The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

At the age of twelve, Eve Black was the only member of her family to survive an encounter with serial attacker the Nothing Man. Now an adult, she is obsessed with identifying the man who destroyed her life.

Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle has just started reading The Nothing Man—the true-crime memoir Eve has written about her efforts to track down her family’s killer. As he turns each page, his rage grows. Because Jim’s not just interested in reading about the Nothing Man. He is the Nothing Man.

Jim soon begins to realize how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first …

The Verdict

A clever premise elevates this serial killer tale though I found the survivor a much more compelling character than her tormentor.


My Thoughts

I think I have mentioned before that serial killer stories aren’t usually my sort of thing. I am not sure if it reflects that they are often more graphically violent or that the motivations to kill are often weaker and rather repetitive but I rarely seek these sorts of stories out.

There are, of course, a few exceptions though. I suppose several of Jim Thompson’s stories would technically constitute serial killer stories and yet I have happily sought those out. I suspect that reflects that I find the characters to be quite rich and that character’s perspective is usually shared with the reader. I also enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View which closely follows the character of a retired serial killer. It is primarily then with that interest in stories that follow the killer that I picked up a copy of Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest book The Nothing Man after reading a review of it a week or two ago on Puzzle Doctor’s excellent blog In Search of the Classic Mystery.

The Nothing Man was a serial killer who was responsible for a series of rapes and murders in County Cork at the start of the twenty first century. This series of killing culminated in the murder of two parents and one child in their home with one survivor, Eve, who was also a child at the time. No one was ever caught and the Gardai never had any strong leads as to the killer’s identity. Years later she decides to write a book about her experiences and those of the other victims in the hope that it might reignite interest in the case and lead to the killer’s capture.

Supermarket security guard Jim was the Nothing Man. He is shocked one day when he sees customers carrying books about the murders he carried out and realizing that he may be in danger, he acquires a copy and settles down to read Eve’s account to see exactly what she remembers.

Howard utilizes a story within a story framing structure, going so far as to reproduce a book cover and copyright page for Eve’s book within her own to add to the illusion. We get big chunks of that book reproduced here, not only presenting us with some of the facts about those murders but also introducing us to the character of Eve and describing how the events affected her and how she came to want to share her own experiences. This is done very well and I think Howard manages to write those passages in a noticeably different voice to those in which we follow Jim (as well as typeface), which adds to the distinction between these sections.

From time to time Howard interupts the Nothing Man book excerpts to show us Jim’s reactions to what he is reading. These cutaways are typically quite short but they do serve to remind us that this story will conclude in the present day. For the most part I feel that this technique works well enough to justify its use although I will admit to feeling that the passages featuring Jim as he is reading the book are probably the least interesting part of the novel for me. This is because I feel that they rarely change our perception of what we have read or move the story in a different direction. They are short enough however to be fairly unobtrusive and my interest in his reactions picks up considerably from the point where the book begins to detail her own encounter with Jim.

The accounts of each of the attacks are presented in sequence so we do get a sense of seeing the Nowhere Man develop as he becomes a murderer. This does not give us an understanding of the forces that made him a murderer in the first place but there is a clear sense that we are building towards Eve’s own incident, increasing anticipation of that moment. As you might expect from a story that features multiple instances of rape and a child murder, these accounts may prove uncomfortable reading and while the actions are not described in much detail they may be upsetting for some readers.

The bits of the story that Eve cannot relate tend to be wrapped up in the question of the Nowhere Man’s identity and so the answers end up coming from Jim. Not that he is particularly talkative. His sections of the book are presented with third person narration and it is that narrator who fills in the gaps and explains some of the missing connections. My feeling is that answers are given for most of the questions I had, though I did not always find them as satisfying as I would have hoped. We learn of shaping incidents that created the killer and certainly get a good understanding of his methods both of selecting victims and also committing his murders.

One question that I think doesn’t get answered as well as I would like is Jim’s reasons for stopping. I think those reasons are implied well enough for the reader to be able to connect the dots but it would have been nice to have been given a fuller account of that part of Jim’s story, particularly given one of the later revelations in the book.

I remarked earlier how my interest in Jim’s story grew once we get to Eve’s own incident in her book and I feel that the same could be said of the book as a whole. From this point onwards I think the story seems to open up and some interesting questions and ideas are introduced. Of course, coming late in the novel keeps me from discussing them in any kind of detail but I appreciated the introduction of another perspective and a question that Jim has concerning Eve’s account of that night. That these ideas coincide with some action only serves to elevate that ending and make it feel more impactful.

That ending is quite tense and I was interested to discover how Jim and Eve’s stories would be resolved. I cannot claim to be all that surprised by many of the developments but I did find the answers to those questions that are raised to be quite satisfying.

So, how did I feel about The Nowhere Man? Keeping in mind that serial killer stories aren’t my thing, I am certainly glad I gave it a try though I am glad I was able to finish it with the lights on! As killers go, I did not find Jim to be an especially compelling figure. Instead I found myself much more interested in Eve, the survivor and her journey to take some control of her life. That may not have been exactly what I was expecting to find when I picked up the book but it was enough to keep me engaged and, coupled with the book’s creative premise, make me feel like my time was well spent.

Columbo: A Stitch in Crime (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast February 11, 1973

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by Requiem for a Falling Star
Followed by The Most Dangerous Match

Written by Shirl Hendryx
Directed by Hy Averback

Key Guest Cast

Leonard Nimoy was already famous around the world for his portrayal of Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Vulcan first officer on the TV show Star Trek by this point, which would return that same year as a short-lived animated series. If there was anyone watching who did not recognize him from his role as Spock, they might also have known him for his performances on Mission: Impossible.

The Verdict

Boasts some great ideas and a solid performance from Nimoy as the killer, the only thing that underwhelms here is the rather flat direction of the action scenes.


My Thoughts

For the most part I have been watching these Columbo stories for the first time but this is one of a handful of episodes I had actually seen before. Back when I was a teen (it feels like a very long time ago) I was a huge Star Trek fan and eagerly sought out anything featuring actors who had been in the show and so I happened to see this story. The reason that this is important to mention is that once the episode began the various twists came back to me so it will be a little hard to gauge how surprising some of those moments are.

Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. Barry Mayfield, an arrogant, ambitious surgeon who is determined to make his name on an exciting new research project. Unfortunately for him, the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Hidemann (Will Greer) is determined to take a cautious approach and insists on a further year of tests before they go public with the results. This frustrates Mayfield but he puts on an understanding face and agrees to perform heart surgery on his colleague.

Before the surgery Nurse Martin (Anne Francis) voiced her suspicions of Dr. Mayfield to Hidemann and following the surgery she seems to be acting suspiciously. That evening she is followed by Mayfield who brutally murders her in a car park, staging a burglary. Columbo is assigned the case but while he suspects Dr. Mayfield he cannot see the motive.

There are lots of things to talk about with this episode but probably the best place to start would be the cast. Nimoy’s performance was obviously the chief appeal to me when I first saw this about fifteen years ago and I had pretty fond memories of it. Looking at it again I think he does a good job, though I would suggest he has been cast to play a rather cold, emotionless figure – not exactly a huge jump from the Spock persona. He does a good job of his scenes with Falk, seeming to recognize the danger that Columbo represents from the very start of the investigation. His performance is more muted than say Cassidy or Culp, but I think he does convey a certain his character’s ruthless streak very well.

And what a ruthless streak! Unlike some of the other Columbo killers up until this point, his decision to kill is not born in a moment of passion or fear, nor is it a desperate act. Instead it comes out of his enormous sense of personal ambition and each of the crimes he commits, and there are more than one, feels really quite brutal given his choices of victim. This is particularly true of something he does near the end of the episode that is coldblooded and cruel and yet he walks away from it showing no signs of being affected at all.

While this episode does not feature a huge cast, there are several other strong performances. I really enjoyed the warmth and humanity of Will Greer’s performance as the older doctor. He has a rather charming introduction in which he conducts a diagnosis on his own condition and his fussing at his nurses for insisting on a sterile environment is amusing and characterful. Similarly I appreciate Anne Francis’ turn as Nurse Martin, the victim. She doesn’t get much to do before she is murdered but she does convey her deep distrust of Dr. Mayfield well.

Though I do not think of this as a particularly comedic outing, there are a couple of scenes that I found very funny. The best of these comes very early in the episode as Columbo is stuck interviewing Nurse Martin’s very talkative roommate. Falk’s reactions are priceless during the conversation. Several of the things she blurts out are amusing but I appreciate that the scene isn’t just funny but it also does help to flesh out the victim’s character.

I also really enjoyed a sequence in which Columbo pays a visit to a party being thrown by Dr. Mayfield. There is lots to entertain here from some humorous exchanges about the hors d’eurve to some fun displays of Seventies fashion. Nimoy’s pants are perhaps a little less tight than Roddy McDowall’s were in Short Fuse but it’s close enough to be worthy of comment and he has quite a nice line in ties.

I thought that the investigation itself was interesting and appreciated that it represents another slight twist on the Columbo formula. Indeed I thought pretty hard about whether I ought to outline as much of the episode as I did above because I imagine that for viewers on original broadcast the murder victim may well have come as a surprise. Certainly it seems to run against what the first few scenes set up, but I think the shift is handled very effectively and creates a much more interesting scenario for Columbo to solve.

The scenes between Nimoy and Falk are excellent. I could understand how and why Columbo was able to get under Mayfield’s skin and yet Nimoy always comes off as being in control. It is interesting to watch Mayfield as he tries to steer Columbo’s investigation – this something we have seen other killers on the show do before but the difference is that Mayfield is far more alert to the dangers the investigator poses than most who try it.

Martin’s murder however feels rather flat and disappointing. We see the swing of a weapon but it seems to hang still for far too long right before the death, making it look curiously lacking in energy. Yes, cold and dispassionate are part of Mayfield’s persona but the editing on that moment just looks wrong to me. A later murder is handled better though it is still shot in a way that seems to minimize the action rather than getting in close on that moment. It is as though the director is working to undercut any of the violence in the episode.

There is one aspect of the plot that is utterly brilliant however as an idea, even though it does require some specialist knowledge. The script acknowledges this problem, providing the information directly to the viewer in a way that is easy to understand, but because they have to go into detail to explain how an idea works, it does draw attention to it which rather undermines its reveal. That idea though is brilliant though – a really good and as far as I know pretty unique concept for a murder story.

I had a pretty positive memory of this story and I am happy to say that on the whole it held up to my memories of the story. Its faults are mostly issues with the direction and editing – the thing feels far too slow and ponderous in the scenes that ought to have the most impact – but the core ideas are clever and Nimoy’s performance as Mayfield is good.

Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 21, 1973

Season Two, Episode Five
Preceded by Dagger of the Mind
Followed by A Stitch in Crime

Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Richard Quine

Key Cast

Anne Baxter had played the female lead in Hitchcock’s I Confess, a film in which a priest cannot clear himself of a murder without disclosing information from a confession. I remember her best though as Olga the Queen of the Cossacks, one of the villains in the Adam West Batman series.

The Verdict

A fairly forgettable case though it does have a couple of interesting points and a solid performance from Anne Baxter.

Plot Summary

Nora Chandler was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood but her career has long been in decline. A tell-all book in the works from gossip journalist Jerry Parks threatens to expose a scandal in her past that would end it. When she confronts Jerry about the book he tries to extort her to make the information he has found go away.

Nora discovers that Jerry has been seeing her personal assistant Jean and has arranged to meet with her that night. Instead Nora plans to keep Jean busy with a slew of pointless errands. Instead Jean skips out on them and the pair arrange a rendezvous later.

Unfortunately that rendezvous never happens as before they can meet Jerry’s car explodes…


My Thoughts

I should probably begin by confessing I am not particularly excited to write about Requiem for a Fallen Star. This is not because it is a particularly terrible episode of Columbo – I have seen worse already since starting this project – but because to discuss its most interesting idea feels like it would be spoiling it. I obviously do not want to do that so this will probably be quite short and vague. My apologies. Hopefully I can convey at least a general sense of what I think of the production.

While the previous episode featured lots of external location filming, Requiem for a Fallen Star feels much more familiar and contained. We had after all seen a film set in several scenes in the very first Columbo story Prescription: Murder and spent a little time in a television studio in Suitable for Framing. In spite of that though it is notable that this is the first time a case has centered on the film industry in spite of that being the business most would associate with LA.

Probably the most logical place to start with discussing the episode is with the character of Nora Chandler, the fallen star. The episode certainly gives us a good sense of the state of her career at this point though her past is a little more vague. We have little sense of what sort of actress she was other than that Columbo was a fan but we do know that much of her success was built around her now-deceased husband’s film studio.

I can imagine this sort of role would have offered considerable opportunities to overplay the character’s diva tendencies or artistic sentiment, giving the character a comical slant. This would have been a mistake, particularly coming just an episode after giving us two pretentious actor killers, so Anne Baxter’s forceful and determined take on the character is welcome and feels well judged. Nora may not be as memorable a character as those played by Susan Clark or Lee Grant but I feel that Baxter’s performance fits the character and helps bring her to life.

I was initially quite skeptical of Nora’s reasons for becoming a murderer, particularly given that the scandal Jerry Parks is threatening to expose feels rather dull. While it would certainly end Nora’s career and association with the studio it is hard to imagine it moving many books. Would the fear of those revelations really lead to murder? Happily Nora’s plan and motives for murder do become clearer as the episode goes on and by the end of the episode I felt convinced.

After a doubtful start, things pick up from the moment at which the car explodes. Unlike some other Columbo stories, we do not follow the killer closely as they set up the murder and so we learn many of the details after the fact. This does allow for a small but satisfying surprise (the one I alluded to earlier) and establishes a pretty interesting set of circumstances for Columbo’s investigation.

That investigation is fine and there are a few interesting discoveries. The problem is that I just didn’t feel particularly interested in the cat and mouse game between Nora and Columbo. The choice to make Columbo a fan of Nora’s feels rather awkward and I quickly grew tired of his fawning over her. I think Columbo tends to be at his best when he is getting under the skin of his quarry and unsettling them but there isn’t much of that here.

While I found the investigation rather dull, the episode does at least have a strong resolution. I often complain about trap endings and this is another example of that but I do feel that in this instance he is using it to confirm something he has already deduced. It is a variation on a classic mystery but it is done pretty well, making for a solid resolution to the story.

Whenever you watch a television show there are always some episodes that stand out because they are either very strong or weak. Requiem for a Falling Star sits right in the middle of the pack, being competently told but lacking a standout character or truly memorable set piece or situation. It is quite watchable and often entertaining but I suspect it will be one I struggle to recall a few months from now.

The Vicar’s Experiments by Anthony Rolls

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
The American edition was published as Clerical Error that same year

Plot Summary

The Reverend Mr. Pardicott is struck by the idea that he should kill one of his parishioners, Colonel Cargoy. He sets about trying to devise a method by which he can eliminate him and finds his answer in a book of poisons…

The Verdict

Consistently amusing and well observed. Only the final few chapters underwhelm but the journey to that point is witty and entertaining.


My Thoughts

Those of you who listened to my appearance on one of the very early episodes of the In GAD We Trust podcast will be aware that another novel by Anthony Rolls, Family Matters, was largely responsible for my starting this blog. It also was the book that I credit as piquing my interest in inverted crime stories – an interest that you could fairly describe as having transformed into a fully-formed obsession.

Today’s post is not about that book. I will, no doubt, eventually get around to writing about that book in more detail though I feel I ought to save it for one of the big landmark posts. Instead I decided to read and write about Rolls’ first criminous novel which, depending on whether you read the British or American editions is either The Vicar’s Experiments or Clerical Error.

Now, before I go much further I should make it clear that this book is sadly long out of print. As you may expect it is rather expensive to acquire – I found that the American edition is cheaper but even that set me back $50. If this book interests you enough to search it out I strongly suggest looking for both titles and keep an eye on it appearing in some listings as by C. E. Vulliamy (Rolls’ actual name).

Okay, so that is more than enough introduction – what is the book about?

The Vicar’s Experiments introduces us to the Reverend Mr. Pardicott who presides over a small rural parish. He is in the middle of a meeting with Colonel Cargoy, a busybody who makes it his business to object to every proposal on the parish council. Pardicott is enduring the conversation when he is struck by the idea that he should kill the old soldier:

Up to a quarter past three, Mr. Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.

The Vicar’s Experiments, Chapter One

Those seeking a detailed psychological portrait of the murderer will likely be disappointed with the treatment Rolls gives to motive. In the short passage quoted above we see Pardicott snapping as an idea occurs to him he simply cannot or will not shake. He appears to view himself as an instrument acting under some sort of divine instruction and much of what follows seems to only confirm that idea to him.

We do soon see though that Pardicott does have at least one other motivation. Although he himself is married, he has a growing attachment to Cargoy’s much younger wife. Pardicott does not focus on this and indeed, his interest in the experiments he will start to conduct seems to outgrow these beginnings, but they are at least there and I think it is a more satisfying explanation than his simply being mad.

Once Pardicott gets the idea of murder in his head he then sets out to figure out how he will accomplish his deed. Though Pardicott’s motivations for murder are not particularly complex, I found it interesting to follow him as he devised and brought about his plan. The method he decides on is quite novel and while scientifically complex, explained well. Before long the parish has one fewer resident and the question becomes what will happen next. If you are in any doubt, I would invite you to consider the original British title for a clue…

Published just a year after Iles’ enormously influential Malice Aforethought, there do seem to be some similarities between the two works. Both are set in the countryside and strike broadly humorous tones, making light of some pretty dark ideas. Each features someone in a profession traditionally held in esteem behaving badly, involve obscure poisons and in both cases sexual desire is at least a partial motivation for murder.

In spite of those similarities I think it would be a mistake to think The Vicar’s Experiments a derivative work. While psychology is a factor in both books, Rolls emphasizes his own belief that murder is almost always committed by the insane. Iles’ Dr. Bickleigh was clearly a man in control of his faculties, choosing to apply them to a dark purpose. Pardicott has become seduced by an idea that compels him to act and everything he sees appears to reinforce that he is acting in accordance with Providence.

Where much of Malice Aforethought is spent getting to a point where Bickleigh is able to commit the crime, Rolls dispenses of Cargoy early in the narrative. As a consequence of this, much more time is spent exploring what happens after the murder and how the local community responds.

Rolls also places far more importance on the detection of the crime, albeit while employing a rather ineffective sleuth. This investigation is not particularly rigorous, in large part because the person carrying it out is a man of pretty limited imagination and ability. The reader will likely identify multiple loose ends and clues that might point the sleuth in Pardicott’s direction – the question is whether they will notice them and, if so, what they will do.

Rolls is able to sustain much of the lively pacing and work in some humorous moments in the early part of the investigation. One of my favorites is a sequence involving discussion of church architecture which is done very well, featuring some amusing turns of phrase.

There is a definite shift of pace and tone however in the final few chapters of the book. These feel quite noticeably slower than what has gone before and the comedic elements largely disappear. This is understandable given the turn of events in those chapters of the novel and yet it does seem quite sudden and, in my opinion, it is not wholly successful.

I think that endings are often a problem with the more comedic inverted stories. If they were successful there needs to be some form of justice and yet it is hard to provide that while keeping the laughs coming. Those who are able to do it usually manage this by making that moment come quickly with an explosive, ironical reveal. This is part of what makes Malice Aforethought such a memorable read.

The Vicar’s Experiments sustains its comedic tone much longer and more successfully than most. It captures a rural community quite well and there are some very amusing observations and commentaries in the narration. One of my favorites isn’t really a gag at all in the usual sense but rather a sort of in-joke with complaints about the dreary church architecture of Lewis Vulliamy (the author’s grandfather – a fact hidden by the use of the Rolls pseudonym).

I appreciated that the characters are all pretty colorful and distinctive. There are some amusing observations about several of those in professional roles (some of the sharpest relates to the country doctor). On the other hand, the women suffer from not being given much to do and Pardicott’s wife feels largely peripheral to much of the story.

In spite of these flaws, I felt that The Vicar’s Experiments was a really entertaining read. If, like me, you are a fan of Rolls’ Family Matters I think you will find this enjoyable and worth your time. I found it consistently amusing and was impressed by how that tone was sustained for most of the book. The murder plot uses some clever ideas, some of which seem quite inventive, and while the investigation feels quite bumbling in comparison the book remains readable right until the end.

Columbo: Dagger of the Mind (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast November 26, 1972

Season Two, Episode Four
Preceded by The Most Crucial Game
Followed by Requiem for a Falling Star

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Richard Quine

Key Cast

The most familiar face for viewers will likely be Honor Blackman who plays Lillian Stanhope. She appeared in The Avengers as Catherine Gale but is best known for her performance as the definitive Bond girl, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

John Williams, playing the victim, Sir Roger Haversham, was best known for his role as Chief Inspector Hubbard in the film, television and stage plays of Dial M for Murder.

Finally I have to make mention of Wilfrid Hyde-White who plays a butler. He was one of those character actors I always enjoyed seeing pop up in British movies in the fifties and sixties but I remember him most fondly as Crabbin in my favorite film of all time, The Third Man. He is perfectly cast here and one of my favorite things about the episode.

The Verdict

Perhaps the most overtly comedic Columbo up until this point though much of it is variations on one idea. The case itself is a little slight but there are several fun moments for Columbo and the cast seem to be enjoying themselves.

Plot Summary

A pair of veteran thespians are thrilled to be back on the stage for a production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the eve of the production however their financial backer, Sir Roger Haversham, tells them that he has realized that he is being manipulated by them and has decided to pull the plug on the show.

The altercation between the trio turns violent and the pair end up accidentally killing him when he is hit in the head. Realizing that no one had seen Haversham enter the theater the pair decide to transport his body back to his home and stage an accident.

Columbo happens to be visiting London to learn more about the latest practices at Scotland Yard. His guide, Detective Chief Superintendent Durk, happens to be related to Haversham and brings Columbo with him as he visits the estate. While Durk seems to accept it as an unfortunate accident, Columbo cannot help noticing details pointing to murder…


My Thoughts

Previous episodes of Columbo had often featured comedic characters or subplots but Dagger of the Mind is, to my mind, the first episode to be written and played primarily as comedy.

The main joke running through the episode is that the two thespians, Lillian Stanhope (Honor Blackman) and Nicholas Frame (Richard Basehart), are both terrible hams. This not only is evident in the short clips we see of them on stage but in their conduct off it. Whether talking about treading the boards or giving a teary performance at the funeral in front of Columbo under the impression he is from the press, the pair are often made to look ridiculous and out-of-touch with reality.

The excesses of theatrical types was a familiar comedic theme even back in the early 70s and it is frequently returned to here. I happen to think it is done reasonably well but given most of the comedic moments are variations on this same theme some may feel that particular joke is worn out long before the end of the episode.

Both Blackman and Basehart seem to enjoy getting to play bad actors and both go for it, delivering plenty of ham. For the most part I enjoyed their performances though there are a few moments where I think they go too far. While the character of Stanhope has some quieter, more thoughtful moments, Basehart’s Frame seems to always be performing in some fashion. The unfortunate consequence of that is that the character feels less dimensional than many other Columbo killers.

That may be a reflection of how the pair happen to become murderers. In keeping with the lighter tone of the episode, they are shown to be opportunists rather than villains. They never intended murder but once it happens they have to cover it up to keep their play open.

Prior to this there was only one other Columbo story that features an accidental or entirely unplanned murder – Death Lends a Hand. Unfortunately I think neither case is particularly satisfying and I think it is this lack of planning or intent that has been the problem. In each case, the murderers appear to have no motive to want the victim dead and it seems clear that if they just kept their heads down things would go away. In order to make things happen in each story, the killers have to choose to engage with Columbo and they do it so awkwardly that it only draws his attention to them. I will be curious to see if I feel the same about any later unplanned murder stories.

I was struck by how Columbo seems much less active in this case than usual, both in terms of his own actions but also in screen time. He certainly pushes for the case to be seen as murder, doing so quite cleverly, but there are fewer interactions with the killers and there are fewer of his usual investigative tics and behaviors. He doesn’t, for instance, really press the pair on the points of the case. Perhaps this is meant to suggest he is trying to impress his hosts but it does feel almost out of character for him.

Still, while Columbo the investigator seems a little muted, there are some amusing moments where we can enjoy Columbo the awkward traveller. From the moment he first appears he seems to be even more bumbling than usual and much fun is had in seeing the baffled expressions of those British police he comes into contact with. It is not the strongest material Falk has had to work with but I feel he does so well. It probably helps that he is able to balance those moments with some more serious, crime-solving ones.

At this point we need to talk about the episode’s portrayal of Britain.

Let’s start with the good – there is some lovely location filming with Peter Falk visiting some London landmarks. While much of the episode was filmed in California, these sequences do look good, giving a decent sense of place and they are well integrated with the look of those other scenes. I also appreciate that they are not just filler but they also convey something of Columbo’s character such as when he tries to take photographs.

The portrayal of London however lacks authenticity. I was reminded of my experiences walking around the duty free shops at the airport – it feels like a series of settings and elements people associate with London rather than ones that make sense in the context of this case. In other words, this episode takes place in a perception of London based on books and films rather than attempting to give a true sense of place or time.

The case itself is not particularly complex compared to Columbo’s other cases. The evidence is relatively straightforward and because Columbo’s interactions with the killers are limited, there is relatively little misdirection or use of red herrings. As such, the resolution comes pretty quickly and feels quite simple. Unlike the previous few stories, here there doesn’t seem to be any point of confusion that Columbo needs to work through.

This means that the ending is similarly quite simple though there are some script, setting and performance choices that do make the ending feel a little more colorful. I quite like the location chosen which adds a touch of whimsy but I feel the last few moments of the episode go too far and read as silly, even though they fit the themes of the episode.

Clearly I had some problems with this episode but I must say that I felt this did have some pretty amusing and entertaining moments. I enjoyed several of the performances, particularly Wilfrid Hyde-White as the butler, and I am partial to its theatrical setting. I will never list it, or its pair of murderers, as series highlights but I did at least enjoy watching it.

Columbo: The Most Crucial Game (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast November 5, 1972

Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by The Greenhouse Jungle
Followed by Dagger of the Mind

Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jeremy Kagan

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Dean Stockwell who had been a child star in the late 40s. At the time he may have been best known to crime fans for his performance as Judd Steiner (based on Leopold) in Compulsion. He went on to have a long career and modern viewers may remember him best from Quantum Leap or the revival of Battlestar Galactica.

Valerie Harper makes a small but memorable appearance here and would have been familiar to viewers as Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The Verdict

Often very entertaining, sadly issues with the plotting meant I found it disappointing as a mystery.


My Thoughts

It is game day for the Los Angeles Rockets football team and general manager Paul Hanlon appears in a feisty mood. Shortly before the game he calls the coach, chewing him out, and then he calls the team’s playboy owner to remind him that they will be flying to Canada that night to meet with the owners of a hockey franchise he thinks they should acquire.

As the game kicks off, Hanlon dismisses the attendant in his box and dons a disguise, heading out to commit murder. His plan is to make it appear he was in the stadium the whole time, using a radio to keep track of developments in the game. Hanlon stages the murder to appear to be an accidental drowning but unfortunately Columbo is assigned to the case and he is soon on the killer’s trail.

Today’s episode is a bit of a landmark for the series as it was the first episode to feature an actor reappearing on the show to play a killer for a second time. This was one of the aspects of the series that always puzzled me before I started to watch – why did the show reuse killers when there was such a wealth of acting talent to choose from? Was it a level of comfort with the actor or an issue of availability? How I wish that there were DVD extras with these to explain how those decisions were made…

Robert Culp makes his return having previously been the murderer in Death Lends A Hand – a story that I felt fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Would I like his second outing more?

Well, that’s actually quite hard to answer. Let’s start with Culp’s own performance. While Brimmer was quite aloof, Hanlon is fiery and combative. That worked well here, leading to several memorable exchanges with Columbo as his frustrations grow and some “tells” start to show in his behavior.

Culp sports a rather bushy moustache that makes him look almost comical at points, particularly during a sequence in which he dons a disguise. Fortunately Culp plays the whole thing straight, managing to retain his dignity while looking pretty silly and obviously is highly competent, making him a pretty interesting adversary for Columbo. In short, while I may not understand the practice of bringing back killers on principle, this particular piece of casting is really good and Culp delivers an even better performance this second time around.

I think the actual mechanism used to commit the murder is really clever (and so I have no wish to spoil it). It is about as tidy a method as it is possible to imagine and the plan is really impressively worked, being shot to appear quick and brutal. Sometimes with these stories you wonder if a person could really be killed so easily – here it makes perfect sense.

Columbo will be presented with a crime scene that is pretty much perfect. To all appearances this was an accidental death and there is very little evidence to disagree with that reading.

Being Columbo however he does find something – a patch of regular water – but honestly, I just don’t buy that being enough to have him thinking murder. For starters I don’t think that puddle should still be there by the time Columbo arrives in the type of weather we see but even if it is, this is a really weak thing to hook the case on.

Though I think that Columbo’s reasons for suspecting murder are weak, the investigation itself is very enjoyable. The central problem of the episode is the idea that Hanlon has an unbreakable alibi. As an example of that type of problem, the story largely delivers. While Hanlon’s plan is very cleverly worked, there are a couple of things that give Columbo enough room to imagine how he could have done it.

The problem though is that at no point are we ever asked why Hanlon commits this murder. Now I will be the first to say that the viewer doesn’t always need to know every aspect of a case for it to be satisfying. In fact I think it can sometimes be interesting for the viewer to infer a motive but here that is rather messy. There are a number of possible explanations but none fully convince.

Is it because the owner doesn’t care about the fate of the sports empire? Well, why would he want to run the risk that a new owner might dismiss him? Was he in danger of being exposed for manipulating the owner? Possibly, but it seems clear that the person keenest to do that has little standing with the family any more. Is he in love with Wagner’s wife and killing him in the hopes of winning her? Maybe, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in him.

I don’t know if this is a case of a motive having been written and then cut for time (or some other reason) or if there was never any motive specified at all but I found its absence really distracting. Columbo is almost always looking for the motive first as his hook into a character – just think back to Étude in Black for a good example of this where he is floundering until he gets that information. It bothers me that when he makes his accusation he doesn’t even make a suggestion as to why he killed Wagner.

Without having a motive, Columbo’s treatment of Hanlon – a man who seems to have a cast iron alibi – starts to feel like unwarranted harassment. He has absolutely no reason to focus in on him at the point at which he does and, make no mistake, Columbo is clearly looking at him as a suspect from the moment he arrives at the stadium. We typically give him some latitude for this because we know he will be right and because of the type of person he is interested in but Hanlon appears and acts for most of the story as someone acting in the interests of Wagner’s widow.

This was not the only aspect of Columbo’s behavior I found questionable. I was also baffled by the choice to have him appear utterly distracted at the crime scene, listening to the game rather than looking at the body. I get that this helps establish him as a fan but it also makes his inattention feel more a genuine part of his character than an affectation, designed to throw the killer off. I don’t know that I love that interpretation of the character.

Still, Falk’s performance throughout the episode as a whole is really quite wonderful. Take for instance the wonderful way he fixates on wanting a replacement pair of shoes for instance which he apparently ad-libbed when he first meets Walter Cannell. It’s a really funny moment that speaks to his character and methods while it also really disconcerts the person he is talking with.

I also have to really praise the look of the episode. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is striking. It’s not particularly flashy but it tells the story very effectively, giving a strong sense of movement which suits this story well. It is not just the big moments but the little ones, using sound as effectively as the visuals – an example of that would be the child’s voice calling after the ice cream truck Hanlon is driving when he doesn’t stop in the neighborhood.

These aspects of the production, along with Culp’s performance, make it an often very entertaining episode to watch. The interactions between Falk and Culp are quite intense and I think the professional sports setting is used well. There are a lot of elements here that could well have led to this story being a classic.

Unfortunately what holds it back are some basic problems with the setup. Columbo’s decision to think Hanlon a murderer feels incredibly arbitrary, without a foundation of any clear (or even suggestive) evidence. Knowledge that Hanlon is guilty may allow viewers to overlook Columbo’s behavior here but I never really felt comfortable with it and it soured the episode for me as a result.

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Book Details

Originally published 2016

The Blurb

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life: married to a respected judge, mother of a beloved son, living in the beautiful house where she was raised. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. And when Lydia’s son, Laurence, discovers its secret, wheels are set in motion that lead to an increasingly claustrophobic and devastatingly dark climax.

The Verdict

A very solid example of a whydunnit with several interesting and sympathetic characters. Its greatest strength is in its conclusion which made for compelling reading.


My Thoughts

Lying in Wait was an impulse purchase based on nothing more than its first line, helpfully quoted at the start of the blurb. Clearly this would be an inverted crime story and, as we all know, those are my sort of thing…

The story concerns the death of a young woman at the hands of Andrew, a judge. The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the murder and so we witness how Andrew and his wife respond to the incident but it is some time before we learn exactly how and why it happened. Those initial chapters focus heavily on the cover-up and exploring the ways that murder alters the relationships within the Fitzsimmons and Doyle families. It is only once we delve deeper into characters’ histories that we get a clearer sense of how and why this crime took place.

Liz Nugent tells her story from the perspectives of three different characters involved in this tragic set of events. The first is Lydia, the woman who identifies her husband as the murderer in that first sentence and who witnessed that murder. The second is Karen, the sister of the dead girl. She provides us with the backstory of the victim’s earlier life but later in the novel she falls into an investigative sort of role, trying to find out what happened to Annie. Finally we have Laurence, Lydia’s only son who begins the story as a rather sullen teenager.

Nugent alternates between the various perspectives, often ending a chapter at one point in time, then jumping back a little way to show you the same events (or part of them) from a different perspective. I found this to be an effective technique as it clearly distinguishes what one set of characters know from another, allowing for some moments of dramatic irony as we are aware of information that is unknown to the narrating character and can predict future areas of conflict or problems that may arise for the characters.

The novel is also split into several time periods with the first part of the book set in 1980, the bulk in 1985 while the final few chapters take place in 2016. I think that this allows us to see how this murder has a powerful and lasting impact on the fates of everyone involved. This is most pronounced in the case of the victim’s family but Laurence is a particularly interesting figure as he only has a partial knowledge of what happened for a substantial part of the novel.

I was impressed with Nugent’s implementation of the multiple narrators technique. Each of the three characters have distinct and identifiable personalities and narrative voices. This is particularly clear in the judgments they make of each other and while Karen and Lydia only have limited interactions for much of the story, it is interesting to read how they respond to each other and the judgments they make when they do.

I also respect the depth of characterization that is present, not only in these three characters but also in the others that flesh out their different worlds. I had little difficulty imagining them, particularly the more colorful characters like Laurence’s first girlfriend, Helen and I enjoyed moments where we got to read a different character’s interpretation of that same person. Several of these characters seem to change over the course of the novel, often in response to the murder plot itself, which only makes the time jump more effective.

While I enjoyed each of the three narrative voices, I have a clear favorite: I think the character of Laurence is the most interesting, in part because we have an advantage on him in knowing what he does not. Over the course of the book we not only see Laurence struggle to get out from under the control of his domineering mother but also coming to the realization that his father may have been involved in Annie Doyle’s murder. His responses are interesting, often borne out of a desire to protect his family, and I could understand his decision making, even when some of those choices seemed certain to harm him.

Lydia however is arguably a more familiar and perhaps less nuanced character, although I think she does have an interesting personal history that gets pulled out in later chapters of the novel. Those chapters are well written and contain some of the novel’s most exciting moments, particularly in the last third of the novel, but they also hit some of the more familiar notes and themes, especially in relation to her feelings about her son. Still, those ideas are done well and feel appropriate to the overall development of the story.

In terms of the overall plot, I should probably emphasize that this is more of a crime story than a detective story. While several characters do conduct an investigation that is important to the novel’s plot and the reader can work out how it is likely to end, there are not really many opportunities to play armchair detective. This is much more interested in those character relationships and in figuring out how the central tensions between the three narrators will work out.

It is this aspect of Nugent’s novel that I find most worthy of attention. The story is structured brilliantly and the author brings the different strands together well in the end to deliver a powerful conclusion. I was not really shocked by any aspect of that ending – Nugent establishes the key points very clearly – but there is something quite electrifying in seeing how those ideas come together and witnessing the fallout at the end of the novel.

While there are a few surprising moments, I would suggest that what this novel does best is solidly executing its key dramatic beats to enable the story to change direction, often altering key power dynamics between the characters. I was keen to see how those tensions would resolve and while I felt pretty sure I knew how the book might end, I felt the execution of that ending was quite excellent.

Lying in Wait was my first experience of Liz Nugent’s work but I have to say that I was impressed and plan to investigate more of her stories – I would gladly take any recommendations if people have them. I found her writing style to be engaging and enjoyed the attention she gave to putting her characters in interesting situations and resolving those areas of conflict. It is, in my opinion, a very solid example of a whydunnit and while those answers come fairly early in the text, Nugent does a fine job of exploring the impact of those revelations throughout the rest of the novel.

Columbo: Greenhouse Jungle (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast October 15, 1972

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Étude in Black
Followed by The Most Crucial Game

Written by Jonathan Latimer
Directed by Boris Segal

Key Guest Cast

Ray Milland won Best Actor for 1945’s The Lost Weekend. Thriller fans may be most familiar with him from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Trekkies might recognize Arlene Martel and Sandra Smith from episodes of Star Trek. Martel had a particularly memorable role as T’Pring, Spock’s fiancée in the story Amok Time.

The Verdict

Certainly entertaining, even if it is close to impossible to imagine Jarvis’ actually being convicted on the limited evidence Columbo finds.


My Thoughts

Spendthrift playboy Tony Goodman lives off payments from a trust fund but is unable to touch the capital. Frustrated and hoping to use the money to pay his wife’s young lover to skip town, he concocts a plan with his Uncle Jarvis to fake a kidnapping and use his trust fund to pay his own ransom.

The first act of this episode is unusual in that Columbo is on the case prior to an actual crime being committed. Tony’s car has been found in a ditch with signs of a gun having been fired at it leaving a bullet embedded in the driver’s seat. We will be almost halfway into the episode before Columbo begins to investigate a murder.

There are shades of Ransom for a Dead Man here but I think there are more problems with the concept here. Essentially the viewer has to believe that Tony is an absolute idiot. Now, this has been established pretty well by things his wife and uncle have told us but even then it is hard to believe that someone could be so naive and trusting as he is here. Jarvis exudes contempt for him and clearly has no sense of duty so why does Tony trust him so easily?

What’s more I think the idea that they are colluding raises awkward questions about just how that came about. Clearly this plan is Jarvis’ idea in the details and yet the situation that brings it about seems more Tony’s doing. Jarvis doesn’t seem pressed for cash, even if collecting orchids is an expensive hobby as Columbo points out, so he is putting himself at a lot of risk – particularly as he clearly has no faith in his nephew’s abilities.

Let’s talk a little about Jarvis because he’s a character that I have somewhat mixed feelings about. Like Eddie Albert in Dead Weight, Jarvis is often quite entertaining – particularly as he gives out some stinging remarks (Columbophile actually dubs him “the king of Columbo put-downs”). However the difference between the characters is that he doesn’t have a second level or personality to contrast that with, making the character feel a little one-note.

While Tony may be an idiot, Jarvis’ plan is relatively sound but the flaws are in his delivery. He makes a conscious choice to engage with the police prior to the murder taking place which exposes him and leads to Columbo being on his tail right from the start. He does a good job of staying calm under pressure but does enough to let Columbo know that he is on the right track – particularly based on his conduct immediately after the money drop.

I alluded to how Jarvis really has no clear motive for the crime and I think that represents a problem. Is it a disgust at Tony’s weakness or his feelings for his wife, anger at being passed over or some cash flow issues that aren’t obvious? We lack an understanding of why he would do this which I think the character probably needed to give Ray Milland’s performance a little more focus. For what it’s worth, my best guess is that he simply hates Tony but if I am left searching for a motive at the end of a story then it really hasn’t been communicated well enough.

Happily even if the foundations of the case are a little weak, the episode is frequently very entertaining. There probably aren’t enough scenes where Milland and Falk play directly opposite each other but what we get is fun. Columbo has the measure of him from pretty much the start and while it isn’t spelled out why at first, I think the reasons he has to feel suspicious make a lot of sense.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this episode for me was that Columbo is assigned a young officer to assist him. This officer, Sergeant Wilson, is extremely enthusiastic about the latest methods and technologies which produces a fun, indirect competition between the pair as Wilson seeks to show off those new methods.

While Jarvis ought to be the focus of this story, I think it is this rivalry with Wilson is the aspect of the story I enjoyed most. I found myself wishing that the character would have come back for further stories as I think that tension helps to really bring Columbo’s own approach into focus.

I love that Columbo isn’t openly antagonistic but rather gives Wilson space to demonstrate and use those ideas, confident that his tried and tested techniques will get him results. I also appreciate that Wilson isn’t presented as an idiot but a thorough and diligent officer. For an example of that, look at the way he handles the search for a firearm late in the story. His only disadvantage is that he lacks the sense of people gained through experience that Columbo has and takes them largely on face value.

Judged purely on the merits of the case, I think this falls short. The situation seems too contrived – I simply could not imagine how the plan comes about and Jarvis’ lack of a clear motive feels messy. It is the business around the case – the discussion of orchid care, the tension with Wilson and the bizarre detail that Trust Fund Tony gives all the women in his life signed headshots of himself as gifts – that make this story entertaining.

Columbo: Étude in Black (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast September 17, 1972

Preceded by Blueprint for Murder
Followed by The Greenhouse Jungle

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Steven Bochco

Key Guest Cast

The obvious person to highlight is John Cassavetes who plays our murderer. He was not only a prominent actor but also a screenwriter and director. He had directed and performed in Faces with Peter Falk just a couple of years before making this episode.

Myrna Loy plays his mother-in-law. Loy had been a star in the 1930s and may be most familiar to mystery fans for her portrayals of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.

Also, keep an eye open for Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) in a small part credited as house boy and future Lt. Brock (in the 80s and 90s Perry Mason TV films) James McEachin.

The Verdict

This feels noticeably slower than the episodes around it – reflecting its expanded running time. Though I enjoy the Falk and Cassavetes interplay, it is far too clear how Columbo will triumph.


My Thoughts

And… we’re off.

Welcome back for a second run of Columbo episode discussions. Expect weekly posts each Saturday for about the next two months. Do feel free to play along – I love to read what others make of these stories!

Étude in Black introduces us to Alex Benedict – the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We follow his movements as he prepares for a big, televised concert and also to commit a murder, though the victim is only revealed right before that murder takes place. A murder which intends to mask as a suicide.

The problem is that Columbo who has been assigned to the case cannot square the idea of suicide with the woman he sees in her photo albums. Now, I have some issue with the idea that people who appear happy externally would never commit suicide and I think Columbo’s assessment of her feels pretty superficial – the phrase “bedroom eyes” crops up for instance. It does however prompt a rather wonderful Peter Falk speech that I think is a great expression of his character’s outlook and values.

John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk, plays Alex Benedict as somewhat aloof and pompous. While many of the earliest Columbo villains seemed to find some point in common with the detective and even enjoy the game, Benedict is irritable and frustrated. Think of him as more Ross Martin (Suitable for Framing) than Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book). He is the sort of killer you really want to see brought to justice!

I enjoyed the pairing of the two actors though and, in particular, the way Columbo manages to get so far under his skin. This is often a favorite part of an episode for me but this episode gives us several great moments along those lines. Perhaps my favorite of those is a moment in which we see Columbo playing the piano badly, just to grab his attention, although his interactions with Benedict’s car are pretty fun too.

I also really enjoyed this story’s sense of scale. This episode seemed to have more locations than most including the famous Hollywood Bowl and the gorgeous house used for the Benedicts’ home. You definitely get a feel for the sort of lifestyle Benedict is enjoying, helping us to understand the character even better.

There is even a secondary plot strand of sorts with a peripheral character being dragged into the case. This only happens in one or two of the stories from the first season so it made for a welcome change to the usual story structure, even though it doesn’t last for long. Once again though, this is a useful reminder that while Columbo tends to focus in on the killer from the start, he will be looking at other leads “off screen”.

Finally this episode introduces us to Columbo’s faithful hound and there is a fun subplot in which he tries to work out what he will call the dog. Unfortunately that didn’t end in quite the punch I had hoped for but it is a nice bit of business and leads to a couple of funny lines.

Having mentioned several of the episode’s most successful elements, I do need to take a minute to acknowledge a few of its weaknesses. These begin with the pacing of the story which feels much slower than any of the Columbo episodes that precede it.

The issues with pacing arise out of the expanded running time of the episode as this works out about fifteen minutes longer than the standard running time. Unfortunately this expansion does not seem to have been a reflection of the complexities of the plot but rather the episode was expanded to fill a timeslot. There is plenty of padding – some of it enjoyable, some dull – but the investigation seemed to drag for me as a result.

One of the reasons for that is that the answer to how Columbo will catch the killer strikes me as really very clear from the moment the murder is committed. If you happened to miss the clear visual indicator of that or an earlier verbal clue, the director – Nicholas Colasanto who is best known as Coach from the earliest seasons of Cheers – highlights the pertinent clue all over again in a later sequence, spoiling any sense of mystery in the plot. It is really clunky and criminally undercuts one of the episode’s most entertaining moments in which another promising clue fails to come to fruition.

I have to say that the direction in general struck me as pretty underwhelming given the fantastic locations they had to work with. Shots are routinely long and a little shaky and every development seems to be telegraphed to the viewer. Even a sequence that mimics one of the most memorable from an earlier episode disappoints, not only because it feels somewhat derivative but because it feels so limiting, signalling so clearly where this story is headed.

Which brings us back to the end. In one sense I don’t think the end is all that bad. Certainly it is pleasingly visual and gives me exactly what I want with this type of killer – a moment where we see their inflated ego pop. Had it not been so clearly flagged over and over again it might even have made for a fun surprise.

There is little tension in that scene because there is no question of what will happen, what Columbo will point out or how Benedict will respond. Instead of making Columbo look really smart, I think it makes him look somewhat hapless – particularly when he tells us that the existence of a piece of evidence had never occurred to him (made all the worst by the bizarre and rather forced circumstances given for bringing it to his attention).

I have to say that of the various Columbo stories I have watched so far this is easily the most frustrating. There is a good idea here and had this been trimmed to be about twenty minutes shorter it could have been easily one of the strongest stories, even with some heavy-handed hints. Instead it just dragged for me, leaving me feeling all too ready for those end titles.

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.