Lament for a Maker by Michael Innes

LamentforaMaker
Lament for a Maker
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1938
Inspector Appleby #3
Preceded by Hamlet, Revenge!
Followed by Stop Press

Ranald Guthrie, the laird of Erchany, is widely considered to be mad by those who live on his lands. He is a miser who lives in seclusion and his behavior seems to be increasingly erratic.

Late one night he is observed falling from the highest tower of his run-down castle and is found dead in the snow below. Did his madness drive him to commit suicide or was his death an act of murder?

If that seems like a very general summary of the novel it reflects how difficult it is to write about it without spoiling it heavily. The book is an oddity, being constructed of several sections written from the perspectives of different characters that often overlap in the events they depict, casting them in different lights as we learn more information.

This is an interesting approach in theory and its success will likely depend on how much you like the characterizations of the different narrators. I will certainly credit Innes for managing to create several distinctive voices and personalities for these narrators and I did appreciate that each takes on a slightly different style reflecting that character’s outlook.

Now, I should say at this point that I have never really cared for the idea of writing in dialect. I accept it when it happens and will certainly admit that it can convey a strong sense of place or character but it is also an unnecessary obstacle for the reader. In Lament for a Maker, the entire first third of the book is written in Scots dialect and although I lived for years in Glasgow and had a Scottish grandmother, I found deciphering the text to be a chore. It is not that it is impossible to decipher – Innes is good at situating dialect terms in a context where their meaning is generally quite clear – but it slows the pace down for anyone who is not familiar with the terms.

What makes this approach all the more frustrating is that while almost all of the characters involved in the story and narrating sections are Scottish, none of the other characters narrating do the same. It may have added mood and atmosphere but I think more selective use of Scots terms could have had the same effect and made the work more accessible.

Once we transition to the second narrator I found it much easier to engage with the work and to follow what was happening. The story’s structure mean it is constructed less like a traditional whodunit and more as a haunting, highly literate Gothic mystery told by a series of narrators who simply do not have the complete story. It is an interesting approach to take and I did find many of the answers provided to be quite surprising and satisfying.

Erchany is a compelling setting for a story and I did find the descriptions of its crumbling architecture and the infestation of rats to be extremely effective at setting the scenes and creating a haunting atmosphere. At times the narrative seems to skirt on the edge of the supernatural in some of the elements it employs though in the end the story is quite rational and driven by its characters’ psychology. I certainly would describe myself as being generally satisfied by the solution.

The book’s chief problem is that its stylistic and structural choices dominate the storytelling, creating a book that delivers plenty of atmosphere but which suffers from a lack of clear storytelling focus. I gather that this is not the typical sort of structure that Innes would create, so if you are curious to sample his work I would suggest that you may want to start with one of his other stories.

There is one other thing I should mention which is, again, an example of how this book is somewhat atypical. You may be puzzled how I managed to write over six hundred words without commenting on the story’s sleuth, Sir John Appleby, who would go on to appear in many other stories. The reason I haven’t commented on the character is that their role in this story is extremely minimal and, when he does appear, he hardly makes an impact.

The lack of a strong presence for a sleuth does not diminish the mystery or its solution. This is a clever tale and one that has a lot of personality. I am not sure, on reflection, whether I would have wanted this to be my first experience of Innes’ style if I had known how different it is from his other works. Still, it builds atmosphere masterfully and I did respect Innes’ skill at creating several distinct narrative voices. While I won’t be rushing to read any further works by Innes, I am sure I will return to him at some point.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

Antidote
Antidote to Venom
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1938
Inspector French #17
Preceded by Found Floating
Followed by The End of Andrew Harrison

Antidote to Venom is an example of a crime fiction sub-genre that I have absolutely fallen in love with over the past year: the inverted crime novel.

While I had been aware that there were mystery stories written from the perspective of the criminal, in the past year I have come to read several really excellent examples of this form, several of which are from this range of British Library Crime Classics. When written well, this allows the reader to experience the crime from the perpetrator’s perspective, understand their decision making and watch them sweat as the detective seems to get closer and closer. As the reader knows who did the crime and how, the question they must consider is just how the detective will manage to piece everything together.

Our criminal in this book is George Surridge, the director of the Birmington Zoo. At the start of the novel we learn that he is trapped in a marriage that has turned loveless and cold because he and his wife are unable to afford their lifestyle on his small salary. George feels sure that if only he could receive a promised inheritance from his Aunt, all of his problems would be solved…

A recurring theme of the inverted mystery form is that the events begin to spiral out of the murderer’s control, forcing increasingly reckless actions. When George meets a sweet and charming young woman he falls hopelessly in love with her and ends up making her his mistress, only exacerbating his financial woes. Ultimately these pressures all build on George and push him to commit murder in the hopes of staving off ruin and starting a new life for himself.

Crofts’ approach to writing is extremely methodical and, at times, seems to be a little ponderous and heavy-handed. This is particularly true of the end of the book which incorporates some spiritual reflection that can feel a little preachy and heavy-handed but the conclusion of the novel benefits from the clear and careful buildup as Wills is able to clearly explain to the reader what has happened and why.

George struck me as a convincing character, even if his plan for dispatching his victim seems ludicrously convoluted. He does some very grubby things in the course of this narrative, not least committing murder, yet I could understand his feelings of hopelessness and empathize with his desire to feel loved and a sense of affection.

The scheme that he utilizes to dispatch his victim is rather ingenious and quite memorable. It is certainly an original enough scheme that it threatens to stump Crofts’ series investigator, Inspector French, who finally shows up in the narrative’s final third to attempt to piece things together by being incredibly methodical and diligent.

The author, Freeman Wills Crofts, has something of a reputation as being quite a dull writer which I think is not particularly fair. I certainly have found several of his stories to be quite exciting and to be based on some interesting ideas. Yet while I think that descriptor is unfairly applied to the writer, I certainly think it can be used about his series detective.

I find it quite mystifying that a character such as Inspector French managed to appear in such a large number of books and yet seems so devoid of personality. While there is no questioning his brilliance at solving mysterious murders, I never feel he has a life beyond the narratives he gets caught up in. Here it is interesting to observe how he works to piece this case together when the murder method seemed so foolproof.

So, if the writing can be ponderous and the investigator is a bore, why do I like this book? Firstly, I think that the zoo setting is fun and quite memorable and I liked the way the zoo itself figures into the crime that is committed.

Secondly, George is an interesting and complex character. He does a terrible thing in the course of the story and yet we understand part of what has driven him to that place. While I think the elements of the ending reflecting issues of faith are heavy-handed, I did appreciate that Crofts is trying to introduce some ideas and a process of introspection for a character that are quite unusual in the genre.

Finally, the concept of the crime here is rather clever and it is the sort that sticks in the head. I was quite impressed by the way George attempts to set up the crime scene to hide his own involvement and I was curious to see how French would seek to piece things together.

Is it Crofts best work? No. Nor do I consider it to be even his best inverted mystery. Still, the story is quite pleasing in spite of its flaws and I resolved on completing the book that I would try to give French another shot soon.

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

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Death of Anton
Alan Melville
Originally Published 1936

I was impatient.

Death of Anton, a crime story originally published in 1936, was released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range in Britain over two years ago and it instantly caught my eye with its charming cover and intriguing description. I had waited patiently to be able to buy it but after two years I had given up hope that Poisoned Pen Press would be releasing it Stateside. I did however notice that it had been available for some time on Audible and decided that I was fed up of waiting. In fairly typical fashion I learned the next day that it would be released here this December.

As it happens I have no regrets. The book is a delight and one of the most enjoyable I have read in this range to date. For those who care about such things, I would add that the audiobook version is very well performed and that the narrator has an excellent handle on how to deliver the author’s witty prose.

Inspector Minto is a detective from Scotland Yard but when we first encounter him he is staying in a hotel in the hopes of dissuading his sister from marrying a man his brother deems unsuitable. Over breakfast he meets a clown who performs at a circus that is beginning a week’s run nearby and who, after hinting at some illegal intrigue taking place there, invites Minto (and guests) to a party he is giving after the evening’s performance.

Some time after dinner however as the party begins to die down the body of Anton, a tiger tamer, is found having seemingly been attacked by his own beasts. Minto becomes suspicious that this is not the simple accident it appears to be and begins his investigation.

I want to leave my description of the plot there because part of the fun of what follows is the way the story evolves as Minto tries to piece things together. There is one further development that I must reference however because it is one of the most distinctive elements of this story.

The brother of Mr. Minto is the priest at a nearby Catholic church and, following the murder, the person responsible goes to him and confesses to the murder. That details of that discussion cannot be divulged as they are under the confessional seal and so we have a character who is aware of the identity of the murderer and yet cannot knowingly provide any details to aid his brother’s investigation. This device works pretty well here as it means we have a character who can ultimately confirm the identity of the killer at the end of the story. It also provides an entertaining source of frustration for our detective at several points in the investigation.

Melville finds ways to frustrate his detective throughout the novel which I found quite delightful. Minto of Scotland Yard is often a competent detective and yet he is far from a brilliant one. At several points in the narrative he makes crucial mistakes or incorrect assumptions and yet he is also shown to be quite methodical and diligent in the way he approaches working on his leads and theories.

The circus setting is every bit as colorful and lively as you might expect and provides us with a collection of larger-than-life characters to suspect and enjoy. Their rivalries are another constant source of comedy throughout the book and some of their personalities are very amusingly observed.

Having focused on my comments on how amusing and colorful the book is, I think I should end by reflecting on the crime itself and its solution. Although the plot twists on several occasions and gives us some very memorable developments, the eventual solution is fairly straightforward and I found it to be the least interesting part of the book. Happily Melville figures out a way to work some laughter into the conclusion to keep his tone consistent while also providing some resolution but I suspect few readers will be wowed by Minto’s deductions.

Generally the solution to what is going on makes sense though I do believe there is a point in the story where Minto presumes something that he did not have evidence for at that moment. I didn’t feel cheated because I think that by the time that assumption becomes important the reader would have reached a similar conclusion by themselves and I don’t think it affects the outcome of the investigation at all and overall I would say Melville plays fair in the ways that matter.

Death of Anton is yet another triumph for one of my favorite ranges of mystery titles and is certainly an unusual and entertaining read. It is remarkable how effectively Melville makes a story that possesses several potentially dark moments feel light and whimsical in tone. It is Highly Recommended.

Availability Note: Death of Anton will be released in North America on December 5, 2017 and is already available on audio.

The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr

GreenCapsule
The Green Capsule (aka. The Black Spectacles)
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1939
Dr. Gideon Fell #10
Preceded by To Wake the Dead
Followed by The Problem of the Wire Cage

The Problem of the Green Capsule is the first book I have read by John Dickson Carr although it is not my first encounter with the character of Dr. Gideon Fell. Recently I had listened to the BBC Radio adaptations of several Carr stories in which the role of the famed amateur sleuth was played by Donald Sinden.

Going from adaptation to the original source material was an interesting experience and it’s usually one I try to avoid. Not because I believe that the book is always better but because once you hear or see a character performed it can be hard to see the character as originally envisaged. It was certainly hard not to hear Sinden’s voice in each of Fell’s pronouncements and interjections though I think that may just reflect that he was well cast in that role.

Having enjoyed the character I was keen to explore him further and so I set about finding one of the Carr stories and quickly settled on this one based on its rather striking premise. The crime here is quite audacious and certainly captures the imagination.

When the story begins there has already been a murder that apparently involved poison being placed in chocolates that were sold in a confectionery and tobacconists shop. No one can quite figure out how this was done yet Dr. Marcus Chesney has an idea and, after lecturing his family on how eyewitness accounts are unreliable, he decides to stage a theatrical production to prove his point.

Inevitably the fake murder ends up becoming the real thing. When the police arrive they soon realize that the only viable suspects were all in the audience and are able to give each other alibis. At about the halfway point in the narrative Dr. Fell is called in and begins to review the evidence to find the way the seemingly impossible murder was carried out.

Part of the reason I found this mystery so impressive is that it has such a small set of possible suspects to work with and the scenario is so well constructed that suspicion is able to fall equally of each of those characters.

The solution as to how this particular crime was worked is quite ingenious while playing quite fair with the reader. While I did not manage to identify every element of how the trick was worked, when the explanation is given I could see exactly where I went wrong in how I was looking at the case and how I fell for a red herring.

Though the characters are generally pretty solid, one aspect of the story that didn’t quite work for me was the police detective’s attraction to one of the characters involved in the murder. While I certainly don’t mind romantic elements in a story, I am not sure that their inclusion did much to advance a theme or complicate the investigation.

As for Fell himself, I found the character to be thoroughly entertaining. Carr holds back his entrance to the midpoint of the novel, essentially enabling him to seem all the more brilliant when he arrives and starts to deduce some of the mechanics of how the crime was achieved. He is a methodical and practical character and while he will occasionally make a short jump of reasoning, those moments generally feel credible.

Overall I think I picked a good story to start with and I certainly plan to continue dipping into these stories and some of Carr’s other works. Highly recommended.

Do you have any suggestions for which Carr works I should seek out next? I’m considering starting at the beginning with Hag’s Nook but I’m willing to be persuaded into trying something else…

The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude

Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Square Murder
John Bude
Originally Published: 1937
Superintendent Meredith #3
Preceded by The Sussex Downs Murder

I suspect that many mystery fans have a favorite range or publisher whose output they tend to be drawn to. For me it’s the British Library Crime Classics range which is published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press which reprints detective fiction from crime fiction’s Golden Age.

I have not only discovered a number of great reads through this range, I can also credit the books for causing me to go beyond Christie and Sayers and to see that crime fiction from this period is far more diverse than I had realized.

Unfortunately The Cheltenham Square Murder does not sit among the best of their output although it is quite a solid, entertaining read. It does contain a rather wonderful story hook, improbable though it is, which does at least make it quite a memorable murder even if its investigation disappoints.

The far-fetched concept of the story is that the murder victim lives in a cul-de-sac where several of the residents are all expert archers. One evening the victim is sitting in an armchair in front of a window having tea when he is killed with an arrow to the back of the head. The shot would have been an exceptionally hard one yet because so many of the residents were familiar with a bow there are a number of suspects on hand.

Meanwhile, and here we hit remarkable coincidence number two, our series sleuth (Inspector Meredith) just happens to be staying on holiday in a house on the street with a crime writer friend and he cannot resist assisting with the investigation.

In the early stages of the novel I found the investigation to be quite interesting, not least because of the unusual method of dispatch. There is a little discussion about flight trajectories and arrow types which lead to questions about precisely where the shot could have been fired from and there is a strong focus on the different suspects movements around the neighborhood.

The second half of the novel began to flag for me and I became frustrated that there were some parts of the narrative that struck me as a little flabby. For instance, there is one plot point in particular early in the story that the writer devotes a fair amount of time to that leads absolutely nowhere at all. There are other elements that are more substantive but which advance the investigation so quickly that the detective (or the reader) didn’t seem to earn the revelations that come from them.

Given that Meredith is quite a plodding sort of detective and the way the narrative slows in the final eighty pages, there is a very good chance that the reader will overtake him at points in the story and will beat him to solving the crime. Usually when I do this I feel a huge sense of accomplishment but here I felt a little underwhelmed.

There are several clues that so directly point to the identity of the suspect that the question only becomes one of how the crime was managed. While the means is at least rather clever and certainly unique, the reader comes to elements of it by default. Had the pacing of the conclusion been a little faster this may have been less apparent but I felt the solution required little ingenuity on the part of the reader – just a diligence and orderly removal of other possibilities.

If the mechanics of the investigation disappoint, the reader can at least enjoy the cast of characters that Bude creates for his story. The suspects are all quite unique and several of them have some interesting motives and behaviors that help bring them to life. Sadly, our investigator, Meredith, is much less of a personality and I found him of relatively little interest though it was interesting to see his investigation floundering at points as he hits several dead ends.

So, how did I feel about The Cheltenham Square Murder? I think it has some flashes of personality but it ends up being undone by the very unique concept that attracted me to it in the first place. When a murder requires a large amount of skill to be worked, it requires the reader to suspend a considerable amount of disbelief to accept that there might have been a broad array of suspects. As for how it is done, we have to have the means offered to us in advance so that the ending feels fair but the moment that means is introduced it stands out so much that it becomes clear that was how it was achieved.

This is a shame because there certainly were aspects of this book I enjoyed a lot and I found much of the book quite readable and entertaining. While I am open to reading some other works by Bude in the future, it will not be to spend more time with Meredith but in the hopes of seeing some other similarly creative scenarios.

Do you have a recommendation for another book in the Meredith series I might enjoy more?