King’s Ransom by Ed McBain

Book Details

Originally published 1959
87th Precinct #10
Preceded by ’til Death
Followed by Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

The Blurb

For a wealthy businessman, a kidnapping puts him in a predicament as troubling as any he has ever experienced. For Detective Steve Carella and the men at the 87th Precinct, their troubles are even worse. Their only hope is that he will play ball—at least long enough for them to catch the perps before the kidnapping turns into a homicide.

The Verdict

A punchy read that develops some powerful themes well but its conclusion feels rushed.


My Thoughts

King’s Ransom is the story of a businessman who is plotting to take over the firm he works for. We learn how he has been silently acquiring extra shares and that he has mortgaged everything he owns to enable him to buy enough extra shares to enable him to take over the company in one decisive move.

While he makes some final arrangements to send his assistant to complete the purchase he receives a phone call from a group of kidnappers who claim to have grabbed his eight year old son, Bobby, who had been playing outside with his chauffeur’s son, Jeff. The kidnappers demand hundreds of thousands of dollars for his safe return but when Bobby turns up, it becomes clear that they grabbed the wrong child…

I first became interested in reading this book nearly a decade ago when I first watched Kurosawa’s film adaptation, High and Low. That film remains one of my favorite crime movies ever and I had been curious to read the source material to see how faithful the film adaptation was and what new elements were introduced. A recent repeat viewing reminded me of that ambition and after failing to get through Cop Hater, I decided to ignore my typical discomfort at reading a series out of order to jump ahead to the book I most wanted to read.

One of the things that interests me most about this story are the choices that McBain makes about which elements he chooses to focus on. Perhaps the most striking example of this is that Jeff’s father remains largely in the background throughout the novel, only making one short but extremely memorable interjection. That is not only a strong storytelling choice in the way it forces so much emotion into a single moment, it also reflects that this story is about Douglas King as much as it is about the crime itself.

McBain further demonstrates this by his decision to reveal the identities of the kidnappers very early in the story. While we do not spend much time with them, we understand their motives and their reactions to the way their plan is unfolding. By giving this to us very early in the story, we are encouraged to instead see the moral debate about King’s responsibility for Jeff’s fate as its focus.

I should say at this point that this debate is not exactly evenly balanced. For pretty much every character in this book there is no question at all of what King ought to do. McBain emphasizes this by giving several of the other characters around him moments in which they critique him and urge him to become involved and save the boy.

On the other hand, McBain is also able to really give us a strong sense of exactly what the impact of paying that ransom would be on King. The moments leading up to the first ransom call for instance went into quite some detail about how he was overextending himself to grab this opportunity to buy a controlling interest in the firm. We also see that his rivals within the company are aware that he had this move planned, meaning that if he cannot close his deal then he will almost certainly be ousted and his career would be essentially over. Sure, he’s not in the right but when he argues it comes from a point of understandable desperation.

Although the events of the novel are obviously a consequence of the kidnapping, it seems fair to suggest that King’s Ransom is as much a piece of human drama or character study as it is a crime novel. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are those passages in which we learn about his personal history. The story related to his marriage, for instance, gives us a clear motivation for him to place such importance on financial and career success and while I cannot say I liked him for this (or anything – the man is pretty cold and rigid), I did feel I understood the character better from those moments.

The other major character in the King household who makes a significant impact on the story is his wife, Diane. The discussions between this pair are not only hugely important to the development of the plot, they also do a great job of expressing and exploring the themes of the piece. I was also interested in some of the choices she makes in the course of this story which I think are both powerful and decisive.

The kidnappers are, in contrast, less developed as characters. We spend comparatively little time with them and of them really just two stood out as being more dimensional. I think that is fine considering that the details of the crime are largely designed as background material but those hoping for a juicy motive will likely be disappointed.

On a more positive note, there are some rather interesting ideas about using some technology that must have been fairly new at this time and I think McBain explains these well. Some of these ideas seem quite creative and I think they make an otherwise fairly mundane kidnapping case seem that little bit more exciting.

So, where does that leave me overall? Well, I think the plotting and the development of the novel’s key themes are superb. While I think it cannot reach some of the emotional heights of the movie High and Low such as its rushed ending (the movie has a more satisfying conclusion in my opinion), the book is so punchily written that I had great difficulty putting it down.

No doubt I will make a return trip to Isola soon and hopefully in doing so I will get to know the various detectives a little bit better.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

Book Details

Originally published 1984

The Blurb

Graham Marshall is a respectable husband and father and dedicated London businessman. He’s always played by the rules, believing that’s the surest way to climb the corporate ladder. But when he’s passed over for promotion by a ruthless colleague, something snaps. On a drunken walk home late that night, Graham unleashes his fury on a hapless panhandler and dumps his body into the Thames. As days pass for the anxious exec, he realizes to his astonishment that he’s gotten away with murder. And it appears to be much easier than anyone’s been led to believe.

Feeling more powerful than he has in years, Graham now has his eyes on the future—and on everyone who stands in his way, professionally and personally. It might have all begun with a terrible accident. But for Graham, his new objectives are entirely by design.

The Verdict

A superb inverted crime story in the best Ilesian tradition.


My Thoughts

The subject of today’s review was one of the books I was inspired to pick up after reading Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. It was not one of the featured titles – the focus there is on works from the first half of the twentieth century – but it does get a very positive mention in the Inverted Mysteries essay where Edwards selects it as one of the best inverted stories from the second half of the century.

He is not wrong.

Graham Marshall is a man who has become accustomed to success. Growing up in postwar Britain, his parents went without to give him the best chances of success and he exceeded their expectations, finding career success working for an oil company where he has quickly climbed the corporate ladder to become the assistant manager of the personnel department.

Graham believes that he can soon expect another promotion as his boss, many of whose duties he already performs, is due to retire soon. Believing that he will soon be the head of the department he takes on additional expenses, moving to a house he can barely afford. As expected the job is advertised and he goes in for the interview but he is shocked when he is passed over in favor of a younger man.

After an evening drinking his sorrows away, Graham drunkenly walks home and on the way he is pestered by a panhandler. Angry when the man refers to his good fortune, Graham lashes out and accidentally kills him. He dumps the body and for the next few days he anxiously awaits the police but when they do not show up he finds himself feeling confident and in control.

And then it occurs to him that murders may solve some of his other problems…

Graham naturally inspires some comparison to Dr Bickleigh, the protagonist in Malice Aforethought. Both are men who feel a sense of inadequacy and view murder as an act of liberation.

The earliest chapters of this book are focused on building our understanding of Graham’s background and the social pressures that formed him. These are, understandably, narration-heavy but Brett keeps up a brisk pace, using the various incidents and relationships to develop broader themes.

In the process of learning about Graham’s rise at Crasoco, we also get to see how business culture was shifting between the sixties and the mid-eighties. This is an important theme of the work and also an essential part of our understanding of Graham’s character – he is a man who resents having played by the rules of the game only to discover that those rules are changing as he is poised for success. This, coupled with his realization that domesticity was something he accepted out of an adherence to those rules rather than any desire to be a husband or father, really sits at the heart of the character and is central to the character’s transformation.

The impetus for that transformation is the first murder. While this is a really significant moment, Brett chooses not to linger on describing the physical action of the killing. Instead he frames our focus on Graham’s mentality in the moments leading up to and following the murder and seeing how that comes to change him. This struck me as effective and helped me accept the subsequent transformation in his personality.

While it is clear where several threads of the story are headed based on the elements Brett sets in place, the satisfaction comes from seeing how each of those threads overlap and influence each other and the occasional subversions of our expectations.

While the first kill may have been unplanned and instinctive, the subsequent murders are quite different. Brett gives us several more and manages to make each distinctive and mechanically interesting while still ensuring that our focus is on what Graham is thinking and what he is planning to do next.

As I read it occurred to me that Graham’s journey is relatively unusual in terms of inverted stories in that our killer begins the novel concerned that they will be caught but their control of the situation increases as the story goes on. Usually in these stories the later murders occur out of desperation or panic. This story is not without those sorts of moments but Graham enters the final few chapters confident that he will achieve his goals.

While the subject matter and style of the piece is much more serious than Brett’s more famous Charles Paris or Fethering series there are still some touches of dark humor. Much of this is rooted in its observations about the corporate business environment of that period and the characters that inhabit it.

Those secondary characters – the victims, the witnesses and those affected by Graham’s actions, most are well drawn and convincing. I enjoyed discovering how each would interpret and respond to what they were experiencing and seeing which would come to suspect him.

The ending will likely not surprise many – Brett sets his elements up too neatly for that – but the journey to that point takes a few unpredictable turns. More important though that ending seemed a fitting cap to what had gone before and left me feeling satisfied.

Now, I should say that while I enthusiastically recommend this book, I do so with a few caveats. The first is that this is a crime story from the perspective of the killer rather than an inverted detective story. While there is a detective character involved they end up being incidental to the story. As such there is nothing really for the reader to solve – it is more a case of predicting story structure. I love that but I know others find that unsatisfying.

The other reservation I offer is that I know some readers simply will not like Graham. In fact he’s pretty loathsome. That is not to say that we do not come to understand him and sometimes empathize with him – I actually think of that as one of the greatest strengths of the novel and reflects the quality of the characterization – but if it is important for you to like a character this is probably not for you.

With those reservations in mind, if you do enjoy an Ileasian-style inverted crime story then I think this is a tremendous read. I enjoyed the exploration of the corporate environment and the reflections on the social and work changes taking place in Britain during the seventies and eighties. It is a superbly crafted story that shows a side of Brett as a writer that you may well find surprising if, like me, you know him from his long standing series.

I certainly plan on exploring more of his standalone works in the future…

Columbo: Blueprint for Murder (TV)

It is about two months since I launched this weekly feature in which I look in depth at episodes of Columbo. Well, this post concludes the first season and so I plan on taking a short break from the good lieutenant’s adventures. I do plan on resuming after Summer with a look at the eight episodes from Season Two.

Oh, – just, one more thing… Tune in next weekend for a look at something quite different.


Episode Details

First broadcast on February 9, 1972

Season One, Episode Seven
Preceded by Short Fuse
Followed by Étude in Black (Season Two)

Story by William Kelley
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Peter Falk

Key Guest Cast

Forrest Tucker appeared in multiple movies and television shows but would have been best known to viewers at the time for his role in F Troop.

The Verdict

A solid, if unexciting, finale to the first season. The idea behind the hiding place for the body is clever though.


My Thoughts

Elliot Markham is a shady property developer who has a plan to develop an enormous and very lucrative construction project. He is going to call it Williamson City after Bo Williamson, the Texan millionaire who will be funding it. The problem is that the arrangements have been made in his absence by his impressionable young wife and when Williamson arrives back in the United States he is furious about the deal, driving to the construction site to confront Markham.

Williamson tells Markham that he will not pay for the construction despite his protests that it is already too far advanced to stop. Set to lose a fortune and see his big project collapse Markham plots to murder Williamson and then hide the body to ensure that construction go ahead. Unfortunately for him, Williamson’s ex-wife contacts the Police to alert them to his disappearance and they send Lt. Columbo to investigate.

I have been really struck by the sheer variety of cases on offer in this first season of Columbo and Blueprint for Murder similarly presents us with a fresh variation on the murder mystery. In this case we have a murder without a corpse. Now, we have seen something along these lines in Dead Weight as Columbo begins that case before a body has surfaced but even there we had a witness to a crime, even if their account appeared hazy and didn’t give him much to go on. Here he has even less to go on.

That is not to say that there aren’t signs that things are wrong. In fact, one of the problems I have with this case is that some loose ends are left bafflingly open by our killer. Take for instance the various employees who witnessed the fight – all of whom quite willingly share those stories with Columbo. He may not be able to prove murder but he can certainly show that Markham isn’t telling the truth about how that confrontation ended, even if some of that information is very easily come by.

Still, I do appreciate that it is once again a little detail about the one piece of physical evidence he has – the abandoned car – that sets Columbo on the track to finding out that something is wrong. The observation that gets made proves absolutely nothing and yet seems so suggestive, particularly in the context of those things Columbo learns and observes at Markham’s office and the construction site.

Patrick O’Neal plays Markham as steely cool while showing an dismissive, elitist mindset. For instance, during the argument with Williamson he refers to him as a philistine for not wanting to invest in his project. Pretty standard for your Columbo villain but here it is used to contrast not only with the detective’s personality but also plays an important role in the plot.

I cannot say that I found the performance to be particularly memorable however. He gets no great witticism or moment where he might try to dominate Columbo, nor does he have a particularly interesting personality. While I may not have loved McDowall’s character in the previous story, he was at least entertaining. O’Neal is perfectly fine – just bland in a story that already felt a little lacking in personality.

Perhaps the one aspect of this episode that does feel bold is the characterization of Bo Williamson, portrayed by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. I think it would be fair to call this a performance as large as his almost comically wide hat and it certainly is not particularly subtle. I would also say that it provides us with another instance of May-December relationship in Columbo although perhaps the answer to what attracted Jennifer to multi-millionaire Bo Williamson is a little easier to answer than some others.

I would also add that while it is only a small part, Janis Paige does a good job portraying Goldie – Bo’s first wife. Her most memorable moment comes when Columbo first interviews her, finding her in a state of undress which predictably flusters him.

Perhaps the final thing to reflect on is that this story was directed by star Peter Falk. I will say that I am always curious when I see an actor step behind the camera to see how they handle that job. If I were to summarize his effort here, I would call it solid and workmanlike.

The sound design on the sequence in which we see the murder happen and the coverup orchestrated is perhaps the most impressive part of the episode. In terms of the camera, shots are relatively simple but tell the story effectively enough, making it easy to follow the action.

Falk’s focus falls more on the performers, leaving the camera on them to give them the time and space to act without any flashy camera tricks or establishing shots. I do think though that this feels more like an episode of television than any of the preceding episodes, each of which felt more like films – albeit ones created on a restricted budget.

Like every other aspect of this episode, it is solid enough to do the job but lacks anything truly special to make it stand out. It is not the worst episode of this first season of Columbo but where those sometimes failed in colorful ways, this story’s blandness makes it one I can’t imagine revisiting any time soon.

Columbo: Short Fuse (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast on January 19, 1972

Season One, Episode Six
Preceded by Lady in Waiting
Followed by Blueprint for Murder

Story by Lester Pine, Tina Pine & Jackson Gillis
Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Edward M. Abroms

Key Guest Cast

Roddy McDowall had a long list of movie credits already by this point including as Octavian in Cleopatra and had recently had a career-defining role in the Planet of the Apes movies.

Ida Lupino would be a familiar face to many viewers and had also found success as a director, becoming the first woman to direct a film noir with 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The Verdict

This episode has a magnificent ending but much of what precedes that is messy and frankly rather dull.


My Thoughts

Roger Stanford is the playboy son of the founders of a chemicals company with multiple advanced degrees and a talent for chemistry and engineering. After his parents die in an explosion his uncle takes over the firm and starts preparing to sell the business to a conglomerate. When Roger tries to stoke up opposition to the sale among the workers, the uncle pressures him to resign from the company. Instead Roger plots to kill him and take over the company for himself. This involves him using his chemical and engineering skills to create a bomb in a cigars case that will detonate once it is opened.

Previously episodes have shown us murderers who exhibit some signs of instability but usually that begins to become apparent after the murder as Columbo puts them under strain. A good example would be in the previous story, Lady in Waiting, where we see the killer start to relive and imagine things right as Columbo prepares to arrest her. Here however it is clear that Roddy McDowall’s Roger is clearly unstable from the moment he first appears on screen and the results are, quite frankly, not great.

The issue is that we have a performance that lacks nuance or subtlety. As he begins in a heightened and also visibly eccentric state, not only in terms of his performance but also his styling (the peasant blouse shown above is just one of his many costumes, accompanied by some of the tightest trousers you will ever see), he has nowhere to go with his performance once the deed is complete. This not only results in a rather one-note characterization, it also is pretty unbelievable – would anyone really trust Roger to run anything or view him as a desirable romantic partner?

There is one possible reading of the character that I think could have added some interest and made him into a more compelling villain and it is alluded to in the script. You could argue that he is a cold and calculating mind that is playing the fool specifically to lead others to discount him. That would not only be a justification for his success and ability to plan so well, it would also make for an interesting character comparison with Columbo himself who does that all the time.

The problem is that McDowell never really shows us that until the final scenes of the episode as even when he is alone he still exhibits many of those same eccentric behaviors. As such it is hard to see why anyone would trust him with much of anything. What’s more he actively draws attentions to his connections to the supposed mystery group agitating to stop the sale with antics like the silly string stunt we see at the start of the episode.

His plan to do away with his uncle has at least a few clever points. For one thing, it genuinely appears to be an accident meaning that this is once again a case where Columbo is going out of a limb even suggesting that a crime has taken place at all. This is often where I think Falk connects most meaningfully with the character, conveying his character’s stubborn refusal to let go of the small details of a case that bother him.

Unfortunately I do not think that this approach works as well here as it does in other stories. Part of the reason for this is that there simply does not seem to be much movement in terms of the plot – from the start of the story until very close to the end the official assumption is still that the death was an accident and Columbo gets little evidence or material to go on other than Stanford’s rather suspect behavior. The result is that the middle, investigative phase of the story feels slow-paced with little happening until quite late in the episode.

Mostly we spend this phase of the story following Peter around as he tries to forge and plant evidence pointing to other people’s involvement or to try to distance himself from the crime. Some of the ideas used can be quite clever, not least the manipulation of his uncle’s secretary Miss Bishop, but one issue with all of this activity is he comes dangerously close to being caught quite frequently.

On the topic of his manipulation of Miss Bishop, while I am not convinced of Peter’s appeal as a romantic partner (assuming they don’t have a fetish for silly string), I thought it was at least interesting. One aspect of that relationship is surprisingly brazen for 70s television and I think it was used quite cleverly, advancing the story a little in an unexpected way. Of course later episodes go further along those lines.

Things do however pick up a lot in the final few minutes of the episode. Its best moment is an absolutely gripping cable car journey in which Columbo manipulates his suspect into providing evidence for his case. It is very well done – possibly the best individual scene in the whole first season – and quite necessary here because there would not have been much definitive evidence for their case otherwise.

It is a shame then that it caps off an otherwise pretty dull story. The best I can say about it is that the moments of eccentricity do at least elicit unintended laughter where Ransom for a Dead Man wasn’t even lively or comedic. It’s watchable. Just…

Columbo: Lady in Waiting (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast December 15, 1971

Preceded by Suitable for Framing
Followed by Short Fuse

Story by Barney Slater
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Norman Lloyd

Key Guest Cast

Jessie Royce, appearing here in her final television role as the killer’s mother, had worked several times with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.

Richard Anderson, the victim in this story, would have been best known to crime fans for his role as Lt. Drumm in the final season of Perry Mason.

Probably the most recognizable member of the cast to current audiences would be Leslie Nielsen although this was still a decade before he would become a household name with Airplane.

The Verdict

A very enjoyable case with some excellent detection work and a memorable killer.


My Thoughts

Beth Chadwick’s life has been controlled by her autocratic brother Bryce since her parents died and he took over the family business. When he tells her that he has given an ultimatum to one of his employees to stop seeing her or be fired, Beth sets in motion a plan to murder her brother and make it look like an accidental killing.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the character of Beth Chadwick who is played brilliantly by Susan Clark. This is a character who undergoes an almost total metamorphosis during the episode, turning from what imdb dubs a “mousy heiress” into a confident, brash business woman. While the practical details of that transformation may be a little hazy (particularly in relation to the leadership of the corporation), Clark sells the change in attitude perfectly showing us a liberated woman in the very real sense of those words.

Not only is this reinvention brilliantly represented in Clark’s performance, it is given a vibrant visualization through the costuming and styling. While I am no great fan of 70s style, Beth’s new looks and other symbols of her new life show as much of an outward reimagining as an internal one. As Columbo puts it, she looks like a ‘new woman’.

One of the tragedies lying beneath the surface of this case is that Beth is arguably a victim. Her brother is controlling rather than just protective and we see in the course of this episode that his assumptions, both about her capabilities and the character of her lover, are unfounded. Had she been trusted and given more freedom she obviously had the capacity to play a role in the business and might have found happiness with her boyfriend Peter.

That boyfriend is played by Leslie Nielsen in his first of two Columbo appearances. It is a solid, if unexciting, performance but what strikes me is that for the third episode in a row we have a romance shown with a pretty significant age gap (made more striking by how he always looked older than he actually was). Now neither this or the previous episode quite match up to the Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette age gap but these episodes do have me wondering if this was a TV thing to pair young, up-and-coming actresses with older character actors or if this is a case of social attitudes changing. Anyway…

Beth’s plan to murder her brother is pretty clever and it is presented to us in a rather unusual way. First we are shown the events as she had imagined them taking place, helping us to understand what she intended to happen, but then we jump back and watch how things actually happened.

The benefit to this approach is that we get to not only appreciate the strengths of the original plan, we also see what parts diverged and present possible risks to her. The previous episodes had either shown killers planning carefully or working to cover up a murder – this case combines both styles and I think it is all the more interesting for that choice.

Perhaps the aspect of this story that I appreciate most is that we see Columbo do some real, details-driven detective work here. From the moment he steps into the crime scene he is noticing the things that seem out of place and using them to undermine Beth’s story.

There is still plenty of psychology involved – he still says and does things to unsettle his suspect – but the difference is that he proves his case without the need to pull off a trick. It is clever and absolutely fair to the viewer – they have everything they need to show how it will be solved from the start – making for a really strong case for those who wish to play armchair detective.

A Penknife in My Heart by Nicholas Blake

Book Details

Originally published 1958

The Blurb

Hammer was ruthless and predatory; he needed money quickly, and he would get it if a certain person died. “We might,” he suggested to Ned Stowe, “make a contract for the disposal of each others’ rubbish.”

Ned was not ruthless – but he was desperate. Passionately in love with the beautiful, copper-haired Laura, he was tied to a neurotic, clinging wife. He had reached the end of his tether.

This is the story of the “contract” made between Hammer and Stowe – the design for two motiveless murders; a story that begins ingeniously and then grows progressively in tension as the full horror and consequences of the “contract” are ever more realistically described.

The Verdict

The parallels with Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train are there but this work is interesting in its own right.


My Thoughts

Perhaps it is a consequence of my recent In GAD We Trust podcast appearance (plug, plug, plug) but I have of late found myself even more drawn to purchasing and reading inverted crime stories. This late standalone effort by Nicholas Blake is one such find and seems to be one of the lesser-known works in his oeuvre.

The book concerns a scheme to trade murders. And yes, it does have a strong resemblance to an earlier work – more on that in a moment.

Playwright Ned Stowe is spending a brief holiday on the Norfolk coast with his mistress. She is anxious for him to make a decision about their future but he cannot imagine his wife – who has supported him financially for years – granting him a divorce. In his frustration he makes a comment about how he wishes she were dead.

That remark is overheard by Stuart Hammer who later approaches Ned. During a sailing trip together he suggests that they each ‘dispose of each others’ rubbish’. He proposes that he will kill Ned’s wife if Ned will take care of his uncle. After initially being repulsed by the suggestion the pair work up a plan and we follow them as they try to bring into effect.

I suspect that almost everyone reading this will recognize the concept from Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel, Strangers on a Train. Apparently the publishers were aware enough of the similarities that there is a preface in some editions in which the author acknowledges the similarities but suggests this was coincidence.

While I think that the two books share some very similar plot beats, the two works do end up feeling quite distinct in theme, style and tone. To illustrate that requires a little discussion of some aspects of those aspects both novels that some may feel borders on spoiling them – particularly Strangers on a Train – but I have tried to keep the points as broad as possible.

Highsmith’s novel is ambiguous about whether the reader should think Guy Haines guilty of the murder of his wife. The conversation between Guy and Charles feels somewhat hypothetical. Blake’s novel is far clearer about Ned’s complicity in the plan to kill his wife. He understands the implications, devises a plan and shows his consent to it after the fact.

We may understand (though not condone) Ned’s moral weakness, particularly once we see how dysfunctional and cruel his marriage has become, however I do not think we want to see him survive in the same way we do with Guy Haines. His guilt is too clear, even if he subsequently experiences some regret.

Similarly Blake also gives us a very clear sense of Stuart Hammer’s character, outlining him as a determined and decisive brute as opposed to the drunken, guilt-ridden mother’s boy found in Highsmith’s novel. We are never challenged to like Hammer – he is presented as manipulative, chauvinistic and predatory from the start. Nothing we learn later makes us like him any more.

For Highsmith the ambiguity and fluidity of Guy and Bruno’s senses of guilt is the point. Over the course of the novel they become interdependent – the only people capable of understanding and supporting each other, yet their disgust at themselves and each other drags them down.

Blake’s killers live much more separate existences and are drawn together far less often. While Stuart Hammer’s presence is felt at points throughout the novel, Ned, and his own decisions, are our clear point of focus. A consequence of this is that Blake’s novel feels driven more by the plot than the exploration of his protagonists’ emotional states (though that is still a factor).

One of the aspects of Blake’s novel that is most interesting to me is the presentation of Ned’s wife, Helena. Our earliest experiences of her are through Ned’s own feelings, both those he expresses and the ones that are described to us in the narration. As such we have an idea about who she is prior to encountering her for ourselves and to some extent what we see of her seems to confirm our expectations.

In subsequent chapters however Blake manages to make her into a fuller and more complex character. This not only affects our reading of the characters and the situation, it also prompts some interesting thematic discussion about the ways creative types might interact with one another.

Similarly his presentation of the other woman, Ned’s mistress Laura, is also more complex than it initially appears (though she is the least developed part of the triangle). I think some of the more interesting questions the book raises are those about our choices of partner and I certainly was left wondering about the nature of their attraction. Does he really love her or is it the danger than intrigues him? Blake’s novel raises these but never voices a definitive answer, leaving it to the reader to decide.

For obvious reasons I will avoid describing the conclusions of the two novels but I will say that while they have similarities, Blake’s feels punchy and more action-focused. I feel that this is once again a consequence of the less ambiguous characterization and it suits the tone and themes of this story well.

Having focused so much on the comparison between these two books, I want to finish by discussing my chief source of pleasure in this novel: Blake’s writing. He is able to craft some wonderfully expressive turns of phrase such as when he describes a pub as ‘poky and smoky; dead-alive’ or ‘she had got herself into his system as a virus’.

One of my favorite sequences in the book comes near the start in which Ned finds himself furtively heading to a rendezvous. Blake conveys some of the tension of that moment, even while also allowing us to be aware of how his perceptions differ from the reality of the situation. It was the writing that drew me into this story and excited me to keep reading.

If you are pondering over whether I think this or Highsmith’s novel is the more essential, I would steer you to the latter first. It is an earlier and richer read in terms of its themes but I think that this does enough differently to make it an interesting read in its own right.

It certainly has left me keen to read some of the other Blake novels I have on my TBR pile (and I won’t lie – I’ve added a couple more Blakes to the library since reading this).

Columbo: Suitable for Framing (TV)

Story Details

Originally broadcast November 17, 1971

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Dead Weight
Followed by Lady in Waiting

Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Hy Averback

Key Guest Cast

Typically it is easy to pick one or two cast members to highlight but the entire cast here is distinguished. Three of the most familiar faces for modern viewers play smaller roles here.

Kim Hunter plays the victim’s ex-wife. She is best known for her role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Don Ameche, a popular film actor of the 30s and 40s, had played a number of leading male roles. Here he plays the deceased’s lawyer in a couple of scenes.

Finally Mary Wickes plays a tiny role of a landlady here but I will always remember her from roles in so many films of the 40s and 50s. Chief among those is her performance as the gossipy Emma Allen in White Christmas.

The Verdict

Superb from start to finish with a fantastic cast of familiar faces and a truly memorable conclusion.


My Thoughts

Art critic Dale Kingston murders his art collecting uncle with the help of an aspiring artist, constructing a tight alibi for himself when he is seen attending an art exhibit.

Were this mystery told in the conventional whodunnit way we would look at Suitable for Framing as an unbreakable alibi story. By reversing it and telling it from the criminal’s perspective however it takes on several additional dimensions, opening up other questions for the viewer to ponder.

The first question the viewer will be struck by is that of Kingston’s motivations. The episode begins moments before the murder takes place and we are not told what their aim is or why they make some seemingly odd choices in carrying out their crime. It takes a long time before the motive behind his actions and what he has in mind become clear. In other words, this is as much as whydunnit as a howcatchem and it does both exceptionally well.

Gillis’ story moves quickly and takes several unexpected turns that I obviously do not wish to spoil for you. What I can say is that I feel that the ultimate destination is really clever and that the way Columbo unpicks the case and catches Kingston is particularly ingenious.

As villains go, Ross Martin’s performance as Kingston is absolutely superb. Not only is his plan very cleverly worked out, I think he embodies the things you look for in a Columbo villain. He is arrogant and smarmy, looking down on everyone involved in the case with a sense of intellectual superiority.

One interesting contrast between Kingston and the previous two killers on the show is that while there is a good case to be made that had Brimmer and Hollister simply waited they would have been fine. It was their action that really pushes Columbo in their direction. Here, it is clear that Kingston needs to act which makes sense of some of the character’s choices, particularly later in the story. As a consequence I feel that Columbo’s successes are earned more here whereas in the previous episodes I feel he sometimes is lucky that the killers choose to do things that draw attention to themselves.

As I note at the top of this post, the casting here is superb and there is quality at every level of this production. It is one of the largest casts in one of these so far and there are several very familiar faces – even to a viewer half a century after it was made. That quality pays off with each part feeling quite distinctive and substantial, even for those cast members who get only a few minutes of screentime such as the fabulous Mary Wickes.

I consider this to be a triumph in every respect and as I work through these episodes in order, perhaps the best one yet. It is a really clever plot, brilliantly directed and performed.