Through the Walls by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

The Verdict

Some very effective early chapters set up an intriguing situation but the subsequent investigative portions feel a little flat in contrast.

Book Details

Originally published in 1937 as A Travers les Murailles
English translation first published in 2021

The Blurb

Commissaire Maubritane is approached by an old acquaintance, Pierre Sertat, who has become terrified by strange noises coming from within his locked and bolted villa, and who fears that the lives of himself, his wife, and his daughter may be in danger. He believes that two smuggling gangs have perfected a technique for passing through walls and will kill him if he divulges any information about them. Against his better judgment, Maubritane agrees to spend the night in the villa. He makes a thorough search of every room, but cannot prevent a mysterious stranger entering and shooting Sertat, who almost dies, and somehow avoiding the commissionaire’s pursuit.

During the following nights and days numerous attempts, some successful and some not, but all seemingly impossible, are made on the lives of the Sertat family. Maubritane fails to prevent them or explain them and thinks he is going mad….

We are faced with a terrible menace and our lives are in grave danger. I am helpless, with no other hope but you. Don’t abandon me!

My Thoughts

Several months ago I had a marvelous time with Noël Vindry’s The Howling Beast so when Santosh Iyer left a comment trailing that another Vindry release was imminent I was understandably excited. I ended up purchasing it as soon as it became available and I would likely have read and written about it immediately if life wasn’t keeping me incredibly busy at the moment leaving me unable to concentrate on much of anything.

Like that novel, Through the Walls is a case for the examining magistrate M. Allou, though he has only a minimal involvement with the case. The story begins with Allou receiving a visit from Commissaire Maubritane in the evening who insists on his help, hoping that Allou can explain a baffling set of events that have rattled him so badly that he has begun to wonder if he is mad.

He tells Allou how he had received a message from Pierre Sertat, a man who had helped him some years earlier on a case he was investigating, asking to meet with him secretly in a back alley late at night. Curious, Maubritane attends the meeting to find his friend in a state of high anxiety.

Sertat tells him how he has become aware of someone entering his home in the early hours of the morning, appearing to search his office each time before leaving. The house’s entrances are fastened and bolted and Sertat insists that no member of his household could be admitting the visitor. Maubritane is initially skeptical, suggesting some earthly explanations, yet when the events repeat themselves and an attempt is made on his friend’s life in his presence, Maubritane finds himself unable to explain how it could be possible…

Over a decade ago I had an incident when someone broke into my house which, though I was absolutely fine (they just took stuff), left me quite unsettled for some weeks afterwards. While other memories from that period of my life have begun to fade, those feelings remain really quite vivid for me to this day and so I found this book’s premise of an invisible intruder to be every bit as intriguing and unsettling as the more traditional horror tropes found in The Howling Beast.

Vindry has Sertat clearly set out the conditions of the various intrusions, then allows Maubritane to attack the problem by asking questions and posing simple solutions. It’s a structure that works quite well, allowing for a broad overview of the puzzle at first with additional details being drawn out in the pair’s subsequent conversations. In addition, it serves to give us an impression of Maubritane’s character and methods as well as build a sense that his efforts to solve this case really have been exhaustive. That is only reinforced in that later section of the story in which Maubritane is present when the intruder attacks Sertat.

Before we can explain how this impossibility was achieved, the book takes the time to explore why. Unfortunately the answer to that is spoiled a little by the blurb which I have quoted above as the process by which Maubritane investigates the matter for himself is quite amusing and was, for me, one of the most enjoyable sections of the novel. I particularly appreciate the choice Vindry makes to have his protagonist behave proactively, once again reminding us that he is fundamentally competent – even though he proves unable to solve this case himself.

The tension builds nicely in those early chapters before it is released in that compelling intrusion sequence which prompts a frantic chase through the mansion. It is superb stuff – tense and easy to follow – but after that burst of action there is a sudden deceleration as the investigation becomes less energetic and perhaps a little ponderous.

There are some points of interest in what follows and while I think the solution lacks the imaginative simplicity of the one found in The Howling Beast, I think there are some interesting conclusions reached here. What’s more, I appreciated the idea that Allou was able to work out his solution simply from listening to Maubritane’s story without any direct interaction or involvement with the case – I am, after all, a fan of the armchair detective trope.

The final aspect of this book that I wish to address is a structural one. One feature of The Howling Beast that I had not cared for was its framing technique in which the entire case is recounted to Allou. In that book I had found the structure highly awkward, particularly with regards the nesting of quoted speech within speech, but I am happy to report that while this also uses a framing technique I had no such problem with the way it was executed here. Instead of having the story recounted in direct speech, it is presented in a sympathetic third person voice which struck me as a far more elegant way to handle it while never losing sight of the idea that this is a character’s account of their experiences.

There are a number of presentational and structural choices here that I think work pretty well. The lively early passages of the novel, coupled with the rather dynamic figure of Maubritane, helped me to feel engaged in the problem while I also really appreciated the way a key action sequence was presented. My problems with it lie largely with the later stages of the investigation which fail to quite match some of the highs of the early chapters while the solution lacks the impact of my previous Vindry read. For that reason, I would recommend that novel ahead of this one for those looking to take a first step with Vindry though this has enough points of interest that it would be a very solid second read.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

A rather uneven collection of stories. Those who feel that Christie works best as a novelist will find little here to challenge their belief.

Book Details

This was originally published in 1937 and collections four short works published between 1932 and 1937
An edition was published in the US as Dead Man’s Mirror though that edition excludes The Incredible Theft.
Hercule Poirot #16
Preceded by Cards on the Table
Followed by Dumb Witness

The Blurb

How did a woman holding a pistol in her right hand manage to shoot herself in the left temple? What was the link between a ghost sighting and the disappearance of top secret military plans? How did the bullet that killed Sir Gervase shatter a mirror in another part of the room? And should the beautiful Valentine Chantry flee for her life from the holiday island of Rhodes?

Hercule Poirot is faced with four mystifying cases—each a miniature classic of characterization, incident, and suspense.

“Good night for a murder,” remarked Japp with professional interest. “Nobody would hear a shot, for instance, on a night like this.”

My Thoughts

When I posted my review of Dumb Witness a little over a month ago I noted that I had goofed in my efforts to reread the Poirot stories in order as I had managed to overlook this short story collection. Well, such a mistake could not be left uncorrected – particularly given how much I want to get on and reread Death on the Nile – so let’s crack on and discuss the four stories that comprise Murder on the Mews.

The opening adventure lends its title to the collection and concerns a death that occurs during the height of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. When Barbara Allen does not respond to knocks at her locked door, her housemate sends for the police. When the door is opened they find her lying dead of a bullet wound to the side of her head, a gun loosely in her hand. At first glance it seems like a case of suicide and yet there are some inconsistencies in the scene. How, for instance, could she hold the gun in her right hand but shoot herself in the left side of her head?

This is the first of three stories in the collection that style themselves as impossible situations and of those three, I think it is possibly the most successful of them. Though the length of the story necessitates some simplicity and the mechanics are pretty straightforward, Christie does give some thought to why this would be a locked room problem in the first place, devising a pretty convincing reason for that by the end.

There are, of course, flaws. I doubt that I will court much outrage by asserting that I think Christie was far more suited to the novel than the short story. One of the reasons for that is her writing style will often become overly economical such as in an early exchange where the flatmate casually drops into conversation, in argument against the idea of suicide by gunshot, that they had a lengthy discussion about possible methods of suicide which that she had been quite emphatic that she couldn’t shoot herself. While I understand the need for that part of the story, I do think that the writing feels very functional.

I should probably acknowledge that there is an argument concerning whether the absence of the key to her bedroom does perhaps undermine the impassability of that entrance. Still, why it may not be the purest example of the form, I do think that the story does do something interesting with it. Though I am not wholly convicted that the scheme makes sense, I do admire the story for trying something a little different and I appreciate the interesting framing Poirot puts on what the mastermind of it all was attempting to do.

I would characterize the second story, The Incredible Theft, as a pastiche or homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories (specifically The Adventures of the Naval Treaty) that we know had played an important role in inspiring Christie to write and enjoy mystery fiction. The action is centered upon the theft of some secret plans from a senior government minister’s home. The problem is that the plans had been out from the safe for just a few moments and no one was in the room at the time while each of the entrances were monitored at the time the crime must have taken place.

This is another story that seems to be an impossible crime, albeit one that is presented as an espionage story. In this case we have a room whose entrances are under observation by two different parties. In spite of that impossible setup however, I would suggest that the case underwhelms when read as an impossible crime – particularly in light of its solution.

It was this story that prompted me to muse on the difficulty of assessing the quality of a solution when reviewing a story you have previously read. It has been probably twenty years since I last read this short story and I didn’t recall much about it (unlike the other three stories which I remembered pretty well) but much of the solution occurred to me immediately. Was that because I remembered the problem, even if I didn’t recall any of the other details? I can’t rule it out. I can say though that the solution here strikes me as unimaginative and disappointing.

Dead Man’s Mirror on the other hand is a much more entertaining example of a locked room problem. In this story Poirot receives a summons from the highly eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Poirot journeys to his home where he meets the members of his household who, strangely, do not seem to be expecting him. When the obsessively-punctual Sir Gervase does not arrive when the dinner gong is sounded the group break into his locked study to find him dead and the word sorry scrawled on a sheet of paper. The key to the door is in Sir Gervase’s pocket and the only other entrance to the room is also locked and bolted so is this suicide or was it murder?

Of the stories in this collection, this felt the most substantial to me offering a much more developed cast of characters and a more complex solution than any of the others possess. That is reflected in some of the complexities of the various characters’ relationships, as we are prompted not only to consider the suspects’ relationships with the deceased but with one another. I enjoyed getting to know this cast of characters, several of whom felt quite boldly drawn. For instance, I would suggest that even though Sir Gervase never appears to the reader, he is far more of a personality and presence than anyone who appears in the previous story.

The solution is similarly pleasingly complex with Poirot presented with multiple clues and several aspects of the crime scene requiring explanation. While I think that there are some aspects of the crime that were not entirely convincing (the reason for the telegram being sent is particularly poor in my opinion) and the explanation of the motive felt initially quite shaky until it was given more detail at the end of the story, I appreciate that this feels a much more substantial effort than any of the other stories in the collection.

So, why don’t I find it as impressive a locked room as Murder in the Mews? I think it boils down to a matter of originality. That story, while far less complex than this, is using the locked room in an unusual way. This story does something far more familiar with it and so while the execution is fine enough, it felt significantly less ambitious and interesting to me.

This brings me to the final story in the collection, Triangle at Rhodes. This concerns two couples who Poirot gets to know while on holiday. He witnesses the couples’ interactions and anticipates what is likely to occur based on those observations. When the inevitable occurs, Poirot then explains what happened and ensures justice is done.

While each of the three previous stories could be described as a novella, this is definitely a short story. While its is the narrowest of the four stories however, I find it to be one of the more successful. That is partly because it recognizes the limitations of its page count, narrowing the focus to a matter of character and psychology. I also think it is one of the better examples of Christie anticipating the reader and engaging in a game with them.

The flaw in the story for me is a rather unexpected one: I don’t think Poirot reads like himself. There is a speech he gives where he compares what he is witnessing to other crimes he has encountered that struck me as far more the sort of thing that Miss Marple or Ariadne Oliver might say. I also think it a little unsatisfactory that Poirot abdicates himself of responsibility once he has issued a warning of sorts – while I understand why that happens to serve the plot, I think he could and should have done more to block the crime from happening. (ROT13: Uvf nethzrag gung ur unf vffhrq n jneavat naq gur pevzr vf varivgnoyr vf abg fb zhpu gur ceboyrz – engure V srry gung ur jneaf gur jebat crefba, pubbfvat gb fcrnx gb gur nppbzcyvpr vafgrnq bs gur ivpgvz.)

Still, in spite of those gripes I think the story is told at a near-perfect pace and does a wonderful job of capturing the building sense that a crime is inevitable and I do recall being quite shocked when I read this the first time around. While I think that this collection is unfortunately a little uneven, this does it end on something of a high note and it is the story that has stayed with me most strongly in the years since I last read it.

Case Closed, Volume 5: The Bandaged Be-header by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

The Verdict

Offers one excellent case, one middling one and an incomplete one (at least until Volume Six). Still, it’s entertaining and there are some wonderful moments to be found here.

Book Details

Originally published in 1995
English translation published in 2005
Volume 5
Preceded by Explosives on a Train
Followed by The Last Loan

The Blurb

Jimmy Kudo, the son of a world-renowned mystery writer, is a high school detective who has cracked the most baffling of cases. One day while on a date with his childhood friend Rachel Moore, Jimmy observes a pair of men in black involved in some shady business. The men capture Jimmy and give him a poisonous substance to rub out their witness. But instead of killing him, it turns him into a little kid! Jimmy takes on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa and continues to solve all the difficult cases that come his way. All the while, he’s looking for the men in black and the mysterious organization they’re with in order to find a cure for his miniature malady.

A vicious murderer whose face is covered in bandages is on the lose. Will Conan be able to catch him before he strikes again? 

And later, Conan’s friends Rachel and Serena want to blow off some steam but they get more than they bargain for when they discover murder at the karaoke box.

Can you figure out whodunnit before Conan does?

I couldn’t see his face well but a creepy man was wearing a dark cape and a hood.

My Thoughts

This past week has been a rather crazy one for me that found me with relatively little time on my hands to do any reading. Fortunately I found the perfect solution to this problem in the Case Closed manga series which are the sorts of book you can read in a single sitting and have become my go-to reads in that sort of situation.

The Bandaged Beheader is the fifth volume in the series in the manga series about a brilliant teen detective who has been transformed into the body of a grade schooler. As I have noted in previous reviews, I would encourage readers to work through these in order as there is some light continuity between the various adventures and to fully appreciate some of the elements that get used and the relationship between Jimmy and Rachel. Fortunately each of these volumes so far have been really entertaining making that an easy recommendation to make.

This volume is comprised of two and a half cases for our young detective to solve. Yes, that does unfortunately mean that one of these cases is incomplete and you will need to get the sixth volume to discover how it all concludes. I don’t exactly love that as an approach, particularly as it makes it that much harder to write this review, but I guess that makes sense as a sales strategy and given that I prefer to have two of the three parts than just one, I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

The first case, The Mysterious Bandaged Man, finds Rachel and Conan staying at an isolated villa where a group of college friends who had all been part of a Film Club are meeting for the first time in two years. On their way across the a rope bridge they spot a strange figure in robes with a bandaged face crossing the bridge ahead of them. Feeling a little creeped out, the pair get settled and meet the other guests. Rachel is persuaded to take a walk in the woods where she is unexpectedly attacked by that bandaged man, having a very narrow escape. Soon the group realize that someone has severed the supports on the rope bridge and disconnected the phone, stranding the group and leaving them with no way of sending for help.

Image of the title pages from The Man in Bandages

This makes for a pretty engaging backdrop to a story that feels quite action-driven but has a pretty solid detective story core. That story manages to sustain a pretty strong sense of tension, helped by the gruesomeness of a crime and the sense that Rachel’s life might really be in danger. There are some really striking panels such as the discovery of a body or an unexpected attack in the third part that keep the energy levels of this story high.

I don’t expect many readers will be surprised by the revelation of the guilty party’s identity though I think that is handled pretty well. My only complaint with Jimmy’s explanation is that there is a visual clue that is very clear when presented from the angle shown at the end of the case but that is far less clear when it is originally presented to the reader. This struck me as a little unfair, though I will accept that there are some other indications to support that same point and I will note that it didn’t really harm my enjoyment overall.

The second case, the Lex Vocalist Murder Case, involves our young heroes going to a karaoke session where they meet the members of a musical band. The group is led by the dashing Tatsuya Kimura who seems to needle his bandmates at every opportunity, creating tensions that inevitably lead to murder.

The circumstances of that murder are strange however as he is poisoned moments after he has finished a performance and has eaten a rice ball randomly off a shared tray. Based on everything we and our sleuths observe, it seems impossible that anyone could have administered a poison, meaning that we not only have to ask who did the crime but how they could have pulled it off in the first place.

It’s an enjoyable tale and I appreciated its audacity though I do wonder about the feasability of the plan the killer utilizes. My issue is not that I doubt the method might well kill Tatsuya but I think the killer puts themselves at considerable risk in carrying it out. There is so much potential for this to go badly, it makes it hard to see the plan as particularly clever. Fortunately this story offers some other points to recommend it.

For one thing I was pleasantly surprised by the emotional depth that is introduced towards the end. I hadn’t expected the story to strike those sorts of notes at all which made that development feel all the more striking and powerful. Rather than feeling sudden, I appreciated when I read back over the story that I could easily see the evidence for it, making me appreciate that plot and the subsequent tone struck all the more.

The other thing I enjoyed was the way that Jimmy manages to get involved and solve this case. This problem of how a pre-teen might get the authorities to listen to them has been really effective and I appreciate that this sees him using another clever mechanism to achieve that goal. That decision has some unintended consequences that have to be tied up towards the end of this story and I think it mostly does a good job of handling that, though I once again question Rachel’s thoughts and actions as she really should notice something is quite clearly off here.

The final story is the Conan Kidnapping Case, a story in which our young detective is surprised when a woman turns up at the Moore household claiming to be his mother. He is taken away only to be kidnapped and taken to an abandoned house. With no one aware of that fact, he must work to rescue himself from his captors after he figures out why they have taken him and what exactly they have planned for him.

More adventure than deductive test, these first two installments are fine enough and there are some entertaining elements though it does all feel rather slight. I did appreciate that this seems to link back to that broader on-going plot running through this series and I think there are some clever tricks and ideas here, even if there isn’t much opportunity for armchair detection.

The volume gives us a proper cliffhanger ending with our sleuth in serious danger of being spotted and recaptured, setting up an interesting problem for him to solve in the story’s final installment. Readers will no doubt want to jump straight to the next volume to find out how it all resolves and I will, of course, do the same shortly. While I do not love this splitting of a story across two volumes, I understand why it was necessary here and I am glad that neither of the previous stories was shortened to make space for this – particularly The Mysterious Bandaged Man which was easily my favorite of the stories here.

Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost

Episode Details

Originally broadcast December 28, 2016
TV Movie
Preceded by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

It is hard to know exactly what to say Warwick Davies is known best for. He has been involved in a number of enormous franchises in significant roles, not least Star Wars and Harry Potter. There is also the film Willow which he starred in and he will also star in the TV series which is supposed to be released in 2022.

Ken Bones has a lot of notable credits to his name. In addition to appearances in Medici and Versailles, he has appeared in several genre pieces including Midsomer Murders, Father Brown and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Jo Martin has been a regular for the past couple of years on the BBC’s hospital drama Holby City but I recognized them for their appearance in the most recently-broadcast series of Doctor Who.

The Verdict

If this is to be the final episode of Jonathan Creek, it is a good one that sends the show off with style.

Plot Summary

A film director calls his daughter back to the family home after years of estrangement following the deaths of her mother and siblings to tell her something. Unfortunately before she can arrive he has a stroke, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. Jonathan had assisted the daughter’s husband years earlier when he was accused of murdering his first wife and is now asked to help discover the truth of what happened and what the message might have been.

As it happens, those deaths are not the only terrors associated with Daemons’ Roost. There is a legend that a hundred years ago a sorcerer named Jacob Surtees was able to open a fiery portal and throw his victims into it using telekinesis. Before the case is over Jonathan will have to also explain what Surtees did all those years ago…

My Thoughts

So, it seems I have reached the end of my journey. It’s a bittersweet moment, not least because soon I will have to confront the problem of figuring out what on earth I’ll be posting about on the weekends now. I do hold out some small hope though that my declaring I have reached the end of the project and recorded a lengthy video ranking the entire series (it’s not up yet) will prompt Renwick to dash off another series or two just to force me to start over.

If this is the final installment of Jonathan Creek, I am very happy to say that the show concludes on a bit of a high with a story that reminded me of much of what I loved most about the series and particularly the specials. We have a blend of historic and the modern-day crimes for Jonathan to investigate. The mystery of the fiery inferno in particular struck me as a wonderfully visual puzzle and I enjoyed the gothic elements associated with that story enormously.

There is also a strong sense that the show is consciously alluding to its past throughout the episode. It’s not just the blatant references to past cases dropped in by the Reverend Wilkie, played with gusto by the marvelous Warwick Davies, but there is also a crazed killer from a previous case intent on revenge against Jonathan. These elements do a lot to remind us about the show’s history and make this feel like an intentional effort to pay homage to the show’s past.

Still, though the episode does feel like it pays tribute to the past, it doesn’t completely neglect what was then the show’s present. For one thing, this once again features Polly and while the action may take place in an unsettling and mysterious estate, we still spend plenty of time in the village and absorbed in its concerns – namely the need to create a scarecrow for a village festival. For another, I think that the ending of the special with its allusions to Jonathan’s past and his history with his brother, rather than providing closure, seems to open up new possibilities. Details about Jonathan’s early life have been fairly scant over the series and the sudden decision to flesh out his backstory and explore his memories could easily have been taken further had other stories followed.

The mysteries that Jonathan has to look into here are both interesting though I think the modern-day case suffers a little from not having a clear focal point or question that Jonathan has to answer. That has been a complaint I made about the previous three episodes and I can certainly see it reflected in the difficulty I had describing the plot above.

Still, while the problem itself may not be tidily described, the broader scenario is quite intriguing and illustrates a few things that I really like about the series and about the direction in which the series was headed in its flawed final few seasons. For the main one you’ll have to check out my coded spoilers section below but I do like that the scenario Jonathan is investigating is not a conventional crime – at least at first. Instead I appreciate that he is looking into something to help a woman settle some daemons from her own childhood.

Given the lack of a clear and engaging problem, I found this story thread fairly effective and I felt that the explanations provided had some interesting components and ideas to them. I felt that the explanation for the letter was particularly satisfying and worked rather nicely. There are a few weak points – not least the explanation for the estrangement and Alison being sent away from the home which didn’t quite add up for me.

The more interesting puzzle to me was the mystery of how the fiery inferno trick works. Here I will confess to being quite handily beaten by Renwick and I am happy to report that I think he set things up quite fairly. The solution is simple and wonderfully visual once shown on screen.

I have seen some express disapproval for an aspect of how the scene that confirms how the trick was worked ends up playing out. I can understand that the sequence certainly leaves Jonathan in a rather uncomfortable place, even if I think there is some justification for the choices he makes. While it certainly puts him in a somewhat different place than we usually see him, I felt that the scene fundamentally works.

The connection between the two cases is clever and, I felt, broadly satisfying. Even the rather silly bit with the scarecrows at the end didn’t bother me too much and I think it was delivered rather well. I have one reservation which, once again, can’t be discussed without spoiling the story but while I think it reflects a little untidiness in the plot, it didn’t sour me on the story as a whole.

I feel that I could make a more generalized version of that comment to sum up my feelings about this story overall. Daemons’ Roost is certainly not the tidiest or most compact episode of Jonathan Creek ever made but I think it is broadly successful nonetheless in marrying the elements of the show’s past and then-present to deliver an intriguing and entertaining ninety minutes of television. It isn’t vintage Creek, but as a last hurrah it gave me pretty much what I wanted.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Nobir V ersre gb guvatf V yvxr nobhg gur fubj’f svany srj frnfbaf – jryy, V nz guvaxvat cnegvphyneyl bs Gur Whqnf Gerr naq gur vqrn gung Wbanguna vf abg vasnyyvoyr. Urer jr frr uvz erpbtavmr gung ur pbzcyrgryl zvfernq n fvghngvba va gur cnfg orpnhfr ur gubhtug gung ur unq orra irel fzneg va cvrpvat fbzr guvatf gbtrgure jura va snpg n zheqrere jnf hfvat uvf bja grpuavdhrf ntnvafg uvz. Guvf vf ernyyl vagrerfgvat greevgbel sbe Wbanguna qenzngvpnyyl naq V guvax vg nyybjf gur fubj gb cerfrag Wbanguna va n fyvtugyl qvssrerag yvtug – erpbtavmvat uvf cerivbhf cevqr naq birepbasvqrapr znl unir pnhfrq uvz gb znxr reebef.

V nyfb rawblrq gung gur vavgvny pnfr juvpu oevatf uvz gb Qnrzbaf Ebbfg gheaf bhg gb or fbzrguvat bs n erq ureevat, ng yrnfg va grezf bs ubj gur znggre unq vavgvnyyl nccrnerq gb uvz. Guvf vf qbar dhvgr pyrireyl urer, nyybjvat gur zber vzcbegnag vasbezngvba gb or erirnyrq nf gur onpxtebhaq gb Wbanguna’f vaibyirzrag engure guna nf gur pbagrag bs uvf vairfgvtngvbaf.

Orvat zber fcrpvsvp nobhg zl ceboyrzf jvgu gur ernfba Nyvfba jnf frag njnl – juvyr V pna pregnvayl haqrefgnaq jul gur qverpgbe jbhyq jnag uvf qnhtugre gb or fcnerq sebz yvivat fbzrjurer gung jbhyq unir cnvashy zrzbevrf, V pnaabg erzbgryl haqrefgnaq jul ur bcgrq gb fgnl naq yvir va vfbyngvba. Pyrneyl ur vf fubja gb ybir Nyvfba onfrq ba uvf qrfver gb fcner ure univat gb rkcrevrapr gur fnzr cnva ur sryg ohg vg frrzf pyrne gung yvivat ng Qnrzbaf’ Ebbfg unf oebhtug uvz yvggyr wbl uvzfrys.

Ba gur znggre bs Wbanguna orvat n zheqrere – nf oehgny nf gur fprar vf, V jbhyq fnl vg’f dhvgr pyrneyl frys-qrsrafr. Vg znl abg or n gnfgrshy guvat gb qb, ohg V qba’g frr gung Wbanguna unq znal bgure punaprf gb rfpncr sebz gung fvghngvba nyvir.

Gel nf V zvtug, V fgehttyr gb urne ubj rira n puvyq zvtug zvfvagrecerg urzbtybova nf ubotboyva gubhtu V qb nccerpvngr gur rzbgvbany ryrzragf bs gung fgbelyvar.

Gur bayl cneg bs gur fbyhgvba V qvfyvxr vf Elzna vzcrefbangvat n ubzr frphevgl rkcreg sbe frireny qnlf. Vg’f abg gung V unir n ceboyrz jvgu gur zbgvir ohg whfg gung ubj ybat jbhyq ur unir gevrq gb unat nebhaq, fgergpuvat gur jbex bhg vs gur pbhcyr unqa’g vzzrqvngryl ghearq hc? Jung jnf uvf Cyna O urer?

Jonathan Creek: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 14, 2014
Season Five, Episode Three
Preceded by The Sinner and the Sandman
Followed by Daemons’ Roost

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

June Whitfield is a British comedy legend. Among her most famous roles were playing opposite Terry Scott in the long-running sitcom Terry and June and for Absolutely Fabulous. Mystery fans will also be aware though that she played Miss Marple in a series of BBC Radio adaptations that this blogger holds in high regard!

Josie Lawrence is a comedienne and actress who was best known at the time for her improvisational comedy on shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, her work with the Comedy Store Players and a stint on Eastenders.

The Verdict

A rather messy story in which the mystery element of the story takes far too long to present itself.

My Thoughts

It’s hard to know quite where to begin with The Curse of the Bronze Lamp. While most episodes of Jonathan Creek can be easily boiled down to one or two clear and gripping problems, the nature of the impossibility here is a little harder to discern. This is not helped by the fact that it is introduced surprisingly late in the episode, meaning that the viewer will spend much of the episode unclear exactly how Jonathan will get involved with the various situations we see unfold.

The episode begins by showing the abduction of Lindsey Isherwood, a successful analyst and the wife of a cabinet minister. After two episodes which played out on a relatively small scale, I welcomed what seemed to suggest a return to some of the broader, more expansive storytelling of previous seasons. It soon became clear however that while there was a crime with possible national security implications, our focus would instead fall upon the comedic boudoir antics of the Creek family’s undersexed cleaner.

When said cleaner, Denise, finds a bronze lamp that reminds her of the one from Aladdin she gives it a rub and expresses her wish that some of her needs might be met. Later that day she stumbles onto an internet ad for an escort agency and, thinking her wish has been granted, makes an appointment.

When Kevin turns up on her doorstep she is pretty taken with him but the evening turns sour when she finds him dead in her bathtub. Panicked she calls Polly and persuades her to help her dispose of the body to avoid her husband finding out about it. When she wakes the next morning however she is shocked to find a priceless woman’s watch in the bed next to her. What makes it all the more odd however is when Jonathan identifies it as a one-of-a-kind piece belonging to Lindsey Isherwood, bringing us back to the kidnapping story thread.

It is only at this point, halfway through the episode, that anything approaching an impossibility or even just a puzzle for Jonathan to solve is introduced to the story. The problem here is in understanding how a priceless piece of jewelry managed to find its way into the bedroom of a woman with no apparent connection to the crime when we had seen it on the victim’s wrist when she was brought into the bunker.

I find this unsatisfying as a problem for several reasons, not least that I think it is introduced far too late in the story to allow for any serious investigative efforts to be made. One of the most striking aspects of this episode for me was just how little investigation Jonathan seems to do, instead wrapping up the case after a bit of a chat with the police and a trip to scout out a location. I cannot think of another episode of the show where Jonathan seems to do as little work on a case and this served to diminish the sense of accomplishment when it is resolved.

The other major issue I had with it as a problem was that it relies rather heavily on us accepting that an item would be unique and also recognizable enough as the property of the kidnapped woman for Jonathan to notice. Of course people do possess one-of-a-kind items and I can accept that such an item would be needed for this story to work and that coincidence can happen, yet the steps required for it to appear in that bed feel really quite contrived and I was left feeling rather unconvinced that they would have done so.

Prior to the problem being laid out, our attention is focused on two comedic subplots. The more minor of the two concerns a possible murder plot being hatched by two identical twins played by the marvelous June Whitfield. The explanation of the events feels startlingly obvious from the start but I enjoyed the performance enough that it was easy to view this as a piece of comedic color and appreciate it on that grounds. Don’t expect anything deep or raucous from this and you won’t be too disappointed.

The other is Denise’s botched attempt at an affair with that male escort. The tone and setup for this part of the story struck me as a little odd – as accommodating as Polly can be, it’s hard for me to imagine her as someone who would tolerate Denise’s oversharing, let alone help her hide a corpse. Comedically it all feels a little awkward (if not rather insensitive), though I did appreciate the performance from Josie Lawrence who presented a strong interpretation of the character.

The matter of the titular lamp however struck me as entirely convoluted, existing really only to allow Renwick to utilize the title of one of Carr’s novels. Unfortunately Renwick’s sequence feels more silly than moving and so, much like the previous episode, we once again find ourselves with a story that feels like it is written primarily to justify a title rather than because each of those developments make sense.

This story concludes the fifth season of Jonathan Creek on something of a low note. While Renwick’s attempts to play around with some new ideas and structures were commendable, I think that the execution of those ideas was often not ideal with the episodes suffering from the lack of focus on a single impossible problem. Were this the last episode of Jonathan Creek I think I would have felt that something else was needed to give us a proper sense of closure on the series. As it was we still had Daemons’ Roost, the most recently produced story to date, to come and give the series a much tighter conclusion. Join me next time as I share my thoughts on it and, in the process, complete this journey…

The Bowstring Murders by John Dickson Carr (as Carr Dickson)

The Verdict

Offers up a rather good puzzle with some ingenious features, though a few aspects of the investigation feel underdone.

Book Details

Originally published in 1933 under the pseudonym Carr Dickson (some later reissues change the author’s name to Carter Dickson, the pseudonym the author would use for his Merrivale series).

The Blurb

Dotty old Lord Rayle doted on his priceless collection of medieval battle gear at Bowstring Castle. But some ironic knave who didn’t give a hoot about chivalry donned a mail glove and strangled him with his own bowstring. When the dastard also struck down two of Lord Rayle’s armor-bearers, things really came unhinged!

Enter John Gaunt

The boozy-but-brilliant sleuth picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the crafty challenger. The clues weren’t linked and the facts didn’t mesh – but this champion was determined to find the chink in the murderer’s armor!

Look here, I may be wrong. But I think that sooner or later something mad and ugly and dangerous is going to blow up in that place. I warn you –!

My Thoughts

Bowstring Castle is said to contain one of the country’s best collections of medieval armor and weaponry, housed in the building’s armory. The castle is owned by Lord Rayle, a somewhat eccentric and forgetful man, whose strangled body is discovered within the armory by his daughter. There were just two possible entrances to the space, one observed at all times by Dr. Tairlaine, the other covered in a thick layer of dust, so how did the killer manage to commit the crime?

The Bowstring Murders was published at a transitional moment in John Dickson Carr’s career. It was written a year after the penultimate Henri Bencolin novel (he wouldn’t write the final one until 1937) and one year before he introduced Sir Henry Merrivale in The Plague Court Murders. Meanwhile he had recently published the first two Gideon Fell mysteries – Hag’s Nook and The Mad Hatter Mystery.

This book therefore seems to herald a move from the Grand Guignol-style of the Bencolin stories set in France to something more puzzle-focused and comedic with an English setting – in other words, the formula for Carr’s Merrivale tales. I think you can see Sir John Gaunt, the sleuth in this story, as embodying that transition as the text references he mentions that he has just returned from France himself when he is brought into this case.

Carr’s growing interest in English tradition and history seems to be reflected in the design of Bowstring Castle, the setting for this story. Not only is this clearly meant to be a historic building, inhabited by members of the British aristocracy, but it is something of a museum – particularly the wing of the Castle in which the murder will take place which houses a collection of armor and medieval weaponry. While such a setting might seem suggestive of a gothic atmosphere, Carr never really takes it in that direction. Instead he focuses on the history and the eccentricity of the space.

In addition to these physical elements of the past, there is also some discussion of how the world is changing and not, Carr seems to say, for the better. One example of this might be the discussion of how the cinematic hero had changed with Francis bitterly reflecting that Larry Kestevan is successful because he is surly and suggesting that while a hero’s masculinity used to be shown by having them punch a villain, in those days they were more likely to punch the heroine.

I think though that the strongest clues to the importance of this theme to Carr lie in the character of his sleuth – John Gaunt. The name, of course, recalls one of the most important figures from England’s Middle Ages, Sir John of Gaunt, from whom all of the kings would be descended until the War of the Roses. Shakespeare would depict John of Gaunt in his play Richard II in which he makes the famed ‘Scepter’d Isle’ speech and so his name has these strong historical and cultural connections with England’s past.

This is coupled with the notion that Gaunt, who is shown to possess a brilliant mind, has rejected working with Scotland Yard because of their insistence on utilizing modern, scientific methods rather than deduction. They, in turn, disapproved of his heavy drinking and how he has exercised his own judgment in the past to allow a murderer to get away. In other words, he is an eccentric individual in a world that no longer prizes those qualities, preferring conformity. A theme which Carr would return to again and again in the years to come.

I quite enjoyed getting to know Gaunt and was rather disappointed to realize that this would be the character’s only outing. While he is less colorful than H. M., I enjoyed following his thinking as he broke the case down and explained the connections between the multiple murders. Though he enters the story midway through the novel, Carr employs one of his favorite devices of having characters discuss him repeatedly before he does (as he would do with Dr. Fell in Till Death Do Us Part) which gives that moment greater impact and helps us feel that we get to know him by reputation.

Lord Rayle himself is shown to be an eccentric figure, though in his case the depiction is intended to be comical. Much of this worked for me, such as the nonsensical approach he takes to trying to safeguard some of his possessions and his foggy, disconnected dialogue with his guests where he seems to lurch from one topic to another. He makes quite a big impact in just a few pages to the point where, once he is murdered, there is a sense that the novel loses a little of its playfulness and eccentricity. None of the other characters, except perhaps Gaunt himself, feel anywhere near so large.

Happily the puzzle is quite a good one which goes some way toward making up for this. The circumstances of that crime, given that it takes place in a room in which another person is present who says that they didn’t see anything, are intriguing and the barriers to using those two exits are explained quite effectively. I was certainly baffled as to what had happened and will confess that I did not come anywhere near the solution beyond guessing the identity of the murderer.

That solution has some rather ingenious elements and I could appreciate, once it was explained, how it came together so neatly. If I had a complaint it was that I felt that, though Carr’s descriptions are pretty good, the book would have benefitted from a plan of the armory area. This is actually referenced within the story itself as a character talks about how confusing the space is and a map is made for their benefit. While I do not think that seeing a map would have resulted in me working out the solution, it might have led to me understanding some relational geography a little earlier.

I do have to commend Carr though on many other aspects of his solution. There not only are some pretty interesting ideas used to help explain some oddities in the three deaths, I particularly appreciated that this is one of those cases where perspective proves to be quite important. Aspects of the crimes are mystifying when seen from the detective’s perspective but once you understand the sequence of choices from those of the killer everything comes together very tidily indeed.

What keeps it from being perfect is not then the solution but what comes before it. There is some sloppiness in some early parts of the investigation, particularly the lack of consideration that the other character in the room might be the killer. After all, that would be the simplest solution and there is never really any explanation given for why the police do not take that possibility seriously (particularly given the weakness of the first victim).

The other weakness for me was that the killer’s identity seems quite apparent from very early in the novel. I don’t know if that is because I recognized some behavior on their part as being the sort of thing Carr killers often do or if it reflects that it is hard to take any of the other suspects seriously.

Still, while I think the novel has a few flaws that keep it from being a top-tier Carr, I still found it to be a thoroughly engaging read. It’s a very solid puzzle with a few ingenious features that I enjoyed quite a bit more than the other, more lauded Carr title from that same year.

Further Reading

Forgot I hadn’t copy-pasted this section when I first posted.

Ben @ The Green Capsule describes this as an ‘interesting but brief chapter in Carr’s career’ which I think is a nice way of summing it up. I agree with everything he put in his spoilers section at the bottom of his excellent review.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World also admires the ingenuity of the solution here and makes a good point about the dodgy dialect employed for the servants. The comparison with an Anthony Boucher sleuth makes me interested to try some of those stories!

Gold Mask by Edogawa Rampo, translated by William Varteresian

The Verdict

More an adventure-thriller than a fair play detective story, though it does what it does very well.

Book Details

Originally published from 1930-31 in King magazine as 黄金仮面
English translation first published in 2019

The actual blurb to the Kurodahan Press translation contains a very significant spoiler about a key plot point from this story. Instead of reproducing that blurb, as I would usually do, I have opted to provide my own below.

Plot Summary

Detective Akechi Kogorō is called upon to investigate a crime spree orchestrated by a figure seen wearing a golden mask and cloak. On several occasions the Gold Mask is seen committing audacious thefts and is cornered only to miraculously disappear, baffling the police and striking fear into the public’s imagination.

Taken aback, the girl had gone pale and taken her leave of the man. She said, however, that his face, like that of an old gilt Buddha, had absolutely, positively been wrought of expressionless gold.

My Thoughts

Before I start to discuss this book I feel I ought to reiterate a warning I provided in the book details section of this post. Gold Mask is a novel that is constructed around a surprising reveal that occurs about two thirds of the way into the story. Rather unfortunately the blurb to the English-language translation from Kurodahan Press tells the prospective reader exactly what that is, hence why I felt the need to provide a plot summary of my own.

I wanted to draw readers’ attention to this for a few reasons. Firstly, to warn those who wish to avoid being spoiled to handle this with caution (I would also suggest not looking at the table of contents too closely for much the same reason). I would not suggest that the novel necessarily needs that reveal to entertain and engage readers – the book being as much about the process and sense of adventure as the ultimate destination – but it’s a nice moment, handled pretty well and so why rid it of its impact unless you have to? That is not to say that I blame or criticize the publishers for their choice here. Given the potential draw that this idea presents it is unsurprising that a publisher would emphasize it in their marketing.

The other reason is that I want to emphasize that I will be doing my best to avoid directly referring to that part of the story in the main body of the review. This does limit my capacity to talk about the handling of that reveal and that part of the story a little but honestly, I think it happens so late in the story in any case that my feelings about it feel quite secondary to my interest in the plot which, like The Black Lizard, is a great example of a pulpy, detective thriller with lashings of danger and adventure.

With that out of the way, it’s time to discuss the book itself. This was originally published as a serialized novel and so the style is quite punchy, the narrator often directly talking to the reader and teasing things to come or driving home the strangeness of a moment, and each chapter seems to end on a cliffhanger or moment that suggests an escalation of the danger facing Akechi. It makes for excellent, page-turning fare offering plenty of disguises, double bluffs and tricks with identity as the story seems to get progressively grander and wider in scale as we near its conclusion.

The book begins by establishing Gold Mask as a sort of odd urban legend that spreads after a young girl in Ginza claims to have seen a man in the mask looking through a shop window and further sightings take place around Tokyo. Things escalate however when during the Gold Mask steals a pearl during a great exhibition and is chased into a theater where a theatrical production about his legend happens to be underway. The police chase him and eventually corner him on the roof of a building that is surrounded on all sides yet he somehow manages to evade detection and vanish into the night. A feat he repeats on several subsequent occasions.

It is for this reason, as well as a couple of other moments in the novel, that I opted to categorized this as an impossible crime novel though I will add the caveat that I do not think this really reads as such. Rampo’s emphasis falls consistently upon the adventure elements of the story rather than the detection, but I enjoy the way this story tries to surprise the reader with improbable identity reveals and disappearances from right under Akechi’s nose.

On a similar note, I also enjoy the battle of wits element that Rampo creates between his hero and the Gold Mask as each tries to best the other. This becomes increasingly direct in the later parts of the novel, leading to some entertaining exchanges and culminating in a very fitting and enjoyable conclusion that feels appropriate to all that had come before it.

The image of the figure with the expressionless golden mask is a pleasingly visual one and I had little difficulty imagining him chased through a gallery or standing threateningly in a window. The lack of any facial details is a powerful idea and I think the novel sells the strangeness of that image well, making it clear why the public interest in this figure would grow so strong and how his sudden appearance might seem quite haunting and unsettling.

The only dissatisfaction I feel with this aspect of the story gets us into solid spoiler territory and so I am afraid I will need to be a little vague here. I feel that Rampo’s efforts to emphasize that Akechi is brilliant and heroic require a slight diminishment in Gold Mask’s character. It is quite understandable that this might would have been Rampo’s method of storytelling but I feel it is sometimes a little unnecessary.

Other than that, I found this to be another example of an entertaining, if sometimes quite far-fetched, story stuffed full of reversals of fortune and bravery that I think may well be worth your time. I would still recommend The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows as a better place to start with getting to know the author’s works.

Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 7, 2014
Season Five, Episode Two
Preceded by The Letters of Septimus Noone
Followed by The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

John Bird is a familiar face on British TV, particularly to fans of political comedy for his work with John Fortune and Rory Bremner. While his background in principally in satirical comedy, Bird has appeared in a number of genre shows including Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders. He had also previously appeared in Jonathan Creek as a different character in The Three Gamblers.

David Gant, who plays Eric Ipswich, has quite a few genre credits to his name including appearances in Sherlock, Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Whitechapel, Rosemary & Thyme, Inspector Morse and more.

The Verdict

Nothing hugely to object to but not much to excite either. It feels like a collection of disconnected B-plots.

Episode Summary

When failed psychic magician Eric Ipswich has to go to hospital the community decides to rally around and give his home a much-needed refresh. Jonathan and Polly get to work stripping layers of wallpaper in the bedroom only to uncover a series of numbers with the words “will win” written underneath. It turns out those numbers had been winning numbers some time ago when local businessman Leonard Corbyn won the jackpot. How did Eric Ipswich, a terrible psychic, actually make this amazing prediction decades earlier?

Meanwhile Polly finds that returning to her childhood home has brought back some unexpected memories of a nightmarish man she thinks of as The Sandman. Who was he and what was Polly remembering?

Finally, the community tries to understand how rumors are spreading quickly through the village and what the truth is behind the strange beast with glowing eyes seen prowling in the vicarage garden at night.

My Thoughts

The Sinner and the Sandman strikes me as a rather disjointed episode. In addition to working to establish Jonathan and Polly’s new home and community, the story tries to set up and resolve at least three or four mysteries but each of these strike me as quite slight including the most eye-catching – the psychic prediction.

Before we tackle any of these though I have to start by briefly discussing the very strange opening with what must be the least convincing home invasion in television history. Polly has dragged Jonathan to have dinner with a ‘wrestling critic’, whatever that is but finding them not at home with dinner left out they explore leading to an unfortunate interaction with the would-be thieves.

The scene plays out somewhat comedically but it’s odd as it has little importance to the rest of the story. It is really only there to set up a zany punchline moment Renwick has planned for the end of the episode. It feels like a pretty length detour and the payoff was not, for me, enough to make the time spent on it feel worthwhile for me. I wish instead that the space had been given to one of the other plot threads to give room for a little more complexity.

One of the most notable elements of series five is that the episodes feel smaller with a strong focus on the show’s new rural setting and Jonathan’s embrace of domesticity and middle age. Of the three episodes, this is the one that most strongly focuses on that village setting and a set of common characters who are shared between the episodes. For instance this would once again use James Bachman as the vicar who we saw conduct the funeral service in the previous episode while it also introduces us to John Bird’s Horace Greeley – a sort of village busybody who runs the parish newspaper.

Now I have to say that I really enjoy John Bird as a performer but I was not in love with the choice of bringing him back to the series to play a new character. We had seen this same practice several episodes earlier with Nigel Planer but I think there is an important difference between the two: Planer’s performance feels quite distinct with a rather different make-up and completely different manner. Bird’s performance as Greeley, while enjoyable, feels quite similar to his DI Gallo from The Three Gamblers and so it’s hard to forget that we are watching the same actor at work which makes it all the more odd that Jonathan never comments on the similarity. I think the best way I can make peace with this is to say that this is another little love note to Columbo which frequently did this but I did find it a little distracting.

On a more positive note though, I do like the idea of giving Jonathan a more permanent base of operations, even if it turned out to be quite short-lived. While it feels quite different from what the series had done before, I think it does allow for some different sorts of stories to be told and presumably would have enabled the series to make some cost savings. It even allows for the possibility that characters would have been reused between episodes, creating a stronger sense of the community. It’s a shame really that the series would end so soon so these ideas were never fully realized.

The most satisfying of the three mystery strands for me was the one rooted in village life. The comedy in this plot thread feels relatively gentle compared to some of the previous stories and I think the explanation is pretty credible (well, except for the belief in the ‘beast’ and the preventative measures taken by the villagers). There isn’t a whole lot here to detect but the explanation is at least pretty logical.

The Sandman storyline struck me as a little forced though I can accept that memory can be distorted and repressed. I do appreciate that this plot thread is intended though to build up Polly’s backstory and I quite liked an emotional note that the episode gives following the explanation for this plot and Sarah Alexander’s performance. I will note though that unlike the other mystery threads, this isn’t particularly strongly clued though.

The clunkiest plot thread for me is the impossibility. The problems begin with the heavy level of contrivance that is required to find it in the first place. The home makeover, Polly’s marvelous memory that recalls that the numbers exactly match a photograph she glimpsed only for a few seconds some days before and the presentation of the message found beneath the wallpaper. The explanation is not inherently bad but the idea that anyone might think that Ipswich had predicted the lottery results years before there was even a lottery seems quite strange. Even more so that he doesn’t gain anything from it himself (if he had been the winner it would have seemed more miraculous but I imagine it would be harder to explain why anyone would have found the prediction).

Were this a b-plot, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. The problem is that it is supposed to hold our attention for an entire episode and it simply arrives too late in the hour to make much impact. It’s not really a case that requires much investigation at all – hence why when we do get the scene where Jonathan explains it all it seems to come from nowhere, necessitating the awkward introduction of several characters.

Still, while I didn’t find much here to marvel at I didn’t hate it either. Just don’t expect it to be placed particularly highly on my ranked list of the episodes when I eventually share that…

The Howling Beast by Noël Vindry, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally published in 1934 as La Bête hurlante
English translation first published in 2016

The Blurb

Pierre Herry is on the run. Not just from the police, who suspect him of a double murder, but also from the memory of the circumstances in which two impossible crimes were committed in the ruined castle which is the hereditary seat of the Comte de Saint-Luce, an old big-game hunting friend from the past.

The castle is virtually inaccessible, situated as it is in a high-walled park on a desolate stretch of moorland not far from Versailles. Herry insists he is not guilty of the murders of which he finds himself accused, but claims they were committed right before his eyes in a way that defies explanation… and how can he defend himself if he cannot explain what happened?

The inexplicable disappearance of another guest, threatening letters, and the howling of an unknown beast all serve as pieces in the puzzle, and examining magistrate M. Allou explains everything in this masterpiece of French locked room literature.

‘…Logically, I should be guilty. No reasonable man should claim otherwise. My reason, for what it’s worth, tells me I must be a criminal. And yet I believe myself to be innocent.’

My Thoughts

Last week I found myself in the mood for an impossible crime and so I put out the call on Twitter for friends to select a book for me to read next. This was the title that they picked and I am happy to be able to say that they did me proud – it’s a great read. I should say, before tucking into this, that this is purposefully a shorter review – some of the most interesting aspects of the story occur very late in the narrative and I do not think they can be discussed without spoiling it.

The Howling Beast begins with the examining magistrate, M. Allou, encountering a fugitive who is suspected of being responsible for a double murder. The victims were his friend, the Comte de Saint-Luce, and a woman, both of whom were shot dead in the Comte’s castle which appears to have been inaccessible to outsiders as its heavy portcullis had been lowered earlier that day.

Herry is sure he is innocent of the crime but he is unable to present any other reasonable explanation for what could have occurred. His hope though is that if he explains the puzzling circumstances to Allou, the magistrate may think of something he has overlooked and prove his innocence. Having caught his attention he proceeds to carefully outline his acquaintance with the Comte and the events that led up to that terrible night.

The scenario is an intriguing one as Vindry carefully describes the situation and dismisses many possible lines of inquiry. We learn, for instance, that an ancestor of the Comte had meticulously explored and documented the tunnels beneath the castle and so it can be shown that each entrance is sealed while we also hear that the portcullis creates such a loud sound that it would be impossible to raise or lower it without it being heard throughout the castle.

When we get to the description of the night of the murders, the descriptions are excellent and help make sense of each character’s movements and relative positions at all times. As impossibilities go, the construction here is superb and I have to admit that I came nowhere near the actual solution which is clearly and carefully explained. There are some very clever and entertaining ideas used here, none of which I can really discuss without spoiling the novel but I will say that I really appreciated the ingenuity of the element of the story that the title references. Great stuff!

One of the most successful aspects of the novel is its sense of place. The Comte’s crumbling castle feels as much a character as the man himself and while Vindry is not a particularly descriptive writer, I think he manages to convey a lot about the space and the people who reside there in just a few lines or in the manner of their speech and behavior.

This particularly struck me toward the end of the novel where we reach Allou’s explanation of the case. Once we understand what was actually happening and we look back on the events earlier I felt it was easy to see the evidence of those ideas even though they completely elude our narrator.

The only issues I had with the book relate to the choice to have the case related to Allou by the fugitive. On the one hand I can see what Vindry was intending here as it does focus the narrative onto the essential facts of the case while also building up a sense that these events were truly confounding. It also allows Vindry time to insert a considerable amount of backstory while also providing some vague sense of the crime. That is probably just as well as the murder itself is not discussed in detail until very late in the novel.

The bigger issue I have with this approach is that it isn’t particularly elegant. As the story is recounted by Herry speaking with occasional interruptions by Allou for clarification, whenever characters speak we get nested speeches as Herry tells us what others said. This technique is fair enough in a short story or for a few chapters but given that nearly the entire novel is rendered in this way I wish Vindry had structured his tale a little differently to have whole chapters simply acknowledged as Herry’s account to allow him to dispense with that framing technique. That is a matter of personal preference however and I should stress that it is always clear who is speaking.

Beyond these stylistic choices however I had little to complain about. The Howling Beast is a superb read that offers a cunningly constructed puzzle that is absolutely worth your time to unpick.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event offers their thoughts in a spoiler-free review here.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time also rates this story very highly and points out some stylistic similarities between this and Doyle’s Holmes stories – a point I agree with.

Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2014
Season Five, Episode One
Preceded by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb
Followed by The Sinner and the Sandman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by David Sant

Familiar Faces

Paula Wilcox was one of the stars of Man About the House and may also be known for her roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as Upstart Crow. Her genre credits include Grantchester and A Touch of Frost.

Raquel Cassidy is probably best known for her role as Miss Baxter in Downton Abbey and an appearance in Doctor Who. In this household however she is a favorite for her performance as Miss Hardbroom in the recent TV adaptation of The Worst Witch. She also has some genre credits appearing in episodes of Poirot, Law & Order: UK and Midsomer Murders.

Finally I have to mention Kieran Hodgson who became familiar to me during lockdown last year for his Youtube channel where he posts what he calls bad impressions. The draw for me was this series of reenactments of early Doctor Who.

The Verdict

A rare example of an inverted impossibility – an idea that Renwick handles pretty well though the pacing is a touch slow.

Episode Summary

An actress seems to have been stabbed moments after entering a dressing room that is under observation from the outside. Meanwhile Polly Creek learns of the death of her father and investigates if there is a secret in her parents’ past.

My Thoughts

If there’s one thing I like even more than impossible crimes it is an inverted mystery. That makes The Letters of Septimus Noone then something of a treat as it represents one of the very rare instances where those two subgenres combine and we get a case where we know the solution from the start. The question is then how will Jonathan reach that solution.

The setup for this case is handled quite well, carefully laying out the reasons behind the stabbing as well as the silence of those who have information that could clear the whole mess up. Those motivations struck me as pretty compelling, even if they are misguided.

I have suggested before that I rather like impossibilities that are created unintentionally and this is a perfect example of that. Characters make decisions based on their understanding and priorities with little thought as to how this will look from the outside to a third party. The case that develops is not particularly complex but suits this episode’s short running time and the need to fit alongside another more personal plot.

It should not surprise then that given the simplicity of the case, finding the solution comes down to spotting a single clue. Some may feel a little disappointed that Jonathan doesn’t actually deduce every step of the solution for himself and prove a case but I don’t think that would have fitted this story or the themes it had been developing.

Running through this, in one of the better comedic subplots from the show’s later years, is the idea that Jonathan has unwillingly acquired an intern of sorts – Ridley, a student returning from university who idolizes him and thinks he can perform the same feats of deduction. The jokes are somewhat predictable (and perhaps recall Miracle in Crooked Lane a little too much) but they are delivered well by Kieran Hodgson, culminating in an entertaining spin on the gathering all the suspects trope.

That other plot involves the sudden death of Polly’s father and the discovery of a box of letters. The mystery here is harder to summarize, in part because some aspects are introduced relatively late in the episode, but it is much more focused on exploring matters of grief and how we come to terms with the idea that we may not know someone as well as we thought.

As with the stabbing case the deductions required here are not particularly challenging. One of them will likely leap off the screen to viewers as soon as they see it, particularly given it’s an idea Renwick has used elsewhere. Still, I appreciated that the episode was trying to give us a different sort of case than we had seen before on the show and I liked that it was personal to Polly as I think it helps us understand her better and also provides a transition for the show into slightly new ground.

Beyond that I don’t have a lot else to say. I think that says rather a lot about this episode compared to those from the previous couple of seasons and the various specials. This is slighter than some offering two relatively simple puzzles but it also feels much more cohesive in terms of its themes and ideas. The comedic elements and the personal drama sits comfortably alongside the central mystery rather than fighting each other for dominance. It’s arguably comfortable and perhaps unambitious compared to those stories, fitting comfortably into the time slot and playing out at a rather leisurely pace. Still, I found it likable and I think it does a good job overall of completing the transition of Jonathan into a more comfortable, settled middle age.

That said I do have one point of enormous frustration. This episode completely pointlessly gives away some of the plot from The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Bah!