, this is a fun and quick read and while I would suggest getting to know Collier through other stories first, this is a good, solid read worth circling back to.