Capital Crimes, edited by Martin Edwards

This collection was originally published in 2015.

Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment. 

I was a late convert to the mystery short story. Read some of my earliest posts on this blog and you’ll see that I express a certain wariness about this form of mystery story, believing that the short length wouldn’t allow for the sort of complex case that would interest me.

The British Library mystery anthologies were a large part of the reason that my opinions on the form began to change. I started reading them just to experience a wide range of authors but was pleasantly surprised by how rich and interesting some of the tales were.

One of the things I like most about the range is the idea of grouping stories around a common theme. Other collections have been themed on topics like manor house murders, railway mysteries or science-driven cases. It can be interesting to see the different directions and approaches writers would take on a common theme or element, brilliantly illustrating their style and personality as a writer.

Capital Crimes is a collection that contains some very strong mystery stories, some from familiar names but several from writers who were new to me. I will share some thoughts on each story in a moment but talking about them as a group, I felt that the quality was pretty consistently high. Where I think the collection falls down is in its representation of its theme – while the stories here happen in London, I rarely felt that the stories delivered the sort of strong sense of place that I expected.

My expectations had been for something along the line of Akashic’s city-based Noir series (to be clear, this was an expectation for approach – not for tone). Stories you read and notice aspects of the city in with stories set in very distinctive places or communities. The difference, of course, is that those stories tend to be written specifically for that collection with that sense of place in mind – I imagine that finding suitable stories for this collection must have been much harder.

While the stories rarely give a sense of a specific place, they tend to be better at evoking a sense of a metropolis. Stories draw upon the anonymity of the city and the mass of people that live and work there. They frequently reflect the fears people must have felt about living in these relatively new urban spaces, particularly of being alone even when you are surrounded by millions of people.

The most effective stories in this collection for me were the ones that explored those ideas. Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask is fantastically sinister and unsettling and is brilliantly complemented by E. M. Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels. John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground explores the widespread panic caused by a series of motiveless murders on mass transit while H. C. Bailey’s The Little House may not be a puzzle mystery, but it a very effective and unsettling piece of writing.

There are relatively few misses in the collection. J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street felt too fantastical, as did Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, while Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, though effective, reads like a horror story. Even these stories though are perfectly readable though it is a little unfortunate that they all fall near the start of the collection.

The stories offer a good mix of approaches and styles and while I think other volumes offered a clearer representation of their theme, I think most who pick up Capital Crimes will find plenty here to enjoy. Thoughts on the individual stories follow after the page break!


The Detection Club Project: Freeman Wills Crofts – Crime at Guildford

Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd, © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Crofts, like Rhodes, understood industry better than most detective novelists, and his descriptions of how businessmen (and they almost always were men) operate is as convincing as any of the period.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Several years ago in anticipation of the first anniversary of starting doing this blog I began to compile some data about the books I had read and reviewed. I was quite surprised to learn that my most read author was not, as I expected, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but an author that had been completely unknown to me when I began blogging – Freeman Wills Crofts.

The reason for the surprise was not just a matter of his profile but that my first few experiences of his writing were not overwhelming successes. My first few reviews, Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, praise aspects of the plotting but were less than complimentary about his series detective, Inspector French. In fact one of the reasons I recommended the latter was because it hardly featured him at all!

What I soon came to appreciate though was Crofts’ ingenuity and that he was one of a handful of writers who were laying the foundations for what would become the modern day police procedural. His plots are often inventive and feature enormous attention to detail both in the planning and detection. I rarely, if ever, come away from a Crofts novel with issues with the mechanics of the crime!

Arguably his flaws as a writer lie in his characters who can feel rather flat and functional, none more so than Inspector French. While other series detectives often suggest a life beyond their job, Inspector French seems to just love details and we rarely get a sense of his recreational time beyond an occasional mention of slippers, newspapers and his love of things mechanical (in the book I will be discussing below he says he has a small metalworking space which feels downright intimate by the author’s usual standards).

Perhaps it is a case of the character reflecting his creator. It was hard to find a good quote about Crofts in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, not because he isn’t mentioned but because he doesn’t seem to have prompted the sorts of strong feelings that a Gorell or Berkeley could do. Instead he comes off as decent, conscientious and hardworking with an appreciation for structure, mechanics and order – all of which is reflected in the works themselves.

While enormously popular in the twenties, Crofts fell out of the public eye in the decades that followed and was saddled with the label of being a ‘humdrum’ writer. I understand the complaint but I cannot agree with it because that term suggests staleness and repetition that I simply don’t see in the author’s work.

What excites me about Crofts and keeps me coming back to him again and again is that he doesn’t just adhere to a formula. Instead his style constantly evolves as he experiments and plays with new ideas. Take for example his handful of inverted mysteries, each of which is written in a completely different style and have distinctly different structures. Similarly you can find examples of traditional detective stories, thrillers, locked room mysteries and even a detective story for children.

Humdrum? Not he.

The Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1935
Inspector French #13
Preceded by Mystery on Southampton Water
Followed by The Loss of the Jane Vosper
Also known as The Crime at Nornes

A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.

The Crime at Guildford turned out to be a great choice for this project as I think it perfectly illustrates almost every aspect of the author’s writing, both positive and negative. This starts with the choice of setting.

Like many of Crofts’ works, the case is involved with the world of business. In this case, a jewelry firm that has found itself in a precarious financial situation. The book begins with a private meeting between several of the most significant shareholders to coordinate an approach to take on the company’s financial troubles at the next meeting. There are several possibilities suggested. These include declaring bankruptcy and restructuring and issuing new shares but there is also an option to sell a large number of precious stones that the company has acquired over the years. Unable to reach an agreement, the group agree to spend a weekend together at one of their homes and they decide to invite along the company’s accountant to give them more information.

The weekend goes ahead but when the accountant is found dead in a guest bedroom in suspicious circumstances the local police are called in. Meanwhile Inspector French is called to the company when the safe is opened the next day and all the jewels of value are found to be missing. Believing the two cases to be linked, French tries to work out the nature of that connection…

Crofts is convincing in describing the practical workings of a business and does a good job of outlining the situation the company faces. While the shareholders themselves may seem a little stiff and formal, particularly in those early discussions, the concerns they voice are all easy to understand and we quickly gain a good understanding of the broader situation faced by the company and why the murder and the theft of the jewels could spell ruin.

There is also a lot of well-observed detail in the descriptions of the mechanism and business practices related to the company’s safe. The way that information is shared with the reader can sometimes feel a little dry but it is necessary to understand the nature of the problem that Inspector French will have to solve: how could a thief gain access to the safe when it required the use of two keys, both of which must have been with their respective holders attending the gathering. It also helps us to eliminate some possible explanations and focus our attention, perhaps a little artificially, on our smaller group of suspects.

French’s investigation is both slow and careful, as is his handling of those suspects. He isn’t prone to making wild accusations or impulsive decisions – instead he follows the evidence carefully, develops theories, tests them and refines them. It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned.

The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.

Those explanations are strikingly clever. Take for instance the question of how the safe was breached. The solution to that problem is highly creative and it certainly would work. I would actually go so far as to suggest that this is a rare instance of a technical solution that still feels as clever today as it must have done when it was written over eighty-five years ago.

Other aspects of the solution similarly impress but what really appeals to me is how logical it all is and how neatly everything seems to fit together. When the final piece to the puzzle is presented and things finally make sense, I felt both a huge sense of satisfaction at the tidiness of that solution and delight that it was predicated on a simple but clever idea that just hadn’t occured to me but is, in retrospect, obvious. That, for me, is the ideal in terms of plotting.

The Verdict: The Crime at Guildford is not the flashiest of reads (perhaps reflected in its rather bland title) but it is ultimately a very satisfying one and very illustrative of Crofts’ style as a writer.

Cat’s Paw by Roger Scarlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1949

Charismatic businessman and patriarch Aristide Leonides has been poisoned in his own home. Charles Hayward hoped to marry Leonides’ granddaughter Sophia, yet instead finds himself in the midst of a dangerous mystery. The eye of suspicion falls heavily on Aristide’s second wife – the cuckoo in the nest was decades younger than her husband, and perhaps she couldn’t wait a few more years for the hefty inheritance she was due. The atmosphere inside the great house is thick with intrigue, and Charles is scrambling for the truth when a second attempted murder shocks the family to their core. Surely the killer couldn’t be among them? It appears that the murderer knows the Leonides family all too well, and their reign of terror is far from over…

In my first few years of running this blog I embarked on a reading project to read and write about all of the non-series Christie novels. I got off to a pretty good start but as is often the case with these ongoing efforts, the project stalled when I hit a book I really didn’t enjoy (no names here – I’ll try it again at some point in the future and will, no doubt, absolutely love it). I ended up starting to reread the Poirot novels and got caught up in that, doing a pretty good job of reading about one a month.

So, why am I interrupting that run to write about Crooked House? Well, there are a few reasons but chief among them is that I finally broke down and bought some of the gorgeous Folio Society reprints of Christie’s works and as I didn’t want to jump ahead to Five Little Pigs, reading this next seemed like the smart choice. It also helped that this is one of the more highly regarded titles that I hadn’t read before in spite of now owning (checks shelves) four copies of it.

Charles Hayward meets Sophia Leonides while in Cairo during World War II. The pair are attracted to one another and Charles would have proposed except that he did not want to burden her with an engagement while he was still on foreign service. He plans instead to seek her out upon his return to England.

When he returns he reads in the newspapers about the death of her grandfather, Aristide Leonidies – a hugely successful businessman. He meets with Sophia again who tells him that she cannot marry him as it appears that her grandfather may have been murdered as someone had replaced his insulin with his eserine-based eye drops. She is concerned that unless the matter is resolved without scandal, that to be connected with Sophia might cause Charles and his family harm.

Charles visits his father, an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, to learn more about the case and becomes informally involved with the investigation. He hopes that if he can find the truth it will remove the impediment to their marriage so they can finally be together.

One of the challenges with any amateur sleuth story is coming up with a compelling reason for that character to investigate. Christie’s solution here is one of the best I have come across, combining high personal stakes with a connection to the formal investigation which allows for multiple levels of access as Charles shifts from family friend to informal police helper and back again, sometimes within the same interaction.

The biggest objection to such a setup is that it is rather unprofessional on the part of the police. This is not so much with regards his presence in the house, which Sophia could easily rescind if she wished, but the sharing of information with a man who is intimately connected with someone who ought to be one of the suspects. As unwise as that may be, I am not surprised that Sir Arthur would be willing to do that given the circumstances and his desire to protect and help his son.

The setting for the story, the curious Three Gables house in which all of the Leonides family are living, is as interesting as its inhabitants. Sophia describes it as crooked and while I was initially unsure exactly how that was meant, I appreciated that the aptness of that word as a description becomes more and more apparent as the story unfolds. I also love how the house can be seen as a reflection of the family that inhabit it.

I found the Leonides family to be a really interesting mix of individuals. It is not just that they have a variety of occupations and personality types but that Christie explores the complexities of their relationships with each other. Resentments have clearly existed for years but while Aristide was alive they were manageable. In his absence however they begin to be voiced as the balance within the group breaks down. It’s a fascinating study of family dynamics and while this family may have some rather unusual figures within it, I felt those relationships were really well-observed and far more subtle than they initially may seem.

The problem with discussing those characters as individuals in any depth is that I would run the risk of spilling their secrets. Instead let me say that even the characters who are given the least to do make an impression and that I found it unusually easy to keep straight how each of the characters were related to one another. I don’t think any of the family are particularly likable – even Sophia, who is by far the most appealing of the group courtesy of Charles’ feelings for her, has moments where she can seem quite sharp – but I enjoyed learning more about them and seeing their personalities emerge as they respond to the events, some of which are pretty surprising.

The investigation itself is not based so much on any material evidence as it is on understanding the psychology and relationships that exist between these people. There is little focus, for instance, on the matter of who had the opportunity to switch the medication. Instead Charles is given a list of characteristics by those formal investigators that he should look out for in his interactions with the various suspects.

That list of characteristics will prove important and I do commend Christie on ultimately following through on them and in fact referring back to them during the reveal at the end of the novel, but I do question how credible they are. It is quite daring of Christie to be as specific as she is here and I think it speaks to her confidence that her solution would be surprising regardless. I do think however that the idea we should simply be looking for someone to match the profile strikes me as inadequate as an investigatory technique, limiting the scope of investigation before the evidence has been fully collected, even if it happens to be proved correct by subsequent events.

While I may have some issues with the parameters of Charles’ investigation, there are some aspects of it that I really love. One of my favorites is a moment in which he reflects on the efficacy of being silent, rather than asking questions. That idea is so rarely seen in detective fiction and yet I know how effective it can be as a method of getting someone to open up to you, so I enjoyed how it is used here.

I also really enjoyed how one of the characters, a young girl who is playing detective, refers to the conventions of the detective fiction genre. That sort of self-awareness can often be a dangerous indulgence in the genre but it works well here because of that character’s personality and interests.

The conclusion is smart and struck me as quite satisfying, at least on a thematic level. I could see how it fit with the evidence and list of character traits we were given and to that extent it struck me as fair. I do question a little whether it would have felt that way without the killer performing an apparently motiveless and illogical action and without that list of character traits.

ROT-13 (Spoilers to the killer’s identity): Gur vffhr V unir Vf gung vs gurl arire pbzzvg n frpbaq zheqre, juvpu vf na vyybtvpny naq haarprffnel guvat gb qb, vg vf pregnva gung gur punenpgref haqre neerfg jbhyq unir tbar gb gevny. Gur xvyyre’f qvnel fgngrf gung gurl ubcr gung gurl jvyy or gubhtug thvygl bs gur pevzr ohg gurve npgvbaf va pbzzvggvat n frpbaq bayl cebir gung gurl pbhyq abg unir orra vaibyirq. Guvf vf rkcynvarq njnl ol gur vqrn gung gurl ner ercyvpngvat n fgehpgher bhg bs oberqbz juvpu va vgfrys cbvagf gb gur xvyyre’f vqragvgl ohg V nz hapbaivaprq gung gur punenpgre jbhyq znxr fhpu na boivbhfyl frys-qrfgehpgvir pubvpr.

Still, in spite of those reservations I cannot deny that I found this to be a really satisfying read. I loved its concept, the cast of characters within the Leonides household and their complex, twisting relationships, and I admired how straightforward Christie is at many points in the book. The resolution is striking and powerful and most importantly, it feels earned by what has come before.

The Verdict: A superb read containing one of Christie’s most interesting casts of characters. It is easy to see why Christie regarded this as one of her best works.

The Detection Club Project: Anthony Berkeley – Jumping Jenny

Anthony Berkeley at Sherborne School in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Berkeley, wit, charm and flair warred with demons. He loved to confound people’s expectations. The contradictions of his personality infuriated many of his contemporaries. He was the most vociferous advocate of the need for the detective novel to focus on the motivation for murder rather than mere puzzles. Yet the complexities of his own psychological make-up would baffle the most expert profiler.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

When I launched my project to read works by every member of the famed Detection Club I made a conscious decision to start out with writers who were new to me. After all, the whole idea behind this was to take in the breadth of styles and personalities who shaped the development of the detective novel. However I could not go too long without writing about one of the most important figures in the founding of the club – Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Cox was a complicated man as Martin Edwards’ portrait of him in The Golden Age of Murder makes quite clear. There are few writers whose name or, in his case, pseudonym can be used to describe a type of story yet fans of Golden Age detection will often refer to a book as being Ilesian. What we mean when we say that is the book will often have a darkly ironic tone, particularly in terms of its ending that is reminiscent of his works written as Francis Iles, the most famous of which is Malice Aforethought.

The majority of his mystery novels were written as Anthony Berkeley and a number feature his series sleuth, mystery novelist Roger Sheringham. The book I will be discussing in a moment is one of the final published novels in that series.

Sheringham first appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925. Cox had published that novel anonymously and followed it a year later with The Wychford Poisoning Case – a work I described as ‘tremendously frustrating’ when I read it last year. It is clearly intended to be a comical and perhaps argumentative work, being written to make a point about the institution of marriage and the conflation of sexual behavior with a person’s broader moral state.

One characteristic of the Sheringham stories is that he does not conform to the Golden Age model of a heroic detective. Sheringham can be rude and obnoxious, vain and judgmental. He sometimes makes mistakes or decisions to interpret justice in his own way. Edwards quotes Cox saying that he intended Sheringham to be ‘an offensive person’ but notes that there were some significant similarities between the character and his creator.

Certainly in later life Cox seems to have been a divisive and quarrelsome figure within the Club’s membership. One point of particular contention was his claim that he should be allowed to exercise a veto when new members were nominated. While his relationships with some other members may have soured, he remained a strong advocate for innovation and new voices within the genre as a critic.

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley

Originally published in 1933
Roger Sheringham #9
Preceded by Murder in the Basement
Followed by Panic Party
Also published under the title Dead Mrs. Stratton

At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.
Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth.

My original plan when I started thinking about Berkeley was that I would write about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a work of some renown that I have yet to tackle. That would have been a particularly apt fit for this set of posts as it deals with a dining club of notable people, headed by Sheringham, who each try to solve a murder coming up with markedly different solutions. I decided to change course however when I realized I would be reading Jumping Jenny, a recent reprint from The British Library’s Crime Classics range, as it didn’t make sense to read something from the author and not tie it into the project. As it happens though I think this serves to illustrate several aspects of the author’s work and style very nicely.

Jumping Jenny is billed as an example of the inverted mystery – a subgenre of mystery fiction the author had helped popularize a few years prior with Malice Aforethought. While that story focused on following the protagonist as he planned his murder, Jumping Jenny quickly disposes of its victim in its first few chapters. We then follow Roger Sheringham’s efforts not to solve the case but to ensure that none of his fellow guests are held responsible for the victim’s death as he regards the murder as an altruistic one. However he soon finds that his efforts have some unintended consequences as he and others in the party blunder and contradict one another.

As with The Wychford Poisoning Case, Jumping Jenny is intended to be a comical read but as with that other story, how effective you find the results will likely depend on your taste and whether you sympathize with Berkeley’s opinions. To give one example, Sheringham’s efforts to obfuscate the details of a crime scene may be highly amusing if you agree with the notion that the victim was a deserving one but may appall those who think that her theatrical behavior is a reflection of her mental health and that while her antics may be embarrassing, her husband’s inconsiderate behavior is never discussed quite as critically either by Sheringham or in the narration.

I personally fall between those two extremes. I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.

It should be said that Sheringham’s interpretation is not simply a matter of that character’s judgment as when we witness the moment in which the guilty party chooses murder, they do so not for any personal gain but out of the belief that it would help another. While that is useful in terms of setting this up as an altruistic event, the lack of a strong motive makes the crime seem rather unbelievable. Would someone really put their life and career at risk in that way? Perhaps, but Berkeley didn’t convince me of that here.

Still, it is a delight to see Sheringham flounder so badly at points in this story and make a series of really poor assumptions about how others will act. Sheringham can be, as I alluded to in the preamble to this review, a little vain and unlikeable so it is really satisfying to see him flustered as he is frequently here. Much of the entertainment here is to be aware of how the evidence ought to steer him toward the truth and trying to understand how it will be misinterpreted or applied.

I should also say that I rather enjoyed some aspects of the setup to this story, particularly the details of the costume party to which everyone turned up dressed as famous murderers. It’s a neat, if occasionally confusing, introduction to the characters and while I think this could have been featured even more strongly, I was amused by the notion that several draw attention to that a real murder should have been committed while everyone was playing at murderers.

Structurally the book is interesting too. While Sheringham notices a telltale piece of evidence at the crime scene, he is not attempting to discover the truth. Instead he picks up pieces of genuine information in the course of his attempts to manipulate the evidence and he uses that to formulate theories about who he must be covering up for. It feels rather novel and fits nicely with the book’s irreverent tone.

Jumping Jenny is a relatively short read which is probably just as well as I think the joke threatens to run out of steam as we head towards its final chapters. Here I think the author does a pretty good job of playing with our expectations, throwing in a couple of developments that may catch them by surprise. While many of the details of the case were known to us from the near the start, it is still satisfying to see how the clues are pieced together and to learn some things that we had not been privy to earlier giving us a richer understanding of what happened.

At its best, Jumping Jenny can be witty and quite clever. For instance, I love the depth of the discussion about a piece of evidence Sheringham interacted at the scene and the way Cox dissects what it might have been able to show. I also think that the murder method is quite striking and while the path to get to that moment might be a little convoluted, I felt that the mindset of the victim – if not the person who makes that split second choice to murder her – is credible.

The Verdict: Though I think Jumping Jenny has a few tonal problems, I find it to be a very clever work and far more satisfying than my most recent experience of his work. Its concept and structure are novel and I think the piece is paced well overall and offers a good insight into the author’s work and some of his favorite themes. Worth a look!

Deadly Nightshade by Elizabeth Daly

Originally published in 1940
Henry Gamadge #2
Preceded by Unexpected Night
Followed by Murders in Volume 2

With talk of war all over the radio waves, antiquarian book dealer Henry Gamadge is back in Maine, this time by invitation of his friend Detective Mitchell. Mitchell has a real puzzler on his hands: three different children have been poisoned with deadly nightshade, and there is no motive that could possibly link all three poisonings, beside the fact that the children all live in the same small community. Could the nearby encampment of Gypsies be involved? And was the death of a state trooper at about the same time a mere coincidence? Gamadge sets out to separate fact from fiction and find the killer before they strike again…

A few years back I stacked up on Elizabeth Daly novels when I happened upon a set of them in a secondhand bookshop. I have been slowly working my way through them ever since and while I have yet to be completely blown away by one (the closest to date was a later volume, The Book of the Lion), I have enjoyed those I have read well enough to keep returning to them.

Daly’s series sleuth is Henry Gamadge, an antiquarian book dealer. One of the challenges writers with amateur detectives face is working out how they come to investigate their second crime. Daly handles this by having Inspector Mitchell, the police detective from her first novel, reach out to Gamadge to ask if he can once again throw light on a puzzling and potentially volatile situation.

Several children, each from separate households but living in the same community, all became sick on the same day having eaten the berries from the deadly nightshade plant. One has died while another has vanished and tensions are running high with suspicion falling on a nearby community of gypsies. Mitchell does not believe that they are responsible but has struggled to come up with any explanation. Sensing that the community’s patience is running out and without the help of a state trooper who died in an accident around that time, he asks Gamadge to travel to Maine and help him with his investigation.

The obvious place to start in discussing this book is by addressing its really dark subject matter. Crimes against children are not uncommon in modern mystery fiction but are certainly rare in works from this period. While I can recall a few stories that involve kidnappings and one with an accidental death (Blake’s The Beast Must Die), I cannot think of any that feature the murder of a very young child.

The expectation that I have when I encounter this sort of subject matter is that it will be matched by a dark and broody tone. I have shared that I often avoid stories of this type because as the parent of a young child myself the subject matter can be quite uncomfortable for me. I doubt I would have picked this off the shelf if I had looked at the blurb. As I read however I was struck by how the book never really taps into any of that emotional material instead presenting it as simply a curious puzzle for Gamadge to solve. While we are told at the start of the book that emotions have been running high, I rarely felt that communicated through the characters’ speech or actions.

The exception would be the animus directed toward the gypsies camped nearby. This is also often told rather than shown but we do hear enough to get a sense of the resentments, fears and suspicions that have developed toward that community. Daly tries to be thoughtful in how she addresses these, using Gamadge and Mitchell’s belief in their innocence and the sense that they are being persecuted to provide some balance to that discussion.

Turning to the investigation itself, I think Daly does a good job in the initial chapters of drawing out and exploring the nature of the puzzle she is setting us. The main question is one of motive – to explain why these children from different households were all targeted. I do think this is an interesting question and I appreciated the way Gamadge logically works through the possibilities at the outset to arrive at the few most likely options.

I also appreciated that Daly does a good job of showing how Gamadge is able to interact in a different way with some of the witnesses, particularly the children and the gypsies, to persuade them to share information with him. I could understand why he was able to make some progress where Mitchell had failed and so here I felt the tandem approach of pairing an amateur with a professional detective worked well).

The problem I had with the investigation though is that it frequently feels rather unstructured. I think part of the reason for this is that Gamadge is not joining out the outset but instead at a point where most of the evidence has already been collected. That allows for a neater presentation of the puzzle but it also means that there is little sense of discovery, particularly beyond the first few chapters. Instead many of the interviews seem more focused on expanding upon details already learned.

That is not to suggest that the investigation is without interest. To give an example, the question of the identity of a person seen driving in the area on the day of the poisonings is an intriguing one. Unfortunately I feel that Daly takes a little too long to get to these points and bring them into focus which leaves the midsection of the novel feeling rather slow.

Which brings me to the conclusion.

Let me stress that I think the solution is very interesting and that it ought to have been a satisfying one. It certainly pulls together a number of story strands and helps make sense of some aspects of the story I had not been entirely satisfied by prior to that. The problem is that while I can look back at what came before and see how everything fits, I am far from convinced that the reader is truly given enough information to reach that conclusion themselves ahead of the detectives.

This ends up undercutting the cleverness of the ending. Rather than marveling at the detective for their work at piecing it all together and thinking we might have reached the same result, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed – if not cheated – when Gamadge reveals the truth.

The Verdict: A frustrating read. Daly has some interesting ideas and themes for this book but the pacing in the middle third seems off while the novel’s solution feels inadequately clued. While it is not without interest, puzzle fans may want to look to other works first.

Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime was disappointed with the book, noting that we are told but not shown information and was dissatisfied with the sudden solution.

Bev @ My Readers Block found the story a little hard to follow though wondered if this might be attributed to her slightly abridged copy. I had a similar experience in spite of having the full text.

The Detection Club Project: Lord Gorell

Banner: Investigating The Detection Club

A little over a week ago I kicked off my project to get to know the members of The Detection Club, a society of writers of mystery stories by reading a work by each of them. I started with the club’s first president, G. K. Chesterton, by taking a look at The Innocence of Father Brown and my intention at that point was to go on and feature Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L Sayers, the figures most directly concerned with establishing the club, but when I acquired a copy of The Devouring Fire on the recommendation of several commenters on that post I couldn’t resist the lure of trying another writer that was new to me…

Lord Gorell

One of the earliest detective novelists to focus on ‘fair play’ was the old Etonian Lord Gorell… Gorell’s aim was to ‘to deal fairly with its readers… Every essential fact is related as it is discovered and readers are, as far as possible, given the eyes of the investigators and equal opportunities with them of arriving at the truth.’

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Ronald Gorell Barnes, 3rd Baron Gorell, was one of the initial intake of members of The Detection Club. A second son of a peer, he inherited his title when his older brother died during the First World War, a conflict in which he fought and was wounded.

Initially a Liberal peer, he served in Lloyd-George’s coalition government as Under-Secretary of Air from 1921 until that government fell in 1922. After defecting to the Labour Party in 1925, he was apparently asked to be a part of the MacDonald cabinet but declined writing ‘poetry not politics is my real life’ 1. He was active in public life however and would later become Chairman of the Refugee Children’s Movement which helped transport thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi-controlled territory by train and ferry in the months leading up to World War II. As Chairman of that organization he became guardian to the thousands of refugee children who had no parents in Britain following the Guardianship Act of 1944 2.

Gorell’s career in crime fiction began with the publication of In the Night in 1917. This book which Martin Edwards features in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books introduced amateur sleuth Evelyn Temple who would return in at least one later work, Red Lilac. Edwards describes In the Night as ‘his most significant contribution to the genre’ but, as Santosh Iyer correctly predicted, there were no copies to be found at a price I would be willing to consider paying. After failing to get hold of the book through interlibrary loan, I opted to purchase a copy of The Devouring Fire, another mystery novel he wrote prior to joining the Detection Club.

Crime fiction was not Gorell’s only creative outlet. He also wrote poetical works such as The Last of the English and Wings of the Morning and from 1933 to 1939 he was the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, a literary journal that had its greatest success in the nineteenth century under the editorship of William Makepeace Thackeray.

In the decades that followed his becoming a member of The Detection Club, Gorell wrote a number of works of mystery and suspense fiction with the last apparently being Murder at Manor House published in 1954. To the best of my knowledge none of these have been reprinted in years.

In 1956 Agatha Christie was invited to become President of the Detection Club and agreed to serve on the condition that she not be required to perform any public speaking. Edwards writes in The Golden Age of Murder that he agreed to do this on her behalf but required that he be appointed co-President – a role he would hold until his death in 1963.


1 Shepherd, John. 2010. “The Flight from the Liberals who Joined Labour, 1914-1931” Journal of Liberal History, 67 (Summer 2010): 24-34

2 Holtman, Tasha. 2014. “‘A Covert from the Tempest’: Responsibility, Love and Politics in Britain’s Kindertransport.” History Teacher 48 (1): 107–26.

The Devouring Fire

Originally published in 1928

Cover shown is from the 1949 John Murray reprint (yes, my copy is torn)

I offer no blurb for The Devouring Fire because the only one I can find, the one on the inside of the jacket of my rather beat-up reprint edition, pretty much spoils the resolution to the book.

The novel begins by describing the circumstances in which the victim, a man by the name of Grimwade, is found lying dead in his study. He has sustained a heavy blow to the back of his head and the initial medical examination assumes that is responsible but the police investigator, not trusting the aging doctor who is first to the scene, calls in another for a second opinion who finds that the blade of a hat pin has been pushed through the victim’s chest into his heart.

The young investigator, Harry Farrant, is aware that this case could well be the making of his career and decides to seek out the assistance of Mr. Birch, who had retired to live in the area after being a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Though Birch is initially reluctant to become too involved in the case, he allows Farrant to discuss the matter with him and later sits in on some of the interviews, offering feedback and advice about what he has heard.

As Edwards notes in the passage I quoted at the start of this post, Gorell takes care to ensure that the reader sees and hears everything Farrant does in his investigation. This is possible in part because Gorell provides a relatively small cast of characters and some physical evidence at the crime scene will quickly lead us to focus our attention on just a couple of figures connected with the case.

I appreciated Gorell’s efforts to tell a fair play detective story but the choice to focus on a couple of pieces of physical evidence – footprints and a fingerprint – gives the investigation a rather unfortunate, plodding quality. Each new discovery narrows, rather than expands, the scope of that investigation and for much of the book there is little to shock or surprise.

In spite of the somewhat humdrum qualities of the investigation, I did quite enjoy the read. One of principle reasons for this was that I really liked the dynamic of the young investigator relying on the advice of a more seasoned and cautious figure and I enjoyed their discussions of the case. Farrant frustrated me though with some of his choices at points, not least a decision to barge in during an incriminating conversation he overhears to cut it short out of a concern that he play the game fairly. This is necessary for the plot to unfold as it does but it struck me as rather silly.

The book’s real purpose and point of interest is to be found in its short final act – the chapters which form a sort of coda to the investigation and the trial that happens. These final chapters take a markedly different tone and style than those that preceded it, being described on the jacket as ‘blood-curdling’ and evoking a ‘breathless horror’. This is perhaps overstating their effectiveness. This reader – usually among the most susceptible to feel chilled by such writing – found them more atmospheric than scary, perhaps in part because I was aware that there would have to be a mundane explanation.

When that explanation is given I was pleased to find that it was properly clued while still being, to me at least, rather surprising. Edwards notes in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Gorell liked to boast that Conan Doyle said the solution to this ‘had him guessing completely’ so I am in good company. I think it is broadly fair though the sudden nature of the reveal in the last few pages did leave me feeling that I had a few unresolved questions. If Gorell doesn’t provide those details directly, I think most can be inferred by the reader.

Overall I found The Devouring Fire to be a solid, if not particularly thrilling, read. His prose can be a little slow, his prose verbose, but the plotting is careful and I appreciated some of the ideas introduced by Gorell towards the end of the novel which if not wholly groundbreaking are at least done well.

I think I would certainly be willing to try other works by this author should I ever come across any at a reasonable price or, preferably, reprinted. Have you read anything by Lord Gorell?

Five to Try: Mysteries on Audio

I love listening to audiobooks. While most of what I read and review here are print copies, I love to listen to audiobooks while I am out and about – particularly when taking a walk or on a lengthy drive.

Of course, not every book that ends up on audio however is suited to the format. In some cases that’s because a particular clue requires you to see a clue written down to understand it properly. One example of this would be in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles where there is a reproduction of a physical clue that you don’t experience if you are listening. That’s not to forget that sometimes there are maps and floor plans that you may miss out on. In other cases a good story can be spoiled by a flat or unsympathetic reading where the narrator and the source material just don’t work well together.

When done right however an audiobook presentation can be a powerful experience. There have been some books I have struggled with in print but which I suddenly found myself connecting to when read by the right sort of narrator. Christian Rodska’s reading of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs is a great case in point – I had tried repeatedly over the years to start that book in print only to breeze through it when heard with his performance really bringing out the humor in the material wonderfully (sadly I quickly realized that he only narrates a handful of the subsequent titles).

Perhaps the most striking mystery audiobook I have listened to was the reading of Kanae Minato’s Confessions. The book, which is composed of a number of different characters’ accounts of the circumstances concerning the horrific murder of a toddler, works so well on audio because of the choice to have different actors read the chapters and because of the unusual second-person narration style. It’s a very dark but highly engaging listening experience.

I would also champion the Stephen Fry recordings of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon for Audible. There are many recordings of these stories but what sets these apart for me are the thoughtful introductions to each book from Fry in which he reflects on his own experiences. His enthusiasm as a lifelong Sherlockian really comes through in these and his voice is a wonderful match for the source material.

For today’s post though I have decided to focus on audiobook adaptations of vintage stories of mystery and suspense from around the time of the golden age of detection. In each case I think not only is it a good audiobook production but that the material being adapted is worth your time as well.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below if there are any titles or narrators you particularly enjoy…

Mystery at Olympia cover

Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode

Narrated by Gordon Griffin

Griffin is a superb audiobook narrator who you will often hear on recordings of British Library Crime Classics but I rate his four Dr. Priestley novels as his most essential work. The reason is that his precise delivery not only suits the style and tone of Rhode’s writing but it works brilliantly for the armchair detective.

All four of the Rhode audiobooks are done well but Mystery at Olympia is my favorite of these novels. It concerns the murder of a man at a booth where the Comet Motor Company are demonstrating their ‘exciting’ new transmission system (the excitement, I am sorry to say, is purely Rhode’s but Griffin delivers those passages with enough gusto to help them pass quickly).

The death appears natural but when the man’s housekeeper is poisoned and a further attempt on his life is identified, Inspector Hanslet becomes convinced that there has been foul play.

Griffin reads it wonderfully, not only doing a fine job with Priestley but also with Inspector Hanslet who is a very different sort of detective. It’s a great introduction to Priestley for those encountering him for the first time and I can only hope that if the new reprints are ever turned into audiobooks that whoever does so engages Griffin to do those too.

Read my review of the book here

Enter a Murderer cover

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Read by James Saxon

I was not a fan of the first Inspector Alleyn mystery, A Man Lay Dead, finding it a tough read to like. One of the reasons for that was I struggled to get much of a sense of her detective. That changed when I made the choice to switch to the audiobook recording for this second novel.

The story itself, which takes place in a theatrical setting, is particularly suited to audio because so many of its characters have larger than life personalities. From the booming voice of theatrical impresario Jacob Saint to the breathy, confident Stephanie Vaughan, the narrator James Saxon has a lot to work with and he makes the most of the rather stylized dialogue.

His best work though is with Alleyn himself who he voices in a somewhat sarcastic tone. Suddenly I found myself connecting with the character and noticing that much of his sarcasm is directed at himself. It’s a highly entertaining listen that I think brings the work to life wonderfully. My only regret is that he is not used for all of the series, though he does narrate a substantial portion of them.

Read my review of the book here

The Case of the Curious Bride cover

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Read by Alexander Cendese

As much as I enjoy reading Perry Mason on the page, I absolutely love listening to Alexander Cendese performing these stories. His Perry is powerful and commanding and he absolutely brings that character to life as a sort of legal brawler, perfectly matching the tone of the earliest Perry Mason stories.

It is hard to pick a favorite from these stories given that most offer some points of interest (the weakest of the stories I have read so far is The Case of the Lucky Legs). In the end I opted for this one because it has been a while since I reviewed it and it is more of a detective story than the others.

The story involves Perry being hired by a woman who is seeking legal advice on behalf of a friend. She asks about the time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be found. She soon flees his office under questioning but before long Perry finds himself involved in a murder case.

While it gets off to a bit of a slow start, this book soon begins to take some unpredictable twists and turns. The whodunnit aspect is not too difficult to resolve – the bigger challenge will be working out just how Perry will get his client out of jeopardy. If you’re looking for a Mason story to start with, this is a pretty good one to try.

Read my review of the book here

Henrietta Who? cover

Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird

Narrated by Robin Bailey

So I stated above that the works I would select would be from the Golden Age of Detection. Well, obviously I lied though I think that spiritually this novel feels like it belongs to that period of detective fiction.

The novel begins with a postman discovering the body of Mrs. Jenkins in the road in the early hours of the morning. It appears to have been a tragic hit and run but the post-mortem reveals two strange details that raise further questions. The first is why she was hit by cars traveling in two different directions. The other is that the woman has never given birth, a matter that proves deeply confusing to her adult daughter Henrietta who has come to identify the body.

The puzzle element of this novel is fascinating but what makes it truly compelling is the emotional component as Inspector Sloan tries to find the truth of Henrietta’s identity. Robin Bailey navigates all this well, giving those moments an appropriate emotional tone and emphasizing the detective’s sense of humanity making this a compelling listen.

Read my review of the book here

Death of Anton by Alan Melville

Narrated by David Thorpe

One of the peculiarities of the British Library Crime Classic range is that because the books have a separate US publisher there will often be a bit of a delay between the UK and US releases. This was not an inconsiderable period in the case of Death of Anton which was all the more frustrating because all the bloggers in the UK were raving about how much fun it was. When I realized that the Soundings Audio release was available months before the paperback I quickly resolved to pick that up instead. Happily it is a release that works really well in that format.

The story, which is as much a work of comedy as it is detection, concerns the death of a tiger tamer at the circus. Inspector Minto who happens to be enjoying the circus as a guest soon becomes convinced that this is not the innocent accident it appears but something more sinister and begins an investigation. Adding to the fun is the fact that his brother, a priest, has learned the identity of the killer in confession but cannot reveal that information to him, much to Minto’s frustration.

The story is colorful and amusing throughout. While some comedic mysteries can struggle to sustain the sense of fun (I think, for instance, of the same author’s Quick Curtain), this continues to blend the comedy and detection right up to the conclusion. Neither the solution to the mystery nor Minto’s detection skills are likely to wow readers but it does make for a charming and consistently amusing read with Thorpe handling those comedic elements and the sometimes larger-than-life characters and situations quite wonderfully.

Read my review of the book here

So, there are my five picks for interesting GAD (and GAD-like) books you could try on audio. What are some of your favorite audiobook readings of mystery novels?

The Metropolitan Opera Murders by Helen Traubel

Originally published in 1951

When the prompter falls dead during the second act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre during a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera, as one can imagine, it causes quite a stir, especially when it is discovered that the deceased, a one time world famous Heldentenor has been poisoned. The detective assigned to the case, Lt. Quentin, finds himself immersed in the back stage drama of professional opera. His task is made more difficult when he decides that it had really been the star soprano who had been the intended victim, and not the prompter. Will he be able to solve the case before there is another Metropolitan Opera Murder?

The Library of Congress Crime Classics range is a curious one. I strongly approve of the notion, advocated in the introductions to the titles, that crime fiction – being the most popular of the genres of fiction – can be a valuable window into our shared past. The idea that through exploring the background to these stories and the many cultural references contained within we can learn more about our past. Crime and mystery fiction has deserved that sort of a spotlight and it is lovely to see a range set about exploring those ideas through the sort of detailed annotations and historical contexts you see given to these titles.

Looked at through that lens, The Metropolitan Opera Murders is a really solid selection. It not only presents an insider’s view of life in and around the opera house, it is also one of the earlier examples of a mystery supposedly written by a celebrity. In this case Traubel, a renowned opera singer of her time, was apparently assisted by Harold Q. Masur who would go on to become a founder member and future President of the Mystery Writers of America.

The problem with that, as noted in both the book’s introduction and in the Reading Guide, is that as a mystery novel it is hardly deserving of the ‘classics’ label. I do not feel inclined to disagree with the critics of the time who found it ‘definitely second rate’, though I think it does offer a few points of interest that given its brevity may make it worth a glance.

The story concerns a prompter who dies when he consumes a poisoned drink during a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The police inspector, Lt. Quentin, soon learns that this is not the first strange event that has taken place in the Metropolitan Opera House, many of which seem to be centered on one of its leading stars. Was the prompter intended to die or was this another attempt on her life that just didn’t go to plan?

There is no doubt that the setting itself is drawn very well, giving a good sense not only of the opera house as a space but of the personalities of the different people connected with it. There are concerns about its funding with an individual donor being leaned heavily upon because of his personal connections with it, and much discussion about how singers’ careers might be started or grown. Those who come to the book hoping for those sorts of informed details will likely be content though I suspect that there will be little new information for those sufficiently immersed in that world.

Those who are new to the world of opera need not worry however as while the book is set in that world, no knowledge of it will be required to solve this case. After introducing us to the company and some of the people associated with it, we find ourselves on the familiar grounds of exploring professional rivalries, backstage passions and possible jewel thefts.

The question of how the prompter was poisoned during the performance is a simple one and resolved pretty much instantly and so the early chapters of the book focus on the question of motive. Was the prompter really the intended victim? If so, do we have two criminals at work or is there some connection between the various crimes.

The solution to the story offered few surprises thought it was not without some points of interest. One critical element struck me as being pretty novel but as it is only revealed in the final few pages I can’t provide any details about it. I suspect the reason that the book disappointed contemporary critics as a mystery is that there isn’t much misdirection and many of the characters read a little two dimensionally. Instead of trying to baffle the reader through complexity, the author opts instead to try to tell the story at speed, giving little room to breathe between each reveal.

I had already hinted earlier that the book is rather short (the 184 pages contain a lot of half pages and some lengthy annotations) and this choice makes that all the more apparent. We rattle through the situation so quickly that it reads more like a thriller than a detective story, perhaps not helped by some plot points that feel like they belong to that genre too. It lends the book a page-turning quality but those looking for a well-clued mystery with a focus on the deductive process will likely be a little disappointed.

The Verdict: The Metropolitan Opera Murders is a title perhaps best approached with lowered expectations. It can be a fun and entertaining quick read but it is ultimately quite a shallow one. Those with a curiosity about the operatic setting or an appreciation for theatrical mysteries will get the most out of this.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Originally published in 1935
Perry Mason #7
Preceded by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
Followed by The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece


In his will, Peter Laxter guaranteed his faithful caretaker a job and a place to live… for life. But Laxter’s grandson Sam says the deal doesn’t include the caretaker’s cat—and he wants the feline off the premises by hook, crook… or poison.

When Perry Mason takes the case, he quickly finds there’s much more at stake than an old man’s cat—a million dollars or more to be exact…

Last week I found myself picking up my first Perry Mason novel in quite some time. The break was unplanned and reflects more on my desire to discover new authors and characters but every now and again it’s nice to pick up a book and be sure you are going to have a great time with it.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun from the very start. It opens with Perry agreeing to meet with an elderly man who has been sat waiting in his office on several occasions, insisting he needs to speak with Mason. He explains that his employer recently died and the terms of his will guaranteed the caretaker a job while he was able to work and a place to live once he retired. The employer’s grandson however has insisted that the provisions of the will did not extend to the caretaker’s cat and has vowed to kill it if he does not dispose of it.

Perry, sympathizing with the caretaker’s desire to be able to live with his feline companion, agrees to write a letter that he hopes will scare the grandson off. In it he brazenly suggests that any move against the cat would risk putting the man’s own inheritance in danger. He expects that to be an end to the matter and so he is surprised when the grandson and his lawyer turn up in his office in an argumentative mood. Before long Mason finds himself dug into his position and, ever keen to protect the interests of his client, he starts to dig into the circumstances of Peter Laxter’s death, soon turning up evidence of murder…

One of the most entertaining things about this book is the idea that a massive criminal case will emerge out of what is a pretty inconsequential dispute. While the nature of that dispute is, as is often the case with these stories, quirky and colorful, Gardner quickly and convincingly escalates that situation while never losing sight of the amusing idea that Perry has a cat for a client in this story.

This entry in the series also continues to explore the idea that Perry at this stage in his career is a scrapper by nature. When challenged as he is from an early point in this story, he chooses to act forcefully and often acts to provoke his opponents.

Perry could so easily be an obnoxious character. That confidence, so often manifesting itself in lengthy speeches to Della or Paul in which he talks passionately about what it means to be a lawyer, could read as smug and obnoxious were it not for the idea that he is championing the downtrodden and providing access to the protection offered by the law to all regardless of their wealth or station. That is shown here by his willingness to put himself to a great amount of inconvenience for what amounts to a $10 fee.

Gardner had packed his previous Mason novels with plenty of exciting and surprising developments but, compared to those, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat seems all the more densely plotted. Each chapter seems to bring at least one new revelation or idea that changes your understanding of what has happened or what may happen in the future. Many of these are excellent and well-clued but there is a lot of detail about characters’ movements to absorb, some of which feels a little unnecessary.

Fortunately the concept of the crime is much more interesting and novel with the murderer employing a rather creative means to dispatch Peter Laxter. Readers should not expect Perry to deduce that method for himself – it is handed to him directly early in the book – but it is interesting to follow how he interprets and responds to that information. The alert reader may well detect other clues to what exactly is going on in interactions with those other suspects.

The issue is not the book’s ingenuity but rather that it can feel a little too clever and as if it is trying to do a little too much. Further murders follow but because they occur in such quick succession, not all of them left a big impact on me. In fact there was one point where I had to reread a section when I had forgotten that a character had died – it was not that the writing was unclear but simply that it was followed so quickly by another very dramatic moment.

Were this intended to be a fair play detection story, I might perhaps have felt frustrated by the complexity of the plotting. Read as a thriller however it makes for page-turning stuff. I loved the process of uncovering the truth behind the characters’ movements and the connections between the various elements of the plot. Yes, some parts of the plot are quite incredible but they are also highly entertaining.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is unlikely to be in contention for Perry’s greatest case but it may be one of the most entertaining. From its rather amusing concept of Perry representing an animal client to some of the unexpected developments that complicate the case, the book is enormously entertaining and has some wonderfully colorful moments.

The Verdict: Is this Perry’s quirkiest client? It certainly seems that way to me. Boasting a strong case with a clever resolution, this was a real page turner.