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.

The Bride of Newgate by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally published in 1950

The Blurb

To inherit her family fortune, beautiful Miss Caroline Ross must marry before her twenty-fifth birthday. But she has found only two breeds of husband: violent drunks and irresponsible dandies. To evade wedded agony, she chooses a spouse not long for this world—a convicted murderer with just a few hours left until his date with the hangman. But clever, cold-hearted Caroline does not yet realize it is her neck around which the noose is tightening and that she risks facing a life sentence far grimmer than one at Newgate jail.

The Verdict

Attempts to blend romance and mystery but does neither well.


My Thoughts

It was recently pointed out to me that it has been a while since I last read and reviewed anything by John Dickson Carr on this blog. A quick look back through my posts shows that it has been almost exactly a year since I shared thoughts on The Mad Hatter Mystery and I have added quite a few books to my library since then thanks to the Polygon, British Library Crime Classics and American Mystery Classics reprints.

Unfortunately I chose to overlook all of those other Carr titles I owned in favor of The Bride of Newgate.

The book is a historical mystery set in Georgian England. It opens with a young woman, Miss Caroline Ross, traveling to Newgate Prison to marry a convicted murderer about to be hanged. She is not seeking this marriage for love but rather to fulfil the terms of a will that requires her to marry by her next birthday to inherit a fortune. By marrying Dick Darwent, a condemned man, she hopes to get the fortune without losing her independence. Unfortunately for her Dick’s sentence will soon after be quashed and he will turn out to be a rather longer-term investment than she had presumed.

In the process of securing his release, we learn Dick’s own story which introduces us to the mystery elements of the story. We hear how he found himself blamed for a murder he did not commit after waking up in a room that subsequently vanishes and we follow as he attempts to find the real guilty party and bring them to justice.

The best bit about the book for me is its opening. While Caroline’s complaints about the idea of being married are clearly intended to read rather comically (and establish her as a Katherina-type), her scheme is rather novel and explained well. Similarly the reasons for how Dick comes to escape the noose, however far-fetched they may be, are also extremely easy to follow. Were this a straightforward romance story I could see this as being quite a promising starting point.

The problem is that Carr is writing a murder mystery and those elements of the story never feel quite so clearly explained or defined. There is a reason that the Open Road Media blurb quoted above makes absolutely no mention of the mystery elements of the story – they are much harder to describe consicely. There is a sort of impossibility, in terms of a crime scene that vanishes, and yet that too feels rather vague. The best aspect of it, the idea that the room could not have been disturbed because it is covered in cobwebs, is appealing as an idea and yet feels underutilized as the investigation gets underway.

Not that there is much of an investigation, at least in a structured way. The Bride of Newgate strikes me as a story cut in the adventure mold as there is a heavy focus on the idea of duelling. There are multiple duel scenes laced throughout the story, each featuring different adversaries and all of which left me quite cold. They are neither particularly thrilling, nor are they witty or interesting in some other way, particularly as they feel rather repetitive. Instead they just seem to get in the way of the mystery itself, distracting you from the puzzle that is presumably intended as the story’s focus.

Carr’s protagonist, Dick Darwent, is neither particularly interesting or relatable. While we may initially sympathize with him as having been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, his aggression towards Caroline, herself not a sympathetic character, comes off as quite bitter and unpleasant. Particularly when he does things like threaten her with exercising his husbandly rights. Caroline’s own feelings in the matter are particularly confusing and I never felt I understood exactly why she was drawn to him.

As for the historical details, they’re fine. I appreciated the author’s note at the end in which Carr outlines his sources and it is clear that he enjoyed that aspect of putting together the novel. Some historical details are integrated well into the text, others have a tendency to feel like an author cramming that research onto the page somehow, but I did feel that there was an attempt to evoke a sense of time and place, albeit in a way that felt rather literary in style.

I will say that I appreciated that the details of Dick and Caroline’s respective backstories are quite specific to this period of time, meaning that this is an instance where a historical mystery’s plot arises out of the period rather than simply transposing a whodunnit onto a historical setting. Given that Carr is one of the earliest authors to play with the idea of writing a historical mystery, I think it is to his credit that he seems to be interested in the storytelling possibilities offered by setting his story in a different time rather than treating it as a novelty.

For all my complaints though, I do have to acknowledge that Carr does at least conclude his story quite tidily. The explanations given do pull all of the various threads of the story together and I was convinced that the trick, although quite a simple one, could have been managed. The problem was that by that point I was all too eager to be done with the book to care…

I, Claudia by Marilyn Todd

Book Details

Originally published in 1995

Claudia Seferius #1
Followed by Virgin Territory

The Blurb

Having connived her way into marriage with a wealthy wine merchant, Claudia quickly grows bored, so when her secret gambling debts spiral, she hits on a resourceful way to pay off the moneylenders. Offering “personal services” to high-ranking Romans. That is, until her clients start turning up dead.

When the charismatic investigator, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, digs too deep for comfort, Claudia is forced to track down the killer herself. Before the authorities or her husband find out what she’s up to.

The Verdict

Claudia won’t be for everyone but I found her a fun sleuth and this case is a solid introduction for her.


My Thoughts

When Claudia Seferius became the wife of a wealthy Roman wine merchant she may have expected a life of luxury but instead she found herself bored. Gambling seemed to offer some relief from the tedium but Claudia soon found herself in debt to some moneylenders and, lacking other ways to meet their demands, began offering her disciplinary services very discreetly (and expensively) to some of Rome’s leading men.

Unfortunately Claudia has run into a problem. Several of her clients have begun to turn up dead, stabbed with their eyes gouged out. When she stumbles onto the body of her latest client investigator Marcus Cornelius Orbilio finally gets a lead into the murders and starts to pursue her. Determined to clear her name (and hoping to kill the guilty party herself), Claudia starts her own investigation into the murder.

Claudia is a relatively unusual protagonist, particularly for a historical mystery, in that she is presented as an antihero. For one thing, we know that she is not particularly interested in justice but rather out of self-interest and the desire to hurt the killer for the inconvenience they have caused her.

On top of that we see she can be cruel, sharp-tongued and manipulative with everyone around her. Imagine Joan Collins in a toga or a much sharper Atia of the Julii from HBO’s Rome. I can imagine that some readers will struggle to like her or want to see her succeed – I, on the other hand, absolutely loved her.

Marilyn Todd makes a couple of choices that I think help the reader accept Claudia as a hero. First, she establishes that everyone else is pretty horrible too. From her sleazy brother-in-law who drunkenly propositions her and feels her up at family gatherings to the rich senators and proctors who preach Augustan values but pay for her services, we get a sense that Claudia is far from an outlier. She’s just playing the hypocrites at their own game.

Secondly, the brutality of the murders and the manner in which they clearly connect to Claudia helps us understand that there is a monster out to get her. We may not approve of her (though I suspect many readers will warm to her by the end of this book) but there is a clear reason for her to act and the authorities are shown to be clearly wanting – Orbilio aside.

While Todd titles the book I, Claudia (a pun on the classic Robert Graves novel), the narration is in the third person – though we are frequently treated to her thoughts and opinions. This allows us to get a sense of her acidic inner voice and also gives us a sense of her intelligence, allowing us to know what she makes of the clues she finds and the reasons behind most of her actions. One of the things I liked most about Claudia is that she is shown to be as sharp-witted as she is sharp-tongued and it is a consequence of this choice to let us hear her thoughts.

The most important of the other characters is Orbilio, the investigator who is working the case in a more official capacity. He is presented as being perceptive and dedicated to his career but has character flaws of his own. I will say that I liked him less than her but I liked the way he doggedly pursues her and felt that the pair spar pretty well throughout the novel.

Given Claudia’s secret profession and Orbilio’s appetites it probably won’t surprise you to hear that this novel has a few bawdy moments. The tone however is more cheeky than explicit, focusing on the craziness of a situation rather than sensual descriptions of body parts or activities.

Todd similarly avoids explicit descriptions of acts of violence but is able to convey a disturbing image of what the murderer has done. This sort of thing is a difficult balance to strike but I think the author mostly gets it right, conveying enough that the reader understands what happened without it seeming purely gratuitous.

I was similarly impressed by the choices the author makes in the way they present the historical background and setting. Basically this book belongs to the same school of thought as HBO’s Rome or the Falco books (though it is less stylized than either) – using occasional modern expressions to give the reader a sense of the spirit of a place and time.

There are plenty of interesting historical details and observations which the author does a good job of naturally integrating into the story, using them to illustrate a plot point or an aspect of a character. None felt forced which is pretty much what you want from a historical mystery.

One aspect of Roman life that I think is explored particularly well is the Augustan idea of matronly virtue. Claudia is compared frequently with her conservative sister-in-law and there are discussions of some of the Roman ideals such as the mother who spins garments herself and has multiple children.

I have focused a lot in my comments on the characterization of Claudia and the presentation of the setting so I do need to take a moment to discuss the plot. I want to stress that my placing this so late in the review does not indicate I think it is poor but rather that it is the element that I think will be least decisive in determining whether others will want to read this.

The mystery is competently plotted with several decent suspects to consider. The motive will be clear relatively early but fortunately enough characters share it to sustain the mystery for a while, even if the culprit will be unlikely to surprise many by the moment of the reveal. It is solid enough and reasonably well clued.

I found myself more interested in some of the secondary questions and puzzles structured around this main mystery which include a string of suspicious deaths in Claudia’s own household. Here, once again, the mysteries are solidly plotted – though it does not play entirely fair (one key piece of information is known to a character but not communicated to the reader before the murderer is apprehended). I do appreciated though how well spaced out these developments are, adding an extra layer of interest in the second half of the novel.

While the mysteries are solid enough, the principle attraction for me was the really entertaining main character. It is entirely possible that you may feel differently – particularly if it is important for you to be able to like, empathize with and want the best for the sleuth. If that’s the case this probably won’t be for you. As for me, well – I already have a copy of the next one on its way to me…

Rashomon Gate by I. J. Parker

Book Details

Originally Published in 2002
Akitada #2
Note: Though this is the second novel in the series, it was published before its predecessor.
Preceded by The Dragon Scroll
Followed by Black Arrow

The Blurb

Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, toils at his dull career when a former professor begs him to look into a case of blackmail at the Imperial University. He is quickly drawn into a web of gossip and rivalry before being sidetracked by the murder of a young woman belonging to the lower classes and the disappearance of young student’s high-ranking grandfather. He and his faithful servant Tora pursue both cases eagerly, but the body count rises, and danger stalks them. When Akitada loses his heart to a young woman and wins her against all odds, a murderer has marked him as the next victim.

The Verdict

Akitada’s second adventure is even stronger than his first, fleshing out his household as he solves several puzzling cases.


My Thoughts

Like its predecessor, Rashomon Gate is a novel that presents multiple cases for the reader to solve. Each case appears to be quite separate from the others and so the trick is to see if we can understand how the various stories overlap and fit together.

The most pressing case for Akitada is presented to him by the man who took him into his household during the period when his own father had disowned him. That man, a scholar at the university, had discovered a troubling note slipped into his gown that appeared to suggest a threat of blackmail. The assumption is that the message was intended for someone else but the question is who is the intended victim and why?

There is also a murder case to solve when a young woman is found dead having apparently been strangled. Much of the work on that is done by Akitada’s servant Tora with the case causing him to cross paths with merchants and enter the pleasure houses of the Willow district.

Then finally there is the strange disappearance of a prince from a shrine. The prince had entered alone and chanted his prayers but when his travelling companions entered afterwards they only found his empty robe. The building was thoroughly checked for exits and there was no sign of an abduction or murder so what happened to him and why were his companions so sure he transcended his form?

The interplay between these various cases is quite clever although it takes a while for it to become clear just how they are connected. The last of these three mysteries is perhaps the most intangible for much of the story as it is discussed in the background until events push Akitada to take a more direct interest in solving it.

The disappearance can be viewed as being within the impossible crime subgenre though it is not featured enough in the novel to satisfy reading it for that element alone. Essentially this is a watched room and I think the explanation of what happened is quite clever, particularly as it employs some variations on some familiar tricks to make it work in this historical period and cultural setting.

The murder of the young woman is a more earthy case and it really provides us with a window into several different aspects of Japanese life in this period. Perhaps the most significant of these is its presentation of the criminal justice system and the discussion about the use of torture to extort confessions. Akitada clashes with the official in charge of the investigation about their different methods and opinions about whether the priority is to ensure justice for everyone in the case or to risk harming innocents while tracking down and punishing the guilty.

Parker presents both sides of this argument in one of the book’s most powerful sequences – the one in which this case is solved. In it we see the efficiency and speed of achieving results but we are also reminded of the cost to those who were suspected of the crime. This is a tension that is often present in these novels and I think it helps establish that Akitada is something of an outlier in his culture, at least in some regards.

Another theme that is discussed quite effectively in this part of the novel is that of social class and the hierarchy in Japanese society. Tora ends up passing through multiple layers of society and a few locations where those different classes meet and interact, and in some cases that leads to some interesting comparisons with his master such as in their different attitudes to pursuing romance.

This case is arguably the most straightforward of those on offer. There is little deduction that the reader can perform to be ahead of the sleuth – the significance of some key parts of the evidence is not recognized until the point at which it is solved. Still, I think the case is important not only in the way it overlaps with the other cases but because of the light it throws on both Tora and Akitada’s respective characters, particularly in its immediate aftermath.

The question of the threatening message is the focus of much of the adventure, not only giving Akitada an interesting case to look into but it also prompts some intriguing character development.

I have already alluded to the discussion of his years as a student in which he was banished from the family home which I think this novel explains well. We understand, for instance, his feelings of gratitude and obligation to his mentor Professor Hirata and why that proves decisive in convincing him to get involved in this mystery in the first place.

As part of his investigation Akitada becomes a teacher at the university and we get to know several members of the faculty and student body, each of whom has a strong personality. There are a few more surprises along the way, not least the discovery of an additional body in quite striking circumstances.

While I found this historical and cultural background to be quite interesting, I do think that for much of the book this is the least compelling of the three major cases. Part of that relates to a sense that this plotline lacks urgency and blackmail feels quite small compared to the other crimes on offer here. I did appreciate however that this plot ends up prompting several significant character moments for Akitada, causing several changes to take place in his household that will expand the cast of ‘regulars’.

In addition to the mystery plots, I appreciate the time and effort Parker puts into developing Akitada’s household. Here we see him interact with his mother, get a glimpse of his sisters and see changes to the household’s roster of servants. Perhaps most memorable of all however is the romance storyline which is heartfelt rather than melodramatic or sensational, leading to a resolution that seems earned and sincere.

When I first read Rashomon Gate I was struck by its interesting cases and strong characterization. I am happy to report that I was just as impressed with it on a repeat reading and that for the most part it lived up to my expectations. At this point the household had really taken shape well and I looked forward to the events of the next book, Black Arrow.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Book Details

Originally Published 2019
Su Lin #3
Preceded by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

The Blurb

SuLin is doing her dream job: assistant at Singapore’s brand new detective agency. Until Bald Bernie decides a ‘local girl’ can’t be trusted with private investigations, and replaces her with a new secretary – pretty, privileged, and white. So SuLin’s not the only person finding it hard to mourn Bernie after he’s found dead in the filing room. And when her best friend’s dad is accused, she gets up to some sleuthing work of her own in a bid to clear his name.

SuLin finds out that Bernie may have been working undercover, trading stolen diamonds for explosives from enemy troops. Was he really the upright English citizen he claimed to be?

Meanwhile, a famous assassin commits his worst crime yet, and disappears into thin air. Rumours spread that he may be dangerously close to home.

Beneath the stifling, cloudless Singaporean summer, earthquakes of chaos and political unrest are breaking out. When a tragic loss shakes SuLin’s personal world to its core, she becomes determined to find the truth. But in dark, hate-filled times, truth has a price – and SuLin must decide how much she’s willing to pay for it.

In One Line
The strongest case so far in a historical mystery series with a fascinating setting and memorable main character.


In spite of the historical mystery being one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction, it seems to have been a really long time since I last read one for this blog. Not sure what happened there. In any case, I am happy to resume coverage with a look at the third book in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series set between the two world wars featuring her Singaporean sleuth Su Lin.

While each novel does tell a self-contained story, I would suggest that this is a series you really want to read in order. The reason is that the author cultivates a sense of change between each book meaning that if read in order you see Su Lin gain in confidence while Singapore and the British Empire’s relationship also shows some signs of change. While you could follow what is going on in The Paper Bark Tree Mystery without reading the previous stories, I think you would miss out on the thoughtful characterizations and the sense of these adventures taking place in the context of world history.

This particular story opens with the discovery of the death of “Bald Bernie”, a man who has been responsible for getting Su Lin removed from her post as an assistant at the Detective Shack. She discovers the body when she turns up at the office to her help successor, Dolly, get to grips with the filing system.

As the first on the scene and given her history with the deceased, Su Lin is an obvious suspect but it soon becomes clear that the Police believe the death may have links to the rumors that an Indian revolutionary is at large in Singapore. When her best friend’s father is arrested on suspicion of being in league with the revolutionaries, Su Lin investigates the crime herself in the hope that she can clear his name.

There are lots of aspects of this series that appeal to me but the part that fascinates me most is its presentation of Singapore in this time period. Each novel has been able to utilize and comment on developments within the British Empire and this volume in no different. For instance, this story reflects the rising tensions within the Empire about the risk of revolution and the relationship between the colonial authorities and the natives. Su Lin’s dismissal after all comes as a consequence of an administrator’s fear that being a Singaporean her loyalty might be questionable.

This book also incorporates wider concerns about the political climate in the region. We read about Indian revolutionaries and the Congress party as well as the perceived threat that is posed by an expansionist Japan. What I think Yu does really well is to show these ideas and conflicts from several different perspectives, showing that there is a diversity of opinion and individuality within each of the cultures depicted.

The other idea that really comes over strongly is that many of the Singaporean characters are practical in their responses to these challenges and threats. While we do not spend time with Su Lin’s grandmother in this volume, we do hear her thoughts and plans reported to us. It is these details that I think make these characters feel rich and interesting enough to support multiple stories and that leave me curious to see how they will adjust to the changes that will take place over the decade that follows.

I also appreciate that each volume in this series attempts to move Su Lin’s personal story forward. While the first novel showed her building a relationship with Le Froy and the second had her working closely with him, here she is on the outside and feeling angry toward him.

Her reasons are quite understandable – she feels that having promised he would serve as a mentor for her, he did not stand up for her keeping her position in the Detective Shack. The novel explores how that choice has changed their relationship though Su Lin retains a strong bond to the group of detectives she used to work with.

One parallel that is explored throughout the novel is the contrast between Le Froy who has sought to build relationships and understanding with the Singaporean community leaders and Colonel Mosley-Partington, a more recent arrival. They have different personal styles and while the conflict is rarely direct, I felt the contrast between the two characters was interesting and helped draw out and show different aspects of Le Froy’s character.

Having discussed the background to the story I ought to also discuss the mystery itself. Opening the book with the discovery of the body does allow a certain compression of the case itself, throwing us straight into the investigation portion of the novel. This means that much of the background to the case is provided to us through the narration which can feel a little awkward and were this one death to be the sole focus of the book I would have been disappointed.

The story quickly expands its scope and focus, giving us a second body and placing that first death in a much broader (and more interesting) context. The reader’s challenge is to understand the connections between the different elements that have been introduced. I felt that the answers given were interesting and pretty satisfying, tying these various strands of the story together well.

Overall I found The Paper Bark Tree Mystery to be as entertaining and compelling as the two earlier volumes. Su Lin continues to be an appealing sleuth and I am enjoying seeing how she is developing from book-to-book. Because of those developments both in the character and in the historical background I would suggest however that these books would be best read in order rather than dipped into. If you did read and enjoy the previous installments in this series though I am sure you will enjoy this one every bit as much.

The Dragon Scroll by I. J. Parker

The Dragon Scroll
I. J. Parker
Originally Published 2005
Sugawara Akitada #1
Followed by Rashomon Gate

The subject of today’s post is a book that holds a special place in my heart and that certainly played a large part in reigniting my interest in the mystery genre. For that reason what follows is perhaps not really so much a review as a celebration of a book and a character that mean a lot to me and while I will try to discuss the merits of the book in its own right, I do have to give a warning that I may not be entirely impartial.

To explain why I have to take you back and explain my relationship with the mystery genre. As some of you may remember, I began reading mysteries at a young age. Early favorites included the Three Investigators and the Five Found-Outers though I also read a few classics of the genre. Getting older I transitioned to reading whatever titles I could find on my father’s bookcases which meant I dipped into stuff like Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries.

But then during my college and university years things changed. I didn’t exactly stop reading but my relationship with books changed significantly and I found that I was more focused on reading to support my learning than for the love of it. This continued after I graduated and started working, particularly because the type of work I was in at that time left little time for recreation.

In 2008 though everything changed for me. In that year I got married and emigrated to the United States where I spent eighteen months waiting to receive my employment visa and, for the first time in years, I had time on my hands. I decided to fill that time by watching a whole lot of Japanese cinema, developing an interest in Samurai movies, and from there I decided it would be cool to read some fiction set in that era.

I started out with Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries which were set during the era of the Tokugawa shogunate. In researching that series however I happened upon an article about I. J. Parker’s relatively new series which was set several centuries earlier during the Heian period of Japanese history.

The protagonist of the series is Sugawara no Akitada, a junior official in the Ministry of Justice who in this book arrives in the Kazusa province to investigate why several shipments of tax revenue have not made it to the capital. What complicates his mission is that the provincial governor who appears to be a prime suspect is about to become the emperor’s father-in-law, putting Akitada in a difficult and potentially career-threatening position.

A further complication arises when the former governor of the province, who had reached out to Akitada to seek a private meeting, is found dead having apparently fallen in his library. Suspecting foul play, Akitada decides to investigate this matter too with the help of his elderly family retainer Seimei and an impudent, womanizing soldier he meets on the road named Tora.

The least interesting of the various plot elements is the question of what has become of the tax shipments. Here the story suffers a little from a lack of suspects, essentially allowing the reader two possibilities, but this story strand leads to further, more challenging questions such as how the money is being hidden and transported. It likely won’t wow puzzle readers but I found it a solid starting point that justified Akitada’s involvement in the story.

I was more interested in the questions raised by the death of the former governor and the mystery about the information that he wished to share with Akitada. There are a few reasons for this, not least that I always enjoy seeing how a detective works out that a death that appears to have been natural or an accident is actually murder without witnesses or clear clue pointing at that explanation. Akitada begins with a suspicion but he is able to expand on it through logic and observation, helping to establish him as a skillful (if still fairly inexperienced) investigator.

There is a third strand to the mystery that is principally investigated by Tora that relates to some strange goings on in the streets of the provincial capitol and that introduces us to a set of characters from its underworld. Here I want to avoid giving away any firm details as it is the least expected and most creative part of the novel but I want to give some credit to Parker for the way in which this is developed. Essentially Tora’s investigation will be presented as its own story strand, incorporating different levels of society, and it runs parallel to the main investigation. Typically there is eventually some crossover between his adventures and those of his master and it is no different here but a large part of the fun comes from trying to figure out precisely how those threads will eventually converge.

This establishes a structure that runs throughout most of the novels in this series in which Akitada and Tora end up investigating several different puzzles that seem unconnected. Eventually we learn a piece of information that bridges these plots, drawing the action together and presenting what we know in a different light. I will say that The Dragon Scroll is not quite as intricately structured as some later entries in the series as many of the connections can be worked out relatively early in the novel but while it is not particularly surprising, I still found it to be quite entertaining.

Perhaps the thing I like most about this series is the development and evolution of its protagonist, Akitada. Born into a noble but impoverished family, I love the complexities and contrasts Parker finds in the character. As with the plot structuring, I think later titles in the series showcase this better (and explore some of the less likable parts of his character) but there is still plenty of dimension to admire and appreciate here.

This story serves as a good introduction to the character because of the way it pushes him out of his comfort zone. When he travels to Kazusa he finds himself stumped by some awkward social situations he has to resolve according to proper etiquette. Some of the situations he finds himself in are quite fascinating, exposing different aspects of Japanese culture and society such as attitudes towards the Buddhist clergy and the nobility.

The most awkward situations Akitada finds himself in are those which involve women. He is pretty inexperienced in that area anyway but in the course of this story he finds himself attracted to two quite different women and unsure how he should respond and where to take things. These two situations explore different aspects of Akitada’s personality, personal background and values and help to bring him to life.

The supporting characters of Tora and Seimei have an interesting and complicated relationship that also evolves over the course of this novel. Seimei has a relatively limited range as a character, often falling into particular patterns of behavior though Parker gifts him a wonderful and surprising moment later in the adventure that I find extremely entertaining and shows a slightly different side to him. Tora, by contrast, is a fuller creation and I enjoy the energy and passion he injects into the story, even if some readers find it unbelievable that he would be so openly insubordinate to Akitada.

So, how do I feel about The Dragon Scroll on revisiting it (for the third time)? Well, I think it succeeds as an introduction to these characters and the world. The mystery itself is quite serviceable, if a little slanted towards adventure storytelling, though I think that the style feels appropriate to the historical setting. Perhaps the storytelling is a little slow, sensual and detail-oriented though once again I found that fit the tone and setting of the story very well.

Based on this I can certainly see why I was so drawn to read more about these characters and why it spurred me on to develop an interest in historical mystery fiction. My memory of the series is that the next novel, Rashomon Gate, was even more compelling and I will look forward to revisiting that one at some point soon.

Note: The series order for the Akitada mysteries can be confusing as Parker’s first publisher opted to release the stories out of chronological order. The Dragon Scroll is the intended starting point and when Parker changed publishers it was issued as the first title in the series.

The Murderer’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

The Murderer’s Tale
Margaret Frazer
Originally Published 1996
Dame Frevisse #6
Preceded by The Boy’s Tale
Followed by The Prioress’ Tale

It is pretty rare for me to start a series anywhere other than with the first book. When I do it is usually because the series has long been out-of-print or, more usually, I just didn’t realize that the book was part of a series.

When I picked up The Murderer’s Tale I was aware that it was not the first Dame Frevisse mystery and I did have easy access to those earlier titles in the series. The reason I chose to skip over them though will be an entirely predictable one to those who have followed this blog and taken a moment to consider the title of the book.

Yes, the reason is that The Murderer’s Tale is an inverted mystery (for those who are new to this blog, this is my favorite type of mystery). I am nothing if not predictable.

The novel begins by introducing us to the members of the Knyvet household who are travelling on pilgrimage. The group are led by the wealthy and jovial Lionel Knyvet who enjoys sharing riddles with his fellow travellers. We soon learn that this is just one of many pilgrimages that Lionel has made, hoping to find a cure for what he understands to be a demon (but readers will recognize as epilepsy).

Joining him on this journey is his cousin Giles who possesses a far more sour disposition and clearly resents his cousin’s wealth and being dragged across the country on what he sees as a futile endeavor. He is the heir to the estate and given that Lionel has vowed not to marry because of his condition, he expects to inherit.

Meanwhile Dame Frevisse, a nun at St. Frideswide nunnery agrees to undertake a pilgrimage with Sister Claire. The pair agree to take some papers to the lord at Minster Lovell that relate to a land dispute on behalf of the nunnery and on their journey they meet up with the Knyvet party, travelling with them until they reach the hall.

Okay, so it will come as little surprise that things will turn murderous or that Giles will turn out to be that killer. We share enough of his thoughts from the start of the book to recognize that he is a thoroughly unpleasant man who treats his servants viciously and has little respect for the women around him. He certainly is not treated as a sympathetic killer, particularly given the details of the murder he has planned, and while I did not find the passages from his perspective to be as disturbing to read as, for example, those by Jim Thompson in his inverted story, Pop. 1280, or Roger Bax in Blueprint for Murder, he certainly is not a character you would ever want to meet or interact with.

Though Giles does some interesting things at points in this story, I do not think he is a particularly deep or interesting character. Frazer makes little attempt to explore his deeper motivations or the events in his life that have shaped him into a killer. Instead he arrives already formed with a plan in mind (though we are not party to it) and there is little introspection after the murder. This strikes me as a little disappointing, particularly as there clearly was room in the narrative to feature some developmental moments or reflections.

Given that we already know the killer’s identity, I do not want to share details of what his plan is or how he sets about carrying it out – figuring that out and later how he will be caught is really the mystery here. I can say though that it is quite simple, which is appropriate for the setting, and is not particularly memorable either in its details or in the way it is executed.

While Giles tries to contrive a crime scene that tells a story, Dame Frevisse is unconvinced by some elements and starts asking questions. At this point the reader’s focus shifts to trying to see what aspects of the crime or the killer’s behavior she will spot and be able to use to prove what happened.

Here once again I have to say I was a little disappointed. Dame Frevisse certainly observes several issues with the crime scene and she is able to explain why those inconsistencies matter but because the crime itself is quite simple, the investigation feels similarly shallow. This is not helped by several clues being quite visual in nature and while I could guess how the information might be used, I could not know what exactly could be determined from it.

There are some bright spots however, particularly those in which Dame Frevisse interacts with other characters to discuss Lionel’s condition. It is this aspect of the story that struck me as the most interesting, both in its discussions of how epilepsy was understood in this period and also the way the laws of this period took mental health into account. An author’s note at the end of the recent ebook edition provides a little more information about this.

Similarly, though I found Giles to be a fairly underwhelming creation, I was pretty pleased with Frazer’s characterizations of her other supporting characters. While this book does not boast a big cast of supporting characters, I think they are fairly distinctive figures. For instance, I enjoyed Lionel’s coarse joking and Sister Claire’s worrying about her friend’s meddling. Similarly I like Frevisse herself who is a little quick to speak and I do think Frazer does a good job of conveying her personality and values.

While I did enjoy quite a few elements of this story and would certainly try others in this series, unfortunately I did not find it to be a particularly memorable inverted tale. While the villain of the piece certainly makes an impression as a figure to hate and want to see brought to justice, I longed for a little more depth and background to flesh him out or to allow him a moment where he does something unexpected.

As it is, The Murderer’s Tale is a competent historical story. Those who enjoy exploring a historical period may appreciate its discussions of people’s perceptions of health conditions at that time and the workings of an estate in the lord’s absence but I found the mystery element fairly shallow while the villain sadly underwhelms.

Further Reading

The author shared some notes about this book on her website here. This was the novel that split up a writing partnership and according to this account the process of writing from the murderer’s perspective played a large part in this.

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford

The Darkness Knows
Cheryl Honigford
Originally Published: 2016
Viv and Charlie Mysteries #1
Followed by Homicide for the Holidays

One of the misapprehensions people have about librarians is that we get to read on the job. We really don’t – our days are spent assisting customers, planning programs and sorting out materials. I do however benefit from working with coworkers and customers who share my passion for reading and bring books to my attention I might otherwise have missed.

The Darkness Knows was one such suggestion made by a coworker who knew I had enjoyed other historical mysteries set between the wars. What really attracted me to the book though was that it is set against the backdrop of a 1930s radio studio. I am often drawn to books set within the entertainment industries and hadn’t come across a radio mystery before.

Vivian Witchell is an actress who has recently graduated from playing bit parts to voicing the part of a detective’s sidekick on The Darkness Knows, a popular radio serial. She took over the part from an actress who left to get married and is working hard to prove that she won the job on her merit as an actress as baseless rumors are circulating that she slept with the station manager while working as his secretary.

The murder victim is Marjorie Fox, a veteran actress who is unpopular with her coworkers and prone to drinking heavily. Viv finds her dead in the station’s lounge, beaten over the head with a bottle. When the Police arrive they discover a note with her body that suggests an insane fan may have been involved and that they may also have an interest in Viv.

Charlie Haverman, a Private Eye who is a consultant for the radio show, is hired to protect Viv. While he wants her to stay safe, Viv convinces him that the only way she will be out of danger is if they can locate the killer together and so the pair begin to investigate the case themselves.

The most successful part of The Darkness Knows is its depiction of the world of 1930s radio. Honigford seems to know that world well and includes details that bring it to life, not only in terms of the process of recording but also what it meant to be a radio star in that period in terms of the rivalries that might develop and how publicity was handled (such as the idea of staging dates between co-stars). In that regard I found it to be well-observed and convincing.

The novel’s protagonist, Vivian, is another example of the wealthy woman choosing to live an unconventional lifestyle trope that seems so common in recent historical mysteries. While I quite liked Vivian and certainly did not mind this characterization, I do think it requires some additional explanation or backstory to explain why she doesn’t want to conform to her mother’s plan for her or why she is so attracted to the idea of working in radio.

The second lead, detective Charlie, feels similarly loosely defined for much of the novel though I think his motivations and interests become clearer as the two characters get to know each other. The pair establish a Gable and Colbert-style bickering relationship that is clearly meant to be suggestive of romantic attraction. I am not sure that I found that aspect of their relationship completely convincing yet but I did at least buy Charlie’s jealousy towards another character and I do see the potential there for this relationship to grow in subsequent installments of the series.

The secondary characters make up an interesting mix of radio types. Almost everyone has some reason to dislike Marjorie so most of these characters are potential suspects and while some stand out more than others, I appreciated that the motivations are varied, credible and clear.

Turning to the mystery itself, I think that the initial scenario Honigford crafts is interesting and I appreciated that she provides a strong incentive for Viv to want to investigate what is happening. Similarly I enjoyed much of the process of conducting the investigation, particularly a sequence in which the sleuths snoop around the victim’s home. The action feels pretty varied and I did feel unsure of who the killer would turn out to be for much of the novel.

I was rather less impressed however by the way in which the killer’s identity is revealed as I think an argument might be made that Viv does not really solve the case herself but rather stumbles onto the answer. Much of the solution is gifted to her by the killer and so that solution neither feels fair or completely satisfying for those who want to play along and solve the case for themselves, reading more like an adventure as it reaches its conclusion.

That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked up the book though I was entertained for much of it. The setting is fantastic and while I wanted a little more backstory and character exploration, I did enjoy the time I spent with Viv.

Readers who enjoyed Lawrence H. Levy’s Mary Handley series or Amanda Allen’s Santa Fe Mourning and A Moment in Crime may enjoy this.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday by Peter Lovesey

MadHatters
Mad Hatter’s Holiday
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1973
Inspector Cribb #4
Preceded by Abracadaver
Followed by Invitation to a Dynamite Party

Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb stories hold a special place in this blogger’s affections as a book from that series was the subject of the very first post on this blog. Since then I have reviewed several other titles in the series but given it has been eight months since I last revisited the character I thought it was time to read another in the series.

Mad Hatter’s Holiday begins by introducing us to Albert Moscrop, a young man who has travelled to the seaside to people watch with his telescope and binoculars. During one of his observations he notices a young woman he had encountered briefly and follows her with his lens. He eventually contrives a meeting and introduces himself to her, learning about her husband and children as well as an issue that has been worrying her.

The first third of the novel builds up our understanding of these characters and suggests some points of conflict between them. We may well be wondering what crime is likely to be committed but when this section of the novel ends and Cribb is introduced we have little knowledge of what crime he is investigating, let alone how it relates back to these opening chapters of the novel.

It turns out that a severed arm has been discovered in a reptile display yet there is no sign that this might have been an accident or of the remainder of the body. While it is clear that someone has been killed, the Police have little idea who the body might belong to, let alone who is responsible. Fortunately for him, Mr. Moscrop is keen to share some evidence with him…

One of the joys of Lovesey’s historical mystery writing is his ability to depict and explore some of the more eccentric aspects of life in the period. Previous titles in this series have explored sporting events and the music halls but what this novel does particularly well is to convey the novelty of a spyglass or binoculars would have had at this time. For instance, the other characters are shown as being intrigued to take a look through a lens for themselves and Moscrop is still experimenting with different degrees of magnification.

While the idea of a man using a spyglass to watch people on a beach has uncomfortable and sinister connotations, Lovesey pitches Moscrop as a social introvert whose usual interest is to simply crowdwatch both to test his lenses and to feel that he is among the people. We are told that the intense interest he shows in Mrs Prothero is a new sensation for him and readers may be disturbed by some of his actions in observing and interacting with her. For instance there is a moment early in the novel where he decides to kidnap her unattended infant son to enable him to return the child and gain an introduction.

Moscrop is not intended to be the story’s hero however and once Cribb arrives he serves a different role within the novel, providing some of the information he has gathered to the police to help with their inquiries. They, understandably, are uncertain how to interpret his actions and behavior and consider him a suspect in that investigation.

The Protheros prove an interesting bunch. Dr. Prothero, for instance, is a vocal proponent of many of the medical ideas of his day and has an obsession with the idea that swimming in the sea is dangerous to one’s health. His son is fifteen but speaks like an adult and has little time for his stepmother who, we learn, is Dr. Prothero’s third wife. As for their nursemaid, Dr. Prothero insisted on her appointment and will not consider dismissing her, even though she is often inattentive in her care for their infant son.

In my review of Lovesey’s previous Cribb novel, Abracadaver, I felt that the characters of Cribb and Thackeray benefited from being introduced at the start. This novel keeps them back with the consequence that Lovesey has to reestablish them at the moment at which we are learning about the crime, slowing down that section of the story. One pleasant aspect of this choice however is that the reader is able to draw upon what they have already learned from following Moscrop to make some assumptions about what the crime will be.

We soon learn that Cribb and Thackeray have been called in to investigate a severed arm found in the alligator enclosure at the aquarium. As Thackeray notes this is even less to go on than in a previous case where they had to work with a headless body. In spite of this, even before Moscrop shares his account with them they have already deduced quite a few things from this section of a body, if not its identity, demonstrating their abilities as detectives.

Those who have not read a Cribb story before may be surprised at the rather leisurely pacing of the investigation but I consider that part of these stories’ charm. Cribb has a rather relaxed, some might say lazy, approach to policing and tends to allow things to play out, only swooping into action when he perceives someone to be in danger or that the criminal might get away.

That is not to say however that Cribb is inactive in this investigation. One of my favorite sequences in the novel takes place in a bathhouse where Cribb is attempting to speak with one of the suspects and even when he doesn’t care to act himself he is more than willing to volunteer Constable Thackeray’s help. Several of those moments are very funny and help establish these characters for those who are not already familiar with them.

The solution Lovesey creates is quite clever and aspects of it are well-clued though I would argue that one part of the puzzle is rather too technical to be considered fair play. It is debatable however and some might argue that Lovesey does give a hint about the nature of the specialist knowledge one might need to work it out. It is, ultimately, only one element of a much bigger and rather satisfying mystery puzzle.

Perhaps the most baffling thing about the book is its rather odd title which conjures up images of Alice in Wonderland, reinforced by a Tenniel illustration appearing on the cover of my recent edition of the book. There are not only no Carroll references, there is also a striking absence of hats. The title appears to come from a line of dialogue in the second half of the book but even that is questionable because that line feels jammed in as if to justify the title. It is a minor thing but the title set the wrong expectations for me and I will admit to being a little disappointed that it really has no relationship to the content.

So, where does that leave me on Mad Hatter’s Holiday? I found aspects of the story and particularly of the historical setting to be very interesting and I appreciated Lovesey’s ability to play off and subvert some of the reader’s expectations about what had happened. It is not the best Cribb story I have read but it is certainly not the worst and while I will always begrudge a late introduction for Cribb and Thackeray they are at least used effectively once they do appear.

A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill

Prophets
A Decline in Prophets
Sulari Gentill
Originally Published 2011
Rowland Sinclair #2
Preceded by A Few Right Thinking Men
Followed by Miles Off Course

A Decline in Prophets is the second in Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series set in Australia in the early 1930s. When I read and reviewed the first story, A Few Right Thinking Men, I liked it a lot. The characters were enjoyable and the historical background to the case was fascinating. My only reservation in recommending it on this blog was that I felt the mystery element felt a little too straightforward.

One thing I should warn readers about up front is that this book reveals elements of the conclusion of the previous story. I have kept discussion of those specific elements out of this review to try to avoid spoiling anyone.

The book picks up shortly after the first left off with Rowland and his friends embarking on a world cruise. Among their fellow passengers are a collection of prominent Theosophists and an Irish Catholic bishop and his retinue.

One evening Rowland spots one of the male passengers aggressively propositioning his friend Edna and the men come to blows. When the man is found dead in the early hours of the next morning with Rowland’s walking stick embedded in his neck he finds himself inevitably under suspicion for murder.

The detective as chief suspect trope is not a favorite of mine so I was quite happy that the author acknowledges it but quickly moves past it, using it as an opportunity to show Rowland’s intelligence and reasoning. He demonstrates how the evidence suggests that he was not involved but while he is curious about the crime, for the first half of the novel he is not actively investigating the death.

These chapters are spent amassing information as we are introduced to the cast of characters which blends real historical figures with possible suspects. In my review of A Few Right Thinking Men I praised the way Gentill achieves this and I think her work here is equally impressive. While readers will likely work out which of the characters are real historical figures it is not because of any difference in the quality of characterization or dialogue.

Further crimes occur while aboard the ship with one incident in particular prompting Rowland to become more involved in discovering what is going on once they dock. As interesting as some of these incidents were, I preferred the second half of the book which mixes more direct investigation with a dose of Sinclair family drama.

Some of the novel’s strongest and most entertaining moments actually do not involve the crimes at all but the tension in the relationship between Rowland and his elder brother Wilfred who disapproves of Rowly’s bohemian lifestyle and friends. Many of these scenes are quite humorous such as an extended sporting sequence but there are also a couple of strongly emotional moments that give the relationship a good sense of balance.

That is not to say however that the mystery elements of the novel dissatisfy and I would suggest that this second Rowland Sinclair novel is actually a more complex and interesting case than his first. While I was disappointed that the solution to that puzzle was quite straightforward, this case is more complex and challenging.

The actual solution is quite complicated but I think it is explained well. Gentill makes it easy to understand the sequence of events that take place and the connections between them. I might question whether one key visual clue in the deductive chain could be noticed by the reader but I think that for the most part it plays fair.

While I enjoyed the book a lot, I should acknowledge that there are a few moments that feel quite extraneous to the plot and that some may feel is padding. I referenced the polo match above which was probably my favorite moment in the novel but there are others including a subplot where Wilfred’s wife is trying to set Rowland up with a friend of hers that perhaps do not add much to our understanding of the plot or these characters.

When I reviewed the first novel in this series I commented that while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it felt more like a piece of historical fiction than a mystery novel. This second installment does address that problem, developing a more complex plot than the predecessor while keeping its historical themes simpler, requiring less explanation and context. I still appreciated learning about theosophy and the lives of the historical figures depicted who I thought were interesting and depicted convincingly.

A Decline in Prophets is entertaining, lively and often quite charming. Its characters are memorable while the murders are genuinely puzzling. While I think on balance I enjoyed A Few Right Thinking Men more, I do feel that this is the superior mystery. Because it spoils the first novel I would not suggest jumping in with this one but for those that are curious I would certainly recommend taking a look.