The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Ellery Queen #7
Preceded by The American Gun Mystery
Followed by The Chinese Orange Mystery

The Blurb

When Ellery Queen and his father encounter a raging forest fire during a mountain drive, the only direction to go is up ― up a winding dirt road that leads to an isolated hillside manor, inhabited by a secretive surgeon and his diverse cast of guests. Trapped by the fire, the Queens settle into the uneasy atmosphere of their surroundings. Things become even more tense the following morning when the doctor is discovered dead, apparently shot down while playing solitaire the night before.

The only clue is a torn six of spades. The suspects include a society beauty, a suspicious valet, and a pair of conjoined twins. When another murder follows, the killer inside the house becomes as threatening as the mortal flames outside its walls. Faced with a complex set of alibis, motives, and evidence, Ellery Queen must rely on his powers of deduction and logic to uncover the murderer’s identity ― but can he solve this whodunnit before the fire devours its subjects?

Featuring bizarre circumstances, eerie atmosphere, and a dazzling solution, The Siamese Twin Mystery is a fair play mystery in which the reader has all the necessary information needed to solve the puzzle. The seventh Ellery Queen novel (which can be read in any order), it finds the legendary sleuth facing one of the most memorable cases of his career.

The Verdict

Easily the best of the Queen novels I have read to date. The threat of the wildfire is really effective and the puzzle is clever and plays fair.

Nice place for a murder. Even the wind is performing in character! Listen to that silly howling, will you? The banshees are out in full force tonight!

My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while may remember that I do not have the best history with Ellery Queen. After making a rash pledge to read the series in order (and at a monthly pace, no less) some years ago, I have struggled with several installments in the series. A recurring theme in the comments has been though that I should persevere (or just jump ahead) because better things await. Well, I have reached those better things. The Siamese Twin Mystery is easily the best of the books I have read to date.

The novel begins with Ellery and his father driving through a range of mountains when they notice smoke in the distance. Realizing that there is an enormous forest fire that is blocking their way they search desperately for safety and discover a mansion atop a hill where they stop hoping for shelter. The reception they receive is frosty at first but eventually they are admitted and meet their host, a famed surgeon, his wife and guests. They note though that they are being kept from wandering freely while Ellery’s father is terrified by what seems to be a strange crab creature he thought he observed in a corridor upstairs. It all creates an atmosphere of foreboding.

The next morning they arrive for breakfast but before long they note that their host has not joined them. His body is soon found dead and clutched in his hand is half a playing card. Could it be a dying message from the victim pointing to his killer?

I typically like to start with the murder but in this instance I really want to discuss the ways the authors use the threat of the forest fire throughout the novel.

It initially appears as an immediate threat in an action sequence of sorts, not only placing our heroes in peril but then giving them a perfectly credible reason for staying in what is a clearly uncomfortable situation. They have been lucky to find any refuge at all and there simply is nowhere else to stay. The depiction of their desperation and of the relationship between father and son when under tremendous pressure is superb and really helps establish who they each are as characters.

Once the pair are out of immediate danger however we are unable to forget that the danger still looms and is, in fact, approaching. Throughout the novel we are given updates about the police’s efforts to fight the blaze and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler to reveal that the outlook isn’t promising. This creates a really interesting situation that I think illustrates who Ellery is as a character. Even as the situation will become very bleak and it appears that they may all perish, Ellery cannot focus on anything but solving that puzzle. It is more important to him to know that he is right than to worry about his safety.

Finally the fire also serves as an impenetrable barrier to create a thoroughly closed circle. The barrier has been thoroughly tested by the emergency services battling the blaze so we can be confident that there can be no way out. Our murderer must be somewhere in what is an ever-decreasing area of safety. As setups go, this is great stuff…

While the opening to the novel creates an effective atmosphere of dread and anticipation, the authors do not make us wait too long before we get to that first body. The crime scene is not particularly complicated but, as with several of the previous volumes, there is one detail that seems unusual – the torn card that the victim clutches in his hand. As you might expect there is much forensic discussion about this card of the type that I have often found tiresome in previous volumes. To my surprise though here I felt it really worked.

Ellery is usually at his most unbearable when he launches into a lecture in logic but in this instance I feel that he is actually justified in doing so. When he starts talking about the chain of deductions he can make from that playing card, he is not simply thinking out loud and demonstrating how smart he is but he is speaking to persuade and change the course of the investigation. The result is something that is both very clever and yet, at the same time, really simple once it has been explained and I love that the authors don’t simply have him explain verbally but actually incorporate an element of practical demonstration. I found it thoroughly engrossing and while I am no fan of dying messages, I can say that I enjoyed the way that element is used here.

The only disappointment for me was that some of the members of the household feel rather vaguely sketched, particularly the servants. I think this is intentional, designed to place a greater emphasis on the most colorful figures in the household, but it does feel a little odd that they do not really factor at all into the investigation given their presence.

Other than that, I found The Siamese Twin Mystery to be a really satisfying read that became quite thrilling in its final section where the investigation and the threat of the fire come together to produce a truly memorable conclusion. It is by far my favorite of the ‘Phase One’ books I have read to date. On the basis of this I doubt it will take me two years to get on to the next one!

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.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published 1946

The Blurb

Three desperate men converge in the midst of an annual carnival in New Mexico

Sailor used to be Senator Willis Douglass’ protege. When he met the lawmaker, he was just a poor kid, living on the Chicago streets. Douglass took him in, put him through school, and groomed him to work as a confidential secretary. And as the senator’s dealings became increasingly corrupt, he knew he could count on Sailor to clean up his messes.

Willis Douglass isn’t a senator anymore; he left Chicago, Sailor, and a murder rap behind and set out for the sunny streets of Santa Fe. Now, unwilling to take the fall for another man’s crime, Sailor has set out for New Mexico as well, with blackmail and revenge on his mind. But there’s another man on his trail as well―a cop who wants the ex-senator for more than a payoff. In the midst of a city gone mad, bursting with wild crowds for a yearly carnival, the three men will violently converge…

The Verdict

A strong example of a thoughtful and nuanced character study though the plot feels rather straightforward in comparison.

He wasn’t the only one who’d caught up with the Sen. McIntyre was here. Tonight the villagers were burning up their troubles. But the Sen wasn’t burning his. They’d caught up with him at last.

My Thoughts

Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel by Dorothy B. Hughes to be reprinted as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I held both of the previous reprints, The So-Blue Marble and Dread Journey in very high regard so I was really excited to see this release announced some months ago. Knowing that the book is one of Hughes’ most widely admired novels (along with The Expendable Man and In A Lonely Place), I was keen to get started on it and so it inevitably jumped to the top of my TBR pile as soon as my copy arrived.

It takes place on the streets of Santa Fe during the three-day carnival Fiestas de Santa Fe which commemorates the Spanish retaking the city. Sailor has arrived in town on the trail of his former employer, Senator Douglass of Illinois. He plans to stage an impromptu meeting with him to extort a sum of money from him before he flees south of the border. Unfortunately for him, he soon discovers that all of the local hotels are booked leaving him on the streets for the night. This forces him to try to befriend some of the locals to find shelter. To make matters worse, he also learns that McIntyre, an investigator from back home, is already in town and also hot on the senator’s trail…

The novel is neither a work of detective fiction, nor is it particularly mysterious. There is a question about what exactly Sailor intends to blackmail the Senator with but it soon becomes pretty clear what sort of information it is. Similarly we can pretty quickly guess the nature of his grudge against his old boss. Instead this is the story of the consequences to a crime and it offers a noir-infused exploration of the mentality of a man and the situation he finds himself in.

While the novel is generally very well reviewed on Goodreads and similar sites, one common thread in critical reviews is the suggestion that the book does not contain much in the way of plot. There is admittedly some truth in this as there is not much incident in the novel and yet there is a lot of character exploration and development. In the course of two hundred and fifty pages we see Sailor absorb and respond to his environment and the thoughts it evokes in him. The question is whether this what effect those experiences will have on his will to follow through on his plans and how that final inevitable confrontation between Sailor and the Senator will play out.

Sailor makes for an interesting, if rather difficult protagonist. Though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes’ narration is sympathetic to his thoughts, reflecting how he feels about the things he sees and the people he interacts with. That narration is liberally sprinkled with racial epithets towards the Mexican-American and Pueblo Indian characters as Sailor makes his discomfort at his new environment quite clear at every turn. Yet as the novel progresses we see those attitudes soften as he develops what Sara Paretsky terms in her excellent introduction to the AMC edition a ‘reluctant empathy’ towards those groups, even if he never quite connects the similarities between the complex relationships between the various ethnic communities of Santa Fe and those of Chicago.

Each relationship that Sailor enters into in the course of this novel is similarly hard to define. Take for instance his interactions with Pila, the young Pueblo girl to whom he gifts a bottle of pop and a ride on the carousel. Others expect that this is a prelude to sexual advances but his relationship with her turns out to be more complex and interesting. He listens to her story, hears what she wants and clearly comes to see something of himself in her. When he gives her a final piece of advice towards the end of the story he is speaking to his younger self as much as he is talking to her. His interactions with ‘Pancho’ and the Senator are just as richly nuanced.

Where I think Ride the Pink Horse stumbles is that its discussion of race often feels a little pointed and clumsy. Hughes clearly intends to educate the reader at the same time as Sailor but those passages can sometimes feel heavy-handed or confusing. This is a problem I often find with works that were trying to address social issues (for example: The Niece of Abraham Pein) as unfortunately what seems progressive in one era can seem anything but in another.

To give an example of what I mean let me once again draw on Sailor’s conversations with Pila. Towards the end of the novel he tells her she should return to the pueblo and give up her aspirations to live in the city. The suggestion seems to be that the city is a source of depravity and corruption and that life on the pueblo, while unsatisfying for many reasons Sailor acknowledges, will allow her to retain her purity. The problem is that his statement can equally read as supportive of racial segregation which would clearly be a very different message. While I think it is clear from the broader context of the book that this is unlikely to be the message Hughes intends, the author’s choice to not connect this speech directly to Sailor’s own experiences means that the ambiguity does exist – particularly given how direct she can be elsewhere in the same novel such as when a character relates the history of racial relations in the era.

The other dominant theme in the book is that of forgiveness and redemption. The question of whether Sailor can make a safe and sensible choice and let go of his feelings with regards the Senator to survive runs through the whole novel, being most clearly addressed in his conversations with McIntyre. Though the imagery here can also feel a little heavy at points, I think this theme is developed and addressed more clearly and directly building to a powerful resolution.

While I doubt that the resolution to Sailor’s situation will surprise anyone that doesn’t make those final pages less powerful. Indeed the sense of the inevitability of some aspects of the conclusion is a large part of why that ending works for me.

As satisfying as the ending is however, I think the novel never quite overcomes its clumsiness in its handling of its themes, nor its simplicity as a crime narrative. Those attempting to read this solely for the plot will come away disappointed. For those more interested in the exploration of a character or setting however, there is much to admire here and it leaves me all the more curious to delve deeper into Hughes’ other works. Hopefully more reissues will follow…

This counts towards the Colorful Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime cared for this much less than I did, and her review notes her disappointment with the pacing of the story.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.


My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.

The Great Hotel Murder by Vincent Starrett

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Riley Blackwood #1
Followed by Midnight and Percy Jones

This book was expanded from Recipe for Murder published in 1934

The Blurb

When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.

Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavors to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence―and their whereabouts.

The Verdict

Pretty entertaining Golden Age fare that blends action and mystery with a likable sleuth.


My Thoughts

As nice as it is to see new editions of books by Carr, Gardner and Queen appearing in the American Mystery Classics range, the books that truly excite me are the ones I have never heard of. That unfamiliarity is nice not only because of the variety it brings to a range, but also because there is something rather exciting about approaching a work with no expectations at all beyond what little information a cover and blurb may suggest.

The Great Hotel Murder begins with Blaine Oliver anxiously trying to summon Dr. Trample in the lobby of the Hotel Granada where she had an appointment to meet him. He is neither responding to calls to his room nor can he be found anywhere in the lobby. A friend happens upon her and suggests that they try going to his room and knocking directly but they find a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door and no response from inside. Finally they persuade the management to unlock the room and enter to find a man lying dead on the bed. To their surprise however it is not Dr. Trample and it turns out that he has died of a morphine overdose although he no syringe can be found and he does not appear to be a habitual user of the drug.

Before anyone gets too excited at the words ‘unlock the room’, I should say that the way that this case plays out serves to minimize that aspect of the plot. For one thing, we are told almost immediately after its detection that the poison could have been administered before the victim returned to the room and locked themselves in. We are also aware that several of the staff possess master keys so the locked door is less a barrier and more a logistical obstacle that the reader will have to factor into how they explain the sequence of events leading to the murder.

Instead this will be a case where we are looking for someone who has a motive for murder. While there is one character that seems to have had the clearest opportunity, it is hard to understand exactly why he would kill someone he appears to have only known for a few hours. In a reversal of the usual structure of the whodunit, here we begin with just one or two suspects and our field widens throughout the novel as we learn more about the victim. This approach works pretty well and I am happy to say that I was surprised by several aspects to the solution.

Our unlikely sleuth is theatrical critic Riley Blackwood, whose involvement in the case is justified by his being a friend of the hotel’s owner. Blackwood is a detective whose personality feels reminiscent of the Ellery Queen school of amateur detectives. He is well-read, whimsical and has a habit of responding to problems with quotations. In terms of the way he approaches the case however I think he also feels like he exists on the edge of a more hardboiled, pulpy sort of detection. After all, he forms attractions to women involved in the case, dives into a body of water to rescue someone and even carries a gun at one point. It makes for an interesting mix of traits that I think works pretty well for this sort of a case.

The pool of suspects that he is investigating make up a pretty interesting mix of characters from a variety of different walks of life. Given the importance of finding a motive to this case, the question becomes one of how the various characters knew the deceased, whether they knew he was there and what may have prompted a murder at that precise time.

These are pretty interesting questions and managed to sustain my interest for much of the book. I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.

More importantly, I think the way the story unfolds is pretty entertaining. Blackwood is often quite amusing, as are a couple of the suspects, and there are several moments of tension and action that help to keep things moving. This isn’t simply a short story with some padding to fill out the page count – it is a pretty engaging softboiled thriller that hits some solid comical notes.

Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. The plot is a little too simple and a little too familiar for that, but it entertains. In that sense it sits comfortably alongside the likes of Home, Sweet Homicide or Your Turn, Mr. Moto which are also part of this range and is worth a look for those who like novels that blend mystery and adventure.

Further Reading

The publication history of this book is just as interesting as the book itself. The Studies in Starrett Blog posted a series of articles about this back in 2017. The first installment focuses on the Redbook short story and how it differs from Starrett’s previous work. The second installment looks at the 1935 novel and the changes that were made from the Redbook version. The final installment focuses on the film adaptation which diverges quite radically from either of the texts with the author noting in his memoirs ‘Nobody was more surprised than the author by the revelation of the killer’s identity’.

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing

Book Details

Originally published 1935
Hugh Rennert #3
Preceded by The Cat Screams
Followed by Murder on the Tropic

The Blurb

The journey of the Mexico City-bound Pullman seems ill-fated from the outset ― what with the engine troubles and the threat of an impending railway strike ― but no one aboard expects the terror that will descend upon the luxury train between Laredo and its destination. First a man dies as the vehicle passes through a dark tunnel and then, just as United States Customs Agent Hugh Rennert begins to investigate, the train comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the desert.

More deaths follow as night falls, and when it becomes clear that a murderer is on the loose, the stationary cars transform into an isolated hall of horrors. The varied and intriguing cast of passengers begins to panic, but Rennert remains calm and collected, untangling the web of motives in a desperate search for the culprit. Will he be able to unmask the killer before the voyage ends?

A suspenseful whodunnit that charts a path through the Mexican wilderness, Vultures in the Sky highlights the best aspects of the Golden Age mystery, mixing classical detective work with a tense, closed-circle setting. The third novel in Todd Downing’s Hugh Rennert series (which can be enjoyed in any order), it shows an undeservedly forgotten author working at the top of his craft.

The Verdict

A triumph of setting and style – Downing’s story has a clever plot and accelerates towards a thrilling conclusion.


My Thoughts

Todd Downing was unknown to me prior to picking up Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book discusses Downing’s life and the influences on his writing but at that time I was initially interested in it for its reproductions of the reviews he wrote about detective fiction in the 1930s for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper.

As I read more about Downing’s own biography and unusual background (at least in the context of writers of the Golden Age) I became interested in him as a writer – a feeling only amplified by the reviews I have read written by fellow bloggers. After taking a look over several of his titles I decided to make this one my first for two reasons. Firstly because it features a train journey which could tie in with an upcoming train-related post and also because this book is being reissued in print at the end of the year as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I have used the AMC cover image for this review to match the others on my dedicated page for that range but for the purposes of this review I read the previous Coachwhip edition, limited copies of which are still currently available on Amazon.

Vultures in the Sky takes place aboard a train travelling from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. During the journey US Customs Agent Hugh Rennert is approached by a passenger who tells him that his wife, who has departed the train, overheard a conversation where one passenger was issuing a cryptic threat to another. A short while later the train passes through a tunnel and the carriage is thrown into complete darkness. When the train emerges the man who had made the threat lies dead though the means is unclear at first. It will take a second death to confirm that a murderer is aboard the train and they are likely to strike again…

The train is a perfect cauldron for resentments and mistrust to grow, particularly given the nature of the barren and unforgiving landscape the train is moving through. There may be a killer aboard but to leave the train would spell likely death from the elements.

Downing’s descriptions of the Mexican landscape are superb, not only evoking a sense of place but also the political tension that was still palpable a decade after the Mexican revolution. This only feeds into the nervous tension already being felt by the passengers and the threat of being interrogated by the local police when they reach their destination serves as a credible motivation for them to cooperate with Rennert’s investigation. As for the train’s staff, they are motivated to keep the train running so it can reach its destination before a staff strike kicks in.

The train is filled with quite an interesting mix of characters, several of whom seem to be hiding secrets. Rennert’s job is to tease out those secrets and discover who might have a connection to the deceased. Even when a passenger seems to be cooperative though there is always a question about whether there is more that is left unsaid or whether they are being entirely truthful.

Rennert makes for a pretty engaging sleuth. Clearly smart and perceptive, he applies pressure to the other passengers with reasoning, making the case for why they should cooperate with him and also getting the train’s staff on his side. His personality never distracts from the case itself and he remains focused on working through the facts logically to tease out an explanation.

While typically mystery novels begin with their most interesting murder, Vultures in the Sky‘s murder only seem to grow in interest. That partly reflects that it takes a while for us to get definite confirmation of murder but also because the seeming acceleration in killings adds a sense of pressure and tension to the affair.

Tension continues to build as our cast of suspects begins to thin out and there are several external factors at play that only add to the pressure. One of these, referenced in the blurb above, is that the train suddenly stops in the middle of the desert. This adds a sense of dread that something is about to happen, once again drawing on some aspects of what was happening in Mexico at the time, but it also adds pressure for the killer who is trapped aboard a train with a detective who is edging towards the truth.

This and several other external factors have an impact on the investigation, only serving to increase the tension and setting up an exciting conclusion to the story. I felt that conclusion lived up to my hopes, being not only a compelling resolution to the mystery but also quite thrilling in its application of pressure, not letting up until the final few pages. Downing answered all of the questions I had and delivered a killer I didn’t see coming.

Overall my first experience of Downing was a really positive one. I loved his attention to building a sense of place and his careful puzzle plotting and I look forward to reading more by him in the future.

Do you have a favorite Todd Downing novel?

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.

Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published in 1945.
This title is a standalone.
This book will soon be republished as part of the American Mystery Classics range. That edition is shown to the right of this post but I read an earlier reprint.

The Blurb

Four years after she arrived in Los Angeles, Kitten Agnew has become a star. Though beautiful and talented, she’d be nowhere without Vivien Spender: Hollywood’s most acclaimed director—and its most dangerous. But Kitten knew what she was getting into when she got involved with him; she had heard the stories of Viv’s past discoveries: Once he discarded them, they ended up in a chorus line, a sanatorium, or worse.

She knows enough of his secrets that he wouldn’t dare destroy her career. But he may be willing to kill her. On a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kitten learns that Viv is planning to offer her roommate a part that was meant for her. If she lets him betray her, her career will be over. But fight for the part, and she will be fighting for her life as well.

The Verdict
A superb, suspenseful story which cuts deep into the heart of old Hollywood but its themes are still relevant today.


I first encountered Dorothy B. Hughes’ work when I read The So-Blue Marble, the author’s debut novel which was reprinted last year as one of the earliest novels in the American Mystery Classics range. I loved that book, going so far as to nominate it one of my choices for Reprint of the Year, so I was excited to see that Penzler Press have opted to release another of her novels.

Dread Journey is set on a train that is headed to New York city. Among the passengers are Kitten Agnew, one of America’s biggest film stars, Vivien Spender, the movie mogul who made her a star, and Gratia, the young unknown who he intends to replace her.

The book begins shortly after a moment of revelation for Kitten. She has been assigned to share a compartment with Gratia and notices that she is reading Vivien’s copy of a book he keeps on his bedside table – a book he has long-intended to adapt as his masterpiece and in which she is contracted to play Clavdia, the female lead. This unbreakable contract, signed in the early days of her relationship with Vivien, is now her only leverage to try and ensure that she doesn’t end up like all of his other one-time proteges and that she can walk away on her terms. The price she has set is marriage – not because she loves Viv or wants to be with him but because she knows that will guarantee a divorce settlement and the status of having been Mrs Spender.

Then she learns what had happened to the first Mrs Spender…

The novel opens with Kitten saying to herself that she is afraid. She had felt that she was coming at Vivien from a position of strength but now she realizes that there is a good chance she will never make it to New York at all. Seeing Gratia with the book has made her realize that Vivien expects to be moving forward with his project and since there is no chance of an amicable settlement she begins to believe that he intends to kill her at some point during their journey.

It is this realization that gives the book its title and certainly a strong sense of dread and foreboding hang over the novel. Hughes quickly confirms to the reader that Kitten’s interpretation of the situation and fears are right. Viv is a dangerous man and he has killed before. The book draws its suspense from the question of whether he will manage to do it before they reach New York as we observe each character trying to anticipate the behaviors of the other which, in the process, pulls several of the other passengers into the story.

While the book is obviously set in the era of Hollywood’s studio system, it surprised me just how relevant this story still feels today. Questions of the power of Hollywood executives and the way it is exerted over young stars remain to this day as we have obviously seen in the past few years with Harvey Weinstein and so while the specifics of Kitten’s situation may be of their moment, the ideas it discusses retain their power.

At the heart of this story is the question of agency. Kitten the star has been created by Viv not out of a recognition of her talent but as a response to his infatuation. He has intended to use her and she, in return, recognizes the situation in both its opportunities and risks and is determined to take advantage of it. In this regard Kitten finds herself in an unusual position for a potential victim in a crime story – she is fully aware of the danger she is in, has a means to completely avoid it but refuses to consider it. He promised her that part and she is determined to make him pay for it.

An interesting side effect of this is that it is hard to entirely regard her as a victim. In any other context or situation she would be largely unsympathetic, particularly given her vanity. It just happens that she is placed opposite Vivien, a man who is quite clearly a villain and so, while we may not exactly be rooting for her, we certainly don’t want him to win.

In The So-Blue Marble Hughes gave us two utterly chilling villains but while Vivien is less obviously psychotic than those two brothers, he is arguably even more monstrous. Part of the reason for that is he is so clearly a type of figure we can recognize: the Hollywood svengali who creates starlets only to lose interest in them and destroy them. He justifies this because he believes he made those women the successes they were, raising them from obscurity, teaching them how to act and developing personas for them.

Ultimately each girl lets him down, not because of a lack of talent but because they cannot be the perfect creation he wants to imagine them to be. Once he realizes that he has to move on to repeat the process. The reader may well find themselves imagining what might happen to Gratia several years down the line. Is she actually his perfect Clavdia or is this process doomed to repeat itself over and over? We may also question to what extent he is being driven by lust and to what extent it is actually about his vision for the role. I’d argue it is the former and the latter is a veneer he uses to justify it but I think you could just as easily come up with an argument that he is first and foremost an obsessive, amoral artist.

These two characters are both quite fascinating and I really enjoyed seeing how they surprise each other at points in the story. The plot never really develops in a way that is truly unexpected but rather it sets things up and engages the reader in seeing how these elements and ideas overlap and interact with each other. Hughes sustains this tension well and I think uses it to develop a truly powerful conclusion that absolutely hits the notes I wanted, feeling like the appropriate way to end this story.

I also really appreciated Hughes’ writing style which is quite striking. The trick of making sections of the book just a couple of paragraphs long to provide us with other perspectives is interesting, reminding us of the reality that exists around these characters and also allowing us to see some other roles within the Hollywood system including screenwriters, personal assistants and musicians. Arguably a few characters, those without the direct ties to the action, never really feature in the narrative but even then I think they serve a purpose in that they remind us that these characters’ are existing within a sort of bubble and that their actions will be observed.

Just as in The So-Blue Marble, the prose is frequently poetical and highly impressive but where that book’s poetry could sometimes be a barrier to comprehension, here I think it supports and in some ways drives the story. It is never hard to follow what is going on or the ideas Hughes is driving at. It is a really engrossing and interesting read.

Clearly I loved this book. It is one of the most satisfying books I have encountered since starting this blog and by far the best of the novels I have read from the American Mystery Classics range so far.

It won’t be for everyone who reads this blog – it is first and foremost a suspense story so puzzle-driven readers may want to look elsewhere – but I would certainly strongly recommend it, particularly for those who are new to Hughes.

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

The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally Published 1933
Dr. Gideon Fell #2
Preceded by Hag’s Nook
Followed by The Eight of Swords

The Blurb

At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.

The Verdict

An imaginative crime story that gets bogged down in suspect and witness interviews. Worth a read but there are better Dr. Fell mysteries.


My Thoughts

Of all of the American Mystery Classic releases to date, none have excited me quite so much as The Mad Hatter Mystery. It wasn’t just the prospect of owning a shiny, fresh hardcover of a Carr work (a novelty after their being out of print for so long) but also a reflection of how appealing I found the blurb.

The Mad Hatter Mystery promises a lot. We get a strange murder at the Tower of London, a curious spate of hat thefts and the missing manuscript of the very first Poe detective story (predating The Murders in the Rue Morgue). The cover of the Penzler reprint even alludes to Carr’s reputation for impossible crimes which may set a false expectation since this novel really doesn’t fit into that category of crime fiction.

Before I discuss whether it lived up to those expectations I should probably go into a bit more detail about the setup…

London has been terrorized by a prankster who has been dubbed The Mad Hatter. This individual has been stealing hats off the heads of Londoners and putting them in odd places. Among the newspaper reporters following this case is Phil Driscoll who is the man found dead in the mist at Traitor’s Gate, a crossbow bolt through his heart and his uncle’s oversized top hat pulled over his head.

The guards at the Tower have quietly detained all of the visitors to the Tower that day for questioning but no one appears to have been near or seen what happened clearly through the heavy fog. Fortunately Dr. Gideon Fell is on hands to work through the various accounts and make sense of this baffling crime.

I really appreciate and admire how novel and imaginative the circumstances of this crime are. The idea of a hat thief terrorizing London society makes me smile and I think the question of why the hatter would have placed a hat on a corpse (or possibly killed the man themselves) is a really strong hook for the story.

The initial batch of interviews only makes the circumstances of the murder more baffling. The problems lie in tracking various suspects’ movements around the Tower and throughout London and the ways that information affects their alibis for the crime. I particularly enjoyed a evasive interviewee who lived in the same building as the victim and learning more about their reasons for being at the Tower.

The problem with these interviews is that the more information we receive, the harder it becomes to keep in your head exactly who is where and when. I ended up having to switch from the ebook copy to reading the print edition to make it easier to refer back to the map regularly (perhaps the first time I have really found a map to be essential in following the action of a case) and rereading sections to make sure I was sure I was remembering those movements correctly.

As I noted above, readers should be prepared that this is not one of Carr’s impossible crime stories. The case reads more like an unbreakable alibi story where no one who could have committed the crime would have done and those who might have a motivation can be shown to be away from the Tower at the time of the crime. As an example of that type of story, it is fairly solid but the complexities of the case can make it a surprisingly heavy read at times.

Carr does try to keep things light by incorporating quite a lot of humorous scenes and elements into his story. Some of these moments land quite well such as the grouchy Police doctor who has the misfortune to share his name with a famous fictional character and the interrogation where Fell decides he needs to project the image of what a lawman is expected to be through some elements of costuming to be taken seriously but others can fall a little flat or might be more entertaining if they could be seen rather than described. For the most part I would describe it as a gently amusing rather than hilarious read.

Though I do have issues with the middle investigative section of the novel, I do think the conclusion to the mystery is really quite cleverly thought out and, after such a complicated investigation, surprisingly simple. I do wonder if one of the reasons that this story seems to be pretty fondly remembered is the cleverness of this resolution.

A revelation shifts our understanding of the basic facts of the case and it is the sort of thing that the reader does have a fair chance of beating the detectives to. I don’t happen to love the way we get to that moment, in part because it relies on an unpredictable external event, but I was at least satisfied that Dr. Fell had basically solved the thing prior to that, keeping it from frustrating me too much.

I think the other reason that this story is fondly remembered relates to an event in the final chapter that feels organic and earned. It is, of course, the sort of thing that you can’t discuss without spoiling it but I think anyone who has read the book will know the moment I am referring to. It is the type of moment that defines a character and I think it gives us a very clear sense of who exactly Fell is not only as a detective but as a man.

Where does that leave me overall? Well, I liked moments from this story a lot and I certainly liked the ideas but the middle third turned out to be a bit of a slog. I am glad that further Carr stories are getting reprinted, both by Penzler and the British Library, so that this isn’t the only of his stories that is widely available as I would not suggest this as a first outing as it is hardly Carr at the height of his powers. Those who have already read and enjoyed books by the author will find there to be enough here to make it a worthwhile and solid, middle-of-the-road sort of read.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title with a literary allusion in it (What)

Further Reading

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World describes the novel as one of the best in concept, characterization and execution of the Fell novels.

The Green Capsule’s review is pretty mixed, praising some of the humor and appreciating the bit of background we get about Fell but noting that the case is a little too open ended and underwhelming on the question of how the murder was done.

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his views of this book, noting that it didn’t quite match up to his fond memories on a second reading.