The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Good Son
You-Jeong Jeong
Originally published as 종의 기원 in 2016
English translation published in 2018

For my birthday last month my wife decided to take me on a sort of whistle stop tour of several bookshops in the area. While I didn’t have a whole lot of luck at any of the secondhand bookstores, I did get pick up a few more recent translated crime works including this Korean thriller from You-Jeong Jeong who is compared in blurbs to Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith.

These author comparisons are rarely accurate or informative but while I think this author’s work has its own distinctive qualities, I can at least understand what inspired these comparisons though I think Highsmith is the more apt of the two both in tone and subject matter. For my part I would draw some comparisons with Ruth Rendell’s work.

Apparently this book has been something of a hit, being picked for as a book of the Summer by several magazines and websites. All that hype passed me by at the time however and so I came to this with few expectations at all. I think that worked to the book’s credit in this case and I do suspect that if I had read a few of those raves I may have been a little disappointed.

The Good Son opens with the narrator, twenty-six year old law student Yu-jin, awakening to a strange metallic smell and a confusing phone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. When he leaves his room he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

At first Yu-jin does not remember anything of the night before, a common side effect of the seizures he suffers from. Recognizing that things look bad for him he decides he needs to learn what happened and he starts to try and piece together his memories over the course of several days while covering up his mother’s death to buy himself some time.

The memory loss and extreme violence of the mother’s death make for an arresting beginning to the novel and I did find the situation interesting, even if I felt fairly sure from the start that I knew who was responsible for the death. I should say that I do not think You-Jeong Jeong gives away that point herself but rather the book’s blurb makes it pretty clear where this story would be headed. In any case, I do not think it is a problem that this aspect of the story is given away as there remains a mystery as to why this murder took place at all.

Yu-jin is an intriguing protagonist and while I cannot say I liked him or enjoyed his company, I did find his backstory to be quite compelling. This backstory is partly explored through his own memories and partly from the perspectives of other characters in the form of documents he reads and responds to throughout the novel.

Some of the promotional quotes you may read will describe him as an unreliable narrator which I don’t think is really very accurate. It is true that he does not share every relevant piece of information with the reader immediately but I do not think this is supposed to be an act of manipulation by that character. For one thing this story isn’t really presented as though it is a document written by him for a third party to read. Instead I think it is clear that any information he does not share initially is because it did not seem relevant to him at that time and, in some cases, because he does not remember events the way other characters do. This, to me, is one of the central ideas of the book – that characters have their own perspectives and may experience the same event in different ways.

I thought that the information revealed in the course of Yu-jin’s investigation added enormously to my understanding of his character and of the book’s themes yet I did not care for the way this was handled narratively as we are told what happened rather than shown it. Essentially the character spends much of the book reading and reflecting upon a document that he reads in sections working backwards in time, prompting him to remember relevant details and gain a greater understanding for his situation.

While I do not have any inherent objection to discovering information through documents, my problem with this approach here is that it renders Yu-jin a largely passive figure for much of the story. Any actions he takes are in reaction to an immediate threat of discovery but he does not have much to do beyond reading and thinking. As interesting as some of the revelations are, the inaction in the present makes it feel a curiously academic exercise, eliminating any tension that could otherwise be built up in those scenes. Coupled with Yu-jin’s calm, relatively emotionless persona this makes much of the story feel oddly static and while there are some flashes of tension at points, the lack of urgency during this central section of the book detracted from its impact.

In contrast I think several of the supporting characters are quite interesting and I found learning about their stories and relationships to each other to be more compelling. There are some compelling moments and ideas here, not least in the relationship between his mother and aunt, and I think it is in the portrayals of these characters that the book comes closest to defying expectations. Similarly the book’s most interesting questions all spring out of these characterizations.

While I think Yu-jin’s issues are clear, even if they need more explanation, from an early point in the book I found the relationships between the other members of his family and their feelings towards him to be quite ambiguous at first. Given we see them initially from Yu-jin’s perspective and hear what he thinks their views of him are, we do not truly know them until we are close to the novel’s conclusion. In each case I found the characters to be more interesting and complex than I had expected.

The novel’s conclusion works well and is thankfully free of the pacing issues and passivity I felt damaged the middle sections of the novel. I would suggest that they are quite thrilling, containing a few moments of fantastic tension and even a few surprises. My suspicion is that much of the praise for this book is derived from this short final section of the novel. I was certainly satisfied and felt that it did a great job of bringing everything together.

So, where does that leave me overall? I should begin by saying that those looking for a mystery should look elsewhere. While some stores and libraries are shelving it that way, it really is much more of a thriller. There are some interesting things to discover but it is much more of an exploration of a character and the way their life has developed.

At times it is really quite clever and I think it does build to a powerful and satisfying finish. My problem was a stylistic one – I wanted to see Yu-jin play a more active part in finding out about his past and in uncovering what had happened or for there to be a little more variety in the way he learns about it. Instead I found the novel’s midsection to be a bit of a slog.

While I wasn’t as thrilled about this book as many seem to have been, I do think the author creates an interesting premise and characters. This is the first of her books to have appeared in English translation but I would certainly be interested to read the others, particularly Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤) which sounds like my sort of read. Hopefully, given the success that this book seems to have found, those others may follow…

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good
Helene Tursten
Originally Published 2018

Eighty-eight year old Maud is not the sort of person you would look at and think they were dangerous, let alone a killer! She is physically quite frail, tries to keep herself to herself and seems to live quite a comfortable lifestyle.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good collects five stories that feature the octogenarian committing murders. Given that we know who, the mystery lies in understanding why she wants someone dead or how she will accomplish the task.

The murders themselves range in credibility from some which take quite mundane approaches to extinguishing life to the outrageous one featured in the first story in the collection. Heads being pierced or crushed is a recurring theme so those who are sensitive to such things, be warned!

As usual with short story collections I provide thoughts on each individual story after the break below but there are some general points I’d like to make about the book.

Firstly, I found the collection to be about the right length. As much as I enjoyed the character and the premise, I think that it would stretch credibility to have her commit many more murders at her age.

Maud is an interesting creation and I enjoyed the little glimpses we get into her past. While some of those character moments are interesting, I do feel that the bigger mystery of how she evolved into the killer we encounter in these stories ought to be told and I do think this feels like its biggest omission.

All in all, I think the collection is a strong one. Its darker elements may not appeal to everyone but I admire its creativity and think it does a surprisingly good job of selling the idea that this elderly lady could commit these murders.

Continue reading “An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy”

The Murderer’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

The Murderer’s Tale
Margaret Frazer
Originally Published 1996
Dame Frevisse #6
Preceded by The Boy’s Tale
Followed by The Prioress’ Tale

It is pretty rare for me to start a series anywhere other than with the first book. When I do it is usually because the series has long been out-of-print or, more usually, I just didn’t realize that the book was part of a series.

When I picked up The Murderer’s Tale I was aware that it was not the first Dame Frevisse mystery and I did have easy access to those earlier titles in the series. The reason I chose to skip over them though will be an entirely predictable one to those who have followed this blog and taken a moment to consider the title of the book.

Yes, the reason is that The Murderer’s Tale is an inverted mystery (for those who are new to this blog, this is my favorite type of mystery). I am nothing if not predictable.

The novel begins by introducing us to the members of the Knyvet household who are travelling on pilgrimage. The group are led by the wealthy and jovial Lionel Knyvet who enjoys sharing riddles with his fellow travellers. We soon learn that this is just one of many pilgrimages that Lionel has made, hoping to find a cure for what he understands to be a demon (but readers will recognize as epilepsy).

Joining him on this journey is his cousin Giles who possesses a far more sour disposition and clearly resents his cousin’s wealth and being dragged across the country on what he sees as a futile endeavor. He is the heir to the estate and given that Lionel has vowed not to marry because of his condition, he expects to inherit.

Meanwhile Dame Frevisse, a nun at St. Frideswide nunnery agrees to undertake a pilgrimage with Sister Claire. The pair agree to take some papers to the lord at Minster Lovell that relate to a land dispute on behalf of the nunnery and on their journey they meet up with the Knyvet party, travelling with them until they reach the hall.

Okay, so it will come as little surprise that things will turn murderous or that Giles will turn out to be that killer. We share enough of his thoughts from the start of the book to recognize that he is a thoroughly unpleasant man who treats his servants viciously and has little respect for the women around him. He certainly is not treated as a sympathetic killer, particularly given the details of the murder he has planned, and while I did not find the passages from his perspective to be as disturbing to read as, for example, those by Jim Thompson in his inverted story, Pop. 1280, or Roger Bax in Blueprint for Murder, he certainly is not a character you would ever want to meet or interact with.

Though Giles does some interesting things at points in this story, I do not think he is a particularly deep or interesting character. Frazer makes little attempt to explore his deeper motivations or the events in his life that have shaped him into a killer. Instead he arrives already formed with a plan in mind (though we are not party to it) and there is little introspection after the murder. This strikes me as a little disappointing, particularly as there clearly was room in the narrative to feature some developmental moments or reflections.

Given that we already know the killer’s identity, I do not want to share details of what his plan is or how he sets about carrying it out – figuring that out and later how he will be caught is really the mystery here. I can say though that it is quite simple, which is appropriate for the setting, and is not particularly memorable either in its details or in the way it is executed.

While Giles tries to contrive a crime scene that tells a story, Dame Frevisse is unconvinced by some elements and starts asking questions. At this point the reader’s focus shifts to trying to see what aspects of the crime or the killer’s behavior she will spot and be able to use to prove what happened.

Here once again I have to say I was a little disappointed. Dame Frevisse certainly observes several issues with the crime scene and she is able to explain why those inconsistencies matter but because the crime itself is quite simple, the investigation feels similarly shallow. This is not helped by several clues being quite visual in nature and while I could guess how the information might be used, I could not know what exactly could be determined from it.

There are some bright spots however, particularly those in which Dame Frevisse interacts with other characters to discuss Lionel’s condition. It is this aspect of the story that struck me as the most interesting, both in its discussions of how epilepsy was understood in this period and also the way the laws of this period took mental health into account. An author’s note at the end of the recent ebook edition provides a little more information about this.

Similarly, though I found Giles to be a fairly underwhelming creation, I was pretty pleased with Frazer’s characterizations of her other supporting characters. While this book does not boast a big cast of supporting characters, I think they are fairly distinctive figures. For instance, I enjoyed Lionel’s coarse joking and Sister Claire’s worrying about her friend’s meddling. Similarly I like Frevisse herself who is a little quick to speak and I do think Frazer does a good job of conveying her personality and values.

While I did enjoy quite a few elements of this story and would certainly try others in this series, unfortunately I did not find it to be a particularly memorable inverted tale. While the villain of the piece certainly makes an impression as a figure to hate and want to see brought to justice, I longed for a little more depth and background to flesh him out or to allow him a moment where he does something unexpected.

As it is, The Murderer’s Tale is a competent historical story. Those who enjoy exploring a historical period may appreciate its discussions of people’s perceptions of health conditions at that time and the workings of an estate in the lord’s absence but I found the mystery element fairly shallow while the villain sadly underwhelms.

Further Reading

The author shared some notes about this book on her website here. This was the novel that split up a writing partnership and according to this account the process of writing from the murderer’s perspective played a large part in this.

The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons

The Man Who Killed Himself
Julian Symons
Originally Published 1969

When I wrote my January roundup post I included a note that I planned to review something by Julian Symons (I previously reviewed The Colour of Murder). Of course, back then I actually had little idea what that book would be until this morning when I picked a title at random on my way to work. While I’m no fan of spontaneity, that’s just the way I’ve been rolling lately.

As it happens it turned out that I had made a fortunate choice as The Man Who Killed Himself is an example of my favorite subgenre of crime fiction, the inverted mystery. This would be cause for excitement in itself but what added to my interest was that Symons’ story can be seen as an affectionate play on one of the classic titles in the genre, Malice Aforethought.

Arthur Brownjohn is an emasculated male, dominated by a wife who takes every opportunity to remind him that she comes from a higher social class and humiliate him in front of their friends during their weekly bridge games. His great passion is for inventing and yet he seems incapable of developing anything marketable or making a success of his engineering firm.

I do not wish to spoil the circumstances that lead Arthur to want to murder his wife or indeed of the broader elements of the plot. Symons’ story is built on several revelations, one of which occurs very early in the novel long before the murder, that transform our understanding of what is taking place and how the story is likely to develop. If you can remain unspoiled I would strongly encourage you to do so – the surprises are fun and Symons delivers them well.

Symons also provides us with another prominent male character in the form of Major Easonby Mellon, a former military man who now runs a somewhat seedy marriage agency in the city. He makes for a striking contrast with Arthur, being loudly and expensively dressed and exuding sexuality and confidence. Unlike Arthur he even seems to be happily married (although he has dalliances with other women). The two men could not be more different and yet while the men are quite dissimilar in personalities, they share a common purpose in bringing about Clare’s death.

Of the two men, Mellon is certainly the more colorful figure but both are interesting in their own ways and I enjoyed the strong contrast drawn between them. This not only entertains, I think it also throws a lot of light on the characters and their values and giving us a clearer sense of who they are.

Symons structures his novel in three distinct sections, each reflecting a different phase of the crime. The first part of the novel focuses on exploring the reasons that Arthur will decide that Clare should die. The second focuses on the execution of the plan while the last deals with the aftermath and attempts by the police to investigate.

This is a sound and pretty familiar formula for an inverted story but Symons paces his story well and incorporates enough unexpected developments to keep things feeling fresh and surprising. I have already referred to a significant development early in the book that caught me by surprise but there are plenty of other smaller moments later in the book that see the plot spin off in new directions. Most of these feel quite natural and fairly clued, making them all the more satisfying.

Similarly the plan developed for Clare’s death is hardly revolutionary, incorporating many familiar ideas and elements found in other inverted stories. Once again though Symons executes these ideas well, weaving them together into a story that is as psychologically interesting as it is entertaining.

While I think there are some elements of the premise related to Major Mellon that stretch credibility a little, there are entertaining and I was sufficiently amused that I was more than willing to accept them. It is only really in the final section of the book that I felt that some elements didn’t quite work, building towards an ending that was not quite as punchy or surprising as I suspect Symons intended it to be.

The problems begin in a sequence that takes place following a character’s visit to a gambling house. At that point an unlikely plot development happens that changes the trajectory of the story. This requires the reader to accept a coincidence that, while not outrageous, still feels heavily contrived to bring around a crisis. It is hard not to feel that we are being hurried along toward the ending and as a result the development feels highly artificial, sitting poorly with the more careful construction of the plot up until that point.

This development is not entirely bad however and it does at least open up an interesting possibility that Symons does take some advantage of. While I was glad that some of the potential of that idea is used, I think he had considerably more room to explore it and provide us with a much more unexpected ending than the one we get. Instead we get a perfectly serviceable conclusion but one that feels far less imaginative than the rest of the book.

While it may read like I was disappointed with this book, I do want to stress that I was thoroughly entertained right up to the end. Symons’ writing is quirky and witty while I found the central characters to be striking and interesting. The plot was quite inventive and often placed interesting spins on more traditional ideas and elements.

Though not entirely successful, The Man Who Killed Himself is nonetheless an entertaining and creative read as well as a very solid inverted crime story. I found it a breeze to read, completing it in just a couple of hours, and really enjoyed my time with it. Recommended.

Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson

Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1949

When Joe Wilmot is found by his wife Elizabeth in the arms of Carol, their housemaid, she makes him a proposition. She will skip town and leave them together on the condition that she be declared dead and given the insurance payout to allow her to start a new life somewhere else.

Of course, to get an insurance payout you need a body but Elizabeth has a plan for that too. Carol is tasked with finding an unattached woman of a similar physique and luring her to their home. Once there she would be killed in a fire, burning the body to the point where it could not be fully identified.

It is a solid, if ghoulish, plan and the novel begins with Joe taking the first steps in executing it, placing an ad in the local paper to try and find a suitable victim. The chapters that follow not only detail how they are putting their plan into action but also the events that led them to that point, exploring their psychological states at key moments.

One issue that Thompson faces is convincing us that these characters would conceive and develop this plan and I felt that this was the least successful aspect of the novel. Certainly the situation he has devised is interesting, dramatic and quite original but given the nature of what they are planning, I found it challenging to get my head around each of their motivations.

The easiest character to understand is Joe. He had started working for Elizabeth at her movie house but when they married he took over the concern, finding ways to trim costs and work the distributors system to ensure that he was showing the movies he wanted. He loves the business and is deeply invested in it, so it makes sense that he would be willing to consider a plan that allows him to keep hold of it and allow him a fresh start with Carol.

I found it harder to understand the motivations of the two women in his life. In one respect this is appropriate – Joe’s confusion about Elizabeth’s reasons for offering this deal is an important plot point – and I do think Thompson ultimately addresses some of these questions but I found that they lingered over the early part of the novel. My feeling is both women feel underwritten and are given much less definition than Joe.

While the plan wasn’t of Joe’s devising and he is not directly involved in its execution, Thompson’s decision to have him narrate the story rather than using a third person narrative style makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Thompson is able to use his narration to establish aspects of his character but it also allows us to experience his lack of understanding of the thoughts and mentalities of the two women in his life. This leads to some of the book’s richest pages towards its end as Joe reflects on how his marriage to Elizabeth ended up going so badly.

The plan Elizabeth has hatched is quite clever and I think it is credible to think that it might work. The mechanics and characters’ movements are clear and easy to follow while at first glance the murderers are leaving no loose ends. Of course, things will go wrong – that’s just a part of the noir style – but it’s reasonable to think that they might succeed.

The problem of course lies with the insurance company who send an investigator to the town to look into the death. Here, once again, the decision to tell the story from Joe’s perspective pays off as it means that we have little idea exactly what he has found or how close he is to finding out their secret beyond what the investigator tells Joe.

Thompson sets his pieces in place effectively, creating obvious points of tension between the various characters. The reader waits for those tensions to be triggered and to see just how things will collapse and, of course, if anyone will get away with it all.

I also found that I really enjoyed Thompson’s explanations of the movie distribution system and some of the practicalities of running a movie theatre. In these passages Thompson manages to convey some pretty complicated ideas quite effectively, throwing light on how the industry worked in that time.

The supporting characters are similarly quite interesting and I enjoyed following along as things start to go wrong with the plan. Several of these characters are particularly colorful. Some of these issues are quite strongly clued but some others may take readers by surprise.

Though it is not perfect, I found that I liked and enjoyed Nothing More Than Murder. The writing is sharp and the way this story is resolved feels really quite clever.

Devil in Dungarees by Albert Conroy

Devil in Dungarees
Marvin H. Albert (as Albert Conroy)
Originally Published 1960

Sometimes I pick up a book based on meticulous research or the recommendation of a friend. Today’s title, Devil in Dungarees, grabbed my attention simply because its title made me smile as the idea of hyper-sexualized dungarees seemed ridiculous. As it turns out this is because in the period in which this was written dungarees would have meant jeans as shown on the Crest Book cover which makes a whole lot more sense than what I initially pictured (Sarah-Jane Smith in the Doctor Who story The Hand of Fear).

The novel is an example of a type of crime novel I have not written about before on this blog – the heist. While I have enjoyed many films that feature these sorts of crimes, I suspect this may be the first novel I have read detailing that sort of crime. Certainly no others readily come to mind.

The appeal of these sorts of heist stories is in following a crime from its conception to execution and exploring its aftermath. Typically things do not go well for the criminals (or there is some element of double-cross). Given my love of inverted crime stories in general, it should come as little surprise that this sort of story might appeal to me. The only real surprise is that it has taken me so long to try one.

Devil in Dungarees begins on the morning on which the crime is planned to take place. The target is a bank on the day before payday and the plan is not particularly complex. The armed gang aims to get in and out within a very tight window of seven minutes, being off the scene before the police are able to arrive.

They have enlisted the help of a policeman, Walt Bonner, who has passed them information about patrol movements and agreed to arrange a diversion to give the gang the widest window possible to get in and away before the police can arrive. For this he is expecting to get paid half of the total takings for the job.

Walt is being encouraged and persuaded to take part by Peggy, a young woman he has been seeing for a little over a month. She claims to be twenty though Walt suspects she is younger in spite of her experience with men, and keeps pushing the idea that they will be together permanently after the job is done and they have the money. Of course the moment he leaves we learn that Peggy and the others have no intention on keeping their promises to Walt and plan on running out on him.

This then is the setup for a day that will turn into a disaster and I think it makes for an effective starting point for the novel. By choosing to begin after the crime has been planned, Conroy is able to focus on injecting action into his story while choosing to reveal important and pertinent pieces of information as needed. This works nicely to drive the narrative towards that moment where everything begins to go wrong with their plan and these characters begin to react to their situation and each other.

The way their plan ends up breaking apart is relatively simple but I think it is very effectively done. Each development feels properly set up and clued, particularly as we already know something about the personalities of each of the gang and their eventual intentions towards each other. The result is a story in which developments feel logical and satisfying and the tension seems to steadily build throughout the bank job.

While Conroy’s focus is on developing his plot and structure, his characters feel striking, colorful and distinctive. This is particularly true of some of the supporting characters such as the members of the gang and Bonner’s partner on the force, Ben Travis who is probably the most likable character in the novel. No one really changes – they begin the novel as they end it – but there are some surprising and challenging moments along the way for several of them.

Unfortunately I was a little less enamored of the handling of the two most central characters, Walt and Peggy. Conroy’s focus in his story is on pushing the plot forwards at all times and so neither character has any moments of introspection or reflection. They simply spend the novel responding instinctively to circumstances. This is interesting enough and I enjoyed the ride but given some of the things that happen to them I felt that there were questions about their backstories and their emotional states that were left unanswered.

This frustrated me most with regards the character of Peggy. From the moment she is introduced it is clear that she is serving in the role of a femme fatale and it is easy to understand the effect she has on Walt. I was curious about how Peggy came to be the way she is and why she is willing to be used and to endure some of the things she puts up with here.

I think we also come to recognize that this is a character who is conditioned to survive, clinging to the man she believes offers her the best chance of doing that. That is inferred however through the choices made rather than from any direct discussion of her choices in the narration or dialogue. We learn little about her beyond that impulse even when she is being put through the wringer as she is at points here.

I cannot hold this against Conroy too strongly however because I do not think he singles Peggy out. He is simply uninterested in exploring those questions. Peggy and Walt are the way they are presented and his interest lies in how these character types will interact and cope with the situations they are presented with. In that respect I think this story is very effective.

The power of the novel lies in its simplicity both in terms of its construction and the themes Conroy is interested in exploring. Because all of the other details are stripped away to focus on the plot, we are encouraged to anticipate conflict we know is coming up. The surprise lies in seeing what elements factor into that moment as other characters shift in and out of focus. It is simple but effective storytelling and Conroy is able to pack a lot of action into the story as a result.

While I was left wanting a little more depth in the characterization, I think that focus Conroy has on story pays off well. The result is a tight, engaging and sometimes quite dark read that drives towards its conclusion without ever really letting up.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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The Beast Must Die
Nicholas Blake
Originally Published 1938
Nigel Strangeways #4
Preceded by There’s Trouble Brewing
Followed by The Smiler with the Knife

I should probably start out this review with a bit of an apology. What you are about to read will likely be a little more disjointed than my usual sort of review. I have spent the best part of two days working on this one but I am not truly satisfied with my efforts.

Part of the reason that I have found this novel so hard to write about is that it is difficult to avoid spoiling the novel’s twists. The Beast Must Die doesn’t even really become a Nigel Strangeways mystery until just before the halfway point so even discussing his role and purpose in the book risks taking me heavily into spoiler territory.

Having tried this multiple ways now I find I am incapable of discussing the book without at least giving away the nature of that first twist. If you want to come to this completely unspoiled here is my potted review: The Beast Must Die is an entertaining and interesting novel. I found the scenario quite compelling and felt Blake’s portrayal of Cairnes’ grief at the loss of his son to be credible and powerful. You don’t need to have read any of the previous Strangeways novels – this stands on its own – and I think it deserves its place on the CWA’s Top 100 list.

Mild spoilers follow (though nothing more than in many of the book’s blurbs). You have been warned!

In its earliest chapters The Beast Must Die appears to be an inverted mystery novel. I say appears to be because this novel can be classified as a pseudo-inverted story. What I mean by this is that Blake adopts many of the common elements, themes and stylistic choices of the form but when a murder does take place it is not done in the way we were anticipating and the would-be killer swears his innocence.

That would-be killer is Frank Cairnes, a successful mystery novelist whose life was destroyed when his young son is killed in a hit and run. Devastated at his loss, Cairnes vows he will discover who was responsible and kill them himself. In these early chapters which are styled as part of a diary he is keeping we follow his efforts to track down information and find the guilty party.

He comes to believe that the man responsible was George Rattery and sets about trying to get close enough to him to find evidence supporting his suspicions before he acts. In doing so he comes into close contact with members of Rattery’s family including Rattery’s own son Phil. Eventually he becomes certain that George was responsible and the diary portion of the novel concludes with a description of his plan to eliminate him.

At this point in the novel Blake switches perspective, moving from that first person diary-style account to third person narration. This switch is necessary because from this point in the story onwards we are no longer reading an inverted mystery but a more conventional form of detective novel in which we will be hunting for a killer. Basic facts of the crime need to be clearly established.

The second phase of the novel picks up at the point at which Cairnes attempts to implement his murder scheme and things unravel around him. Before long Rattery is found dead by a completely different method but Cairnes is aware that he will soon come under suspicion. He reaches out to Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help in handling this situation and in the hope that he might prove his innocence.

A little while ago I encountered another mystery novel that adopted a similar structure – George Limnelius’ The Medbury Fort Murder. In that instance I felt that the transition between the two styles was awkward and counterproductive while the time spent on the inverted section of the story seemed to lead nowhere.

Blake’s treatment of the same basic idea is far more successful here and I think it comes down to two reasons. The first is that the two phases of the novel each feel more clearly defined, providing a more natural transition between the two styles. The other reason that it works is that the discovery that Cairnes’ plot failed does not render the events of those early chapters redundant. Cairnes’ actions expose him to police scrutiny, causing him to contact Strangeways for assistance, while these chapters also pack a truly powerful punch on an emotional level.

These chapters are also interesting in that they present us with a situation that is fairly unusual for an inverted tale in having Cairnes become close to his victim’s family and friends. This sometimes presents complications such as when he wonders about the extent to which he is using another character and in others it helps stiffen his resolve. This not only adds to the interest in these early chapters, it also presents some interesting complications later in the story when Cairnes’ identity becomes known.

The detective phase of the novel is also handled extremely well and here, once again, Blake’s careful development of the novel’s structure pays off. Nigel’s introduction into the story is handled smoothly and feels at least reasonably credible. Because he already knows Cairnes and we have already become familiar with the other suspects we are able to get quickly stuck into the case.

The investigation is perhaps not the most dynamic or surprising I have read. Characters’ motivations are clear from the outset and there are few really surprising moments. The interest lies in exploring characters’ psychology and relationships, both of which Blake does extremely well.

This is not my first encounter with Nigel Strangeways – I have previous read short stories in the British Library anthologies Murder at the Manor and The Long Arm of the Law – but as both stories were extremely short I had little conception of the character. I will say that he has some attributes I often find frustrating such as his being another instance of the overly literate detective, but I think that is balanced well with other elements of his character. I also appreciated his relationship with his practical wife who joins him on this trip and makes her own contributions to this case.

This brings me to the even more tricky topic of the novel’s ending and the revelation of the killer’s identity. I think Blake achieves a memorable conclusion to his novel and I appreciated how Strangeways decides to handle their unmasking. It felt that it fit the tone of the overall piece and I think it is fair.

I do however have some problems with some aspects of how the killer conducted themselves, finding one choice particularly reckless. It didn’t necessarily damage the credibility of the solution and I think it makes sense based on their characterization but it did make me wonder why anyone would take on that degree of risk.

While I question that choice on a character level, I think it was the right choice for the novel. It certainly contributes to the ending, helping to make it a memorable and powerful conclusion to what is quite a remarkable and inventive read. Highly recommended.

Other Views

This novel has unsurprisingly been reviewed and written about extensively including by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, Margot’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Past Offences, Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery and Tipping My Fedora.

JJ has a review of the book planned for tomorrow at his blog The Invisible Event so be sure to check it out and see whether we agree!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Includes letter/s or diary extracts (or similar items) (What)