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

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book Details

Originally published in 2014

The Blurb

Oliver Ryan has the perfect life. Elegant and seductive, he wants for nothing, sharing a lovely home with his steadfast wife, Alice, who illustrates the award-winning children’s books that have brought him wealth and fame. Until one evening, after eating the dinner Alice has carefully prepared, Oliver savagely assaults her and leaves her for dead.

But why?

The people who know Oliver can only speculate about the reasons behind his brutal act: his empty-headed mistress Moya, vain and petulant; Veronique, the French chatelaine who tragically lost everything the summer she employed him in her vineyard; Alice’s friend Barney, who has nursed an unrequited love for her since childhood; Oliver’s college pal Michael, struggling with voiceless longings that have shamed him for years. What none of them understands is the dark secret that lies behind his immaculate façade.

The revelations that come to light as the layers of Oliver’s past are peeled away are as brutal as his singular act of violence. His decades of careful deception have masked a life irrevocably marked by abandonment, envy, and shame—and as the details of that life are laid bare, Oliver discovers that outrunning his demons is harder than it looks.

The Verdict

A thoughtful, if rather slow-paced, exploration of a man’s character and history.


My Thoughts

Oliver Ryan’s fantasy stories for children are beloved by millions around the world. They have been adapted for stage and screen, bringing him fame and fortune. He is an attractive figure, regarded by those who meet him as charming, eloquent and elegant.

Yet one night after enjoying a dinner prepared by Alice, his wife of many years who illustrates his stories, he savagely beats her to a point near death. We are told that he was sober and that this was the first time he had ever behaved violently with her. While he claims to have been provoked we have little information as to what prompted this psychotic episode which appears so out of character for him other than she had broken open the lock on a wooden box ‘in which [he] locked away [his] darkest secrets’.

Unraveling Oliver is an example of the whydunnit, a form of inverted mystery in which we know what was done and by whom but we are unsure of the motive. Nugent tells her story not just from Oliver’s own perspective but also from that of those who knew him, both in the past as well as at the time of the attack.

The decision to tell at least part of the story from Oliver’s own voice is not a comfortable one given what he has done, though I think it is probably necessary if only to demonstrate that Oliver himself isn’t entirely sure of the reason for his crime. When he declares ‘It turns out that I am a violent man after all’ he notes that he finds this surprising because whatever other faults he acknowledged in himself, he would never have thought of himself in that way. He quickly acknowledges though that it clearly is the case and so his chapters feel like a structured delve into his past as he connects experiences and reflects on how he got to that point.

While the other characters tend to like Oliver, even when he doesn’t treat them well, the reader is unlikely to feel the same. It’s not just our knowledge of how his relationship with Alice will end, though clearly that is a huge factor too, but for his other, earlier cruelties towards the other characters we hear from. He may never have beaten Alice before the incident at the start of the book but he clearly harmed her and those around him in other ways.

In addition to the chapters told in Oliver’s own voice, there are chapters told by those friends and acquaintances who knew him and want to understand the horrific nature of the events of that night. Their accounts explore early instances and try to tease out signs that something was wrong with Oliver. It becomes clear however that no one voice possesses all the answers.

These accounts, which jump backwards and forwards in time, often overlap to provide us with some new detail or piece of information that can shift how you viewed the events described. At times one character may describe an event and several chapters later a different character provides information about its context. The consequence of this approach is that the circumstances of the crime come into focus the more you read and by the end of the novel we should have a clear answer to the question ‘why’.

I think it is important, given the nature of the event this book centers on, to stress that this novel is not about justifying Oliver’s action. Throughout the novel it is clear that Alice is clearly the victim and that whatever else we learn, we will never be asked to compromise on that point. While we come to understand Oliver well by the end of the novel and may comprehend the forces and events that made him as he is, we are never asked to forgive him.

Oliver’s personal history is both mysterious and interesting. I felt that Nugent did a good job of pacing her revelations. In most chapters there is usually some event that will help us understand him a little better with some of the best feeling quite revelatory as though suddenly we have got a much better measure of the man. That feeling builds strongly as we near the novel’s conclusion and while we know how this story will end, there is a very grim fascination in realizing exactly what Oliver’s darkest secrets are and recognizing why he guards them so fiercely.

There are eight perspectives in all and while none are bad, some were significantly more interesting to me than others. Stanley, for instance, only narrates one short chapter and while I think his inclusion as a character who can recognize Oliver both before and after his experiences from school, I do not think the content of his chapter is particularly memorable. Philip’s chapter on the other hand fills in some blanks about the characters and circumstances of Oliver’s childhood but though interesting, those reveals were not particularly surprising.

Eugene on the other hand fares much better in his only chapter. This character, Alice’s adult brother who has a severe intellectual disability, tries to understand what he witnesses through his often naive and limited conception of relationships. The result is the most distinctive and sympathetic voice in the novel. It produces some of the clearest insights into Oliver’s character and the cruelty he exhibits towards others, even if Eugene doesn’t always recognize it.

An aspect of the book that did strike me was how almost all of the perspectives used are from male characters. Just six out of the twenty four chapters are narrated by the novel’s two female narrators. Both characters have points of interest, particularly Véronique whose history with Oliver dates back to a working holiday he took to her chateau many years before the point at which this novel begins. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that one voice that is missing is Alice’s own. That makes logistical sense given that this story is narrated some time after the events of that night and clearly, given she is in a coma, she cannot reflect like the others. Yet while we learn a lot about Oliver’s emotions, Alice remains rather enigmatic and much harder to comprehend.

The novel adopts a rather slow and deliberate pace and there are times where the choice to structure this as an overlapping series of accounts leads to a some moments of repetition within the text. Still, this does not happen too often and I did find the book offered some interesting and thoughtful discussions on topics like the family, racism and classism.

I had been a little concerned that this would prove a challenging read based on its upsetting premise. Happily Nugent does a solid job of creating an interesting set of characters to base the story around. Though the story can be quite heavy in tone, I think that the central characters are interesting and that the scenario only becomes more so as the book develops.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.


My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.

Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト
English translation first published in 2003

The Blurb

This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society. 

At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

The Verdict

A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.


My Thoughts

Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.

The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.

From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.

The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.

Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.

While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.

Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.

In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.

Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.

Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.

There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.

Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.

As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.

Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.

Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.

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

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

When Paul enters university in early 1970s Pittsburgh, it’s with the hope of moving past the recent death of his father. Sensitive, insecure, and incomprehensible to his grieving family, Paul feels isolated and alone. When he meets the worldly Julian in his freshman ethics class, Paul is immediately drawn to his classmate’s effortless charm.

Paul sees Julian as his sole intellectual equal—an ally against the conventional world he finds so suffocating. Paul will stop at nothing to prove himself worthy of their friendship, because with Julian life is more invigorating than Paul could ever have imagined. But as charismatic as he can choose to be, Julian is also volatile and capriciously cruel, and Paul becomes increasingly afraid that he can never live up to what Julian expects of him.

As their friendship spirals into all-consuming intimacy, they each learn the lengths to which the other will go in order to stay together, their obsession ultimately hurtling them toward an act of irrevocable violence.

Unfolding with a propulsive ferocity, These Violent Delights is an exquisitely plotted excavation of the depths of human desire and the darkness it can bring forth in us.

The Verdict

Exquiste character building and a palpable sense of tension make this a really powerful read. Like most other reviews I have to note that this will particularly appeal to fans of Highsmith.


My Thoughts

These Violent Delights begins with a murder. In a prologue we follow Charlie as he realizes late at night that his car won’t start. He is relieved when two young men, Paul and Julian, offer him a ride home and he gladly accepts a Thermos of hot soup, ignoring its soapy taste. As they talk however he begins to feel something is off. Charlie cannot do anything however as the effects of the drug in the soup set in, causing him to lose control of his body. He cannot understand why these two men, who he has never met, would be doing this to him.

The novel is about those two men and it explores the events in their life and the people around them that have shaped them into who they are and the intense relationship that develops between them. This is a work grounded in its exploration of character and discussions of theme rather than a work focused on exploring the mechanics of murder.

That is reflected in the decision to place the details of what happens on that night at the front of the book. This not only serves to hook readers into wanting to know about what led up to that moment, it also allows the narrative to skip over the actual mechanics of the murder. By getting them out of the way at the front and not repeating them, the reader is encouraged to focus on the characters’ feelings and the changes in their relationship that take place during and as a consquence of this event.

By external appearances Paul and Julian are quite dissimilar. Paul, who comes from a working class background, is awkward and insular. His family note, for example, that he has never really had a friend and they worry for him, particular given his father’s suicide less than a year earlier. By contrast Julian, whose father is a government official, exudes an easy confidence and charm. He is much wealthier, indulgent and clearly intrigued by his new friend’s expression of a philosophical worldview. Paul meanwhile is attracted to Julian’s beauty and that confidence. He desperately wants Julian’s love, even if he considers himself unworthy of it.

I think Nemerever does an exceptional job making each character feel credible and dimensional and establishing the reasons why they become so dependent upon one another. That relationship changes throughout the novel, in response to the events each is experiencing in their lives, and at each stage I felt the nature of the relationship and the reasons for the alterations taking place to it were clearly communicated and thoughtfully explored.

That attention to detail extends to the secondary characters in the story. The characters in both Paul and Julian’s families each possess strong personalities and feel quite credible. Perhaps the best example of this would be Julian’s parents whose disinterest in the happiness of their son marks them out as being quite unsympathetic. Yet while they are certainly not likable, I think we understand them well through the things we come to learn about them such as how they seem to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritage. We can see them as characters determined to conform in order to gain social acceptance.

Nemerever also skillfully explores the ambiguities in his characters and their relationships with one another, sometimes offering alternative readings or perspectives on them. Like Paul, I spent much of the book uncertain of the extent to which Julian was serious in his romantic interest in him. While I had a clear idea by the end of the book what Julian was getting from Paul, that ambiguity about Julian’s feelings clearly affects Paul and causes him to become more dependent on receiving that attention and affection, only making the relationship feel more intense and unstable. And all the time we are waiting to see when they will start to plan their murder and why certain choices are made.

While it takes a while to get to the murder in the story, the seeds of that idea are quite apparent both in terms of the characters and some of the specifics of their plan. What is least apparent until the moment it happens is the psychological context of that moment and how Paul and Julian are thinking about the act. That question of what the murder represented to each of them and why they decided to do it is really quite thought-provoking. I think Nemerever handles that question well, and it is from this point in the story that I feel the reader will understand the characters and their thoughts better than they understand themselves.

The point at which the murder takes place is the start of the novel’s endgame. I think the author does an incredible job addressing their themes in this section of the novel and, once again, I was struck by the thoughtful and credible characterizations of both Paul and Julian. I was most struck though by the ending to their story which seemed to wrap things up pretty perfectly.

I have little negative to offer about it at all. I might perhaps have ended the book a few pages earlier after a particularly powerful moment had taken place given how well that moment is written. In spite of saying that though I can see the significance of the ending and think it does feel fitting to the overall flow of the story.

My only other note would be that while this work may begin with a murder, readers should be prepared that it is not structured like a genre work. While there is a body and an investigation, the book is more interested in exploring how it affects the characters rather than detailing the way everything is connected by the investigators. That being said, I think the investigation – while clearly a secondary element of the plot – is quite effectively written in some other respects and while we are certainly kept distant from it, the reader is given enough to follow their thinking and suppositions.

As you can tell I found this to be a really thoughtful and engaging exploration of an obsessional relationship and the terrible things it inspires its participants to do. The book addresses some really interesting themes and ideas and features some exceptional character development. It is a remarkable debut novel. I look forward to seeing what the author does next, whether it is linked to the genre or not.

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published 1937
Anthony Bathurst #20
Preceded by Fear and Trembling
Followed by Cold Evil

The Blurb

Chief Inspector MacMorran is up against the most extraordinary case of his career – a self-confessed killer who may well be found innocent given the circumstances. MacMorran is sure that Merivale is the murderer, but, worried about exoneration in court, he recruits investigator Anthony Bathurst to find evidence to convict.

Bathurst isn’t convinced. If Merivale killed his wife deliberately, why pick such a risky story which is just as likely to convict as clear him? But if Merivale is innocent, was a third party involved? And if so – how?

The Verdict

Tread Softly has a very clever and original premise that it happily lives up to. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

I have wanted to tackle an Anthony Bathurst novel on this blog for quite some time but with so many now available, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Happily earlier this week, the Puzzle Docctor provided some helpful guidance and so I decided to bypass the ten titles I owned already in favor of this title, his top recommendation. As it happens it is a book that seemed particularly well aligned with my own taste in mystery fiction.

While most mystery stories begin prior to or immediately after a murder, Tread Softly begins with someone having already made their confession. Actor Claude Merivale had turned himself in at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for killing his wife. The twist however is that he claims that this happened while he was sleeping, strangling her while experiencing a really vivid dream. Chief Inspector MacMorran believes that this is a story that Merivale has concocted to avoid responsibility and asks Bathurst to find evidence to back that up.

This unusual starting point for the investigation gives it a rather different tone and structure from many Golden Age detective stories. For one thing, the knowledge that a trial will soon begin means that Bathurst is working against the clock, adding to the urgency of the investigation. For another, the existence of a confession means that we have a clear sequence of events to consider and compare with the evidence Bathurst will find in the course of his own investigation.

It is easy to imagine how this structure could have gone wrong. Rather than presenting the reader with an open field of suspects and motives, instead they are asked to consider what appears to be a series of related questions with very limited possibilities. Either Merivale is innocent or guilty? If he is innocent, why tell the police he is responsible? If he did actually do the deed, was he awake or asleep?

One of the reasons that I think this scenario never feels constricting is that Flynn quickly establishes, through Bathurst, a series of other questions and problems with the scenarios presented by Merivale and MacMorran that show that neither explanation is entirely satisfactory. We assume that this book cannot simply require us to verify one of these two stories – that the truth must lie somewhere in between if not in an entirely different place altogether. This allows the book to navigate and sustain some ambiguity about whether it is an inverted mystery, a psychological suspense story or a more traditional whodunit.

I really enjoyed the early chapters of the book in which we are given quite a bit of information that is still unknown to our sleuth. We get to know Merivale and some members of his household, read some correspondence and get a better sense of Merivale’s personality. There are even a few moments in which we learn some of his thoughts which rather than throwing light on the matter only seem to make it more confusing.

A short trial sequence falls at the midpoint of the book. In this chapter we are introduced to the members of the jury and follow them as they briefly debate their view of the case, albeit in generalities rather than specifics, before they reach a verdict. The trial is probably my least favorite section of the book though I think Flynn does a pretty good job of creating a set of different personalities to make up his jury and I do appreciate that it serves as a transition to the second phase of the novel in which Bathurst digs a little deeper to try and uncover the truth of what happened that night.

I don’t want to say too much about that final section of the book except that it is a clever investigation that contains some pretty interesting developments. Flynn incorporates one or two very inventive ideas into the plot and I will say I was utterly baffled about how Bathurst would make sense of it all. Happily he does though and everything is explained. While I have a few reservations related to the an aspect of the motive, the solution is quite clever and original in places.

I enjoyed Bathurst’s company and particularly his interactions with MacMorran throughout the book. As investigators from the gifted amateur school go, he is pretty charming – managing to walk the difficult line of being obviously very smart and well-read without being smug and insufferable.

Overall then I was very impressed with Tread Softly which I found to be baffling and entertaining in pretty equal measure. I have little doubt I will return to Bathurst soon and I look forward to seeing what else Brian Flynn has in store for me.


Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor offered up an initial review and also awards it the top spot in his top ten titles of the first twenty by Flynn (linked above).

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime offered a very positive review and I see looking at it that I responded enthusiastically to the suggestion that this played with the notion of the inverted mystery in the comments. I can only say that my efforts to track down a copy were met with no success at the time as these reprints were, at that point, but a twinkle in the eye of Puzzle Doctor and Dean Street Press!

TomCat @ Moonlight Detective is a little more muted in their praise, preferring Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye and Murder Near Mapleton.

Similarly Dead Yesterday offers a broadly positive review. Common to this and all of the above is praise for the book’s unusual concept and structure.


A Cataloguing Note

For a substantial portion of the book this crime is presented ambiguously as though we could either be looking at a traditional whodunnit or an inverted mystery. As I am aware that my tagging choice would reveal the answer to that (as well as this book having appeal to fans of both styles) I have tagged it as though each were the correct solution.

Evelyn Marsh by S. W. Clemens

Book Details

Originally published in 2017

The Blurb

Everyone agreed Evelyn Marsh wouldn’t hurt a fly, but they didn’t count on a mother’s ferocity, nor the fury of a woman scorned. Written in the spirit of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley), Evelyn Marsh begins with the provocative statement that “Evelyn’s first murder was an accident.” The rest of the book exists to explain the implication embedded in that first line. A psychological character study, it’s a why-done-it and how-done-it, instead of a who-done-it.

The Verdict

A lot of the elements used are familiar but Clemens combines them skillfully and executes them well.


My Thoughts

Evelyn Marsh begins with the title character accidentally committing what is described as a murder. In actual fact she has unintentionally killed a gopher that was menacing her garden. While that may read like the literary equivalent of a clickbait headline, the use of the word ‘murder’ is both clever and useful as it tells us a lot about Evelyn as a character and her values.

This is important because Evelyn Marsh is, at its heart, a character study. What it is principally interested in and what it teases so effectively in its first line is how a woman can go from crying over a dead animal and insisting on giving it a burial to committing a second, deliberate murder. The victim’s identity is unknown both to the reader and to Evelyn at this point in the novel so we follow along as we see her interact with other characters, see potential triggers and situations being created and wonder exactly what will be the moment that will send her over the edge. In short, we are looking an example of the whydunit style of inverted mystery.

Looked at it from the outside, Evelyn Marsh’s life is enviable. She lives in a gorgeous home, her husband earns a comfortable salary from the law practice he took on from her father meaning she wants for little and she has recently begun to exhibit and sell her artwork – something that brings her great pleasure, even if the financial rewards of that so far have been relatively modest. She however perceives that life slightly differently, particularly her marriage which has become cold since the children left home.

In the early chapters of the novel, Clemens carefully establishes each aspect of her life and several of the relationships that are most important to her. The reader may perceive some familiar storytelling seeds being sewn that suggest how the story will take its turn but because there are several such strands, it is not obvious which will be the ultimate trigger. Nor are those threads as predictable as they initially appear – Clemens overlaps some of those storylines, leading them to impact on each other which pushes the work into some less expected directions as Evelyn plans and executes her murder and responds to an investigation.

Unusually for this sort of story, I found the act of murder to be the least compelling aspect of the book. It is, of course, necessary and it has been planned but after chapters of building anticipation, the act itself happens quickly, as does the staging of the scene, and before you know it we have moved onto the investigative portion of the book. This is not a bad thing however because it is this final section of the book that feels the most engaging and interesting.

Where the early part of the book dealt with familiar ideas and story beats, albeit presenting them with twists, this final section feels like it is doing its own thing. It manages to do so with a focus on character with each new development seeming to probe and illustrate different aspects of Evelyn’s personality and we see her undergo a sort of transformation as a result.

Having diverged from the more familiar plot points and beats of the inverted crime story by this point, we find ourselves in rather unexpected territory about just how each of the plot threads will be resolved. I found this to be quite exciting and enjoyed following the path of the investigation and trying to predict how the story might end. I was not disappointed with that conclusion which not only felt interesting on a character level, it also felt like a satisfying final statement on the book’s central themes.

Overall I enjoyed Evelyn Marsh a lot and found it to be a clever psychological exploration of how a woman comes to commit a murder. While many of the ingredients will be familiar, Clemens combines them in unexpected ways to produce a character-driven story that exceeded my expectations.

End of an Ancient Mariner by G. D. H. Cole and M. Cole

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Superintendent Wilson #10
Preceded by A Lesson in Crime
Followed by Death in the Quarry

The Blurb

It is said that dead men tell no tales, but sometimes sudden death is the means of bringing well-hidden tales to light. It is so in this story; for out of the seemingly accidental death of the unknown old man who called on Philip Blakeway at Hampstead comes the clearing-up of an old crime. How Captain John Jay really died, how Ann Burton set out to look for her missing father, and how Superintendent Wilson unravelled the tangle, you will read in this book, in which you will find not only a detective story in Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s best manner, but also another example of their habit of writing about people who behave like real men and women, and not merely figures whom the author moves about at his pleasure.

The Verdict

An intriguing inverted story scenario is spoiled by a dull investigation and a lack of interest in exploring the character of its killer. Ends strong but takes too long getting there.


My Thoughts

After several years of financial worries, Philip Blakeway seems to finally be living comfortably. He has married a wealthy widow who is able to keep him and sustain his business, though he could easily afford to live a life of leisure. Even her children’s lack of warmth towards him does not seem to seriously bother him and he hopes to make some progress with his relationship with her son while she is away for a few days.

All that comfort seems to evaporate however when he spots a seafaring man at a religious gathering while out on a walk – a situation that becomes even more worrying when that man follows him home and asks for an audience. Blakeway asks for the man to be shown into his library and gives the servants the night off, even though he will be having a few friends over later that evening. He goes ahead with the party as planned, staging a scene where he happens upon the mariner robbing his bedroom and they struggle, causing the mariner’s gun to go off and kill him. We know however that this is murder – what we do not know is why Philip felt driven to commit the act.

I first learned about this book several months ago in the chapter on Inverted Mysteries in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. While Edwards’ short essay on the book is not exactly glowing, he describes it as ‘good enough’ to make it feel disappointing that the authors did not return to the form. Always keen to try a new author’s take on this type of story, particularly those from the Golden Age, I couldn’t resist snapping up a copy. I am pretty sure I did so before I even finished the article.

The book gets off to a strong start with a chapter that establishes Blakeway and his new lifestyle. While it is quite clear that we are not given the full story and that secrets are lurking in his past, this chapter does help to give us a sense of the man and what he values. It also goes some way to laying the foundations for the later revelations about his past and his relationship to the man who will be murdered.

By choosing to give us this introduction and the events leading up to the meeting with the victim at his home before jumping forwards a few hours, picking up the story at the moment of the shooting, the authors add an additional layer of mystery to the proceedings. We can infer from the circumstances of that meeting that the victim posed some sort of threat to Blakeway and his security yet we do not know the nature of that threat or whether those secrets truly died with the mariner. Nor do we really know much about the victim himself beyond a physical description and our knowledge of the fear he creates in Blakeway. In short, this choice to not show us exactly what happened works pretty well to build a sense of uncertainty and emphasize that the book’s central questions relate to the relationship between those two men.

We then follow Blakeway as he answers police questions and then receives a blackmail request. This is a relatively common plot point in this sort of mystery and it often inspires additional plot developments but here the authors do not really exploit it. After being raised near the start of the novel, this plot point really slips out of view to the extent that, when it was referenced again late in the book it had completely slipped from my mind.

The reason it slipped my mind and struck me as pretty unimportant reflects that the bulk of the novel feels really rather unstructured. While we might think of those middle chapters of the novel as showing how Blakeway responds to some external pressures, the story seems to ooze towards its conclusion rather than feel like it is being driven towards it. There is a sense of a building series of pressures but no sense of an antagonist for Blakeway to pitch his wits against or the need to construct a cover-up. While that may be realistic, it does not make for particularly compelling storytelling. The entry of Superintendent Wilson late in the day does little to help this.

Martin Edwards describes him as dull and I cannot really disagree. His role in this story is fairly minimal, reflecting that he is brought into the affair late in the day, but he does not have much personality or bring much force to bear on the investigation. He really just works out a probable (and correct) explanation from a distance. Even that however feels rather anticlimactic and, once again, it never feels as if he is engaged with the other characters in the story.

While the process of getting to the explanation is rather dry, the content of that explanation is rather more interesting. I was certainly surprised to learn one element motivating the crime which is fairly clued and was intrigued to see how another character would respond. It sets up an interesting final few chapters that feel less predictable than what has come before while not losing sight of the characters or the relationships that had been established earlier in the novel.

As interesting as the start and end of the novel are, I feel that I cannot really recommend it. It is not just that the plotting is sometimes a little loose with some elements, like the threat of blackmail, being raised but then forgotten for much of the story. I think the problems lie in the choice to prevent the reader from really getting to know Blakeway. Following the murder he seems emotionally remote, even when we are being shown how he is responding to events. That works in terms of sustaining the mystery about why he has resorted to murder but it does mean that for much of the book the character feels more like a cipher than a fully-dimensional person and I think it kept me from really caring about his fate.

Have you read anything by the Coles? If so, what is your opinion of their writing? Are there any books you would recommend to me?

Mother’s Boys by Robert Barnard

Book Details

Originally published in 1981.
Also published as Death of a Perfect Mother.

The Blurb

At the very moment that Lill Hodsden was describing her two sons (‘We think the world of each other: they’d do anything for me’) Gordon and his brother Brian were plotting darkly at home.

Next Saturday, on her way back from the pub, they planned a sharp blow on the back of Lill’s head and maybe a twist of rope around her throat. What a beautiful empty future they would have!

But Lill’s garrotted body was discovered two days early on Thursday night. Gordon and Brian were incredulous that someone else had got there first for a bizarre twist of fate was going to bring the mother’s boys full circle…

The Verdict

Unpleasant with a predictable conclusion that is clearly meant to surprise. I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon…


My Thoughts

Lill Hodsden is regarded as common and cheap by most of the inhabitants of Todmarsh. Her husband, Fred, is oblivious to her carrying on with other men and to the presents she has received in return for her favors and seems to not care about her controlling behavior. Her sons however deeply resent it and worry that she will never let go of them and allow them to become independent.

One day Gordon, the eldest son, suggests to his brother Brian that they should kill her. Brian, assuming he is joking, plays along only to find that he is serious. After talking it over they develop a plan and test some elements. Then just two days before they were to go through with the deed she is found garrotted in the very alley they had planned to commit the murder in.

I actually picked up Mother’s Boy in error after finding a copy of the blurb that omitted the last paragraph. Assuming that this would be a straightforward inverted mystery, I got hold of a copy only to find as I was partway through that other suspects were appearing, each with their own deepset grudges against Lill. Still, even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting I decided to press on with it and see it to its conclusion.

I rather wish I hadn’t bothered.

Mother’s Boys is a depressing read that lacks wit and contains several depictions of various -isms that were made for uncomfortable reading, even though I perceive the author’s intent was to critique those small-minded attitudes. Certainly those opinions tend to come out of the mouths of characters who are established as nasty pieces of work. Which turns out to be just about everyone, making for some quite depressing reading at times.

Unfortunately however I think those efforts to satirize or illustrate those racist attitudes are undermined by the attempt to comically describe the fictional island that the book’s black character came from in terms of savagery (they have, of course, recently been cannibals and plump tourists still occasionally go missing) and ignorance (they have mistakenly come to believe George Eliot a Christian saint based on a missionary’s book collection). It is a frustrating choice because, if that was not there, I might well be lauding the author’s efforts to address racism, both spoken and unspoken, in society.

The book has other, more structural issues however that are evident right from its first chapter. This book has to do something that is quite difficult – convince us that two sons, who are believed to dote on their mother, would negotiate and conspire a murder plan in a single conversation. This might have been set up by an obvious pressure point on that relationship such as a particular slight given or a specific provocation but instead it is brought up quite bluntly and with no build up at all. This renders the whole conversation unnervingly neat and artificial which might not be a problem if the whole book was written in that style. The problem is that it really doesn’t sit comfortably with the social realism approach adopted in almost every other aspect of the novel. Accordingly it feels quite forced, as though the author is simply setting up the chess board to favor the moves they intend to make.

In addition the plan they devise is in no way creative or devious. It simply amounts to making it appear that they are both in a busy pub while one slips a short distance away to carry out the crime and returns. There is so little about this that is unique or interesting that I was actually relatively relieved when the author began to introduce some other suspects. My hope was that even if this wasn’t the inverted masterpiece I hoped for, maybe we would get a good detective story out of this setup instead.

Here Barnard at least sets up some promising possibilities as we see Lill manage to aggravate almost everyone in her community in the hours leading up to her murder in different ways. There is a pretty diverse set of motives to consider and by the time you get to that murder the reader will likely be relieved that they will no longer have to spend any more time in Lill’s obnoxious company.

It is easy to understand why Lill upsets so many people. Her behavior is loud, crude and overly familiar, lacking the sorts of boundaries that help people navigate social situations. Barnard seems to imply that there is some classist snobbery on display in others’ responses to her. We notice that other characters are just as forward, just as insensitive or interfering and yet they do not inspire quite the same level of ire as Lill. I think this idea is interesting and yet, because it is never directly addressed in the narration it is not clear if it is intentional or if I have simply read it into the text. I rather hope it is the former.

One aspect of the work that Barnard definitely intends is to present his detectives as impatient for results and judgmental towards the people they are speaking with. This is not unique to this work but I think it works particularly well here, especially given those other themes I found in the book. This not only adds to those themes within the novel, it also leads to the investigation developing rather atypically as the reader cannot be sure whether they will find the truth or not.

But that brings me to the novel’s biggest problems which, rather unfortunately, all lie with the book’s solution. To start with, the mystery is not exactly a carefully plotted puzzle. The detectives never really get into the matter of analyzing characters’ movements. Indeed most of the suspects are simply identified as possible based on their motive. This undermines the reader’s ability to process this as a puzzle mystery – we end the case simply without knowing much about the suspects.

At the same time, there is one solution that actually stands out as being quite obvious. I do not consider myself as being particularly brilliant or inspired for reaching it early in the book and later developments clearly seem to confirm it. It is simply that there is never any serious attempt made to make that conclusion seem impossible, almost as if the author considered it so brilliant that he assumed no one could possibly conceive of it. I might almost wonder if that was deliberate except the ending is so clearly framed as though it were a surprise that it appears the author must have believed he had hidden the signs hinting at it.

So rather unfortunately I found myself quite frustrated by this book. Barnard creates some striking and vivid characters and the themes it develops are interesting but the mystery feels unfocused and the tone feels inconsistent. I have several other books by Barnard in my TBR pile so I am sure I will give him another try but this experience doesn’t leave me excited. If anyone has any Barnard suggestions however I would be happy to receive them!