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…

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

1280
Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1964

Pop. 1280 is my first encounter with Jim Thompson, a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction best known for writing The Killer Inside Me. I had previously learned about him as part of a lecture about violence and crime fiction in the Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction series and was even more intrigued when I saw JJ had listed him as one of his Kings of Crime.

The novel’s protagonist is Nick Corey, a corrupt and lazy sheriff in a tiny county in rural Texas. His days are spent taking bribes, eating and drinking at the various establishments in the town and sleeping with the town’s single (and some not so single) women.

He has some problems though that threaten his chances of keeping this job and the comfortable living that comes with it. For one thing, he is being publicly disrespected by two pimps at the local brothel. With a tough reelection fight looming he wants to stamp this out before it can do more damage to his public persona. And then there’s his complicated love life…

Pop. 1280 follows Nick as he attempts to straighten out some of these problems, indulge his appetites and ensure his reelection to the only job he feels suited for. While he appears to be quite a simple, corny kind of guy who tries to avoid taking any firm positions, we soon learn that he gives far more thought to what he does than it appears as he commits murder and manipulates another character into claiming responsibility for it. Crucially we are not told what he intends and so his actions often seem irrational or counterproductive, only for the reason for them to become clear after the fact.

Not every aspect of the story falls within Nick’s control however and he spends significant chunks of the novel responding to problems instigated by other characters. This gives the story a meandering, unpredictable quality as we see him find opportunities in situations that seem quite undesirable, showing his quick mind and talent for manipulation.

Thompson’s story drives home a deeply pessimistic view of humanity in which no one wants to obey the law themselves but wants to see others subjected to it. Nick reflects that what this amounts to is that the influential folk want to be left alone and to see him pick on the town’s black and poor white population instead and what we see confirms it. Almost all of the supporting characters are shown to be in some way corrupt, greedy and selfish and several of his victims seem to quite deserve their fates, usually falling into them because of their own moral compromises and instincts.

There are some very strong satirical moments in the story and it should be said that as dark as the subject matter can be, it is often very amusing. Nick’s habit of responding to criticism with a folksy saying works throughout the novel while his amorous misadventures place him in some truly ridiculous situations. These sorts of comedic moments keep the overall feel of the piece quite light and give a good sense of balance to the novel as a whole.

The three central women in Nick’s life are also all quite intriguing and varied figures, each feeling quite fleshed out if far from sympathetically. I do not want to spoil the way each is developed and used in the story but I think they all have an interesting journey with that of Rose, his wife’s best friend whose husband is abusive, being the most striking. That storyline takes several unpredictable turns and incorporates several of the novel’s most shocking moments.

Thompson cultivates a feeling of shock and dismay on the part of the reader right the way through the novel, routinely exposing characters’ vices and cruelties. Readers should expect to find considerable, casual use of a racial epithet by pretty well every character in the book which, while not pleasant, is authentic to the time and setting.

Nick is not a nice man, nor can he really be elevated to the status of anti-hero. He is a villain who does some truly cruel things but because the people he targets are often more loathsome than him readers may well enjoy seeing him pull off his plans. While he seems to obfuscate and lie at points in his narrative, he can also be quite straightforward in admitting to exactly who and what he is. For that reason when he explains himself at the end of the novel it doesn’t come as a shock but rather it is the logical conclusion to what we have observed throughout the story.

It is surprising that although the book touches on some truly dark themes Thompson is pretty restrained in his use of violence. The threat of it and our knowledge that it is happening is always there but there are relatively few moments in which we see it explicitly described. This contrasted with the image I had of Thompson’s style and I will be interested to see whether that is true of his other novels.

It should be said that while this is a crime story that this is not a mystery. There is nothing here for the reader to detect or deduce other than what exactly Nick has planned and his motive, both of which are spelled out early in the book.

Rather Pop. 1280 is both a character study of a killer and an exploration of the human propensity towards selfishness, greed and hatred. Stephen Marche described it as ‘a romp through a world of nearly infinite deceit’ and while I don’t have enough knowledge of the author’s work to be able to agree with his assessment that it is the author’s true masterpiece, I would certainly say it is a compelling, cynical read that manages to shock, appall and amuse in fairly equal measures.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

Rendell
A Demon in My View
Ruth Rendell
Originally Published 1976

I have written before about how one of my earliest crime fiction memories was seeing my mother reading Ruth Rendell books while she waited to pick us up from events. Well, my parents are in town for the holidays and they thoughtfully came bearing a stack of those Arrow paperbacks (sadly not pictured – I couldn’t find a good enough scan of those covers).

Many of the titles were Wexford novels but the volume that caught my eye first was the standalone novel, A Demon in My View. The book was an award winner, winning the author her first CWA Golden Dagger for Best Crime Novel in 1976, but what intrigued me was that it clearly was an inverted crime novel.

Arthur Johnson works as a clerk and assists his building’s landlord by collecting the rent each week. While he seems meek and timid, we learn that he is a psychopath who murdered several women years earlier before finding a way of channeling his aggressions, dressing up a mannequin which he keeps in the building’s basement and strangling it. Doing this he has managed to repress his murderous urges and is living a comfortable, if isolated life.

His comfortable world is threatened however when the landlord informs him that another man with the same last name and first initial, Anthony Johnson, will be moving into the building. For one thing, Anthony never seems to leave the building and his room overlooks the entrance to the cellar which prevents him from making his visits to that mannequin. For another, Arthur dreads the possibility that the two men’s mail may be mixed up and that he may open a letter meant for his neighbor instead.

Rendell’s Arthur is an intriguing creation being terrifying in his apparent normalcy. He is certainly odd, insisting on observing formalities and holding some strong if unspoken views on race, nationality and religion, but he holds down a regular job and gives his neighbors no cause to suspect him. He can seem rather sad and pathetic, we are told Anthony feels quite sorry for him, and I think we can understand his sense of inferiority and rage, even if he is unaware of it.

Though this story focuses on Arthur’s journey from the point of Anthony’s arrival, Rendell does find time to depict and explore his first murder in enough detail to give a sense of how he came to be this way. She does not present the reader with a potted explanation but rather provides us with the evidence and allows us to piece it together for ourselves. I found this to be quite effective and I appreciated that she depicts what is necessary to establish the character but does not feel the need to show us each instance of violence.

By contrast, Anthony’s life seems messy and chaotic. The psychology student who studies psychopaths seems far more focused on his love life than on paying attention to the others in the building with him. In many ways he seems an opposite of Arthur and it is no surprise that the two men do not get on together.

This novel is really the story of how the rivalry and tension between these two men ultimately proves destructive to them. I appreciated Rendell’s construction of a series of small actions, perceived as aggressions, that creates chaos and confusion. It is easy to understand both men’s worries and motivations and how their actions impact each other.

Rendell writes sympathetically to both characters, describing events in the third person but infusing the narration with their thoughts, feelings and observations. This does mean that we spend quite a bit of time inside Arthur’s head, experiencing things from his perspective and hearing his casual observations that are peppered with intolerant and judgmental thoughts. At other points we see how he can take a small, perhaps rather thoughtless event and perceive it to be something quite different.

Some may find the time spent inside Arthur’s head to be unsettling or feel that it makes for a rather unpleasant reading experience. For my part I can certainly understand it causing discomfort though I think the author created a compelling, credible character and sells the idea of killing as a compulsion.

One element of the novel that I found to be particularly interesting is the idea that pain and harm are often not caused intentionally but through oversight or thoughtlessness. This rang true to me and I think Rendell develops this theme very cleverly, constructing a story in which the intended effects of an action often turn out to be quite different from their actual consequences.

In addition to the two Johnsons, Rendell creates a wide and varied cast of characters with strong personality types to inhabit this converted house. While there was no breakout character for me, I think she succeeds in creating the sense of a real community within the building and using that to demonstrate Arthur’s sense of isolation.

Having discussed the setup, characters and approach that the story takes, I should perhaps say a word about the way it concludes. Since finishing the book I have read several reviews that describe its ending as disappointing. I disagree with that assessment but I understand what they mean.

The reason is that Rendell was not really writing a mystery novel but rather a crime novel. Sure, there are questions about whether and how the murderer might get caught but her interest is in how the crimes affect the perpetrator and the community around them rather than delivering action or a more traditional puzzle to solve.

For me the ending possessed a powerful bluntness and I think it plays beautifully into the themes of the novel as a whole. I appreciated that Rendell foreshadows this moment at a couple of points within the novel so, rather than coming from nowhere, it is a logical development of the plot and consequence of a character’s actions.

While A Demon In My View may be a little dark and unsettling for some readers, I think it is a striking example of the inverted crime form. The character of Arthur feels credible and I think Rendell does an excellent job of pointing out some of the contradictions within him. Based on this experience, I can only hope that there are a few other Rendell inverted crime stories sitting waiting for me in this stack.

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

blueprint
Blueprint for Murder
Roger Bax (aka. Andrew Garve)
Originally Published 1948
Inspector James #1
Followed by APA: The Trouble with Murder

When I reviewed Disposing of Henry a few months ago I found it to be a frustrating read. It had some brilliant and effective moments including a highly effective murder scene and the author’s use of horrific imagery as the killers try to cover up their crime. Unpleasant characterizations and somewhat predictable plotting however made reading it a rather joyless experience.

Blueprint for Murder was written a year before that work and has many elements in common. We have a largely unsympathetic murderer, a gentle and generous victim as well as an evocative murder scene but the balance here is slightly different and the introduction of some lighter elements makes it a more entertaining read.

The novel begins with a prologue that not only introduces us to our murderer, it also clearly sets the tone for what will follow. In the final days of the war a British soldier, Arthur Cross, is on the run through the countryside when he happens upon a farm. Though he is in a German uniform he is able to tell the farmer and his daughter that he is British and had been in a prisoner of war camp after his plane was shot down. He is given shelter which he repays by robbing and murdering them.

Several months later paint manufacturer Charles Collison throws a small get-together on his boat for his son, Geoffrey, and his nephew, Arthur. He is pleased that everyone is finally together again and offers both men the opportunity to manage the day-to-day running of his firm for a comfortable wage and to come live with him. Arthur has little interest in the job but when Charles mentions that he has instructed his solicitor to draw up a will splitting his estate between the two his thoughts immediately turn to ways to murder the old man.

One of the themes that I noticed about both Bax novels is that the experience of going to war is shown to make men hard and bitter. Arthur does not dislike his Uncle beyond finding him a little pompous and rather admires his steadiness and that he feels a sense of duty towards his nephew but feels that he does not want to work hard or strive. He is not planning a long and prosperous life for himself but plans to live fast and die young. Charles’ death offers him a way to live the life he wants and he does not see why he should have to wait for that.

The plan he develops is a rather ingenious, if risky one that I will not spoil beyond saying that he aims to create a perfect alibi for himself. Arthur approaches planning his crime in a cold, analytical way and coolly thinks through many of the problems he may face. He even considers that it would be a good thing if he could contrive a way for the blame to seem to fall onto his cousin who would be the other likely suspect.

In short, this isn’t the sort of story where the killer leaves an obvious trail back to themselves. Arthur’s plan is solidly thought through and the thing that will undo him is something that he never considers although he has a contingency in place if things go badly for him. The reader will not be able to deduce that twist so this is really more of an inverted crime story than a mystery but I think it is very well done and leads to an exciting, action-driven conclusion.

While Arthur is the protagonist, “Bax” introduces a secondary character who will serve as a hero and romantic lead. Charles’ son Geoffrey is of a similar age but had a very different experience during the war having quite enjoyed his time in uniform and seen very little of the conflict itself. He is positive and I imagine that contemporary readers would have seen him as quite charming although some of his attitudes come off as quite sexist to a modern reader.

Take for instance his dating techniques which leave a lot to be desired. Part way into the story he meets a young woman who is training to become a doctor and asks her out on a date where he inquires about her unusual career choice. During their conversation he manages to imply that she lacks the physical strength and the backbone to be a surgeon and yet she amazingly accepts a second date during which he instructs her to go make him a pot of tea. Which she does.

I rolled my eyes quite a lot during most of the scenes between this pair and yet I think their presence gives the story a lightness and optimism it needs to achieve a sense of balance with Arthur’s story. Disposing of Henry would made the mistake of killing off its only sympathetic character early in the story but even if we do not like Geoffrey, most readers would probably agree that he does nothing to deserve getting caught up in this situation.

It all culminates in a very dramatic and action-driven conclusion that I think is well-crafted, even though one of the biggest moments is signposted far too clearly early in the novel. There are some strong action beats though sadly an attempt at a big character reveal fell a bit flat for me as it tried to surprise me with something I had assumed we were being told quite directly early in the novel. I can only assume that the reveal may have been more surprising to readers in the late-40s.

Still, in spite of those small quibbles and a few elements that didn’t work quite as they should have, I found this to be a very effective inverted crime story. Arthur’s murder plan is clever and featured some elements I hadn’t seen before. The author does a phenomenal job of bringing the moment of the murder to life and makes the reader feel the tension and the violence of that scene.

For those who can stomach spending time with its cold and vicious protagonist, I think this is a rewarding and often quite exciting read. I certainly plan on seeking out more work by this author, not only under this pseudonym but also as Andrew Garve, in the near future.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Matriarch/patriarch of the family (Who)

Except for One Thing by John Russell Fearn

ExceptFor
Except for One Thing
John Russell Fearn
Originally Published 1947

Richard Harvey is a wealthy and prominent research chemist who for the past two years has been secretly engaged to Valerie Hadfield, a leading actress. The secrecy was necessary because of a non-marriage clause in her contract but as she is about to start a new role they should soon be able to make their relationship public.

The problem is that Richard wants out. As time has passed he has come to realize that he was more attracted to the character she was on stage than to the real woman who can be ‘cold, hard, and carved out of a glacier’. He has met and fallen in love with another woman, Joyce, and he wants to marry her instead. He meets with Valerie to ask her to drop the engagement but she insists that he will go ahead or else she will make his love letters public and expose him for breach of promise.

Richard isn’t prepared to deal with scandal and he is perceptive enough to realize that Valerie will not compromise or be bought off. He soon decides that murder is the only solution to his problem but having worked with Scotland Yard he is all too aware of how easily murderers can be discovered and does not wish to become another Dr. Crippen. He resolves that he will carry out the perfect crime and sets about not only working out a way to carry out the murder but also a plan to avoid leaving any forensic evidence that will lead back to himself.

Yes, we are in inverted territory and our killer’s motive is that he wants to free himself to pursue another woman. Fearn’s novel presents us with an interesting twist on that formula however because his killer has a relationship with the police. Richard, we learn, often works with Scotland Yard on their cases in a consulting capacity and is even a friend of the man who will investigate this case, Inspector Garth. He is able to use his knowledge of police procedure and that relationship with Garth and this adds a slightly different dimension that turns the second half of the novel into a sort of cat-and-mouse game between killer and detective as Richard uses his knowledge of the investigation to stay one step ahead.

This twist to the inverted formula works nicely and lends a touch of originality to a plot that otherwise might seem quite familiar. Indeed, when Richard declares “I’ve planned a perfect crime” (he really does say that to his victim) the reader may be forgiven for seeing what is particularly noteworthy about his efforts. Yes, there is an attention to detail and an awareness of the things that the Police might look for such as fingerprints or those incriminating letters but for much of the novel it is hard to see where the genius of this crime lies.

I do think that there are some effective ideas here, even if Fearn does keep some back until close to the end of the novel. There is one image or idea that I found to be particularly effective and unsettling, making the ending feel gritty and a little grotesque in the best possible way.

I was less impressed with the characterizations of both Richard and Garth, each of whom struck me as a little bland were it not for their relationship with each other. For instance, we are told that Richard is brilliant and yet the murder he plans feels grounded in practicalities. Similarly Garth is solid and diligent but while there is talk about his friendship with Richard complicating the case, he seems pretty solidly on the side of exposing the truth throughout the story.

So if this is not an interesting psychological exploration of a killer or an exploration of a particularly unusual or creative murder, where does the appeal lie? It is in seeing those two characters interacting with each other and in trying to predict how Garth will best Richard and expose the truth. Part of this requires us to understand exactly what Richard’s plan was but we also have to discern where the loose threads are and how he may have made matters worse in his bumbling attempts to cover his tracks.

This final phase of the novel is, in my opinion, its most effective. Our knowledge of the two characters’ actions helps to generate suspense as we understand how they are each feeling about different aspects of the case and are aware of the disconnect between what they are saying and what they are thinking.

The ending is powerful and I feel sure it will stick with me for some time to come but as much as it satisfied me I cannot overlook that I was underwhelmed by the description of the crime itself and the apparent simplicity of Richard’s plan. Fearn keeps back his richest and most distinctive material until his final few chapters which I think is a shame as without those elements the crime feels underwhelming.

Except for One Thing was originally published under the pseudonym Hugo Blayn.

The Vengeful Virgin by Gil Brewer

Vengeful
The Vengeful Virgin
Gil Brewer
Originally Published 1958

The Vengeful Virgin is a pulp novel from the 1950s that on the face of it seems a little out of my reading comfort zone. The reason it jumped out at me though is that it is another example of my favorite subgenre, the inverted crime story and I came to it feeling somewhat optimistic based on my experiences with the other hard-boiled inverted stories I have reviewed recently.

The novel concerns a pair of lovers with an almost primal physical attraction to one another and their plot to kill the girl’s rich stepfather who is an invalid. The girl, eighteen year-old Shirley Angela, has been caring for him for three years and resents his demands. She knows that she is in line to receive a big inheritance from him but knows that with medical intervention he could live for ten years or longer.

When protagonist Jack Ruxton, a television installation engineer, first crosses paths with her she has already devised a crude plan to get rid of him. The two are instantly drawn to each other and she brings him in on the plan. He quickly expresses concern that her idea to have a television topple onto him would immediately be traced back to them and suggests his own plan…

Jack is far from a charming guy and is in some ways a little reminiscent of the male murderer in Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry, another inverted story. This similarity extends right to the character’s casual description of Shirley as  someone who “…made you feel as if you wanted to rape her” and is attracted to her in part because of her youth. Their relationship is all kinds of problematic if the author’s intention is to titillate his reader as Jason John Horn notes in an essay he wrote about chauvinism and ableism in this novel. Be aware that essay does spoil some key plot developments!

I am on the fence about whether Brewer intends to appeal to that side of his readers here or not. If that was the aim I think he misses the mark in any case as those scenes, while frequent, do little to appeal to the reader’s senses. They do effectively establish the main character as a seedy, brutish man who uses the women in his life to fulfil his own desires whether physical or financial.

Shirley is cast as a mix of vixen and femme fatale. She certainly tempts Jack into committing a crime though he did not need much persuasion and she repeatedly expresses her desire for him. The characterization is not particularly complex and perhaps the one revelation that may have added a little punch is spoiled within the book, reducing the impact of a key moment within the novel’s conclusion.

Though Brewer’s characters feel a little flat, the plotting is a little more interesting. I was impressed with the idea that Jack comes up with for its relative simplicity and the scene in which the plan is carried out contains some wonderful moments of tension. Throughout the build up to that moment we are made aware of the danger they face and anticipate some of the things that might go wrong. These problems are foreshadowed very effectively and while I think it would be a stretch to say there are mystery elements here, the reader can try to work out how those elements will combine to cause their downfall.

While the reader will likely predict elements of the novel’s conclusion, I do think it contains some of the novel’s strongest imagery and dramatic moments. That sequence sums up the novel’s themes well and it feels like a logical and powerful resolution to the story.

Unfortunately the journey to that point underwhelms, particularly in the saggy middle of the tale where we wait for the pair to actually get on with committing their crime. Neither Jack nor Shirley are interesting or likeable enough to make their relationship compelling and there are no unexpected revelations or moments featuring them that may have made them more complex or interesting and might have helped to drive the story.

Though The Vengeful Virgin has some strong moments, not least its punchy ending, I think it never rises above its often flat, unpleasant characterizations and the slow pacing of the scenes in which the pair develop their plan. It is not badly written and it does have a few good ideas but the sometimes seedy tone (which, to be fair, is totally hinted at in its title) had little appeal for me.

The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler

Depart
The Department of Dead Ends
Roy Vickers
Originally Published 1954

Back when I first started getting interested in inverted mysteries I went and sought out suggestions of authors who wrote that kind of crime story. One of the names that kept coming up was Roy Vickers whose Department of Dead Ends stories often clearly established the killer’s identity in the first few paragraphs.

The collection I am writing about today contains a selection of fourteen of those stories – about a third of the total written. They are selected by E. F. Bleiler who, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, opts to arrange them out-of-order. The Rubber Trumpet explains the work and methodology of the Department and while the other stories stand on their own, I appreciated them all the more for reading that tale.

Vickers’ stories are not exactly formulaic but most stories adhere to a structure in which we learn the killer’s identity, see how they came to commit the crime and how they plan to cover it up. Many of the crimes occur in a moment of desperation or anger, often being strangulations, and in quite a few the cover-up will involve the assistance of another person within the case.

The investigation is usually just a couple of pages long and typically will hinge on the discovery of a strange detail, in a few cases completely disconnected with the crime itself. The detective is able to work from that strange element to assemble a chain of logical deductions that will eventually lead to some fact in the alibi being overturned or that will help the police make a key connection.

These stories were originally published in monthly mystery magazines, mostly Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I will say that they are probably best enjoyed in small doses rather than trying to read them all in one or two sittings. I haven’t read enough other Vickers stories to know if Bleiler’s selections favor a particular type of story but I think if you make the decision not to organize them by publication date then you should take care not to put similar stories next to each other.

In spite of that complaint I should say that the quality of the collection is generally strong and I think there are some excellent stories on offer here.  The Henpecked MurdererThe Rubber TrumpetLittle Things Like That and The Man Who Murdered in Public are all very strong stories and each are worth a look.

Continue reading “The Department of Dead Ends by Roy Vickers edited by E. F. Bleiler”