Originally published 1937 Anthony Bathurst #20 Preceded by Fear and Trembling Followed by Cold Evil
Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.
Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?
Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.
I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.
While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.
This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.
It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?
One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.
I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.
A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.
I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.
I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.
Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.
Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!
TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.
Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.
A Cataloguing Note
For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.
Everyone agreed Evelyn Marsh wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned. Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” The rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in that first line. A psychological character study, it’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it.
A lot of the elements used are familiar but Clemens combines them skillfully and executes them well.
Evelyn Marsh begins with the title character accidentally committing what is described as a murder. In actual fact she has unintentionally killed a gopher that was menacing her garden. While that may read like the literary equivalent of a clickbait headline, the use of the word ‘murder’ is both clever and useful as it tells us a lot about Evelyn as a character and her values.
This is important because Evelyn Marsh is, at its heart, a character study. What it is principally interested in and what it teases so effectively in its first line is how a woman can go from crying over a dead animal and insisting on giving it a burial to committing a second, deliberate murder. The victim’s identity is unknown both to the reader and to Evelyn at this point in the novel so we follow along as we see her interact with other characters, see potential triggers and situations being created and wonder exactly what will be the moment that will send her over the edge. In short, we are looking an example of the whydunit style of inverted mystery.
Looked at it from the outside, Evelyn Marsh’s life is enviable. She lives in a gorgeous home, her husband earns a comfortable salary from the law practice he took on from her father meaning she wants for little and she has recently begun to exhibit and sell her artwork – something that brings her great pleasure, even if the financial rewards of that so far have been relatively modest. She however perceives that life slightly differently, particularly her marriage which has become cold since the children left home.
In the early chapters of the novel, Clemens carefully establishes each aspect of her life and several of the relationships that are most important to her. The reader may perceive some familiar storytelling seeds being sewn that suggest how the story will take its turn but because there are several such strands, it is not obvious which will be the ultimate trigger. Nor are those threads as predictable as they initially appear – Clemens overlaps some of those storylines, leading them to impact on each other which pushes the work into some less expected directions as Evelyn plans and executes her murder and responds to an investigation.
Unusually for this sort of story, I found the act of murder to be the least compelling aspect of the book. It is, of course, necessary and it has been planned but after chapters of building anticipation, the act itself happens quickly, as does the staging of the scene, and before you know it we have moved onto the investigative portion of the book. This is not a bad thing however because it is this final section of the book that feels the most engaging and interesting.
Where the early part of the book dealt with familiar ideas and story beats, albeit presenting them with twists, this final section feels like it is doing its own thing. It manages to do so with a focus on character with each new development seeming to probe and illustrate different aspects of Evelyn’s personality and we see her undergo a sort of transformation as a result.
Having diverged from the more familiar plot points and beats of the inverted crime story by this point, we find ourselves in rather unexpected territory about just how each of the plot threads will be resolved. I found this to be quite exciting and enjoyed following the path of the investigation and trying to predict how the story might end. I was not disappointed with that conclusion which not only felt interesting on a character level, it also felt like a satisfying final statement on the book’s central themes.
Overall I enjoyed Evelyn Marsh a lot and found it to be a clever psychological exploration of how a woman comes to commit a murder. While many of the ingredients will be familiar, Clemens combines them in unexpected ways to produce a character-driven story that exceeded my expectations.
Originally published in 1933 Superintendent Wilson #10 Preceded by A Lesson in Crime Followed by Death in the Quarry
It is said that dead men tell no tales, but sometimes sudden death is the means of bringing well-hidden tales to light. It is so in this story; for out of the seemingly accidental death of the unknown old man who called on Philip Blakeway at Hampstead comes the clearing-up of an old crime. How Captain John Jay really died, how Ann Burton set out to look for her missing father, and how Superintendent Wilson unravelled the tangle, you will read in this book, in which you will find not only a detective story in Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s best manner, but also another example of their habit of writing about people who behave like real men and women, and not merely figures whom the author moves about at his pleasure.
An intriguing inverted story scenario is spoiled by a dull investigation and a lack of interest in exploring the character of its killer. Ends strong but takes too long getting there.
After several years of financial worries, Philip Blakeway seems to finally be living comfortably. He has married a wealthy widow who is able to keep him and sustain his business, though he could easily afford to live a life of leisure. Even her children’s lack of warmth towards him does not seem to seriously bother him and he hopes to make some progress with his relationship with her son while she is away for a few days.
All that comfort seems to evaporate however when he spots a seafaring man at a religious gathering while out on a walk – a situation that becomes even more worrying when that man follows him home and asks for an audience. Blakeway asks for the man to be shown into his library and gives the servants the night off, even though he will be having a few friends over later that evening. He goes ahead with the party as planned, staging a scene where he happens upon the mariner robbing his bedroom and they struggle, causing the mariner’s gun to go off and kill him. We know however that this is murder – what we do not know is why Philip felt driven to commit the act.
I first learned about this book several months ago in the chapter on Inverted Mysteries in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. While Edwards’ short essay on the book is not exactly glowing, he describes it as ‘good enough’ to make it feel disappointing that the authors did not return to the form. Always keen to try a new author’s take on this type of story, particularly those from the Golden Age, I couldn’t resist snapping up a copy. I am pretty sure I did so before I even finished the article.
The book gets off to a strong start with a chapter that establishes Blakeway and his new lifestyle. While it is quite clear that we are not given the full story and that secrets are lurking in his past, this chapter does help to give us a sense of the man and what he values. It also goes some way to laying the foundations for the later revelations about his past and his relationship to the man who will be murdered.
By choosing to give us this introduction and the events leading up to the meeting with the victim at his home before jumping forwards a few hours, picking up the story at the moment of the shooting, the authors add an additional layer of mystery to the proceedings. We can infer from the circumstances of that meeting that the victim posed some sort of threat to Blakeway and his security yet we do not know the nature of that threat or whether those secrets truly died with the mariner. Nor do we really know much about the victim himself beyond a physical description and our knowledge of the fear he creates in Blakeway. In short, this choice to not show us exactly what happened works pretty well to build a sense of uncertainty and emphasize that the book’s central questions relate to the relationship between those two men.
We then follow Blakeway as he answers police questions and then receives a blackmail request. This is a relatively common plot point in this sort of mystery and it often inspires additional plot developments but here the authors do not really exploit it. After being raised near the start of the novel, this plot point really slips out of view to the extent that, when it was referenced again late in the book it had completely slipped from my mind.
The reason it slipped my mind and struck me as pretty unimportant reflects that the bulk of the novel feels really rather unstructured. While we might think of those middle chapters of the novel as showing how Blakeway responds to some external pressures, the story seems to ooze towards its conclusion rather than feel like it is being driven towards it. There is a sense of a building series of pressures but no sense of an antagonist for Blakeway to pitch his wits against or the need to construct a cover-up. While that may be realistic, it does not make for particularly compelling storytelling. The entry of Superintendent Wilson late in the day does little to help this.
Martin Edwards describes him as dull and I cannot really disagree. His role in this story is fairly minimal, reflecting that he is brought into the affair late in the day, but he does not have much personality or bring much force to bear on the investigation. He really just works out a probable (and correct) explanation from a distance. Even that however feels rather anticlimactic and, once again, it never feels as if he is engaged with the other characters in the story.
While the process of getting to the explanation is rather dry, the content of that explanation is rather more interesting. I was certainly surprised to learn one element motivating the crime which is fairly clued and was intrigued to see how another character would respond. It sets up an interesting final few chapters that feel less predictable than what has come before while not losing sight of the characters or the relationships that had been established earlier in the novel.
As interesting as the start and end of the novel are, I feel that I cannot really recommend it. It is not just that the plotting is sometimes a little loose with some elements, like the threat of blackmail, being raised but then forgotten for much of the story. I think the problems lie in the choice to prevent the reader from really getting to know Blakeway. Following the murder he seems emotionally remote, even when we are being shown how he is responding to events. That works in terms of sustaining the mystery about why he has resorted to murder but it does mean that for much of the book the character feels more like a cipher than a fully-dimensional person and I think it kept me from really caring about his fate.
Have you read anything by the Coles? If so, what is your opinion of their writing? Are there any books you would recommend to me?
Originally published in 1981. Also published as Death of a Perfect Mother.
At the very moment that Lill Hodsden was describing her two sons (‘We think the world of each other: they’d do anything for me’) Gordon and his brother Brian were plotting darkly at home.
Next Saturday, on her way back from the pub, they planned a sharp blow on the back of Lill’s head and maybe a twist of rope around her throat. What a beautiful empty future they would have!
But Lill’s garrotted body was discovered two days early on Thursday night. Gordon and Brian were incredulous that someone else had got there first for a bizarre twist of fate was going to bring the mother’s boys full circle…
Unpleasant with a predictable conclusion that is clearly meant to surprise. I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon…
Lill Hodsden is regarded as common and cheap by most of the inhabitants of Todmarsh. Her husband, Fred, is oblivious to her carrying on with other men and to the presents she has received in return for her favors and seems to not care about her controlling behavior. Her sons however deeply resent it and worry that she will never let go of them and allow them to become independent.
One day Gordon, the eldest son, suggests to his brother Brian that they should kill her. Brian, assuming he is joking, plays along only to find that he is serious. After talking it over they develop a plan and test some elements. Then just two days before they were to go through with the deed she is found garrotted in the very alley they had planned to commit the murder in.
I actually picked up Mother’s Boy in error after finding a copy of the blurb that omitted the last paragraph. Assuming that this would be a straightforward inverted mystery, I got hold of a copy only to find as I was partway through that other suspects were appearing, each with their own deepset grudges against Lill. Still, even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting I decided to press on with it and see it to its conclusion.
I rather wish I hadn’t bothered.
Mother’s Boys is a depressing read that lacks wit and contains several depictions of various -isms that were made for uncomfortable reading, even though I perceive the author’s intent was to critique those small-minded attitudes. Certainly those opinions tend to come out of the mouths of characters who are established as nasty pieces of work. Which turns out to be just about everyone, making for some quite depressing reading at times.
Unfortunately however I think those efforts to satirize or illustrate those racist attitudes are undermined by the attempt to comically describe the fictional island that the book’s black character came from in terms of savagery (they have, of course, recently been cannibals and plump tourists still occasionally go missing) and ignorance (they have mistakenly come to believe George Eliot a Christian saint based on a missionary’s book collection). It is a frustrating choice because, if that was not there, I might well be lauding the author’s efforts to address racism, both spoken and unspoken, in society.
The book has other, more structural issues however that are evident right from its first chapter. This book has to do something that is quite difficult – convince us that two sons, who are believed to dote on their mother, would negotiate and conspire a murder plan in a single conversation. This might have been set up by an obvious pressure point on that relationship such as a particular slight given or a specific provocation but instead it is brought up quite bluntly and with no build up at all. This renders the whole conversation unnervingly neat and artificial which might not be a problem if the whole book was written in that style. The problem is that it really doesn’t sit comfortably with the social realism approach adopted in almost every other aspect of the novel. Accordingly it feels quite forced, as though the author is simply setting up the chess board to favor the moves they intend to make.
In addition the plan they devise is in no way creative or devious. It simply amounts to making it appear that they are both in a busy pub while one slips a short distance away to carry out the crime and returns. There is so little about this that is unique or interesting that I was actually relatively relieved when the author began to introduce some other suspects. My hope was that even if this wasn’t the inverted masterpiece I hoped for, maybe we would get a good detective story out of this setup instead.
Here Barnard at least sets up some promising possibilities as we see Lill manage to aggravate almost everyone in her community in the hours leading up to her murder in different ways. There is a pretty diverse set of motives to consider and by the time you get to that murder the reader will likely be relieved that they will no longer have to spend any more time in Lill’s obnoxious company.
It is easy to understand why Lill upsets so many people. Her behavior is loud, crude and overly familiar, lacking the sorts of boundaries that help people navigate social situations. Barnard seems to imply that there is some classist snobbery on display in others’ responses to her. We notice that other characters are just as forward, just as insensitive or interfering and yet they do not inspire quite the same level of ire as Lill. I think this idea is interesting and yet, because it is never directly addressed in the narration it is not clear if it is intentional or if I have simply read it into the text. I rather hope it is the former.
One aspect of the work that Barnard definitely intends is to present his detectives as impatient for results and judgmental towards the people they are speaking with. This is not unique to this work but I think it works particularly well here, especially given those other themes I found in the book. This not only adds to those themes within the novel, it also leads to the investigation developing rather atypically as the reader cannot be sure whether they will find the truth or not.
But that brings me to the novel’s biggest problems which, rather unfortunately, all lie with the book’s solution. To start with, the mystery is not exactly a carefully plotted puzzle. The detectives never really get into the matter of analyzing characters’ movements. Indeed most of the suspects are simply identified as possible based on their motive. This undermines the reader’s ability to process this as a puzzle mystery – we end the case simply without knowing much about the suspects.
At the same time, there is one solution that actually stands out as being quite obvious. I do not consider myself as being particularly brilliant or inspired for reaching it early in the book and later developments clearly seem to confirm it. It is simply that there is never any serious attempt made to make that conclusion seem impossible, almost as if the author considered it so brilliant that he assumed no one could possibly conceive of it. I might almost wonder if that was deliberate except the ending is so clearly framed as though it were a surprise that it appears the author must have believed he had hidden the signs hinting at it.
So rather unfortunately I found myself quite frustrated by this book. Barnard creates some striking and vivid characters and the themes it develops are interesting but the mystery feels unfocused and the tone feels inconsistent. I have several other books by Barnard in my TBR pile so I am sure I will give him another try but this experience doesn’t leave me excited. If anyone has any Barnard suggestions however I would be happy to receive them!
When his father dies, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly rich and trendy London neighborhood. Cash poor, Carl rents the upstairs room and kitchen to the first person he interviews, Dermot McKinnon. That is mistake number one. Mistake number two is keeping the bizarre collection of homeopathic and alternative “cures” that his father left in the medicine cabinet, including a stash of controversial diet pills. Mistake number three is selling fifty of those diet pills to a friend, who is then found dead.
Dermot seizes a nefarious opportunity and begins to blackmail Carl, refusing to pay rent, and creepily invading Carl’s space. Ingeniously weaving together two storylines that finally merge in a shocking turn, Ruth Rendell describes one man’s spiral into darkness—and murder—as he falls victim to a diabolical foe he cannot escape.
An interesting exploration of how a character can find themselves trapped in a situation where they feel murder is the only way out.
Carl Martin has just published his first novel when he makes the fateful choice to offer the upstairs rooms to let. He accepts the very first offer on the room from Dermot, an assistant at a vet’s clinic, and is looking forward to getting some extra income to tide him over while he works on his new book.
Carl’s friend Stacey is worried about whether some recent weight gain will keep her from getting more acting roles. She spots some pills that had belonged to Carl’s deceased father and offers him fifty pounds for them which he accepts. When she is found dead in her flat and the pills are identified as the cause of death Carl feels terrible but his situation gets worse when Dermot lets him know he witnessed the transaction and would like to renegotiate the terms of his tenancy…
Dark Corners was published a short time after Rendell’s death and contains many of the hallmarks of her approach to the inverted crime story. Instead of focusing on a single, terrible decision in a character’s life we see it as an escalation of bad choices made under increasing pressure. Carl does not begin the book as a bad man – he is simply an increasingly desperate one who finds himself in a situation where he has no way out.
Rendell handles this character study very well and the reader may well find themselves experiencing some amount of empathy for Carl, at least at some points in the story. One reason for this is that Carl clearly never intends any harm to his friend who asks for the pills. The other is that Dermot is shown to be a hypocrit who is enjoying being able to exert power over someone else. As Carl’s life becomes harder and harder, readers are likely going to understand why he feels under enormous pressure and why his options feel so limited.
What I think makes Carl such an interesting figure is that he could so clearly be anyone. Looking at comments on Goodreads a common complaint about the book from readers is that he could easily have had a different outcome if he had responded differently to Dermot’s threats, yet I feel that is the whole point of the book. If you consider them at the moment he makes them, his decisions appear quite reasonable and typically the least painful of the options he has on offer. It is only because we have the distance and are not personally involved that we can also see how he is working himself into an impossible corner.
Dermot is similarly quite an intriguing character being portrayed more as odd than dangerous. In some respects he is reminiscent of Arthur, the serial killer in A Demon in My View. He is socially awkward, fixated on particular aspects of an interaction and suffering from an inferiority complex. I found Dermot a consistently credible and well-observed creation and had no difficulty at all in picturing him or believing in his choices.
While the main plotline of the book feels compelling and credible, it can be harder to see the point of some of the secondary plots. One of these involves Tom, an older man who has started to ride around London using his free bus pass on the various routes as a hobby. I thought that this is an interesting idea and appreciated how well-observed this character seems yet this thread never connects back to the main story at all.
Another involves Lizzie, a young woman who is secretly staying in the victim’s apartment and taking her things. This at least feels better linked to the main plot and while it seems to pull away from the Carl and Dermot story. If it is a less compelling story than Carl’s it reflects that the other characters involved in that storyline feel rather more functional, lacking much of the dimension that she or Dermot have.
Though it may appear that Lizzie’s storyline also feels like a distraction from the main thrust of the plot I feel that this thread develops some similar ideas to those found in Carl’s. Hers is also a story about the consequences of decisions taken and while I feel that there is not quite enough payoff for the story thread as it develops, I do think it complements that main storyline.
It is that development of theme that I find to be the most successful aspect of this novel. Rendell’s most central characters feel credible and well-observed and I found the slow escalation of a situation to be quite compelling. While it is perhaps not as tidily plotted as some of her best work, the character development and exploration of a situation were more than enough to keep me engaged.
Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010 Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann. All episodes written by Neil Cross.
Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.
Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast
When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.
Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.
The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.
After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.
Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.
I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.
The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.
Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.
While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.
Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!
Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.
As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.
Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.
A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.
After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.
The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.
Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.
I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.
While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.
The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.
A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…
Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.
Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.
The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.
Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.
An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.
With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.
The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.
Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.
Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.
The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.
The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.
I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).
Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤 English language translation published in 2020 Prior to the release of the translation this book’s title was more often translated as Seven Years of Night and the film adaptation had a limited release in the US under that title.
A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.
At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.
When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.
For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.
This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.
Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.
We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.
Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.
I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.
Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.
I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.
There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.
The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.
The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.
The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.
I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.
I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…
Originally published as 告白 in 2008 English language translation published in 2014
HER PUPILS KILLED HER DAUGHTER. NOW, SHE WILL HAVE HER REVENGE.
After calling off her engagement in wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.
But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.
A powerful, fascinating and utterly devastating read. The subject matter is much darker than I typically like but it is handled very well.
Kanae Minato’s Confessions begins with Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school homeroom teacher, addressing her class. She informs them that she will be retiring from the profession and describes how and why she has come to that decision. The students are already aware that her four year-old daughter Manami had been found drowned several weeks earlier in the school’s swimming pool. What really shocks them is when she tells them that two of their number were responsible for the death. As she puts it, two of them murdered her daughter.
This chapter, delivered in the second person as though speaking to the whole class, outlines what Yuko has discovered in her investigation. She doesn’t directly name names, though the identities of students A and B are easily inferred and confirmed in the following chapter, but she takes us through the core events that led to these two teenagers killing her daughter. Her account is extremely thorough though the one thing it misses is an understanding of why the murder happened.
The subsequent chapters are each told from the perspectives of other characters including, eventually, the two boys in question. An effect of telling the story from these multiple perspectives is that it feels like we are circling ever more tightly around the explanation, getting closer to an understanding with each fresh perspective until we finally hear from the chief instigator himself and see exactly why he wanted to commit such an appalling crime.
The book’s title, Confessions, is extremely apt. Each of the chapters is told in a slightly different style though in the second person. The intended audience is different each time – one account is written as a letter, another a diary, another a spoken confessional with the last being a blog entry. This gives the text a really direct feeling, involving the reader in the events and making them feel that the two guilty boys might be someone we know or that we might be complicit in some of what happened.
This second person approach is unusual in books for a reason. It is extremely difficult to do well and sustain but the creation of these multiple viewpoints makes it work. It is particularly effective when read aloud so I can certainly recommend the audiobook version of this book which is read by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin. That first chapter in particular feels quite arresting and while I wish a different narrator had been used for each chapter to really drive home the effect, I think simply having a male and female reader works well enough and both performers read skillfully.
While there is a certain amount of revisiting of the same events, these multiple perspectives are skillfully crafted to avoid repeating points too frequently. Events are often discussed tangentially or reframed as parts of different discussions based on what is most important to that character. To give an example, four of the accounts mention an incident in which Yuko had refused to buy an item for her daughter and yet only her own account describes that exchange. The others pass judgment or see an opportunity in that moment but without recapping most of what actually happened.
These chapters flesh out motivations and our understanding of each of the characters. In some cases we can see how and why one character comes to believe or interpret an event in a particular way, even though we possess information that would suggest something different. The strongest examples of this come in a chapter narrated by the mother of one of the boys which is full of statements that fundamentally misinterpret what she is witnessing. The reader has information that she does not which allows us to see the flaw in her thinking, but those flawed assumptions are just as important to our understanding of what happened as the truth.
Confessions does not encourage us to have any sympathy at all for these two boys. What they do is awful and terribly upsetting. I have mentioned before that I find stories featuring violence towards children difficult to read and this was no exception, probably explaining why it has sat for quite some time on my TBR pile. I expected to find this a difficult read and it was. There are no happy endings here which is appropriate – if there were it would feel horribly contrived or misjudging of the mood – and I think the reader may well reach the end and question whether every action taken was appropriate. Whether there was any justice, if not, and whether there could have been any justice.
These two boys are clearly to blame for what happened and yet what this book does encourage us to do is see the forces that made them who they are. After learning the facts of the case we see how easily this scenario could have turned out very differently. Their guilt does not preclude the possibility that others may be guilty too.
Nor are there any heroes. I can think of just two characters depicted in a positive or noble light. One is the murdered daughter Manami who is a very typical four year old – occasionally petulant or naughty but also sweet and loving. The other is a man who remains in the background throughout the story, frequently referred to but never really active in what goes on. Everyone else we encounter is rendered in shades of grey and be prepared – Minato presses down pretty hard with her pencil at times to give us some pretty dark renderings.
In addition to exploring the characters she creates, Minato also explores a variety of themes relating to justice, punishment, parenthood, collective responsibility and the glorification of criminals. While the details of these issues are often specific to Japan, the broader discussions are universal and I think most readers will be able to draw easy parallels to similar issues or cases in their own cultural experience.
The one theme that may be less accessible to western readers is its discussion of hikikomori, adolescent and adult shut-ins and, in particular, the way society perceives that group. I think Minato describes the anxiety and social judgment around this topic well enough that readers who are unfamiliar with the idea will get the jist of what is being discussed but some may find it helpful though to have an understanding of the term to better understand that anxiety and characters’ responses to it given how important it is to the second and third chapters of the book. This 15 minute English-language report from France24 offers a basic overview, as does this much shorter overview from Crunchyroll aimed at anime viewers.
This richness of theme coupled with interesting and complicated characters makes for a really potent read that left me rather shaken. Indeed I can’t help but note that it has taken me longer to write my thoughts about the book than it took me to read it – a mark of when a book has really made an impression on me. It is in my opinion a rather fine example of the whydunnit type of inverted mystery story, exploring how multiple influences can come together to create a truly devastating situation.
Confessions will not be for everyone. It is a really dark book that offers no hope or positivity for the reader to really grasp onto. At its end I was left feeling uncomfortable and terribly sad about what I had just read. Still, in spite of that darkness and that sadness, I think the book was fundamentally about something big and important: our notion of justice, punishment and how we choose to assign blame for crime. This book does not offer answers but it does pose some difficult questions that will linger with me for some time to come.
Written by Steven Bochco from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link Directed by Robert Butler
Key Guest Cast
Martin Landau, playing dual roles here, had appeared in the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible as a master of disguise. Years earlier he had played his first film role as a criminal type in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Julie Newmar had made a splash in the first two seasons of the Batman TV series playing Catwoman. Here she plays the young woman set to marry the victim and who has the misfortune of finding the body.
Finally Dabney Coleman, playing a detective here and sporting a gloriously seventies moustache, is most memorable for me in his role as the arrogant, sexist boss Franklin Hart, Jr. in 9 to 5.
This episode breaks with the formula by introducing a whodunnit angle. I am not convinced that works but the performances are a lot of fun.
Double Shock opens with the murder of an aging, wealthy man on the eve of his wedding. After a fencing session the man retires to take a long soak in the tub. During that soak he is greeted by his nephew (played by Martin Landau) who comes to present him with a wedding present – an electric mixer. What we know but the victim doesn’t is that this mixer has been tampered with to enable it to deliver a fatal electric shock when thrown into the bathtub.
A short while later the bride-to-be arrives at the house to see the victim and discovers his body, now positioned on a moving exercise machine in his home gym. It appears that he had suffered a heart attack while exercising but when Columbo arrives at the house his thoughts soon turn to homicide…
Double Shock was the final episode of the second season of Columbo but it was more than that. It was the first episode that seemed to significantly diverge from the show’s standard formula to incorporate elements of the most traditional whodunnit format.
Now you may be questioning how this story could possibly be a whodunnit given that we clearly see the murderer perform the fatal act. The reason is that Martin Landau is playing identical twin brothers and so while the victim identifies him as one of the brothers, there is the possibility that the man we see could have been the other. Columbo will only reveal which of the brothers was responsible at the end of the story so the viewer has an opportunity to piece the solution together for themselves.
Let’s start with Landau’s performances because I think the whole piece really relies heavily on them. Landau does a really good job of distinguishing between the two brothers, creating quite distinct personalities for them. Norman is a rather formal, awkward banking type who protests his innocence based on having his own personal wealth. Dexter is a much more relaxed TV chef, irresponsible but rather charming. Even though the brothers may share a face, their posture and manner feels quite different from one another.
We hear how the brothers have not spoken for years and see their mutual disdain for each other come through at frequent points in Columbo’s investigation. Each takes the opportunity to gleefully throw suspicion on the other, revealing their secrets and generally causing trouble. While we have seen other stories where killers have cosied up to Columbo to try and steer his investigation, this does raise the tantalizing possibility that some of what they are saying may actually be true, particularly as they stand to inherit the whole estate if the other gets convicted of murder.
Peter Falk is once again in superb form here, delivering what is probably my favorite of his performances in this second season. One of his best scenes is shared with Landau’s Dexter as he finds himself called on to come and assist with a cooking demonstration on television. This scene is wonderful, feeling very loose and almost improvised in some of the delivery of the lines. This is, of course, a version of the scene in which Columbo gets things slightly wrong to get under the skin of the person he is interacting with but the introduction of a camera and a studio audience proves a really interesting twist and I loved watching Landau to see if there were signs of irritation or frustration showing on his character.
Falk also gets to shine in a series of scenes featuring Jeanette Nolan as the neatnik housekeeper, Mrs. Peck. He initially gets on her bad side when he first arrives at the crime scene, quite understandably based on his behavior. It is the subsequent business involving the television set, which becomes a running gag later in the episode, that really delivers the laughs and I think goes some way to suggest that his clumsiness and buffoonery isn’t all an act. They share a marvellous comedic chemistry together and I do love that in spite of their antagonism, you can see that he is able to appeal to her love of her deceased master and her desire to see his killer brought to justice.
There are a few good twists in the middle of the story, one of which caught me quite off guard and had me wondering just how the killer’s plans might be affected. This in combination with the Lieutenant’s antics with the television set make for a pretty engaging episode that had no difficulty retaining my attention. Which I guess brings me to the crucial question: does the whodunnit work?
I suppose I should start by saying that in one sense it did because I managed to work out the question of who was responsible. While I suspect some would consider my method to be focused more on analysing the story structure rather than any particular piece of evidence, I do think the viewer is given enough information to deduce the key points of the solution. Indeed, if there is a problem with the solution it is that I think that the writing is a little heavy-handed on one point (ROT-13: Nal gvzr lbh ercrngrqyl gryy zr gung crbcyr unira’g gnyxrq va lrnef, V nz tbvat gb fhfcrpg gung V nz orvat znavchyngrq. Abe qbrf vg uryc gung gur zvahgr V frr gjvaf V guvax bs gur cbffvovyvgl bs vqragvgl-fjnccvat).
Given that I expected the conclusion, I cannot really say that I found it to be particularly shocking or amazing. The performances in that scene are excellent though, particularly given Landau is pulling double-duty, and I thought the process by which Columbo shows what happened was worked extremely well. I particularly appreciate that one of the most telling clues is actually allowed to sit in the background for much of that sequence, only being raised to drive home the point Columbo is making.
So, did Columbo miss a trick by not incorporating whodunnit elements more often? I don’t think so. Firstly, this episode rests on the gimmick of having identical twin suspects – clearly not something that could happen every week. Secondly I just don’t think the question of which brother was responsible was all that effective as a whodunnit. While they are distinct personalities, the tension between them is more interesting because they are responsible for it rather than Columbo playing them off against each other. Indeed, while Falk’s performance is really entertaining here he does seem to be playing a more passive role in the investigation than usual.
Still, even if this didn’t work for me as a whodunnit, I still found it to be a highly entertaining hour of television that I consider one of the stronger entries in the show’s second season. As I did when I reached the end of the first season, I plan on taking a few weeks break from the series so expect something quite different next Saturday!
At the age of twelve, Eve Black was the only member of her family to survive an encounter with serial attacker the Nothing Man. Now an adult, she is obsessed with identifying the man who destroyed her life.
Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle has just started reading The Nothing Man—the true-crime memoir Eve has written about her efforts to track down her family’s killer. As he turns each page, his rage grows. Because Jim’s not just interested in reading about the Nothing Man. He is the Nothing Man.
Jim soon begins to realize how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first …
A clever premise elevates this serial killer tale though I found the survivor a much more compelling character than her tormentor.
I think I have mentioned before that serial killer stories aren’t usually my sort of thing. I am not sure if it reflects that they are often more graphically violent or that the motivations to kill are often weaker and rather repetitive but I rarely seek these sorts of stories out.
There are, of course, a few exceptions though. I suppose several of Jim Thompson’s stories would technically constitute serial killer stories and yet I have happily sought those out. I suspect that reflects that I find the characters to be quite rich and that character’s perspective is usually shared with the reader. I also enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View which closely follows the character of a retired serial killer. It is primarily then with that interest in stories that follow the killer that I picked up a copy of Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest book The Nothing Man after reading a review of it a week or two ago on Puzzle Doctor’s excellent blog In Search of the Classic Mystery.
The Nothing Man was a serial killer who was responsible for a series of rapes and murders in County Cork at the start of the twenty first century. This series of killing culminated in the murder of two parents and one child in their home with one survivor, Eve, who was also a child at the time. No one was ever caught and the Gardai never had any strong leads as to the killer’s identity. Years later she decides to write a book about her experiences and those of the other victims in the hope that it might reignite interest in the case and lead to the killer’s capture.
Supermarket security guard Jim was the Nothing Man. He is shocked one day when he sees customers carrying books about the murders he carried out and realizing that he may be in danger, he acquires a copy and settles down to read Eve’s account to see exactly what she remembers.
Howard utilizes a story within a story framing structure, going so far as to reproduce a book cover and copyright page for Eve’s book within her own to add to the illusion. We get big chunks of that book reproduced here, not only presenting us with some of the facts about those murders but also introducing us to the character of Eve and describing how the events affected her and how she came to want to share her own experiences. This is done very well and I think Howard manages to write those passages in a noticeably different voice to those in which we follow Jim (as well as typeface), which adds to the distinction between these sections.
From time to time Howard interupts the Nothing Man book excerpts to show us Jim’s reactions to what he is reading. These cutaways are typically quite short but they do serve to remind us that this story will conclude in the present day. For the most part I feel that this technique works well enough to justify its use although I will admit to feeling that the passages featuring Jim as he is reading the book are probably the least interesting part of the novel for me. This is because I feel that they rarely change our perception of what we have read or move the story in a different direction. They are short enough however to be fairly unobtrusive and my interest in his reactions picks up considerably from the point where the book begins to detail her own encounter with Jim.
The accounts of each of the attacks are presented in sequence so we do get a sense of seeing the Nowhere Man develop as he becomes a murderer. This does not give us an understanding of the forces that made him a murderer in the first place but there is a clear sense that we are building towards Eve’s own incident, increasing anticipation of that moment. As you might expect from a story that features multiple instances of rape and a child murder, these accounts may prove uncomfortable reading and while the actions are not described in much detail they may be upsetting for some readers.
The bits of the story that Eve cannot relate tend to be wrapped up in the question of the Nowhere Man’s identity and so the answers end up coming from Jim. Not that he is particularly talkative. His sections of the book are presented with third person narration and it is that narrator who fills in the gaps and explains some of the missing connections. My feeling is that answers are given for most of the questions I had, though I did not always find them as satisfying as I would have hoped. We learn of shaping incidents that created the killer and certainly get a good understanding of his methods both of selecting victims and also committing his murders.
One question that I think doesn’t get answered as well as I would like is Jim’s reasons for stopping. I think those reasons are implied well enough for the reader to be able to connect the dots but it would have been nice to have been given a fuller account of that part of Jim’s story, particularly given one of the later revelations in the book.
I remarked earlier how my interest in Jim’s story grew once we get to Eve’s own incident in her book and I feel that the same could be said of the book as a whole. From this point onwards I think the story seems to open up and some interesting questions and ideas are introduced. Of course, coming late in the novel keeps me from discussing them in any kind of detail but I appreciated the introduction of another perspective and a question that Jim has concerning Eve’s account of that night. That these ideas coincide with some action only serves to elevate that ending and make it feel more impactful.
That ending is quite tense and I was interested to discover how Jim and Eve’s stories would be resolved. I cannot claim to be all that surprised by many of the developments but I did find the answers to those questions that are raised to be quite satisfying.
So, how did I feel about The Nowhere Man? Keeping in mind that serial killer stories aren’t my thing, I am certainly glad I gave it a try though I am glad I was able to finish it with the lights on! As killers go, I did not find Jim to be an especially compelling figure. Instead I found myself much more interested in Eve, the survivor and her journey to take some control of her life. That may not have been exactly what I was expecting to find when I picked up the book but it was enough to keep me engaged and, coupled with the book’s creative premise, make me feel like my time was well spent.