The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard by Hillary Waugh

Book Details

Originally published in 1958.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Beautiful bait.

His name was Andrew. He had married seven women and attended their funerals – each time a little richer. At first that was all they knew about him. But they wondered…

Then they thought of using bait. An eighth wife? A lonely, sulky, attractive girl who needed the money they were willing to pay.

It was a good plan. It began to work. The bait was taken. Too late they realized they could never know how or when she was due to die.

The Verdict

A clever story that blends the best features of the inverted mystery and heist styles.

This past week my wife, daughter and I decided to take advantage of our schedules aligning to enable us to get away for a few days. We spent a lovely few days in Greenville and Asheville (South and North Carolina respectively, visiting the marvellous Downton Abbey exhibit at Biltmore) and amazingly I even found time to actually read a couple of books.

The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard was one of the selections I received as part of my last month’s Coffee and Crime shipment. I had not heard of the story before, nor was the author particularly familiar to me (though I have heard of Last Seen Wearing and suspect I even have a copy of that boxed up somewhere), but I was intrigued by the allusion to the Bluebeard folktale in the title.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it generally goes something like this. A woman marries a powerful noble whose previous wives have all mysteriously disappeared. He then departs on a trip but before leaving he gives her the keys to his chateau, allowing her to go anywhere except for one mysterious room. Inevitably, driven by curiosity, she breaks that rule and upon entering she finds the bodies of each of his previous wives hanging from hooks.

The story is an interesting one that has been frequently reworked over the years and I was curious whether the references would be incidental or if the folk tale would be utilized in a more direct and meaningful way by the novella.

A key difference between that folk tale and this novel is that here we begin the story in the knowledge that Andrew is a killer who is murdering his wives for the insurance money. While we may not have a definite confirmation until later in the story, there is enough evidence pointing to that conclusion from the facts presented to Jack Graham, the insurance salesman who was responsible for selling him his most recent policy, for us to have no doubt of that.

What this means is that our characters are knowingly engaging with a dangerous killer and so, rather than building to a moment of shock, Waugh is building suspense as we see these characters working themselves closer to Andrew. This prompts us to wonder whether he will get wise to their plan and, if so, whether they can keep themselves safe. This is the stuff solid thrillers are made from and unsurprisingly it works well here, particularly once the tensions within the group become clearer.

Jack is pressured by his boss, J. B. Stanford, to run a sting operation to try and snare this insurance fraudster. This, we are told, is not because he thinks he can recover his money but because he feels a sense of anger at being defrauded. It is almost a point of honor for him and he is willing to spend well beyond anything he can hope to recover if he succeeds to make this happen.

Jack’s role is to confirm the identity of this serial wife-murderer based on his memories of the meeting he had with him in the past to sell him that policy. A private investigator, Charles Miles, tracks down some likely individuals and then, once their identity is confirmed, the plan is to entice him to marry Gene Taylor and then to try to catch him in the act of attempting to murder her.

Clearly this plan is both irresponsible and inherently runs a high risk of failure and I would not blame readers for feeling that it seems unlikely. Waugh’s solution is to make a conscious statement that we are throwing logic out of the window. Everyone acknowledges that this plan is foolhardy but they also know that their boss, Stanford, will be driven to seek his revenge regardless.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the story is told of how Stanford refused to hand over his wallet in an armed robbery, essentially daring the criminal to shoot him, only for it to transpire that he had less than five dollars in there – an amount he could easily afford to lose. I feel that story perfectly sums up this character and explains his personality and obsession with catching this man. While that does not exactly excuse some of the more far fetched plot elements here, it certainly goes a long way toward making the characterizations feel pretty logical and consistent.

Rather inevitably complications occur, not least as Jack and Charles are each drawn to Gene and become extremely competitive with each other. This rivalry is largely destructive, not only causing friction as they work to set up their plan but also causing them to become distracted and sometimes to take risks in the hope of blocking the other man’s advances.

At first Gene appears to be more of a plot device or lure than a fully dimensional character and yet I think she is actually one of the most interesting characters in the book. One question that looms over the early part of the story is why she would take the very high risk that she might be murdered and I am pleased to say that when we finally do get an explanation it both makes sense and also helps make her more relatable and likeable. Waugh frequently reminds us that for her this is far from a game – this is a life or death situation – and in doing so draws an interesting comparison with the other characters involved in the scheme.

Jack is arguably a less pleasant person, often seeming quite dismissive of what Gene is telling him that she wants. This is not a particularly pleasant attribute in a character, particularly when there is an allegedly romantic subplot on offer, though he certainly is easier to like than Charles who comes off as a pretty sleazy individual.

The sequences in which they set up their trap for Andrew are really quite fascinating and while the idea of avoiding going to the police feels very dangerous and foolish, the plan they develop and the psychology it relies on convinces. I enjoyed following them as they set things up and wondering just how Andrew would protect himself and escape from danger.

Things get even more compelling once the pair are married and I found myself gripped by the tension whenever it seemed that discovery was inevitable. It builds to an exciting and rather powerful ending that utilizes some other elements of the folk tale in interesting and rather clever ways.

Of course the other character we need to address is Andrew, our killer, who makes for a rather interesting specimen. As with Gene, he initially appears to be a rather simplistic creation who exists to create trouble rather than to respond to those problems. While he is given some character traits, he is often presented more as a looming or threatening presence than as an actual, three-dimensional man. In other circumstances I might be frustrated by the seeming blandness of the antagonist, particularly in an inverted-style story, but here I think it works well because it places the focus on the tensions within our group of protagonists.

The romance between Jack and Gene is treated more as a plot point that affects the plan rather than being developed as a convincing, deep connection between the two characters. That is not unexpected given the compact nature of this story but it did mean that I was not as invested in that relationship working as I could have been, keeping some moments from later in the story from having the sort of impact they might have achieved.

Similarly, I would note that the ending does feel rather rushed given the considerable build up that takes place. That being said, I was satisfied by the mechanics of those final chapters and felt that it hit the most important points, resolving everything.

That brevity and speed is both this story’s greatest strength and its flaw. It is fast-moving, interesting and compelling. I certainly had no difficulty remaining engaged with the story and I wanted to see how it would all be resolved. The least satisfying aspect for me was its underbaked romance but as a mixture of a thriller and heist story it delivered.

Second Opinions

JF Norris @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book noting that Waugh delivers a few tricks that elevate this from ‘a routine B movie plot’.

Money from Holme by Michael Innes

Book Details

Originally Published in 1964.
This title is currently out of print.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Sebastian Holme was a painter who, as the exhibition catalogue recorded, had met a tragic death during a foreign revolution. Art dealer, Braunkopf, has made a small fortune from the exhibition.

Unfortunately, Holme turns up at the private view in this fascinating mystery of the art world in which Mervyn Cheel, distinguished critic and pointillist painter, lands in very hot water. 

In One Line
A sometimes amusing but dated artistic caper story with weak mystery elements.

My relationship with Michael Innes has been a fairly frustrating one. He is certainly an author who is capable of frustrating me like few others can. At his best he can be witty and clever while the situations he creates are often imaginative and explore interesting ideas yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he was a mystery fiction writer who had little interest in writing mystery stories.

Money from Holme was a later, standalone effort from Innes that might be considered an inverted crime story. It begins with Mervyn Cheel, an art critic, attending an exhibition of Sebastian Holme’s paintings. Holme had been an up-and-coming artist who had been living in Africa when he had been caught up in a revolution and was killed. Much of his work was destroyed in the violence and so the values of his remaining small body of work have rocketed and his celebrity has grown. During the show however Cheel is surprised when he notices a man he is certain is Sebastian Holme attending the show.

Cheel soon learns that Holme did not actually die and so he devises a scheme that he believes will make him rich. Were Holme to return to life in the public’s mind then the prices of his work will inevitably fall. Cheel persuades him to remain dead and work to reproduce the destroyed works of art so that he can try to quietly sell them to collectors as though they were the originals.

Given the nature of Cheel’s plan, I think it is fair to question whether we should really consider this an inverted crime novel at all. As Mervyn Cheel points out at several points in the novel, it is hard to say if he is guilty of any great crime at all for much of the book. He is, after all, trying to sell works that are authentically by the artist he claims them to be, even if the circumstances he describes are not accurate.

Certainly the criminal aspects of this novel are not Innes’ focus. Instead, the most interesting aspect of Money from Holme is its discussion of various aspects of the art world. This touches upon an artist’s relationship to his subject, the commercial realities of art trading and the role of the art critic. Innes’ insights into this world are not exactly unique, nor are they necessarily profound, but the situations the characters find themselves in are clever and they are often explored with wit.

Having now read several Innes inverted stories I have noticed that each has involved a variation on a common theme – the idea of identity substitution. The approach taken here is a little different but it is interesting to see him continuing to play with these sorts of ideas. While Innes had been playing with related themes, each book feels quite distinct.

The treatment of the art world struck me as a little reminiscent of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Shoot Me (the novel which inspired the movie Mortdecai) with the protagonist finding himself in ludicrous situations often of his own devising and borne of his own personal weaknesses, working himself into deeper trouble. Bonfiglioli’s novel is a sharper and funnier read but both books possess an irreverent tone that did a lot to endear them to me.

The jokes that did not land for me were those related to the fictional African nation of Wamba. I can understand why Innes chooses to create a fictional African country rather than locating his action somewhere real – particularly given the rather fluid nature of politics in that decade – and there is some light exploration of British foreign policy but any subtlety is masked by the general presentation of that information, such as the “gag” that the country’s capital is Wamba Wamba. It is not untypical for this era of writing but it is disappointing.

One of the most curious decisions Innes makes is to emphasize how unpleasant his protagonist, the art critic Mervyn Cheel, can be. For instance, early in the book we learn about how he has previously forced his attentions on a woman. His disrespectful attitude towards women is largely treated as a matter of comedy, particularly his proclivity to pinch their bottoms.

While I think we are meant to take this as evidence that he is an unpleasant, unprincipled sort it seems rather odd to see him treated as a bit of a rogue rather than a villain at points in this story. Certainly those moments didn’t strike me as being as sharp comedically as Innes’ discussion of the art world was.

One consequence of Cheel not being a particularly pleasant or likeable character is that we can take some pleasure in his downfall. Although Innes’ story isn’t particularly complex in terms of its structure or plot, the ending he devises did feel fairly satisfying because of how well it reflects the other themes of the story. Dramatically it feels pretty appropriate, providing a fitting and gently comedic resolution to Cheel’s story.

Money from Holme is not a classic work of crime fiction by any means. Even if we ignore some of the problems I have with its dated sense of humor, the plotting is fairly light and Innes’ focus is on developing his comedic situations rather than a tightly structured story. Still, the themes and ideas Innes explores are interesting and quite clever, even if the approach taken is sometimes rather lacking in subtlety.

If you forget that this is described as a crime novel and instead enjoy it as a rather absurd adventure with some crime elements then I think you will likely get a little more out of this. Certainly I enjoyed it more than The Gay Phoenix. For those looking for an inverted crime story by Innes, I would still recommend you look at The New Sonia Wayward instead.

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

Unnatural Death
Dorothy L Sayers
Originally Published 1927
Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Preceded by Clouds of Witness
Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body

I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.

The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!

The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.

Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.

Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.

Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!

I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.

The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.

The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.

One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.

Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.

The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.

Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.

Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).

The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.

I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.

Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.

Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.

The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.

So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.

The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)

Further Reading

Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.

I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.

DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.

Nick @ The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book – always interesting!

Bev @ MyReadersBlock describes this as a marvellous vintage mystery that she does not tire of and comments on Sayers’ thoughtful exploration of ethics.

A Perfect Crime by A Yi, translated by Anna Holmwood

A Perfect Crime
A Yi
Originally Published as 下面,我该干些什么 in 2012
English translation first published in 2015

A Perfect Crime is the story of a teenage boy who commits a vicious and seemingly senseless murder before going on the run. We follow the action so we know who he is and what he has planned – the question that the reader must consider is why the protagonist has committed his crime and what his end goal is.

The first section of the book introduces us to Su, our killer, and gives us some details of his home life. He lives with his aunt who he hates and spends most of his days pleasuring himself. His only friend is Kong Jie, a girl from the neighborhood whose dog he killed while he was supposed to be hiding it and caring for it in secret. She is oblivious to his role in that, accepting his story that someone else had been responsible.

We follow him as he makes his preparations to commit his murder, brutally kills Kong Jie and goes on the run. In spite of the English language edition’s title, there is no artistry to the killing it depicts – Kong Jie suffers a cruel, vicious death and the police know who they are looking for. The original Chinese title of Cat and Mouse is far more appropriate as we spend the rest of the book following his attempts to evade the police.

Given that we know the killer’s identity and his plan at all times, the only question the reader really needs consider is why he is committing a murder at all. Now, I am a pretty big advocate of inverted crime stories but even I would suggest that this question is not really all that challenging, particularly when you consider the authors referenced as read alikes in the blurb. This is a story of youthful disaffection and while I think the cultural specific references and context add some interest, I would suggest that the mystery element of this story is closer to wafer thin.

While Su’s motive may not be explicitly spelled out until the end of the novel, he is not a particularly complex or compelling character to explore psychologically. Throughout the novel we learn small details about his life and background but few of these feel in any way surprising – most serve to confirm things the reader will likely suspect based on things Su appears to allude to or suggest earlier in the story.

His obsession with sexual and bodily functions may be intended to shock the reader but comes off as trite and puerile, saying little beyond adding to the general image of Su as a disaffected teen. I found him exhausting and tedious company and was grateful when the book shifts perspective for its final phase, exploring the reaction of the Chinese judicial system to the case.

This section of the novel is by far its most interesting and novel, offering us some perspectives on the Chinese legal system and the ability of society to acknowledge and respond to this sort of a senseless crime.

Perhaps the novel’s most interesting idea is the way it plays with how the media and society attempts to understand those who deviate from established social norms. This occurs both in terms of the legal arguments that take place but also the way other characters discuss him, trying to find an individual or incident they might be able to point to as instrumental in setting him on that path.

There are some compelling moments to be found here, in particular those involving the mother of the deceased, but the problem is that while this may interest readers of crime fiction in translation, they are not A Yi’s focus. Unpinning this whole section of the novel is that question of motive that is far less interesting or shocking than it is clearly intended to be.

That, in the end, is the problem with this novel. While it has some interesting things to say, the parts that interested me most are simply not the same things that interest the author. The exploration of this protagonist’s reasons and attitude toward society are simply too familiar and well-worn to make this worth the effort of seeking out unless you are a fan of sociopath crime stories.

Reputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

Reputation for a Song
Edward Grierson
Originally Published 1952

Reputation for a Song opens with a trial scene in which we hear that Rupert Anderson, a teenager, is standing accused of patricide. The novel then flashes back to show us the events that led up to the death of his father before presenting us with the legal arguments and verdict of the case.

The Anderson household is comprised of Robert and Laura, a couple whose marriage has long since devolved into thinly veiled hostility and contempt, and their three children who have become pawns between them. The eldest daughter favors the father while young Rupert is doted on by his mother.

Rupert has been performing poorly at school and so Robert plans to punish him in the hopes that a little corrective action will push him to take life more seriously. He believes Rupert ought to work toward following in his own footsteps as a lawyer but Rupert and his mother hate this idea, instead pushing for him to take a job working for Laura’s cousin’s brewery. Robert tries to enforce his will but when Laura ignores his dictat that Rupert should be forced to stay home, their marriage hits its breaking point.

While the opening trial scene might leave the possibility open that Rupert may not have been involved in the death of his father, Grierson soon provides us with a clear account of exactly what happened and Rupert’s role in that moment. This places us firmly in inverted mystery territory with the questions being why did Rupert kill his father and will he be held to account for his actions?

The question of motive is an interesting one and I think Grierson does a superb job of rationing out small revelations and hints, engaging the reader in trying to guess where the story is headed. These hints are placed quite fairly and while they are generally psychological in nature, I think it is possible for the reader to be able to use reason and experience to judge what future developments might be in store.

Many of these revelations relate to the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and while I suspect some revelations would have been more shocking to readers in 1952, most of them still have an impact today. Indeed the tone of the book is strikingly modern and candid in places, addressing issues of sexual desire and the sexual power dynamics that existed at that time in surprisingly frank terms. One example of this can be found in the discussion of the appeal of a barmaid and the way she is viewed and interacted with by different members of society. Grierson suggests there is a degree of hypocrisy in high society and that respectability is something of a sham.

Our victim, Robert Anderson, is not a wholly innocent man as he is shown to be controlling, haughty and oblivious in his interactions with his family although Grierson is quite clear that he does not deserve to meet the fate that is meted out to him. His death is quick, violent and shocking and while the descriptions of the violence might seem relatively tame to modern readers, the relationship with his killer and the tragic circumstances of the death make it seem all the more disturbing.

Although Rupert is identified as the killer, the book does challenge the reader to consider whether he is guilty and to what extent justice is functioning correctly as the narrative shifts into the police investigation and trial phases. Some of this relates to his particular circumstances such as his age and obvious lack of maturity while others are more environmental and psychological.

Grierson himself was a lawyer and so it is of little surprise that the courtroom scenes feel well observed both in the details of procedure but also in the thoughtful portrayals of the lawyers, judge and observers. While the courtroom interviews do not reveal any new information in themselves, the examinations of witnesses and points of order do shift the direction of the trial quite dramatically at times and affect the way their statements are interpreted.

The tone and presentation of the legal process can be, at times, quite surprising in its cynicism. We see lies under oath, witnesses being tampered with and a reputation destroyed. You could view these as an exceptional set of circumstances but I wonder if Grierson was pushing at a broader point about the capacity for the British legal system to secure justice when those before it act in bad faith.

Several of the contemporary reviews of the book I have read seem to suggest the book is unpleasant and I suspect the reason lies in some of the darker themes in the book and Grierson’s pessimistic outlook on justice.

Those hints that his would be an unpleasant or seedy read were largely responsible for me putting off reading this until now and led me to expect that this would be a very heavy read. Instead I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book is frequently extremely funny and well-observed. For instance I enjoyed the description of Robert’s clients as being the sort of people who were most keen to make sure that legal documents looked ‘legal-looking and as full of adjectives and possible’. The darkness in the novel’s themes and plot are certainly present but there are plenty of lighter, more humorous moments too.

While the central focus of the novel is on Rupert’s trial, I did appreciate a few of the subplots that Grierson develops. Chief among these is the discussion of a romance between the Anderson’s eldest daughter and the local vicar and the challenges that get thrown in its way. This is not a tangent or diversion from the main plot, it does feed into things in an interesting and compelling way, but it also offers Grierson some opportunities for some well observed social commentary about relationships and the interest everyone in a village seems to have in their vicar’s choice of partner.

In terms of faults, I can find relatively little. Certainly the tone and themes of the piece won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think they are technically well developed and Grierson is largely successful in the way he raises and discusses issues. Perhaps Robert is a little too sympathetically portrayed, especially given his rather imperious attitude towards his family, though I think it would be hard not to feel he is extremely badly used based on everything we learn.

My biggest complaint would be that I did find the ending a little abrupt. While Grierson does give us some answers, I wished we could have had a little more time following the end of the trial to learn what happened to the various figures we had met. The ending wraps up the themes but arguably doesn’t truly satisfy although I think the author probably achieved the goal he set for himself.

In spite of those few complaints, I found Reputation for a Song to be an entertaining, fast and largely satisfying read. It portions out revelations well, engaging the reader in trying to figure out what will happen next, and though I wanted a little more punch in the ending, I do think it does a fine job of summing up the themes of the piece.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Lawyer/Barrister/Judge (etc) (Who?)

Further Reading

Tom Ruffles writes that while the book is ‘inclined to plod’ the characterization makes up for it.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell

The Gun
Fuminori Nakamura
Originally published as 銃 in 2003
English translation published in 2015

The Gun is the story of a young man’s growing obsession with a gun he discovers next to a body under a bridge near the river while wandering late at night. Instinctively picking it up, he takes it home with him where he cleans it and examines it more closely, finding there are four bullets left in its chamber.

After he starts to carry it with him everywhere he begins to fantasize about firing the gun…

Though it is labelled a crime novel, I think it would be more accurate to describe The Gun as a piece of literary fiction, albeit one placed in the noir tradition. After all, for most of the novel’s page count there are no crimes beyond the possession of the gun itself and our focus is on exploring the protagonist’s precarious mental state.

The narrator, Nishikawa, is a university student who is something of a loner. While the novel begins with the discovery of the gun we get an impression of his life prior to that moment and it is clear that he was already exhibiting some warning signs.

He has one friend, Keisuke, but he has little affection for him, seeming disgusted by his lifestyle of heavy drinking and womanizing. While he also seduces women, he has little interest in them afterwards and certainly no interest in forming anything approaching a relationship. Not that he seems to find much pleasure in those pursuits either…

Possessing the gun does not change Nishikawa so much as it encourages some dormant personality traits to develop and emerge. In effect it serves as a catalyst, giving him the power and the confidence to become the person he would like to be and ignore his inhibitions. We see this manifest itself in several ways including his interactions with two women (it would be misleading to call them relationships or either woman a romantic interest). His behavior in both encounters becomes increasingly less responsive to the women’s preferences.

One of the most successful aspects of the novella is in the way it conveys the sense of obsession. The word gun appears frequently throughout the story, sometimes as often as every two or three lines and this is a really effective way of suggesting just how ever-present it is in Nishikawa’s thoughts. The writing conveys a fascination with the mechanism and with the sense of power it bestows and while I think there is a sense of inevitability about the story’s ultimate destination, I did find it interesting to witness some of the developments that push the story towards that conclusion.

The other aspect of the novella that I found to be particularly successful was the way it posed the question of whether the gun gives Nishikawa power or whether it is actually exerting it over him. At times the gun seems to almost possess a personality or an aura and seems to be willing him to act in particular ways and the reader may question whether this is simply a projection of his own desires or if it really does have a sort of hold over him. After all, he tells us quite clearly that he never had any interest in guns prior to finding this one and we have little reason to think he is manipulating us. Is it simply the allure of the forbidden or is there something almost supernatural about the gun?

As interesting as that idea can be, the problem for me was that the plot was not sufficiently complex. Indeed there is relatively little incident at all beyond his interactions with the two girls and a subplot involving a trip to the hospital to visit his father. The latter sequence provides an interesting viewpoint of his mindset and sense of priorities and self but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been expanded on to explore the origins of Nishikawa’s sociopathic tendencies.

Instead the author chooses to provide the reader with suggestive moments but no clear answers. Denying the reader answers or a sense of resolution can be an interesting choice as it can provoke and engage a reader but here it feels that it simply fell outside the scope of the writer’s interest.

This is a shame because I think at its best the author’s depiction of obsession can be really quite effective. The problem is that as the novella strikes one note repeatedly, it ends up feeling a little repetitive by the point we reach the end and it fails to develop any great moments of surprise or the sense that the reader is engaging in an act of discovery.

So, overall this didn’t quite work for me but while I was a little underwhelmed by some aspects of this particular title I did enjoy the writing style enough that I am keen to try more of his work.

Hopefully the next title I pick will be more to my taste.

Further Reading

Normally I link to other blog reviews but I found this discussion between the author and his French translator and discussion of the film adaptation so interesting that I had to link to it. I will say that while I had some reservations about the novella, I am intrigued by the stills from the movie adaptation and would be curious to see it for myself.

The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes

The Gay Phoenix
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1976
Inspector Appleby #30
Preceded by The Appleby File
Followed by The Ampersand Papers

Few writers frustrate me as much as Michael Innes does. My first two experiences were so irritating and disappointing that I swore to myself that I would never pick up one of his novels again. I broke that pledge when I stumbled on The New Sonia Wayward which turned out, against all my expectations, to be one of my favorite inverted mysteries. This got me wondering, could I have misjudged Innes?

The Gay Phoenix was the natural book to follow up on that positive experience given that it is also an inverted story. Like The New Sonia Wayward this book begins with two characters at sea (aboard the titular Gay Phoenix), one of whom dies in a way that the other is not responsible. Also like that book this leads to an assumption of a false identity, albeit in a more direct way.

The two men are brothers, Arthur and Charles, who have a rather strained relationship. Charles, the dead man, was the elder brother and had achieved considerable success in the business world, living the jetset lifestyle of lavish spending, eating and promiscuity. Arthur has long resented this, not only because he has failed to find that same success in life but also because his bachelor brother has told him that his money will not pass to him on his death.

When Charles is struck dead by a loose beam, Arthur sees an opportunity and decides to cast his brother’s body over the side of the ship and assume his identity. The two share a similar appearance although he has to make a small sacrifice with the help of a sharp, heated blade to pull the deception off. It seems that Charles’ fortune and lifestyle will be his for the taking and then things take an inevitable turn for the worse…

Let’s start with a positive – Innes may have repeated himself with several elements of this story but Arthur’s plan on how he will pull off this trick is rather impressive and quite ingenious on a psychological level. Unfortunately this section of the story is relayed to us as a tiresome anecdote from an Antipodean doctor at a dull dinner party but while this has its frustrations, it does allow the reader to work to deduce exactly what Arthur is playing at for themselves as at first it seems his actions will be counterproductive.

I also really enjoyed the two chapters that follow in which we follow Arthur as he returns to England and begins spending his brother’s fortune. At this point we suspect that something will go wrong but the nature of the problem will probably surprise the reader, as will the manner in which it is raised.

Innes’ approach here is to cultivate a sense of unpredictability, creating a situation in which Arthur is forced to respond to events he has no knowledge of. At its best this can be very funny, leading to some very memorable moments where he is caught off guard, but it also means that we find ourselves quite far away from anything approaching mystery writing. Innes does not lay any groundwork for these developments and so the reader cannot reason what will happen, they simply have to sit back and see where the story will take them.

Nor can we say that we are in thriller territory. While there is a sequence in which Arthur finds himself in physical danger, most of the rest of the story is talkative as opposed to being action-driven. What plot there is will often be relayed to the reader after the fact in gossipy society conversations which clearly amused the author. Sadly they didn’t do the same for me.

That is not to say that I was completely immune to the book’s sense of humor. Not only did I laugh out loud at a few early wrinkles in Arthur’s plan, there is one very successful comedic sequence later on as Arthur finds himself unexpectedly face-to-face with someone who evidently knows him well, forcing him to try to bluff his way through the exchange. Here Innes lets us live in the moment, following the action as it happens, and the result is a scene that is not only surprising but that builds very effectively to a punchline moment, setting up the novel’s final act.

Increasingly I am coming to wonder if my real problem with Innes’ work lies in his series detective, Sir John Appleby. I have now read three Appleby mysteries and in each of the three I have felt that the character never asserts himself properly on the story, his investigations tending to meander around the actions of others’ rather than taking control of the action. His lack of any official standing here only amplifies that problem.

This case takes place after his career is over with him living in retirement with his wife in the English countryside. This means that his involvement here is in a strictly unofficial capacity, his interest aroused as a neighbor rather than as a detective. Even when he does get involved he remains relatively disinterested in providing a resolution to the affair, seeking answers mostly for the sake of his own curiosity.

As I read this I was struck by the feeling that we have a decent blend of a crime story and a comedy of errors ruined by the unwelcome intrusion of an ineffective investigation. The parts of the story that work best are those in which we live in the moment, following the unpredictable twists and turns as Arthur’s best laid plans threaten to collapse all around him. He is, after all, the more interesting character psychologically and I think it would have been interesting to explore precisely how things turn sour.

Unfortunately Innes’ interest lies in exploring the relationships between the social classes in the English countryside but I found little on offer either illuminating or particularly amusing. When you add in the author’s irritating habit of demonstrating his own superior vocabulary by using words such as otiose and bedizened at every opportunity and dressing key moments with literary allusions, it all makes for a rather frustrating and ultimately quite tiresome reading experience that brought all my bad memories of Innes’ writing flooding back.

While this book does have a few positive moments, I ultimately found it a rather unrewarding experience. It does offer up a few good ideas and moments but when you consider that Innes’ earlier novel The New Sonia Wayward trod a very similar path with far more wit, originality and a clearer sense of purpose I can see little reason to suggest you seek out a copy of this.

Further Reading

Nick Fuller is far more receptive to Innes than I am but he shares my disappointment in this one while Bev at My Reader’s Block appreciated this as a character study and liked Appleby’s wife but was disappointed in it as a detective story.