The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase

The Blurb

In the scenic Scottish village of Kirkcudbright, no one is disliked more than Sandy Campbell. When the painter is found dead at the foot of cliff, his easel standing above, no one is sorry to see him gone—especially six members of the close knit Galloway artists’ colony.

The inimitable Lord Peter Wimsey is on the scene to determine the truth about Campbell’s death. Piecing together the evidence, the aristocratic sleuth discovers that of the six suspected painters, five are red herrings, innocent of the crime. But just which one is the ingenious artist with a talent for murder?

The Verdict

The core ideas of the mystery are interesting but I found the telling of it tedious and drawn out.

I say – I don’t mind betting this is the most popular thing Campbell ever did. Nothing in life became him like the leaving it, eh, what?

My Thoughts

For years I have held that The Five Red Herrings is one of the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. In fact I can clearly recall doing just that over drinks one evening with a fellow mystery fan during my university days at the student union bar. Having revisited it for the first time in twenty years I feel the need to apologize to that friend if they happened to follow my advice – I don’t know what I was thinking either.

The novel takes place in a Scottish village where a colony of artists reside. Lord Peter happens to be holidaying nearby and so gets to know several of the key figures prior to the case beginning including the victim, a quarrelsome artist by the name of Sandy Campbell. In fact he even was involved in one altercation shortly before Campbell is found dead having apparently slipped in a tragic accident while painting.

Lord Peter quickly notes that the death, while appearing accidental, must almost certainly have been murder. After proving his point he lends a hand with the investigation, looking into the six fellow painters who he considers the most likely culprits.

I found the opening chapters of the novel to offer some points of promise, not least the chapter in which Lord Peter sets about proving that murder was done after all. This is done quite simply and it even involves a fun challenge to the reader in which the narrator tells us that they won’t identify what Lord Peter thinks is wrong with the crime scene immediately as we should be able to guess it for ourselves. They’re right, of course, and the answer is pretty persuasive.

I also think Sayers does a pretty good job of setting up Campbell to be a deserving corpse. It is pretty clear from the moment he first appears why anyone in the village might want to kill him and I appreciate that Sayers offers up some variety among those six suspects, each of whom has experienced a different point of tension with him. The line I quote above from Lord Peter feels decidedly apt.

Most of my problems begin however with the investigation proper. It is, in short, tedious. I know that people love to deride Freeman Wills Crofts as a timetable plotter but this book includes multiple, incredibly dry and detailed timetables. Those who love to painstakingly chart the movements of multiple bicycles and keep track of different train routes may love this – I was just losing my patience.

There is a bit of a brief respite from this when we get a passage narrated by Bunter about his own investigations that Wimsey suggests ‘would do credit to The Castle of Otranto‘ – perhaps overstated but nonetheless I found it to be quite a welcome change. Unfortunately we are soon back to the grind.

And it is a grind. For instance, the chapter titled Farren’s Story contains a page-long paragraph. I made a note in my Kindle edition that this was ‘Too much text’ and I stand by that. Those sorts of long, dense passages often seem to do little to move the plot forward and instead just seem to stretch the story out more and more, as do the several explanations of the crime that are offered prior to Wimsey’s own.

That is not to say that there are not some bright spots. This book contains a number of references to other Golden Age crime novels such as Crofts’ Sir John Magill’s Last Journey and various other works that Sayers clearly felt were of note, many of which might now be considered obscure. Unfortunately there does seem to be a spoiler for Connington’s The Two Tickets Puzzle, though the information given may be less crucial than it seemed here (I own that title but have yet to read it).

I also think that there are a few nice character moments for Wimsey and I did enjoy the material with Bunter, limited though it was. Sadly they couldn’t overcome my complaints about the pace that the mystery unfolded at.

This is a shame because I think that the story isn’t, in itself, a bad one. In fact one of the reasons that this post is coming to you later than planned was that I wanted to listen to the radio adaptation again which was the most recent way I had most recently consumed it. I was pleased to find that it was much closer to my memories of the piece and also a little tighter as well. Perhaps it helps too that I often prefer the softer, more jovial Ian Carmichael rendering of Wimsey to the character I imagine coming from the page. If memory serves (and clearly, mine is questionable), the TV adaptation was pretty decent too.

All in all, I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy my experience revisiting this one and do not anticipate doing so again any time soon. At least, not as the novel. Thankfully the next novel in the series brings back Harriet Vane so hopefully I will find more to like there. I may wait another few months though before settling down to read it…

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published in 1930
Dr. Thorndyke
Preceded by Dr. Thorndyke Investigates
Followed by Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

The Blurb

Mr. Pottermack is persecuted by a blackmailer against whose extortions he is quite defenceless. Eventually he makes away with his persecutor and effectually conceals the body. But, too late, he discovers the unmistakable tracks of the deceased leading to his garden gate, and, since it is impossible to efface them, he conceives the idea of continuing them to some less compromising destination.

This he does with great skill and ingenuity and so convincingly that no hint of suspicion falls on him – until, by chance, the case comes to the notice of Dr. Thorndyke, who instantly detects the fraud. For there is one little, inconspicuous fact that Mr. Pottermack has overlooked.

Probably the reader will overlook it, too, and will be deeply interested when, at the end of the book, Thorndyke explains the curious fact he had noted and details the intricate chain of reasoning by which, from this one fact, he was able to reconstruct the whole sequence of events.

The Verdict

A compelling exploration of an attempt to cover up a crime and the way that is carefully unpicked. Clever and audacious. Highly recommended.

It was true that everything seemed to be quite safe and secret. He, Pottermack, had taken every possible precaution. But supposing he had forgotten something; that he had overlooked some small but vital detail.

My Thoughts

A little over a year ago I was having a discussion with JJ for his then-untitled Golden Age of Detection podcast in which we chatted about inverted mysteries. During our discussion he asked if I had ever read Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight and recommended it to me as something I would likely enjoy. It’s taken me some time to follow that advice but I am very happy to say that I did…

Mr. Pottermack is working in his garden preparing for the installation of a sundial when he uncovers a deep and rather dangerous well that had been lightly boarded over and covered in earth. When he finishes his work he opens his mail to discover another note from a blackmailer demanding a payment and informing him that he will call on him soon. When he arrives Mr. Pottermack decides he has had enough and strikes out, killing his tormentor and sending his body dozens of feet down the well.

For a few moments he is relieved to think that his ordeal is over but that feeling is short-lived as he soon realizes that there is a long and very clear trail of footprints leading their way into his garden…

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight then is an example of the howcatchem style of inverted mystery. After witnessing the unplanned murder, the bulk of the novel is spent following Mr. Pottermack’s careful attempts to cover up his crime with only occasional asides where we briefly follow Dr. Thorndyke’s interest in the case. Our goal then is to spot the loose bit of thread that Thorndyke will use to start his chain of deductions. While I am not entirely convinced by Freeman’s assertion there is just one oversight to spot, it is a fun game to play.

Freeman provides the reader with a lot of technical detail as we see Pottermack carefully prepare and execute his various schemes but that is anything but dry. I was struck by the intelligence and the credibility of much of what is done, both in terms of believing that it could be done and that someone like Pottermack would conceive the plan in the first place.

The crime is hidden quite convincingly to the point where it seemed to me inconceivable that it could all get back to him at all, even if we know that Thorndyke is suspicious of him from the very beginning. Freeman however has a clever and compelling twist that will complicate Pottermack’s situation and force him to accept some additional risks. I might suggest that it is a somewhat Ilesian twist except, of course, that Malice Aforethought had yet to be published when Freeman wrote this. It certainly provides a strong boost to the story as Pottermack embarks on a truly audacious plan.

I don’t want to spoil where that plan takes him. This is a rather wild ride and part of the fun lies in figuring out exactly what he is trying to accomplish. I would say that the ideas used here are really quite original and entertaining, even if I have a few questions about whether they would have worked even in 1930. Freeman, to his credit, did ultimately reference some of those towards the end of the novel during the section in which Thorndyke explains how he pieced the truth together.

In that conversation with JJ I referenced the idea that one of the interesting aspects of the inverted mystery is that a skilled author can often create a character or situation that leads the reader to sympathize with the character of the killer. In some rare instances that may even extend to wanting to see them get away with it. This was one of those instances for me as I found Pottermack’s plight really quite sympathetic, particularly once we learn more about why he was being blackmailed. Even if you do not sympathize with him, his actions are always interesting and I appreciate that while he is thoughtful, he seems to remain in movement throughout most of the story.

Thorndyke, in contrast, spends much of the story in the background. He is only occasionally brought directly into the story and even then it is in an unofficial capacity. There is a sense of intrigue however generated by this added distance as it means that we are encouraged to deduce what he might have seen or understood in those very brief moments of interaction.

When he does finally offer us an explanation of the crime, I think it feels all the more interesting because we have had so little interaction with him up until that point. It is hard not to feel a small thrill as he calmly and methodically works through the case, pointing out incongruities and connections that may well have passed the reader by, even if we may want him to skip over some of the more obvious points and get to the clever stuff…

This, I suppose, brings me to the only real problem that I have with the novel – the aspect of the case identified as the oversight may be rather hard for modern readers to anticipate or visualize. That is plainly not Freeman’s fault – it simply reflects that then-common knowledge is not so today. Were the whole mystery hung on that one reveal I would be disappointed but fortunately there are plenty of other developments within the plot to spot and to try and understand. I would also suggest that while the specific information may be a little obscure, readers can still point to the general idea.

Overall I am happy to say that I really enjoyed this novel and felt it lived up to the billing it had received. While this is one of my shorter reviews (at least in recent years), that really reflects my desire to avoid spoiling the experience for those who have not read it. It’s a clever plot, explored quite thoughtfully and I felt that Freeman resolves the story rather memorably too. Very highly recommended.

Further Reading

Given his role in pushing me to read this novel, I feel it only proper to link to JJ’s excellent review at The Invisible Event. I should also provide a link to the podcast episode I referenced.

It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Henri Bencolin #1
Followed by Castle Skull

The British Library Crime Classics reprint also includes the short story ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926).

The Blurb

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realized when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

The Verdict

This story delivers on atmosphere but I felt that it distracted a little from the puzzle parts of the plot.

It will not be best to marry her. I am watching. I have put myself close to you, but you do not know it.

My Thoughts

The famed sportsman the Duc de Saligny is about to get married. His bride, Louise, had previously been married to a man who had become mad and tried to murder her, ending up in an insane asylum. In a worrying turn for the couple, Laurent appears to have escaped and may even have changed his appearance with the help of a skilled plastic surgeon. Our sleuth, juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin, suspects that Laurent’s actions have been with the intention of returning to Paris to kill the Duc and possibly Louise too.

Bencolin arranges for the couple to be guarded while visiting a gambling house but his fears become reality when, a short while after entering an empty card room, the Duc’s decapitated head is found on the floor. The position of his body suggests he intentionally knelt before the murderer, raising the question why he would just meekly submit to that fate, while there is also the problem that no one was seen entering or leaving the room by its only entrance. The crime seems impossible…

It Walks By Night has been on my to read pile for a long time. Long enough that I accidentally purchased two additional copies of it after receiving a review copy when it was first published. Whoops (this would be one of the reasons I created my publicly-accessible TBR pile page).

The novel was Carr’s first to be published and while it features an impossible crime and discovering the explanation of that will be key to solving the mystery, I think it would be fair to suggest that this doesn’t feel like its focus. Instead I would suggest that Carr is more interested in creating a thick atmosphere of dread using elements of the supernatural, sex and implied gore to unsettle the reader.

The obvious comparison would be with the works of Poe, one of the fathers of the genre who gave us another genius-level French detective in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (and its two sequels). Carr clearly leans into this, referencing the writer repeatedly including in a chapter’s title, but it is not simply a question of atmosphere. The character of Bencolin himself possesses an almost diabolic appearance with a Mephistophelean beard and an apparent appreciation for the macabre elements of this case.

Bencolin is the first of Carr’s significant recurring sleuths and differs somewhat from his subsequent and more popular creations, Dr. Fell and Sir. Henry Merrivale. Part of this is presentational as each of those characters felt lighter and more comic, but he also fulfills a slightly different role in relation to the investigation. While those characters are typically reacting to a crime that has already been committed, Bencolin begins this story aware of the likelihood of a crime and taking action to try and prevent it. Even once the crime takes place, he seems far more physically active than either Dr. Fell or H. M. and seems to be constantly moving rather than cogitating.

That sense of constant action makes this feel more like a thriller or adventure story than a straightforward detective story. While there certainly are clues that the reader can use to get to much of the solution, the story is peppered with improbable and far-fetched developments. To give just a couple of examples that leap to mind, I think the author has a misplaced idea about precisely what could be achieved with plastic surgery while a visit made to a woman in a darkened room feels rather ridiculous in the context of what had just occurred.

It was all a bit much for me, overwhelming the puzzle aspects of the novel, and I wished that the story had been a little more consice. Perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind and this was just the wrong book for my mood at the moment. I will note though that I found the additional short story included in the British Library reprint, The Shadow of the Goat, to be significantly more entertaining and engaging. I certainly enjoyed the puzzle elements of the story and found the conclusion to be both logical and satisfying.

I am sure that I will return to Bencolin at some point. I have copies of Castle Skull and The Four False Weapons on my TBR list after all. But for now I suspect my next Carr will likely mean a return to Dr. Fell.

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review though I purchased my own additional copies.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #14
Preceded by The A. B. C. Murders
Followed by Cards on the Table

The Blurb

Suspicious events at a Middle Eastern archaeological excavation site intrigue the great Hercule Poirot as he investigates Murder in Mesopotamia, a classic murder mystery from Agatha Christie.

Amy Leatheran has never felt the lure of the mysterious East, but when she travels to an ancient site deep in the Iraqi desert to nurse the wife of a celebrated archaeologist, events prove stranger than she could ever have imagined. Her patient’s bizarre visions and nervous terror seem unfounded, but as the oppressive tension in the air thickens, events come to a terrible climax–in murder.

With one spot of blood as his only clue, Hercule Poirot must embark on a journey not just across the desert, but into the darkest crevices of the human soul to unravel a mystery which taxes even his remarkable powers.

The Verdict

Not a favorite. The setting and characters feel well-observed but I find Amy Leatheran tiresome and to say a couple of plot points are incredible would perhaps be understating things.

“She’s an odd woman. A mass of affection and, I should fancy, a champion liar – but Leidner seems honestly to believe that she is scared out of her life by something or other.”

My Thoughts

Last week I put the call out on Twitter for my followers – a small but intrepid band – to help me select the title I would read and write about for today’s locked room or impossible crime post. It was quite rightly pointed out that I had somewhat stacked the decks by including a Christie title among the ones offered. While I do not think it was conscious, I suspect that my doing so was rather purposeful. I needed a little extra push to get around to reading Murder in Mesopotamia again so thank you to the Big Four who voted this into the lead.

Before I explain why this novel is not a favorite, let me first recap the scenario. Amy Leatheran is a nurse who is invited to join an archaeological dig to help care for the wife of the leading archaeologist, Dr. Leidner. It seems Mrs. Leidner appears to be nervous though it takes some time for Amy to discover the cause of that anxiety and learn about her past. Soon afterwards she is discovered dead in the bedroom of her house having been forcibly struck on the head. There was only one entrance to the bedroom, which could not have been entered, while the window was shut and barred. Nor was there any sign within the room of an object that might have been used to murder her.

The mystery of the death initially puzzles the local police. Fortunately Hercule Poirot happens to be traveling in the region and he is persuaded to travel to the dig to assist with the investigation. He soon appalls everyone however when he asserts that the murder must have been carried out by someone involved in the dig. With the assistance of Amy Leatheran who documents the case, he begins to look into the matter…

It is the choice of narrator that is largely responsible for my lack of enthusiasm for this title and I am sorry to report that my feelings are not significantly altered. While I think there are some positive things that come of Poirot’s association with a tough and rather straightforward nurse, I find this particular character rather unlikable and I am not a fan of the awkward structure that this then imposes on the novel’s opening chapters.

Some of my issues with Amy Leatheran stem from her personality traits. From the start of the novel she comes off as highly judgmental and occasionally xenophobic, particularly towards Poirot. While I appreciate the idea of undermining some of Poirot’s own pretentious behaviors and quirks, my problem is that I find Leatheran’s less endearing. That is in spite (or perhaps because) of their being quite realistic and well observed. This means that I can find her company something of a chore.

Her role in this particular story requires her to enter as an outsider, both to the characters involved at the dig but also to Poirot. This leads to a certain amount of awkwardness however as it requires a certain degree of setup to be done to explain her presence and then her involvement with the investigation. This would not be such an issue if Christie didn’t also include a rather awkward and frankly quite unnecessary preamble in which we learn how she came to be asked to write this manuscript. All of this slows down the start of the story and leads to it feeling somewhat self-conscious.

The introduction of Poirot is welcome, both in terms of signaling the start of the investigation but also because it gives the proceedings a greater degree of focus. He quickly focuses our attention on some specific questions and pieces of evidence as well as starting to interview the various suspects. This section of the book is done fairly well and I appreciated that those interviews are not presented in full but rather key moments from each are pulled out and put into focus for us.

Poirot is on pretty solid form here. Certainly he has some moments where he not only shows off his brilliance and imagination but also his understanding of people’s characters, drawing some rather striking conclusions at times. More on those later… What I like most though, and this is the one aspect of the narration I think works well, is the sense of Poirot as an outsider. We have had some hints of that in previous stories, perhaps most recently in Three Act Tragedy, but I think this novel presents it as far more significant than most of its predecessors, even if it is not terribly important to the plot.

The main strength of this novel though lies in its depiction of the workings of an archaeological dig and of the types of individuals who might be involved in them. Christie by this stage in her life had quite some experience of digs, having accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to some. She even is supposed to have drawn on some real people as inspiration for characters in this story. That detail helps the setting and characters feel quite credible, even if the narrator threatens to eschew providing any sort of local color in her narrative.

Let’s turn to the locked room aspect of the story which was, after all, my inspiration for revisiting it this time. The circumstances of the murder are intriguing and I appreciate that the clues are rather limited and relatively subtle. I think it might be fair to suggest that Poirot is rather fortunate that the murderer feels it necessary to commit a second killing as that does push things forward quite a bit and highlight some key aspects of the crime – certainly I cannot imagine him solving it based on the initial pieces of evidence.

There are challenges in accepting some of the aspects of this plot. Much has rightly been made of a rather ridiculous matter of identity and while I think Christie wisely tries to prime the reader early by discussing the idea in generalities, it is really hard to believe that it could work in practice. Some may also feel that the murder method relies on everything working in the killer’s favor and some extremely fortunate timing that they could not have counted on. I am rather more forgiving of this however as I feel that had things not happened that way then the murder would simply have been quickly solved and the case would never have come to Poirot’s attention at all.

Murder in Mesopotamia does have some points that I think do commend it. The setting feels credible and well-observed and while Amy may intend to provide no color, I think this is one of Christie’s more atmospheric locations for a Poirot story. I do also enjoy some of the aspects of the solution. My problem is that there are a couple of points which feel incredible in all the worst senses of that word. Those few ludicrous reveals, coupled with a tiresome choice of narrator, make this hard-going for me.

The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1934

The British Library Crime Classics reprint is currently available in the UK. A US release is planned for early 2022.

The Blurb

The Chianti Flask opens at a moment of courtroom drama. A quiet, enigmatic young woman called Laura Dousland is on trial for murder, accused of poisoning her elderly husband, Fordish Dousland. The couple’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, chief witness for the prosecution, is on the stand and is also under suspicion. At the heart of the puzzle of Fordish Dousland’s death is the Chianti flask that almost certainly held the wine containing the poison which killed him. But the flask has disappeared, and all attempts to trace it have come to nothing.

The jury delivers its verdict, but this represents simply the ‘end of the beginning’ of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel. This book is, in essence, a psychological study into the bitter effects of murder and its aftermath both on the person accused and those close to her. Is it true that there’s no smoke without fire? Only in the closing pages is the mystery of the Chianti flask finally unraveled.

The Verdict

This novel about the social repercussions of being associated with a crime is well observed though be aware the genre elements may be too slight for some readers.

…there was in the story those elements of mystery and strangeness which fascinate most thinking minds.

My Thoughts

I had a plan to have several reviews written and queued up before I went on vacation and this was to be one of those titles. Rather unfortunately though I went and got food poisoning, deadlines flew by, hotel trips got missed among other things. Which is why this post is coming to you on a Sunday rather than Friday as planned. The good news is that I recovered pretty quickly and we were able to make alternative trip plans to my favorite city break spot so things worked out okay in the end and obviously I ended up bringing my laptop with me…

The Chianti Flask begins in the concluding days of the trial of Laura Dousland, a woman who is on trial for the murder of her husband who had died of ingesting poison. One of the reasons Laura found herself under suspicion, other than the prejudices of the coroner, was that their Italian manservant had suggested that he had seen a flask of chianti on the dinner tray that had been prepared for the dead man which had vanished upon his return. While popular sentiment seems to lean towards her innocence, the disappearance of the chianti flask presents a point of mystery that ensures that even when the verdict comes back in her favor the mystery lingers.

This book then is not really about the mystery of what happened to Fordish Dousland, although that will be fully explained by the end of the novel, as it is about the way the stigma of a crime lingers and the uncertainty about the explanation affects those caught up in it psychologically. This is not dissimilar from the exploration of the psychology of the two landlords in The Lodger, although though figures involved are obviously more closely tied to the central crime here.

The focus here is on the character of Laura Dousland and on exploring the social stigma she experiences as a consequence of the trial. There is quite naturally some ghoulish interest in meeting and socializing with a woman accused of murder but there is also a lot of unthinking cruelty in her treatment from her supposed friends. The exploration of that discomfort is quite thoughtful and I found it quite convincing, particularly in depicting Laura’s awkwardness in asserting her wishes with friends who had supported her throughout the trial.

One of the questions is whether Laura will be able to move forwards or if this event will define her. I found this strand of the plot to be the most compelling on a character level, even though it is quite removed from the business of the crime itself. I found myself wanting her to be able to let go of the past and people’s opinions of her, even as I understood why she struggled to do so. It is well-observed and, I feel, quite realistic in its depictions of those doubts and tensions even if the writing style must have felt quite old-fashioned, even in 1934.

I think one of the more interesting elements of this book though is allowed to play out quite subtly in the implications of characters’ conversations rather than any heavy-handed point making. It seems clear that Laura’s relationship with Fordish was a consequence of manipulation and coercion while the character of that marriage seems to have been quite cruel. It also seems clear that societal pressures were stacked against her, making it impossible for her to escape that marriage. For those reasons I found it easy to empathize with her plight, even if I wondered myself if she might be guilty after all.

That question about whether she is guilty or not is the most conventional mystery element within the novel and it is, as I said, addressed by the end of the novel. I was fine with that explanation, though not especially surprised, although I was a little disappointed that the explanation that had occurred to me was not the correct one. On reflection though as I finished the novel I could understand why it was the appropriate conclusion to this story and feel that, on balance, it works.

On the whole I enjoyed the exploration of that question but would emphasize that it is far from a central feature of the novel, meaning that this is a book about a crime that doesn’t really read as a mystery or even suspense fiction (as The Lodger had) but instead primarily as a piece of human drama. That makes this a rather hard book to endorse as a piece of genre fiction, even though I personally enjoyed it a lot. I am certainly glad that I went ahead and imported my copy early and I am interested to read more from Lowndes. I can say though respect the range for taking such an expansive view of the genre and including some occasional unorthodox selections such as this and that if you enjoy more psychological fiction you may well feel like me.

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Inspector Cockrill #2
Preceded by Heads You Lose
Followed by Suddenly at His Residence

The Blurb

As German V-1 rockets rain down on the English countryside, the men and women of the military hospitals fight to stay calm. The morning after a raid, Doctor Barnes prepares for a routine surgery to repair a postman’s broken leg. But with general anesthesia, there is always danger. Before the first incision is made, the postman turns purple. Barnes and his nurses do what they can, but the patient is dead in minutes.  The coroner calls for an inquest. Barnes has a history of lost patients, and cannot afford more trouble. Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Cockrill is unimpressed by the staff at the hospital, which he finds a nest of jealousy, indiscretion, and bitterness. One of them, doctor or nurse, murdered the postman—and it won’t be long before they kill again. 

The Verdict

An excellent fair-play thriller that builds superbly to a really strong conclusion.

A figure, gowned and masked in green, stood in the doorway, watching her; with something gleaming evilly in its gloved right hand.

My Thoughts

When I posted about my first Christianna Brand novel, Heads You Lose, last month each of the comments suggested that I quickly follow it with Green for Danger. I was happy to oblige, not only because it was the next in that series (and I do generally try to read in order) but because it also featured Inspector Cockrill who I had enjoyed a lot as a sleuth.

The novel takes place during wartime at an English country hospital the day after an air raid. A local postman is brought into the hospital during the night shift to repair a broken leg and is prepped for surgery. During the event however something seems to go wrong shortly after he is placed under anesthesia and he dies moments later. Inspector Cockrill is dispatched to investigate what seems to have been a tragic accident and initially seems to pay little attention to the claims made by the deceased’s wife that her husband had been mistreated in the few hours between his admission and the fatal surgery. When a second death takes place a short time later, the victim having asserted a short time before in front of everyone involved with the surgery that they had evidence that would prove murder, he starts to investigate in earnest…

Since starting this blog I have read a number of detective novels that have taken place during wartime. This is one of the most effective and interesting depictions of what it feels like to be living at a time of war. What fascinated me was not simply the expected fears of death or danger from the bombing raids but the range of other emotions depicted here. The moments of flippancy or morbid humor, the sense that for some that wartime offered a chance to find a purpose or status they didn’t otherwise have and living in the moment. This is a much broader and more nuanced depiction of life during a period of enormous uncertainty and danger and I appreciated how well-observed it felt.

I think that same attention to detail is obviously also noticeable in its depiction of the operations of a rural hospital and of the range of personalities who work there. We witness several medical operations during the course of the novel and both are carefully described, particularly the second which takes place under considerable scrutiny, making it clear that the work had been well-researched.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is that it is an example of a type of murder in which no crime appears to have been committed at all. For all the characters may suspect that there has been foul play, it is really the attempts to cover up that first crime that draw the attention of the investigator. Brand does a good job of explaining both why Cockrill doesn’t pay much attention to the suggestion at first, which is partly based on his somewhat caustic personality as an investigator, and also the medical reasons why it isn’t clear that it was murder.

The mystery itself is cunningly constructed, both in terms of the initial crime but also the killer’s subsequent activities. One of my favorite sequences in the novel concerned an attempt by the detective to prevent a repeat of the incident by overseeing each element of the operation and while I think the crucial element is perhaps highlighted a little too effectively early in the book (often an issue with crimes that have to introduce specialist knowledge), I love the way that it is discovered later which is both exciting and quite clever.

I also really appreciated that Brand creates a very effective example of a closed circle mystery, limiting her suspects to a small group of doctors and nurses who were present during that first operation. She even quite specifically names who the suspects will be before the murder even takes place in the novel’s opening in which the postman has a collection of letters, each described, one of which is linked to the person who will kill them. This is one example of how Brand uses foreshadowing quite effectively to set and play with the reader’s expectations, creating suspense within her narratives.

I felt that each of these characters were rendered quite effectively and I enjoyed the process of teasing apart their connections and their feelings about each other. We are never really given reason to root for any of them as each has moments that expose their prejudices and personality flaws but I felt that they were compelling and realistic. Similarly Cockrill is not always a likable man, particularly later in the novel as we see him place the suspects under some intense and uncomfortable scrutiny, but I always found him interesting.

It is that period of sustained pressure on the suspects that I think really stands out to me most about this story, not only because it creates a compelling situation for the characters but because I think it helped me figure out what I like about Cockrill. This is a character who is not a master detective the way a Poirot or Gideon Fell is. Rather he is a plodder who recognizes his limits but also the tools available to him in his official capacity as a policeman. While I typically do not like stories in which a character is forced to reveal themselves, this feels different precisely because there is no deception involved. The killer is perfectly aware of what Cockrill is doing and why making the moment in which he declares the killer’s identity all the more compelling.

While all the of mystery elements of the story worked for me, I am a little less enamored of some of the romantic subplots running through the book which do not always read quite as naturally as some of the other character moments of tension and conflict do. These are not tacked on however and are important to our understanding both of the characters and of the background to which these crimes take place, making them feel purposeful and essential to the novel as a whole making them easier to appreciate in retrospect.

Overall then I am happy to say I really enjoyed Green for Danger and quite agree with the sentiments that this is a much stronger work that the previous Cockrill story. It presents an interesting scenario, a good mix of suspects and I think it builds well to a memorable and satisfying conclusion. Expect that further Cockrill posts will follow!

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Dr. Hailey #12
Preceded by The Yellow Crystal
Followed by The White Arrow

The Blurb

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom―but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body.

Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick―perhaps too quick―to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

The Verdict

I enjoyed the Highland setting and the impossibilities. Unfortunately Dr. Hailey is a little anonymous as a sleuth, making the novel feel a little awkwardly paced.

He bent and saw a small round object which adhered closely to the skin. He touched it; it was immediately dislodged. He recognized a fish’s scale.

My Thoughts

This month (and next month) I have committed to starting each week with a post about a locked room or impossible crime novel. One of the reasons I have been keen to do this is to provide a little structure for my week’s blogging, limiting the time I spend browsing through my collection and library bookshelves in search of something to read, but it also was aimed at encouraging me to make more of an effort to work through my TBR pile.

The subject of this week’s post, Anthony Wynne’s Murder of a Lady, was particularly deserving of such attention. I cannot be certain but I am pretty sure that this was one of the very first British Library Crime Classics novels I purchased along with Death in the Tunnel but while the Burton quickly got read, this one somehow fell through the gaps and escaped my attention. Even when the time came for me to find a Wynne novel to blog about I overlooked the one I already owned in favor of a copy of The Green Knife. For the curious, I thought that one had a very clever impossible crime but was a bit tedious to read. Happily Murder of a Lady is a much more readable novel, though it is not without its own set of flaws.

Amateur detective Dr. Hailey is staying with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he receives a visit from Mr. Leod McLeod, the Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, who is seeking his help with a strange case. He is told that there has been a murder at Duchlan Castle and that the victim, an elderly spinster who ‘hadn’t an enemy in the world’, was brutally murdered in her bed. The problem is that the room was locked and the windows barred making it far from clear how a murderer could have gained entry. With the Police presumed to be unable to attend the scene for some time, McLeod wants to have Hailey start work while the crime scene is still fresh.

The initial investigation turns up some intriguing points, not least the strange matter of a deep scar on the victim’s body from years earlier. Before Dr. Hailey can get too far however the professional detective makes his appearance and asserts his control on the scene and the investigation, temporarily relegating Hailey to the role of bystander. Further murders however see Hailey called into action once again…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was its setting in the Scottish highlands. I would suggest that the strength of this book is not its geography or its description of a physical location – Duchlan Castle does not feel anywhere near as haunting as the one Innes creates in Lament for a Maker – but in its depiction of the people, the customs, traditions and beliefs. While Duchlan Castle does not necessarily make a huge impression on me as a physical space, its inhabitants struck me as very credible as did their somewhat strained relationships.

The first victim, Mary Gregor, was the sister of the laird and when she is first described she seems to have been pious and lived a rather faultless existence, financially supporting both her brother and his son’s family. Of course we soon realize that things were not quite so idyllic as they may have appeared and that there were other sides to her strong religious character that may have been a source of resentments within the household. While she is already dead at the start of the book, she feels really quite alive and dimensional.

I found the other members of the household to be equally colorful and interesting, with the exception of a few of the servants who fade a little into the background. Even these characters though are helpful in fleshing out the staff of the house and making it feel like a credible old home. Of these the two standout characters would be the laird himself and the family’s doctor who among his many attributes can boast a wooden leg. Compared with The Green Knife, the characterization here feels a lot richer and more intriguing.

Wynne offers up a series of murders, starting with the impossible murder of Mary Gregor. He is careful to set out the rules of this space, making it quite clear that the room was really locked by giving us the testimony of an independent witness. The question of how the crime was managed seems genuinely puzzling and I think Wynne does a pretty good job of stretching out the investigation, doing a particularly fine job of exploring the complicated web of relationships between the various suspects.

While the murder of Mary Gregor is the most striking of the murders committed in this novel, I should say that I find it the least satisfying on a mechanical level. I certainly think the basic concept is a clever one but I struggled to imagine how it would work physically in a way I never did with the solution to The Green Knife. This is unfortunate as I think a few of the elements are quite clever and I think the explanation for what follows and why is interesting and well explained. Perhaps most impressive is the way Wynne is able to keep adding to the death count without seeming to point the finger too much at one character – I was certainly kept guessing right up to the end of the novel.

Wynne creates two professional detectives that Dr. Hailey will have to interact with in the course of the case. This does present some interesting wrinkles as we get some clashes between Hailey as the pros in which there is discussion of their investigative philosophies but it does also slow the novel down, particularly when the second investigator is introduced. While I recognized the reality that a professional investigation will need someone in charge at all times, a consequence of having two such characters is that they eat up some narrative space that could have been given to the suspects and the novel comes to feel as much about the details of the investigation as it is the events that precipitated it. That being said, I do enjoy a number of moments of the pro vs amateur rivalries within the book and I feel it does make this a little different than many such detective stories.

One unfortunate aspect of this choice is that Hailey spends a surprisingly large amount of the novel simply observing or being told about events. This is understandable given his personality – he is not likely to want to play second fiddle to another investigator and ignore his own thoughts and instincts – but it does mean that he does not seem particularly active or involved in steering how things turn out. That being said, I do appreciate his role in the context of the story and once he does get more heavily involved things do begin to move quite quickly.

Unfortunately I think that the structural issue here is hard to ignore. Hailey spends far too long as a bystander on the edge of the case and so comes off as one of the blandest figures in the book. I felt pretty similarly about him in The Green Knife so I suspect that this is just part of his character but I consider it an unfortunate and undesirable one. As interesting as his discussions with Dundas about their respective methods are, I wanted him to take hold of this investigation – not simply wait to be given it.

As such it is hard to strongly recommend the novel. The murder method is interesting even though I struggle to accept it could have worked as initially described (unless I am just not picturing an element of the scene correctly). I just wish it moved a little faster or that Dr. Hailey was a stronger protagonist. For now all I can say is that this is a better read than The Green Knife and that while I have goodwill toward Wynne, I have yet to be blown away. If anyone has a Wynne recommendation they want to give though I am very willing to receive it…

Further Readings

JJ @ The Invisible Event described this rather wonderfully as ‘a classically-styled piece of rococo detection’. I do agree with him that the false solutions are a nice feature of this book.

Tomcat @ Beneath the Stains of Time commends the solutions to the crimes, calling them ‘simple, but convincing’. I do agree that this is particularly true of the second and third murders. He points out that Wynne doesn’t really do enough with the legend of the swimmers – a fair point that I totally forgot to pass comment on above. So yes, I agree that this thread had a great potential to be quite creepy and unsettling but doesn’t quite have that level of impact here.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praised the choice of murderer (once again, I agree).

Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

Book Details

Originally published in 1942

The Blurb

The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he – schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she – chronic malcontent – and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.

Blue Murder was the last of Harriet Rutland’s mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

Blue Murder is a clever and well-told story that bridges the gap between the detective and the crime novel.

That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!

My Thoughts

Author Arnold Smith arrives in the village of Nether Naughton in search of inspiration for his latest work, a detective story. He has arranged to take a room in the home of the Hardstaffe family and soon discovers plenty of inspiration within those walls, eventually basing characters within his manuscript on them.

Mr. Hardstaffe, the elderly Headmaster of the school, has a vicious temper and a roving eye that has landed on Miss Charity Fuller, the ‘youngest and prettiest of his staff’. He has apparently pressed his attentions on her for some time but she has rebuffed him with the dangerous statement that she cannot consider him ‘as long as she is alive’. The she is his wife, a hypochondriac who he married purely for her wealth. She has her own reasons for hating her husband who bullies and belittles her.

It is clear from the very start of the book that there are murderous tensions present within the house but one of the most appealing aspects of this novel for me was that the reader will not know which character will be the victim. Rutland is even able to extend this beyond the point at which the murder takes place, at least for a few tension-building pages, as we learn that a murder has taken place and is being investigated but we are not sure exactly who died.

That is one example of a technique Rutland uses throughout the novel of encouraging the reader to expect a development without being clear exactly what that development will be. Take for instance the opening line of chapter thirty-three in which a character ponders with hindsight whether the solution to the murder would have ever been discovered were it not for an event that we are about to read about. This is a variation of the Had I But Known device which plants a seed in the mind of the reader, emphasizing to them that you really want to be paying attention to what will be about to happen. And it works – I was absolutely gripped by the events that followed, knowing that they would be significant but not sure exactly why.

One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was how much Rutland is willing to give to the reader right from the start. Typically in a detective novel we would expect that we would discover much of the crucial information about the suspects following a murder taking place. Here however we begin the story with a pretty full knowledge of the state of the various relationships between the different characters and the things that they desire that they may want to kill for. In fact within the first few chapters nearly every major character has appeared and expressed some compelling motive for murder.

Which brings us back to the idea that Rutland structures her story really well. She establishes the tensions, creates a situation and then we see what will happen and how those characters will respond. The result is a book that marries elements of the detective story and the crime story very effectively. Our focus is not really on the details of where characters were – almost anyone could have done it – but rather on evaluating the characters psychologically and deciding whether we think they really would have done it. A question that becomes all the more interesting as we see how the characters respond to the questioning and new developments. It also may prompt the reader to wonder what will they do next.

While the plotting may be less of a focus than the characterizations and development of themes it does not mean that it lacks points of interest. There are a number of revelations, both big and small, that may surprise readers and change the direction of the story. I particularly appreciated a moment during the inquest, for example, which I did not see coming and which altered my understanding of what happened, taking the story in an interesting new direction.

Now at this point I should acknowledge that while this book is not inverted, I doubt that the identity of the killer will come as a surprise to many of the readers. Rutland never confirms that person’s role until the final few pages of the novel but I think there are enough structural and thematic clues laid that many readers will anticipate that reveal long before it happens. Often that can be disappointing – a strange feature of the detective story is that while many of us read them to match our wits with the author, few of us want to identify the criminal early. Here however an early identification of the killer is not a fault but a feature because it only increases that sense of tension as we are led to wonder how this story might possibly be resolved.

One of the reasons for this is that Rutland’s story touches on some really dark and realistic subject matter and so a happy ending is far from a certainty. Blue Murder was a novel written during wartime and apparently, according to Curtis Evans’ superb introduction, at a period of personal difficulty for the author. Little surprise then that this book incorporates some really powerful and difficult themes and elements including domestic abuse and the depiction and discussion of antisemitism.

Rutland writes powerfully and effectively on these and many other serious themes, depicting them (and other typically taboo topics for the period such as sexual desire and activity) with a surprising level of frankness for a book published in 1942. This is particularly true of the book’s depiction of antisemitism which we observe in many of the characters. The passages in which Rutland has Leida, a refugee and the target of those comments, responds and explains her experiences are highly effective, communicating the nature of the horror that the character had experienced.

As you might expect from the above, readers should be prepared to not like any of the characters much as people. I think that they are interesting and well-observed but all have significant flaws that render them far from likable. Once again, for me this is a feature rather than a flaw in the novel but if you are a reader who will want someone to root for then this book probably isn’t for you.

As the book nears its conclusion Rutland gives us several moments that I found to be really quite chilling. There are some great ideas here, some of which seem to anticipate the development of the crime novel that would happen throughout the following decade. It leads to a memorable and striking conclusion that, while a little rushed, neatly pulled together many of the themes and ideas that had been developed throughout the book.

Blue Murder will not be for everyone as I can see how some readers might struggle to appreciate its difficult characters and dark worldview. Taken as a book that seems to be a bridge between the detective and crime novel styles, I found it to be masterful and suspect that it will stay with me for quite a while.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event penned an enthusiastic review late last year that I clearly missed (otherwise I would doubtless have got to this much sooner as reading the post makes it clear that this is exactly my type of book). He addresses the acidic wit of the novel which I completely agree with – it is often very well deployed and while I agree not all of it lands as strongly as it might, it is often incredibly sharp and based on clever observation.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime suggests that the book has an Ilesian flavor which I think is a fair comparison and shares some interesting observations about its discussions of antisemitism, gender and changing societal values.

Brad @ AhSweetMystery offers up a thoughtful analysis of the book, including reflections on how it compares to Christie’s The Blue Train which was written at a similarly difficult period in an author’s life, and finishes with a sentiment I share that it’s a shame that there was no subsequent novel published.

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

Book Details

Originally published in 1938
The Great Merlini #1
Followed by The Footprints on the Ceiling

The Blurb

Master magician The Great Merlini has hung up his top hat and white gloves, and now spends his days running a magic shop in New York and his nights moonlighting as a consultant for the NYPD. When the crimes seem impossible, it is his magician’s mind they need. 

So when two occultists are discovered dead in locked rooms, one spread out on a pentagram, both appearing to have been murdered under similar circumstances, Merlini is immediately called in. The list of suspects includes an escape artist, a professional medium, and a ventriloquist – and it is only too clear that this is a world Merlini knows rather too well…

The Verdict

This offers up several intriguing impossibilities but I found the pace slow and did not care much for Merlini.

The locked room is your cue. All you have to do is find someone who could have gotten out of this apartment, leaving it with the doors locked on the inside as found.

My Thoughts

With my track history I should have known better than to plan a weekly feature…

Back when I announced that Mondays would be impossible I had a list of titles I was very keen to read and review. This book was right at the top of that list for a couple of pretty good reasons. The first was its wide availability thanks to a reprint a few years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I always appreciate being able to talk about books that there is at least a pretty good chance others have read. The other reason was that this book is pretty widely celebrated and was voted seventh best locked room mystery of all time by experts in the genre. In short I was hoping for a guaranteed positive review. As you have probably surmised, that is not what you’re getting here…

Ross Harte is working on an article about detective stories when he hears a commotion coming from outside his neighbor’s apartment. Upon investigating he finds a group of magicians trying to rouse his neighbor, Dr. Sabbat, who they had apparently arranged to meet. They are concerned to find that he cannot be roused and that there are no signs he has left the apartment that day as there is milk still on the doorstep. Fearing something may have happened they break in only to discover his corpse.

On close examination it seems that Dr. Sabbat has been stranged and his body has been arranged atop a drawn pentagram, his limbs arranged to touch each of its points. The body is surrounded by occult objects including a book detailing a ritual to summon a demon. Each of the doors to the room had been locked and bolted from the inside, the keys within Sabbat’s pocket, while the door locks have been stuffed with fabric from the inside. None of the windows appear to have been disturbed. In short, there does not seem to be any way that the killer could have escaped yet a thorough search does not find anyone inside the room either.

The police are baffled and recognizing that all of the suspects come from the world of magic they decide to send for an expert magician of their own, the Great Merlini. Their hope is that he will be able to offer some simple technical explanation of how the trick was worked but instead their investigation expands as we encounter further impossibilities including a second murder along the same lines and a suspect’s disappearance from within an observed taxi cab.

Rawson stuffs the first half of his novel full of ideas, many of which are quite intriguing. I think he does a particularly good job of laying out the various features and points of interest in the first crime scene, giving the reader plenty of information to work with. I also really enjoyed the suggestion, however brief, of the crime’s connection to the occult and wished that he had leant a little more heavily into that idea (as Paul Halter would do working half a century later).

The subsequent impossibilities are similarly quite well set up and described, particularly the disappearance. While simpler than either of the locked rooms, the idea is visually quite appealing and serves a really useful role in the story as it allows the reader to see evidence of Merlini’s abilities and deductive reasoning early in the novel. The locked rooms, by comparison, are much more challenging with solid solutions and will likely please those who are primarily interested in the puzzle.

While I am focusing on the positives, I should also highlight the cast of suspects that Rawson creates. The idea of having each of them be professionals within the magic world is pretty inspired, not only because it means we have multiple experts of misdirection at hand but because they are all pretty colorful and eccentric characters. I enjoyed exploring their personalities and learning more about their acts.

As pleasing as the puzzle and many of the supporting characters were, I found the experience of reading this to be a real slog. The problems begin with the use of Harte as the narrator. While the choice of having an expert in detective fiction narrate the story adds a playful self-awareness that Rawson makes use of to expand upon Carr’s famous locked room lecture, I found Harte’s presence largely distracting.

Harte does not really offer up much in the way of contributions to the plot beyond his witnessing the initial discovery of the body and so becomes an extra body whose presence during the investigation feels odd (which given that it stands out in a book that features the police consulting a magician is quite remarkable). While I understand the need to keep us distant from a genius like Merlini so we do not learn the identity of the person he suspects until close to the end, I think this character could have been folded into one of the policemen and it would have made for a much neater story.

I was actually pretty lukewarm towards Merlini himself. His expertise on elements of magic is certainly interesting but other aspects of his personality, particularly his smug attitude towards the authorities, put me in mind of Phase One Ellery Queen. On another day I may well have reacted more charitably towards this but I felt thoroughly worn out by him by the end of the novel.

One of the stranger ideas in the novel is the choice to have him deliver his own version of a locked room lecture, a la Dr. Gideon Fell who he references as though he were a real person. While I quite liked that conceit of the character being real and merely chronicled by Carr, the delivery of the lecture felt dry and its inclusion rather contrived, as though it was there to reference something the author loved rather than because it was necessary as a structure to explore the crime scene.

This brings me to my final complaint which concerns the novel’s pacing. While the careful exploration of the details of a crime scene is quite desirable, the back and forth discussions with the police detective handling the case felt repetitive and really slow the novel down. These appear to have been intended to be a source of humor as we see the detective become frustrated with Merlini but they weren’t funny enough to justify the time given over to them, nor did they significantly advance our understanding of the plot.

All of which is a shame because the parts of this story that worked are really fun and clever. Rawson clearly had some superb ideas and he creates several really strong impossibilities with fair play solutions. I personally didn’t care too much for the investigation itself but I know I am in the minority on this one and would certainly encourage you to seek out other views if you haven’t already read this yourself.

Further Reading

Ben @ The Green Capsule suggests that the book is a ‘must read’ and praises the slew of impossibilities it offers.

JJ @ The Impossible Event similarly appreciated the author’s creativity and praises the bold challenge to the reader Rawson issues just a few pages into the novel. I had meant to do that too – that’s one of the more charming features of the novel.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the puzzles but had similar feelings about the book’s pace and characterization.

The Forbidden House by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1932 as La Maison Interdite
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Regarded as a masterpiece by 1000 Chambres Closes, the central puzzle is one of the most baffling in impossible crime fiction: a mysterious stranger, whose face cannot be seen by the several witnesses outside the house, is introduced inside, where he murders the owner and vanishes without trace.

The several witnesses inside cannot explain what happened. A search of the house fails to find him, and the witnesses watching the outside say he could not have left.

The authorities—examining magistrate, state prosecution, and police—trying to make sense of the clues, cannot agree amongst themselves as to the identity of the murderer…

The Verdict

This highly engaging impossible crime story offers an intriguing scenario, a memorable victim and a clever solution.

MARCHENOIRE, THIS AUGUST 28 IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, LEAVE MARCHENOIRE MANOR IMMEDIATELY AND FOREVER. DO NOT PURCHASE THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE.

My Thoughts

Monsieur Verdinage has accumulated a fortune and decides to purchase a house fitting of his new status. The home he has set his mind on buying is Marchenoire Manor, a beautiful three story building within a private park that is curiously affordable. He tours the property and after making his decision he requests to sign the paperwork in the house’s library. When they enter they discover the threatening note quoted above (yes, the spelling is accurate) addressed to the new owner. Verdinage reads the note but scoffs at it, suggesting it is a prank, and he decides to move his household in immediately.

A short while later he learns from one of the locals about the story of the Forbidden House and why it was available so cheaply. He still does not take the threat seriously and remains skeptical even when a second letter turns up exactly a month after the first, vowing that there will be no further warnings and that the next letter received will be an announcement of his death. Verdinage takes some precautions against the author of the note but in spite of his efforts his murder takes place as announced with the killer seeming to vanish into thin air…

I really love the opening to this novel in which the authors not only do a great job of setting out the nature of the threat and building up the strange history of the house but also of establishing the stubborn (and rather gauche) nature of the victim. Monsieur Verdinage is a superb creation, poking fun at some behaviors of the nouveau riche such as his order to have the library furnished with a huge number of books but not caring what any of them actually are. He is far from self-aware and yet for all his bluster he is quite practical, devising a reasonably sensible plan to protect himself (even if the smarter thing to do would be to call the police).

Herbert and Wyl pace these early chapters really well, providing the reader with important information that will be needed to understand various characters’ backgrounds and to eventually solve the crime without lingering over them for too long. Even before the murder we have an apparent impossibility as the second letter is found behind the locked and bolted door to the house’s cellar although that will not receive serious scrutiny until after the murder.

I enjoyed the series of letters as a device for building tension. Not only does this help to establish Monsieur Verdinage’s character as we see how he responds to each threat, we also learn that each of the previous owners of the home had received similar threats, answering them in different ways. This provides an interesting background to the case and I was certainly curious to learn what was prompting them.

The sequence in which the murder takes place is, once again, very tidily written. The authors smartly use the perspectives of several servants to describe what happens which not only helps to build the tension as we await the moment of the murder, it also provides the reader with at least some detail of the characters’ movements on the night in question. It is very smart, economical writing that keeps things moving well.

The novel’s impossibility concerns the disappearance of the murderer from the mansion moments after the killing shot is fired. The killer had been observed entering the building, though their face was in shadow, but the observers did not see them leave in spite of being positioned near the only exit (in a piece of crazily dangerous architecture, the building only has one exterior door). The police arrive and search the building thoroughly, finding no one, which begs the question of what happened to the figure who was seen entering a short time after midnight?

It’s a very neat problem and one that proves surprisingly tricky to solve in spite of the efforts of several detective figures, each of whom adopt different theories as to the person they believe responsible. There are quite a few characters who take turns at positing theories so I was pleasantly surprised to find that several of them stood out quite well in terms of their personalities. I also enjoyed seeing how their approaches differed from each other and the various ideas each brought to the case.

One character in particular made a pretty big impact almost immediately both in the way he deals with other figures including those who are investigating the case and those who might be interested in its outcome. I felt he was a pretty entertaining creation. I similarly appreciated the ingenuity of the character who finally solves the whole thing.

I felt that the solution to the puzzle was very clever. If there is a problem with it I would suggest that while the explanation is thorough and convincing, I cannot say that it is proved. There is not much physical evidence that would demonstrate the case. Instead the authors rely on the killer admitting the truth themselves at the presentation of the correct solution which feels a little underwhelming, perhaps not helped by the somewhat abrupt way the novel concludes moments afterwards.

Still, while I think that the ending may have been a little rushed, I was very happy with the novel overall. While the central problem of The Forbidden House may not be the most colorful example of an impossible crime, it is all the more puzzling for its apparent simplicity and always engaging.

Further Reading

Santosh Iyer also enjoyed the book and highly recommends it, appreciating its logical solution.