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.

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.