When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.
But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .
A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.
Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.
The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.
On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.
This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.
What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.
Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.
I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.
Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.
The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.
There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.
These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.
It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.
If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.
I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!
This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.
Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト English translation first published in 2003
This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society.
At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.
A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.
Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.
The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.
From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.
The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.
Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.
While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.
Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.
In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.
Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.
Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.
There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.
Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.
As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.
Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.
Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.
When Paul enters university in early 1970s Pittsburgh, it’s with the hope of moving past the recent death of his father. Sensitive, insecure, and incomprehensible to his grieving family, Paul feels isolated and alone. When he meets the worldly Julian in his freshman ethics class, Paul is immediately drawn to his classmate’s effortless charm.
Paul sees Julian as his sole intellectual equal—an ally against the conventional world he finds so suffocating. Paul will stop at nothing to prove himself worthy of their friendship, because with Julian life is more invigorating than Paul could ever have imagined. But as charismatic as he can choose to be, Julian is also volatile and capriciously cruel, and Paul becomes increasingly afraid that he can never live up to what Julian expects of him.
As their friendship spirals into all-consuming intimacy, they each learn the lengths to which the other will go in order to stay together, their obsession ultimately hurtling them toward an act of irrevocable violence.
Unfolding with a propulsive ferocity, These Violent Delights is an exquisitely plotted excavation of the depths of human desire and the darkness it can bring forth in us.
Exquiste character building and a palpable sense of tension make this a really powerful read. Like most other reviews I have to note that this will particularly appeal to fans of Highsmith.
These Violent Delights begins with a murder. In a prologue we follow Charlie as he realizes late at night that his car won’t start. He is relieved when two young men, Paul and Julian, offer him a ride home and he gladly accepts a Thermos of hot soup, ignoring its soapy taste. As they talk however he begins to feel something is off. Charlie cannot do anything however as the effects of the drug in the soup set in, causing him to lose control of his body. He cannot understand why these two men, who he has never met, would be doing this to him.
The novel is about those two men and it explores the events in their life and the people around them that have shaped them into who they are and the intense relationship that develops between them. This is a work grounded in its exploration of character and discussions of theme rather than a work focused on exploring the mechanics of murder.
That is reflected in the decision to place the details of what happens on that night at the front of the book. This not only serves to hook readers into wanting to know about what led up to that moment, it also allows the narrative to skip over the actual mechanics of the murder. By getting them out of the way at the front and not repeating them, the reader is encouraged to focus on the characters’ feelings and the changes in their relationship that take place during and as a consquence of this event.
By external appearances Paul and Julian are quite dissimilar. Paul, who comes from a working class background, is awkward and insular. His family note, for example, that he has never really had a friend and they worry for him, particular given his father’s suicide less than a year earlier. By contrast Julian, whose father is a government official, exudes an easy confidence and charm. He is much wealthier, indulgent and clearly intrigued by his new friend’s expression of a philosophical worldview. Paul meanwhile is attracted to Julian’s beauty and that confidence. He desperately wants Julian’s love, even if he considers himself unworthy of it.
I think Nemerever does an exceptional job making each character feel credible and dimensional and establishing the reasons why they become so dependent upon one another. That relationship changes throughout the novel, in response to the events each is experiencing in their lives, and at each stage I felt the nature of the relationship and the reasons for the alterations taking place to it were clearly communicated and thoughtfully explored.
That attention to detail extends to the secondary characters in the story. The characters in both Paul and Julian’s families each possess strong personalities and feel quite credible. Perhaps the best example of this would be Julian’s parents whose disinterest in the happiness of their son marks them out as being quite unsympathetic. Yet while they are certainly not likable, I think we understand them well through the things we come to learn about them such as how they seem to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritage. We can see them as characters determined to conform in order to gain social acceptance.
Nemerever also skillfully explores the ambiguities in his characters and their relationships with one another, sometimes offering alternative readings or perspectives on them. Like Paul, I spent much of the book uncertain of the extent to which Julian was serious in his romantic interest in him. While I had a clear idea by the end of the book what Julian was getting from Paul, that ambiguity about Julian’s feelings clearly affects Paul and causes him to become more dependent on receiving that attention and affection, only making the relationship feel more intense and unstable. And all the time we are waiting to see when they will start to plan their murder and why certain choices are made.
While it takes a while to get to the murder in the story, the seeds of that idea are quite apparent both in terms of the characters and some of the specifics of their plan. What is least apparent until the moment it happens is the psychological context of that moment and how Paul and Julian are thinking about the act. That question of what the murder represented to each of them and why they decided to do it is really quite thought-provoking. I think Nemerever handles that question well, and it is from this point in the story that I feel the reader will understand the characters and their thoughts better than they understand themselves.
The point at which the murder takes place is the start of the novel’s endgame. I think the author does an incredible job addressing their themes in this section of the novel and, once again, I was struck by the thoughtful and credible characterizations of both Paul and Julian. I was most struck though by the ending to their story which seemed to wrap things up pretty perfectly.
I have little negative to offer about it at all. I might perhaps have ended the book a few pages earlier after a particularly powerful moment had taken place given how well that moment is written. In spite of saying that though I can see the significance of the ending and think it does feel fitting to the overall flow of the story.
My only other note would be that while this work may begin with a murder, readers should be prepared that it is not structured like a genre work. While there is a body and an investigation, the book is more interested in exploring how it affects the characters rather than detailing the way everything is connected by the investigators. That being said, I think the investigation – while clearly a secondary element of the plot – is quite effectively written in some other respects and while we are certainly kept distant from it, the reader is given enough to follow their thinking and suppositions.
As you can tell I found this to be a really thoughtful and engaging exploration of an obsessional relationship and the terrible things it inspires its participants to do. The book addresses some really interesting themes and ideas and features some exceptional character development. It is a remarkable debut novel. I look forward to seeing what the author does next, whether it is linked to the genre or not.
Originally published 1937 Anthony Bathurst #20 Preceded by Fear and Trembling Followed by Cold Evil
Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.
Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?
Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.
I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.
While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.
This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.
It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?
One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.
I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.
A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.
I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.
I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.
Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.
Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!
TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.
Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.
A Cataloguing Note
For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.
Everyone agreed Evelyn Marsh wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned. Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” The rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in that first line. A psychological character study, it’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it.
A lot of the elements used are familiar but Clemens combines them skillfully and executes them well.
Evelyn Marsh begins with the title character accidentally committing what is described as a murder. In actual fact she has unintentionally killed a gopher that was menacing her garden. While that may read like the literary equivalent of a clickbait headline, the use of the word ‘murder’ is both clever and useful as it tells us a lot about Evelyn as a character and her values.
This is important because Evelyn Marsh is, at its heart, a character study. What it is principally interested in and what it teases so effectively in its first line is how a woman can go from crying over a dead animal and insisting on giving it a burial to committing a second, deliberate murder. The victim’s identity is unknown both to the reader and to Evelyn at this point in the novel so we follow along as we see her interact with other characters, see potential triggers and situations being created and wonder exactly what will be the moment that will send her over the edge. In short, we are looking an example of the whydunit style of inverted mystery.
Looked at it from the outside, Evelyn Marsh’s life is enviable. She lives in a gorgeous home, her husband earns a comfortable salary from the law practice he took on from her father meaning she wants for little and she has recently begun to exhibit and sell her artwork – something that brings her great pleasure, even if the financial rewards of that so far have been relatively modest. She however perceives that life slightly differently, particularly her marriage which has become cold since the children left home.
In the early chapters of the novel, Clemens carefully establishes each aspect of her life and several of the relationships that are most important to her. The reader may perceive some familiar storytelling seeds being sewn that suggest how the story will take its turn but because there are several such strands, it is not obvious which will be the ultimate trigger. Nor are those threads as predictable as they initially appear – Clemens overlaps some of those storylines, leading them to impact on each other which pushes the work into some less expected directions as Evelyn plans and executes her murder and responds to an investigation.
Unusually for this sort of story, I found the act of murder to be the least compelling aspect of the book. It is, of course, necessary and it has been planned but after chapters of building anticipation, the act itself happens quickly, as does the staging of the scene, and before you know it we have moved onto the investigative portion of the book. This is not a bad thing however because it is this final section of the book that feels the most engaging and interesting.
Where the early part of the book dealt with familiar ideas and story beats, albeit presenting them with twists, this final section feels like it is doing its own thing. It manages to do so with a focus on character with each new development seeming to probe and illustrate different aspects of Evelyn’s personality and we see her undergo a sort of transformation as a result.
Having diverged from the more familiar plot points and beats of the inverted crime story by this point, we find ourselves in rather unexpected territory about just how each of the plot threads will be resolved. I found this to be quite exciting and enjoyed following the path of the investigation and trying to predict how the story might end. I was not disappointed with that conclusion which not only felt interesting on a character level, it also felt like a satisfying final statement on the book’s central themes.
Overall I enjoyed Evelyn Marsh a lot and found it to be a clever psychological exploration of how a woman comes to commit a murder. While many of the ingredients will be familiar, Clemens combines them in unexpected ways to produce a character-driven story that exceeded my expectations.
Originally published in 1933 Superintendent Wilson #10 Preceded by A Lesson in Crime Followed by Death in the Quarry
It is said that dead men tell no tales, but sometimes sudden death is the means of bringing well-hidden tales to light. It is so in this story; for out of the seemingly accidental death of the unknown old man who called on Philip Blakeway at Hampstead comes the clearing-up of an old crime. How Captain John Jay really died, how Ann Burton set out to look for her missing father, and how Superintendent Wilson unravelled the tangle, you will read in this book, in which you will find not only a detective story in Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s best manner, but also another example of their habit of writing about people who behave like real men and women, and not merely figures whom the author moves about at his pleasure.
An intriguing inverted story scenario is spoiled by a dull investigation and a lack of interest in exploring the character of its killer. Ends strong but takes too long getting there.
After several years of financial worries, Philip Blakeway seems to finally be living comfortably. He has married a wealthy widow who is able to keep him and sustain his business, though he could easily afford to live a life of leisure. Even her children’s lack of warmth towards him does not seem to seriously bother him and he hopes to make some progress with his relationship with her son while she is away for a few days.
All that comfort seems to evaporate however when he spots a seafaring man at a religious gathering while out on a walk – a situation that becomes even more worrying when that man follows him home and asks for an audience. Blakeway asks for the man to be shown into his library and gives the servants the night off, even though he will be having a few friends over later that evening. He goes ahead with the party as planned, staging a scene where he happens upon the mariner robbing his bedroom and they struggle, causing the mariner’s gun to go off and kill him. We know however that this is murder – what we do not know is why Philip felt driven to commit the act.
I first learned about this book several months ago in the chapter on Inverted Mysteries in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. While Edwards’ short essay on the book is not exactly glowing, he describes it as ‘good enough’ to make it feel disappointing that the authors did not return to the form. Always keen to try a new author’s take on this type of story, particularly those from the Golden Age, I couldn’t resist snapping up a copy. I am pretty sure I did so before I even finished the article.
The book gets off to a strong start with a chapter that establishes Blakeway and his new lifestyle. While it is quite clear that we are not given the full story and that secrets are lurking in his past, this chapter does help to give us a sense of the man and what he values. It also goes some way to laying the foundations for the later revelations about his past and his relationship to the man who will be murdered.
By choosing to give us this introduction and the events leading up to the meeting with the victim at his home before jumping forwards a few hours, picking up the story at the moment of the shooting, the authors add an additional layer of mystery to the proceedings. We can infer from the circumstances of that meeting that the victim posed some sort of threat to Blakeway and his security yet we do not know the nature of that threat or whether those secrets truly died with the mariner. Nor do we really know much about the victim himself beyond a physical description and our knowledge of the fear he creates in Blakeway. In short, this choice to not show us exactly what happened works pretty well to build a sense of uncertainty and emphasize that the book’s central questions relate to the relationship between those two men.
We then follow Blakeway as he answers police questions and then receives a blackmail request. This is a relatively common plot point in this sort of mystery and it often inspires additional plot developments but here the authors do not really exploit it. After being raised near the start of the novel, this plot point really slips out of view to the extent that, when it was referenced again late in the book it had completely slipped from my mind.
The reason it slipped my mind and struck me as pretty unimportant reflects that the bulk of the novel feels really rather unstructured. While we might think of those middle chapters of the novel as showing how Blakeway responds to some external pressures, the story seems to ooze towards its conclusion rather than feel like it is being driven towards it. There is a sense of a building series of pressures but no sense of an antagonist for Blakeway to pitch his wits against or the need to construct a cover-up. While that may be realistic, it does not make for particularly compelling storytelling. The entry of Superintendent Wilson late in the day does little to help this.
Martin Edwards describes him as dull and I cannot really disagree. His role in this story is fairly minimal, reflecting that he is brought into the affair late in the day, but he does not have much personality or bring much force to bear on the investigation. He really just works out a probable (and correct) explanation from a distance. Even that however feels rather anticlimactic and, once again, it never feels as if he is engaged with the other characters in the story.
While the process of getting to the explanation is rather dry, the content of that explanation is rather more interesting. I was certainly surprised to learn one element motivating the crime which is fairly clued and was intrigued to see how another character would respond. It sets up an interesting final few chapters that feel less predictable than what has come before while not losing sight of the characters or the relationships that had been established earlier in the novel.
As interesting as the start and end of the novel are, I feel that I cannot really recommend it. It is not just that the plotting is sometimes a little loose with some elements, like the threat of blackmail, being raised but then forgotten for much of the story. I think the problems lie in the choice to prevent the reader from really getting to know Blakeway. Following the murder he seems emotionally remote, even when we are being shown how he is responding to events. That works in terms of sustaining the mystery about why he has resorted to murder but it does mean that for much of the book the character feels more like a cipher than a fully-dimensional person and I think it kept me from really caring about his fate.
Have you read anything by the Coles? If so, what is your opinion of their writing? Are there any books you would recommend to me?
Originally published in 1981. Also published as Death of a Perfect Mother.
At the very moment that Lill Hodsden was describing her two sons (‘We think the world of each other: they’d do anything for me’) Gordon and his brother Brian were plotting darkly at home.
Next Saturday, on her way back from the pub, they planned a sharp blow on the back of Lill’s head and maybe a twist of rope around her throat. What a beautiful empty future they would have!
But Lill’s garrotted body was discovered two days early on Thursday night. Gordon and Brian were incredulous that someone else had got there first for a bizarre twist of fate was going to bring the mother’s boys full circle…
Unpleasant with a predictable conclusion that is clearly meant to surprise. I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon…
Lill Hodsden is regarded as common and cheap by most of the inhabitants of Todmarsh. Her husband, Fred, is oblivious to her carrying on with other men and to the presents she has received in return for her favors and seems to not care about her controlling behavior. Her sons however deeply resent it and worry that she will never let go of them and allow them to become independent.
One day Gordon, the eldest son, suggests to his brother Brian that they should kill her. Brian, assuming he is joking, plays along only to find that he is serious. After talking it over they develop a plan and test some elements. Then just two days before they were to go through with the deed she is found garrotted in the very alley they had planned to commit the murder in.
I actually picked up Mother’s Boy in error after finding a copy of the blurb that omitted the last paragraph. Assuming that this would be a straightforward inverted mystery, I got hold of a copy only to find as I was partway through that other suspects were appearing, each with their own deepset grudges against Lill. Still, even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting I decided to press on with it and see it to its conclusion.
I rather wish I hadn’t bothered.
Mother’s Boys is a depressing read that lacks wit and contains several depictions of various -isms that were made for uncomfortable reading, even though I perceive the author’s intent was to critique those small-minded attitudes. Certainly those opinions tend to come out of the mouths of characters who are established as nasty pieces of work. Which turns out to be just about everyone, making for some quite depressing reading at times.
Unfortunately however I think those efforts to satirize or illustrate those racist attitudes are undermined by the attempt to comically describe the fictional island that the book’s black character came from in terms of savagery (they have, of course, recently been cannibals and plump tourists still occasionally go missing) and ignorance (they have mistakenly come to believe George Eliot a Christian saint based on a missionary’s book collection). It is a frustrating choice because, if that was not there, I might well be lauding the author’s efforts to address racism, both spoken and unspoken, in society.
The book has other, more structural issues however that are evident right from its first chapter. This book has to do something that is quite difficult – convince us that two sons, who are believed to dote on their mother, would negotiate and conspire a murder plan in a single conversation. This might have been set up by an obvious pressure point on that relationship such as a particular slight given or a specific provocation but instead it is brought up quite bluntly and with no build up at all. This renders the whole conversation unnervingly neat and artificial which might not be a problem if the whole book was written in that style. The problem is that it really doesn’t sit comfortably with the social realism approach adopted in almost every other aspect of the novel. Accordingly it feels quite forced, as though the author is simply setting up the chess board to favor the moves they intend to make.
In addition the plan they devise is in no way creative or devious. It simply amounts to making it appear that they are both in a busy pub while one slips a short distance away to carry out the crime and returns. There is so little about this that is unique or interesting that I was actually relatively relieved when the author began to introduce some other suspects. My hope was that even if this wasn’t the inverted masterpiece I hoped for, maybe we would get a good detective story out of this setup instead.
Here Barnard at least sets up some promising possibilities as we see Lill manage to aggravate almost everyone in her community in the hours leading up to her murder in different ways. There is a pretty diverse set of motives to consider and by the time you get to that murder the reader will likely be relieved that they will no longer have to spend any more time in Lill’s obnoxious company.
It is easy to understand why Lill upsets so many people. Her behavior is loud, crude and overly familiar, lacking the sorts of boundaries that help people navigate social situations. Barnard seems to imply that there is some classist snobbery on display in others’ responses to her. We notice that other characters are just as forward, just as insensitive or interfering and yet they do not inspire quite the same level of ire as Lill. I think this idea is interesting and yet, because it is never directly addressed in the narration it is not clear if it is intentional or if I have simply read it into the text. I rather hope it is the former.
One aspect of the work that Barnard definitely intends is to present his detectives as impatient for results and judgmental towards the people they are speaking with. This is not unique to this work but I think it works particularly well here, especially given those other themes I found in the book. This not only adds to those themes within the novel, it also leads to the investigation developing rather atypically as the reader cannot be sure whether they will find the truth or not.
But that brings me to the novel’s biggest problems which, rather unfortunately, all lie with the book’s solution. To start with, the mystery is not exactly a carefully plotted puzzle. The detectives never really get into the matter of analyzing characters’ movements. Indeed most of the suspects are simply identified as possible based on their motive. This undermines the reader’s ability to process this as a puzzle mystery – we end the case simply without knowing much about the suspects.
At the same time, there is one solution that actually stands out as being quite obvious. I do not consider myself as being particularly brilliant or inspired for reaching it early in the book and later developments clearly seem to confirm it. It is simply that there is never any serious attempt made to make that conclusion seem impossible, almost as if the author considered it so brilliant that he assumed no one could possibly conceive of it. I might almost wonder if that was deliberate except the ending is so clearly framed as though it were a surprise that it appears the author must have believed he had hidden the signs hinting at it.
So rather unfortunately I found myself quite frustrated by this book. Barnard creates some striking and vivid characters and the themes it develops are interesting but the mystery feels unfocused and the tone feels inconsistent. I have several other books by Barnard in my TBR pile so I am sure I will give him another try but this experience doesn’t leave me excited. If anyone has any Barnard suggestions however I would be happy to receive them!
When his father dies, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly rich and trendy London neighborhood. Cash poor, Carl rents the upstairs room and kitchen to the first person he interviews, Dermot McKinnon. That is mistake number one. Mistake number two is keeping the bizarre collection of homeopathic and alternative “cures” that his father left in the medicine cabinet, including a stash of controversial diet pills. Mistake number three is selling fifty of those diet pills to a friend, who is then found dead.
Dermot seizes a nefarious opportunity and begins to blackmail Carl, refusing to pay rent, and creepily invading Carl’s space. Ingeniously weaving together two storylines that finally merge in a shocking turn, Ruth Rendell describes one man’s spiral into darkness—and murder—as he falls victim to a diabolical foe he cannot escape.
An interesting exploration of how a character can find themselves trapped in a situation where they feel murder is the only way out.
Carl Martin has just published his first novel when he makes the fateful choice to offer the upstairs rooms to let. He accepts the very first offer on the room from Dermot, an assistant at a vet’s clinic, and is looking forward to getting some extra income to tide him over while he works on his new book.
Carl’s friend Stacey is worried about whether some recent weight gain will keep her from getting more acting roles. She spots some pills that had belonged to Carl’s deceased father and offers him fifty pounds for them which he accepts. When she is found dead in her flat and the pills are identified as the cause of death Carl feels terrible but his situation gets worse when Dermot lets him know he witnessed the transaction and would like to renegotiate the terms of his tenancy…
Dark Corners was published a short time after Rendell’s death and contains many of the hallmarks of her approach to the inverted crime story. Instead of focusing on a single, terrible decision in a character’s life we see it as an escalation of bad choices made under increasing pressure. Carl does not begin the book as a bad man – he is simply an increasingly desperate one who finds himself in a situation where he has no way out.
Rendell handles this character study very well and the reader may well find themselves experiencing some amount of empathy for Carl, at least at some points in the story. One reason for this is that Carl clearly never intends any harm to his friend who asks for the pills. The other is that Dermot is shown to be a hypocrit who is enjoying being able to exert power over someone else. As Carl’s life becomes harder and harder, readers are likely going to understand why he feels under enormous pressure and why his options feel so limited.
What I think makes Carl such an interesting figure is that he could so clearly be anyone. Looking at comments on Goodreads a common complaint about the book from readers is that he could easily have had a different outcome if he had responded differently to Dermot’s threats, yet I feel that is the whole point of the book. If you consider them at the moment he makes them, his decisions appear quite reasonable and typically the least painful of the options he has on offer. It is only because we have the distance and are not personally involved that we can also see how he is working himself into an impossible corner.
Dermot is similarly quite an intriguing character being portrayed more as odd than dangerous. In some respects he is reminiscent of Arthur, the serial killer in A Demon in My View. He is socially awkward, fixated on particular aspects of an interaction and suffering from an inferiority complex. I found Dermot a consistently credible and well-observed creation and had no difficulty at all in picturing him or believing in his choices.
While the main plotline of the book feels compelling and credible, it can be harder to see the point of some of the secondary plots. One of these involves Tom, an older man who has started to ride around London using his free bus pass on the various routes as a hobby. I thought that this is an interesting idea and appreciated how well-observed this character seems yet this thread never connects back to the main story at all.
Another involves Lizzie, a young woman who is secretly staying in the victim’s apartment and taking her things. This at least feels better linked to the main plot and while it seems to pull away from the Carl and Dermot story. If it is a less compelling story than Carl’s it reflects that the other characters involved in that storyline feel rather more functional, lacking much of the dimension that she or Dermot have.
Though it may appear that Lizzie’s storyline also feels like a distraction from the main thrust of the plot I feel that this thread develops some similar ideas to those found in Carl’s. Hers is also a story about the consequences of decisions taken and while I feel that there is not quite enough payoff for the story thread as it develops, I do think it complements that main storyline.
It is that development of theme that I find to be the most successful aspect of this novel. Rendell’s most central characters feel credible and well-observed and I found the slow escalation of a situation to be quite compelling. While it is perhaps not as tidily plotted as some of her best work, the character development and exploration of a situation were more than enough to keep me engaged.
Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010 Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann. All episodes written by Neil Cross.
Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.
Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast
When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.
Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.
The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.
After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.
Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.
I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.
The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.
Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.
While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.
Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!
Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.
As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.
Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.
A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.
After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.
The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.
Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.
I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.
While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.
The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.
A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…
Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.
Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.
The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.
Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.
An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.
With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.
The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.
Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.
Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.
The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.
The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.
I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).
Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤 English language translation published in 2020 Prior to the release of the translation this book’s title was more often translated as Seven Years of Night and the film adaptation had a limited release in the US under that title.
A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.
At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.
When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.
For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.
This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.
Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.
We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.
Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.
I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.
Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.
I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.
There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.
The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.
The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.
The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.
I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.
I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…