Reprint of the Year 2022: Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Last week I shared some thoughts about one of the most recent reprints of a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, The End of Andrew Harrison. In that post I noted that I really appreciate the idea that the entirety of his output will at some point be available again and that each new set of titles moves us closer to that. It is worth pointing out though that I doubt I would have encountered Crofts at all had it not been for a crime fiction imprint that takes a different, ‘curated’ approach to its releases.

Ranges like the British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics are wonderful tools for discovery. Readers may well pick up a copy of The Mad Hatter Mystery or It Walks By Night based on already knowing and loving the author but by giving the impression of careful selection and the implication that the title is one of the highlights of that author’s work, it also provides an easy jumping on point. It is, in essence, a literary tasting menu.

Earlier this year I treated myself to a subscription to Penzler Publishing’s American Mystery Classics range through The Mysterious Bookshop. I would get a copy of whatever titles they put out with the knowledge that I’d be getting some authors I’d already know of and others that would be completely new to me. Roger Scarlett, the author of this novel, fell neatly into that second category.

I might not have picked up this book had it just been one of a half dozen titles by the author on a shelf. Indeed I would likely never have looked closely at it at all (one of the few knocks I’d make on this publication is that the image of the cat on the cover gives the book a much cozier appearance than its reality). As part of an ongoing range which has had far more hits than misses for me however I find myself more willing to give a book the benefit of the doubt and at least give it a chance to impress me.

Which Cat’s Paw did.

The story concerns the murder of a septuagenarian who is visited at his Boston mansion by members of his extended family, all hoping that they will be remembered in his will. When he shares some information at his birthday party however they are appalled and before the night is out he has been murdered.

Scarlett gives us family tensions, unspoken secrets and a cast of characters all seemingly having been pushed to desperation. It’s a very solid base for a mystery. What I appreciated here though is that while there are some familiar elements here, it feels like Scarlett is trying to give the suspects a range of backstories. Learning what those are is as exciting as discovering the solution to the mystery overall.

With much of the novel devoted to getting to know the victim and the suspects, I think that they feel particularly dimensional and well developed. It is this focus on character that makes this book such a pleasure to read and helped me really invest in discovering the truth. That solution, when it comes, is well constructed and clued, helping the book deliver a nice, punchy conclusion with an excellent final page reveal.

It was a great read and I am grateful to the American Mystery Classics range for selecting this and helping me to encounter it. I came away from the book excited to read more Roger Scarlett in the future. Now I just have to wait for someone to go ahead and reprint them…

Murder on “B” Deck by Vincent Starrett

Originally published in 1929
Walter Ghost #1
Followed by Dead Man Inside

For the passengers aboard the Latakia, the transatlantic journey from New York to Cherbourg promises weeks of rest and relaxation, no matter what class of ticket they have. But after an Italian baroness is found strangled in her cabin, the situation on board becomes more tense. The main suspect soon goes overboard, creating more questions than answers: Did a guilty conscience spur a suicidal act, or was he a witness silenced by the true killer, still at large on the luxury liner. 

Enter former intelligence officer Walter Ghost, tapped by the ship’s captain to play detective and solve the murder. He’s joined by his friend Dunsten Mollock, a novelist whose experience with mystery stories gives him helpful insights into the case. With clues including an amateur film, a doll, and a card from Memphis, Tennessee, it seems the duo have plenty to work with. But will they be able to solve the crime before word of the murder makes it into the steamship’s rumor mill, surely sending any guilty persons even deeper into hiding?


Several years ago Penzler Publishers reprinted Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder as part of their American Mystery Classics range. I enjoyed that book’s blend of mystery and adventure enough that I was excited to see another of the author’s works, Murder on “B” Deck, added to the range earlier this year and I would have got to it sooner except its publication coincided with a period where this blog went into a bit of an unplanned hiatus.

This novel, Starrett’s first genre offering, similarly is more of a lighthearted adventure or thriller than detective story. In its memorable opening chapter we follow mystery novelist Dunstan Mollock as he grudgingly pays a farewell visit on board an ocean liner bound for Europe and by misfortune finds himself accidentally caught up in a transatlantic crossing. After considering ways that he might be taken back, he decides instead to see the ship’s bursar to pay for passage and enjoy the trip in the company of his old friend, Walter Ghost.

After befriending an attractive young woman, he rashly suggests that he will write a mystery novel while on board, drawing inspiration from their own trip and the characters on board, and proposes reading the first chapter to her that night. As he reads that night however a crime is discovered whose circumstances uncannily mirror those described in his work and he finds himself assisting Ghost who has been asked to investigate the murder and find its solution before the ship reaches Cherbourg and the killer can escape.

The early chapters of this book setting up the circumstances of the adventure were for me its most enjoyable. Starrett does a wonderful job of creating a bustling sense of energy as Mollock reluctantly heads aboard and conjures up a picture of the cramped champagne party in his sister’s room very nicely. While the circumstances of the writer ending up aboard the ship are perhaps unnecessarily contrived (there is no story reason that he couldn’t just have bought his ticket in the first place), it does establish the book’s entertaining screwball comedy tone and helps introduce several of the characters quite organically.

These early chapters contain some of the book’s sharpest and wittiest remarks and I particularly enjoyed the reading of Mollock’s first chapter, interspersed with commentary from that character that reflects on the genre in a rather pompous manner clearly intended to impress the young woman he admires. The idea that the fictive crime should so closely resemble the actual one that we will spend the novel investigating is an entertaining one and Starrett pitches that idea nicely, playing with the idea without allowing it to become a distraction (Mollock, for instance, is not ever really considered as a possible murderer in spite of the coincidences).

Following the murder our focus shifts to following Ghost with Mollock falling into the sidekick role. The best parallel I can think of here is Poirot and Hastings in Murder on the Links. Mollock is there, listens to the evidence and provides his own theories from the perspective of a mystery novelist, but his actions sometimes frustrate the progress of the investigation. He is, after all, romantically interested in someone who might be a suspect in the case and is as interested in developing that romance as in finding the killer.

Ghost, whose background is a little enigmatic for a good part of the novel, is keen to emphasize that he is not a formally trained investigator. He is smart and logical in his thinking but he doesn’t always attack the matter in a clear procedural way, additionally hampered by the investigation needing to be a discrete one as for much of the novel the murder is kept a secret. It may feel a little untidy but it is also charmingly natural and reminds us that our detectives are approaching this as amateurs.

The main reason that this less disciplined investigative approach doesn’t bother me though is that the book is not intended to be a fair play mystery – at least in terms of establishing whodunit. Starrett does not, for instance, spend much time fleshing out the suspects and some potential leads are briefly addressed but never fully resolved.

The question of why however is much fairer game. Starrett provides much better clueing for the sort of explanation we ought to be looking for here and while we may not anticipate all of the elements of the murder, I thought that the story was a rather interesting one. I particularly appreciated some of the little elements of social history woven into this part of the story and though there are no shock revelations with regards this aspect of the novel, I found it interesting and effective.

As we approach the conclusion to the novel things do get a little messy. There are some fortuitous discoveries that end up putting Ghost and Mollock on the right track. Indeed my biggest problem with the book is that the solution is essentially gifted to them because of something the killer does that feels utterly bizarre and which will lead the investigation directly to them.

Those who approach this hoping to play armchair detective are likely to be frustrated both by this development and also by the killer’s identity which felt rather disappointing after so much build-up. Fortunately I came to this book after that previous experience with Starrett and so I was prepared to enjoy this for the ride rather than the conclusion.

Starrett’s writing, for instance, can be delightful and witty. I enjoyed the colorful cast of characters he develops and I felt he conjured up a really strong sense of the place and time. Indeed it is possibly the social history found in the novel that I think will stick with me longest. I found the discussion of midnight sailings really interesting and appreciated the further discussion of this both as a practice and in terms of how it inspired Starrett to start this story that can be found in Ray Betzner’s excellent introduction to this American Mystery Classics edition.

While I consider The Great Hotel Murder to be a better example of a detective story, I found Murder on “B” Deck to be a more interesting and entertaining read overall. Starrett balances comedy and action well to create a thoroughly engaging and readable novel that sustains its energy nicely. While I would caution that the conclusion may well frustrate, I found plenty to enjoy about the journey from its metafictional elements to its appealing characters and settings.

The Verdict: This flawed but entertaining adventure thriller is certainly worth a look for those in search of a lighthearted murder story.


Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime also enjoyed this, noting the thriller-ish tone of the story and comments about Ghost’s fallibility and how that is used by Starrett in a way that feels natural.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block describes the book as a pleasant read but felt that the race against time element of the story didn’t give the story the sense of urgency expected.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback of the American Mystery Classics reprint is 9781613162798, the hardcover is 9781613162781.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the paperback and the hardcover at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich

Originally published in 1944 using the pseudonym William Irish.

When Quinn first meets Bricky, she’s working as a partner-for-hire at a dancehall and he’s struggling to shake the anxiety of his guilty conscience. Earlier that day, the young man took advantage of a found key and used it to rob a stranger’s home. Now, with the purloined money in his pocket, Quinn is unable to escape the memory of his wrongdoing―and not even a night spent dancing is enough to silence his nagging thoughts. 

When the dancehall closes, he and Bricky―linked, after many intimate hours, by a budding romance―return to the scene of the crime intending to restore the stolen fortune and begin a new life together, only to discover, upon arrival, that the owner of the property has been murdered. There’s evidence present that easily links Quinn to the crime, and he expects that, as soon as day breaks and the authorities learn of the gruesome scene, he will be arrested straight away. Which means that he and Bricky have only a few short hours to find the true killer and clear Quinn’s name for good.

What begins as a romance soon turns into a nightmare, as this young couple trek through the dark underbelly of old New York in a desperate race for salvation.


Deadline at Dawn concerns two people, one a dancer for hire, the other an out-of-work handyman, who meet and recognize that they both came from the same town. Had they each stayed there they may well have been sweethearts – instead they each made their way to the big city where they failed to realize their dreams, leaving them feeling chewed up and hopeless.

Both had contemplated heading back to their small town but felt unable to do so on their own. They think that together though they might finally do it and they agree to catch a bus together at 6am. There is a complication however. Quinn had pulled off a robbery earlier that evening, breaking into the home of a former client and stealing a sizeable sum of money. It’s a decision he regrets, finding he cannot enjoy his ill-acquired gains, but he also fears that the police will be after him. Bricky presents a solution – if they can return the money before the client returns to their home and realizes the theft has happened then he might escape charges. Unfortunately for the pair when they do return to the house they find a dead body…

One of the things that defines the story is that it takes place over a very short space of time – just a little over five hours. This is driven home to the reader by the fun device of beginning each chapter with an analog clock reading rather than a title or number. It isn’t just the novelty of this that makes it memorable though – rather it’s the way that this contributes to the pressure that our heroes are under, reminding us just how little time remains for them to accomplish their goals. It’s a great device for creating and building pressure and it worked well for me.

Of course the reader must accept that these two characters would in just a few hours throw themselves in together in the way shown. Their connection is far from typical after all. Woolrich does a really good job though of convincing the reader of their desperation and sense of hopelessness. Each begins the story seeming doomed and so while a romance ensues, it is as much about clinging to one another in the hope of survival and exploring what might have been as it is the hope of how that will develop now.

I really liked both Bricky and Quinn and quickly came to care for them as their stories are revealed and we get to know them. It is easy to understand how each fell into their respective positions of hopelessness, the barriers that have kept them from heading home and to understand the desperation that led Quinn to steal. While we begin the book keenly aware of the darkness they are in, there is also a sense of hope – they found each other in their darkest moment and together they might just pull through.

The discovery of the body is obviously an enormous complication for our young pair and it does represent a further challenge to the credibility of our heroes actions. It is nearly always questionable why an amateur ends up investigating a murder and here we may think our heroes foolish for not immediately reporting the crime, as bad as it might look. Woolrich has done such a strong job of building that ‘it’s now or never’ message though that I think he just about sells it – any kind of a delay is sure to damage their resolve and mean they will never get on that bus…

Their investigative efforts are characterized more by their urgency than the quality or complexity of their reasoning. This is not the sort of case where the reader has anything much to solve – we hardly know anything about the victim, let alone those who may wish to kill him. Still there are a few nice moments where we see our heroes draw smart and logical conclusions from the evidence they have been presented with and I enjoyed seeing how they divided responsibility, each pursuing separate leads.

One of the aspects of this book I appreciated most was its seedy depiction of the city in those early hours of the morning. This starts with the description of Bricky leaving the dance hall and trying to elude the men waiting at the doors, hoping to convince the girls to go with them. There are similarly effective moments that take place in the cabs, pharmacies and bars that we visit in the course of that evening. All of this reinforces that notion of the city as having a façade of loveliness which covers a much rougher reality experienced by the people who make that dream seem real.

The investigation comprises lots of false starts and dead ends. One positive of this is that we get a number of glimpses into the lives of other people roaming the city in those early hours, getting a glimpse at some of the other hopeless situations people have found themselves in. One of the most poignant of these comes in an unexpectedly emotional exchange between Quinn and a man he believes is carrying a gun. That sequence was for me one of the highlights of the book.

The less positive consequence of the structuring of that investigation though is that when we enter the story’s final act, Woolrich has a lot of dots left to connect and not much space left to do it. This in turns brings two issues with it. The first is that credibility gets stretched just that little bit further as things have to be wrapped up one way or another by that 6am deadline. I will admit to having little sense of the geography of the area in which the story is set so I don’t know if these locations are closer together than I was assuming but the reader will have to swallow a lot of swift movement and decision making – particularly in those final few chapters.

The other is that as we near that conclusion, I found the sudden acceleration in storytelling and the incorporation of some more action-driven sequences led to me having to reread some passages carefully to be sure I was following the developments in the story correctly. When I did though I found a story that felt largely satisfying, particularly when viewed on a thematic level. I might suggest that Woolrich does engage in a few overly neat story moves, leaving things overly tidy, but that is perhaps a necessary consequence of the messy way in which the adventure begins.

Overall I am happy to be able to say I had a great time with this one. I admired its depiction of two people who begin the story hopeless but find strength and support in one another. I came away from this reminded that I have a couple of other Woolrich titles on my TBR pile that really deserve my attention. Expect to see me tackle them at some point in the next few months…

The Verdict: This entertaining race against time story features some compelling characters and an intriguing situation. There’s no detection here to speak of but the ride is worth experiencing for anyone who enjoys a good thriller.

The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The cover to the American Mystery Classics reprint (2022) of The Cape Cod Mystery.

Originally published 1931
Asey Mayo #1
Followed by Death Lights a Candle

Meet Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Settled down from his former life as a seafaring adventurer, Asey is a Jack-of-all-trades who uses his worldly knowledge, folksy wisdom, and plain common sense to solve the most puzzling crimes to strike the peninsula. And in this, his first case, Asey finds himself embroiled in a scandal that will push his deductive powers to their limits.

A massive heatwave is scorching the Northeast, and vacationers from New York and Boston flock to Cape Cod for breezy, cool respite. Then a muckraking journalist is found murdered in the cabin he’s rented for the season, and the summer holiday becomes a nightmare for the local authorities. There are abundant suspects among the out-of-towners flooding the area, but they ultimately fix their sights on beloved local businessman Bill Porter as the murderer―unless Asey Mayo can prove him innocent and find the true killer. 


Our expectations coming to a book can definitely affect our experiences reading it. I have suggested before that my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Malice Aforethought may well have been a consequence of people telling me for several years that I was certain to love it. After so much build-up, the hype was so great that the reality of the book was unlikely to live up to what I had imagined it to be.

I experienced a similar sort of effect when coming to Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery. Admittedly this was not the positive sort of hype but rather some recent interactions with other classic crime fans who were not glowing in their sentiments about other books in this series. Still, I had paid for the thing and when it turned up I was curious enough to give it a couple of chapters and I was initially quite pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I came to it with no preconceptions whatsoever.

The story is set in Cape Cod where Prudence and her young niece Betsy have recently acquired a small holiday home and invited a few friends to stay. The murder takes place in a neighboring property where a bestselling author is found dead, his body covered with a sheet. Unfortunately the local sheriff, a former policeman from Boston who works as a grocery clerk, seems out of his depth and quickly settles on Betsy’s beau, a local businessman named Bill.

While there are flaws with the sheriff’s case, he seems settled on Bill’s guilt. Prudence talks with Asey Mayo, a sharp-witted local handyman who had once travelled the world as a sailor, and the pair decide to try and prove Bill’s innocence by doing a little sleuthing of their own…

Let’s start with the series’ setting because I think that this is one of the most inspired aspects of the book. One of the great things about the idea of setting a mystery series on Cape Cod is that you have the opportunity to have both that country, small town vibe married to some of the anonymity that comes with living somewhere where so many of the people are vacationing. This not only allows the author to introduce whole new casts of characters between books, it also enables the author to play with questions of identity – in the case of this book prompting us to consider who may have actually known the victim.

While I may not have been to Cape Cod, I did feel that Taylor provides the reader both with a sense of the physical space but also the rhythms of life there during the season. There are some neat observations about the way local businesses adjust to cater for their temporary residents and I enjoyed getting to know some of the colorful locals such as that sheriff and also the rather full-of-himself doctor.

I also quite enjoyed some of the early instances of our heroes engaging in simple, logical thinking. A prime example would be the short series of inferences that Prudence is able to make about the body to suggest murder from a few details of the circumstances in which it is found. I quickly found that my expectations were raising and I was quite hopeful that further logical sleuthing would follow.

As I spent more time with the sleuth, Asey Mayo, however I began to find myself frustrated with his folksy manner and the pacing of the story. Part of that is, no doubt, because I tend to dislike rendering dialect with phonetic spellings. We are told early on that Asey speaks in a very distinctive way, dropping whole parts of words, and while the spellings certainly convey that it also meant that I found myself having to slow down at points just to work out what he was saying. Sometimes that was fine as quite a bit of what he says can be quite amusing, but there are points where I found myself wishing that it had been eased back. The voice was strong enough just from the choice of words and sentence structure alone.

Another reason is that Asey is someone who seems to work on hunches and intuition, comparing situations to ones he has experienced before. Now, I think that is a legitimate type of crime-solving intelligence – I certainly don’t object to it with Miss Marple – but it felt that Taylor has her hero fall back on it too often, dulling its impact. That is, in this reader’s opinion, a particular shame as a key moment in the book really leans into that idea and I think it would have had an even greater impact if there had been fewer instances of it.

The final thing that I think doesn’t help is that the mid-section of the novel feels like a bit of a runaround. There certainly are some amusing and clever moments there, such as a very clever trick Asey plays to get someone to talk, but there is also quite a lot of what might be described as ‘business’ or ‘hijinks’. Some of its cute enough but the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace with few moments that shock or take the story in a strikingly different direction.

After finishing I started thinking about Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and how often their books would feature a second killing. While sometimes those may feel like afterthoughts, that device can help to add interest into the second half of a novel and refocus the reader’s mind. Here the energy starts high but seems to drain away with the details, only really picking up in the final few chapters as we reach our denouement.

That strikes me as a bit of a shame because the actual solution is pretty interesting, particularly with regards the motive. Taylor goes on to enhance that conclusion by hitting some unexpected emotional notes towards the very end, tying things up in a surprisingly satisfying and powerful (if perhaps slightly convenient) way.

Were I judging this story purely on the setup and resolution of the crime I suspect I would be viewing it quite favorably. The problem I have with it though is that question of pacing which just didn’t work for me. It’s possible, of course, that it may just have been a poor match for my reading mood. Unfortunately as much as I liked the two ends of the story, the middle just proved too much of a slog for this reader.

The Verdict: Asey is a colorful sleuth and your enjoyment of this novel will likely reflect how much you like that sort of folksy character. While I think there are some neat ideas at play with the solution, the journey to that point exhausted me.

Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

Originally published in 1931
Inspector Kane #3
Preceded by The Back Bay Murders
Followed by Murder Among the Angells

Martin Greenough’s walled-off mansion is the last remaining holdout in the Boston parkland known as the Fenway―and the fact that it eluded condemnation by the city is a testament to the elderly bachelor’s great wealth…

On the eve of his birthday, Greenough requests the presence of his heirs at his home, insisting that he has something important to discuss. Before that discussion can take place, though, the man is murdered in his study. In one way or another nearly everyone there would benefit by his death, and none gathered seem terribly upset by it, so finding the culprit is no easy task for Inspector Kane of the Boston PD. But as he untangles the threads and unburies dark family secrets, the discovery of a bizarre clue might hold the key to solving the crime.

A few weeks ago I happened to learn that The Mysterious Bookstore offers a monthly subscription deal where you can get the latest volume from their American Mystery Classics range shipped direct to your home. As this information happened to reach me within moments of me receiving a paycheck, I quickly succumbed to the inevitable and placed my order and I was pleased when I returned home yesterday to find a copy of Cat’s Paw waiting for me. Accordingly all plans to review some of those three or four books I read last week went out the window as this went straight to the top of the TBR pile and I found myself polishing it off in an evening.

The novel was the third of a small handful of books written by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair under the name of Roger Scarlett during the early 1930s. It is a traditional detective story concerning the murder of a wealthy man during his birthday festivities at his mansion. That was exactly the sort of book I was looking to read so I was excited to give it a try and see if I could solve the puzzle.

The victim is Mart Greenough, a septugenarian bachelor who is frequently visited by his extended family members, all of whom hope to benefit from his will. Mart is, perhaps to their frustration, in pretty good health. With his birthday approaching he decides that he will host a party to share some personal news with those relatives. That news shocks and appalls his family members and before the night is out he is found shot dead by the windows of his study.

Mart’s death occurs relatively late in the novel which gives us plenty of time to get to know our victim. While he certainly exhibits some fussy, controlling and difficult behavior, I felt he was an entertaining character to spend time with and I enjoyed getting to know him and understand his relationships with the suspects.

It doesn’t take us long to start to get to know his guests and to learn some details of the secrets they have been keeping that could lead to murder. One aspect of this that I appreciated was that those reasons feel surprisingly varied, making for a much richer reading experience. I enjoyed observing these characters’ behaviors to try and spot clues as to what their issues were likely to be and I similarly enjoyed the circumstances in which several of them are exposed. There is a great sense of discovery in the chapters leading up to the murder, giving the piece a nice pace.

Pacing is one of the strengths of this book in general thanks to a structural decision to tell this story by following the action during the party, presenting information to the reader in an informed third person narration, rather than have it be discovered through questioning. This choice encourages the reader to become more engaged with the narrative, looking for clues as to where the story may be headed, and also allows some of those secrets to emerge quite naturally in moments of conflict rather than simply being discovered during the investigation. My only issue with this approach is that the short first chapter, in which we meet the investigators and learn about the status of the murder case, feels largely redundant and adds little to our ultimate understanding of what is going on, particularly given how long it will be until we meet those characters again.

Turning to the circumstances of the murder themselves, the crime scene is relatively simple. The time of death is quickly established, as is the murder weapon meaning we can devote our attention pretty much exclusively to the question of who committed the crime. As I note above, the murder takes place after we learn most of the characters’ secrets and have observed their behavior so we do not have much evidence to gather – rather our task is to piece together what we have and to draw logical inferences from it.

I particularly appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the discovery of the body, starting with Mart’s announcement to his family members. After chapters of build-up we see how the circumstances for murder seem to be aligning. It certainly helps to build anticipation for that moment and I thoroughly enjoyed looking for clues in the next few chapters as we follow our suspects right up to the point that the body is discovered.

The investigation that follows is relatively brief, reflecting that we already know many of the facts of the case by this stage. Inspector Kane, having learned the facts of the case, proceeds to walk us logically through them, helping the reader see how they are connected and what inferences can be made from them. It’s pretty well done, though one consequence of this approach is that the detectives themselves didn’t make much of an impression on me. I would be curious to see if the previous volumes had devoted a little more time to developing these characters.

I think the authors do a good job of creating a solution that feels clued and logical, though I must note that I was not entirely convinced by the motive (though I accept the authors do play fair and properly set it up). I admired the construction of the puzzle overall however, particularly the way in which the authors pull off a great final page reveal that will provide a nice, punchy finish for those who don’t see the solution coming.

The Verdict: An entertaining puzzle-driven detective story, that plays fair and is told in a pretty engaging way. Another very solid entry in the American Mystery Classics range that leaves me curious to try some of the authors’ other works.

Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Originally published in 1940
Detective Maclain #3
Preceded by The Whistling Hangman
Followed by Blind Man’s Bluff

[…]The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 
Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

For much of this week the fates seemed to be conspiring to keep me from reading my book club’s latest selection, Odor of Violets. At the start of the week I began reading a copy on my lunch break at work, only to get thrown a curveball when a COVID-quarantining situation left me unable to retrieve it, forcing me to order a second print copy. Which got delayed. Or lost. So with twenty-four hours to go, I had to switch things up, shift to a digital edition and force myself to read it in one sitting.

I mention the background to how I came to read this because I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read this in ideal circumstances and I think it is possible that my reading, particularly my ability to focus, may have been affected. Certainly the plotting was the part of the novel I seemed to absorb the least although it had been much of the draw for me when this book was selected. Whether that reflects on the complexity of the plotting or my own inattention, I cannot say.

Odor of Violets begins by introducing us to Norma Tredwill who has decided she must speak with her ex-husband, the actor Paul Gerente, after beginning to suspect that he may be having an affair with a member of her family. She visits his apartment and is buzzed inside, only to find his dead body lying on the carpet. Someone must have buzzed her inside, but who could that have been and where did they disappear to?

Meanwhile across the city private detective Captain Maclean receives a visit in his office. The visitor, identified as Paul Gerente, has a message from Naval Intelligence seeking Maclean’s assistance in identifying vulnerable points in the city’s defenses. A short while later he visits Gerente’s apartment only to discover another man inside along with the dead body. A man who admits to murdering Gerente…

Odor of Violets, written in 1940, is principally a pulpy, espionage thriller though I was quite pleasantly surprised to realize that it also has elements of the traditional whodunnit. While some developments such as kidnappings and our detective finding themselves in physical peril clearly reflect a pulpy style, there are several occasions where those developments come about because of the detection (or to enable it to occur).

I do really like the conceit of Maclain speaking with a man only to learn that he was already dead. It gets things off to a fun start by introducing the idea of impersonation and also reminding us quite clearly of the wartime backdrop to the story. The success of Maclain’s investigation will, we realize, have a huge impact on national security and it may very well affect America’s contribution to the war. These are pretty compelling stakes and I felt they helped to not only build interest in the detection process but also to introduce a bit of a race against time as we near the end of the story.

As much as I liked this initial hook, I did find the early chapters a little slow and perhaps even a little unfocused. There is a lot going on here and I initially struggled a little with the combination of a domestic and a national security focus, wanting the writer to commit to one or the other. Things pick up considerably with a second murder that uses a pretty novel murder weapon and kick into another gear entirely when, close to the end, a third body turns up in circumstances that are very memorable.

Though I struggled a little to get interested in those early chapters, two things kept me going and engaged with this. The first was that Kendrick’s pulpy writing style is entertaining and ensures that there is plenty of incident to keep the reader engaged. The second, and perhaps more important one, was the character of Maclain himself.

Maclain is a fascinating creation for a number of reasons, not least the depiction of his blindness. While Kendrick’s depiction of sensory compensation can feel a little incredible and overdone, I appreciated firstly that the author attempts to show how a dedicated individual might be able to refine their skills to still make an important contribution – in this case to the war effort.

One of the most striking behaviors Maclain demonstrates seems to be drawn straight from the Sherlock Holmes playbook. On several occasions in the story Maclain draws huge observations about a character based on some small details of their personality or manners. Some of these can be a little fantastical, much like those found in Holmes, but the core idea here is excellent. What’s more, while I think Kendrick uses it a little too often, I think the execution and explanation of those moments is very good.

After a slow start my interest picked up considerably at the time of the second murder and gained still further with the third – which is introduced in quite a wonderfully macabre way. It’s a strong image in a book that’s absolutely packed with them (Kendrick was evidently quite a visual writer) and the moment it is introduced is quite startling. By the end of the book I was quite hooked on the action and keen to see what would happen.

It is, in short, a pretty engaging read – even when I wasn’t always clear exactly what was going on (as a reminder: that may be on me rather than the novel). While I found the direction of the story to be a little unclear at times, I really enjoyed the overall conceit and felt that the idea had been executed very well. Is Maclain a character I would seek out again and again? I am not sure though I will be curious to read any thoughts from others if anyone has any recommendations!

The Verdict: I struggled to find the thread of the story in the earliest chapter but things picked up for me considerably with the discovery of the secondary murders. Ultimately very solid and readable but the plot itself is less remarkable than its hero.

The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

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

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?

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!

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.

Death from a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson

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

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…

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.

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

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

Originally published 1946

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…

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…

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

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

Originally published in 1948

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. . .

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.

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.

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.