A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Book Details

Originally published in 1977

The Blurb

On Valentine’s Day, four members of the Coverdale family – George, Jacqueline, Melinda, and Giles – were murdered in the space of 15 minutes. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman, shot them one by one in the blue light of a televised performance of Don Giovanni.

When Detective Chief Superintendent William Vetch arrests Miss Parchman two weeks later, he discovers a second tragedy: the key to the Valentine’s Day massacre, a private humiliation Eunice Parchman has guarded all her life.

A brilliant rendering of character, motive, and the heady discovery of truth, A Judgement in Stone is among Ruth Rendell’s finest psychological thrillers.

The Verdict

This fascinating whydunnit is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

My Thoughts

A Judgement in Stone opens with a statement, quoted above, that names the person who will commit murder, their victims and also provides a motive for the killings. There is no trickery in that opening statement and yet, in spite of possessing this knowledge, I think that this book can still be described as a whydunnit. The truth that Rendell exposes in this novel is that events are complex and that while you may know what triggered an action, to truly understand them requires exploration of some underlying conditions.

There are no shocks or surprise twists. The author carefully foreshadows almost every development and the reader will likely guess at many of the connections that will be made. And yet A Judgement in Stone is utterly compelling.

After briefly explaining where this story will end – with the murder of an upper middle-class family in their home by their servant while watching a televised recording of an opera – Rendell then takes us back to the point where the Coverdales first encounter Eunice. She explains the circumstances that led them to hire her, overlooking some deficiencies and reservations, and their initial feelings about her. We also learn more about Eunice herself, her past and how she came to find herself in service despite having no background.

There are multiple points in the story where we can see how things might have gone very differently had a character made a marginally different decision, acted with a little more caution or with a greater understanding of a situation. This lends the narrative some of the tension-building effects of the Had I But Known style of storytelling as we are told that something is significant and then try to imagine how these elements will eventually tie together.

To give one of the earliest and simplest examples highlighted in the narration, had a character known London postcodes a little better they would have seen through Eunice’s reference and never employed her in the first place. Rendell does not just explain that this mistake was made, she gives us background to the conditions that caused it in the first place. In doing so it reveals that becoming a murderer was far from a certain outcome for Eunice and that it was not caused by just one event or circumstance but a number of contributory factors.

Rendell writes this story in the third person but her narrator, while writing with an extensive knowledge of the crime, is not omniscient. There are small moments of imprecision and speculation within the narration, typically about details that are presumably irrelevant to the case. Nor are they entirely impartial as the narrator occasionally offers subtle judgements concerning the characters and the situations that they find themselves in. The result is quite intriguing as we have a narrator with hints of a personality and yet no identity, almost suggesting that we are reading a journalistic account of a crime by someone who has reconstructed it after the fact.

Rendell does not encourage sympathy towards her killer, nor necessarily towards the victims. They are not presented as deserving their fates and yet it is clear that the narrator feels they have some culpability in the outcome because of their inability to understand a character from a radically different background to their own.

While Eunice may not be presented in a sympathetic light, Rendell does not paint her in an overtly villainous light either. That may seem remarkable given some of the information we learn about her early in the book but I think it also reflects that there is another character who is more mindfully malicious in the narrative. That character is a really striking study in the contrast between how someone may see themselves and their actual role and much of the book’s sharpest moments concern this character. She is a superb creation and one of the most disturbing credible monsters I have encountered to date in Rendell’s fiction.

It is fascinating to follow these characters interactions and to watch Rendell slowly push each piece into place before delivering the sequence of terrible events we have been anticipating since that first line. What adds to the tension is that from the start we are aware of a date on which it will all happen – Valentine’s Day – and so as we track through the various events we become increasingly aware of how close that date is.

It doesn’t last long and Rendell doesn’t draw out the descriptions of the violence. The focus is not so much on what happens as on the way characters respond to it. If these pages are difficult reading that reflects that the atmosphere and sense of anticipation leading into that moment is so strong that the murder feels like a sharp release of tension. It is quick and devastating but done very well.

Overall then I have little hesitation in suggesting that this is an example of a novel that actually lives up to its reputation. For years people have been telling me I should seek it out and now that I have I can only say they were right. This is one of the best examples of a whydunnit that I have read to date and I commend it to anyone with an interest in crime stories.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praises this novel in an interesting review in which she draws particular attention to its discussion of ‘the servant problem’.

Moira @ ClothesinBooks wrote this post about the novel when Rendell passed away several years ago in which she describes why this novel is her favorite by the author.

Rich @ Past Offences describes the book as a ‘study in inevitability’ which is a lovely way to put it.

Jose @ A Crime Is Afoot also noted the book’s similarities to the true crime style and praises the book’s psychological approach to exploring its characters.

The Nothing Man by Jim Thompson

Book Details

Originally published in 1954

The Blurb

War changed Clinton Brown. Permanently disfigured by a tragic military accident, he’s struggling to find satisfaction from life as a rewrite man for Pacific City’s Courier. Shame has led him to isolate himself from closest friends and even his estranged, still faithfully devoted wife, Ellen. Only the bottle keeps him company.

But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…

THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.

The Verdict

A flawed but entertaining exploration of the forces that cause someone to kill.

Mr. Clinton Brown regrets the necessity of murdering Ellen Tanner Brown.

My Thoughts

Clinton Brown works as a rewrite man for the Pacific City Courier, the only newspaper in a small city not far from the Mexican border. His editor, Dave Randall, was his commanding officer during the war and was responsible for issuing an order that led Clinton to come into contact with an anti-personnel mine. A tragic mistake that ensured that he will never be able to become a family man. While Clinton knows that Dave didn’t intend for that to happen, he frequently uses the man’s guilt over that order as a way to exert power over him and to take pleasure in the man’s discomfort.

The book begins with Clinton at work on a story built around the Sneering Slayer murders. He confides in the reader that he feels bitter mostly that the last line of his story will, by necessity, need to be written by someone else. A clue that we are about to be embark on the sort of dark homicidal journey that Jim Thompson wrote so well.

Unlike the protagonists in Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, Clinton does not set out to become a serial killer. He may enjoy his little sadistic digs at Dave Randall or the corrupt local detective Lem Stukey but prior to his first meeting with Deborah Chasen that sort of manipulation is the extent of his sociopathy. This book explores the circumstances that cause Clinton to first kill and then to try and kill again (and again) to try and protect himself.

Thompson is not subtle in explaining that it is the man’s accidental penectomy or, to be more specific, his fear of it becoming widely known that leads him to his first kill. This emasculation clearly has left him angry, bitter and resentful. Clinton dreads the idea that others will find out that secret and yet he toys with them, sometimes strongly hinting at it in their conversations. These behavioral contradictions are not accidental or oversights on the part of the author – they are part of the core character of this man and are indicative of the conflicts within his character.

One of the things I like most about Thompson’s work is that his protagonists tend to inch themselves towards destruction, compounding bad decisions until they find themselves beyond hope. I think that approach works because it helps to make sense of how people find themselves in truly impossible situations. While there are some people who recklessly gamble their way into peril, most of his protagonists are men who think they are smarter than they actually are and who cannot catch a break. That is certainly the case with Clinton Brown.

The result is that he is a character who, in spite of some of the ridiculous things that happen to him, feels surprisingly credible – particularly in comparison with Lou Ford or Nick Corey. We may not agree with the choices he makes (or like him as a person) but Thompson effectively conveys the forces that have made him who he is and the motivations behind some of those terrible choices.

Thompson offers us multiple murders and manages to make each feel quite distinctive, both in the circumstances leading up to it and the means by which it is done. I would suggest that they become progressively more striking and detailed as the book goes on as though the account is mimicking the character’s increasing familiarity and comfort with death.

By virtue of his position and relationship to one of the victims, Clinton finds himself pretty close to the investigation which allows him to meddle with it. This meddling was, for me, the most intriguing and original part of the book in large part because of the way it explores the man’s psychology, particularly in relation to the question of who he is willing to hurt and who will become his subsequent victims.

Thompson’s characterization of the other men in Clinton’s life, both as colleagues on the paper but also the detective Lem Stukey, feels similarly very convincing. While we may only be sharing Clinton’s thoughts directly, it is easy to understand what the various people he interacts with are thinking and feeling in response to the various provocations he offers.

Thompson’s portrayal women can be a little more divisive. There are often misogynistic comments voiced by characters within his stories and there certainly area few instances of that here such as when a character asserts he would like to give a woman a ‘good sock in the mush’. The question is whether you think Thompson is accurately depicting the views and attitudes of his day or writing to reinforce them. I personally feel it is intended to be the former rather than suggesting this is behavior to be emulated but I can completely understand those who feel the other way.

Unfortunately the book eventually runs out of steam as it becomes evident that Thompson doesn’t really have a clear idea on how to conclude the thing. There is an ending but I cannot say it was particularly satisfying or that it provided much sense of closure. Indeed I didn’t even find it all that easy to follow, forcing me to reread it to try and make sense of its implications.

Still, while I was a little disappointed with the way the book ends, I admire the craziness of the journey Thompson takes us on here. He crafts a wild but convincing picture of how a man comes to commit a series of crimes and create a criminal persona. While I think it doesn’t offer the richness and depth of Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, it is still a very clever and compulsive read that combines Thompson’s bold, larger-than-life characterization with a really solid murder plot. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who can stomach the nastiness, I found this to be a compelling read.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Impossible Event wrote this superb post about the book which he suggests is a good place for those seeking a ‘comparatively gentle, non-famous introduction’ to Thompson. I can’t disagree!

Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

Every sports fan in New York knows Al Judge, the hard-bitten reporter whose column is the scourge of gamblers, gangsters, and corrupt players across the city. Sixteen-year-old George LaMain is Judge’s biggest fan—right up until the night he decides the writer has to die. George is in his father’s saloon, waiting for his dad to give him his birthday present: a trip to the fights at Madison Square Garden. They are about to leave when Judge demands George’s father strip and lie down on the barroom floor. George doesn’t know why, but his old man does it—and Judge beats him senseless in front of the whole bar.  
 
When he’s finished crying, George takes his father’s gun and sets out into the night. To avenge his disgraced father, he plans to gun Al Judge down. But before he can become a killer, this birthday boy will have to grow into a man. 

The Verdict

More coming of age story than crime novel. The character work and development of theme are very good though.

When you’re going to kill somebody, you’re not a kid any more, and when you know in your heart you’re not a kid, somehow or other, everybody else seems to know it too.

My Thoughts

Some months ago JJ from The Invisible Event suggested that as a fan of inverted mysteries I really need to check out a copy of Stanley Ellin’s The Speciality of the House. That book, a collection of short stories, is definitely one I want to get to even if I have to split my coverage of it into several blog posts but when I stumbled onto a copy of this much shorter work – Ellin’s first novel – I couldn’t resist picking it up.

The book is told in the inverted style though it doesn’t exactly align with any of the labels I have given other examples of the genre so far. We know who it is that George plans to kill, how and why right from the start of the book, meaning that this is probably more accurately classed as a crime story rather than a mystery, though the reader will likely find themselves asking questions that our protagonist never seems to get around to considering. By the end of the story Ellin will give us answers.

The story takes place on the day George LaMain turns sixteen. He is looking forward to attending a big boxing match to celebrate with his father Andy. Before they can get going however Al Judge, a prominent sports writer, turns up at Andy’s bar to confront him and demand that Andy take off his shirt and lay down on the floor. To George’s horror his father meekly acquieses and Al sets about beating him senseless, humiliating him in his son’s eyes. Flushed with anger George grabs his father’s gun and the tickets for the match which he expects Al will be attending and sets out to kill him.

Ellin tells the story from George’s perspective and in his voice, brilliantly capturing the false maturity and bravado of a child who is determined to be seen as an adult. In the early chapters as George tells us his story and offers his opinions of others, the reader may well find themselves thinking that he is someone who does not recognize how dependent he is on his father for guidance and worry about how he is going to fare navigating the city on his own, let alone dealing with someone as worldly and tough as Al Judge.

It should also be said George is not necessarily a good kid or even a particularly likeable one. While he praises his father for keeping him from getting into trouble, his narration frequently infers that he has potentially violent appetites and that he is choosing to view his mission to kill Al as a coming of age story. It is as if seeking revenge or even to kill someone validates his manhood in his own eyes and throughout the early chapters he regularly repeats his intention to kill Al as a sort of mantra.

While George may not be a particularly pleasant character, I do think he is an interesting one. I was reminded a little of some of Jim Thompson’s creations – a sort of more innocent version of William Collins from After Dark, My Sweet. In playing at being a tough guy, his naïvety and inexperience dealing with adults and understanding their intentions becomes painfully clear. Ellin places him in several situations that expose that inexperience and it is interesting to see how he interprets them and the ways they seem to change him. As a character journey I think it is quite compelling and it offers an interesting perspective on the awkwardness of that transition from childhood to adulthood that is largely successful.

Ellin introduces George to several colorful characters in the course of his quest who often get in the way of his plans, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertantly. These characters not only serve as interesting complications for George to overcome, they are also used to draw a contrast with George’s character and to demonstrate his immaturity and poor judgement. I felt most were drawn pretty well and felt pleasingly dimensional given how short the work is overall.

The least vibrant characters are probably the two that are most important to the story’s plot: George’s father and his target, Al Judge. It is not that they are poorly drawn or particularly unconvincing but rather their appearances are both quite short, talked about more than they are seen. This is a little unfortunate in that I think after chapters of build-up the brevity of the resolution with Al may feel a little anticlimactic to those primarily interested in the plot.

While the moment of confrontation felt a little rushed, I think Ellin does a superb job of exploring the consequences of what happens and following his themes to their logical and appropriate conclusions. I think the tone struck at the end is really surprisingly powerful and, to my surprise, even a little emotional as it wraps up that coming of age story quite perfectly.

Which is, I suppose, the issue if you are coming to this for the criminous content. Dreadful Summit‘s least interesting element is the one it is building to. As important and necessary as that moment is as a catalyst for all of the other stuff that happens, it is not particularly complex or thrilling in itself while almost all of the build-up to that point is character rather than plot-driven.

That didn’t bother me – I think it tells the story it tells well and I appreciate Ellin’s economy in telling it. The book’s short page count is appropriate and the choice to focus on what George thinks and feels is absolutely the right one. Those who are primarily interested in plot though may want to pass this one by.

Second Opinions

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora shared his thoughts on the book in this excellent review. I seem to have enjoyed it more than he did though I think the review is quite fair and I think he is right to suggest that the substance to the book lies in the interruptions to the plot.

Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name offered up these thoughts as part of his Forgotten Book blog series, drawing parallels with The Catcher in the Rye and his own Dancing for the Hangman.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1913.
Expanded from a short story published in 1911.

The Blurb

One damp November evening on the Marylebone Road, a couple sits in silence. Though their thoughts are the same—money and the lack thereof—the time has long since passed when Mr. and Mrs. Bunting could find comfort in sharing their anxieties with each other. Now every word is a reproach—a reminder of luxuries forsaken and keepsakes pawned. Retired servants, the Buntings sunk every last shilling into their London lodging house. Now they are trapped. The rooms are empty, the rent is due, and ruin awaits. When the paper boys’ cry of “Horrible Murder! Murder at St. Pancras!” rings out in the street, Mr. Bunting risks his wife’s ire to buy the Evening Standard. The latest exploits of the killer known as the Avenger will give him something to think about besides his own misery.

Just when he is settling in with the paper, there is a knock at the door. Mr. Sleuth enters, seeking “quiet rooms” to rent. He bears no luggage, save one nearly empty leather bag, and his demeanor is odd, to say least. The beautiful sitting room on the second floor interests him not at all, but the obsolete gas stove on the underfurnished third floor is exactly what he has been looking for. Best of all, he wants to pay a month’s rent in advance. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting believe that the new lodger is a godsend until a dark fear grips their hearts. Could the strange Mr. Sleuth be the Avenger in disguise? And if he is, can they afford to know?

The Verdict

Though I prefer the tighter, punchier original short story, the book’s creation of dread is quite masterful.

On the top of three steps which led up to the door, there stood the long, lanky figure of a man, clad in an Inverness cape and an old-fashioned top hat.

My Thoughts

After suffering several unfortunate misfortunes, the respectable Buntings have found themselves on the brink of destitution. Following years in service the couple had attempted to open a lodging-house but have difficulty letting their rooms. This forces them to pawn almost everything of value including Mr. Bunting’s suit, leaves him unable to find occasional work.

Their prayers seem to be answered when a man turns up asking to see their rooms. After a brief examination he declares the rooms on the top floor to be satisfactory as a place to conduct his experiments but tells Mrs. Bunting that as he does not wish to be disturbed he will rent the rooms below as well, paying a full month in advance. He also insists that he should not be waited on and plans to make minimal demands of them, saying he will call for them if needed.

The new lodger, who calls himself Mr. Sleuth, is a strange fellow but they are certain that he must be a gentleman. His habit of creeping out in the middle of the night is odd but they are too happy at their return to financial security to question his behavior too much. It is only as they learn more about a spate of murders committed by a mysterious figure calling himself The Avenger that they separately start to wonder about the true nature of their lodger…

The Lodger was apparently conceived following a dinner when Lowndes spoke with a man who shared the story of how a pair of his father’s former servants believed a murderer had stayed at their lodging house before committing one of his crimes. Lowndes took inspiration from this to write a short story which was published in 1911 before being expanded into a novel two years later.

The story is a psychological one and I think you can make an argument that it is an inverted story, though it should be said that Lowndes spends much of the novel dealing in suspicion rather than statements of fact. The reader will likely assume that those suspicions are right, if only because if they’re not it wouldn’t be much of a tale, but it is inverted by inference rather than design. What is more important though is that Lowndes chooses to focus not on the details of the crimes but the responses of two bystanders who come to suspect the killer’s identity.

Why is that important? Lowndes is far more interested in the way her characters respond to a crime, particularly of the gory and sensational type that is shown here, than in exploring what happened. This is reflected in the text which avoids going into much detail about exactly what the Avenger does. We get a sense of what that may be through Mrs. Bunting’s distaste for the news reports and the tone of the newspaper headlines, but often we are shown their reaction to information rather than being told exactly what was said. As a technique I think this is rather effective as it allows the reader to project their own ideas onto the situation.

Some of those ideas the readers may well have drawn on would have had parallels in two then-recent cases: the Ripper murders in London and the crimes of Dr. Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. Lowndes seems to have combined elements from both their crimes, depicting some of the press fervour of the Ripper crimes as well as the killer’s exclusive targeting of women while physically describing Cream and using ideas like his having committed crimes in multiple countries. From this basic framework, Lowndes then further develops her killer, giving him traits like a religious mania, extreme discomfort around women and a furtive and spiky personality, creating a pretty richly drawn character who is a striking and disconcerting presence whenever he is near.

While Sleuth is a strong presence, our empathy and focus falls on the Buntings. The early chapters do an excellent job of describing how they came to be in their situation and helping to connect the reader to their sense of desperation. This is teeing things up for later in the novel where we will need to accept their silence while retaining our sympathy for them – a tough ask but one I think Lowndes mostly achieves. Certainly I had no doubt that the couple really did face ruin without his money and I think she is very effective at conveying the gradual realization on the part of them that he could pose a danger to them.

What this means is that the book is structured to focus on a point of conflict where they will have to confront the nature of what they believe their lodger to be and decide what to do about it. This ought to be a really impactful moment and certainly we get a lot of buildup that really elevates the tension, creating a sense that we are headed for something explosive – an idea that seems to be confirmed by the choice of the location of that climactic sequence.

Unfortunately though I think Lowndes whiffs the ending. For all the dread generated in the lead up to these final chapters, the actual resolution struck me as highly frustrating and unsatisfying. I think the problem is that while she sets up the notion that the Buntings will have to make a choice, the resolution is quite different and done in such a way that we never have to see them make that hard choice.

In the short story that ending doesn’t bother me at all – it not only seems appropriate to the length of the piece, it also reflects that we have spent significantly less time exploring whether the Buntings will do something to act on their suspicions. That story felt really sharp and compact – two things that I do not think could be said of the novel. For that reason alone I would suggest that the short story is the more essential read.

Still, while the pacing can feel a little too slow and deliberate at points and the ending seemed to diminish the roles of our two protagonists, I do think this is an interesting and highly worthwhile read. It is a study in the creation of dread and I am happy to say it succeeds in keeping that up til the very end.

Desire to Kill by Anna Clarke

Book Details

Originally published in 1982

The Blurb

Before Amy’s arrival, Digby Hall had been tranquil. Its soothing lawns and lilac arbors were the perfect setting in which to spend one’s golden years. But now there is a terrible gloom hanging over the old house: people are dropping like flies. It was appalling. Or so it should have seemed to Amy. She thought it delicious; and the fun had just begun.

First, Mrs. Graham dies – no one is surprised, as she had terrible arthritis and a heart condition. But when Mr. Horder is killed in a car accident and Amy is unscratched, people begin to wonder. One of those who distrusts Amy is Sue Merry, who, with her husband Bob, serves as manager of Digby Hall. When she is found nearly drowned in the bathtub, having over-dosed on tranquilizers, suspicions seem well-founded. Has murder come to visit Digby Hall, or just a series of unfortunate accidents?

The Verdict

A disappointing inverted tale. The killer, an aging woman sent to a nursing home, has potential but the character development left me unconvinced.

It was strange how these last days had changed her. She had always known, she supposed, that her helplessness brought her many advantages, but she had never before been conscious of using it as a weapon.

My Thoughts

Recently I discovered that I had access to the Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction encyclopedia through my local library. This multi-volume work has biographical notes and analysis of the works of hundreds of authors, some familiar to me but many not, and I have been scouring through it to find works and authors that might be of interest to me.

Anna Clarke was not a familiar name but I was intrigued enough by the description of her work to decide to track down one of her novels. I quickly settled on this novel from the latter part of her career which is highlighted in the essay as a significant work being intrigued with its rather unorthodox killer.

After Amy Langford’s husband dies her son makes the decision that she cannot live alone and so arranges for her bungalow to be sold and for her to move to Digby Hall, an old home that has been converted into a set of flats. The setting is picturesque and while the company is a little stale, most of the residents try to be welcoming. Amy however feels angry at being abandoned and quickly grows to hate the others, fantasizing about doing them harm.

We are conscious from the start of the novel that she plans to murder all of the other inhabitants, even if the book’s blurb appears to suggest this is a whodunnit. The exact means are not revealed, at least with the first murder, until after the body has been discovered but while that could suggest some ambiguity as to whether Amy is actually responsible, confirmation comes within a few pages making this a clear example of an inverted story.

There are parts of Amy’s character that seem quite well observed, such as the descriptions of how she created a personality for herself as a housewife while her husband was still alive. I had little difficulty believing in that aspect of her character, nor of understanding her bitter feelings of abandonment and social isolation. These themes are developed quite thoughtfully and credibly, and I think Clarke does a fine job of exploring both how she sees herself and how she is perceived and understood by others and the overlaps and contradictions between those images.

The problem is that this book is not simply a work about social isolation but it is supposed to be an exploration of the making of a murderer and there it falls quite short. There are several problems, not least that Clarke never really establishes where the skills required to imagine and commit these crimes comes from. These are not, after all, crimes committed in the heat of the moment – they are each carefully constructed based on what Amy percieves their weaknesses as being. While Clarke certainly convinced me that Amy was a skilled bully, capable of convincing the men in her life to try and please her, that is a fundamentally different skillset from committing a locked room murder (don’t read it for that though – the book only describes those conditions in passing long after the point at which it is committed).

Another frustration is the choice to keep the reader at arm’s length, hinting at what Amy is noticing that she might use but not directly sharing her plans with us. That makes this a howwillshedoit – that approach can generate tension if done well but, as I note above, the details of what is done are left a little vague keeping those moments from having the impact they might otherwise have. At several points in the story we see characters respond to Amy’s actions before we actually learn what they were which struck me as a choice that only serves to reduce clarity.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have though is with the book’s final third which is only possible because a group of characters consciously make a spectacularly unwise decision for what struck me as pretty unconvincing reasons. Which is a shame because the denouement is very effectively written in an almost impressionistic style, allowing the reader to sense what is happening before the details are given. In contrast a development in the final few pages, while intriguing, feels utterly unearned.

It’s all rather disappointing. There were some interesting ideas here but I just don’t think they come together in a particularly interesting or entertaining way. The result is a rather sad and depressing read. In spite of that though I am not closing the door on reading more Clarke. While the development of Amy’s psychosis is rather clumsy, her other characters are constructed with empathy and I would be willing to give her another go if anyone has any suggestions.

This counts towards the Serial Killers category in the Silver Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

The Magician’s Wife by James M. Cain

Book Details

Originally published in 1965

The Blurb

For the love of a beautiful waitress, a meat salesman will turn butcher.

Clay Lockwood enters the Portico with corned beef on his mind. He’s a top distributing executive with Grant’s Meats, and the contract with the Portico restaurant chain is only the latest in a long line of boardroom coups. He comes for lunch, and eats his fill of his company’s beef, but leaves with an entirely different hunger gnawing at his gut—a volcanic passion that will tear him apart.

The hostess’s name is Sally Alexis, a magician’s wife whose rough-hewn charm mesmerizes this magnate of meat. She rebuffs his first pass, but calls him up later, to explain her situation and plead for tenderness. Although her marriage is miserable, she’s won’t leave her husband because she wants to secure an inheritance for her little boy. As the lovers get closer, Lockwood becomes an amateur illusionist himself, focusing on one very particular trick—how to make a magician disappear.

The Verdict

A disappointing rehash of Cain’s earliest classics. Though it starts strong enough, it stumbles onto its ending. Recommended for Cain completists only.

She’ll be a Merry Widow, that we know for sure, but not with your help. Do you hear?

My Thoughts

Clay Lockwood is a businessman who sells readymade meals to restaurants. He is dining at the Portico restaurant where he meets Sally Alexis, who is working as the hostess. Sally charms him when she refers to him by name, in spite of never having been introduced, and the two flirt for a while. When he makes a hard pass at her though she admits that she’s married and turns him down, frustrating Lockwood. Later on though Sally calls him to explain about her circumstances and arranges to meet up in secret.

When back at Clay’s pad he declares that he wants Sally to leave her husband and marry him. She says that she can’t as she feels that she must stay in her unhappy marriage for the sake of her young son who is supposed to come into an inheritance. It soon becomes clear that Sally is angling for Clay to take action, a move he initially resists, but he finds his willpower weakens with each meeting…

The Magician’s Wife is a fine example of pastiche fiction, evoking memories of some of the famous early works of James M. Cain. The premise feels evocative of The Postman Always Rings Twice and also Double Indemnity at times, both novels which I really enjoy. The unfortunate thing though is that the novel is written by Cain himself.

The reason that this is unfortunate is that while this is incredibly readable, featuring plenty of examples of Cain’s lean and muscular prose, when an author so consciously revisits the ideas and themes of an early work you want to see something different to show either their evolution as a writer or presenting those ideas in a new way to comment on them. Instead he just presents us with what feels like an reprise performance.

Clay Lockwood is a pretty solid example of the typical Cain protagonist, exuding a powerful machismo and decisiveness as well as an inability to repress desire that will clearly be the source of all his trouble. His introduction to the story where we see him in action exerting his power over a restaurant owner, bullying him into signing a contract with his company, gives us a strong sense of who he is and what he wants from life. This suits Cain’s style of storytelling as he is a pretty straightforward character, allowing for some pretty direct storytelling.

One of the few things that does distinguish this story from those two earlier classics is that Cain allows Clay to have an active (and similarly forceful) internal monologue. An example of this can be seen in the quotation precededing these thoughts where Clay tells himself that Sally is clearly planning to be a widow and that he should not be a part of that. It’s a semi-effective technique, allowing for some foreshadowing and highlighting that Clay knows the consequences of his actions, but its effectiveness decreases once the crucial decisions are taken and so it gets used with less frequency.

Sally is a pretty typical Cain femme fatale, knowingly using her sexual appeal to encourage a man to act recklessly on her behalf. Readers should not anticipate really getting to know her beyond the demands of that role however – we get little sense of her likes or interests, nor of any deeper connection between the two. This has bothered me in some of Cain’s previous work but at least in those cases I understood the core reasons for the attraction, either based on the situation or the lovers’ personalities. Here I get why Sally needs Clay, I am much less clear on why he gives in to her.

One of the reasons for that uncertainty is that before the murder takes place we have already seen Clay become interested in another woman, Sally’s mother, creating a rather bizarre triangle. This seems like it may be intended to shock readers but it really just left me baffled about what Clay is wanting and expecting from life. It suddenly takes away his most interesting character trait, his decisiveness, and renders him rather weak and pathetic and makes all three characters harder to relate to.

While I have issues with understanding the reasons characters act as they do in this story, Cain does a splendid job of showing how Clay and Sally plot out the murder and describing the events of that evening. There is plenty of detail to their plan and while there are some parts that feel a little sloppy or poorly conceived, I found that only made that process more credible. The reader will notice that there are plenty of loose ends for an investigation to seize upon, the question is which of these will be important and how they will be connected.

This brings us to the other aspect of the story where Cain does attempt to do something a little bit different – the events leading up to the ending. Though undoubtedly cut from a similar storytelling cloth to his other efforts, Clay’s path to destruction is a little different. It is unfortunate though that in trying to figure out a different path in this middle phase of the novel, the often quite convoluted plotting choices seem to fly in the face of that powerful, direct storytelling that is the author’s hallmark.

This is a shame because I think the core ideas explored in Clay’s downfall are not uninteresting and are arguably the most distinctive feature of this novel. The problem then is not the idea but the way in which those ideas are introduced. I think that there were ways that Cain could have explored those ideas in a more direct and more characteristically Cain-ish way.

As much as I hoped to like The Magician’s Wife, and I did like parts of it, it was this stumbling onto the ending that was its most disappointing feature. The result is a work that lacks Cain’s usual polish, feeling a bit like a stale remix. It isn’t a patch on either of those earlier classic works and I can really only recommend it to Cain completists.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Get Out of Jail Free (It’s A Kind of Magic) category as a Silver Age read.

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Book Details

Originally published as 掏摸 (Suri) in 2009.
English translation published in 2012.

This book has a sister volume, Kingdom, which was translated in the same year. The two stories can apparently be read in either order.

The Blurb

A literary crime masterpiece that follows a Japanese pickpocket lost to the machinations of fate. Bleak and oozing existential dread, The Thief is simply unforgettable.

The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections…. But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse. It’s an easy job: tie up an old rich man, steal the contents of the safe. No one gets hurt. Only the day after the job does he learn that the old man was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. And now the Thief is caught in a tangle even he might not be able to escape.

The Verdict

A very short but powerful exploration of the life of a thief with strong characters and thoughtful development of themes.

“The most important thing about carrying out a crime is planning. People who commit crimes without planning are idiots.”

My Thoughts

The Thief is told from the perspective of a nameless thief who has supported himself since his teen years by picking pockets and shoplifting. He is good at what he does, knowing how to evade the eyes of store detectives and the police, though he has started to not even realize when he does it, occasionally finding wallets in his pockets he doesn’t remember taking.

Though he has more than enough to survive, the thief lives a solitary existence. He has no family or friends beyond a couple of fellow pickpockets he has worked with in the past. When one of those, Ishikawa, tells him that he has been told he must recruit him to help out with a heist the thief agrees. The job is supposed to be a simple one where the gang steal some money and papers from a safe and they pull it off with ease but the next day they learn that the victim was brutally murdered after they left.

The book is a short one and while I would suggest that it is more focused on character than plotting. I will say that I do not expect that readers will be surprised at the general direction of the story but that the details and the development of theme, combined with the novel’s brevity, make for a surprisingly weighty read.

I had only read one other Nakamura novella prior to this one, The Gun, which was his very first work. That was of a similar length and was also clearly intended as a character study but where that work built a sense of dread about where the story was headed, inching slowly towards a grim inevitability, this story feels quite different. Certainly we will be aware of the danger facing the protagonist but where The Gun features a character descending into obsession and inhumanity, here we have a character who clearly is searching for the light, even if he knows he will never escape his lifestyle.

This idea is most clearly shown in his actions towards a pair of characters he encounters at several points in the story. His actions, while not exactly heroic, show him in a generally positive light and establish him as far more likeable than the protagonist in The Gun. In other words, I think readers will want him to survive and hope that he finds a way out of his predicament, even if we recognize that this seems unlikely.

While we do not learn a lot of detail about the thief’s background, we do become quite versed in his lifestyle. Nakamura carefully describes different aspects of pickpocketing and thievery, painting a convincing picture of that life and giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to live that way. The material feels well-researched and there is even a little interesting background about some noteable historical pickpockets and thieves, helping flesh out that world for readers even more.

Though the bulk of the story explores the character’s relationship with his chosen profession, there are some developments that compel him to action. This involves the introduction of a figure who serves as the antagonist of the piece though I think that term is not entirely accurate to his role within the story. This character’s appearance, while brief, feels substantial because they are not just representing an obstacle for the thief to overcome but because of the attitudes they express about everyone other than themselves.

Key developments happen pretty quickly and information learned fills in many of the gaps for us, helping the reader understand exactly what happened though a few of the broader details remain sketchy – no doubt because they aren’t really relevant to the thief’s story or the broader themes being discussed. This story is not, after all, about the crime but about the effect it has on the criminal.

It builds up to a rather powerful finish that some will doubtlessly find frustrating, though I found it quite intriguing. The ending provides a clear statement of the antagonist’s perspective and philosophy but Nakamura leaves a tiny sliver of space for the reader to consider and reject it. This is not exactly an open-ended conclusion – it does tie up several loose ends quite tidily. Instead it represents a sort of philosophical challenge to the reader, encouraging a judgment from the reader. As an exploration of theme it is a highly effective ending but those principally interested in the narrative may feel a little underwhelmed.

Which I suppose brings me to the question of genre.

One of the most tiresome discussions that people get into about this book is whether it is crime fiction at all. Those arguing this view typically suggest that the book should be read as literary fiction. The reason that this is tiresome is that unless you are merchandising this in a bookshop or library the question is entirely academic. I would suggest that you can have equally rewarding experiences reading it as either of those two forms though personally I would suggest that it is both.

Whether you come to this for an exploration of the human condition or to read a criminous tale of a safe-cracking gone wrong, I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile read. I far preferred this to The Gun and hope to get around to its similarly short sister volume, The Kingdom, at some point soon.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

Murder at Mt. Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert B. Rohmer

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as W No Higeki
English translation first published in 1987

The Blurb

January 3. Asahi Hills, a posh and isolated village set below the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, is the home of Yohei – “Grandpa” – Wada, president of the immensely successful Wada Pharmaceuticals, and the destination of Jane Prescott. An American student, Jane has been invited to the imposing family chateau by the patriarch’s grand-niece, Chiyo, to help revise her English thesis. Feeling quite out of place in the midst of the Wada’s yearly family reunion, Jane sets to work immediately with the intention of finishing her promised task and clearing out as soon as possible.

That is, until Chiyo comes running into the living room three hours later, her sleeves drenched in blood and the irrevocable words “I killed Grandpa” on her lips.

Convinced that the murder was accidental and committed in self-defense, the Wada family rallies around the fragile girl, vowing to protect her from prosecution, and save the family name from disgrace. But the family’s cleverly and carefully laid plans go awry. The police find obvious clues that lead them directly to Chiyo. But the clues are too obvious; so obvious that Jane begins to suspect sabotage. But who would betray the gentle Chiyo in such a way?

The Verdict

This boasts a great set-up but the rushed investigation and resolution phases of the novel made it feel a little anticlimactic.

“You see, what I told you earlier was true. All the men of the Wada family have an uncontrollable lust for young ladies.”

My Thoughts

Each year the Wada family gather to celebrate the New Year at a villa near Mt. Fuji hosted by Yohei Wada, the head of the Wada Pharmaceuticals company. It is meant to be an intimate family celebration but this year a stranger joins them, an American student named Jane Prescott who has been invited by Chiyo, one of the youngest members of the family, to help her work on her English thesis.

Soon after arriving Jane is warned by a family member about the men in the family’s reputation for womanizing, noting that this is true even of those men who have married into the family. A short while later this seems to be confirmed when Chiyo emerges from Yohei’s bedroom, her arms covered in blood, saying that he had tried to proposition her and, when she threatened to kill herself rather than sleep with her Great Uncle, he attacked her causing her to accidentally stab him in the chest.

The family, each of whom are fond of Chiyo, decide to work together to try and cover up the crime. They develop a plan in which they will send Chiyo back to the city and make it appear that an outsider broke into the home later that night. This means finding ways to mask the timeline, leading to some interesting trickery. Unfortunately however all their hard work is undone when the Police arrive and we are left to wonder if someone in the family is sabotaging their efforts.

Crime fiction readers today are quite used to the idea of reading fiction in translation but when Murder at Mt. Fuji was first released in translation it was much more novel. Only a handful of Japanese mysteries had been translated at that point and so it appears that there was some concern about whether American readers would be comfortable trying something that may have felt very foreign to them. The result was not only a title change, taking us from The Tragedy of W to the much clearer Murder at Mt. Fuji, clearly establishing both the locale and it being a genre work, but there are apparently also some other significant changes to the story with a character being rewritten as an American student. For more on that see Ho-Ling Wong’s blog post about the book which I have linked to below.

Being unable to read the original work for myself, it’s hard for me to offer a take on how this has changed the work. I am under no illusions that translated fiction will be an exact reproduction of a work and I know that translators often have to make adjustments to help readers understand references or themes better. Here is feels a little more trivial because it seems to be quite incidental to the story – Jane’s background as a foreigner is rather irrelevant once you get beyond her introduction and certainly has no bearing on the plot. In other words, the change seems to be a largely cosmetic one.

The premise of this story is an engaging one that seems to fall neatly into the howcatchem school of inverted crime stories. Here we see how the Wada family come to decide on a cover-up and we are aware of each of the tricks they have used to try and make the corpse appear to have died after Chiyo left. Some of these tricks are obvious, such as the attempts to create the appearance of the intruder and to cool the body, but a few struck me as both clever and novel. This process is quite interesting to follow with Natsuki offering quite a bit of information about how time of death is typically determined. When the time comes for the police to arrive it seems that they have thought of everything and it is easy to imagine that the family might get away with their deception.

These early chapters also give us a pretty good sense of the various family members and their different personalities. Natsuki is good about explaining these characters’ relationships to Yohei though I felt less confident about how they related to one another. While this is not critical to the story, this is one of those cases where I wish that a family tree had been provided for the reader. Still, regardless of those genetic relationships I felt I got a pretty good handle on each character and their emotional relationships with the other members of the family which ends up being so important to this story.

Following several chapters of careful setup where we observe the family’s preparations, the police investigation by contrast feels rather rushed and frankly a little anticlimactic. Natsuki gives these investigations an almost comic air as we see the police repeatedly recasting the results of their investigation in different lights as new pieces of information turn up, trying desperately to spin these flip-flops as part of a cunning plan. It’s pretty amusing and I think Natsuki does generate some suspense as we wait for the investigators to connect the information they have but those hoping for a careful dissection of a crime from the investigators’ perspectives are likely to be a little disappointed. The investigators really aren’t meant to be the heroes of this story and so these chapters are merely a bridge that transitions us from one type of mystery novel to another.

I was a little conflicted about whether to discuss this as I typically try and avoid detailed discussion of developments so late in a story (at least, sans spoiler tags) but in this case it’s in the blurb and if I failed to at least mention it those of you who do not share my love of the inverted crime may pass over this one a little too quickly. So, let’s be clear: in addition to the inverted form there is also a whodunnit aspect to this story as we wonder who is tipping off the cops and why.

I feel that Natsuki executes this shift in styles pretty well, hinting at it before providing the reader with confirmation that someone must be playing a double role. It’s an intriguing idea but I think it is not really exploited to its full potential. This situation seems ideally set up to generate resentments and suspicions but instead we rush through that phase of the story with the story instead going through a further transition into thriller mode where Jane as a heroine is put in peril by the killer.

Jane is certainly a heroine that the reader can empathize with. She is an outsider who is unfortunate to get caught up in the events of that night. She cares about Chiyo, recognizing the unfairness that her friend is being discarded by a member of her family and she instinctively wants to find the party involved. That is all pretty convincing. Unfortunately the resolution is reached rather too quickly and so lacks the impact I think it would have had for a little extra snooping or some further direct confrontations with members of the family.

I do want to stress that I did enjoy my experience with this book overall. This is one of the few inverted mysteries I have encountered that attempts to explicitly discuss and work through the medical evidence of a crime scene which I think is done pretty well. The setup here is superb and I just wished that the story had been resolved with that same careful pacing and attention to detail.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s World Traveler category as a Silver Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong wrote about his experience reading a translation of this translation. One of the comments in that excellent post is the source for the information about the changes made for the English language market.

Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time also shared thoughts on this book, saying it has ‘something completely different and very fresh to offer’ as an example of the inverted mystery.

Finally these are not related specifically to this book but discuss some of the challenges and approaches to translating crime fiction. I recently (virtually) attended a discussion between Jennifer Arnold and the translators Antonia Lloyd Jones and Peter Bush that I found interesting and which you can watch for free. I also strongly recommend the episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where Jim chats with Louise Heal Kawai who translated The Honjin Murders and several other works of classic Japanese mystery fiction.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes

Book Details

The Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴, Kuro-tokage) was originally published in 1934
Beast in The Shadows (陰獣, Injū) was originally published in 1928
English translations published as a collection in 2006

The Blurb (Trimmed for Space)

The Black Lizard (Kurotokage) first appeared as a magazine serial, published in twelve monthly installments between January and December, 1934. It features Rampo’s main detective character, Akechi Kogorō: a figure who combines elements of Poe’s Auguste Dupin with the gentleman adventurers of British golden age detective literature. The Black Lizard herself is a master criminal and femme fatale, whose charged relationship with detective Akechi and unconcealed sadism have inspired shuddering admiration in generations of readers…

Themes of deviance and sado-masochism are central to Beast in the Shadows (Inju), a tale from the height of Rampo’s grotesque period, which appeared in serial form between August and October, 1928. This tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and dark crimes stands in stark contrast to the genteel detective stories then popular in English literature. It bears comparison with the American pulp fiction serial, the genre that led to the classic modern American crime novel, and with the more extravagant moments of film noir. Beast in the Shadows, however, recalls classic themes in Japanese popular fiction, with origins in the illustrated novels and mass market shockers of the Edo period (1600-1868)…

The Verdict

A fun collection of two novellas. The Black Lizard is pure pulpy thriller stuff and good fun but Beast in the Shadows is a much darker and more interesting work. That story, while shorter, is worth the cost of the collection in itself.


My Thoughts

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most enduring and consequential writers of mystery fiction in Japan from the early 20th century. His work is heavily influenced by the likes of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, so the focus is often not on crafting fair play stories of detection but memorable moments of horror, discomfort and adventure. I previously reviewed a collection of his short stories on this blog, many of which memorably play with grotesque and disturbing types of crime.

In addition to his own stories for adults and children, he established a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, the Detective Author’s Club (later renamed as the Mystery Writers of Japan) and wrote critical essays about the history and the form of the genre. His works were frequently adapted into films both during and after his lifetime and his significance is recognized in the name of a Japanese literary award, The Edogawa Rampo Prize, for unpublished mystery authors which was introduced in the 1950s.

In short, there was no way I would commit to writing several months weekly posts about Japanese works of mystery and crime fiction without including at least one of his works. Based on this experience I may try and rework my schedule to make that two…

This volume contains two works from earlier in his career. Both stories were originally serialized for publication in magazines which is quite evident in the way the stories are structured. Many chapters seem to end either on a significant revelation or with moments of peril, particularly in the case of the first story in this collection – The Black Lizard.

The story is essentially inverted with the reader being party to the planning of a daring crime in which the titular crime boss, The Black Lizard, plans to kidnap the daughter of one of Osaka’s leading jewel merchants as a means of securing a fabulous prize – the largest diamond in Japan. Being a sporting sort however she sends him notice of her intent to kidnap his daughter, leading him to engage that great detective Akechi Kogorō to protect her.

While this story features a detective, do not expect much, if anything, in the way of detection. The style is really pulpy and layers plenty of plot twists and reversals on top of each other, building a story that seems to get crazier and more outlandish as it goes on. Expect plenty of disguises, identity tricks, lots of random moments of nudity (though these are not described in detail), a truly perverse museum and snakes.

Perhaps my favorite bit of craziness though is the very casual way in which Rampo drops detailed references to some of his other stories as works of fiction, having characters comment on how one plot development is reminiscent of the plots of a celebrated short story. It is all very meta and fits the general arch tone of the piece.

The most striking aspect of the story, other than Akechi himself, is the character of our villain – the Black Lizard. Though her entrance performing a naked dance for her henchmen to the accompaniment of ‘an erotic saxophone’ feels quite ludicrous, Rampo quickly establishes her as smart, ruthless and cunning. While the warning to her victim is silly, I really enjoyed the way that she directly engages with her adversary and that she seems to be as interested in the game she is playing with Akechi as she is in achieving her real goal. It makes for an entertaining, page turning read.

As much as I enjoyed The Black Lizard however, I think Beast in the Shadows is the more interesting work. Though shorter at just a hundred pages, it is both a really cleverly worked detective story and also an early work of ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque nonsense). As Rampo’s career developed his work would increasingly shift in that direction, in part because of demand from his readership, and those themes are often associated with his work for adults.

The story is told by a writer of detective stories who has been approached by a married woman desperate for his help. She tells him that as a teenager she had lost her virginity to a man who became obsessed with her, stalking her and threatening her when their relationship broke down. A sudden move seemed to put a temporary stop to his activities and she subsequently met a merchant and married though she never told him about her prior affair.

Recently however she started to receive letters once again, detailing her movements within the family home and threatening both her life and that of her husband. The narrator visits her home and after making some disturbing discoveries devises a plan to protect her but when her husband ends up dead they worry that she will be next.

Rampo manages to balance the moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

The length of the work makes it hard to offer much detailed comment without getting into spoiler territory. I can say though that the pacing here is as strong as the atmosphere and that I think the two characters we spend the most time with – the narrator and Shizuko, the married woman – are interesting. Though there is one development related to one of the other character’s motives that is only speculated upon rather than clearly established and described as fact.

It is a fascinating and chilling read that for me is worth the price of the collection on its own, offering a view of both sides of Rampo’s writing. This left me excited to read more of Rampo’s work – now I just need to decide where to go next. If you are a fan, please feel free to offer advice!

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Dangerous Beasts category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong’s blog is a great resource offering a number of posts both about Rampo’s works and also some of the film and television adaptations of them. Though it is now over a decade old, this post about Rampo’s works in translation, then a shorter list, is a nice starting point. There is even a translation of one of his short stories – One Person, Two Identities (Hitori Futayaku).

Jonathan Creek: The Omega Man (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast 11 December, 1999
Season Three, Episode Three
Preceded by The Eyes of Tiresias
Followed by Ghost’s Forge

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Keith Washington

Familiar Faces

John Shrapnel was best known for his stage work but made a number of appearances in beloved mystery dramas. Among his television credits are roles in Inspector Morse, Between the Lines, Wycliffe, Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, The Last Detective, New Tricks and Waking the Dead.

The Verdict

The science fiction elements are a welcome change of pace but I am unconvinced that the solution is credible.


Episode Summary

Maddy is preparing for a media interview to promote her new book when she receives a note from Professor Lance Graumann who promises her ‘the most incredible story of your life’ if she meets him in a warehouse. When she arrives he shows her an alien skeleton in a glass case and explains how touching it caused burns to appear on his assistant’s hands. He offers her the chance to get some photographs but as she goes to her car to get her camera trucks of American military personnel arrive to seize the body and transport it to their base.

When the soldiers arrive they open up the truck only to find that the skeleton has completely disappeared. Desperate to find an explanation they track down Jonathan to demand he explain why the skeleton vanished.

My Thoughts

I was really fed up of the whole paranormal alien thing back when this story first aired. Everyone at school was still obsessed with The X-Files, a show I was never able to get into. This story seemed to be pretty clearly influenced by that series and I am pretty sure I resented it a little for that. No doubt that’s the reason I didn’t remember this story particularly fondly and why I skipped over it whenever I would rewatch the stories.

That is, of course, exactly the reason why I decided to revisit these seasons and watch all of the stories in order. To view them once again through fresh eyes. Some have fallen in my estimations as I am much more familiar with common tricks now than I was back then while some, like this one, have definitely gained a little with some distance.

The scenario is certainly hokey although it is a fun change of pace to have a break from those horror elements that dominated the second season and the previous episodes and have a switch to science fiction. It makes the story stand out from those around it, giving it a pretty distinct identity.

The idea of a government agency forcing Jonathan to solve a case for them is also pretty entertaining and I liked the problem it creates for him in terms of keeping Maddy’s involvement in the events of that night secret from them (though the idea of dozens of US troops carrying out a covert operation in uniform on UK soil does seem rather ridiculous – it does reinforce that X-Files feel however). Once again I appreciate it for being a little different from the usual ways he stumbles onto cases and I appreciated the complications this adds to his investigation and to his working relationship with Maddy.

Speaking of Maddy, I think that this episode is one of her best in quite some time. This not only allows us to see her using her journalism skills at work but also reminds us of some of the potential dangers an investigative journalist might face. This episode reminded me that this is the part of the character I am most interested in and that I wish had been the focus rather than the will they, won’t they relationship with Jonathan.

The final thing that I think works well here is the casting of John Shrapnel as Professor Graumann and that character’s general characterization. It is not just that he has a frankly magnificent voice that sounds just right for this sort of character but that he contrasts with Alan Davies in an interesting way. That contrast is drawn quite directly for the viewer with Creek noting that the two men have fairly similar backgrounds and skill sets but use them differently and this casting helps to illustrate that idea.

Given that we know the identity of who devised this trick from the beginning we are simply then looking at how it was carried out. I appreciated that the character is given a little more depth and context by introducing us to one of his acolytes, showing us the impact of what he does. It makes him a pretty enigmatic figure and he stands out for me as one of the more interesting antagonists that Jonathan faces, precisely because he doesn’t behave as such (or, to be more accurate, because Jonathan isn’t really the focus of his activities). He even gives Jonathan a pretty significant, if enigmatic, hint about how the trick was worked.

Which brings me to how the trick was carried out. While the trappings of this episode bother me less today than they did on first viewing, I feel I have become more suspicious about whether the scheme Graumann came up with could work.

The biggest question I have is the economic feasability of his scheme. Graumann’s plan would seem to require a pretty large outlay of cash, not to mention time, to make it work. While I can see that he could expect to make money back from donations, book and VHS sales (!), that takes time and if the trick here is rumbled then he presumably would face total discreditation and financial ruin.

I have further questions but they are all heavily spoilery so I will confine them to the end of this post. To put it briefly, I like the idea of this story but I do have strong doubts that it could actually work.

Overall then I think I liked this one a little more than I did when I first saw it. The concept is still incredibly silly but I think it represents a fun change of pace within the season. I just have difficulty accepting that this scheme could work as shown.

CLICK FOR SPOILERY DISCUSSION