The Detection Club Project: Hugh Walpole – The Killer and the Slain

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.

#13: Hugh Walpole

Cigarette card image of Hugh Walpole
Image Credit: Sir Hugh Walpole, probably after Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

He yearned to be one of the great and the good of the literary establishment, and an invitation to join the prestigious new Detection Club boosted his fragile ego. Yet throughout his life he remained an outsider.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Hugh Walpole was a household name, writing bestselling fiction in a variety of styles and genre. From ghost stories to bildungsroman, family saga to gothic horror. He penned literary biographies, plays, and the screenplay for the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield (we’ll come back to that last one later on in this post).

His celebrity extended to popular lecture tours, and he was keen to be in the public eye. Wodehouse dismissed his career as ‘two thirds publicity’, commenting that he was always endorsing books and speaking at luncheons. Others have described his generosity as a patron, privately offering financial support to younger writers – although some friends felt that he was too encouraging of some mediocre talents.

In some ways Hugh Walpole’s career seems to have mimicked that of another founder member of the Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts. Like Crofts, Walpole was tremendously popular in his day – when the Detection Club did their first round robin story, he was regarded as the lead name in a project that also featured Sayers, Berkeley, Christie, E. C. Bentley, and Knox.

Today Walpole has essentially been forgotten. While that is not necessarily surprising in the context of detective fiction, of which he was only an occasional author. After becoming a huge success in the twenties, in the thirties Walpole’s work began to be dismissed as dated or insubstantial. When he died in 1941, an anonymous obituary in the Times described his style as workmanlike. This would, no doubt, have devastated Walpole.

The book I’ll be discussing today, The Killer and the Slain, was published the year following his death and, Edwards argues, the combination of wartime publication and the author’s death meant it was ‘destined for obscurity’. This is a tremendous shame because it is an absolute gem of a read and certainly my favorite of the books I have read so far as part of this project.

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Originally published in 1942

As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.

The Killer and the Slain is not a work of detective fiction. It has clear crime elements – the murder that we see committed – but its focus is more on the conditions that lead John Talbot to murder and the way that the crime affects him subsequently. The reason I would suggest that it sits on the edge of the genre is its incorporation of supernatural elements, whether they are real or some kind of psychological manifestation, reminding me somewhat of James Hoggs’ The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The novel, narrated by Talbot as a reflection and account of his life written in his final days, tells of his bullying at school by the far more popular Jimmie Tunstall. Jimmie would insist on calling him ‘Jacko’, make fun of him and his creative endeavors to the other boys, and physically harassed him, making Talbot really uncomfortable. Jimmie insisted that he was really awfully fond of Talbot, dismissing his complaints as sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. When Talbot finally makes another friend, Jimmie sabotages it. Talbot is relieved when the torment finally ends and he leaves school to take over his parents’ antiques business and to try to make a success of himself as an author.

His world will come crashing down years later however when, having started a family and found some moderate success as a writer, his path crosses once again with Jimmie when the latter takes a home near his and insists on socializing together. Talbot is unable to resist and feels that a cycle of bullying is about to start once more, leading him to murder as a form of self-preservation. In its aftermath however he finds that the act has fundamentally changed him and he begins to turn into the man he has killed.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the book was how much of Walpole is in the character of John Talbot. We read Talbot’s insecurities about the quality of his work, only thinking one of his novels an artistic success, and we see how he craves recognition. Talbot, like Walpole, was miserable at school, struggles to find acceptance, and literary success at first. There is also a rather fascinating brief passage in which Talbot dissects the qualities of the 1935 David Copperfield adaptation that Walpole himself had written:

It’s a long picture, Copperfield. Little Bartholomew and Rathbone as Murdstone were as good as ever. Pity they had to get an American for Micawber. The first half of the picture is much the best.

I was also struck by the rather open discussion of sex, lust, and frankness about infidelity that runs throughout the novel. These themes are not unique to this book, but it avoids euphemism in many instances, addressing the themes quite directly. Jimmie’s lust for life and sex is mirrored by Talbot’s inexperience and discomfort, leading the latter to settle for a loveless, unequal marriage which he enters despite his bride’s warning that she doesn’t love him, hoping that his love will eventually be reciprocated.

There was even some suggestion of erotic undertones to the pair’s relationship. One of the inciting incidents that sets Talbot against Jimmie is the trauma of the latter exposing him while getting changed for swimming, and we are told that Talbot is deeply uncomfortable with Jimmie’s touch. The relationship between the pair is highly controlling, with Jimmie delighting in Talbot’s discomfort and talking of possessing him and discussing the especial bond they share. When Jimmie discovers Talbot’s writing, he suggests the introduction of ‘a bit of skirt’ to liven things up, and he delights in causing Talbot great discomfort with graphic descriptions of his infidelities. It is as though Jimmie recognizes that Talbot is either asexual or homosexual and is taking pleasure at teasing him, knowing that Talbot is too uptight to recognize it in himself.

The early chapters of the book set up the building tension between the pair and the specific circumstances that will lead to murder. That moment is really quite dramatically and suddenly realized, the circumstances fitting Talbot’s character really well while also setting up a little intrigue that will be used later in the story.

The focus of the narrative though is not on the murder itself but the transformation that occurs to Talbot afterwards. Talbot who has seemed uptight, prim, and awkward up until this point, becomes coarser, lustier, and warmer in his relationships with others. There are some predictable ways that this plays out but also some more interesting and subtle ones, like the shift in his marriage and relationship with his son. Walpole portrays that shift very effectively, using it to suggest a sense of liberation for his protagonist, not dissimilar to how murder alters the protagonist in Simon Brett’s much later book, A Shock to the System.

We can take a supernatural reading of what happens and suggest that Talbot has been possessed by Jimmie’s spirit. Certainly many of his behaviors seem to evoke things Jimmie would say or do, and others perceive the increased similarities too. At times Talbot starts to act contrary to his wishes, almost as if he is struggling to control an external force that is making him act a certain way. Another, more psychological reading would be that Talbot has experienced a mental break, caused by the stresses of what he has done, and it has resulted in some split within his personality. Guilt makes him imagine his victim and he is, to some degree, punishing himself by destroying the things that he loves the most.

Here, once again, I was reminded of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (a book I need to reread and write about at some point soon). That story split its narrative in two, presenting two different readings of action, one psychological and the other supernatural. In contrast, Walpole combines his two narratives into one, having the character himself represent his perceptions of what is happening to him while occasionally giving us perspectives of others in conversation. This works very well as it embraces the strengths of the first person perspective, showing us what Talbot believes is happening while acknowledging that he might simply be going mad.

The final aspect of this book that I want to reflect on is its discussion of World War II and specifically of Hitler. The events of the first half of the book take place over a span of years starting with Talbot’s childhood and moving through his marriage into midlife. Hitler gets his first mention after Jimmie has returned into his life, with Talbot reflecting on the uncertainties of the world and thinking unhappily of Hitler ‘planning cold ruin and bitter destruction’.

The next mention happens after Talbot has committed his murder and is pondering just why he is changing. He tells us that for years he had hated the Nazis ‘almost with hysteria’ but when he hears two elderly people raging about Hitler, he begins to feel compelled to defend him, wishing to argue that Germany has been wronged and that she had to act to do what’s best for their country. Later in the novel he becomes more outspoken and full-throated in his advocacy of Hitler and his ideas, drawing considerable disapproval, and describes himself as ‘Hitler’s forerunner of vengeance’.

Talbot sees parallels between himself and Hitler. He is sympathetic to him because Talbot wants to justify his own actions. Aggression, in his case cold-blooded murder, was required because of a wider, unfair situation. He is asserting that he had to do what was needed for his family’s interests – to protect his son from Jimmie’s influence and his wife from being seduced. Acts of aggression are, he thinks, justified by being treated poorly and ‘spat on’.

Towards the end of the novel Walpole has one of the most likeable characters in the novel directly confront Talbot, forcefully condemning Hitler as one of the ‘strongest instruments of evil the world has seen for hundreds of years’, and telling him he must reject that same evil inside himself. This moment was not only necessary from the point of providing a condemnation of a regime with which Britain was at war, it also ties back into the novel’s theme that the potential for evil lies within everyone.

This brings me to the least satisfying part of the novel, that of its end. Having realized his themes, Walpole has to provide a resolution to his narrative but that presents some challenges. One is that its ending cannot really surprise while staying true to its themes. That doesn’t necessarily bother me – I often enjoy seeing an inevitable ending realized – but the issue here is one of execution. A decision taken at the end requires Walpole to abruptly shift to a different storytelling style and it feels a little clumsy and awkward, particularly given how quickly he wraps everything up. Had the author used other storytelling styles earlier in the novel, this shift would have felt less stark, but the execution here feels quite sudden and inelegant in consequence.

In spite of my disappointment in its last few pages, I have to say that I view this book as a triumph and that this has been one of the most engaging reads I’ve undertaken on this project so far. Though it is not in any way a detective story, I appreciate its focus on developing and exploring its protagonist and admire the quality of storytelling on display. I’ll be curious to read more Walpole in the future, though I know only a fraction of his work lies within the genre. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be glad of them.

A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

Originally published in 1954

Frank “Dolly” Dillon has a job he hates, working sales and collections for Pay-E-Zee Stores, a wife named Joyce he can’t stand, and an account balance that barely allows him to pay the bills each month. Working door-to-door one day, trying to eke money out of folk with even less of it than he has, Dolly crosses paths with a beautiful young woman named Mona Farrell. Mona’s being forced by her aunt to do things she doesn’t like, with men she doesn’t know — she wants out, any way she can get it. And to a man who wants nothing of what he has, Mona sure looks like something he actually does.

Soon Dolly and Mona find themselves involved in a scheme of robbery, murder and mayhem that makes Dolly’s blood run cold. As Dolly’s plans begin to unravel, his mind soon follows.

I hadn’t planned on getting back to posting on this blog for another few weeks when my first semester of grad school will be done but those plans were upended when I read this book and found myself desperate to talk about it.

First, a little background. I first encountered Jim Thompson after starting this blog and I have reviewed everything I have read. If you’re interested, you can track back through the posts archive and see what I have made of the works I have tackled so far. This title was suggested to me by JJ from The Invisible Event about a year ago and while Thompson has been on the back burner for a while, mostly because my posting has been so irregular this past half year, I knew that when I did I would make a point to get to this one first.

I’m glad I did because this may be the most effective and satisfying of all of the Thompson novels I’ve read to date.

We follow Frank “Dolly” Dillon, a door-to-door salesman who is trying to make a buck or collect on accounts owed. One day he encounters Mona Farrell at one of the homes he is visiting. He is instantly struck by her beauty and is surprised when the older woman she lives with tries to make a deal to let him spend some time with her in her bedroom in exchange for the silver service he is trying to sell. He learns from Mona that such arrangements are a regular part of her life.

Dolly accepts but becomes uncomfortable at the arrangement, opting to just talk with her. Awkwardly he promises he will return at some future point to visit Mona again though he has little intention of keeping that promise. Shortly afterwards though Dolly finds himself in jeopardy and is surprised when Mona comes to his rescue with a big stack of cash, apparently taken from the old lady. She tells Dolly that there is more where that came from and he begins to think of a plan to acquire that, and possibly Mona too at the same time.

Dolly, like many Thompson protagonists, is a bit of a good ol’ boy. He is irresponsible financially, fiddling with the accounts he’s meant to be collecting. He can be charming, with people rarely knowing how much he dislikes them because he covers it up with bonhomie. And then he has a wife he doesn’t treat well, and a bit of a roving eye for the ladies.

Dolly is, to put it simply, a loathsome, misogynistic brute. That is a common playbook for Thompson protagonists who often begin a novel appearing a bit cheeky and roguish but whose sociopathy really only comes into focus as we spend an extended period of time with them. The difference here, and what makes this book so compelling, is that Dolly is much more than just a devil with an angel’s face. He’s a twisted, complicated, confused and confusing, mess of a man. The sort of man who initially appears confident but one we will soon see is less in control than he seems.

At the heart of that contradiction in Dolly’s character is his attitude towards women. We know that he is attracted to Mona because of her youthful beauty. We also gather that she is just the latest in a very long line of women, many of whom he has married and divorced. It soon becomes clear that what attracts Dolly to these women is their apparent purity but that by being with him and expressing their own desires, he will inevitably come to find them repulsive and want to move on. It’s a surprisingly rich and critical portrait of that sort of man and one which Thompson absolutely nails here.

The reader may find individual things Dolly does to be quirky or intriguing but unlike other villains such as Nick Corey, Dolly’s brutishness is on full display for the reader from close to the start of the novel. There is never really any possibility of liking Dolly, but we will likely be interested to discover just what he is up to and how events will pan out.

The other significant difference between Dolly and Nick is that our protagonist in this novel lacks the latter’s inventiveness and ingenuity. Dolly is a small time sort of guy, and while he may have some ambitions, he is juggling frantically, just trying to keep all the balls in the air. We expect him to fail but it is not immediately clear how he will get the comeuppance he clearly deserves.

His plan, when we get to see it, is hardly ingenious and the reader will likely see where Thompson is headed. What makes the plan interesting is not its components or its complexity but what it says about Dolly. Thompson is often at his most powerful when showing how people can use others’ weaknesses, fears, and prejudices to get others to do what they want. This is that sort of a story.

After an initial crime is committed, we get to follow Dolly as he tries to keep things together and avoid people’s suspicions. Thompson packs in several interesting developments that propel the story in slightly different directions, keeping the novel from feeling predictable.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel though is a narrative device that Thompson deploys at several points in the novel. At several key points, typically when we are about to encounter a significant criminous action on the part of Dolly, we switch from a first person present narration to a memoir format, presented from a slightly different and mysterious alternative voice. Only after the event is described do we jump back to the novel’s typical narration style but with a small time jump having taken place.

Given that the accounts have some overlap but give us key details from only one of its narrative voices, the reader cannot be certain of the truthfulness of anything they read. This illustrates the unreliability of the narrator by demonstrating the conflict between accounts but it also serves as an interesting exploration of the subtle differences that might exist between a pure internal voice and the way we seek to present information to others.

This brings me to the book’s highly unusual ending. Or should that be endings. The first time I read the final chapter I found myself doing a bit of a double-take and I ended up rereading the pages several times to make sure that I understood what was being presented to me. Having given us two narrative voices, separated into chapters, this final chapter presses them together, leading the reader to two apparently different resolutions. It’s a little confusing and I felt at first that it is trying a little too hard to be literary in its style, but I liked it more as I reflected on that ending more.

What I like most about the resolution is how perfectly it ties into the range of themes that Thompson has developed throughout the novel. It isn’t clean and tidy and I can understand why some will hate it, but I think it fits this novel brilliantly.

The Verdict: Though A Hell of a Woman is not as fun as Pop. 1280 or as shocking as The Killer Inside Me, I think it deserves to be talked about as a work on a comparable level. Thompson’s skill here is characterization, scratching at the surface of an apparently straightforward character to reveal unexpected depth and complexity.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book has been reprinted a number of times over the years. While you are unlikely to find it on store shelves, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780316403733.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Opportunist by Elyse Friedman

Originally published 2022

When Alana Shropshire’s seventy-six-year-old father, Ed, starts dating Kelly, his twenty-eight-year-old nurse, a flurry of messages arrive from Alana’s brothers, urging her to help “protect Dad” from the young interloper. Alana knows that what Teddy and Martin really want to protect is their father’s fortune, and she tells them she couldn’t care less about the May–December romance. Long estranged from her privileged family, Alana, a hardworking single mom, has more important things to worry about.

But when Ed and Kelly’s wedding is announced, Teddy and Martin kick into hyperdrive and persuade Alana to fly to their father’s West Coast island retreat to perform one simple task in their plan to make the gold digger go away. Kelly, however, proves a lot more wily than expected, and Alana becomes entangled in an increasingly dangerous scheme full of secrets and surprises. Just how far will her siblings go to retain control?

Smart, entertaining and brimming with shocking twists and turns, The Opportunist is both a thrill ride of a story and a razor-sharp view of who wields power in the world.

Hello reader! It’s been a while and I can’t promise I’m about to start blogging again with any regularity but with my university’s Spring Break week ahead, I might be able to get at least one or two posts out there before the work piles up again. Before I begin I should admit that I started this post a few days after my last one so it’s been a while since I finished reading this. As I’ve noted before, that’s far from my preferred way of doing these but I figured this was better than nothing, particularly as I have another busy few weeks ahead. With that short note out of the way, let’s get on with discussing The Opportunist

Alana has been estranged from her family for years so, when she starts getting panicked messages from her brothers that her wealthy father is engaged to his much younger nurse, she has little interest in helping to protect the family fortune. After getting frustrated with her dodging their emails, one of her brothers decides to visit her with a proposal: he wants Alana to make Kelly, their father’s fiancée, a sizeable financial offer to call off the marriage and leave town. The money used would be theirs but they would be able to deny involvement if things went badly, preserving their relationship and their source of income. For her trouble, Alana would receive a sizeable chunk of money that would enable her to provide for her daughter’s medical needs.

Upon arriving at the family’s island retreat, Alana gets to work but soon finds that her task will be harder than it might have initially seemed as Kelly is quite aware of what is going on. As frustrations mount with the brothers and the wedding nears, conversation turns to other ways to ensure that the marriage doesn’t take place. The question is whether the brothers can outmaneuver her before it is too late…

The Opportunist blends elements of family drama with the psychological crime story (the Highsmith comparison on the front is fitting). Structurally it can be classified as an inverted-style story, in that the reader learns who carries out any crimes almost immediately following their taking place. In some cases we are made aware of characters’ plans in advance of their attempts to carry them off, and this builds suspense and allows the author to play with the reader and have them question how the key conflicts here will play out and who will come out on top.

The battle of wits structure is a promising one, even if it threatens to render Alana a bystander early in the novel. Her estrangement from her family means that her investment in the outcome feels rather weak and left me a little concerned that she might observe the action more than she participated in it. Happily most of my concerns on that score were not borne out as she is significantly more active in the second half of the novel and her motivations become stronger, helping us understand her better and strengthening her stakes in the story’s outcome.

In spite of that character development, I was struck by the feeling that Alana was a surprisingly difficult character to root for, at least in that early part of the novel. For instance, we are aware that she has been consciously trying to make her way on her own without her rich father’s help, yet the cause of the disagreement only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. While some of her background, particularly her choice of work, helps soften her, she remains a tough and uncompromising individual, lacking the cast of friends and confidants who might have brought out some warmth. To give an example, Alana’s daughter is a truly important figure in her life yet she is kept distant and the reader never really gets to know her. We only see Alana’s love for her. Yet that is what is important to the character and ultimately, once we reach that end point and understand her background, it does make sense.

The pair of brothers were less interesting to me. It is quickly apparent that Alana had good reason to want to be rid of them and nothing that follows is likely to make you sympathize with them. Alana may have some common interests with them, but it is still clear that both brothers are pretty unpleasant characters and we are supposed to hope they will not find happy endings.

The father is a much more interesting study, in part because there is a striking contrast between the man we meet and Alana’s memories of him. We see that his health issues have weakened him and perhaps contributed to his reliance on his young nurse, and knowing how he is in the present may make us all the more curious about what precisely caused Alana to resent him so strongly.

Friedman does provide a really powerful explanation. Flashback sequences later in the novel do an excellent job of teasing out the nature of the conflict and also give us a much stronger understanding of who he was prior to those serious health issues. As the father comes more strongly into focus, so do the novel’s core themes. What we learn is not necessarily surprising as Friedman lays the groundwork for that, but we certainly understand the reasons Alana hates him and has kept her distance.

For those concerned that this might simply be a story about family secrets, rest assured that there are crimes and murder here although this is very much a crime, rather than a detection story. That is reinforced by the choice to show us a murder so we are quite aware of who committed it and how. It’s an interesting choice as it does undermine some of the mystery, though it does mean that we get to observe others’ reactions in the knowledge of what the truth is.

All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. As with some of the revelations along the way, when we get to the novel’s endgame, the revelations feel inevitable. I suspect that the writer intended to surprise but while I didn’t experience that, there is some satisfaction to that inevitability as it means that the themes feel complete and the totality of the picture comes clearly into view.

On the other hand, I look at aspects of the plot and I find myself questioning characters’ decisions. Forgive my vagueness here but it’s necessary to avoid directly spoiling the characters and the situations they put themselves in that I found incredible. There is one character in particular who undertakes some things that I found hard to reconcile with aspects of their background, though I do understand their motivation to do so. Honestly, I can’t decide how I feel about that.

Does it satisfy? Truthfully, I don’t know. One of the reasons I felt okay writing this post close to two months after finishing the book is that I am still trying to figure out if I liked that ending or not. While that may sound like a negative, I should stress though that I am still thinking about the book two months after finishing it which means that it made an impact. I appreciate and admire its boldness, even if I am uncertain if I liked it overall as a novel.

What I certainly can praise is its construction. One of the things that I find myself thinking about is how some seemingly small or irrelevant details actually hint at so much more. Some day I would like to reread this, knowing how it concludes, to truly take in and appreciate the craftsmanship and care in how this has been set up.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780778386957.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

Originally published in 2018

Pete Banning was Clanton, Mississippi’s favorite son—a decorated World War II hero, the patriarch of a prominent family, a farmer, father, neighbor, and a faithful member of the Methodist church. Then one cool October morning he rose early, drove into town, and committed a shocking crime.  Pete’s only statement about it—to the sheriff, to his lawyers, to the judge, to the jury, and to his family—was: “I have nothing to say.” He was not afraid of death and was willing to take his motive to the grave.

In a major novel unlike anything he has written before, John Grisham takes us on an incredible journey, from the Jim Crow South to the jungles of the Philippines during World War II; from an insane asylum filled with secrets to the Clanton courtroom where Pete’s defense attorney tries desperately to save him. 

The Reckoning is far from my first encounter with the work of John Grisham though this is the first time I have written about one of his books for the blog. Like many, I first encountered his stories through the many film adaptations made in the late 90s and early 2000s and then went back to read the novels that inspired them. At his best Grisham is a highly engaging storyteller able to create tension and excitement in his stories about our legal processes and the search for justice.

Like much of Grisham’s output, The Reckoning follows a series of trials and legal processes connected with a crime: the murder of a pastor by a decorated war hero, Pete Banning. What is most notable about the murder however is that the killer initially admits his guilt but refuses to justify or explain his actions. While we will spend the novel following the legal processes connected with that murder and its aftermath, the mystery at the heart of his novel is what was the motive for the killing.

In other words, The Reckoning is an example of a mystery in the inverted style. We begin the novel witnessing the murder so we know who did it and the means used – what we are doing is searching for an explanation for its causes. I typically refer to stories in this style as justification narratives or whydunits. This is not always an easy type of story to do well but I think it pairs particularly well with legal thrillers because those stories tend to involve a lawyer looking for some good reason they can supply to try and prepare the best defense possible for their client. One example of that approach working well is Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case which was one of the first novels I reviewed on this blog.

Before I go much further though there is one way in which the book was a little atypical of Grisham’s usual style and that is it being a work of historical fiction. Grisham’s historical setting, rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, is convincing and important to the content of his story in several ways. For example, Pete Banning’s war service is very recent.

As you may expect, a novel set during this period and with those issues in the background can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to read. For instance the Banning family, we are told, treat their black workers better than almost anyone in Clanton yet there is an element of self-satisfaction in their thinking that is never directly explored. Grisham is far more effective when articulating how the legal system of that time was set up to protect the interests of wealthy, white landowners like Banning in ways it never would for the area’s black residents.

The scenario that Grisham creates for this novel is an intriguing one and I did appreciate that he does create and sustain some ambiguity in how we should think of Pete Banning. By not stating the reason for the murder until close to the end, all we have to go on is our perception of him as a man and his own sense of conviction that he has done the right thing both in committing his murder and then being prepared to be punished for his own actions.

Whether this is effective will depend on whether you consider Banning to be a sympathetic character or not. I think it is clear that Grisham considers him a hero, particularly from the book’s lengthy mid-section in which we follow his wartime exploits in far too much detail, but I personally struggled to warm to him or care what his reasoning was for the murder.

I was more sympathetic towards Pete’s two children and his sister who have to try to navigate the fallout from the murder. Both children begin the story at the start of their adult lives and so are stuck between their impulse to live their own lives and to return to Clanton in the hope they can do something to help their father. Given that they had no involvement in the situation themselves and everything they stand to lose, it is easier to invest in them and empathize with all they have lost.

Perhaps the character I sympathized most with however was a more minor one – Pete Banning’s attorney. He spends the entire novel being frustrated at every turn by his uncooperative client who blocks every avenue of defense open to him all while dodging paying his legal fees. Grisham does a good job of exploring the ways a client can frustrate their defender.

The other thing I found really interesting about the book was some of the historical background Grisham works into the first section. After reading more about Jimmy Thompson, a particularly colorful character, after encountering him briefly in the novel and I felt that the inclusion of some real historical figures helped bring the story to life all the more.

The mid-section of the novel covering Pete Banning’s war experiences is similarly well researched and features several real historical figures. His treatment of those is also very effective but here I felt Grisham gets lost in his enthusiasm for his historical research and loses track of the core of his story. Clearly the historical events Grisham covers were fascinating to him but given they are just providing background, I feel that far too much time is spent here, only slowing the story down.

Towards the end of the novel we do finally learn the reason for the murder. The circumstances described are interesting and expands on some of the themes Grisham had been exploring very well. Some important details are foreshadowed or clued pretty well which does make it feel pretty satisfying in how it ties some plot threads together, even if I don’t think it makes me feel quite the degree of sympathy for Banning that I think I was meant to.

While the book didn’t quite manage to prompt the emotional reaction I think the author intended, I think it has some interesting things to say about justice and also how unsatisfying that process can be. Even more powerful though is the book’s presentation of the period and place in which it is set. As much as I may grump about the book’s bloated midsection, the historical context of the story is important and Grisham does a really good job of exploring the ways that that the story’s setting affects how events unfold. It is that discussion that I think will stay with me longest when I think about this book.

The Verdict: Grisham is at his best with the sections of this novel focused on the legal processes surrounding the murder. I was less convinced by the book’s middle section which struck me as unnecessarily long and detailed, slowing down the story, but the ending was interesting enough to me to justify the journey.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? There is a pretty good chance you will be able to track down a copy of this book at your local bookstore or perhaps secondhand or thrift stores. If you need to special order a copy the ISBN for the US hardcover is 9780385544153, the US paperback is 978-1984819581 and the US mass market paperback is 978-0525620938.

Full disclosure: the links above are for, an online bookstore where your purchases help support your local, independent bookstores. These are affiliate links so if you do purchase a copy through them I may receive a small commission.

Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light (TV)

Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Negative Reaction
Followed by Playback

Originally broadcast October 27, 1974

Written by Howard Berk
Directed by Harvey Hart

Plot Summary

Colonel Rumford is the commandant of a military academy that is struggling to maintain enrollment as fewer young men consider a career in the military. When the chairman informs him that he will push ahead with his plan to make the school into a co-educational university and dismiss him, Rumford kills him, making the death appear to be a tragic accident. Unfortunately for Rumford, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo investigating the case…

My Thoughts

The Prisoner is one of my favorite television shows of all time and it has been one I have often revisited over the years. I hugely enjoy McGoohan’s intensity and charisma in the lead role of Number Six – a former spy who finds himself in a strange village where an antagonist, Number Two, plays games with him to try to learn his secrets. It was a format that really suited McGoohan’s abilities as an actor, typically pitting him one-on-one for intense interactions with other charismatic actors as they each try to break the other’s will.

While Rumford’s status as a killer leads to us wanting him to fail rather than triumph, that intense battle of wills is very much a part of this Columbo story, making McGoohan ideal casting for the part. This would be recognized after the fact with McGoohan picking up an Emmy for his performance. Perhaps the bigger sign of his success though is that he would return several times over the years that followed, not only contributing to the show as an actor and winning another Emmy but also as a writer and director.

It’s curious to think though that this episode could have turned out quite differently. According to Shooting Columbo, the original actor cast to play the role of Colonel Rumford was Ed Asner who dropped out after Peter Falk’s contract dispute led to delays in shooting. While Asner was certainly a fantastic performer, I find it hard to imagine anyone playing the part quite as well as McGoohan – an actor every bit as unpredictable and fascinating as Falk himself.

There’s lots to love about the interactions between these two intense performers. McGoohan’s role requires him at times to act with great force and show his anger but he balances these beautifully with moments in which he tries to ingratiate, placate and gently lead Columbo to the positions he hopes he will take. Those moments could easily have been played with high energy to draw your attention to them but instead McGoohan underplays them, allowing us to see him think and similarly observe how Falk is responding. At other points Falk takes the lead, encouraging us to wonder what lies beneath his questions but also how his counterpart is responding.

The relationship reminded me a little of a waltz with both characters trying to lead while also retaining their sense of grace and poise. McGoohan’s Rumford could so easily have gone into a hammy, over-the-top militarism – and he certainly has moments where we see flashes of that – but he also plays with subtext, allowing us into his character’s head and, in the process, rendering him as a significantly more complex and interesting individual than I think he would have been based on the script alone.

Falk seems to be noticeably engaged with this script and performance turning in an equally restrained and dry performance of his own. There are moments of comedy – hand Falk a map or a couple of bread rolls and he will inevitably make something amusing happen but while those moments can be pretty funny, they feel noticeably scaled back. My feeling is that Falk would often add to the comedic business of an episode when he wasn’t sure if it was working – here he seems to trust that the material will work. Which it does.

One of the ideas I like most about this episode is Columbo’s decision to place himself in the barracks, spontaneously deciding to stay on site. This not only allows the production to make the most of the setting, the striking Citadel campus in Charleston, South Carolina, but it also provides some entertaining moments as a disheveled Columbo is startled awake by the reveille or trying to borrow socks off some of the residents.

I think it also allows us to see a slightly different Columbo than we often see in these episodes as he is so clearly out of his element and comfort zone. This exposure to new pressures provides an opportunity to see some newer sides to this character even after four seasons. On a similar note, I also really enjoyed the character’s interactions with his very frustrated subordinates who clearly are used to the detective’s chaotic methods and just want to go home – we so often focus on Columbo working a case alone that it’s always interesting to get these little moments that give insight into how he is viewed by his colleagues.

In terms of the scripting, I think that the episode is surprisingly tight for a ninety minute story with little sense of any extraneous materiale. While I know from reading David Koenig’s book that a scene was added at McGoohan’s request, I was struck by how integrated it feels to the rest of the production. While it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot much, it does enrich the characters and give us a better understanding both of their dynamic and also some of the workings of the academy itself.

My only qualms about the plot are that I feel that the Colonel doesn’t really have a solid endgame in committing the murder. While I admire the way he anticipates and controls the scene in the lead up to the ‘accident’, I feel there are legitimate questions to be asked about just how things would have unfolded had Columbo never been assigned the case. Would the school have survived with its significantly declining enrollment? Would no one on the board have been aware of what the victim, Haynes, had in mind for the school? What would he have done if Haynes had not responded to his manipulations prior to the murder?

While I think you can ask some questions of the episode’s premise, I do really appreciate the slow build-up to the end. This is not the type of story that has a gotcha moment or some dramatic trick or reveal but rather it is much more like Columbo is operating a slowly tightening noose working its way the killer’s neck, leaving him confused and at a loss for how to get out until it is too late and the evidence seems to utterly incriminate him.

This makes for a splendid and compelling conclusion to a really interesting case. McGoohan proves to be inspired casting as the killer and I really enjoyed the rapport the two lead actors share. It is easy to see why the producers would bring him back several times in the years to come – it’s a great performance.

The Verdict: While not the flashiest or starriest of Columbo stories, this is a compelling and entertaining tale featuring a wonderful performance from Patrick McGoohan.

The Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert R. Rohmer

Originally published in 1978.
English translation first published in 1987.

Far from his work and family in Japan, Professor Daigo is watching an autumn storm from the salon of the Château Chantal. But it is only when the power is cut that he becomes aware of a woman, also Japanese, to whose elegant melancholy he is instantly drawn.

Intoxicated by the darkness and his desire, Daigo finds himself sharing a secret that his mysterious partner can equal with a confidence of her own: they both want another person dead. Before he knows it, Daigo has struck a bargain that could separate him from this bewitching woman for ever. And it is a bargain of which he barely understands the half…

The premise of The Third Lady may seem somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. Both stories feature characters who, upon a chance meeting, happen to share their secret desire to be rid of someone. Both also feature that moment in which the character we have been following comes to realize that the theoretical discussion they had has been brought into reality and have to decide if they will uphold their end of the bargain. While this work may share some significant plot elements, the way Natsuki presents and develops those ideas ends up feeling quite distinct from Highsmith’s, establishing it clearly as its own work.

The most obvious place we can see those differences is in the way in which the characters find themselves forming that murder pact. In The Third Lady, Professor Daigo is spending time in the salon of his hotel in France when the power goes out, leaving him in the darkness. In that moment he becomes aware that a woman, also apparently Japanese, is in the room with him. Excited by the darkness, her perfume, and the anonymity of their encounter, Daigo talks with her and in the course of their conversation she shares her desire to see a woman she holds responsible for the death of her beloved murdered. He in turn expresses his wish that his superior in his university faculty die for his role in covering up how a candy company was responsible for giving children cancer. Their confidences shared, the pair part before power is restored leaving Daigo with strong, sensual memories of the encounter but no knowledge of the woman’s appearance (beyond her pierced ears) or true identity.

When Daigo’s supervisor is killed just a short while later he suspects that what he had assumed was a theoretical discussion was actually an agreement. Desiring to meet the mysterious woman again, he undertakes to carry out the other murder. As he does so, he wonders who among the people in his victim’s life that woman might be and resolves to try and make contact with her after carrying out the crime.

One of the key differences here is in the tone and motivations of the characters in this pivotal moment in the story. Highsmith pitches her encounter as a moment of frustrated fantasy in which the characters talk at cross purposes, one taking that conversation seriously while the other believes (or convinces themselves) that they are not talking seriously. For Natsuki’s characters however it is a highly meaningful moment, inexplicably linked to a moment of intense but unfulfilled sexual desire.

Where Strangers on a Train becomes a novel of suspense, The Third Lady feels more like a meditation on how someone can be affected by that type of desire. Daigo seeks to kill out of the hope that in doing so it will enable him to encounter this woman again and complete that encounter. By the end of the novel the feverish search to discover the woman’s identity has taken on the same degree of importance as the thriller elements of he plot, incorporating elements of the detective story into the novel.

Another difference I perceive between the two books is the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. Highsmith’s Guy Haines is someone the reader is supposed to relate to. We are invited to understand his frustrations at his situation and why he would be so angry that he might have that foolish conversation on the train, even if his victim – while annoying and obviously tormenting him – makes for a bit of a figure of pity.

In contrast the reader is more likely to sympathize with Daigo’s feelings towards Professor Yoshimi whose crime is clearly a terrible one, particularly as it involves children, even if they disapprove of the ends to which he would go to remove him. Yet the more we see of Daigo, the less sympathetic he becomes. This is not just because the thing motivating him is so clearly a base instinct but that we realize he is willing to throw away his home life based on this one short encounter.

It’s at this point that I probably should say I find the initial encounter the least convincing part of the book. I felt Natsuki did establish the role that the unknown played in elevating the sense of excitement in that moment but the physical components to that scene feel a little contrived. It’s not that I don’t understand the effect that such an encounter might have but that the acceleration of the scene felt extremely jarring in the context of the conversation the pair were sharing.

The other key aspect of The Third Lady which distinguishes it is the emphasis it places upon its story elements. While the reader does follow Daigo as he comes to realize what may be expected of him and as he plots how to accomplish his task, the search for the woman’s true identity is given equal weight. Indeed, as we near the end of the novel it becomes nearly its whole focus. While that is appropriate to the themes Natsuki is exploring, this may disappoint those who come to this primarily for its crime elements as those moments are really minimized in the context of the novel overall.

The book’s later chapters also attempt to add a secondary perspective on the crime as we follow the detectives investigating the murders. This technique is often used to good effect in inverted stories to heighten the tension and produce that cat and mouse game but here it feels like an afterthought with little of importance revealed in these chapters. Indeed these chapters only seem to remove focus from Daigo, slowing down his story while adding little to the narrative overall. I felt that the book might have benefited from just inferring the details of the investigation in conversation with Daigo (as is done quite successfully in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon).

The bigger problem though with the book is its final destination: a final chapter that feels simultaneously sensational and yet unsurprising. My issue with the way the story is resolved is not that I found it quite predictable in terms of the information learned or that I found the scene that preceded it to be utterly unbelievable on an behavioral level, but that it is the sort of ending where the more you consider it, the harder it is to make sense of how things turned out and, in particular, the mentality of the characters.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that in the end the characters became like dolls, contorted into uncomfortable roles because of the demands of the moment rather than because it fit what we might expect a person to do in those circumstances. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the middle of the book and had been interested both in its concept and also characters.

The Verdict: Natsuki’s novel offers an intriguing twist on a classic mystery concept but I struggled with its awkward, contorted start and finish.

Second Opinions: John @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one over a decade ago, responding not only to the power of its ending but noting its success as a study of the illusions of love and obsession.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops (my copy set me back $6) or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1990 paperback edition from Mandarin.

My Brother’s Killer by Jean Potts

Originally published in 1975

Garth Sullivan lives in the same brownstone as his brother Howdy and his wife, Pamela. Garth once had a career as a woodworker, but that ended when Howdy accidentally caused the slicing of his two fingers. He once had Pamela, too. But now all he has is hate. A festering hate that only grows stronger with each dinner date. But Garth has a plan. It’s a great plan, a wonderful plan. All he has to do to rid himself of Howdy is to fake his own death, and wait for the perfect moment to kill him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take Eunice into consideration. Eunice is their less-than-attractive neighbor, and she is in love with Garth. So when she sees him outside the building after everyone else thinks he’s dead, she vows to keep his secret. But some secrets just can’t be kept…

Garth Sullivan has resented his happy-go-lucky brother Howdy since they were children, in part because their mother seemed to favor Howdy and excuse the various injuries he dealt Garth. Since then Howdy has caused several more serious injuries including the loss of several fingers in an act of drunken carelessness, rendering Garth unable to pursue his passion for woodworking. For Garth however the deepest cut was how, when his relationship with his girlfriend Pam was floundering in the aftermath of the accident, Howdy seemed to steal her from him leading to the pair eventually marrying.

What adds to Garth’s problems is that he cannot seem to get away from Howdy as the pair live in the same building and he is frequently asked to socialize with them. Howdy, seemingly oblivious to Garth’s upset, has even taken to suggesting that romance might be in the offing with their awkward neighbor Eunice, trying to throw them together. What transforms Garth’s sentiments from sibling resentments to a murderous rage is an incident involving an item which, unbeknownst to Howdy, has a great significance for Garth…

My Brother’s Killer, the last of Jean Potts’ crime novels, is a story told in an inverted style in which we follow Garth as he schemes to bring about his brother’s murder as a prelude to starting a new life for himself. After carefully setting out how those tensions came about, we then see Garth starting to execute his scheme though we have little sense of what he exactly he is planning at that point – only his end goal.

As a storytelling technique this is quite exciting as it certainly creates a sense of mystery concerning the significance of his preparations. Much of the early intrigue lies in trying to understand just what his plan entails as we also get to know these characters better and understand the complex emotional dynamics at play in the various relationships, not only between the brothers but also the other residents of the brownstone in which they live.

After the first stage of Garth’s plan is pulled off however our focus on his actions is relaxed and he begins to operate in the background with our focus falling instead on those in his brother’s orbit. This can be quite effective, particularly in exploring the ways in which they react to what he has done, but with this shift in focus I think the piece loses some of its energy and bite. There is, of course, still plenty of tension and suspense but the awkward introduction of several new characters, Lenny and David, at this stage in the story slows things down and threatens to draw our attention away from the novel’s central conflict.

The introduction of David in particular feels odd as it attempts to graft a more sympathetic hero-figure onto a story featuring more nuanced, complex characters. Potts has to work hard to integrate him into the story and I struggled at points to understand why that character would choose to get involved in the way he does here.

I was more interested in the reactions of those who had known Garth well, particularly Eunice who we know nursed an unrequited love for her neighbor. Potts does a fine job of showing the complexities and contradictions within her character and I appreciate also that there are some moments that show her resourcefulness and explore her feelings towards him.

Perhaps the least developed of the characters, at least in the way he is presented to us, is Howdy. Of all the characters in the brownstone, he seems to be given the least to do and he seems oblivious to the dangers facing him for most of the story. This is perhaps necessary for the purposes of the plot but it also means that while we come to understand Garth’s perspective about Howdy, we know far less about how the latter feels about his brother. That is not necessarily a problem as our focus is really on Garth’s perceptions of that relationship and how that motivates him to want to murder but it does feel like we learn about his character primarily through others’ thoughts and actions rather than his own which isn’t as tidy as it might have been.

While I found that the plot seemed to slow as David comes to the fore, there are still some moments of excitement though the book’s conclusion felt a little rushed and anticlimactic after so much buildup. There are certainly some interesting emotional notes generated by its ending, but though I think Potts provides a really compelling resolution to that story, I couldn’t help but feel that we might have got there sooner and that this moment might have benefited by less unnecessary buildup and a greater focus on the brothers themselves.

The Verdict: I enjoyed the scenario Potts creates and her exploration of Garth’s character and resentments but I felt that the storytelling lost a little focus after the novel’s midpoint. While this may have been necessary to stretch out the story, I would have preferred it be shorter and more tightly focused on its compelling central relationship.

Second Opinions: Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently featured the title as one of his Friday Forgotten Books. While the review is not exactly a rave, it describes the book as a good example of Potts’ craft as a storyteller.

Elsewhere, A Hot Cup of Pleasure featured a short review of the book in a post about three of Potts’ works. One point made that interested me was the suggestion that we can understand Garth’s anger toward his brother, which I agree with, those I think we are bound to lose that sympathy with him later in the story.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was recently reprinted by Stark House in a twofer edition along with The Diehard, another novel by Potts I have yet to review on this blog. Your local bookseller should be able to order you a copy with the ISBN 978-1-951473-74-7.

Columbo: Negative Reaction (TV)

Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by An Exercise in Fatality
Followed by By Dawn’s Early Light

Originally broadcast October 15, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

Photographer Frank Galesko is tired of Frances, his ‘domineering, nagging, suffocating’ wife and perhaps a little interested in Lorna, his pretty, young assistant. Determined to be rid of her, he stages her kidnapping and ransom with the aid of an associate and kills her, framing the man who unwittingly helped him pull it off. He seems to have crafted an unbreakable alibi for himself. Unfortunately for Frank, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

My Thoughts

There are some Columbo killers whose names you see on the titles and think to yourself that they were obviously perfect casting for the killer. People like Donald Pleasance and Leonard Nimoy come to mind. It’s not just that they are good at playing menacing but that you can imagine how the back and forth between them and Falk will likely play out. There is a second type of Columbo killer though that can be equally successful when pulled off – the actor who is cast against type. It is this second type of successful antagonist that we find in Negative Reaction.

As much as I enjoy Dick van Dyke as an entertainer, I didn’t have high expectations when I saw that he was the killer in this episode. I think of van Dyke as a charming, urbane and playful performer and so it was hard to imagine him as ruthless or cruel. My expectation was that the production would use his affability as a way to obscure his character’s nature – leaning into his likeability – but the episode actually goes the other way, emphasizing the character’s cruelty in one of the most brutal and calculating murders seen on the show to date (minus the actual killing of course).

There is a certain shock value to seeing loveable family entertainer Dick van Dyke behaving that way which does help make that opening feel all the more arresting but the performance and the setup doesn’t rely on that. Galesko’s plan itself is interesting, seeing the killer recruit an unwitting accomplice to help him pull off his crime. It’s a fascinating structure that helps to stress just how carefully this character has planned his murder, and it does create one of the more intriguing alibi problems that Columbo has encountered to date.

While the sequence in which Galesko sets up a photograph to suggest a false time of death is presented as a centerpiece, the cleverest aspect of the crime to me was the way he plays the kidnapping angle. This is partly because it does help sell the broader story but it’s also because of the way the scene plays out with the character appearing to try to avoid talking about it. So often in these sorts of stories the killer will draw attention to themselves by trying to force a memory onto someone, perhaps by asking them to look at the time, so it feels quite novel to see it play out the other way here. What’s more, I feel that this scene is built upon some pretty accurate psychology – we do tend to pay more attention to those things we are supposed not to notice.

Galesko’s choice of associate is similarly very clever (and also quite cruel). While I think many would question what they were being asked to do, that character’s situation is such that you can understand why they wouldn’t think too much about it and instead just accept it on face value. Here once again I feel Galesko’s cunning and brutality as a killer is really sold and I felt that this part of the plot is paid off well, even if a key moment of violence doesn’t entirely convince in the portrayal of its consequences (though here, again, I love the way it drives home Galesko’s ruthlessness and dedication to his aims).

So that’s close to full marks to this episode and to van Dyke for its portrayal of the murder scheme. This gets things off to a fine start and sets up an intriguing problem for Columbo to try to work through. Firstly, can he see through Galesko and what he has been willing to do in order to appear to be an innocent victim? Second, how can he break his seemingly tight alibi? Then lastly, how will he prove the photographer masterminded the whole thing?

What intrigues me here is that Galesko once again underplays his hand, avoiding excessive displays of grief and not even doing much to cover up his interest in Lorna. This is perhaps a reflection of the character’s arrogance – he believes his alibi is so strong that he believes he cannot be caught. In any case, it is another instance of how van Dyke plays against expectations to create a character who must rank among the least likeable of the villains the show had created up until this point.

Falk has a very solid episode, getting quite a lot of comical material to work with. Much of this is in the familiar but fertile ground of Columbo being judged by his disheveled appearance – in this case there is a misunderstanding with his vehicle and, later in the episode, confusion at a soup kitchen. None of this is unexpected but Falk’s delivery and reactions are good and while I suspect there is some padding there, both scenes are important enough in other regards to keep that from being too evident and they don’t slow the episode down too much either.

On more original ground, there is an amusing sequence in which Columbo tries to question a witness while driving which works very nicely. It is nice to see the show giving Falk something fresh to play with and the scene is pitched at just about the right length, getting a few goes at the gag before moving on.

Columbo’s investigation is similarly well-pitched, delivering several interesting lines of inquiry and interactions with some colorful characters. What really impresses though is that this is one of the strongest cases that our hero has built up against a suspect up to this point in the series. Over the course of the episode we see him pick up on small tells, none of them significant enough in their own right to prove anything but which taken together put him on the right track.

Some of those tells are based on observing Galesko’s behavior which, as I noted earlier, is hardly that of the grieving husband but Columbo is also responsible for generating some of those moments. One of the more memorable examples of this comes with his behavior at the funeral but there are plenty of other examples as well.

All of this builds to a very clever example of a gotcha moment – perhaps the show’s best one since Suitable for Framing. It involves a piece of trickery which I usually don’t love but here the trick is a great one, made better by it operating to incriminate his adversary on several levels. After watching van Dyke’s Galesko comfortably wriggle free of each of Columbo’s attempts to snare him throughout the episode, seeing him trapped so conclusively feels devastating and unlikely some other examples, I don’t see how he can ever talk his way out of it in any kind of a convincing way at trial. It’s a very satisfying way to conclude this case.

I may have been a little apprehensive about what I would get when I started this episode but I am happy to say that I felt all of my expectations were exceeded. This is a very solid case with one of the most detestable killers the show had created, brilliantly realized with an unexpected piece of casting. While it is still a little early for me to be thinking about ranking Columbo episodes, I will be surprised if it isn’t at the upper end of my list whenever I make it.

The Verdict: Far better than I had expected. The investigation is interesting and though it is one of the longer episodes, I was surprised when I realized it was one of the longer ones – the time seemed to fly by!

Bad Kids by Zijin Chen

Originally published in 2014 as 隐秘的角落
English translation first published in 2022
Yan Liang #2
Preceded by The Untouched Crime

One beautiful morning, Zhang Dongsheng pushes his wealthy in-laws off a remote mountain.

It’s the perfect crime. Or so he thinks.

For Zhang did not expect that teenager Chaoyang and his friends would catch him in the act. An opportunity for blackmail presents itself and the kids start down a dark path that will lead to the unravelling of all their lives.

Thirteen year old Zhu Chaoyang lives a pretty sad and isolated life. Though he is a brilliant student, always at the top of his class, he is bullied and put down by his wealthier classmates. His homelife is also difficult as his mother works a poorly paid job at a national park that leaves him alone for days at a time while his father, having abandoned them when he was two, devotes all his attention and money on his new wife and their young daughter.

He is surprised one day when he encounters a friend from his early childhood who has come in search of him. Ding Hao, who had abruptly disappeared from his life years earlier, turns up on his doorstep with a girl nicknamed Pupu in search of shelter after the pair stole money and fled from the abusive orphanage where they had been living. You might expect that their revelations that they both had parents who were murderers might be red flags for Chaoyang but instead he is just grateful to finally have friends.

After acquiring a beat-up old camera, Chaoyang and his new buddies decide to pay a visit to the national park where his mother works to take some photos and videos. While they are there they witness what seems to be an accident where an elderly couple sat on a wall tragically fell to their death. When they watch back the video of the incident however they are shocked to see them toppled over deliberately. While Chaoyang’s instincts are to turn the video over to the police, he realizes that to do so would result in his two friends being sent back to the orphanage. Instead the trio develops an alternative plan to blackmail the killer, hoping that they can use the payoff to secure their futures…

Bad Kids is the second of Zijin Chen’s Yan Liang novels featuring a retired policeman turned college professor to be translated into English. If, like me, you are not a fan of jumping into series in the middle however you can rest assured that doing so here will not disadvantage you as he has very little involvement for much of the story which mostly treats him as an observer, making this read like a standalone.

After a short but punchy opening in which we follow Zhang Dongshen as he carries out the crime Chaoyang and his friends will witness, brutally dispatching his wealthy in-laws in a staged accident, our focus shifts to follow Chaoyang and his new friends. While we will return to Dongshen and have occasional interludes with Yan Liang, our focus is really on these young characters and the decisions they make in response to this initial crime.

Chen structures their story as an evolving series of problems and opportunities, exploring the ripples caused by the children’s witnessing of that crime. The chapters in which the trio discuss their options and make their decisions feel convincing, particularly given what we learn of the two visitors’ backgrounds, and I think their discussions do a great job of illustrating each of those three characters, their personalities and instincts as well as the power dynamics between them. Those relationships change subtly over the course of the novel but these early chapters do a good job of establishing a baseline.

One of the other things that I think is particularly effective in those early chapters is the way Chen depicts the trio having to figure out how to practically achieve their goal. How, for instance, do you negotiate with someone who was prepared to kill their own in-laws? Here, once again, Chen’s writing feels really quite organic as they are forced to reconsider and rework parts of their plan as they get a better gauge of their target and what he is capable of.

That game of wits between the murderer and his young blackmailers is a large part of the book’s appeal and produces much of the novel’s tension. The decision to tell the book in the third person allows us little insights into Zhang Dongshen’s thoughts, letting us know some of his secret thoughts and plans. This not only provides us with additional insights into his character but it also reminds us that no matter what he is saying, he remains dangerous and has little intention of just giving in, building our anticipation as we wonder whether the trio will lose their control over him.

While Zhang Dongshen’s crime provides a starting point for the novel’s exploration of these characters and its discussion of desperation and criminality, before long Chen supplies us with further crimes to explore. Unlike the first murder, which happens so quickly with barely any description, the subsequent crimes feel more immediate and – frankly – cruel. There is one that more than earns the book its title and left me feeling really rather shaken. While the chapters related to that incident did not make for easy reading, I think the author does depict the situation quite realistically and I suspect that part of the reason it did upset me was because it feels quite credible.

This event, along with the others in the book, explores the children’s characters and personalities in interesting ways. We observe as the power dynamics within the trio shift and change, also seeing their priorities and concerns shift as well. As a character study I found it understated but very effective, though I quickly realized that I had abandoned hope of finding anyone I liked among the cast of characters. We may certainly empathize with the children’s situations but bad decision-making abounds.

Chen neatly structures his plot to have these situations snowball as pressures grow and situations become more complex. He juggles multiple plot strands with ease, tying them together very effectively as these problems seem to feed into each other, making the idea of a clean resolution seem quite unthinkable (and that sidesteps the question of whether we would really want such an ending).

As interesting as the plotting can be however, I should stress that for much of the book it is striking how poorly the various investigations are handled. In almost every case the most obvious suspect seems to evade suspicion, sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. To give one example, there is a murder that characters assume that someone has a solid alibi for where there is one rather obvious way that they might be guilty. While the details of how that murder was managed are quite clever (and the reveal of that pays off all the expectation built in the preceding chapters very nicely), the police do not come out of this story looking particularly competent.

This brings us to the conclusion which does feel suitably dramatic, powerfully playing off the themes that had been carefully developed throughout the novel. There are some interesting and satisfying choices made in that conclusion which realize ideas and themes explored in the preceding chapters but perhaps the bravest choice is Chen’s decision to leave the resolution a little incomplete, leaving at least a few questions unanswered. It’s the sort of ending that could make for rich fodder for book club discussions.

Yet while Chen’s exploration of his themes and these characters can be quite compelling and complex, the crimes depicted here are seedy, realistic and relatively straightforward. This is, of course, understandable given the age and inexperience of the protagonists but I wished I would see a little more ingenuity and cunning from Zhang Dongshen, who had supposedly been something of a prodigy as a student, to really test them.

At its best Bad Kids is a fascinating read, particularly in its rich and multi-layered exploration of Zhu Chaoyang’s character and the way this experience changes him. The book occasionally made for uncomfortable reading and I could understand readers struggling with its cast of unlikeable characters, but I found the journey they take to be worthwhile and I would certainly be curious to go back and investigate the previous novel in this series, The Untouched Crime.

The Verdict: A dark read but a fascinating one. More powerful for its thoughtful character studies than for the crimes it depicts, I found this to be an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable read nonetheless.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? The English translation of this title was published earlier this year in the UK by Pushkin Press for their Vertigo imprint. The ISBN number for this title is 9781782277620. As availability in the United States seems to be limited, I had to order it online from a UK-based bookseller who ship internationally.

Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (TV)

Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by A Friend in Deed
Followed by Negative Reaction

Originally broadcast September 15, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer from a story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Plot Summary

Health club owner Milo Janus has been ripping off his franchisees while bumping up fees and embezzling money with the intention to cut and run. He didn’t anticipate that one of them would catch on and closely scrutinize the books, hoping to report him to the authorities for fraud. Milo decides to murder him before he can prove anything, staging an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for Milo, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

My Thoughts

An Exercise in Fatality kicks off Columbo‘s shortened fourth season with an engaging case set around a gym franchise. Like many of the more memorable episodes we have seen so far, the idea here is one of contrasts, placing the detective into an environment that he seems ill-suited to. With his fondness for chili, coffee, and smoking cigars, Columbo is anything but a health fanatic which the episode plays with in several comedic scenes. The previous season had briefly played with a similar concept in its season opener, Lovely but Lethal, but the treatment here feels sharper and while there are some weaknesses to address, this is a more successful effort across the board.

One reason that this story works a little better than that previous one is that the killer, Milo Janus, has actually planned their crime rather than acting on the spur on the moment. What we have then isn’t just a cover-up but a clearly premeditated crime with a seemingly unbreakable alibi for Columbo to bust. I’ll address in a moment why that doesn’t work perfectly but it does at least mean that there is more here for our sleuth to piece together, making the detective’s job considerably harder.

Robert Conrad (Wild Wild West) is well cast as that killer who ticks many of the Columbo villain boxes. Instead of class or wealth being the dividing line, Janus’ snobbery is most clearly observed when discussing Columbo’s poor health habits and general appearance. Janus, we are told, is older than Columbo yet looks years younger. His outfits are generally sharp and extremely well-fitted, and the episode delights in pointing out the contrast between the two men – most memorably in a sequence where Columbo tries to keep up with him to ask questions while running on a beach.

Unlike some of the other killers, Janus never really seems to regard Columbo as a threat. He is irritated by his presence, trying to stonewall or exclude him from the business rather than indulging him or trying to lead the investigation. It’s clearly never going to work yet it feels a bit different from the attitudes we’ve seen in cases from the previous season, making this approach feel fresher and distinctive as Columbo is forced to work some slightly different angles to get the information he needs.

What feels particularly new here though is that this is one of the very few cases where we see Columbo voice an anger about the case, bringing it into one of Columbo’s key exchanges with Janus. It feels powerful because it is so unexpected for the character, showing a slightly new side to him while also creating a slightly different dynamic than we have seen before. Typically Columbo gains more and more control over the case as the story goes on – here his outburst threatens to destroy everything he has carefully built up.

Let’s talk unbreakable alibis because I think that this is really the episode’s weakest element. Janus’ plan for the murder requires him to be present so he will not be able to have an alibi for the real time of the murder – instead he has to lead the detectives to think that the crime happened later than it did. The moment we see a certain piece of technology the viewer will guess where things are headed, though the story is somewhat predicated on Janus having a completely unnecessary system in place that he can subsequently exploit. It’s a little contrived but the problem isn’t so much in the concept but that when Columbo finds it there is little excitement or cleverness in how it has been used or how he will prove it. Instead it takes the focus off the slightly more clever observations about some of the other steps in the deception.

The other problem I have with the unbreakable alibi is that the idea Janus has constructed feels so implausible to begin with. One of the key components is that there is some time that has to be accounted for so he makes up a story that is far from convincing and that can be easily checked. While that may not be the point that the episode hinges on, it does make Janus’ plan seem quite sloppy and it keeps this from feeling like a truly ingeniously worked scheme and thus Columbo’s efforts feel a little less impressive as a consequence.

The other problem I have with this episode is that the padding here feels very visible. Some of it, such as the beach run, is amusing enough that it didn’t bother me but there is one lengthy sequence where Columbo goes to get some information from an HR department to help him track down a lead that is dragged out far too long with little comedic payoff. That sequence which comes near the midpoint of the episode just slows everything down, destroying the episode’s momentum which to that point had been quite brisk.

On a more positive note though, while I may not have loved some of the technical elements of the episode, I think the conclusion is powerful and contains a great example of Columbo using his deductive skills to catch Janus in an inconsistency he just cannot explain. It’s not a showy example of the gotcha moment but it feels all the more satisfying for it being one created through the application of logic to the facts of the case, creating a wonderful sense that the killer has unnecessarily trapped themselves with their own cleverness.

It’s a really satisfying moment, in part because I think it is so easy to find ourselves detesting Janus and all he stands for. There is no sense that he is unfortunate or that anything about his situation is unfair and so it is easy to take pleasure in seeing him taken down, particularly given his earlier angry exchange with Columbo.

The Verdict: Some sloppiness with the unbreakable alibi and issues with some very visible padding are a shame because Conrad makes for an excellent Columbo villain.