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:

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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!

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

The Verdict

One of the best Carrs I have read to date, this is every bit as good as its reputation offering a scenario full of twists and turns and a very satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Dr. Gideon Fell #15
Preceded by Death Turns the Tables
Followed by He Who Whispers

The Blurb

Crime author Dick Markham is in love again; his fiancée the mysterious newcomer to the village, Lesley Grant. When Grant accidentally shoots the fortune teller through the side of his tent at the local fair – following a very strange reaction to his predictions – Markham is reluctantly brought into a scheme to expose his betrothed as a suspected serial husband poisoner.

That night the enigmatic fortune teller – and chief accuser – is found dead in an impossible locked-room setup, casting suspicion onto Grant and striking doubt into the heart of her lover. Lured by the scent of the impossible case, Dr. Gideon Fell arrives from London to examine the perplexing evidence and match wits with a meticulous killer at large.

Thinking the matter over afterwards, Dick Markham might have seen omens or portents in the summer thunderstorm, in the fortune-teller’s tent, in the shooting-range, in half a dozen other things at that bazaar.

My Thoughts

In my four years of crime fiction blogging, I cannot recall being as excited about a vintage crime reprint as I was when I heard that Till Death Do Us Part would be reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. I had previously enjoyed the story in the form of the very faithful BBC Radio adaptation starring Donald Sinden but I was looking forward to getting to read the story properly for myself. Little wonder then that when the package arrived on my doorstep last weekend I immediately put everything else to one side and read it cover-to-cover in a single sitting.

Crime writer Dick Markham arrives at a village fête with Lesley Grant, a woman who has only lived in the area for a matter of months. We learn that the couple have just become engaged and are planning to share the good news later that day. Before they do however they decide they will enjoy some of the attractions and they head to the fortune teller’s booth where a man billed as The Great Swami promises to tell their fortunes.

Lesley enters the tent while Dick chats to the Major who is operating the shooting range next to it. He shares his good news but is surprised when Lesley emerges from the tent looking upset. Dick heads inside to speak to the Swami but before he can learn anything a gunshot is fired through the canvas. He emerges to find Lesley asserting that the rifle, which she had not wanted to hold, had fired by accident. It all seems pretty suspicious, particularly when he receives a telephone call from the doctor asking him to visit his patient who has some information to share with him about his bride to be…

This is a really intriguing setup because of the way it plays around with information. There is the information about Dick’s engagement which we learn may be distressing to at least one other inhabitant of the village, then there’s the information about the Swami’s identity and then there’s the information he has about Lesley. These opening pages are packed with revelations, each serving to shift our understanding of the situation and what is happening long before the murder even takes place. I love the sense of discovery in these early chapters and would suggest that the best way to enjoy this story is to just throw yourself straight into it and be surprised.

The murder comes pretty early in this one and does present an impossibility of sorts, though I do not want to overplay this element of the story. While it’s certainly there and does involve some well-clued details, I think what makes this a compelling story is not so much the mechanics of the crime as the tensions and suspicions it brings about in the various characters.

The story follows Dick’s perspective and so we experience his growing doubts and worries about Lesley as he battles with things he comes to learn and suspect. Carr does this well, incorporating some elements of domestic suspense into the story as Dick grapples with whether he can trust Lesley, how his feelings for her might be affected by what he is told and how he should interact with her moving forwards.

The decision to closely follow Dick means that we are kept at a slight distance not only from Lesley but also from Dr. Gideon Fell who enters the story shortly after the body is found though he is talked about several times prior to that. This is an effective technique as it serves to remind us of Fell’s reputation as a genius for solving impossible crimes, heightening our anticipation for the moment of his arrival. Even once he does appear our focus remains on Dick with some of Fell’s ideas and deductions being kept under wraps until near the end when he swoops in to bring about a resolution. Still, while Fell is utilized in a more limited way than some other of his stories I find him utterly engaging whenever he does appear and would consider this one of his best outings that I have read to date.

One aspect of the novel that I think is very striking is its depiction of life within the confines of an English village. There is of course the depiction of a village festival with their sometimes quite clunky stalls and games as well as the idea that someone might be a bigger celebrity in a small village than they would be in a more urban area hence all of the attention that the villagers pay to Dick. This also feeds into some aspects of the case and in some of the tensions surrounding Dick’s relationship with Lesley. After all the village is a small place and people will gossip, adding pressure to an already tricky situation.

The solution, when it is presented, is a clever one though I admit to finding a few of the crucial details a little tricky to visualize at first. Some aspects of this though are very clever, particularly those relating to what is observed around the time that the gunshot is fired. While Carr has been more ingenious, I do appreciate how the story comes together overall.

What I think seals its status for me as one of the best I have read to date is the manner of the resolution. This is not just an exciting scene which follows a little burst of action, I feel that the construction of this sequence is exceptional and makes very good use once again of the distance between Dick and Fell, building up to a really powerful conclusion that provides some solid closure.

Overall then I have to unimaginatively concur with those voices who suggest that this is one of the best Dr. Fell mysteries. While I wish I had something a little more creative to say about it, all I can really offer is my belief that this holds together really well and that it was a joy to experience again even knowing the solution. This is about as highly recommended as they come.

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 1, 2013
2013 Special
Preceded by The Judas Tree
Followed by The Letters of Septimus Noone

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Joanna Lumley first became famous for her roles in The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel but she is probably best known these days for her role in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Genre roles include playing Mrs Peacock in a series of Cluedo, Dolly Bantry in Agatha Christie’s Marple and Felicity Fanshaw in Paddington 2.

Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a genre film…

Sarah Alexander plays Polly, Jonathan’s wife. She will be most familiar for her roles in comedies such as Green Wing, The Worst Week of My Life and Smack the Pony though she also has a couple of genre credits. These include appearances in Midsomer Murders and Marple.

The Verdict

So much better than I remembered. While I have some issues with a development towards the end, the resolutions to the events in the present and in the past are each really interesting.

Episode Summary

A corpse is seen and photographed through the keyhole in the only door to a locked room. The door is under constant observation until help arrives and the door is kicked down. When they enter however they find that the body has completely vanished.

My Thoughts

Back when I started this project of rewatching the entire run of Jonathan Creek in order my object was to see the material through much more experienced eyes. As I have noted in some previous posts, when I first saw these they were pretty much the only locked room and impossible crime stories I had ever experienced. This meant that my reactions to the stories were often centered on the metrics of how much a story either surprised or amused me at the time.

That was unfortunate for a story like The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. While the two previous specials had both featured dark themes and moments, they also had some familiar, more ostensibly comedic elements. In contrast, this story jettisons some of those and presents a somewhat different version of Jonathan – now obviously in his middle age and less quirky. I had been hoping for more of the same but instead we got something that sought to take the character forward. While that disappointed me at the time, I find that I have a completely different impression of those choices now.

The most significant change for Jonathan here is that in the space between the last special and this he has got married to Polly, played by Sarah Alexander. We will see much more of her in subsequent episodes as she has little involvement in the case itself but the marriage is used to show that he is in a very different headspace than he had been in the past. He is trying to be grown up, now being on the corporate ladder, and so his desire to investigate a crime becomes a point of conflict for the character in a way we haven’t seen before. This manifests in a costuming decision to switch him into suits, at least at the start, and so one of the most satisfying moments in the episode is when we see him reaching for the duffle coat – a scene that feels almost reminiscent of an aging Bruce Wayne reaching for the cowl in Batman: Year One.

The choice to reintroduce Rik Mayall’s Gideon Pryke in this story makes a lot of sense in this context. The character, who had been one of the highlights of Black Canary for me, was the first to be presented as almost a mirror of him. Equally brilliant, often pipping Jonathan to some key discoveries, the two seemed to come to a mutual respect for each other by the end of that adventure and the rivalry seems to bring out the best in each of them. Here we see that Gideon has also experienced his own significant life changes after a bullet leaves him confined to a wheelchair but he remains every bit as brilliant, charismatic and capable.

Pryke’s role then is to remind Jonathan of who he is. What makes Jonathan a great detective is not his background as a stage illusionist but his personality. In particular, his attention to detail and ability to think creatively. He is also there as someone for Jonathan to spark off and compete with. That he continues to have that relationship with Joey here, creating a sort of investigative super-trio, is all the more exciting.

This brings me to Sheridan Smith’s Joey Ross, sadly making her last appearance in the series here as she left after this due to her theatrical commitments. This character is, for me, the most appealing of all of Jonathan’s ‘assistant’ characters, in large part because she is anything but. She is a partner and an intellectual competitor with him. She isn’t there to be amazed or to be a source of romantic tension – her role is to be ahead of the audience but still ever so slightly behind Jonathan, spurring him on to greater deductions.

Smith is brilliant in the part, working equally well when she is interacting with him as when she is taking the lead on an investigation as she does at the start of this story. The actors play wonderfully off each other both dramatically and comedically. Perhaps most satisfying of all though is that unlike the previous departures of an assistant, this does at least have the feeling of a deliberate transition as we introduce Polly.

Turning to matters plot, this story presents two strange situations for our team to solve – one in the present, one in the past. I have shared in the past my feeling that this is a golden formula for the show that we have seen Renwick use in each of the specials and I am pleased to say I find it just as successful here. In some ways perhaps more so as I think both are fairly well clued.

Let’s start with the present as it is this that prompts Jonathan and Joey to start investigating. Our mystery here is the disappearance of a corpse from a room, the only door to which was under constant observation. We even have photographic evidence of what was seen, taken through the keyhole. It’s a pretty tantalizing problem to unpick, particularly given that no one seems to have had a motive for murder.

I feel that the circumstances of the disappearance are clued pretty thoroughly. While I have some qualms about an aspect of motivation – more about that in the spoilers below – I think the viewer does at least have enough information to piece together what happened and how the body disappeared and I felt that the explanation held together very well.

The historic thread concerns a strange set of events at a convent school in the sixties. We have the mystery of why a group of girls each had odd markings appear on their foreheads while sleeping, one of whom died. The other concerns a strange ‘quiet room’ with a painting that seems to come to life, reaching out to them.

This thread of the story gives me some serious Gladys Mitchell vibes in several respects. While the subject matter is clearly pretty dark and disquieting stuff, especially since it involves children, I think it is executed well and I think the solutions to each question struck me as broadly satisfying. A few clues that seal the deal come a little late in the game but even without those I feel we are given enough to have a general idea of what was happening and the motivations for it.

The link between the two strands of the episode is Joanna Lumley who plays Rosalind, the victim’s wife who was one of the children in the historic thread of the story. I think the casting here is absolutely perfect and I think enriches the character. Similarly I really like Nigel Planer’s Franklin – a much better role for him than his earlier appearance in The Reconstituted Corpse.

Of course, this is not a perfect episode by any stretch. I have already alluded to my having some issues with an aspect of the motive for the disappearance which feels a little weak. My bigger problem comes though with a secondary development that takes place towards the end of the episode which feels rather silly. Unfortunately I can’t discuss it here without spoiling it but I think this would have been a more satisfying outing had the story omitted it. It’s hard to view this as anything but an attempt to pad out the story with one extra surprising twist.

Overall then I have to say that this has been about the most pleasant surprise this project has given me. It’s tonally consistent in a way few episodes have been in the past few seasons and offers up several intriguing impossibilities. Had I been asked at the start of this to produce a ranked list of episodes I think this may have been towards the foot of that list – instead, while I would not say it is a Championship contender it may well be looking at a Euro Cup spot. As surprises go that’s a great one.

Finally, before I get to the spoiler section, let me offer a couple of links to some contemporary reviews of this episode for some alternate perspectives. TomCat reviewed this on Beneath the Stains of Time while the Puzzle Doctor shared thoughts on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

Nyzbfg nyy bs zl vffhrf jvgu guvf fgbel eryngr gb gur znggre bs gur QIQ. Vg’f abg gung V vaureragyl zvaq gur vqrn bs n tbireazrag pbafcvenpl – gubhtu V nqzvg vg’f abg n snibevgr cybg cbvag – ohg vg yrnirf fbzr cybggvat ceboyrzf V fgehttyr jvgu.

Sbe vafgnapr, gur fhttrfgvba vf znqr gung gur znyshapgvba bs gur punvafnj jnf pnhfrq checbfrshyyl ol gur gjb haqrepbire bcrengvirf. Tvira gung Senaxyva bayl neenatrf gb qb gur gevpx ba gur avtug va dhrfgvba evtug orsber ur urnqf gb gur onea, ubj qvq gurl unir gvzr gb pbzr hc jvgu gung cyna (naq ubj pbhyq gurl or fher, sbe gung znggre, gung ur jbhyq or gur bar gb hfr gur punvafnj engure guna uvf nffvfgnag)?

Zl ovttre vffhr gubhtu pbzrf jvgu gurve vagrenpgvba jvgu gur Dhvrg Ebbz va gur pbairag fpubby. Juvyr vg vf arire pbasvezrq, V guvax jr pna thrff gung gur znyr bs gur cnve jnf gur bar gung gevrq gb fgenatyr Wbrl guebhtu gur cnvagvat. Ubj qvq ur svaq gung frperg ebbz? Zber vzcbegnagyl, jul qvq ur srry gur arrq gb xvyy Wbrl? Ur xarj gung gur QIQ unq orra renfrq naq fb fur unq abg frra gur fhccbfrq pbagragf. Whfg jung jnf ur pyrnavat hc?

N srj zber zvabe guvatf – jbhyq n pnzren ba n cubar ernyyl gnxr fhpu n pyrne cvpgher guebhtu n xrlubyr? V jbhyq grfg guvf zlfrys ohg nyy zl ybpxf ner Lnyr-glcr ohg vg qbrf frrz hayvxryl gb zr gung lbh jbhyq trg fhpu n pyrne cvpgher. V’q dhvgr jvyyvatyl npprcg V znl or jebat gubhtu.

V nyfb jbaqre jul Wbanguna qbrfa’g vzzrqvngryl pybpx gur qvssrerapr va gur tybor orgjrra gur gjb cvpgherf? Vg qvq vzzrqvngryl whzc bhg ng zr gubhtu V jvyy pbaprqr gung V znl whfg or erzrzorevat gung vg jnf vzcbegnag sebz zl cerivbhf ivrjvat.

Gur bayl guvat gung ernyyl vexf zr nobhg guvf gubhtu vf gung gur zbgvir sbe qbvat gur qvfnccrnevat obql srryf n yvggyr jrnx nf rkcynvarq, gubhtu V guvax vg vf ng yrnfg pyhrq gung vg unf n cresbezngvir nfcrpg. GbzPng znxrf n pbzcnevfba va uvf erivrj gb n cerivbhf rcvfbqr bs gur fubj gung rfpncrq zr ng gur gvzr ohg juvpu V pna pregnvayl frr abj. V nz fngvfsvrq gubhtu ol gur zber trareny vqrn gung gurer vf n arrq gb cerirag nabgure punenpgre sebz snyyvat haqre fhfcvpvba.

Bu, naq bar zber guvat – V jvfu gung gurer jnf n yvggyr zber sbphf ba gur vqrn bs Senaxyva xabjvat uvf qrngu qngr. Guvf vf guebja bhg gurer sbe gur ivrjre ohg ab bar rire pbzzragf ba vg. Juvyr jr zvtug guvax gung pbhyq uvag ng n fhvpvqr rkcynangvba gung pyrneyl qbrfa’g uryc jvgu gur qvfnccrnevat obql naq fb vg srryf yvxr n qrnq raq sebz gur zbzrag vg vf vagebqhprq, gurer sbe ngzbfcurer ohg yvggyr ryfr.