A Study in Crimson by Robert J. Harris

Book Details

Originally published in 2020
Sherlock Holmes 1942 #1

The Blurb

London, 1942.

A killer going by the name of “Crimson Jack” is stalking the wartime streets of London, murdering women on the exact dates of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings of 1888. Has the Ripper somehow returned from the grave? Is the self-styled Crimson Jack a descendant of the original Jack—or merely a madman obsessed with those notorious killings?

In desperation Scotland Yard turn to Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective. Surely he is the one man who can sift fact from legend to track down Crimson Jack before he completes his tally of death. As Holmes and the faithful Watson tread the blacked out streets of London, death waits just around the corner.

The Verdict

An entertaining, if rather light, read with a solid handle on its version of Holmes and the era he lives in.

“If our new killer holds to the pattern of his predecessor,” Holmes continued, “then we have only three weeks to track him down before he strikes again on September the thirtieth.”

My Thoughts

I have previously revealed the role that the animated movie The Great Mouse Detective played in my becoming a mystery fan. It was not just an entertaining adventure in itself, it also introduced me to some of the story beats and ideas of mystery storytelling and specifically to the character of Holmes. It did this well enough that when I happened upon one of the Rathbone Holmes movies a few years later I couldn’t resist watching with the series quickly becoming appointment viewing for me whenever they were repeated on weekends or during school holidays.

For me, at least during my early childhood, Holmes was not a Victorian gentleman who travelled by hansom cab but someone pitching into Britain’s war effort, matching his wits against the Nazis. I loved those movies because of, not in spite of, the setting and pulpy style and I determined I would watch them all. In those pre-internet days I had little idea just how many there were so whenever I spotted a new one listed as showing in the Radio Times it was particularly exciting. Not that it stopped me rewatching those ones I had already seen.

Little wonder then that when I discovered A Study in Crimson, the first novel to my knowledge that specifically features that wartime Holmes incarnation, I set everything else aside and immediately started reading…

The novel opens with a short adventure in which Holmes and Watson are summoned to a scientific research installation to investigate the disappearance of a scientist from within her locked bedroom. This is actually one of two short impossible crimes within the novel and I was entertained but neither case is substantial enough on their own to justify fans of that form seeking it out. Both cases do serve an important role in demonstrating Holmes’ gifts are methods before we delve deeper into the central mystery.

That case concerns the murder of several young women in the streets of London. The first two murders occurred on the anniversaries of the corresponding murders committed by Jack the Ripper and there are some other similarities in the crimes that seems to suggest that there may be a copycat. That is particularly worrying given, as Holmes points out in the quote above, it seems to suggest that further murders will follow on the anniversaries of the subsequent murders.

The idea of taking Holmes and having him come face-to-face with the Ripper, or someone deliberately emulating him, is not exactly unprecedented. I remember playing a PC game called The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes in the mid-90s which featured a murder that Lestrade wants to attribute to the Ripper (spoiler: it isn’t) and there have been plenty of other stories such as Big Finish’s Holmes and the Ripper or the movies A Study in Terror and Murder by Decree. Still, while it may have some familiar elements, I think there is enough novelty introduced here with the time gap between the original crimes and those being investigated that it avoids feeling derivative.

One of the reasons that I think this works is that the period setting contributes to the sense of fear surrounding the killer being at large. This was the era of the blackout meaning those who cannot help but be out at night will feel all the more at risk. This also helps build a sense of tension later in the book as our heroes attempt to patrol the streets in the dark in the hopes of preventing subsequent murders.

I think this is just one example of how the novel uses its historical setting well, drawing on elements of the period such as radio broadcasts, American GIs and air raid patrols to create a strong sense of place and time. It was this sort of material I most hoped to find in this book so I was happy to see that Harris made effective use of it and made the setting important to the story.

Harris’ Holmes similarly feels like a pretty solid evocation of the Rathbone portrayal of Holmes. He has the familiar moments of prickliness and brilliance but there are some moments of patriotism and advocacy of his principles that make him feel like that more conspicuously heroic version from the movie series. Similarly the language this Holmes uses reminds us that he is a mid-twentieth century man rather than a Victorian (or Edwardian) one.

Watson on the other hand has been presented with some slight differences from the Nigel Bruce portrayals in those movies. Harris’ Watson is still a little old-fashioned and formal in some social interactions but he never appears to be foolish or an overtly comedic creation which is, I feel, to be welcomed. He is however the warmth and the heart of the novel – something I feel he has in common with the Bruce portrayal of the character.

Several other familiar characters from the Holmes universe make their appearances with different degrees of attention. These include Mycroft, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, all of whom struck me as not dissimilar from their traditional roles. I was far more interested in learning about the members of the Baker Street Irregulars, particularly their leader Wiggins who remains in London. This once again tied nicely into the novel’s historical setting but I also appreciated hearing how he felt about Holmes and the enormous sense of respect he feels for his hero.

These elements, combined with the novel’s setting, go a great way toward evoking that sense of the original movie series. This story offers some lighter moments, including a sort of awkward romance for Watson, as well as a solid hook in the idea of the copycat Ripper killer. As much as I enjoyed those elements however and the sense of nostalgia I felt, I did think that the novel was a little disappointing in the way it presents the investigative portion of the novel itself.

I know from my own readings (and re-readings) of the Doyle canon that Holmes’ stories often feel like they would be better labelled as adventures than mysteries. This is not much different. While there are some clues dotted around as to what has been happening, I feel much of the crucial work happens when we are not following Holmes and that we learn about some elements after the fact which can be unsatisfying at times.

I would also add that I found the solution to be a little disappointing, in part because the case ends up feeling quite simple with limited suspects and surprisingly few clues. While there are a few interesting applications of logic to make some deductions, the case felt over a little too quickly and seemed to be begging for another twist for its resolution. That being said, I was not unhappy with the pulpiness of the resolution which did at least seem to fit the general tone Harris was clearly aiming for.

In spite of those disappointments, I still enjoyed much of what this book had to offer. The central concept of writing more stories for this incarnation of Holmes is a great one and based on the evidence here and Harris’ confident handling of the character, I think it could easily sustain a series and I would certainly be interested in checking out any subsequent installments.

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Book Details

Originally published in 1989
Phryne Fisher #1
Followed by Flying Too High

The Blurb

The London season is in full fling at the end of the 1920s, but the Honourable Phryne Fisher―she of the green-gray eyes, diamant garters, and outfits that should not be sprung suddenly on those of nervous dispositions―is rapidly tiring of the tedium of arranging flowers, making polite conversations with retired colonels, and dancing with weak-chinned men. Instead, Phryne decides it might be rather amusing to try her hand at being a lady detective in Melbourne, Australia.

Almost immediately from the time she books into the Windsor Hotel, Phryne is embroiled in mystery: poisoned wives, cocaine smuggling rings, corrupt cops, and communism―not to mention erotic encounters with the beautiful Russian dancer, Sasha de Lisse―until her adventure reaches its steamy end in the Turkish baths of Little Lonsdale Street.

The Verdict

More adventure than detective story, this is an excellent introduction to Phryne Fisher who is a marvellous creation.

‘Well, I shall try to be a perfect Lady Detective in Melbourne – that ought to be difficult enough – and perhaps something will suggest itself. If not, I can still catch the ski season. It may prove amusing after all.’

My Thoughts

Earlier this week I realized I was in the mood to revisit a previous read rather than try something completely new so I reached for my copy of Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, the first of her Phryne Fisher adventures set in late 1920s Australia. I first read this, and many of the other novels in the series, over a decade ago and since then I have enjoyed watching the television adaptation of the series. I was curious to see how I would feel about it knowing the solution.

Phryne Fisher arrives in Melbourne as a result of a request made by an acquaintance that she visit his daughter who is living there and who appears to be suffering from inexplicable bouts of sickness. Keen for adventure she agrees and upon arriving in the city promptly finds herself caught up in another investigation into a cocaine smuggling ring and to find a brutal back alley abortionist.

The novel begins with a chapter that not only introduces us to Phryne but also shows her powers of observation at work as she cracks a jewel theft case. It is an effective way to introduce us to a character, also demonstrating her unconventionality in addition to her quick thinking, and it also helps explain the unusual commission she receives. In witnessing her abilities, the woman’s father realizes that she has a better chance of getting close to his daughter and learning the truth of what is affecting her than a male detective ever could.

Another smart choice Greenwood makes is to let the reader get to know who Phryne is and what her values are through her actions rather than exposition. Once we know who she is then Greenwood begins to fill in some of the information about the incidents and experiences that made her the woman she has become. This not only allows us to jump into the cases earlier, it also means that when exposition comes it feels more natural.

I really enjoy Phryne as a character, finding her amusing and pretty admirable in the way she puts her life on the line for others. She trusts her instincts and her own sense of values, relying on them to help her make decisions quickly – something she has to do at several points in this story. She might not be typical of the age in which she is supposed to live in – she is certainly liberated and often shocks the characters around her – but one of the things the book also makes clear is that Australian society in this period offers her a level of freedom she would not have enjoyed in English society. We also see that similarly reflected in the character of Dr. MacMillan, a doctor who qualified at Edinburgh but found she had she move to Australia to be able to practice.

Dr. MacMillan is one of a number of characters that Phryne will regularly use to support her activities as a detective. This book has to introduce us to all of them, establish their characters and help explain why they are willing to put their lives on the line for Phryne at times. Greenwood does this really well, giving each character a memorable entrance and a strong reason for trusting her or wanting to support her. At times this can feel quite fast – the employment of Dot, her maid, is very sudden and rather trusting given its circumstances but as it reinforces Phryne’s tendency to make decisions quickly based on instinct (and Phryne does reflect afterwards on the risks taken), I accepted it.

Greenwood packs her stories with lots of interesting historical details, helping the setting come to life. Some of the most interesting here related to that history of the Queen Victoria Hospital, the women’s hospital ‘established by women for women’. I similarly appreciated the discussions of women’s roles in the Police force of the time.

The cases themselves are each interesting and move quite quickly. I would characterize the stories as being more adventurous than deductive in nature and each is packed with incident and moments of danger. Of the various threads the most powerful for me was the story of the hunt for Butcher George, the backstreet abortionist. This part of the story not only illustrates several characters’ personalities and values, it tells a compelling story of one victim and explores the ways women would find a provider in this period. It is really well done and the resolution of this thread felt particularly satisfying.

As for the other story threads – the cocaine ring and the quest to learn what is wrong with Mrs. Andrews, I appreciated many of the exciting twists and turns and found the payoff entertaining. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which Phryne herself comes under police suspicion. I am afraid I cannot really judge whether I expected the final explanation as I remembered it too well from my first reading, though I appreciated it as a piece of adventure writing and think it felt fitting.

Overall then I enjoyed Cocaine Blues. Revisiting it was just what I needed this week, particularly given my poor attention span, and I appreciated getting to know Phryne and her friends all over again and to rediscover their origins as a team.

A Red Death by Walter Mosley

Book Details

Originally published in 1991
Easy Rawlins #2
Preceded by Devil in a Blue Dress
Followed by White Butterfly

The Blurb

It’s 1953 in Red-baiting, blacklisting Los Angeles—a moral tar pit ready to swallow Easy Rawlins. Easy is out of the hurting business and into the housing (and favor) business when a racist IRS agent nails him for tax evasion.

Special Agent Darryl T. Craxton, FBI, offers to bail him out if he agrees to infiltrate the First American Baptist Church and spy on alleged communist organizer Chaim Wenzler. That’s when the murders begin….

The Verdict

Though the mystery plot feels a little unfocused, the setting and themes are handled well. Do make sure you read Devil in a Blue Dress first though!

“I got something for you to do for your country. You like fighting for your country, don’t you, Ezekiel?”

My Thoughts

It has been a number of years since I posted about Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. That post was designed to be a comparison between the book and Carl Franklin’s movie and, looking back on it, I feel I ought to have given the novel more focus in its own right. Perhaps I will get around to doing that in time but for now I prefer to push forwards and start to read some of the sequels which have been on my TBR pile for years!

First, a word of warning: the events of A Red Death directly and frequently refer to the ending of the previous novel. Enough of the backstory is given to follow what is going on but I would suggest that were you to skip over the first book you would likely not get as much out of it. Not only would you spoil some developments at the end of the last book, you would also miss out on the character development between the novels both of Easy and also of some of the other recurring figures in his life. That would diminish the experience in my opinion.

In the five years that have passed since the end of Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy has become a landlord and secretly invested in three properties using some undeclared income. He has gone to lengths to disguise his ownership of those buildings, hiring a man named Mofass to act as a property manager on his behalf in exchange for a cut of the rent. He keeps an eye on the buildings himself and the residents think of him as a handyman. The arrangement seems to be working pretty well for him until he is suddenly approached by an IRS agent who believes he has tracked down ownership of the properties to Rawlins and wants to audit his financial records.

Easy is clearly in some pretty big trouble. Fortunately he is thrown a lifeline when he is approached by an FBI agent who promises he can make these legal troubles go away and get him on a payment plan for those back taxes. First though Easy would need to do a job for him and for his country. He is asked to worm his way into the confidences of Chaim Wenzler, a community organizer at a local baptist church to try and find proof that he might be a communist spy. Easy agrees, though he is wary of the agent, but his problems soon multiply as he finds himself discovering several bodies…

One of the things that interests me most about the Easy Rawlins books is Mosley’s really thoughtful exploration of the changes taking place in post-war America and how race affected people’s experiences of those changes. This story, set at the height of the second Red Scare, deals with the growing paranoia about the idea that Communist spys and sympathizers could destroy America. The portrayal of that paranoid attitude is done very well but equally effective is Mosley’s portrayal of how those issues did not necessarily extend throughout all of American society. This is both because of limited media access (a character’s first interaction with a television here is quite memorable) but also that it is hard for some to get animated about protecting the American dream when they are prevented from achieving it.

Another aspect of the setup here that I think it particularly effective is the use of the threat of the IRS audit. Informal, undeclared sources of income are a frequent feature of the hardboiled story and I cannot remember the sudden influx of capital ever being commented on in this sort of story before. This not only serves as an effective source of motivation for Easy to get involved in the case, it is also used to comment on the way authority is used.

As in the first novel, the character of Easy is thoughtfully developed here. Easy soon finds himself feeling increasingly conflicted about his role in this case. He finds unexpected common ground with his target, Chaim, and guilt about his duplicity in getting close with him and his family. I enjoyed these characters’ exchanges a lot and felt that the development of this relationship was rich and nuanced, providing a strong center for the novel.

Easy is not a perfect man – some will take issue with his simultaneous proclamations of love for a woman while he sleeps around with several other characters – but he is always an interesting one. Similarly I think that some of the backstory we get around his life before he enlisted in the US army is interesting and futher fleshed out the character.

There are several characters who return from the first novel and I feel that each receives similarly rich development. Mouse’s struggle to understand how to be a father when he had such a toxic relationship with his own is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying while I think Etta Mae feels more richly rendered than in her previous appearance. The overlap between those relationships is intriguing and handled thoughtfully – especially as Easy tries to navigate an awkward situation with Mouse.

A Red Death is not only a historical novel and a piece of character study though, it is a hard-boiled mystery story. Unfortunately the genre elements of the book were, in my opinion, its least compelling features. My issue with it as a mystery is not that it lacks incident but rather than the various incidents we experience feel quite disconnected for much of the novel and so it is hard to focus on a central question or plot problem. Mosley does, of course, bring everything together at the end but I felt that process of consolidation and resolution was a little rushed, reducing its impact.

While I think that the crime plot is less satisfying than that of its predecessor, I appreciated the way Mosley developed his themes and characters. I enjoyed my time with this one overall and look forward to learning what happens next to Easy in White Butterfly.

The Devil’s Wind by Steve Goble

Book Details

Originally published in 2018
Spider John #2
Preceded by The Bloody Black Flag
Followed by A Bottle of Rum

The Blurb

A historical mystery that blends nautical adventure in pirate waters with a locked-room murder mystery, featuring a pirate sleuth whose wits are as sharp as his blade. 1723–Spider John, longing to escape the pirate life he never wanted, has an honest seafaring job at last, aboard a sailing vessel, and is returning to his beloved Em and their child. But when Captain Brentwood is murdered in his cabin, Spider’s plans are tossed overboard.

Who killed Redemption’s captain? The mysterious pirate with a sadistic past? The beautiful redhead who hides guns beneath her skirt? One of the men pining for the captain’s daughter? There are plenty of suspects. But how could anyone kill the captain in his locked quarters while the entire crew was gathered together on the deck?

Before he can solve the puzzle, Spider John and his ex-pirate friends Hob and Odin will have to cope with violence, schemes, nosy Royal Navy officers, and a deadly trap set by the ruthless pirate Ned Low.

The Verdict

An enjoyable blend of mystery and historical adventure. As good as the first installment.


My Thoughts

It has been a little over two years since I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Bloody Black Flag, the first book in this series. I noted in that review how that book blended elements of the mystery and adventure story genres together very effectively and I am happy to report that this is similarly successful.

This book, like the last, is set in the early eighteenth century in the years following the Golden Age of Piracy. Famous pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Charles Vane are all long dead and while their legends are widely known, there is a sense that piracy will soon be on the decline.

Spider John, an unwilling pirate, had long been wanting to return to his old life and we join him as he lies low under an assumed identity while waiting for a ship to set sail. We learn he has enlisted as a ship’s carpenter aboard the Redemption, a merchant vessel headed for Boston, and is keen to see his wife and son who he has not seen in some years. The first couple of chapters are rather leisurely paced and remind readers of John’s backstory, while also serving to update us on what has happened since the last book and reintroduce us to his friends, Odin and Hob, who will join him on the journey.

The ship sets sail as planned but things take a bloody turn when a gunshot is heard from inside the Captain’s locked cabin. The door is broken down and they find him dead with a gun in his hand and a short apologetic note on his desk. It appears to be suicide and yet John notices a few things that seem wrong with the scene leading him to believe it was murder.

As I noted in the review of the first installment, Spider John interests me as an investigator because of the challenges and limitations he faces in that role. To give an example, he is unable to read which means he is unable to properly evaluate and consider the letter as evidence, relying instead on others’ thoughts. Another is that he draws upon his own experiences rather than any formal training. That sometimes means the things he notices are a little unusual but it also helps to make his investigations feel more credible.

Spider John identifies two key questions that he will need to answer. The first is why anyone would want the Captain, who appears to be widely liked by his crew, dead in the first place. The other more technical one is that we must work out how anyone could leave the cabin after firing the gunshot. The only door was under observation from the moment the shot was heard while a hatch was locked from the inside and was also observed within a few seconds. Escape seems impossible so where did the killer go?

The problem is an interesting one, helped by Goble’s thoroughness in showing that those exits were observed by multiple characters within moments of the crime taking place. That helps to establish the reliability of the witnesses, making it clear that the room really was properly locked and that no one could have left without being observed. In short, it clearly establishes the parameters of the room.

As with the first book in the series, the fact that the murder takes place while on the water adds a little novelty and intrigue to the case a well as serving as a very effective way to close the circle of suspects. The change in setting does force Spider John to act cautiously to guard his identity but it does not fundamentally alter his nature or that of his friends. Expect plenty of salty language and occasional bursts of violence which all helps to conjure up a sense of the historical period it is set in.

There are an interesting mix of crew members and passengers aboard the Redemption, several of whom seem to be carrying their own secrets. I think it is arguable that we do not spend enough time with some of them for them to feel truly credible as suspects but I enjoyed the variety regardless and appreciated the various backgrounds and personalities they had.

While I missed some of the atmospheric touches of life aboard the pirate ship from the first book, I did appreciate that the fresh setting offers a look at piracy from a slightly different perspective while still including plenty of references to pirate lore and some of the most notorious figures from the period. Those with an interest in piratical history will find plenty to appreciate here and for those less familiar with it there is an author’s note at the end of the text that provides a little context on a couple of the names mentioned.

After the midpoint of the novel the book introduces some more adventure-themed elements, building to a pretty memorable action sequence that serves as a sort of interlude in the mystery. Goble writes this type of material really well, creating a sense of credible peril for the characters while reinforcing the setting and theme of the series. As in the first book, I really enjoyed this blend of the mystery and adventure styles and I think without it the setting would never truly come to life.

The mystery does play fair with the reader who will be given all of the information required to solve the case prior to the final accusations being made. Fans of locked room stories will no doubt recognize the significance of one of the last clues to be shared but I thought it was a fun reworking of a familiar concept that felt appropriate to the setting. It struck me as being quite credible, both in terms of someone being able to imagine it and being able to pull it off. While I had worked out who did it, why and how, I realized that there were some clues given that I had overlooked that made me appreciate the solution all the more.

Overall then I thought that this was a pretty enjoyable second installment in the series that recaptured the things I enjoyed about the first. The third volume, A Bottle of Rum, is already out and the fourth is expected in a few months so clearly I have a little catching up to do. Based on this experience I am sure I will be doing so soon.

Monk’s Hood by Ellis Peters

Book Details

Originally published in 1980
Brother Cadfael #3
Preceded by One Corpse Too Many
Followed by Saint Peter’s Fair

The Blurb

Gervase Bonel is a guest of Shrewsbury Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul when he suddenly takes ill. Luckily, the abbey boasts the services of the clever and kindly Brother Cadfael, a skilled herbalist. Cadfael hurries to the man’s bedside, only to be confronted with two surprises: In Master Bonel’s wife, the good monk recognizes Richildis, whom he loved before he took his vows—and Master Bonel has been fatally poisoned by monk’s-hood oil from Cadfael’s stores.

The sheriff is convinced that the murderer is Richildis’s son, Edwin, who hated his stepfather. But Cadfael, guided in part by his concern for a woman to whom he was once betrothed, is certain of her son’s innocence. Using his knowledge of both herbs and the human heart, Cadfael deciphers a deadly recipe for murder. 

The Verdict

A simple but effective story. The mystery is not complex but it sits nicely alongside the exploration of Cadfael’s character.


My Thoughts

One of the most exciting things to happen to me last week was the release of a boxed set of radio adaptations of Brother Cadfael stories. I have been waiting for this for years, ever since I first heard the previous CD release of Monk’s Hood under the Radio Crimes label and fell in love with Philip Madoc’s rich, booming interpretation of the part. Now this post is not a review of that excellent radio adaptation which incidentally is one of the three stories featured in that set, but I feel I ought to mention my history with that story as background to this review. While I read the book for the first time this week, I am very familiar with the story from its adaptations and so I came to this knowing the solution.

Master Bonel plans to enter into an agreement with the Shrewsbury Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in which he would gift his estates to the monastery in exchange for lifetime food, stabling and lodgings in one of the abbey’s buildings. The transaction should have been quickly wrapped up but Abbot Heribert’s authority has been suspended until he appears before a Legatine council in London to explain his decision to back the Empress Maud in the recent hostilities. While the paperwork awaits completion it is decided that Bonel and his family should be allowed to complete their move into their new home.

When the Abbey receives a gift of a partridge Prior Robert, who hopes to replace Heribert, decides to send a portion of the bird to Bonel to welcome him and in the hope of currying his good favor. Bonel falls ill shortly after eating it and Cadfael is summoned but he is unable to save him. He does however detect the distinctive odor of a liniment he prepared on both Bonel and the remnants of the stew and deduces it was used to poison him. Suspicion quickly falls on Bonel’s stepson who argued with him and would have been disinherited by the agreement with the Abbey but Cadfael believes in the young man’s innocence and searches for a different killer.

Like many of the Cadfael stories I think that the plot itself is relatively straightforward. We can trust that Edwin, that stepson, is not the murderer based on Cadfael’s generally sound judgment of people and because if the only suspect was the killer it really wouldn’t be much of a case. Once you look past Edwin I think it is relatively easy to spot the figure who seems most suspicious but the problem is understanding exactly why they commited the crime.

There are some clues but as with the other volumes I reviewed here, there are not many and the deductions made from them are usually quite simple. In several cases Cadfael acts based on his instincts rather than firm information meaning that some possible ideas are never really tested. This is understandable based on the character and the time he is living in but it means that the story won’t reward those who may approach this in search of a puzzle.

That is not to say however that there isn’t a clever idea at the heart of this story. I appreciate that this is a story in which the setting feels genuinely important to the story. Crucial information is given to the reader in advance of the solution, though its significance is not spelled out, and I enjoyed that this is another story that incorporates some elements of travel at one point.

For those who enjoy the exploration of the sleuth’s background, this story is a treat as it incorporates aspects of Cadfael’s past and uses them to inform the reader about his history and character. The device of bringing Cadfael face to face with a former lover unexpectedly is a clever one and Peters uses it well. Previous volumes had begun to explore this aspect of his character and certainly hinted at his understanding of romance but what we get here not only helps us understand much more of who he was prior to entering the Abbey, it also illustrates the ways he has changed since doing so (as well as some of the ways in which he hasn’t).

I think the other thing this book does in relation to Cadfael’s character is better define his values in contrast to the other members of his order. We had seen some of this in the first novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, when the monks were disagreeing about what to do about St. Winifred but that felt quite tightly focused on Cadfael’s Welsh background. This novel also has moments that explore his Welsh identity but it also discusses his values more broadly and how his views on what is godly or appropriate sometimes differ from those of his fellow monks. He is, we are reminded, someone who has lived in the real world and experienced things that the others have only thought about in a more hypothetical sense. These are not new ideas but I think they are refined and become more potent here.

I also enjoy the politicking we see take place within the order about the possibility of Abbot Heribert being replaced and the tensions that flare up between the brothers. Peters gives this a comical tone, showing both Prior Robert’s obsequious behavior when speaking with Abbot Heribert and his enormous ambition which becomes clear when he is left in charge. Rest assured that subplot has a nice resolution at the end that left me quite satisfied.

While I enjoy the mystery and the solution, I think enjoyment of this and other books in the series depends to what extent you are interested in the historical elements or in exploring the lives of these characters. Those elements of setting and character are given as much prominence as the murder plotline meaning that some will find the pace slow or possibly resent that they come at the expense of the complexity of the case itself.

For me however this proved a pleasant blend and one I enjoyed rediscovering. Peters is comfort reading for me and so returning to this story felt particularly pleasing to me in these stressful times.

Do you have any mystery series you love to return to?

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Silver Age read.

The Lord of Misrule by Paul Halter, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1994 as Le Roi du Desordre
Owen Burns #1
Followed by The Seven Wonders of Crime

The Blurb

We are in Victorian London, with its gaslight and fog, not long after the Jack the Ripper Murders. A mysterious cloaked figure wearing a hideous, leprous mask and sleigh-bells is stalking the countryside outside the capital, committing murder wherever it goes, yet leaving no footprints.

This is the first Paul Halter novel featuring amateur detective and aesthete Owen Burns, who regards the impossible crime as an art form.

The Verdict

The chilling seasonal elements work nicely but the solution feels rather contrived.


My Thoughts

The Lord of Misrule was the subject of a bit of a mystery for me last week when I sat down to start reading it. As I opened up the ebook for what was apparently the first time I found that my copy contained multiple annotations including highlighted passages and notes about aspects of the book. This went from the first page to the very end of the book and, what’s more, each thought was largely in line with the things I was thinking and feeling about the book.

Had I perhaps read the book before and, for some reason, decided not to review it and mark it as unread? If that was the case, why had I no memory of any part of it? Were those notes and highlights somehow transferred from the future? If so, given that I didn’t make any new ones should I expect to find myself in a Back to the Future-type situation where those notes would fade from my ebook when I failed to create them… Or was there some sort of Kindle glitch that gifted me the notes of a kindred spirit? Alas, I will never know. Rest assured however that the opinions that follow are my own – those notes were only consulted after forming them!

The book begins by recounting the story of how the narrator, Achilles Stock, got to know the amateur detective Owen Burns shortly after arriving in England for the first time. That first encounter, while somewhat tangential to the story, is quite amusing and does give us a strong understanding of both men’s personalities and characters. This in turn will help to explain the rather far-fetched circumstances by which the pair come to get involved in this crime story.

The next chapter jumps forward a year as the pair renew their acquaintance and Burns seeks a favor from his friend. Judging him to be a man who enjoys intrigue, he asks Stock to take his place at the Mansfield family’s Christmas at their estate on the outskirts of London to enable him to spend time with a young woman he is enamored with. He is supposed to attend in the guise of the fiance of Catherine, the sister of Samuel Piggott, the man engaged to Mansfield’s older daughter Sibyl.

The reason for the deception is that Catherine fears that for the safety of her brother because of a family curse that strikes fatally when the family occupy the estate at Christmas. It appears that the Lord of Misrule, a killer with a white mask and wearing jingling bells, has been responsible for a number of murders in the family over the centuries including three years earlier when Sibyl’s brother was murdered by an assailant who did not leave tracks in the snow. Achilles agrees to Owen’s request and attends the gathering only to find that further inexplicable events occur, all credited to this Lord of Misrule…

Let’s start with the legend of the Lord of Misrule because I consider it to be the most intriguing part of the book. The concept dates back to an old tradition by which someone is appointed to be the figurehead of the Christmas revelries, organizing games and jokes to entertain the party. While this custom may not be familiar to many today, it does help ground the story around the festive celebrations as well as emphasize that this family legend has been around for some considerable time.

The story of the origins of this Lord of Misrule, when it is relayed to the reader, is actually rather chilling and speaks to the idea of wild excesses being committed by the nobility. While we will know given that this is a detective story that a supernatural explanation will not be the correct one, it is understandable why the historical event would cast such a long shadow over the family and why it would be a very effective idea to revive in the present day. Similarly I love the image of the frightful face appearing at the window – it is creepy and fits in with the older concept of Christmas as a time for ghost stories.

I have more mixed feelings about some other aspects of the setup for this adventure. The circumstances in which Stock becomes involved in the case are quite convoluted and while I enjoyed some of the subterfuge this involves, the story does dance around describing what actually happened all those years ago for quite some time. This does mean that we then get a lot of detail compressed into a few dense chapters which meant that the book read more slowly than you might expect for a 180 page story.

On the other hand, I do quite like the mechanism of having Stock on his own at the start of the adventure and I also appreciate that the business with needing to pretend to be part of the family does mean that he experiences events from the perspective of part of the party rather than as an adversary. This had echoes for me of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its structure of allowing the reader to witness things through the unqualified eyes of the Watson-figure with the knowledge that a more brilliant reading of the crime will be given later when the Great Detective character arrives on the scene and explains it all. Just as with that story, the structure does build our anticipation for that happening.

In the meantime, Stock’s account of his misadventures is often quite entertaining and does manage to emphasize how startling and inexplicable many of the incidents that take place during the festivities are. Halter does do a fine job of creating situations that do seem to be genuinely impossible which only built my interest and left me wondering just how he could craft a solution that would pull everything together in a satisfactory way.

Rather unfortunately I think the solution misses the mark. There are certainly some strong ideas here, not least with regards the explanation for the strange circumstances surrounding Edwin’s death, but the crime that takes place in the present has some elements that struck me as highly unsatisfactory. Particularly the reveal of an critical element on the very last page that had me groaning and feeling frankly a little cheated.

Reading this I was reminded what I look for in impossible crime stories. I want a fantastic premise that becomes breathtakingly simple and logical when viewed from a perspective that would never have occured to me. Halter gives us that with the death of Edwin. The setup is superb while its explanation, viewed on its own, would be quite strong. Were that crime allowed to be the focus of the story I would no doubt be writing a very positive review right now.

The book’s problems lie in attempting to weave additional crimes into the mix. While those present day events add some additional complexity and interest to the investigation, they also make the solution significantly more contrived. Instead of taking a fantastic situation and making it simple, the result is that the reality of that seemingly fantastic situation is even more bizarre than it seems, leaving me rather frustrated and disappointed.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

When Paul enters university in early 1970s Pittsburgh, it’s with the hope of moving past the recent death of his father. Sensitive, insecure, and incomprehensible to his grieving family, Paul feels isolated and alone. When he meets the worldly Julian in his freshman ethics class, Paul is immediately drawn to his classmate’s effortless charm.

Paul sees Julian as his sole intellectual equal—an ally against the conventional world he finds so suffocating. Paul will stop at nothing to prove himself worthy of their friendship, because with Julian life is more invigorating than Paul could ever have imagined. But as charismatic as he can choose to be, Julian is also volatile and capriciously cruel, and Paul becomes increasingly afraid that he can never live up to what Julian expects of him.

As their friendship spirals into all-consuming intimacy, they each learn the lengths to which the other will go in order to stay together, their obsession ultimately hurtling them toward an act of irrevocable violence.

Unfolding with a propulsive ferocity, These Violent Delights is an exquisitely plotted excavation of the depths of human desire and the darkness it can bring forth in us.

The Verdict

Exquiste character building and a palpable sense of tension make this a really powerful read. Like most other reviews I have to note that this will particularly appeal to fans of Highsmith.


My Thoughts

These Violent Delights begins with a murder. In a prologue we follow Charlie as he realizes late at night that his car won’t start. He is relieved when two young men, Paul and Julian, offer him a ride home and he gladly accepts a Thermos of hot soup, ignoring its soapy taste. As they talk however he begins to feel something is off. Charlie cannot do anything however as the effects of the drug in the soup set in, causing him to lose control of his body. He cannot understand why these two men, who he has never met, would be doing this to him.

The novel is about those two men and it explores the events in their life and the people around them that have shaped them into who they are and the intense relationship that develops between them. This is a work grounded in its exploration of character and discussions of theme rather than a work focused on exploring the mechanics of murder.

That is reflected in the decision to place the details of what happens on that night at the front of the book. This not only serves to hook readers into wanting to know about what led up to that moment, it also allows the narrative to skip over the actual mechanics of the murder. By getting them out of the way at the front and not repeating them, the reader is encouraged to focus on the characters’ feelings and the changes in their relationship that take place during and as a consquence of this event.

By external appearances Paul and Julian are quite dissimilar. Paul, who comes from a working class background, is awkward and insular. His family note, for example, that he has never really had a friend and they worry for him, particular given his father’s suicide less than a year earlier. By contrast Julian, whose father is a government official, exudes an easy confidence and charm. He is much wealthier, indulgent and clearly intrigued by his new friend’s expression of a philosophical worldview. Paul meanwhile is attracted to Julian’s beauty and that confidence. He desperately wants Julian’s love, even if he considers himself unworthy of it.

I think Nemerever does an exceptional job making each character feel credible and dimensional and establishing the reasons why they become so dependent upon one another. That relationship changes throughout the novel, in response to the events each is experiencing in their lives, and at each stage I felt the nature of the relationship and the reasons for the alterations taking place to it were clearly communicated and thoughtfully explored.

That attention to detail extends to the secondary characters in the story. The characters in both Paul and Julian’s families each possess strong personalities and feel quite credible. Perhaps the best example of this would be Julian’s parents whose disinterest in the happiness of their son marks them out as being quite unsympathetic. Yet while they are certainly not likable, I think we understand them well through the things we come to learn about them such as how they seem to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritage. We can see them as characters determined to conform in order to gain social acceptance.

Nemerever also skillfully explores the ambiguities in his characters and their relationships with one another, sometimes offering alternative readings or perspectives on them. Like Paul, I spent much of the book uncertain of the extent to which Julian was serious in his romantic interest in him. While I had a clear idea by the end of the book what Julian was getting from Paul, that ambiguity about Julian’s feelings clearly affects Paul and causes him to become more dependent on receiving that attention and affection, only making the relationship feel more intense and unstable. And all the time we are waiting to see when they will start to plan their murder and why certain choices are made.

While it takes a while to get to the murder in the story, the seeds of that idea are quite apparent both in terms of the characters and some of the specifics of their plan. What is least apparent until the moment it happens is the psychological context of that moment and how Paul and Julian are thinking about the act. That question of what the murder represented to each of them and why they decided to do it is really quite thought-provoking. I think Nemerever handles that question well, and it is from this point in the story that I feel the reader will understand the characters and their thoughts better than they understand themselves.

The point at which the murder takes place is the start of the novel’s endgame. I think the author does an incredible job addressing their themes in this section of the novel and, once again, I was struck by the thoughtful and credible characterizations of both Paul and Julian. I was most struck though by the ending to their story which seemed to wrap things up pretty perfectly.

I have little negative to offer about it at all. I might perhaps have ended the book a few pages earlier after a particularly powerful moment had taken place given how well that moment is written. In spite of saying that though I can see the significance of the ending and think it does feel fitting to the overall flow of the story.

My only other note would be that while this work may begin with a murder, readers should be prepared that it is not structured like a genre work. While there is a body and an investigation, the book is more interested in exploring how it affects the characters rather than detailing the way everything is connected by the investigators. That being said, I think the investigation – while clearly a secondary element of the plot – is quite effectively written in some other respects and while we are certainly kept distant from it, the reader is given enough to follow their thinking and suppositions.

As you can tell I found this to be a really thoughtful and engaging exploration of an obsessional relationship and the terrible things it inspires its participants to do. The book addresses some really interesting themes and ideas and features some exceptional character development. It is a remarkable debut novel. I look forward to seeing what the author does next, whether it is linked to the genre or not.

Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Book Details

Originally published in 2007

Some ebook editions include Abbott’s short story Policy that this novel was based upon.

The Blurb

A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protégée the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet–as long as she doesn’t take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protégée scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.

The Verdict

An enjoyable exploration of some of the common themes and tropes of noir fiction.


My Thoughts

This week has not exactly turned out as I had planned. I had a bunch of vacation days that I could take so I decided that I would take several days this week. The plan was that this would allow me to be able to stay up late and watch the election, get some sleep once it was all called and then take a few relaxing days to recover, catch up on reading and blogging. I am still pretty much in the first stage of that plan. Thankfully I still have the weekend to recover!

So, why am I telling you this? Well, I read Queenpin on Tuesday morning before heading to work. It has been a sleepless few days since then as I have been transfixed by coverage, finding myself unable to concentrate on anything else. Point of illustration – right now I have the coverage on the TV muted in the background. As a result, I suspect whatever careful and considered analysis I might have offered about the details of the book has disappeared from my mind to be replaced by vote margins in the various counties around where I live (which as of the time of writing appears in recount territory).

This is a shame because Queenpin is a book that deserves thoughtful thematic analysis. No doubt I will have to revisit it at some point though I would like to try some of Abbott’s other works first.

Queenpin is the story of a young, unnamed woman who takes a job as a bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub that her father also works at. He is oblivious to the illegal activities taking place there but she realizes that the owners are connected and, when she is asked to produce a second set of books, engaged in a dangerous game with their bosses. Gloria Denton comes by regularly to inspect the books and collect the bosses’ share of the take. She quickly spots what they are up to but, having taken a shine to the narrator and recognizing that she is smart and capable, opts to exclude her from the punishment and take her on as an assistant.

Gloria teaches the narrator the basics and gets her started with a few collection gigs. She is provided with a home, beautiful clothes and lots of other luxuries. Her life seems pretty comfortable but then she has the misfortune of meeting a young and reckless man and before long she finds herself making some questionable and dangerous decisions…

Queenpin is a work that seeks to deconstruct and reassess the central tropes and relationships of noir storytelling. Abbott transforms the typical structure of such stories by flipping the usual gender assignments, providing us with a female protagonist and mentor and, in Vic, a homme fatale. In the wrong hands this could have been an excuse for a gimmicky type of storytelling but Abbott uses this idea to explore deeper ideas relating to the career expectations based on gender and class in this period, social mobility, consumerism and of female sexuality.

The decision to not provide a name for the protagonist is an interesting one. I think it is intended to remind us that our focus is not so much on the individual but the idea of what she represents. She is as much an archetype as Walter Huff or Frank Chambers. But Abbott isn’t going to craft multiple novels to explore that idea – instead she does it in just one book, providing us with a model for an ambitious and competent everywoman who wants to make herself something more.

To emphasize that this character is not a one-off, even within the world she has created, Abbott creates Gloria – a character who inhabits a familiar world of gangsters. Where the protagonist remains somewhat hazily drawn, Gloria is described in very clear detail and established as successful and inspiring. She is a woman who has lasted in a tough and violent world, outlasting several of her peers, and retains a sense of dignity and style. It is clear that our protagonist views her as a model for who she wants to be, though she does not always listen to the advice she is given.

The development of the main character’s criminal career is intriguing though it is not really the focus of the book. We do get some interesting discussion of money laundering but the focus of the book is more on interpersonal relationships.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the relationship between the protagonist and Gloria. Gloria takes a number of risks and provides a lot to the main character throughout this novel. It begins with the trouble she takes to protect her from being caught up in the reprisals against her bosses but she goes much further, dressing her, giving her jewelry, a home and a car. She raises her up and remakes her as the woman she thinks she should be.

There are several possible interpretations of these choices. She could simply be seeing potential in her, crafting her into a version of herself to make it possible to step back from (or expand) her professional activities. She might also feel protective of her, seeing something of herself in her and seeking to strengthen her. Or, and this is the one I find most convincing, she may actually have fallen in love with her and be trying to turn her into an ideal lover. If it is the last of these options, I think the relationship is probably never consumated, though I suspect that the main character is aware of her power over her and comes to exploit it.

What I find most compelling about this last possibility is that, if true, it raises an interesting parallel with the main character’s own misguided relationship. Throughout the novel Gloria advises her to avoid romantic or flirtatious entanglements, suggesting that they would compromise her and make her weak. We see evidence of that in her misguided relationship with Vic, a character whose appeal is a little hard for me to perceive though I understand that her feelings are simply beyond her control and she is simply drawn to him. Is Gloria’s advice given out of jealousy or possessiveness or is it simply good advice that she herself is failing to follow. I am not entirely sure what I think but I found this ambiguity to be really interesting.

By comparison her relationship with Vic is much flatter and while I understand its importance to the plot, this is the least complex aspect of the novel. Perhaps that reflects that this is simply a more familiar relationship with a pretty direct reversal of the usual gender roles. Much of the material that is added to this novel in expanding it from its original short story form relates to this aspect of the story and at times it does feel a little like padding. Still, I think the payoff to this aspect of the story is satisfying and I enjoyed the reflections on it towards the end of the novel.

Overall I felt that Queenpin was a clever and largely satisfying exploration of theme and situation. Is it revolutionary? Perhaps not, but I think the more familiar aspects of the plot are necessary to allow for commentary and reflection on noir tropes. It certainly left me curious to try some of Abbott’s other work which I gather is more contemporary. If you have any recommendations please feel free to share!

Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill

Book Details

Originally published in 2012
Rowland Sinclair #3
Preceded by A Decline in Prophets
Followed by Paving the New Road

The Blurb

It is 1933 and wealthy Australian artist Rowland Sinclair is enjoying a leisurely sojourn in the luxury Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. As ever, he is accompanied by his entourage – a poet, a fellow painter and a brazen sculptress. The Depression-era troubles of the wider world seem far away. Until long-time Sinclair family ally and employee Harry Simpson disappears.

Rowland must leave for the High Country to find Harry. He encounters resentful stockmen, dangerous gangsters and threatening belligerence all round. With his trusted friends’ help, he uncovers a dark conspiracy which suddenly renders the beautiful Australian outback very sinister…

The Verdict

The characterizations and setting are great. The case however seems to meander a little, making this entertaining but not as good as either preceding novel.


My Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my first two outings with Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Australian artist who finds himself getting caught up in mysteries while trying to navigate an awkward relationship with his disapproving older brother. I had actually intended to get to this one soon after the last but as often happens with my TBR pile, I find new things to add on top and can lose track of an enjoyable series in favor of the new. Happily I stumbled across it at just the right time, particularly as I felt keen to read a historical mystery, and ended up devouring it in a day.

After having an escape from a group of toughs in his home, Rowland Sinclair is summoned to see his brother Wilfred who makes two requests of him. The first is to cast a vote in his role as a director of a company. The other however is to journey into the High Country in search of an aboriginal employee who disappeared without a trace after being sent to take investigate a matter on Sinclair lands. The people he visited suggest he had gone on walkabout but Wil points out that behavior is quite unlike Harry who is usually responsible and communicative.

The book is at its best in the chapters in which we see Rowland and his friends roughing it in the countryside in search of Harry. This not only inspires some very effective descriptions of the landscape and the isolation of working the land and gives Gentill an opportunity to explore some different types of characters than we have seen in the series up until this point.

One consequence of Rowland being pulled out of his comfortable setting is that it reminds us that we have tended to view him through the lens of his family. In particular, his very conservative brother Wil. Compared to him Rowland certainly comes off as being much more down to earth but when he is thrown into a rough, rural setting we see him struggle to figure out how to talk with and deal with the people (and, quite memorably, the wildlife) he finds there.

Where his previous adventure saw Rowland making a choice to take a cruise that led him into adventure, here he finds himself quite unwillingly drawn into events. While he cares about Harry and wants to make sure he is safe, he is not enthused about undertaking this trip, nor about being pushed to take on additional responsibilities as a company director at an upcoming board meeting. Still, while this adventure will push him into some uncomfortable situations, I think it also works well to demonstrate some sides to his character that we have not really seen before as well as giving us further insight into his early life and that of his deceased brother Aubrey.

All of Rowland’s friends return and make appearances in this story which is welcome. That little family of characters that surround and support Rowland provide much of the series’ energy and heart. There are even some events that threaten to disrupt or at least complicate his relationship with Edna. That relationship still strikes me as quite charming and I will confess to being fully invested in wanting to see that realized (if you have read further in this series than me, please do not spoil me on whether I will be happy with the way it develops).

The relationship that interests me most however is not with his circle of friends but his complicated feelings towards his elder brother. The two men are clearly quite different in temprement, outlook and political sympathies. They have different views on what their role in society should be and how they can best represent their family. At times their relationship can become quite acrimonious and bitter – indeed, we get several such moments in this story. Yet you also see the bond the two men have, their shared experiences, and I am always struck by how real that relationship seems. That relationship seems to sit at the heart of this series – at least in these early installments – and it is this aspect of the books that I am most curious to see how it develops.

As much as I love the character content and the setting, I do have to comment on the mystery plot itself and here I am afraid I was a little disappointed. I have already indicated that I think the early part of the book with Rowly investigating the disappearance is really quite effective and engaging. The problems for me occur in the book’s back half. That is partly because the action relocates to the city, taking away the book’s most distinctive element, but it is also because the villain of the piece did not strike me as particularly convincing or stand up well in comparison with those in the first two books while their motivations felt somewhat generic.

The other reason I think the second half is weaker than the first is that Rowland loses his direct motivation to become engaged with the mystery. That is reflected in how he seems to become responsive rather than proactive from this point in the story and from that point on things seem to happen to him rather than feeling like he is choosing to engage with a mystery.

Still, Rowland remains a really fantastic creation and while I think this case is uneven, I cannot help but admire Gentill’s approach to characterization or giving us a sense of Australian society in the 1930s. While I preferred the first two novels which set a very high standard, the good bits here are very good. I feel keen to see how this series continues to develop and I look forward to reading the next installment – Paving the New Road – to see what the rest of this tumultous decade has in store for the Sinclair brothers.