Nightcap (Movie)

Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis

When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.

Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.

During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.

As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.

Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.

The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.

It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.

That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.

The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.

The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.

This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.

The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).

The Verdict:

Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.

Frantic by Noël Calef, translated by R. F. Tannenbaum

The Verdict

A rather entertaining crime story, laced with ironic developments and a strong sense of tension.

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud
English translation first published in 1961

The Blurb

Julien Courtois finds himself in a bit of a financial bind. And the only way out is murder. He’s even got the perfect plan. While his secretary believes him to be in his office, he climbs up a rope to an upper floor and stages his victim’s “suicide.” It all works according to plan. But on his way out of the building, he remembers that the rope is still dangling out of the window, leading right down to his office! Rushing back into the building, Julien manages to get stuck in the elevator when the janitor turns off the power for the weekend. At the same time, a young couple steal Julien’s car from in front of the building, and his wife, thinking she’s watching Julien drive off with another woman, assumes the worst. And so begins a torturous set of circumstances. While Julien remains trapped in the elevator, his life gradually becomes unraveled by a vindictive wife and a couple of teenagers playing at being gangsters.

Filmed in 1961 by Louis Malle as Elevator to the Gallows, this classic French novel is a masterpiece of noir tension.

When the noise reached its peak, Julien Courtois, dreamlike, made the gesture he’d rehearsed a hundred times. He put the gun barrel against the loan-shark’s temple and, in the same fraction of a second, pulled the trigger…

My Thoughts

Julien Courtois is a man pushed to his financial limits. He is living well outside his means and has long since exhausted the goodwill and generosity of his friends and family. His most immediately problem however is that he has borrowed a sizable sum from a moneylender that has long since come due. With no prospect of making the payment, his financial troubles are certain to become widely known and ruin seems sure to follow.

Julien Courtois has an audacious plan however that, if it works, ought to erase that debt and enable him to start afresh. He intends to be seen to go into his office at the end of the workday, then quickly scale the outside of his building, murder that moneylender several floors above (retrieving evidence of his debt in the process), and then return to his own moments later to leave for the weekend, giving himself an unbreakable alibi. It seems like a perfect plan and everything seems to have gone smoothly until he remembers he forgot to remove a piece of evidence that will give the whole thing away. Frantically he dashes back inside only to get trapped in the elevator in the now-deserted building…

One of the joys of an inverted mystery for me is trying to figure out what that crucial piece of evidence might be. What makes Frantic particularly entertaining though is that while Julien is focused on that item inside the building, we are made aware of dangers lying outside it that he cannot anticipate. Even knowing what characters are up to, it only becomes clear in the final few chapters of the novel how each of those elements will come together to bring about his destruction. It’s a very satisfying structure which Calef delivers beautifully.

There is lots to enjoy in just the way that this story is set up. For instance, I appreciate that Julien has carefully considered a number of steps in his plan – timing it to perfection and carefully thinking through the problem of how to ensure his debt disappears. It feels like a rather solid plan with lots of attention to detail yet the thing he neglects is, in contrast, so simple that his failure to think of it is all the more striking.

I similarly enjoy the way the other story strands clearly escalate Julien’s problems, often combining in unexpected ways to throw him into deeper jeopardy. There are so many wonderful, ironic moments here and when they are finally brought together it is done brilliantly to deliver a really striking, Ilesian finish.

It should be said that this is not going to be one of those inverted stories where you feel sorry for the protagonist. While Julien clearly exerts a charm on some of those in his life, the book is also clear about his character faults which include womanizing and deceit. Sure, I was entertained following him and I did wonder if he might get free but I never hoped he would get away with murder. What makes it compelling is the tension inherent to this rather incredible situation.

I was perhaps a little more sympathetic to some of the other characters in the story, not least the young woman who takes his car for a joyride with her boyfriend. Though she has committed a crime, I felt I understood her well by the end of the story and also that the resolution of her story was really memorable. I would say that even the most sympathetic characters are still not all that likable and so if you are looking for a mystery story where you will have a character to root for, this is perhaps not the read for you.

Calef balances each of these story strands well, never allowing us to go too long without checking in on the other characters. This not only helps to keep the action moving, it helps balance the tone. This is particularly important given that the characters are in effect operating independently of each other, even if the threads will ultimately overlap, as it allows for a sense of variety.

It was, all-in-all, a rather quick and punchy read. Calef writes in an engaging way, effectively conveying the tension of a situation and describing any moments of action very clearly. Throw in a rather grabbing and imaginative starting point and you have the ingredients for a very readable story which had me engrossed right up to its very effective conclusion.

It’s such a visually-minded story that I find myself excited to go off and watch the movie adaptation. Happily I already own a copy of Elevator to the Gallows (though I have yet to see it) so I will hope to find time to sit down and watch it at some point soon. I will, no doubt, let you know what I think. In the meantime, if you have read the book or seen the movie I’d love to hear what you make of it.

Niagara (Film)

Poster for Niagara

One of my favorite recurring features I have on this blog is my Why I Love video series in which I discuss aspects of crime-themed films I find interesting. The idea of those posts is to celebrate a film so while I have been wanting to discuss the 1953 noir film Niagara, I realized that probably wouldn’t be a good fit. The reason is that while it is an interesting film, I think it is a fundamentally flawed one.

The story was an original one, apparently developed in response to an idea from producer Charles Brackett. He wanted a movie set against the backdrop of the majestic falls. It was apparently screenwriter Walter Reisch who added the murder scheme.

Polly and Ray Cutler are visiting Niagara Falls on a belated honeymoon. When they arrive to check in to their reserved cabin, the manager reveals that the couple occupying it have not checked out as they were supposed to. The manager goes to hurry them along but when Rose tells them that her husband, a Korean War vet who has recently been discharged from an army hospital, has been sick for some days and is finally asleep, Polly offers to switch to a less desirable cabin and allow them to stay longer.

Polly and Ray soon notice signs that the marriage between Rose and George Loomis is far from ideal. During a visit to the Falls, Polly notices Rose in a passionate embrace with a man who is not her husband and later that evening George behaves erratically, storming out of the cabin to snatch and break a record his wife was playing. What they don’t know is that Rose and her young man are plotting to take care of George so that they can be together.

It’s a pretty promising setup for a suspenseful murder story. The early parts of the film use the space of the holiday camp well, contrasting Rose’s warmth and outgoing nature with George’s isolation and seeming misanthropy. We repeatedly see him look through the windows, watching his wife yet not really engaging with her, building up this sense of an isolated and perhaps rather troubled man.

The actors cast for the pivotal roles of Rose and George were Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. They make for an interesting and somewhat mismatched pair. She is youthful, sensuous and beautiful – he seems sharp, bitter and tired. One of the mysteries that this film never quite gets around to explaining is how the pair ended up together in the first place, dropping a mention that she had been a barmaid. Did she love him but tire of his behavior or was she mercenary and unfaithful from the start? Why is murder necessary rather than just divorce? The film never answers those points clearly.

Both actors exude star power though in quite different ways. Monroe’s career was well established by this point but this film marked a transition to an even bigger level of stardom, amplifying the perception of her as a sex symbol. This is sometimes shown in overt moments such as a shower scene and several scenes that take place in and around bed but it is clear throughout much of the rest of the film as well as the camera seems to linger on her, often for several beats after the dramatic content of a shot has been concluded. Some moments, such as when she dreamily sings along to that record she puts on, seem to strain the pace and can feel a little self-indulgent. They can be charming but they do little to tell the story or to enhance our understanding of the character.

Marilyn Monroe in Niagara
Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (20th Century Fox)

The editing and cinematic choices place a focus upon aspects of Monroe’s sexuality which may cause some to overlook the quality of the performance she gives. While Monroe fits the femme fatale archetype well, she also makes some interesting acting choices that tease out aspects of Rose’s character. Unfortunately however the character as written feels quite limited, at least in terms of what he gives her to say and do, and so while we spend quite a bit of time with her, I never felt that we really get to know her completely.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors from this era of cinema which no doubt reflects that he had starred in my favorite film of all time just a couple of years before this was made. Like Monroe, he feels like a star and while his performance feels quite constrained at times, perhaps reflecting that he spends much of the film alone or isolated from the characters other than Rose, whenever he is on screen he had my attention, even if he wasn’t the person talking.

The problem in this film is that while Cotten gives a fine rendering of his character’s bitterness and inner turmoil, he feels too big for this part as it appears based on what we know of it. The film needs us to make assumptions about how the film will go and what will happen for a moment late in the film to have its full impact. Instead of surprising however it ends up feeling like an inevitable development, undercutting the power of that moment.

Playing opposite them are Jane Peters as Polly Cutler (who is superb) and Max Showalter as her husband Ray. Their youth and playfulness makes a striking contrast with the personalities of the Loomises, though I found Polly’s warmth and gentle teasing far more pleasant than Ray’s rather tiresome expressions of his jovial nature (which only get worse when the similarly demonstrative figure of Mr. Kettering shows up).

Perhaps the real star of the picture is the view. Niagara Falls is rarely out of sight for much of the film and there are several scenes that show it off to startling effect, made all the more remarkable by the luscious Technicolor film. While I have seen it on film before, it is fascinating to see it so many years ago when the tourism industry was in its infancy. These shots are quite startling and do a lot to convey the power and majesty of the falls which will be important to later developments in the story.

After establishing the characters and the premise, we then observe as Rose and her lover prepare to go through with their plan. One of the things that struck me about this is that while we know their intentions, Hathaway never shares the details of their plan, nor do we ever get to know her lover. As with her relationship with George, this left me with a number of unanswered questions. How did they meet? Was this plan developed now or was it always their intention to murder him? Is Rose serious about him or does she intend him to meet a similar fate in the future?

While I don’t mind that the film is enigmatic on those points, I feel that the distance between us and the plotters prevents a later shift in direction from having the impact it might have done had we been more involved with their plan from the start.

When that moment of transition in the story does come however it feels quite masterful, setting up a pretty effective final act which not only incorporates quite a bit of action, it also features some rather powerful emotional moments too. It’s a pretty effective thriller ending but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t quite fit comfortably with the material that had preceded it.

That sense that the different elements of this film are not working in harmony is a large part of the reason I think it ultimately fails to hit home the way it should have done. The concept here is good and the film often looks really striking, even close to seventy years later, but the balance of those elements unfortunately feels a little off and a moment that the film is meant to build towards falls flat, feeling a little obvious.

It’s not bad. Just not as good as it could so easily have been.

Niagara (1953)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Written by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Verdict

A largely entertaining thriller which takes inspiration from a classic but manages to do its own thing with the basic concept.

Book Details

Originally published in 2015

The Blurb

In a tantalizing set-up reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train… On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. Ted and his wife were a mismatch from the start—he the rich businessman, she the artistic free spirit—a contrast that once inflamed their passion, but has now become a cliché.

But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily’s twisted bond grows stronger as they begin to plot Miranda’s demise. But there are a few things about Lily’s past that she hasn’t shared with Ted, namely her experience in the art and craft of murder, a journey that began in her very precocious youth.

Suddenly these co-conspirators are embroiled in a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, one they both cannot survive . . . with a shrewd and very determined detective on their tail.

Everyone dies. What difference does it make if a few bad apples get pushed along a little sooner than God intended? 

My Thoughts

Ted Severson is waiting for a long haul flight when he meets and starts talking with Lily Kintner. Bonding over drinks, the pair agree to play a game where they will only tell the truth to each other. He tells her about the state of his marriage after he discovered his wife Miranda has been cheating on him with the man building the couple’s new luxury home. When Lily asks Ted what he will do about it he suggests that he really wants to kill her and is surprised when she offers to help.

It’s a setup that pays homage to one of my favorite novels, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, though I should stress Swanson will ultimately take his story in quite a different direction. While that story placed her two would-be killers at odds with one another in a twisted relationship of dependency and resentment, Swanson’s characters by contrast are far more stable and composed. There is also a difference in the aspects of the situation the author finds interesting. While Highsmith focuses on the decay of a relationship, Swanson places his focus on exploring Lily’s history and her psychology.

He does this by frequently switching perspectives, initially alternating between Ted and Lily before eventually bringing some other voices into the story. This allows the author to explore the contrast between how something appears and its reality, at times offering second perspectives on things we have already experienced. At several points in the story this is used quite effectively to change our understanding of what is happening and to move the action in a different direction.

While I do not want to be too specific about the specific plot developments, I would suggest that the narrative has two distinct phases. The first involves the planning of the murder and our learning more about Lily’s past. This is slower and more characterful, with a focus on understanding the different personalities at play. There is a noticeable shift that occurs about halfway through the novel however that sees the novel take on a greater focus on the action and it incorporates some elements of peril for the characters.

I enjoyed aspects of both approaches, though on balance I found the second half of the novel more unpredictable and engaging. I was taken quite off-guard by how quickly the story accelerates and I appreciated the expansion of the narration to include some additional perspectives. This not only appealed because of the variety it adds but because it gives the reader a sense of discovery as they can suddenly make connections that expand and complicate the story.

One of the other aspects of that second half of the novel that I particularly enjoyed is the cat and mouse game that several of the characters begin to engage in. Swanson handles this really well, allowing us to see one character make their moves and then, in the following chapter, we see a different character prepare and respond. I anticipated some developments and was surprised by others but even when I felt I knew where things were headed I was generally pleased by how it was realized.

Of the characters we get to know in the course of the novel, Lily was the most interesting to me. There are some aspects of that story that are pretty dark and potentially triggering but I felt that by the end of the novel I had a clear understanding of who she was and what lay behind those actions. That is not to say though that this character is always relatable or that the reader is expected to be sympathetic to them – I don’t think any of the characters here come off particularly well in that regard however.

It’s that last point that I feel makes the book ultimately work. Swanson creates a cast of people the reader is bound not to like. Rather than making us love these characters and want their happiness, our interest is in exploring their machinations and seeing how they will be brought down.

The novel builds a sense of tension well as the story approaches its conclusion and I was gripped by the chapters exploring the fallout from what happens. After several big twists earlier in the story, that moment felt quite tidy and surprisingly straightforward in comparison but I think that partly reflects how clearly some elements had been set in place earlier.

That is not to say however that I loved everything about this novel. One of my biggest issues with it was with one of the book’s earliest scenes.

While I came to understand the emotions and reasonings behind many of Lily’s actions, I still find the initial conversation between Ted and Lily rather contrived. While some things we learn later in the novel help give that moment new context, I struggled to believe that the conversation would play out as neatly as it does. That may seem strange given my love of Highsmith’s story but there I feel there are some very clear reasons that the suggestion of murder could be lightly brought up and in fact the plot hinges to some extent on the idea that one character was engaging with that conversation purely as fantasy. Here that is far from the case: Ted is taking it seriously. That’s a difficult idea for me to take seriously and I’m afraid that, much as I wanted to, I was never entirely happy with how that scene plays out.

I also found the frequent references to the size or shape of characters’ breasts quite odd and a little off-putting. At first I wondered if this reflected something about the character of Ted but this apparent objectification continues into other strands of the novel. Perhaps the strangest of these is the habit of a police detective of writing lewd limericks about the people of interest in the case. That at least is more understandable from a plotting perspective but I am really not sure why they were deemed necessary or what they were intended to convey.

In spite of those complaints, I do want to commend this book for not only finding inspiration in a classic but figuring out how to take that premise in quite a different direction. Overall, I found this to be a pretty engaging thriller and enjoyed many of the developments and reveals the story has to offer.

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

The Verdict

A fine continuation of Maud’s story. The historical crimes were considerably more interesting to me though than her experiences on vacation.

Book Details

Originally published in 2020 as Äldre dam med mörka hemligheter
English translation first published in 2021
An Elderly Lady #2
Preceded by An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good

The Blurb

Just when things have finally cooled down for 88-year-old Maud after the disturbing discovery of a dead body in her apartment in Gothenburg, a couple of detectives return to her doorstep. Though Maud dodges their questions with the skill of an Olympic gymnast a fifth of her age, she wonders if suspicion has fallen on her, little old lady that she is. The truth is, ever since Maud was a girl, death has seemed to follow her.

In these six interlocking stories, memories of unfortunate incidents from Maud’s past keep bubbling to the surface. Meanwhile, certain Problems in the present require immediate attention. Luckily, Maud is no stranger to taking matters into her own hands . . . even if it means she has to get a little blood on them in the process.

Maud had automatically reverted to her best defense: the confused old lady.

My Thoughts

When I read An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good a few years ago I rather assumed that it would be a one off. Its concept of an octogenarian serial killer is a fascinating one but the danger with any unorthodox concept like that the material risks seeming rather ridiculous when repeated too often. After all, how many inventive methods could a woman in her late eighties employ without getting caught?

Tursten’s second volume of stories is not without problems but repetition is thankfully not one of them. The author smartly structures the collection in such a way that we are looking back to murders committed earlier in her life. This not only helps to keep the material fresh, it also enables us to explore some of the events responsible for shaping Maud and turning her into a killer. I would note that in my review of the first volume I complained that the lack of an explanation of that development was the biggest issue with that collection, so it’s lovely to see that addressed so directly here.

This collection presents us with Maud at different stages of her life from childhood to the present day. While she is clearly experiencing some quite distinct challenges at each age, the core nature of the character is evident throughout and we see the seeds of some behaviors that would develop later.

One of the most interesting aspects of Maud’s character is that she is never presented as a simple villain or sick individual, particularly in this set of stories. While Maud does kill, she never does so for pleasure but it is often because she is either trying to help someone, fix a problem or remove a threat. The stories in this collection present examples of each of those circumstances.

Usually when I write about short story collections I tend to break my review into sections discussing each of the short stories. In this case however that approach doesn’t really feel appropriate as Tursten integrates each of the stories into that bigger narrative of Maud reflecting on things that have happened in her life during a plane flight to South Africa. As such it feels more appropriate to discuss them as chapters in a somewhat episodic story rather than as individual tales.

Maud’s experiences on the plane appear in the background of each of the early stories as she is sometimes jolted awake or addressed by airline staff or fellow passengers, pulling her back into the present. Those memories are not presented as pleasurable – one of them certainly seems to upset her – but rather the drifting thoughts of an elderly lady who has been under a considerable amount of stress.

The cause of that stress is the aftermath of the police investigation into the events at the end of the previous collection. It’s quite credible and explained pretty well but I would suggest that readers would be advised to make sure they have read The Antique Dealer’s Death before starting this to enable them to clearly follow the action and understand the exact nature of the pressures she has been under.

The first five stories in the collection therefore deal with Maud’s experiences during the flight and her memories of those earlier crimes. Each of these maintains the high standards set by the stories in the previous collection and I appreciate that the author is clearly wanting to explore different sides to Maud as a character.

The Truth About Charlotte, the fourth story in the collection, struck me as one of the most fascinating on a character level in either collection. While the revelations about what happened to her will likely not surprise many, they are executed very well and I did enjoy that hint of ambiguity in the final pages.

The other story that really stood out to me was Little Maud Sets a Trap. This is the story set earliest in Maud’s life to date and it sees her responding to the actions of a couple of brutish boys who are making life miserable in her home. This was a story that I felt did a particularly fine job of exploring Maud’s emotions and helping us understand why she does not view herself as monstrous.

The other three stories are all good and each does a fine job of explaining the characters’ growths. Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the book’s final, and longest, chapter to fully appreciate them.

The only chapter that didn’t really work for me, at least as a piece of crime fiction, was the book’s final and longest story: “An Elderly Lady Takes a Trip to Africa”. This was not because it was uninteresting as a character study but rather because so much of the story is given over to exploring Maud’s feelings about her tour and the people she is traveling with. It doesn’t help that the pacing feels very slow and deliberate, often seeming to stretch things out.

That approach is understandable, particularly given the contemplative tone of the collection’s framing structure, but it does present a rather significant stylistic shift. I am unconvinced whether it is wholly successful though I appreciate that this story does show some other aspects of her character such as her compassion and her ability to present an image of herself that will be palatable for others.

Still, while the story may be a little less criminous or morally complex than some of the other stories in this collection, the book did strike me as on the whole Maud remains a charming and entertaining creation. I would not object if a third volume were to appear but, if not, this is a satisfying way to fill out and explore that character.

The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey

The Verdict

An intriguing and unusual variation on the inverted form making for a wonderfully suspenseful read.

Book Details

Originally published in 1949
Collected with The Body on the Sidewalk by Stark House

The Blurb

We know that Vivian Haines intends to commit murder this weekend. She tells us so. But who is her intended victim? Could it be her wealthy aunt, who is supposed to leave her half her fortune one day? Or her frivolous sister and her seemingly penniless boyfriend? Or perhaps her aunt’s mousy companion, or her long-suffering chauffeur? Or Vivian’s own fiancé, the fastidious Cuthbert? All we know is what Vivian tells us as her efforts to plan and execute the perfect murder are constantly thwarted. Now Vivian is beginning to panic. Could one of them suspect her? Could one of them be planning to kill her before she can murder them first?

All I wanted was to be happy like other people. But instead I was destined to be a murderess.

My Thoughts

I never quite know how best to handle writing about the collections of novels and novellas done by publishers such as Stark House. I am aware that most readers coming to The Reluctant Murderer will be curious about the value of the package overall and yet I bristle a little at the prospect of writing about them as a pair, particularly as they were not conceived in that way (and, in this case, they are presented out of publication order). The plan then is to tackle them separately but I will try and get to the other by the end of November so that those who want to know what I think of the volume as a whole will have a better sense of that.

So, why did I start with The Reluctant Murderer? It is not, as you might suspect, that I wanted to start at the beginning or that I simply enjoy being contrary. I was attracted to its rather unusual premise which seemed to offer a slightly different take on the inverted mystery than I have come across before.

Vivian Haines receives a note from her sister Anne instructing her to get on a commuter train on Friday afternoon and spend the weekend with her. Their Aunt Maud has paid an unannounced visit to her home, prompting Anne to organize an impromptu family reunion. While Anne acknowledges that the weekend will be ‘deadly’, given Maud’s various strong opinions about matters like drinking and smoking, the sisters are also aware that as they are likely to be the only heirs to Aunt Maud’s fortune they need to put up with it to keep her happy. After all, as Anne notes, ‘half a million is still half a million – especially with prices like they are!’

Anne’s first reaction to this invitation is not to express her dread but instead it prompts her to realize that murder might be the answer to her problems. What we are not told at this point however is what the problem is that she is trying to fix and who she intends to kill. In the chapters that follow we will observe her actions as she tries to carry out her plan and try to deduce the answers to those questions and work out what she is trying to achieve. In other words, this is a blend of a whydunnit and who’dyawannadoitto. Yes, I am open to a better name for that latter one…

The novel is narrated by Vivian herself which was a smart choice, not only because it allows us to hear her internal monologue and understand her character better but because it makes it easier for Carey to obfuscate her meaning at times without it feeling like the reader is being cheated or manipulated. To give one example, Vivian is able to describe an early attempt to kill that goes awry without mentioning exactly who she was aiming at – with a third-person narration style it would feel odd for us not be given all of those details whereas in the first person it reads a little more naturally because our focus is on Vivian’s feelings – her fears and hopes – rather than describing the physical action.

The other advantage of this style is it allows us to really explore Vivian’s psychological state as she responds to what she perceives happening around her. I felt the depiction of her growing sense of fear and paranoia as she wonders if others are onto her is really effective and, once again, the choice to stick close to her and experience events from her perspective means that we are not afforded the comfort of a dispassionate third person perspective on events. Like Vivian, I found myself thoroughly suspicious of everyone else as the story went on as I wondered exactly what each character had in mind.

One of the other aspects of this setup I admired is that Vivian is shown to be a complex and dimensional character worthy of our interest. It quickly seems clear that she is quite sharp, independent and resourceful which had me wondering just what could have prompted her to feel that she needed to carry out the murder at all. This only served to increase my interest in understanding the different relationships at play within the house and learning more about the other characters.

As with Vivian, I felt that Carey does a good job of fleshing out the other characters who make up the house party. While some feature more prominently than others, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp of each of the individuals, their various secrets and relationships to one another by the end and I enjoyed the process of discovering that information.

My only complaint really with the setup is that I think the author is a little too effective in laying the groundwork for the reveal of who Vivian’s intended victim might be. There was a sentiment expressed early in the novel that stood out a little too much and so while I had some suspicions of what other characters may be up to, I felt pretty clear from the beginning as to who the intended victim was. Happily the question of why was a little harder to solve and I found the eventual explanation to be quite satisfying.

I felt that the clueing to that solution was fine overall, though I would suggest that this book reads better as a work of suspense rather than detective fiction. That reflects that there is more of a focus here on intent and exploring our would-be killer’s mental state than there is on the action taking place. Similarly I think that the resolution will feel more satisfactory when looked at through that psychological lens than viewed through a criminous one.

Overall I enjoyed this first taste of Carey’s work which struck me as a rather ambitious debut work. My plan is to tackle The Body on the Sidewalk as my next Carey read but if anyone has any recommendations for where to go after that I’d be glad to read your thoughts!

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

The Verdict

An excellent inverted mystery featuring interesting characters and a wonderful ending.

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Anthony Bathurst #27
Preceded by They Never Came Back
Followed by Glittering Prizes

The Blurb

Hubert Grant is a fairly unpleasant man. He also thinks he is happily married.

Dorothy Grant despises her husband but finds consolation in the handsome Laurence Weston. In order for the lovers to be happy, however, the intolerable Hubert needs to be cut out of the picture. Permanently.

Dorothy and Laurence start plotting. But the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and by the end of the scheming, there will be more than one body. Enter detective extraordinaire Anthony Bathurst . . .

“…I’ve made up my mind – once and for all. I’ll get rid of the brute.”

My Thoughts

It was inevitable that Such Bright Disguises would be my next Brian Flynn novel, ever since I read that it was an inverted mystery. As I understand it, this makes the novel something of a rarity in the Flynn oeuvre which is a shame as I think this is a great example of the sub-genre.

Such Bright Disguises is a novel that is comprised of three distinct sections. The first, titled ‘Hubert’, begins in the days running up to Christmas as Dorothy Grant sits at home awaiting the arrival of a luxury hamper filled with treats selected by her husband Hubert for their festivities. Rather than looking forward to some time with her husband, daughter and their friends, Dorothy is dreading it. She wishes instead that she could be sharing the season with her lover Laurence.

After illustrating the building sense of resentment within the Grant household, Flynn provides an incident that will spark the young couple to decide on murder as the solution to their problem. This section concludes shortly after that first murder takes place.

It takes Flynn some time to get to the point where his characters will decide upon murder but these early chapters do set up some important plotting points that we will return to later in the novel. They also do an excellent job of exploring these characters and their relationships with one another.

I was really impressed by the quality of Flynn’s characterizations of Dorothy, Hubert and Laurence. Part of the reason for this is the author’s unusually frank depiction of a crumbling marriage and infidelity, capturing the resentments and desires, particularly those of a married woman, in a way that feels quite surprising. That is not to say that readers are encouraged to sympathize with Dorothy – some of her thoughts about possibly abandoning her daughter in favor of her lover put pay to that – but I do think we are meant to empathize with her feelings of being bullied and stifled by a husband who views her purely as an ornament.

While Flynn does outline the events leading up to the murder, we do not witness the event itself or get much detailed discussion of the investigation at this point in the story. This is not uncommon in inverted stories of this period and I think this reflects that he is more interested in the characters’ mindsets and some elements of the planning than in exploring the violent details of the murder. There is a little ambiguity in a few elements of the plan, some of which will be explained later (very cleverly in the case of one element) though I felt that the novel never sufficiently addressed the involvement of a woman in the events of that night.

The second section, ‘Laurence’, picks up shortly after the murder and explores what becomes of the couple as they attempt to start a life together. As is often the case in inverted mysteries, the act of murder is shown to have create some pretty significant psychological stress for those involved. Flynn does an excellent job of depicting those stresses and the different ways that Laurence and Dorothy respond to them.

In addition to this psychological drama, Flynn also introduces a new element to the story that not only heightens some of those tensions but also provides a more typical mystery question for the reader to consider. While the answer to that question is unlikely to surprise readers in itself, I felt Flynn uses this element of the story cleverly within the context of the novel as a whole.

Further complications come with the delivery of those additional bodies that are promised in the blurb quoted above. While I anticipated these developments, their introduction did provide a bit of a wow moment for me in how sharply the story turns and transforms as it enters its final part.

Anthony Bathurst makes his brief appearance in this section which follows an investigation into all of the events that had preceded it. This section of the book is far shorter than either of the other two parts – according to my eBook copy it starts at the 75% point – and readers should not anticipate a particularly complex investigation. There is not the sort of case where there are a lot of witnesses or suspects for Bathurst to interview and so this phase of the story feels quite compact and, because of the nature of what is discovered, surprisingly punchy.

Flynn presents some fascinating moments and story beats here as plot points are connected and we come to understand exactly what has taken place. The conclusion he reaches did not surprise me as it seemed to be a natural fit to the conditions that preceded it and yet I was still impressed by the neatness of the plotting here and the boldness of the storytelling.

If I have a slight disappointment about the resolution, it is only that I had thought of two possible alternate endings and solutions to the mystery element of the novel that I think might have taken that idea even further. By the time we reach this third part I recognized that one of these was impossible but I felt my other idea would have still fitted all the facts of the case and would have had the benefit of being a little less predictable than the actual solution. Still, while I may mourn what I see as a missed opportunity with regards the ending, I think what we get is really pretty special.

If Frances, Dorothy’s young daughter, were to describe Such Bright Disguises she would no doubt brand it as being ‘simply wizard’. While the pacing is careful and deliberate, the characters are beautifully drawn and the story is cleverly structured, building to a very strong conclusion. While those who are looking primarily for a detective story may want to check out some different Flynn titles first, lovers of inverted mysteries are unlikely to be disappointed.

Rizzio by Denise Mina

The Verdict

A thoughtful exploration of how history is made and later interpreted.

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

On the evening of March 9th, 1566, David Rizzio, the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots, was brutally murdered. Dragged from the chamber of the heavily pregnant Mary, Rizzio was stabbed fifty six times by a party of assassins. This breathtakingly tense novella dramatises the events that led up to that night, telling the infamous story as it has never been told before.

A dark tale of sex, secrets and lies, Rizzio looks at a shocking historical murder through a modern lens—and explores the lengths that men and women will go to in their search for love and power. 

Lord Ruthven wanted him killed during this tennis match but Darnley said no. Lord Darnley wants it done tonight.

My Thoughts

Rizzio first came to my attention a little over a week ago when I read a review of the work by Fictionophile while on my lunch break. Minutes later when I got back to work I came across a copy and, struck by the coincidence, I decided to check it out. It was fate, right?

The novella depicts the events of March 9, 1566 when David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators in front of the Queen during an attempted coup. It’s a short work and rather than attempting to depict every moment of that night, Mina focuses on the most dramatic moments and those that best illustrate some of the motivations and tensions at play within the various groups of individuals that night.

The events of the evening are certainly dramatic and for those who do not already know the tale, will likely contain a few surprises as we follow how the events unfold and are ultimately resolved. As interesting as the events are however, I think the real point of focus is meant to be on the individuals involved in those events and exploring their motivations, thoughts and feelings at points during that night.

One idea that I think sits at the heart of this novel is that the idea that history is wrought by the ‘Great Men’ is a false one. Those people who viewed themselves as Statesmen were ultimately just men, often operating out of personal jealousies or for gain rather than the higher motivations they try to ascribe to their actions. They also rarely exercised the level of control over events that they believed that they had – history often comes down to fluke and coincidence rather than intentional planning and its effects are often wider than they may initially seem (we are reminded at the end of the novella that Mary’s child is James I of England).

I think Mina presents a pretty convincing case for that in the characters of Ruthven and Darnley, carefully exploring not only how these characters perceive themselves and their actions but how they are seen by those around them and some of the contradictions between what they say and how they act. By the end of the novella I felt I had a really clear understanding of these characters as well as several other figures around Holyrood at that time and I was struck by just how dimensional many of those portraits are given how short this piece is overall.

The other theme that resonated with me was the idea that history can easily be turned into mythology. The novella’s final chapter drives this notion home by bringing things forward several centuries and discussing how this moment in history was perceived by readers of Sir Walter Scott and has come to be viewed centuries after it happened. In contrast, Mina seems to want to strip it of that distance and some of the romance of history and to show it as borne of a relatable human desire and emotion. That this was something that happened to real people.

One method Mina uses to try and connect to these characters as people is to not try and reproduce sixteenth century language but to have them speak in direct, sometimes quite coarse or violent language. This emphasizes both the danger they are in but also the emotions that they were experiencing, even when they are not always entirely aware of them. A good case in point would be Darnley where the reader may well perceive subtext to some of his comments and concerns that he clearly does not understand or see himself.

While I know that some dislike the idea of historical fiction written in modern language, I do think it can be very effective and certainly here I think it is. Not only does it bring the violence of the situation quite vividly to life, it also helps to highlight and address many of Mina’s themes and the connections to issues still being experienced in Scotland today.

It helps too that some of Mina’s phrases are fantastically concise and effective. One of my favorites was the description of Henry Yair as ‘a killing spree looking for an excuse’ which conveys a lot about the intensity and attitudes held by that character.

Perhaps surprisingly, the least compelling character in the whole piece is the one who gives his name to it. While we learn a little of Rizzio’s background and more about his relationships with several of the characters, I never felt that the secretary made much of an impact at all as an individual. Instead, all we really get to learn about him is the fear he shows in the moments before his death.

It could be that was Mina’s point – that the murder was never really about Rizzio but that his arrest and murder was just a pretext for the events of that evening. Either way, this story quickly moves beyond the incident to explore many of the tensions within the Scottish court at this time.

One comment I have seen in several reviews of the work is that some wish that the work was longer. While I can understand that desire to have more, I am not sure that the additional detail would have benefitted the work. The reason that this worked for me was that it feels so tight and so focused on exploring those themes and ideas. I find it hard to think what could have been added that wouldn’t have just slowed the story down.

Rizzio won’t be to everyone’s taste. For one thing it isn’t really a mystery at all but rather a historical crime story. For another, I would suggest that it is a work where theme is more important than action as shown by the way it speeds through the conclusion to that night’s violence. It is an interesting piece though that I think has some intriguing things to say about how we view the past, the people who lived then as well as the political and social movements of long ago.

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.