Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2014
Season Five, Episode One
Preceded by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb
Followed by The Sinner and the Sandman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

Paula Wilcox was one of the stars of Man About the House and may also be known for her roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as Upstart Crow. Her genre credits include Grantchester and A Touch of Frost.

Raquel Cassidy is probably best known for her role as Miss Baxter in Downton Abbey and an appearance in Doctor Who. In this household however she is a favorite for her performance as Miss Hardbroom in the recent TV adaptation of The Worst Witch. She also has some genre credits appearing in episodes of Poirot, Law & Order: UK and Midsomer Murders.

Finally I have to mention Kieran Hodgson who became familiar to me during lockdown last year for his Youtube channel where he posts what he calls bad impressions. The draw for me was this series of reenactments of early Doctor Who.

The Verdict

A rare example of an inverted impossibility – an idea that Renwick handles pretty well though the pacing is a touch slow.

Episode Summary

An actress seems to have been stabbed moments after entering a dressing room that is under observation from the outside. Meanwhile Polly Creek learns of the death of her father and investigates if there is a secret in her parents’ past.

My Thoughts

If there’s one thing I like even more than impossible crimes it is an inverted mystery. That makes The Letters of Septimus Noone then something of a treat as it represents one of the very rare instances where those two subgenres combine and we get a case where we know the solution from the start. The question is then how will Jonathan reach that solution.

The setup for this case is handled quite well, carefully laying out the reasons behind the stabbing as well as the silence of those who have information that could clear the whole mess up. Those motivations struck me as pretty compelling, even if they are misguided.

I have suggested before that I rather like impossibilities that are created unintentionally and this is a perfect example of that. Characters make decisions based on their understanding and priorities with little thought as to how this will look from the outside to a third party. The case that develops is not particularly complex but suits this episode’s short running time and the need to fit alongside another more personal plot.

It should not surprise then that given the simplicity of the case, finding the solution comes down to spotting a single clue. Some may feel a little disappointed that Jonathan doesn’t actually deduce every step of the solution for himself and prove a case but I don’t think that would have fitted this story or the themes it had been developing.

Running through this, in one of the better comedic subplots from the show’s later years, is the idea that Jonathan has unwillingly acquired an intern of sorts – Ridley, a student returning from university who idolizes him and thinks he can perform the same feats of deduction. The jokes are somewhat predictable (and perhaps recall Miracle in Crooked Lane a little too much) but they are delivered well by Kieran Hodgson, culminating in an entertaining spin on the gathering all the suspects trope.

That other plot involves the sudden death of Polly’s father and the discovery of a box of letters. The mystery here is harder to summarize, in part because some aspects are introduced relatively late in the episode, but it is much more focused on exploring matters of grief and how we come to terms with the idea that we may not know someone as well as we thought.

As with the stabbing case the deductions required here are not particularly challenging. One of them will likely leap off the screen to viewers as soon as they see it, particularly given it’s an idea Renwick has used elsewhere. Still, I appreciated that the episode was trying to give us a different sort of case than we had seen before on the show and I liked that it was personal to Polly as I think it helps us understand her better and also provides a transition for the show into slightly new ground.

Beyond that I don’t have a lot else to say. I think that says rather a lot about this episode compared to those from the previous couple of seasons and the various specials. This is slighter than some offering two relatively simple puzzles but it also feels much more cohesive in terms of its themes and ideas. The comedic elements and the personal drama sits comfortably alongside the central mystery rather than fighting each other for dominance. It’s arguably comfortable and perhaps unambitious compared to those stories, fitting comfortably into the time slot and playing out at a rather leisurely pace. Still, I found it likable and I think it does a good job overall of completing the transition of Jonathan into a more comfortable, settled middle age.

That said I do have one point of enormous frustration. This episode completely pointlessly gives away some of the plot from The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Bah!

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

The Verdict

A bleak but powerful story of how a crime looms over the life of the man who committed it.

Book Details

Originally published in 1926

The Blurb

Most famous for his Hornblower series, C.S. Forester wrote three seminal psychological thrillers at the start of his career that took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

In Payment Deferred set in 1926, William Marble, a bank clerk living in south London with his wife Annie and their two children, is desperately worried about money and is in grave danger of losing his house and job. An unexpected visit by a young relative with an inheritance tempts William to commit a heinous crime.

Note: Do be warned that almost every modern blurb basically gives away aspects of the ending. The blurb reproduced above is from an ebook edition (the cover is the first edition which I sadly do not own) and so they do not go together – I decided though it was preferable to mix and match than throw around unnecessary spoilers!

But now that there was a chance of escape the danger in which he stood was forced home upon him, making him shudder involuntarily a little and setting his heart thumping heavily in his chest.

My Thoughts

The story begins with Mr. Marble facing imminent financial ruin. He has become badly overextended, borrowing heavily against future earnings but he has reached the point where payments are coming due that he knows he cannot meet. Then unexpectedly a possible source of salvation seems to present itself. 

The Marble family receives a visit from their Australian nephew who has just arrived in London. When he happens to pull out his wallet Mr. Marble notices that said nephew’s wallet is bulging as he had cashed a security upon arriving in the city. At first he hopes he might be able to convince his guest to stand him a loan or gift but when he offers resistance and happens to mention that they are the only people who know him in the country, Marble decides to commit murder and buries his victim in his garden.

The action I have described takes place in just a handful of pages at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book explores the aftermath of that crime as we learn what Marble does after his murder and experience the growing sense of dread he feels that he will be caught and hanged for his crime. This near-mania is captured really well, depicting the obsession and dread in such a way that we feel how relentless it is without having to endure that ourselves.

One way we can look at this novel is as a character study of a murderer, exploring how the criminal act appears to have changed him as a man. Certainly there is a sense that this action sets him on a dark path to destruction, an idea that is not uncommon in inverted crime stories (for a later take on the same idea you might see Crofts’ Antidote to Venom or Simon Brett’s A Shock to the System). I think though that what makes Forester’s novel interesting beyond its relatively early publication date is the chilling idea that murder has not changed Mr. Marble as significantly as we might expect.

Although we only know Marble for a few pages prior to the murder we do get signs as to his degeneracy. His relationship with his wife is hardly warm while his manufacturing of complaints to allow him to punish his children and send them to bed so he can start drinking is not the action of a caring father. These tendencies certainly become more pronounced, often as a consequence of his feelings of fear and desperation, but those aspects of his character were already there.

Often characters of this type are portrayed as somewhat emasculated or domineered within their home. We might think of Dr. Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought, published just a few years after this, for an example of that sort of portrayal. In contrast it seems quite unusual to find that our murderous head of the family here, while often ineffective, is genuinely loved and respected by his wife. She is not portrayed as a particularly strong individual and modern readers may feel frustrated that she seems to submit to her ill-treatment but I found the portrayal credible, particularly in her conflicted reactions to some of the developments later in the story.

The characters of the children, while clearly playing secondary roles, each get moments that explore how they react to the changes that take place in their household. This was, for me, some of the most interesting material in the novel because I feel it is here that the work is at its least predictable. Given that this novel, while possessing a short page count, takes place over a spread of several years we do get to see some significant growth in each character and I feel that they are used very thoughtfully in exploring Marble’s own story.

The Marble family’s circumstances undergo a considerable transformation throughout this novel and this allows Forester some room for social commentary, particularly in relation to matters of class. Some of these observations are quite familiar such as the idea that the nouveau riche may prize an item for its perceived status regardless of how tasteful it is but there are also some sharp comments about financial companies, middle managers and nosy neighbors.

While the book offers some satirical notes, I should emphasize that there is very little lightness or levity. It is not simply that Marble is an unpleasant man but that it becomes increasingly clear as you read that you are not heading for anything approaching a happy ending. While it may not be obvious how doom will come, it is clear that punishment of a sort will come. I think it would be fair to say that the book does deliver in that regard with Forester delivering a really punchy and effective conclusion that I think will satisfy fans of Francis Iles and other writers of his ilk.

The only other negative I might offer is that there is a financial action Marble takes at an early point in the novel that is quite technical and which Forester explains in more depth than some readers might wish. I understand why he felt the need to do so but the presentation feels quite dry and does little to provide clarity for those who would not already understand the basic idea. Still, this plays out over just a handful of pages and once explained is essentially not referred to again.

Overall I was really glad that I gave this book a try. While the tone is never light and there is a pervading sense of doom, Forester writes in an engaging way and I appreciated that there were several developments that I simply could not have anticipated at the start. As an example of an inverted crime story I found it even more interesting, particularly given it predates Malice Aforethought, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the sub-genre.

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith

Book Details

Originally published in 1975

The Blurb

Nowhere is Patricia Highsmith’s affinity for animals more apparent than in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, for here she transfers the murderous thoughts and rages most associated with humans onto the animals themselves.

You will meet, for example, in “In the Dead of Truffle Season,” a truffle-hunting pig who tries to whet his own appetite for a while; or Jumbo in “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance,” a lonely, old circus elephant who decides she’s had enough of show business and cruel trainers for one lifetime. In this satirical reprise of Kafka, cats, dogs, and breeding rodents are no longer ordinary beings in the happy home, but actually have the power to destroy the world in which we live.

The Verdict

This collection of short stories is certainly original and provocative but often makes for difficult reading with triggers abounding. Definitely not for everyone!

Worst of all, I was alone. No little creatures my own age. No mother, no friendly grandfather, no father. No play. No baths in a muddy river. Alone with bars and cement.

Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance

My Thoughts

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder has been on my radar for some months as one of the more unusual applications of the inverted mystery form. It is a collection of short stories by Patricia Highsmith each told about a different animal (or sometimes set of animals) that will be responsible for hurting or killing humans. I describe it that was because while the book title contains the word murder, many of the stories might well be considered Beastly Manslaughter.

It is an interesting concept and, as you might expect, the results are a rich source of trigger warnings – particularly for those who have a strong sensitivity to animal cruelty. This is a common theme running throughout the stories and means that the stories can sometimes make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Which is, of course, Highsmith’s intention.

What Highsmith is essentially doing is trying to place the reader into the mind of an animal and to encourage them to experience things from their perspective. Sometimes that means inhabiting the mind of a dog or a cat, other times more exotic perspectives like a rat or cockroach. It is surprising how effectively she is able to do this though there are a couple of stories in the collection that feel far more focused on the humans than their animals such as The Bravest Rat in Venice and Hamsters vs. Websters. Unsurprisingly these were the stories I found to be least interesting.

My favorites, though I feel a bit silly employing that word, were those that I felt either stuck very strongly to the murderous brief – such as There I Was, Stuck With Busby and Ming’s Biggest Prey – or that most successfully captured the perspective of an animal such as Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance.

Unfortunately I do have to reiterate though that while I think Highsmith was successful in what she was trying to do, I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading it. The collection is an interesting and often quite provocative one, making for an interesting literary experiment but I cannot imagine myself returning to it.

Story-by-Story Thoughts

Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance

This is the story of an elephant that was taken from the wild in Africa to be part of a zoo. Highsmith describes a sense of loss about the freedom that the elephant had enjoyed, though also describes some new joys. The issue is that the elephant’s happiness is dependent on the way they are treated and when her kind zookeeper companion retires she finds that his replacement is not as understanding.

Though this is a really short story, I think it is very effective. Highsmith avoids sentimentality and so rather than piling misfortunes upon the elephant, instead encourages us to empathize with it by making the things it feels entirely relatable. Just like Chorus Girl, most of us long for freedom, friendship and to be treated with respect. Her response when she doesn’t get those things is completely understandable. The results are inevitably tragic and upsetting but also very effective.

My only complaint would be that while this story is excellent, it perhaps is an odd choice to start this collection with as it doesn’t really match premise of the collection’s title.

Djemal’s Revenge

Djemal is a camel who for the past year has lived with his selfish and lazy master Mahmet, giving rides to tourists. Mahmet dreams of owning his own little house and hopes to be able to do this by winning a seven-day camel race across the desert. In the process however he pushes Djemal to breaking point…

This story was closer to my expectations of what this collection would offer, not only presenting us with human cruelty but giving it deadly consequences. The moment of revenge itself is described pretty well emotionally, helping us understand what Djemal is feeling, but not particularly detailed in terms of what is actually taking place. Still, I appreciate the choice of animal and think Highsmith did a good job of describing its thoughts and experiences of the race.

There I Was, Stuck With Busby

The Baron is an aging dog – perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old – who is left living with a man named Busby after the death of his master. He has been trying to appeal to a woman named Marion who he likes much more in the hopes that she will take him to live in her apartment above a butcher’s shop. It is not just that she gives him cubes of raw steak when he visits, it reflects that she is kinder and sweeter with him, making him feel loved.

This story is one of the most successful in the collection, both as a tale and in terms of fitting the collection’s overall brief. Where Djemal arguably commits manslaughter in the previous tale, The Baron will resort to murder in the hope of achieving its aim. Highsmith remarkably makes this feel quite credible, utilizing a method that a dog really might conceivably employ. The reader will have little difficulty in spotting how this may be managed but I give Highsmith a great deal of credit for being able to setup up that situation in the first place and the sequence in which it takes place is written very effectively.

Ming’s Biggest Prey

Ming, a cat, encounters his mistress’ new romantic partner during an outing and the pair take an instant dislike to each other. As with the last story we are in more familiar animal territory and Highsmith does a fine job imagining the personality of a cat. One aspect I like about this story is that while we experience the cat’s perspectives of the events and learn what he thinks, we can also observe and reflect on things that the cat is not aware of using the information it observes.

It’s a solid story and, once again, Highsmith does a good job of imagining how a cat might feasibly commit a murder. I did like the way Highsmith concludes the story.

In the Dead of Truffle Season

In this story Samson, an enormous white pig, is taken on a truffle hunt by his owner and becomes increasingly resentful of the way he is treated. In particular, his realization that while he finds delicious truffles for his owner he never gets to taste them – instead he is given a bit of cheese, a trade that Samson feels is quite unfair.

The story maintains the higher standard of the last few and I found its presentation of the thoughts of a pig to be really interesting. Samson is probably the least sympathetic animal we have seen up until this point, though the sources of his resentment (the truffles and some recent operations that have been performed on him) are understandable enough. That makes some aspects of the ending a little unsatisfying but overall I still felt it was very solid reading.

The Bravest Rat in Venice

This story tracks a rat’s interactions with the two boys who will be responsible for it sustaining some heavy and pretty horrific injuries. Highsmith captures the casual cruelty of children quite well here but eventually these will be returned to their family in one of the most horrific ways imaginable.

Twisted and truly hard to stomach in places, I struggle with any story that sees a character take their revenge against a third party that is innocent of the original crime. As effective as the story can be in places, this is hard to read…

Engine Horse

A young couple decide that they will try and commit murder by staging an accident involving an animal. What they fail to recognize is that the animal will have a mind of its own.

I liked this story quite a bit, in part because we are in the more conventional waters of murderous humans. The issue from the point of view of this collection though is that this story, like its predecessor, spends much more time with those humans than it does with the animal who is meant to be the protagonist. The story is clever though and has a strong resolution but animal lovers may find the fate of an animal third party upsetting.

The Day of Reckoning

This thoroughly human story concerns the automation of a battery chicken farm and the relationships between a group of humans connected with it. The animals in this story have no agency at all and while the story presents some discussion of battery farming as a whole, their voices and experiences are completely absent making this feel a little out of place in the context of the collection.

The story is really dark and decidedly twisted and upsetting in spots. While undoubtedly effective, it was perhaps too much for this reader.

Notes from a Respectable Cockroach

This story presents a cockroach’s view of the activities of humans staying in a hotel. It’s incredibly short, not at all criminous and while effective at what it tries to do, offers little to discuss.

Eddie and the Monkey Robberies

Eddie is a young Capuchin who has been taught how to open doors by a group of thieves. This story concerns the way he is treated by a member of the group and how he comes to be involved in the death of that person. Once again this story feels tilted towards the human characters rather than the animal and while effective enough, didn’t engage me as much as some of the earliest stories in the collection.

Hamsters vs. Websters

Of all of the stories in the collection, Hamsters vs. Websters is possibly the oddest. This concerns some hamsters who are living outside in a garden and whose habitat is disturbed by some bulldozing and construction. Once again this story suffers a little from not feeling like it really fulfilled the brief of the collection as they, like the chickens a few stories ago, have little agency in the story and act out of instinct.

Harry: A Ferret

Harry is a ferret who has developed a taste for blood who is bought by Roland, a fifteen year old boy who is delighted by this. He is even more excited when the ferret bites old Antoine, even though it means he is forced to keep it outside. This story follows what happens after this incident and the relationship between the boy and his savage pet.

A solid story, even though it is once more entirely from the human’s perspective. I did appreciate though the somewhat different view it presents by looking at the relationship not of an animal and a human antagonist but rather a human admirer.

Goat Ride

This final story concerns a goat who is kept tethered at an amusement park. This is one of the shorter stories in the collection but it does return us to an animal’s perspective of events which is welcome. Highsmith does a good job of communicating the goat’s thoughts and feelings and while slight in comparison to some of the meatier stories early in the collection, it does end things on a relative strong note.

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published in 1930
Dr. Thorndyke
Preceded by Dr. Thorndyke Investigates
Followed by Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke

The Blurb

Mr. Pottermack is persecuted by a blackmailer against whose extortions he is quite defenceless. Eventually he makes away with his persecutor and effectually conceals the body. But, too late, he discovers the unmistakable tracks of the deceased leading to his garden gate, and, since it is impossible to efface them, he conceives the idea of continuing them to some less compromising destination.

This he does with great skill and ingenuity and so convincingly that no hint of suspicion falls on him – until, by chance, the case comes to the notice of Dr. Thorndyke, who instantly detects the fraud. For there is one little, inconspicuous fact that Mr. Pottermack has overlooked.

Probably the reader will overlook it, too, and will be deeply interested when, at the end of the book, Thorndyke explains the curious fact he had noted and details the intricate chain of reasoning by which, from this one fact, he was able to reconstruct the whole sequence of events.

The Verdict

A compelling exploration of an attempt to cover up a crime and the way that is carefully unpicked. Clever and audacious. Highly recommended.

It was true that everything seemed to be quite safe and secret. He, Pottermack, had taken every possible precaution. But supposing he had forgotten something; that he had overlooked some small but vital detail.

My Thoughts

A little over a year ago I was having a discussion with JJ for his then-untitled Golden Age of Detection podcast in which we chatted about inverted mysteries. During our discussion he asked if I had ever read Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight and recommended it to me as something I would likely enjoy. It’s taken me some time to follow that advice but I am very happy to say that I did…

Mr. Pottermack is working in his garden preparing for the installation of a sundial when he uncovers a deep and rather dangerous well that had been lightly boarded over and covered in earth. When he finishes his work he opens his mail to discover another note from a blackmailer demanding a payment and informing him that he will call on him soon. When he arrives Mr. Pottermack decides he has had enough and strikes out, killing his tormentor and sending his body dozens of feet down the well.

For a few moments he is relieved to think that his ordeal is over but that feeling is short-lived as he soon realizes that there is a long and very clear trail of footprints leading their way into his garden…

Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight then is an example of the howcatchem style of inverted mystery. After witnessing the unplanned murder, the bulk of the novel is spent following Mr. Pottermack’s careful attempts to cover up his crime with only occasional asides where we briefly follow Dr. Thorndyke’s interest in the case. Our goal then is to spot the loose bit of thread that Thorndyke will use to start his chain of deductions. While I am not entirely convinced by Freeman’s assertion there is just one oversight to spot, it is a fun game to play.

Freeman provides the reader with a lot of technical detail as we see Pottermack carefully prepare and execute his various schemes but that is anything but dry. I was struck by the intelligence and the credibility of much of what is done, both in terms of believing that it could be done and that someone like Pottermack would conceive the plan in the first place.

The crime is hidden quite convincingly to the point where it seemed to me inconceivable that it could all get back to him at all, even if we know that Thorndyke is suspicious of him from the very beginning. Freeman however has a clever and compelling twist that will complicate Pottermack’s situation and force him to accept some additional risks. I might suggest that it is a somewhat Ilesian twist except, of course, that Malice Aforethought had yet to be published when Freeman wrote this. It certainly provides a strong boost to the story as Pottermack embarks on a truly audacious plan.

I don’t want to spoil where that plan takes him. This is a rather wild ride and part of the fun lies in figuring out exactly what he is trying to accomplish. I would say that the ideas used here are really quite original and entertaining, even if I have a few questions about whether they would have worked even in 1930. Freeman, to his credit, did ultimately reference some of those towards the end of the novel during the section in which Thorndyke explains how he pieced the truth together.

In that conversation with JJ I referenced the idea that one of the interesting aspects of the inverted mystery is that a skilled author can often create a character or situation that leads the reader to sympathize with the character of the killer. In some rare instances that may even extend to wanting to see them get away with it. This was one of those instances for me as I found Pottermack’s plight really quite sympathetic, particularly once we learn more about why he was being blackmailed. Even if you do not sympathize with him, his actions are always interesting and I appreciate that while he is thoughtful, he seems to remain in movement throughout most of the story.

Thorndyke, in contrast, spends much of the story in the background. He is only occasionally brought directly into the story and even then it is in an unofficial capacity. There is a sense of intrigue however generated by this added distance as it means that we are encouraged to deduce what he might have seen or understood in those very brief moments of interaction.

When he does finally offer us an explanation of the crime, I think it feels all the more interesting because we have had so little interaction with him up until that point. It is hard not to feel a small thrill as he calmly and methodically works through the case, pointing out incongruities and connections that may well have passed the reader by, even if we may want him to skip over some of the more obvious points and get to the clever stuff…

This, I suppose, brings me to the only real problem that I have with the novel – the aspect of the case identified as the oversight may be rather hard for modern readers to anticipate or visualize. That is plainly not Freeman’s fault – it simply reflects that then-common knowledge is not so today. Were the whole mystery hung on that one reveal I would be disappointed but fortunately there are plenty of other developments within the plot to spot and to try and understand. I would also suggest that while the specific information may be a little obscure, readers can still point to the general idea.

Overall I am happy to say that I really enjoyed this novel and felt it lived up to the billing it had received. While this is one of my shorter reviews (at least in recent years), that really reflects my desire to avoid spoiling the experience for those who have not read it. It’s a clever plot, explored quite thoughtfully and I felt that Freeman resolves the story rather memorably too. Very highly recommended.

Further Reading

Given his role in pushing me to read this novel, I feel it only proper to link to JJ’s excellent review at The Invisible Event. I should also provide a link to the podcast episode I referenced.

Overboard (Videogame)

Overboard! is a recently released video game for PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch (EDIT: I missed that it is also available for iOS – thanks Stephen) in which you take the role of socialite Veronica Villensey. You were traveling with your husband to start a new life in America when, while taking the air on deck, you decide on the spur of the moment to toss him overboard and get rid of him once and for all. The problem is that with eight hours until the ship arrives in New York there is still lots of evidence of your crime, not to mention several witnesses who, given time, may put two-and-two together.

As soon as the game begins you find yourself making important decisions that will determine whether you get away with the crime or not. Conversations with characters have multiple speech options and your choices will have consequences. You also direct where Veronica is headed and which of the passengers or crew you will encounter next. Each movement takes time away however and edges you a little nearer to port – a fact you are reminded of by a clock that ticks down the time you have left.

There are lots of different strategies you can pursue, some of which will only become apparent on subsequent play throughs. The game encourages and rewards discovery through trial and error by including more things to do than you can possibly fit into that short time before the ship docks. What that also means is that even after I beat the game for the first time I wanted to go back and try again to see if I could get a completely different approach to work or discover a different character’s secrets.

Whatever you choose in a play through be prepared that your choices will have consequences. Some of these are immediately apparent – a decision to admit something in conversation may close off some possibilities or open up new ones – while some will only become clear at the end of your play through. The first time I evaded the detective’s questions I was sure I had got away with everything only to find another loose end had kept me from achieving a perfect run. A big part of the fun here is in figuring out exactly what choices led you astray and revisiting them to see if you can improve your outcomes.

The cartoonish art style is simple and charming, designed to give you a sense of a character’s personality rather than depict each action or their lip movements. It won’t be mistaken for a triple A release (and is not priced as such) but is appropriate for this sort of storytelling-focused game, supporting the text rather than distracting from it. You can get a sense of the animation from the game trailer though be warned that it does provide some pretty heavy hints to a few story points.

Given that you will replay the events of the same day over and over again, players have the ability to speed through familiar conversations which reduces frustration when you get caught in a loop. If you make a mistake, and act fast enough, you can even rewind a scene once to give yourself a chance to select a better option if a choice didn’t give the outcome you expected. It’s a simple but effective game mechanic that lets you replay a decision rather than having to start over and recreate all of your choices up to that point.

Another charming aspect of the game is that each play through is relatively short. Assuming your character remains conscious and alive throughout the journey, you can expect it to take between thirty and forty-five minutes to complete a run (and you can speed this up further by skipping dialogue as mentioned above). This makes it an ideal game to quickly dip into for short gaming sessions.

Aside from a few snippets of speech at the beginning, the dialogue appears as text rather than spoken. The dialogue plays with some mystery tropes and conventions but can be decidedly modern in places, depending on your playing strategy and the characters you interact with. In other words, I enjoyed this as a pastiche of the Golden Age-style whodunnit rather than as an attempt to perfectly recreate it.

Overall then I am happy to say that I found Overboard! to be a pretty enjoyable experience. It has already given me three or four hours of entertainment and I feel I still have other things left to do and see and I will look forward to dipping into it from time to time to see if I can experience every possible outcome. If you enjoy choose your own adventure-style gameplay and lightly comic pastiches, you may well enjoy this too.

The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1945

The Blurb

When Rosaleen Wright was found hanging, a note beside her body, the police are sure it is suicide. But her best friend Jane cannot believe it. Rosaleen was full of vitality and wit – and the note had no signature. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, New York theatre impresario Luther Grandison. 

Grandison is rich, powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane show a completely different man. One who is duplicitous, greedy – and dangerous. A man who would kill to protect his secrets. 

Jane is determined to find out the truth – and takes the ultimate risk when she gets a job with Grandison’s company, and finds herself up against one of Broadway’s deadliest actors in a desperate play for the truth.

The Verdict

This book boasts a clever and morally complex setup and an exceptional villain. My only complaint is with the overly tidy ending.

Yes, I know a man who has committed that gravest and most interesting of all crimes, the crime of murder, and who never has been suspected at all.

My Thoughts

I have only read a handful of Charlotte Armstrong novels so far but I already count myself a fan. I was blown away by the tension generated in The Chocolate Cobweb, a superb thriller, while I felt The Dream Walker was a fascinating and largely successful blend of the inverted and impossible crime forms. Little wonder then that I quickly set about tracking down copies of her other works and this title, reprinted a couple of years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range, was a natural next step.

The Unsuspected begins in the aftermath of a death. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther “Grandy” Grandison, was found hanging in his home having apparently committed suicide – a belief reinforced by a note left by the body written in her own hand. Her friend Jane expresses her disbelief in the idea while dining with Francis, another friend of the deceased, and expresses her belief that it was not suicide but murder and that the man responsible is her charming and charismatic boss.

The pair conceive a plan to worm their way into his household to enable them to search for evidence that may confirm their suspicions. Jane convinces Grandy to hire her as a replacement for Rosaleen, giving her close access to him and his papers while Francis poses as the husband of his ward who had been tragically lost at sea only to find his position made much more difficult when she dramatically resurfaces.

The Unsuspected, like The Chocolate Cobweb, is an example of an inverted thriller in which our heroes place themselves in danger to try and catch a murderer who appears to have already got away with it. In addition to puzzling over whether the heroes will catch the killer and how they might manage it, the reader will also be looking at the reasons behind that murder. To put it another way, this is a blend of the howcatchem and whydunnit forms.

Understanding why anyone would place themselves in the orbit of a presumed murderer can be challenging but I feel Armstrong does a pretty good job here of giving Jane and Francis a clear and powerful motivation to get involved. While their situation becomes less comfortable as the action progresses, much of that could not be predicted at the outset and so the steady increase of danger feels quite natural to the situation: by the time the danger increases, they are already too invested and too close to the truth to back out.

Of the pair I found Jane to be the more likable. She is the organizer and while she is less active in driving the action than Francis, she retains an important role throughout. Given her need to stay deep undercover, she is often in the background of the action and I delighted in observing the sometimes quite subtle ways she exerts influence on the action.

Francis carries more of the action, in part because his role requires a greater degree of active deception. While I described Jane and Francis as heroes earlier, not everything they do in the course of this story is portrayed as heroic. Throughout the novel we see Francis do his best to convince Mathilda that they really were married prior to her taking that sea voyage, engaging in some pretty heavy gaslighting. Armstrong is quite clear about the mental distress this causes her, thoughtfully exploring her responses to these suggestions, and while it is clear that Grandy is also exerting a similar control over her the reader will have to decide for themselves if Francis’ actions are at all justifiable.

Armstrong does an excellent job of constructing her story to slowly build pressure on these two protagonists as they inch nearer to learning the truth. It is quite fascinating to see how she builds tension less through moments of action (and the threat that it might happen) as through the subtle changes within a relationship or even the language used within a conversation.

The character of Luther Grandison is, for me, the standout figure of the novel. I was struck by how strong his presence feels throughout the novel, even though his direct appearances are often quite brief. This serves to make the character seem more mysterious and to leave us in the dark as to exactly what he believes at any point, at least in the first half of the book. Early in the book there is a striking passage in which Jane and Francis discuss how some people have to wear masks until they die to hide their secrets and it is clear that Grandy is such a person. The question the reader has to resolve is just what lies behind that mask.

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am not a particularly imaginative reader – at least in terms of visualizing places and characters. Sometimes though I find myself thinking of film actors and in this case the person who sprang to mind was Claude Rains in his ability to be charming but also have a sharp edge. I was rather delighted to learn shortly after finishing the book that there was a film version and that he played that role (although the description sounds as though there were some changes made – I look forward to watching for myself at some point soon to see how it was adapted).

While I think the concept and the characters are exceptional, I found the novel’s resolution to be a little unsatisfying. It is not that I think the ending is untidy but rather the reverse. The book up until that point seemed to have played with the moral complexities of what was being done and I expected that to have a dramatic payoff. It should have been emotionally difficult and uncomfortable but that moment never came and instead Armstrong chose to whiff on confronting those challenging themes.

Still, while I think the ending is a little underwhelming dramatically, I admire much about this book up until that point. The premise struck me as clever and quite original while the characters seemed quite vividly drawn. Particularly Grandy himself. Though I think her next book, The Chocolate Cobweb, a more satisfying read overall, I found plenty to enjoy here and I really look forward to my next Armstrong read.

The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

Olivia Hudson, a drama teacher at a Manhattan girl’s school, refuses to let her uncle John Paul Marcus play the role of dupe in a real-life revenge story. Uncle John is a beloved war veteran, a New York institution, and a hard-working philanthropist with an unimpeachable reputation. His mistake—an honorable one, at that—was disclosing the financial chicanery of industrial heir Raymond Pankerman, and it could cost John his life.
 
Raymond has staged the perfect crime, and the perfect frame-up, to destroy the old man. He has everything he needs: a failed and penniless playwright who’d sell his soul if the price was right, a budding television starlet looking for a breakout role, and a susceptible public suckered into believing a supernatural swindle that’s making headlines.
 
As a good man is taken down by the outlandish claims of an “otherworldly” publicity-seeking beauty nicknamed the Dream Walker, Olivia refuses to stand idly by—especially since she has the talent to outwit and outplay an actress at her own duplicitous game.
 
Inspired by the mob mentality of the postwar McCarthy hearings, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker (also published as Alibi for Murder) is both an ingeniously clever mystery of double-crosses and triple-twists, and a still-relevant cautionary tale about the irreversible consequences of tabloid journalism and the gullibility of the masses.

The Verdict

A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it.

My Thoughts

A few years ago I read a novel called The Medbury Fort Murder. It was a novel that excited me a lot as the style and plot summary seemed to suggest that it was a blend of two of my favorite types of mystery fiction – the impossible crime and the inverted mystery. Unfortunately I was left disappointed that it didn’t meet those expectations and I was left to wonder whether it would even be possible to write an inverted impossible crime story. Having now read Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker I am happy to confirm that it is and that it works incredibly well. It blends the two forms without compromising on either, delivering a tight and compelling scenario.

The book begins by the narrator, a former school teacher, revealing that she will tell us the real story of a plot aimed to bring down John Paul Marcus, a wealthy and highly influential public servant with an impeccable reputation. In the first few pages we learn who is behind that plot, what their goal is and even some details of how they planned to go about it. Yet in spite of knowing all that general information, Armstrong manages to create a sense of mystery about exactly how it will be achieved and we are left to wonder how the villains might get caught.

So, how does an inverted impossible crime story actually work? Armstrong structures her story so that we understand a few basic points about what they were planning but avoids giving us firm details. We know, for instance, that it will involve two women, that the plan involves a ‘supernatural element’ and that their goal is to implicate John Marcus in improper dealings with foreign nationals. As one of the villains remarks, ‘No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it…’. That doubt will be enough to taint him.

After introducing us to the personalities and describing the general gist of the plan, we are then taken through the sequence of apparently strange and supernatural events by the narrator. Knowing that they are a sham and who is responsible does not make them any the less interesting, even if it is quite clear early in the novel how the trick is being worked. Instead the focus becomes on whether and how the method being used will be detected.

The plan is a rather imaginative one and Armstrong has it build steadily, gradually bringing in new elements. In addition to the interest in discovering exactly what Kent Shaw has planned, there is added interest in seeing how he will be forced to respond to some unexpected elements and developments along the way. This not only illustrates the character’s resourcefulness and quick wits, it also helps establish him clearly as an antagonist as he shows himself to be quite ruthless in pursuit of his goal.

One question that I think needs to be addressed when a book deviates from an established structure is why the author chose to approach it in that way. After all, the impossibility Kent Shaw creates is quite clever. While the supernatural explanation clearly will not be the correct one, if we read an account of the events in a purely chronological order without any insight into the villain’s motives I think it would be quite puzzling.

There are a couple of things that I think this unusual structural approach adds to the story and one problem that it avoids. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the simplest: by quickly laying out the cause of the villain’s grievance, Armstrong avoids having to establish John Paul Marcus as a character. This is just as well because he is really there to be a type – a loyal, patriotic American statesman who will be targetted on baseless accusations made against him, evoking a sense of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of this period.

In terms of what it adds, I think having the narrator be able to highlight aspects of the story as significant based on what they know of events to come helps to build anticipation of those developments. It also adds a sense of mystery about how something might prove important.

The other major advantage is that Olivia Hudson is a fine and rather heroic protagonist with strong and credible emotions. By contrast while I have little difficulty believing in the source of the grudge or that it might be the cause of some type of vengence, the pair of schemers are not particularly compelling or dimensional characters in their own rights. The things they do are interesting but their personalities are not a focus of the story.

In contrast, Olivia comes off as quite dimensional. While she has no direct knowledge of what has been planned, Olivia quickly grows suspicious. We are left to wonder at what point she will gain the awareness of the plot that we already know she has deduced based on references in the earliest chapters. When will be the moment that she is able to give voice to her suspicions and explain how it was done?

The book builds to a very solid conclusion that I think tackles those questions and answers them very neatly, wrapping up each of the key plot strands pretty well. I would suggest that readers should not expect to be surprised – they will have a strong sense of the destination from early in the novel – but the path to that point is interesting and entertaining.

It made for a solid cap to a very enjoyable novel. Yes, it can get a little melodramatic at points and the prose is occassionally a little heavy-handed but the book is often very clever and creative, offering plenty to interest fans of inverted and impossible crime stories alike.

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Book Details

Originally published in 1977

The Blurb

On Valentine’s Day, four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda, and Giles – were murdered in the space of 15 minutes. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, shot them one by one in the blue light of a televised performance of Don Giovanni.

When Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch arrests Miss Parchman two weeks later, he discovers a second tragedy: the key to the Valentine’s Day massacre, a private humiliation Eunice Parchman has guarded all her life.

A brilliant rendering of character, motive, and the heady discovery of truth, A Judgement in Stone is among Ruth Rendell’s finest psychological thrillers.

The Verdict

This fascinating whydunnit is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

My Thoughts

A Judgement in Stone opens with a statement, quoted above, that names the person who will commit murder, their victims and also provides a motive for the killings. There is no trickery in that opening statement and yet, in spite of possessing this knowledge, I think that this book can still be described as a whydunnit. The truth that Rendell exposes in this novel is that events are complex and that while you may know what triggered an action, to truly understand them requires exploration of some underlying conditions.

There are no shocks or surprise twists. The author carefully foreshadows almost every development and the reader will likely guess at many of the connections that will be made. And yet A Judgement in Stone is utterly compelling.

After briefly explaining where this story will end – with the murder of an upper middle-class family in their home by their servant while watching a televised recording of an opera – Rendell then takes us back to the point where the Coverdales first encounter Eunice. She explains the circumstances that led them to hire her, overlooking some deficiencies and reservations, and their initial feelings about her. We also learn more about Eunice herself, her past and how she came to find herself in service despite having no background.

There are multiple points in the story where we can see how things might have gone very differently had a character made a marginally different decision, acted with a little more caution or with a greater understanding of a situation. This lends the narrative some of the tension-building effects of the Had I But Known style of storytelling as we are told that something is significant and then try to imagine how these elements will eventually tie together.

To give one of the earliest and simplest examples highlighted in the narration, had a character known London postcodes a little better they would have seen through Eunice’s reference and never employed her in the first place. Rendell does not just explain that this mistake was made, she gives us background to the conditions that caused it in the first place. In doing so it reveals that becoming a murderer was far from a certain outcome for Eunice and that it was not caused by just one event or circumstance but a number of contributory factors.

Rendell writes this story in the third person but her narrator, while writing with an extensive knowledge of the crime, is not omniscient. There are small moments of imprecision and speculation within the narration, typically about details that are presumably irrelevant to the case. Nor are they entirely impartial as the narrator occasionally offers subtle judgements concerning the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. The result is quite intriguing as we have a narrator with hints of a personality and yet no identity, almost suggesting that we are reading a journalistic account of a crime by someone who has reconstructed it after the fact.

Rendell does not encourage sympathy towards her killer, nor necessarily towards the victims. They are not presented as deserving their fates and yet it is clear that the narrator feels they have some culpability in the outcome because of their inability to understand a character from a radically different background to their own.

While Eunice may not be presented in a sympathetic light, Rendell does not paint her in an overtly villainous light either. That may seem remarkable given some of the information we learn about her early in the book but I think it also reflects that there is another character who is more mindfully malicious in the narrative. That character is a really striking study in the contrast between how someone may see themselves and their actual role and much of the book’s sharpest moments concern this character. She is a superb creation and one of the most disturbing credible monsters I have encountered to date in Rendell’s fiction.

It is fascinating to follow these characters interactions and to watch Rendell slowly push each piece into place before delivering the sequence of terrible events we have been anticipating since that first line. What adds to the tension is that from the start we are aware of a date on which it will all happen – Valentine’s Day – and so as we track through the various events we become increasingly aware of how close that date is.

It doesn’t last long and Rendell doesn’t draw out the descriptions of the violence. The focus is not so much on what happens as on the way characters respond to it. If these pages are difficult reading that reflects that the atmosphere and sense of anticipation leading into that moment is so strong that the murder feels like a sharp release of tension. It is quick and devastating but done very well.

Overall then I have little hesitation in suggesting that this is an example of a novel that actually lives up to its reputation. For years people have been telling me I should seek it out and now that I have I can only say they were right. This is one of the best examples of a whydunnit that I have read to date and I commend it to anyone with an interest in crime stories.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praises this novel in an interesting review in which she draws particular attention to its discussion of ‘the servant problem’.

Moira @ ClothesinBooks wrote this post about the novel when Rendell passed away several years ago in which she describes why this novel is her favorite by the author.

Rich @ Past Offences describes the book as a ‘study in inevitability’ which is a lovely way to put it.

Jose @ A Crime Is Afoot also noted the book’s similarities to the true crime style and praises the book’s psychological approach to exploring its characters.

The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1954

The Blurb

War changed Clinton Brown. Permanently disfigured by a tragic military accident, he’s struggling to find satisfaction from life as a rewrite man for Pacific City’s Courier. Shame has led him to isolate himself from closest friends and even his estranged, still faithfully devoted wife, Ellen. Only the bottle keeps him company.

But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…

THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.

The Verdict

A flawed but entertaining exploration of the forces that cause someone to kill.

Mr. Clinton Brown regrets the necessity of murdering Ellen Tanner Brown.

My Thoughts

Clinton Brown works as a rewrite man for the Pacific City Courier, the only newspaper in a small city not far from the Mexican border. His editor, Dave Randall, was his commanding officer during the war and was responsible for issuing an order that led Clinton to come into contact with an anti-personnel mine. A tragic mistake that ensured that he will never be able to become a family man. While Clinton knows that Dave didn’t intend for that to happen, he frequently uses the man’s guilt over that order as a way to exert power over him and to take pleasure in the man’s discomfort.

The book begins with Clinton at work on a story built around the Sneering Slayer murders. He confides in the reader that he feels bitter mostly that the last line of his story will, by necessity, need to be written by someone else. A clue that we are about to be embark on the sort of dark homicidal journey that Jim Thompson wrote so well.

Unlike the protagonists in Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, Clinton does not set out to become a serial killer. He may enjoy his little sadistic digs at Dave Randall or the corrupt local detective Lem Stukey but prior to his first meeting with Deborah Chasen that sort of manipulation is the extent of his sociopathy. This book explores the circumstances that cause Clinton to first kill and then to try and kill again (and again) to try and protect himself.

Thompson is not subtle in explaining that it is the man’s accidental penectomy or, to be more specific, his fear of it becoming widely known that leads him to his first kill. This emasculation clearly has left him angry, bitter and resentful. Clinton dreads the idea that others will find out that secret and yet he toys with them, sometimes strongly hinting at it in their conversations. These behavioral contradictions are not accidental or oversights on the part of the author – they are part of the core character of this man and are indicative of the conflicts within his character.

One of the things I like most about Thompson’s work is that his protagonists tend to inch themselves towards destruction, compounding bad decisions until they find themselves beyond hope. I think that approach works because it helps to make sense of how people find themselves in truly impossible situations. While there are some people who recklessly gamble their way into peril, most of his protagonists are men who think they are smarter than they actually are and who cannot catch a break. That is certainly the case with Clinton Brown.

The result is that he is a character who, in spite of some of the ridiculous things that happen to him, feels surprisingly credible – particularly in comparison with Lou Ford or Nick Corey. We may not agree with the choices he makes (or like him as a person) but Thompson effectively conveys the forces that have made him who he is and the motivations behind some of those terrible choices.

Thompson offers us multiple murders and manages to make each feel quite distinctive, both in the circumstances leading up to it and the means by which it is done. I would suggest that they become progressively more striking and detailed as the book goes on as though the account is mimicking the character’s increasing familiarity and comfort with death.

By virtue of his position and relationship to one of the victims, Clinton finds himself pretty close to the investigation which allows him to meddle with it. This meddling was, for me, the most intriguing and original part of the book in large part because of the way it explores the man’s psychology, particularly in relation to the question of who he is willing to hurt and who will become his subsequent victims.

Thompson’s characterization of the other men in Clinton’s life, both as colleagues on the paper but also the detective Lem Stukey, feels similarly very convincing. While we may only be sharing Clinton’s thoughts directly, it is easy to understand what the various people he interacts with are thinking and feeling in response to the various provocations he offers.

Thompson’s portrayal women can be a little more divisive. There are often misogynistic comments voiced by characters within his stories and there certainly area few instances of that here such as when a character asserts he would like to give a woman a ‘good sock in the mush’. The question is whether you think Thompson is accurately depicting the views and attitudes of his day or writing to reinforce them. I personally feel it is intended to be the former rather than suggesting this is behavior to be emulated but I can completely understand those who feel the other way.

Unfortunately the book eventually runs out of steam as it becomes evident that Thompson doesn’t really have a clear idea on how to conclude the thing. There is an ending but I cannot say it was particularly satisfying or that it provided much sense of closure. Indeed I didn’t even find it all that easy to follow, forcing me to reread it to try and make sense of its implications.

Still, while I was a little disappointed with the way the book ends, I admire the craziness of the journey Thompson takes us on here. He crafts a wild but convincing picture of how a man comes to commit a series of crimes and create a criminal persona. While I think it doesn’t offer the richness and depth of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, it is still a very clever and compulsive read that combines Thompson’s bold, larger-than-life characterization with a really solid murder plot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who can stomach the nastiness, I found this to be a compelling read.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Impossible Event wrote this superb post about the book which he suggests is a good place for those seeking a ‘comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction’ to Thompson. I can’t disagree!

Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

Every sports fan in New York knows Al Judge, the hard-bitten reporter whose column is the scourge of gamblers, gangsters, and corrupt players across the city. Sixteen-year-old George LaMain is Judge’s biggest fan—right up until the night he decides the writer has to die. George is in his father’s saloon, waiting for his dad to give him his birthday present: a trip to the fights at Madison Square Garden. They are about to leave when Judge demands George’s father strip and lie down on the barroom floor. George doesn’t know why, but his old man does it—and Judge beats him senseless in front of the whole bar.  
 
When he’s finished crying, George takes his father’s gun and sets out into the night. To avenge his disgraced father, he plans to gun Al Judge down. But before he can become a killer, this birthday boy will have to grow into a man. 

The Verdict

More coming of age story than crime novel. The character work and development of theme are very good though.

When you’re going to kill somebody, you’re not a kid any more, and when you know in your heart you’re not a kid, somehow or other, everybody else seems to know it too.

My Thoughts

Some months ago JJ from The Invisible Event suggested that as a fan of inverted mysteries I really need to check out a copy of Stanley Ellin’s The Speciality of the House. That book, a collection of short stories, is definitely one I want to get to even if I have to split my coverage of it into several blog posts but when I stumbled onto a copy of this much shorter work – Ellin’s first novel – I couldn’t resist picking it up.

The book is told in the inverted style though it doesn’t exactly align with any of the labels I have given other examples of the genre so far. We know who it is that George plans to kill, how and why right from the start of the book, meaning that this is probably more accurately classed as a crime story rather than a mystery, though the reader will likely find themselves asking questions that our protagonist never seems to get around to considering. By the end of the story Ellin will give us answers.

The story takes place on the day George LaMain turns sixteen. He is looking forward to attending a big boxing match to celebrate with his father Andy. Before they can get going however Al Judge, a prominent sports writer, turns up at Andy’s bar to confront him and demand that Andy take off his shirt and lay down on the floor. To George’s horror his father meekly acquieses and Al sets about beating him senseless, humiliating him in his son’s eyes. Flushed with anger George grabs his father’s gun and the tickets for the match which he expects Al will be attending and sets out to kill him.

Ellin tells the story from George’s perspective and in his voice, brilliantly capturing the false maturity and bravado of a child who is determined to be seen as an adult. In the early chapters as George tells us his story and offers his opinions of others, the reader may well find themselves thinking that he is someone who does not recognize how dependent he is on his father for guidance and worry about how he is going to fare navigating the city on his own, let alone dealing with someone as worldly and tough as Al Judge.

It should also be said George is not necessarily a good kid or even a particularly likeable one. While he praises his father for keeping him from getting into trouble, his narration frequently infers that he has potentially violent appetites and that he is choosing to view his mission to kill Al as a coming of age story. It is as if seeking revenge or even to kill someone validates his manhood in his own eyes and throughout the early chapters he regularly repeats his intention to kill Al as a sort of mantra.

While George may not be a particularly pleasant character, I do think he is an interesting one. I was reminded a little of some of Jim Thompson’s creations – a sort of more innocent version of William Collins from After Dark, My Sweet. In playing at being a tough guy, his naïvety and inexperience dealing with adults and understanding their intentions becomes painfully clear. Ellin places him in several situations that expose that inexperience and it is interesting to see how he interprets them and the ways they seem to change him. As a character journey I think it is quite compelling and it offers an interesting perspective on the awkwardness of that transition from childhood to adulthood that is largely successful.

Ellin introduces George to several colorful characters in the course of his quest who often get in the way of his plans, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertantly. These characters not only serve as interesting complications for George to overcome, they are also used to draw a contrast with George’s character and to demonstrate his immaturity and poor judgement. I felt most were drawn pretty well and felt pleasingly dimensional given how short the work is overall.

The least vibrant characters are probably the two that are most important to the story’s plot: George’s father and his target, Al Judge. It is not that they are poorly drawn or particularly unconvincing but rather their appearances are both quite short, talked about more than they are seen. This is a little unfortunate in that I think after chapters of build-up the brevity of the resolution with Al may feel a little anticlimactic to those primarily interested in the plot.

While the moment of confrontation felt a little rushed, I think Ellin does a superb job of exploring the consequences of what happens and following his themes to their logical and appropriate conclusions. I think the tone struck at the end is really surprisingly powerful and, to my surprise, even a little emotional as it wraps up that coming of age story quite perfectly.

Which is, I suppose, the issue if you are coming to this for the criminous content. Dreadful Summit‘s least interesting element is the one it is building to. As important and necessary as that moment is as a catalyst for all of the other stuff that happens, it is not particularly complex or thrilling in itself while almost all of the build-up to that point is character rather than plot-driven.

That didn’t bother me – I think it tells the story it tells well and I appreciate Ellin’s economy in telling it. The book’s short page count is appropriate and the choice to focus on what George thinks and feels is absolutely the right one. Those who are primarily interested in plot though may want to pass this one by.

Second Opinions

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora shared his thoughts on the book in this excellent review. I seem to have enjoyed it more than he did though I think the review is quite fair and I think he is right to suggest that the substance to the book lies in the interruptions to the plot.

Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name offered up these thoughts as part of his Forgotten Book blog series, drawing parallels with The Catcher in the Rye and his own Dancing for the Hangman.