Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light (TV)

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

Originally broadcast October 27, 1974

Written by Howard Berk
Directed by Harvey Hart

Plot Summary

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

My Brother’s Killer by Jean Potts

Originally published in 1975

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Columbo: Negative Reaction (TV)

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

Originally broadcast October 15, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Kids by Zijin Chen

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (TV)

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

Originally broadcast September 15, 1974

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

Plot Summary

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock Bones, Volume 1: The 12:20 Witness by Yuma Ando, translated by Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley

Originally published in 2012 as 探偵犬シャードック(Tanteiken Sherdock) 1
English translation published in 2013
Sherlock Bones #1
Followed by Sherlock Bones Volume 2

When Takeru adopts his new pet, he’s in for a surprise—the dog is none other than the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective. What’s more, this “Sherdog” has decided that Takeru is the reincarnation of his long-time assistant, Dr. Watson. Takeru may think Sherdog (or he himself) is crazy, but with no one else able to communicate with Holmes, he’s roped into becoming the canine’s assistant all the same. Using his exceptional sleuthing skills, Holmes uncovers clues to solve the trickiest crimes.


I have been on something of a Sherlock Holmes kick over the past few weeks, albeit one which has not been reflected on the blog itself so far. That is because I have spent much of my time revisiting material I have already reviewed or, in a couple of cases, that I plan to write about in the future. A consequence of this though is that my account with a major online retailer has gone into overdrive with its recommendations (a welcome reprieve from the previous situation where I only ever have Gladys Mitchell novels pushed into my suggestions) and I stumbled onto this first volume of a manga series.

As with another manga mystery series I have been reading, Case Closed, the premise is that a great detective has found their intelligence and personality pushed into a body where it will not be taken seriously. In this case the reincarnated spirit of Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the body of a small and rather cute dog that at the start of the book has been taken to an animal shelter for reasons we learn later in this first volume. There he meets Takeru, a teenage student who loves animals who might just be a reincarnation of Dr. Watson and who adopts him.

Takeru names his new friend Sherdog and is shocked when he discovers that he can understand him. Sherdog ends up accompanying him to school shortly afterwards and stumbles onto a dead body in a toilet block not far from the Swimming Pool. A text message sent moments before seems to suggest that the death was an act of suicide but Sherdog believes it was murder, noting that it is impossible that he could have died so quickly after sending it. Instead he believes it was a person he saw leave the bathroom moments earlier. The problem is that Takeru is certain that they have an alibi as he was with them in a different space at that same time.

What we have then to kick this series off is an example of an unbreakable alibi story, albeit a relatively simple one. This choice is a pretty smart one as it allows additional time to be spent on establishing the recurring elements of this manga, particularly the relationship between the central characters. This is important given the high concept nature of its premise and I felt it did a good job in this regard, giving a very strong sense of how the central pairing of characters will relate to each other and the way they will have to work together.

Takeru, as our Watson, gets to play more of a role than many other versions of that character as he is forced to speak for Holmes. At times he is bumbling and awkward but he is also quite willing to assert his own opinions. While the reader is not likely to be in much doubt as to which of the pair will be right, I think the opinions he voices do a nice job of emphasizing some of the more emotional elements of the case and make the final resolution a more interesting one than it might have been.

Turning to Sherdog, I really enjoyed the way he was drawn and I could see enough of the original Holmes character in him for the book’s premise to work. Certainly the prickly, dismissive side of Holmes is there and I enjoyed the added layer of frustrations he experiences as a result of his body change and having to rely on Takeru for help.

If there is a disappointment with Sherdog however it is that, so far, his being a dog has only been represented in terms of the physical restrictions he has of not being able to speak or interact with some objects. I hope that some of the subsequent volumes see him utilize his dog senses and abilities. The other thing I am hoping for, though not necessarily expecting given that this is a relatively short series of just seven volumes, is a decent explanation for why he is a dog now rather than a human.

This first volume also gives us hints that another Holmes universe character exists in the orbit of these characters. While it’s a cute nod to Holmes lore, I will be curious to see if this is a throwaway moment or something that becomes more important as the series progresses.

Getting back to the murder case, I think that the book establishes its scenario well, clearly describing the set of circumstances that create this unbreakable alibi problem. The initial puzzle is not, as I suggested earlier, likely to challenge those who have read many of these sorts of stories before but it would make a good introduction to them for those newer to the genre. What’s more, the author adds a secondary challenge in one of the later chapters that adds a little complexity for those who reach that first part of the solution quickly. While I am not convinced that the plan used would work in real world conditions, it is bold and entertaining and feels appropriate for this more stylized type of storytelling.

The other aspect of the puzzle that I appreciated was the development of the killer’s motive which is far more thoughtful than I expected based on the very broad tone of the piece. I appreciated the amount of time spent on exploring what is a serious topic and that the book avoided giving us the sort of easy, tidy resolution that would have been so easy but which would have felt inappropriate for this story.

One aspect of the book that can feel a little inappropriate however is its art style. Yuki Sato’s artwork can certainly be charming – Sherdog in particular has lots of personality – but the way that some of the female students and the swimming teacher are drawn felt quite objectifying. What particularly disappoints about this is that it feels out of keeping with the tone of the book more generally, making it feel rather cheap and broad.

Still, while I don’t love everything about how this idea was executed, I have to admit that the book is frequently a lot of fun. What appealed to me most was seeing the relationship between Takeru and Sherdog change over the course of the volume and it is that which makes me curious to go on and read the second volume which I am sure I will at some point go on and do.

The Verdict: A cute concept is realized fairly well in terms of the writing, though I found some of the art choices questionable. Some solid comedic moments make this an easy, entertaining read and while the mystery is simple, I appreciated that it was presented quite clearly.

Anything to Declare? by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1957
Inspector French #31
Preceded by Many a Slip

A foolproof method for earning a fortune in a short space of time is discovered by some enterprising young men. They haven’t bargained on finding themselves involved in blackmail and then murder. It is up to Inspector French to unravel the threads with his usual flair.


Peter Edgeley has found the return to civilian life after the war challenging. Though he is clearly intelligent and capable, he struggles to take direction and yearns for a break from the drudgery of routine. After being dismissed for insubordination, Edgeley runs into an old friend from before the war who has experienced some similar challenges. That friend however thinks he has the solution and invites Edgeley to join him in his new, but illegal, venture.

Dick Loxton has recently inherited a rather snazzy yacht – it’s gorgeous but devilishly expensive to run. He could sell it and live off the proceeds for a while but he would rather find a way to make it pay and experience a bit of the adventurous life he has also been craving. With the help of a financial backer, he plans to run a small cruising company, taking groups of four or five to Switzerland and back. The real money however won’t be in the human passengers but some cargo he plans to hide on board and smuggle back to England, avoiding customs duty.

The early chapters of the book follow Peter and Dick as they scheme together, meet Dick’s backer, and put their plans into action. Crofts was always superb at carefully laying out the genesis and construction of a scheme and this novel is no exception. While his writing style is rather leisurely, the author’s delight at explaining the technical details of the execution of that plan is quite evident and at times rather infectious. We certainly understand why these two young men are prepared to throw the dice, not so much out of financial desperation but a desire to recapture something they’ve lost.

This matter of how the war changed the men who returned is a common theme in mystery fiction of this period but particularly in the inverted mystery field. Quite often the books that explore this topic can be quite grim reads but interestingly these are not men haunted by what they have done or empowered to commit violence but rather thrillseekers keen to experience excitement and danger once again. Crofts manages to make the pair quite appealing, casting them as rogues rather than villains and allowing us to retain some degree of sympathy with them throughout the whole book.

The other strength of this first part of the book is the credibility of the scheme. Crofts is meticulous about explaining why the scheme might work, outlines some issues that the plotters will need to address, and then sets about providing solutions to them. It’s a very solid, cleverly composed scheme that stands a decent chance of success so long as they don’t have any bad luck. Which, of course, they inevitably do.

After allowing us to follow the planning and execution of the scheme, along with its successful first voyage (incidentally, one of Crofts’ better efforts at travelogue writing), we then see how things begin to come unstuck. The explanation for those circumstances is similarly credible and Crofts does a good job of stringing out that moment, presenting the moment of discovery from the point of view of that witness. From that point onwards the story assumes a more familiar trajectory, setting up a familiar inverted mystery structure.

I have previously described Crofts as something of a master of that form and so it’s quite pleasing to see that in this, his final work published only a few weeks before his death, he returned to that form once more. Structurally and thematically this work is most like Mystery on Southampton Water, though there are still a few moments where he tries something new – most memorably the event that takes place at the end of the first section of the novel and the incorporation of a whodunnit element later in the book.

Unfortunately while I am predisposed to enjoy Crofts’ inverted novels, I feel this is one that falls down on the detection elements with the investigation feeling rushed and unsatisfactory to this reader. Part of that is the awkward conceit that French is trying discretely to assist his protege, Inspector Rollo, to ensure that he lives up to the task having assigned it to him over more experienced peers. This occasionally limits his actions but not in an interesting way while Rollo is so lightly characterized that he makes French look like quite a vibrant personality in contrast.

The bigger problem though is that French just gets really lucky. There are a number of points at the story where French, forced to interpret an aspect of the crime, instinctively guesses at the correct idea or explanation without ever really considering or testing the matter. This feels really lazy and sloppy but more importantly it reduces the opportunity for French to carefully piece together details – usually the strength of Crofts’ writing.

Things get so rushed towards the end that characters we have spent time with in the first half of the novel suddenly get forgotten, their actions and fates referenced but overlooked in favor of other figures from the case. After investing so heavily in them before, this feels disappointing and once again reduces the satisfaction of the ending a little.

That being said, the few clues Crofts provides French are solid and do a nice job of setting up reasons for him to doubt the story he is being fed. One feature I did appreciate was the need to find some way of corroborating what he knows to be true in order to be able to make his final arrest – while the journey to that ending may be a bit rough, I did believe that the case French builds against the story’s villain will stick. That, to this reader, meant that the story ends on a relative high note.

Anything to Declare? would be the final Crofts novel and I felt a little sad when I finally closed this one as, to the best of my knowledge, I have no more inverted stories by him left to read. I still consider him to be one of the strongest of the Golden Age exponents of that style and I love that each of the novels ends up trying to do something different than those that preceded it – even this one which is admittedly the least ambitious of the five novels (ROT-13: Gur ernqre jvyy or fhecevfrq ng gur erprvivat bs n frpbaq oynpxznvy abgr nsgre gur zheqre bs gur svefg oynpxznvyre, creuncf yrnivat gurz gb jbaqre whfg ubj fbzrbar ryfr znl unir yrnearq bs gurve cynaf).

The good news is that while I may have exhausted the well of Crofts inverted mysteries, I have plenty of more conventional detective stories left to read. No doubt I will do so soon as I seem to recall that he was a member of a certain society of mystery writers which readers of this blog have been seeing me write about a lot recently…

The Verdict: While French’s investigation is rushed and, I would argue, a little unsatisfying, it it by no means disastrous. Anything to Declare? is far from a late stain on its author’s career and I can imagine revisiting it in years to come.

Columbo: A Friend in Deed (TV)

Season Three, Episode Eight
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by An Exercise in Fatality (Season Four)

Originally broadcast May 5, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Ben Gazzara

Plot Summary

When Hugh Caldwell kills his wife in the middle of a fight he turns to his friend Mark for help. That assistance takes the form of giving him an alibi while staging the crime scene to tell a different story – that of a murder by an unknown intruder. What Hugh does not realize however is that Mark’s help will come at a price…


My Thoughts

Columbo‘s third season is, in the opinion of this viewer, a bit of a mixed bag. There were some real highs such as Any Old Port in a Storm or Publish or Perish but it also gave us an episode in Mind over Mayhem which is the story I have enjoyed least so far in the series by quite some way. Perhaps it is fitting then that I found the season finale, A Friend in Deed, to be a similarly inconsistent effort with some moments of pure inspiration but a couple of elements that just didn’t work for me.

The best place to begin with this story is its central concept: the cover-up of a murder by a friend of the killer. When this idea is initially introduced I will admit to thinking it was a bit weak and I struggled to accept that Mark would willingly put their freedom in jeopardy by getting involved in a murder cover-up that didn’t benefit him at all. That is partly explained by the idea referenced by several characters that the victim had tormented Hugh which makes his sympathy understandable but had his actions hinged solely on that empathy I think the episode would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Peter S. Fischer has a much cleverer concept in mind that he presents part way into the episode.

That idea is not wholly original but it works nicely because of a structural choice he makes earlier in the episode. The initial setup is so ordinary and simple that it seems inconceivable that the situation as first presented could sustain a whole ninety-five minutes of drama. In what amounts to a nice piece of misdirection, Fischer knows we will be looking for that extra something and gives it to us before then providing an additional reveal that takes the story in an entirely different direction. What’s more it’s at this point that the relationship between Columbo and our criminal mastermind really comes into focus and the games that are being played become more interesting.

The early reveal relates to an aspect of Mark’s background that will not only drive his conflict with Columbo but also give it a rather unique character. I’ll be discussing that further in my spoiler section below but the short version is that I appreciate the intention and while I have some questions about the consequences of that reveal, I do like that it does make this episode and its villain feel a bit different.

Mark is played by Richard Kiley whose portrayal emphasizes the character’s seedy, entitled side. When we are first introduced to him for instance we see him in a gambling establishment enjoying the company of some women who are not his wife and he gives off a rather nonchalant air. The character’s scheme for orchestrating the cover-up is not particularly complex, nor is it all that audacious. That partly reflects that further reveals are to come at that point in the story but also the character’s supreme confidence in himself. It’s a simple and familiar trick but the execution is solid enough.

There are parts of Kiley’s performance I quite enjoy but I do think one of the weaknesses of the script is how ridiculously over-the-top and villainous he can appear. Moments like his snarling down the phone to Hugh to get him to say a particular phrase necessary for their plan or his introduction in that gambling den seem rather silly and cartoonish. On the other hand, there are some wonderful moments, particularly when he is playing off Columbo, and his performance in the crucial gotchya scene is one of the best so far.

Opposite him, Michael McGuire’s Hugh is understandably a bag of nerves. It is his view we initially get of the crime and we follow him as he approaches Mark for help. Given how tightly wound this character becomes as a consquence of what happens, I was sure that we would witness him disintegrate further under pressure as the story goes on but instead I was surprised at how quickly he drops from the story and how our focus falls almost entirely on Mark.

So, what is Mark’s plan? He plans to suggest that the murder happened as a result of a break-in at Hugh’s home by the Bel-Air Burglar – a character all over the news. Once again, a simple enough idea but it’s a solid enough premise for a cover-up. Unfortunately though this takes us to a dive bar setting that I think misses the mark.

Those scenes are clearly intended to be gritty and realistic from the way they are scripted but I think they are let down by some costuming and tonal choices. One of the most striking things about this episode is that while there are some lines of dialogue that I think feel a little silly and playful, there is less of a focus on the comedy content than in many of the episodes in this season with Columbo himself seeming more restrained.

The exception is the business with Artie and Thelma. These scenes in which the two bicker feel like they are intended to be comical yet I felt they came off as silly, perhaps in part because Thelma’s costume seems ridiculous. This in turn makes it harder to take the pair seriously. Matters are not helped by their dialogue which just didn’t ring true to me. Fortunately while I think the manner of Artie’s introduction is poor, I did like the way he is utilized in some of the later scenes in the episode.

Which brings me to that gotchya moment I referenced before. The goal here is that I like to be surprised and, ideally, when that happens to end up frustrated with myself that I overlooked something obvious. The manner of the conclusion here certainly accomplishes that, giving us one of the show’s best gotchya moments since Suitable for Framing. I enjoyed the brazeness of Columbo’s plan, I appreciate the psychology behind that moment and, most importantly, I think those last few minutes of the episode made for some really gripping TV.

The episode does end on a high then but I am left uncertain as to how I feel about this one overall. On a conceptual level I think this is a very clever story and I think it lands its ending but I don’t think it has a consistent tone with some moments coming off as silly rather than amusing.

The Verdict: I feel that a very clever concept is marred a little by some inconsistency of tone. Throw in an uneven performance from the actor playing the episode’s antagonist and you have a recipe for an episode that, while good, doesn’t entirely deliver on its promise.

Aidan Spoils Everything

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Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love by Carlos Allende

Cover for Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love

Originally published in 2022

Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!


Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is another one of those books that is rather difficult to put into a genre box. It is, first and foremost, a work of comedic fiction. It is also the story of a relationship. A messed up, difficult relationship but then the two characters who end up in it are rather messed up, difficult people for reasons we’ll come onto. It discusses sexual and cultural identity and the search for belonging, all the while depicting a moment in California and America’s political climate – the start of President Obama’s second term at a point and the speculation about the administration’s stance on gay marriage.

In addition to being all those things, it is also a crime novel.

Allende’s story concerns an almost accidental serial killer. Jignesh never intended to kill anyone but when a former intern at his company mocks him he lashes out. Panicked and needing to figure out a way of disposing of the body – or at least hiding it – he turns to a one-night stand he had been avoiding who just happens to be in possession of a really oversized freezer.

In what quickly turns into a comedy of errors, Jignesh will soon have more bodies on his hands as his attempts to evade detection push him into more and more trouble. Adding to the complications, while Jignesh has a freezer to store the bodies in, he soon finds that he has to move in with that former hook-up, Charlie, in order to have somewhere to keep the freezer. And then, inevitably, Charlie looks in that freezer and finds himself involved too.

So let’s start by talking comedy. As I have often remarked before on this blog, humor is really subjective. Some will absolutely adore how dark this story gets and how awful the two protagonists behave throughout the story. Others are certain not to. My advice here is that if the concept of the book interests you, go check out the sample chapters on Amazon (or another ebook vendor that does samples). Allende’s two narrators maintain consistent voices throughout and so what you get in those three and a half chapters is pretty representative of the tone and style of the whole book.

Personally I found the situations more amusing than the often outrageous and offensive thoughts of the two protagonists. Charlie’s perspective in particular is laden with cringeworthy racial assumptions and stereotypes. I am quite clear that we not meant to think that those are right or laudable but reflections of the character’s prejudice and upbringing, reminding us that someone can be the subject of microaggressions and bullying behavior while happily engaging in them themselves all the while thinking of themselves as an outrageous wit. Still, while this may work as a character study, I found it a little wearying at points.

The construction of the farce however is superb. So often in these sorts of stories, authors will run out of steam in the later parts of the story. Here though Allende does an amazing job of continuing to escalate and both growing the stakes and the dangers his protagonists find themselves in. Even more impressive though is how he avoids the traps of predictability, delivering some plot developments that surprise while feeling absolutely in keeping with out previous understandings of the characters and the situation they are in.

While I may not have always enjoyed their narration, I did find the protagonists interesting and I enjoyed some of the character exploration that takes place often under the surface. That is perhaps necessary as neither Charlie nor Jignesh is particularly introspective, each seeming to make decisions on impulse, but there are still plenty of moments where we get insight, either from the other character or by the author providing the opportunities to read details or subtext into these characters.

That is particularly true in terms of understanding the complex dynamic of their relationship, much of which develops between chapters or goes unspoken. Neither character is particularly interested in the other romantically at the start of the story yet they are in a very different place by the end of the novel. It’s not exactly a love story – Charlie is quite open with us about how transactionally he views his relationship with Jignesh, particularly once he discovers the first body and opts to delay reporting what he has found to the police until after the LA Opera season is over.

I enjoyed the occasional moments of ambiguity in that relationship and how hard it is to ascribe a label to it. That relationship changes, evolving (and perhaps devolving at points) in response to the events of the novel. It feels very well-observed and that messiness and difficulty made their dynamic all the more interesting to me. I never quite knew what these characters would do in response to the other’s actions, making following that relationship all the more compelling.

What surprised me most is that while I am quite clear that Charlie and Jignesh are both terrible people, there are moments where their situation can elicit some genuine sympathy. That partly reflects that other characters are equally terrible or worse, such as most of the people Jignesh works with. I think it also reflects that their problems are all easy to understand and often to sympathize with. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted them to be happy with each other but I did find myself caring about them by the end.

Which brings me neatly to the book’s conclusion. I have previously mentioned that the book continues to escalate and complicate the situation until the final few pages of the book. By the time we reach that end, thing have become so crazy that the reader may be forgiven for wondering just how everything could possibly be tidied up.

The answer is that while there is a resolution and it feels quite satisfying in terms of paying off what has come before, there are a couple of loose ends left untied and resolutions not quite given. There is one aspect of the story which I had been particularly anticipating yet when we reach the conclusion it isn’t referenced at all. Those reading this for those farce elements though are likely to be pleased with how this wraps up and will excuse a little untidiness in a couple of plot threads for the overall effect of the novel’s punchline.

The Verdict – This often-outrageous crime farce won’t appeal to everyone but features some very clever plot construction and a pair of memorable, if not always likable, protagonists.