Nothing More Than Murder by Jim Thompson

Nothing More Than Murder
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil in Dungarees by Albert Conroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Views

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

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

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

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

double
Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)

Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries

inverted mysteries (2)

Those of you who have been around this blog for a while will know that I am a bit of a fan of the inverted mystery. While I make a point to read a pretty wide variety of crime and mystery fiction, I review inverted mysteries more frequently than any other type and I have no intention on slowing down on that front.

One of the things that excites me most about the inverted mystery and crime sub-genres (and yes, I think they are slightly different – the former is akin to a detective novel whereas the latter is more psychological) is the sheer diversity of approaches that writers take with these forms.

For some writers the use of an inverted form is a chance to experiment with the structure of a mystery story and show that you can still craft a viable puzzle even if you know the killer’s identity. Others like to use the form to explore the psychology of killers or their perspective on the cat-and-mouse game of detection. Sometimes these books are light-hearted and comedic with the killer’s plans either coming to nothing or being turned back on the killer themselves. Others are dark, gritty and drenched in noir-style.

The list I have compiled today is not an attempt to pick the five best inverted mysteries. While I have read quite a number of these over the past few years I know that there are many I have yet to try including a few classics of the sub-genre. What I was aiming to do instead was illustrate some of the different ways writers have interpreted this simple idea.

One of my paramount concerns was that the titles I picked should be available and affordable. I also wanted my picks to represent the different styles of inverted mysteries out there so I tried to select a mix of story types. This means that I had to leave out some favorite authors and titles such as Crofts’ The Affair at Little Wokeham (the best of his four inverted novels). For this reason I have included further reading suggestions after each of my selections to give you other options if a particular type of inverted story appeals to you.

One title that did not make the list is Malice Aforethought. I gave considerable thought to its inclusion but ended up opting against it because it is so clearly the dominant title in the sub-genre. It so obviously would merit inclusion for its importance to the development of the form that I think highlighting it would add very little. While I think it tends to be a little overrated, I do suggest you seek it out if you haven’t read it already.

On with the list…

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

AntidoteThis is an example of the Howcatchem structure. In this type of story the reader learns the killer’s identity, their plan and their motivation early in the novel. Their job is to work out how the detective will unpick the information they can see to get at the truth and bring the killer to justice. This is the most common form of inversion and certainly the best known – TV’s Columbo is structured this way.

Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom is a great example of this format because it is essentially split into two sections. The first builds our understanding of how the killer comes to be murdering someone at all, explaining their motivation, choice of victim and plan. The second follows Inspector French as he tries to unpick the evidence.

This proves particularly tricky because the person carrying out the killer does not a personal motive to carry out the murder. The scheme Crofts devises is really quite technically ingenious and memorable and while I found French’s investigation a little too slow and detail-oriented, I love the story’s backdrop of a midsized metropolitan zoo and the characterization of the killer, George.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith operates with a similar premise in which the person who performs the killing does not have a direct motive for carrying out the murder.

Crofts wrote three other inverted stories each of which takes a slightly different structural approach. My favorite is the one that is hardest to find The Affair at Little Wokeham (also called Double Tragedy) and it’s well worth a look if you can find an affordable copy.

Finally I strongly recommend Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade. It is one of my favorite inverted mysteries in part thanks to a clever premise and its really effective ending.

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawaywardThis is an example of a comedic approach to the inverted mystery novel. Typically these sorts of stories present us with a bumbling, incompetent would-be murderer (or person perpetrating some other form of crime) who may or may not succeed. Often they don’t and their plan will end up backfiring on them in some fashion, possibly leading to their own death or humiliation.

The New Sonia Wayward is a great example of this type of story because the protagonist, Colonel Petticate, does not actually kill his dead wife. Instead he is trying to cover up a natural death but does it so badly that he finds himself in a compromising situation.

This is a wild ride of a story packed with unpredictable and comedic twists and turns. I enjoy the digs and jokes at the publishing industry’s expense and found it a charming and engaging read.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is probably the best-known of this sort of inverted story and it is certainly enjoyable though I am a little reluctant to label it an inverted mystery novel at all. I think it’s a great read though and I think it puts an interesting if predictable twist on the subgenre.

Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef is also a great choice with a quirky would-be killer with an interesting plan. It is frequently very funny and can be enjoyed independently of Bruce’s other Sergeant Beef stories.

Finally Anthony Roll’s Family Matters (yet to be reviewed on this blog) presents an interesting situation in which we know the identity of two people who are seeking to kill the book’s victim but end up inadvertently spoiling each others’ plans.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

RendellI don’t often review books featuring serial killers on this blog but one of the strongest currents of inverted fiction deals with psychopathic killers.

Sometimes these sorts of stories can try to realistically explore the psychology of a psychopath, others will take a more stylised approach or use it to tell a more conventional thriller.

Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View presents us with a serial killer who has found a way of suppressing his instincts. He has set up a mannequin in an outbuilding in the block of flats in which he lives which he uses to play out his fantasies.

Unfortunately for him he finds his life is turned upside down when someone with a very similar name moves in to the same building, sparking a dangerous and destructive obsession in him.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

I have fewer examples here because it’s not my favorite type of fiction. One I can recommend though is Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. It is an extremely dark, perverse and often amusing look into the mind of a killer.

Hugh Holton’s Windy City explores a married couple who kill for the enjoyment of it. I was entertained by it but it is hard to believe that these killers could succeed for as long as they do.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

TheyShootHorsesDontTheyThis is an example of a justification narrative or whydunnit. The reader begins the novel with the knowledge of who the killer killed and how it was done but their motive is unclear.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a punchy, brutal and bleak tale set against the backdrop of a gruelling dance marathon contest. Couples compete, dancing for an hour and a half before getting a ten minute break and starting all over again.

The protagonist, Robert, is an aspiring film director who agrees to dance with Gloria, an actress who is hoping to catch a film producer’s attention during the contest. We know that by the end of the contest several weeks later he will be arrested and put on trial for her murder and over the course of the book we learn what led him to take her life.

McCoy’s story works because it is a blistering, uncomfortable and provocative reading experience packed with salty prose and a decidedly noir outlook on humanity.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

The whydunnit seems to be the least used inversion of the typical mystery formula but there are a few examples out there. The Collini Case is presented as a legal thriller but it does ask the reader to figure out why a man has committed a murder.

Another interesting example is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner though it is not usually categorized as a genre work. Written in the early nineteenth century, Hogg presents us with two accounts of a murder and leaves it open to the reader which interpretation they favor. It can be a bit of a dense read and the supernatural elements will not be for everyone but its focus on the killer’s psychology makes it feel a surprisingly modern work in other respects.

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

blueprintOne of the most interesting aspects of the inverted crime novel is the way it can allow writers to explore the social causes of crime. Blueprint for Murder was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and it explores the idea that war is so dehumanizing that it may have eroded any sense of social responsibility or ethics.

I like to think of these as kitchen sink inverted crime stories as the emphasis here is on trying to channel a sense of gritty realism though they can still contain some fantastic developments. While I have only encountered a few such stories so far they are mostly from that early postwar period of 1945-1960.

Often these sorts of stories contain elements of noir style and portray the killer not as a deviant who stands apart from society but its logical product. This can sometimes make for grim reading, particularly as society is usually shown to be fairly impotent in dealing with these sorts of threats, but I do find books in this style to be an interesting bridge between the inverted mystery and the sorts of psychological crime and serial killer fiction of later decades.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Too Soon to Die and Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade both feature protagonists who believe that the rules should not apply to them. The latter, much like Blueprint, features a soldier who has returned from the war.

Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry similarly presents us with another disaffected soldier – this time an injured airman who is invalided out of the war and plots with a woman to murder her husband.

Bonus Selection

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

KissA hybrid inverted mystery story that blends elements of the howcatchem and the whodunnit to great effect.

This is invariably my choice whenever I am asked to pick my favorite inverted mystery novel because it manages to really showcase what you can do with the form within the familiar structure of a traditional detective story. Levin does this brilliantly by splitting his narrative into three sections, each told in a different style.

The first of those sections is delivered from the perspective of the killer and establishes plenty of information about them. We learn their relationship to the victim, their motivation and exactly how they did it. Crucially however we never learn their name or get a clear sense of their appearance so when the victim’s sister appears in the second section the reader has no idea which of the characters was responsible.

I consider it the best crime novel I have read, period, and I would definitely recommend it if you haven’t. It is a cracking read, full of tension and bold, memorable characterizations. The split into three sections helps Levin keep the material feeling fresh and I found it gripping right to the last page.

Read my full review of this title here

The image in the banner is taken from the cover on a PAN edition of Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles.

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawayward
The New Sonia Wayward
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1960

I am never saying never again.

Last year I swore off Michael Innes having felt disappointed with Lament for a Maker and There Came Both Mist and Snow. I had found both books smug, tiresome and pretentious and I was thoroughly frustrated with the lack of a good mystery plot. I was absolutely adamant that I would never be reading one of his books again.

Yet here I am.

The New Sonia Wayward caught my eye when I noticed that it sounded like it might be an inverted crime or mystery. This is either a well-established weakness or enthusiasm of mine depending on your view of the sub-genre and while I remained wary of Innes, I thought the premise sounded quite intriguing.

The New Sonia Wayward is not a story of a murder but rather the attempt by someone to pretend that someone did not die. This premise is unusual but not unique – Henry Wade’s Too Soon to Die has a similar starting point though where that book takes a dark turn, The New Sonia Wayward is a much more light-hearted experience. Think of it as a sort of highbrow Weekend at Bernie’s where every now and again characters make allusions to Keats and Wordsworth to remind you how intelligent they are.

The novel begins with Colonel Ffolliot Petticate wondering what to do about his wife’s unexpected death aboard their boat. The retired army surgeon carries out a quick examination and believes she must have died of an embolism. This, we learn, is inconvenient for the Colonel as he is entirely dependent on his wife’s royalties from her romance novels and he is concerned about how he could survive without that income.

Realizing that she has left a half-completed manuscript he hatches a plan to complete it himself. After draining the best part of a bottle of whisky he decides to dress her corpse in a bathing costume and tip it overboard before heading back to port. He intends to explain his wife’s absence away by suggesting she has left him to travel the world. He is a skilled writer himself and while he considers that type of writing beneath him, he knows enough of her style to think he can pull it off.

This is just the starting point for a novel that is frequently unpredictable, taking many strange and unexpected turns. There are several reversals of fortune, misunderstandings and poor judgments, each of which further complicate Colonel Petticate’s position and put him in more danger of discovery. These moments are often quite amusing, sometimes verging on the farcical, and a large part of the fun of this book lies in seeing Petticate’s flustered and ineffective reactions to each of these fresh developments.

Innes structures his story cleverly, breaking it into three sections, each of which see Petticate confronting different challenges and culminating in a moment that will significantly change his situation.

The more incredible of these moments is that first twist that occurs while he is on board a train and has a conversation with a neighbor. I don’t want to spoil what happens as it is entertaining and puzzling but I will say that I think this is the only element of the novel that didn’t exactly work for me as it prompts a development that simultaneously manages to be highly unlikely while also seeming to signpost a late plot development. I think the book does enough with this idea to justify its use but it certainly wouldn’t work in a more conventional mystery and I did appreciate that he gets it out-of-the-way early rather than using it at the point he needs it to introduce a story element later in the novel.

Innes’ story does not rely much on mystery elements or structures and it is striking how Petticate doesn’t set out intended to harm anyone. I think this is part of the reason that the character is ultimately quite a sympathetic and likable figure in spite of some of the things he does or contemplates doing in the course of the story. Part of it is that he is a deeply proud man who, in the best traditions of farce, frequently makes a fool of himself but attempts to retain his sense of dignity and control over his situation.

Take for instance his completion of his wife’s manuscript. Petticate is, we realize, quite a skillful and confident writer in his own right and more than up to the task of writing something quite readable. He has a decent grasp of the genre he is writing and knows enough of his wife’s style to be able to make a good approximation and yet he can’t help but try to improve on it out of a sense of his own pride. He soon realizes that even if he is successful at passing his work off as hers, he will have to spend the rest of his life writing material he detests which gives his situation a rather bittersweet feel.

I have complained before about Innes’ tendency for dense literary allusion and while there is certainly a bit of that present here, I was happy to find he did so with a much lighter touch than I had seen him use previously. Often these references are used to illustrate Petticate’s pretensions or to make sly digs at the publishing industry which Innes clearly knew so well by this point.

What impresses me most about the book though is that Innes pulls everything together to deliver an ending which feels comedic, fitting to the situation and gives us a clear resolution. This runs contrary to my usual experience of comedic mystery and crime fiction. Usually I find that those sorts of books will get off to a strong start but run out of steam as they near the end and the author feels the need to wrap things up. The New Sonia Wayward feels quite different, becoming increasingly funny and sharp as it winds towards its conclusion.

It is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining inverted crime stories I have read so far and I would consider it more successful than other humorous inverted mysteries such as The Murder of My Aunt or Trial and Error. It is witty, cleverly plotted and I really enjoyed the manner of the ending which feels a perfect culmination to a very amusing tale. Highly recommended.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

mysister
My Sister, The Serial Killer
Oyinkan Braithwaite
Originally Published 2018

My Sister, the Serial Killer begins with Korede, the book’s narrator, receiving a phone call from her younger sister Ayoola who tells her that she killed her boyfriend. She claims that the boyfriend attacked her in a jealous passion but while Korede wants to believe her, she quickly notices inconsistencies in the scene. For one thing he was stabbed in the back and then why was Ayoola carrying a knife in her boyfriend’s bedroom anyway? And then she can’t escape the realization that this is the third time Ayoola has been attacked by and killed one of her boyfriends…

Rather than directly questioning her, Korede helps to clean the scene and dispose of the body. She even talks through the events with Ayoola and gives her advice about how to behave, censoring her social media and reminding her that an innocent girlfriend should appear to be concerned about her boyfriend’s sudden disappearance. She soon becomes worried that events are going to repeat themselves when Ayoola starts to date Tade, a man who Korede is interested in herself.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a rather difficult book to categorize. Certainly the story utilizes some themes and elements from the thriller and mystery genres but it also deviates significantly from their structures. In some ways it resembles an inverted crime story and yet the focus is not on catching the criminal or trying to understand how or why they kill. We learn a little of their back story but, once again, the focus is on understanding the relationship between these sisters rather than her path to becoming a killer.

Instead I think it would be fair to describe this as a book in which we are primarily focused on exploring interpersonal relationships, cultural expectations and familial obligations. Braithwaite’s use of a serial killer as a character in this story heightens some of these elements and feelings to a point that can verge on the comical and yet I think the story explores what it means to have a sibling and the sense of responsibility that can engender very effectively. The book’s narrator, Korede, has been told from birth about how she needs to take care of her younger, prettier sister and within a few pages of the start of the novel we become aware of just how far she is willing to take that commitment.

Korede is an intriguing protagonist though not an entirely sympathetic one. An interesting question that I think the book raises but does not take a firm position on is to what extent she is responsible for her sister’s behavior. Clearly she does not ever make the choice to kill and yet by cleaning up her sister’s messes she ends up enabling her to go on and to kill again.

The situation Braithwaite places this character in works because we it exposes the tension within the character between what she desires and what she feels she should do. In each of the short chapters we learn a little more about Korede’s past, her family life and her relationship with her mother, father and sister.

I really admired Braithwaite’s ability to distill her story down into a series of short chapters that capture short interactions, key moments and feelings rather than steering the reader through Korede’s every single thought and action. There is a clear and strong narrative here but it is built slowly, almost impressionistically, with occasional flashbacks interspersed between action in the present. There is no one piece of information or moment that completely explains how these two characters end up being who they are and yet I think the reader is able to piece it together over the course of the book.

There are no huge shocks to be found here. Braithwaite’s skill can be seen in the way she assembles and places each of the plot elements carefully in such a way that the reader can anticipate some of their interactions and characters’ choices. This is most effectively seen in the relationship between Ayoola and Tade where Korede and we all expect it not to end well, building a tension that ratchets ever tighter as we work towards the end.

I found its ending to be both striking and effective, feeling like a logical culmination of the themes and the way characters have been developed throughout the novel. The closest reading experience I have had is Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Lady Killer which was also constructed to slowly build towards an ending that may seem a little surprising while still feeling like the only ending possible once you consider the overall development of the novel and its themes.

While I found this book to be a very satisfying and engaging read, I should perhaps point out that it will not be to everyone’s taste. I was entertained by its dark themes and sense of humor but some readers will find those elements and the subject matter distasteful and possibly disturbing (though we do not directly witness any of the acts of violence). Others may feel frustrated that there isn’t a likeable protagonist or character to root for in the story.

Given that this is a mystery and crime fiction blog, I should also repeat my earlier caution that this is not really a genre read. Those who come to this looking for a puzzle mystery will likely feel disappointed though it may have appeal for those who appreciate noir-style fiction. For those seeking something a bit different however I think this is a dark and intriguing exploration of a strange situation and a relationship that feels interesting and distinctive. Recommended.