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. Childless and nearing the end of his life, he surrounds himself with only his cat, his servants, and a friend, Mrs. Warden―to say nothing of the circle of extended family members whose lives he both subsidizes and rules from afar, the nieces and nephews who all seem to be more fond of Uncle Mart’s money than they are of his character.

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.

Cover and blurb from 2022 reprint from Penzler Publishing

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

Cover: Penzler Publishing – American Mystery Classics Reprint (2021)

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

Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. 

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.

My Thoughts

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

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.