The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Views

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

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

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

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

double
Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries

inverted mysteries (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

On with the list…

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

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

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

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

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

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

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

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

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

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

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

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

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

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

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

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

Bonus Selection

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

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

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

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

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

Read my full review of this title here

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

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawayward
The New Sonia Wayward
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1960

I am never saying never again.

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

Yet here I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released for Death by Henry Wade

Released
Released for Death
Henry Wade
Originally Published 1937

Released for Death is the fifth novel I have read by Henry Wade who has fast become one of my favorite writers from the Golden Age. Part of the attraction for me is that he is one of the principal practitioners of the inverted mystery novel, the type of novel in which the reader knows the guilty party’s identity and has to figure out some other detail of the crime or how they will be caught.

Whether Released for Death constitutes an inverted mystery is perhaps a little debatable. Certainly it is not particularly mysterious as while the guilty party’s identity and reasoning are pretty clear in spite of the author not explicitly stating them until the end of the novel. Nor do we ever share the criminal’s perspective of events. I would suggest though that whether or not it fits the definition, it has enough of the same features to have similar appeal.

The story is split into two with the first half following the perspective of Toddy Shaw who is midway through a prison sentence for assault on a security guard during a robbery. He is working with a pot of boiling paste when another prisoner, James Carson, lunges at one of the guards knocking the hot liquid across Toddy’s face. Instinctively Toddy fights back and while he is pretty badly beaten he inadvertently stops a full-scale riot from breaking out.

Toddy refuses to implicate Carson in the riot but the man swears vengeance against him anyway which places the wardens in the difficult position of deciding what to do about Toddy. Though they have differing views about whether Toddy intended heroism or whether it was luck that his actions stopped the riot, the decision is made to apply to the Home Secretary for an early release which he receives. He returns home to his family and sets about trying to go straight but in spite of his best intentions his situation takes a turn for the worse and he finds he needs money quickly, leading him back down a dark path…

The second half of the novel plays out from the perspectives of the police who are investigating a brutal murder and the kindly, if somewhat naive, prison clergyman who has taken an interest in Toddy’s situation. While we do not have an exact knowledge of how a crime was committed we are aware of his innocence in the matter and the reason why he is suspected. We get to see how both the prosecution and defense view the case and follow the latter’s efforts as they try to find evidence that will prove his innocence.

One complication in the case is that Toddy refuses to give any evidence that will point directly at the guilty party on a point of honor. This creates an interesting problem for one character where they learn who is responsible but will not be able to prove it unless they can find their own proof of that person’s guilt.

It felt clear to me reading this that while Wade is writing a crime story he is also attempting to discuss social issues concerning conditions in prison, the power dynamics within the justice system and the forces leading to recidivism once a prisoner is released. It is a sympathetic portrayal that feels well measured. Toddy’s plight is not the result of one unscrupulous person manipulating a system or any personal failings but rather it reflects the realities of how difficult it can be to find steady work having a police record and how someone can fall into trouble through no direct fault of their own.

Curtis Evans in his wonderful book about Wade, The Spectrum of English Murder, suggests that while well-intentioned, the author’s tone at times appears a little condescending. I agree with Curtis that there are moments at which this clearly does come through though I appreciate that he was trying to write sympathetically about a criminal character at all. Wade attempts to write realistically gritty dialogue for Toddy and while I think he overdoes some of the “Cor!” moments a little, I think he writes with empathy and, for the most part, avoids drifting into sentimentality.

Wade explores these issues quite effectively but it is probably worth noting that he does not offer a prescription for making the system function better. Indeed the interventions of some caring authority figures acting on their own initiative may suggest that he saw the actions of caring individuals to be a stronger remedy to these problems than any specific reform. Alternatively he may have intended to illustrate the issue in the generating discussion.

Unfortunately while the first half of the novel is quite a compelling, if slow-moving, piece of character exploration the second half seems to drift. With no mystery for the reader to solve about how the crime was worked or the motivation the only question remaining is how the guilty party will be brought to justice. Wade depicts the details of police procedure very effectively but there are no real surprises for the reader and while we are made aware of what failure to find evidence would mean for Toddy, I felt the decision to adopt multiple perspectives reduced the sense of urgency and tension in this portion of the book.

Though I feel that Released for Death runs out of steam, I do think that the second half of the novel does have a few strong moments. One of my favorites relates to an attempt by Toddy’s lawyers to find a witness and get her to give a statement. Wade pitches this perfectly, building up to the moment of the interview very well and introduces some practical, realistic procedural issues that take that scene in an unexpected and interesting direction.

The problem is that moments like that one stand out because they are the exception. From the midpoint of the novel it feels pretty clear how things will be resolved and Wade offers little to surprise his readers. Instead the piece relies on the interest generated by its characters to keep readers engaged. The first half works because Toddy is an interesting and ultimately quite likeable protagonist but the second half struggles to find a character as likeable for us to care about or enjoy spending time with.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers
Strangers on a Train
Patricia Highsmith
Originally Published 1950

Most of the time on this blog I write from the perspective of someone who is encountering a story for the first time. In those few instances where I have revisited a book, I have done so many years after reading it for the first time which helps me to approach it fresh.

Strangers on a Train is a very different case. It is a book I have read three times in the space of four years having previously seen the Hitchcock film adaptation a number of times. It is possible that this review may read a little differently than many of my others as a result.

Each time I have read this book I have done so from a slightly different perspective. The first time I recall looking for the differences between the movie and its source material. The second, I was looking at in a more structural sense, looking to understand Highsmith’s themes and perspective on her characters. What motivated this third look at the book, other than the desire to simply enjoy it once again, was to see whether I would consider it to be an inverted mystery or if it is something else.

Before I start to discuss that question and the book’s themes, I need to describe what it is about. The book concerns a meeting on a train between two men and the way that meeting affects their lives. One, Guy Haines, is a celebrated architect trapped in a marriage to his unfaithful wife Miriam while the other, Charles Bruno, is a playboy who is doted on by his mother and feels deeply resentful of his stepfather for controlling his allowance.

During the journey Bruno proposes that the pair exchange murders, each committing a crime to which they have no obvious personal tie. While Guy does not really take Bruno seriously, a while afterwards he receives letters from Bruno reminding him of this plan. When Miriam is murdered he does not go to the police and tells himself that it is coincidence. Some weeks pass and then Bruno starts to contact him, pressuring him to fulfil his end of the bargain.

If you have seen the famous movie version of this story be aware that the stories diverge after this point leading to decidedly different conclusions and developing somewhat different themes. What remains constant is the toxic relationship between Guy and Bruno which in the book has hints of homoeroticism (the film is far more overt) and a murder plot that, were it not for Bruno’s obsessive behavior towards Guy, would be almost certain to work.

We see the danger early in the novel, even when Guy is oblivious to it, because we can see that Bruno feels bound to Guy and that once that murder is committed that bond becomes even the stronger. From that moment Guy is the only person who can really understand Bruno and the guilt that eats away at him only leads to him indulging more heavily in his self-destructive vices.

Raymond Chandler apparently considered this novel to be ‘a silly little story’ which boggles my mind. Certainly the idea of the murder swap could be treated as little more than a colorful story hook but Highsmith does not use it that way, instead developing the idea that Guy becomes trapped by his inaction and compelled into following a particular course. To me it is really rich in character and theme and develops its plot with a powerful predictability where the reader can see where the tale is ultimately headed, even if they are not sure how it will get there.

I find both characters to be interesting in their own right though they become compelling in combination. Guy is cautious, practical and sturdy while Bruno dreams and seeks to find something that will give him a sense of happiness and fulfilment. One of my favorite passages in the book relates to one of Bruno’s ambitions for how he might spend his money by giving away a sizeable sum to a random beggar. He has developed a romantic image of a way in which he can achieve a sense of personal satisfaction and yet the reality of human nature turns it grubby and disappointing. In fact I would suggest that Bruno is happier imagining his stepfather dead than he is at any point once he begins to enact his plan.

With so much of a focus falling on Guy and Bruno, it is perhaps inevitable that the other characters feel far less dimensional. Only Guy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Anne comes off as a fully realized character though I felt a little disappointed that Highsmith does not directly address her situation at the end of the novel or allow her to play a more direct role in the conclusion. In spite of this I found her to be very sympathetic and I did appreciate that she is presented as a professional woman in her own right. It was easy to see why Guy so desperately wants to be with her.

I mentioned in my introduction that part of my motivation in revisiting this book now was to consider whether it is an inverted mystery. I think, on balance, that it is although I would say that because there is a sense of forces inexorably pushing the characters towards an outcome that there are few developments in the narrative that are truly surprising. Nor does Gerrard, the Bruno family’s private detective, really exercise much deductive reasoning during his investigation and, in any case, we spend surprisingly little time with him.

In spite of that however the reader can engage with the story by pondering what evidence might exist and how it may be interpreted. There is even the question of how the relationship between Guy and Bruno will be resolved. As much as I love the movie version of this story, I think the book takes a more interesting and subtle approach to the latter and while I wish that the ending had struck a slightly different tone in places, I think it very effectively resolves the main themes of the novel.

While Highsmith’s text is sometimes a little ponderous, particularly during Bruno’s drunken outbursts, I am impressed by how polished it feels considering it is a first novel and I do think that those moments fit the character even if they drag on a little. I am particularly struck by how well she captures a sense of paranoia and the different ways that guilt can affect a person, making the reader feel Guy’s hopelessness at being trapped in a situation that threatens to destroy him completely.

I said earlier in this review that it is rare for me to revisit a book. It is even rarer for me to get more out of it on subsequent reads. That I have found it a rewarding enough experience to revisit it twice now speaks to the book’s striking premise, bold characterization and interesting discussion of guilt and justice. The only thing that is likely to keep me from revisiting it any time soon is the sense that I should probably try reading another Highsmith at some point…