The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie

Book Details

Originally published in 1981 as 占星術殺人事件
English translation first published in 2004

Kiyoshi Mitarai #1

The Blurb

Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve a macabre murder mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years—in just one week. With the help of his freelance illustrator friend, Kiyoshi sets out to answer the questions that have haunted the country ever since: Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, ‘the perfect woman’?

With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion—pieced together like a great stage tragedy—challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain falls.

The Verdict

The locked room elements of the plot are oversold and the least interesting part of an otherwise fascinating case.


My Thoughts

Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of those books frequently cited as a later classic in the locked room sub-genre. As the cover of the Pushkin Vertigo reprint points out, this was selected by The Guardian as one of the top ten locked room mysteries of all time which was certainly enough to get my attention and get me to take a closer look.

This book has been on my to be read pile for some time. In what I can only describe as a comedy of errors on my part, I succeeded in purchasing three copies of the book over the past four months. At the same time, I also had a copy on loan from the library AND I own an ebook copy. An expensive mistake, though I did make sure I read at least a few pages from each of the copies!

The novel opens with an excerpt from a fictional document written in 1936 that is a blend of will and confession. In it the painter Heikichi Umezawa describes how he has come to believe he is possessed and that he must murder all of his daughters (biological and adoptive) except Kazue Kanemoto who is excluded because she is not a virgin and remove body parts according to their zodiac signs to create a body to a perfect woman, Azoth, to be brought into this world. The remains of his daughters will be buried at sites across Japan, also in accordance with their zodiac signs. This, he believes, will enable Imperial Japan to find prosperity.

The novel then jumps forward to 1979 and introduces us to our narrator, mystery fan Kazumi Ishioka, and astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai. We learn that a series of murders like those described by Heikichi took place over forty years earlier and that they remain unsolved in spite of the existence of the document. The reason for this is that Heikichi was murdered in his locked studio before the murders of his children and so could not have committed the murders himself.

Kazumi is providing Kiyoshi with details concerning each of the murders which, we are told, can be sorted into three groups. The first is the murder of Heikichi in his studio which was locked and bolted from the inside. The second is the murder of Kazue whose head is smashed in an apparent robbery. Finally we have the disappearance of the six daughters, step-daughters and nieces after travelling to Mt. Yahiko to lay Heikichi’s spirit to rest. It takes some time to find the mutilated bodies but they are found buried near mines across Japan, each missing the body parts as described in the initial document. Azoth, the creation presumed to have been made using them, is never found.

If my description above sounds dense and confusing, it reflects that this is a very complicated plot with a number of different elements at play. A consequence of this is that the earliest chapters often feel very dense and dry as the two friends describe and walk through the events and some of the theories that people have proposed to explain them. Shimada throws a lot of information at the reader which means that progress in the first section of the book can be a little slow, particularly if you are seriously trying to solve the case yourself.

The story opens up however once we are presented with a second document and the reasons for the protagonists’ interest in the case become clearer. This information, and a subsequent challenge from the authorities, leads the pair to undertake a journey to try and solve a case that baffled Japan for over forty years in under a week.

If the previous section of the novel felt stagnant and slow, these chapters inject some energy and excitement into the process. There is a real sense of discovery as the pair travel across Japan to talk with witnesses and the questions we are posed and try to answer are reworked and refined.

Shimada chooses to style his novel as a fair play mystery, providing not just one but two challenges to the reader. I found this to be quite charming, particularly given that while they are clearly related they place emphasis on different aspects of the crime.

The explanation for what had happened and why feels quite wonderfully audacious and I felt it was explained clearly. Compared with those earlier, dense chapters, these feel easy to follow and boast some very clever ideas.

The one aspect of the solution that I felt underwhelmed by was, strangely enough, the locked room itself. The mechanics of how this were worked do little to appeal to the imagination while I also found it hard to imagine the details of the crime scene, particularly the descriptions of the bed. I only really able to imagine the evidence properly towards the end of the book once the significant details had been explained.

I felt that, on the whole, Shimada played fair with the readers. Now, I will say that I would be surprised if readers picked up on every aspect of the solution by themselves, in part because Shimada’s handling of his evidence is so clever and precise. I came closer than I expected to, noticing several important clues, but I struggled to weave them together effectively into a cohesive whole. For me the solution is truly memorable and I enjoyed following our sleuths as they reached it.

The sleuths were the least interesting aspect of the book for me although I appreciated their method and some of the testy exchanges they share, particularly over the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Kiyoshi’s disdain for Sherlock Holmes is quite entertaining, particularly as he reaches for negative descriptions of the character. While he is not alone in wondering if the great detective is as brilliant as he is usually supposed – some of the criticisms made will be familiar to fans of the stories – I enjoyed them in large part because Kiyoshi seems oblivious to his own similarities with the character. For instance, both are reluctant to have their story retold, both are prone to lethargy followed by sudden bursts of energy and action and so on.

Beyond Kiyoshi and the first victim, Kazumi, however do not expect particularly rich characterizations. Much of the story is told in conversation between the two friends and so there are relatively few opportunities for interaction with other figures in the story. Also, given the high body count there simply are not many characters from that earlier period still around to talk to, meaning that several interviews feel a little peripheral to the main case.

Overall, I feel that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is an interesting although sometimes challenging read. It has some inventive ideas but the early chapters contain so much information that they sometimes feel hard-going. For those who persevere through that heavy first section, the final destination is clever, original and explained very clearly with lots of diagrams making for a worthwhile read.


Second Opinion

For a second opinion from someone with much deeper knowledge of the impossible crime story check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event.

The Detection Club by Jean Harambat

Book Details

Originally published in 2020 in two volumes.
This review covers the works as a totality.

The Blurb

In 1930s England, the best mystery writers of the era come together to form the Detection Club. G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and others gather to eat, drink, and challenge one another. They are in for a bigger test, however, when eccentric billionaire Roderick Ghyll invites them all to his mansion on a private island off the coast of Cornwall, promising to enchant them with his latest creation: a robot that can predict the culprit in their novels. But when someone ends up murdered, who will lead the investigation? 

The Verdict

A simple but colorful mystery comic with a memorable setup and entertaining characters.


My Thoughts

Most of the time I find browsing my Amazon Kindle recommendations to be an exercise in futility. Having read several Gladys Mitchell books and a handful of Perry Masons, my recommendations are always pages of the same two or three authors.

Except this week. Suddenly The Detection Club Volume 2 turned up – the question of why not Volume 1 is a bit of a mystery in itself – and after a quick look at the sample pages I decided to give it a go.

As its title indicates, this tells a story involving members of the Detection Club, the famous society of mystery authors that included many of the leading figures of the Golden Age. The story takes place shortly after John Dickson Carr has been admitted to the group.

During a dinner a letter arrives inviting the members of the Detection Club to visit an island off the coast of Cornwall. The invitation comes from Roderick Ghyll, a billionaire who wants them to come and see Eric, a robot designed to predict the culprit in detective novels.

After giving the group a dinner, everyone heads to bed. During the night there are sounds of a struggle and cries for help from within Ghyll’s room. The door is locked but when it is broken down they find the window smashed and signs of a dressing gown submerged in the waters at the foot of the cliff. Realizing that they have a real mystery in front of them, the writers try to work out exactly what happened to Ghyll in their own distinctive fashions.

Perhaps the first thing I need to make clear is that Harambat is rather selective in the members he chooses to include. Unfortunately that means there is no Rhode, Berkeley or Crofts. Instead we are given Carr, Christie, Knox, Mason, Orczy, Sayers and, of course, G. K. Chesterton.

From left to right: Chesterton, Christie, Mason, Knox, Orczy and Sayers

The decision to trim the numbers does make sense – a bigger group would have been unwieldy – though it would have been nice to take a moment to reflect its broader membership. Of those used, several are obvious selections and while Orczy and Mason will be less familiar names to some readers, they do represent different personality types ensuring that each member of the party feels quite distinct from everyone else.

Smartly Harambat chooses to give some additional focus to Christie and Chesterton, establishing them as a sort of double-act. The pair trade witticisms and tease each other, providing much of the book’s sense of warmth.

Of the other characters, Knox and Carr fare pretty well. While they are primarily treated comedically, they both show off their styles and sensibilities well and each has some entertaining comedic moments that plays off their respective styles and reputations. The remaining members are treated mostly as comic relief and they often seem least engaged with the broader plot.

This brings me to one of the principle problems that the two volumes face and struggle to resolve. Who is the intended audience for this – Golden Age mystery fans or comics readers with a casual interest in mystery fiction? The book tries to be accessible to those with no knowledge of the genre but the humor is so based in a knowledge of these personalities that I do not think it works without that.

On the other hand, I think more seasoned fans of the genre may well wish that the various characters demonstrated their own approaches and their personalities in further detail. Sayers fares particularly poorly, being reduced to a running gag where she fires a handgun into the air and the other members dismiss her work.

I also enjoyed some of the extra elements that get thrown into the mix. At one point I found myself researching Eric the Robot and was delighted to find that it was a real thing and that the look here is pretty much spot-on. The styling of the piece seemed successful and established Ghyll’s character and personality well.

The mystery itself is, happily, pretty well crafted although my enjoyment suffered a little from my thinking up a solution that I believe would have been more satisfying than the one given. The solution basically works though and while the case is not particularly complex, it fits the length of these two books pretty well.

This brings me to my other complaint – the decision to split this into two volumes. The reason for doing this obviously makes business sense, pitching this at a lower price point to grab shoppers’ attention but the delivery is unsatisfying. The second volume feels incredibly short in comparison to the first and some aspects of the solution feel rushed or insufficiently clued.

Still, while it may not have been everything I hoped for from a Detection Club comic, I did find it to be lively, colorful and enjoyable. The books are fast, entertaining reads and I was left with a deep interest to go off and find out more about Mason’s Inspector Hanaud – a character I haven’t read before. If nothing else, I chalk that up as a success.

Jonathan Creek: The House of Monkeys (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast June 7, 1996

Season One, Episode Five
Preceded by No Trace of Tracy
Followed by Danse Macabre (Season Two)

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

An interesting twist of familiar locked room elements.


My Thoughts

Dr. Elliot Strange is a scientist who shares his country home with his wife, son and daughter-in-law and a variety of different types of domesticated primates. He is at work in his locked study when there are the sounds of a struggle and shouting. Fearing the worst and unable to open the study door, his wife exits the building and looks through the locked window where she sees him dead, impaled with a samurai sword.

The House of Monkeys concludes the first season of Jonathan Creek and it is, in my opinion, its most consciously traditional tale. While other stories had used familiar elements, they generally attempted to do something that seemed consciously modern, quirky or different. For instance, the previous locked room story had featured a nuclear bunker – not exactly an element common to this sort of story.

This story on the other hand picks the most traditional and familiar of locked room murder settings – the study in a country house. While some aspects of the setting are certainly odd, the most obvious of these being the presence of a variety of domesticated primates, even those seem to be a conspicuous nod to one of the earliest locked room stories – The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

While the setup may be traditional however, the story contains some other elements that were extremely relevant to the period in which it was made. Much as the previous episode, No Trace of Tracy, referenced the growing movement for environmental activism, this story features references to animal rights activists. Elements like these help to make the more traditional elements of the stories feel fresh and also really ground them in the period in which they were made.

Of all of the things that have surprised me in revisiting this first season, I think I am most surprised by how of its moment it feels. Part of that reflects the look of the episodes and the equipment Maddy and Jonathan use, but I think these cultural moments are also part of it. I will be curious to see if I feel the same way about the later seasons – my memory was that there were less “ripped from the headlines” elements as the show went on.

The locked room puzzle, while seemingly simple, works pretty well. I think it speaks to how much it grabbed me when I first watched it that I could remember every aspect of the solution based on a single viewing from over twenty years earlier (the only mistake I made was thinking it was Colin Baker rather than Charles Kay playing the victim). It is logical, cleverly worked and well explained.

I also enjoyed the way that Jonathan and Maddy end up working alongside the police – an aspect of this story that both feels more traditional and that seems to set it apart from the others in the season. I particularly appreciated the character of DI Masterson played by Selina Cadell who, while not a particularly lively character, does have an interestingly no nonsense demeanor.

The only issue I have with the murder plot and the detection of the killer is that there is a rather silly plot development that is used to explain several aspects of the setup and provide some excitement as we near the endgame. I think the way that clue manifests, once again, makes some logical sense but it does unfortunately seem a little silly and ridiculous in the way it is executed visually.

In addition to its main mystery plotline, this episode also pushes Jonathan and Maddy into some new territory with regards their relationship. This is, as usual, done largely comically but I think the execution is very good, striking the right note between playing to the tension while remaining accessible and funny to those who have not been following the series from the beginning.

The guest cast are mostly pretty good, particularly Annette Crosbie (still best known for One Foot in the Grave) who plays the victim’s rather practical, straightforward spouse. That practicality comes out in some interesting and, at times, unexpected ways and makes her seem a rather unusual figure.

The House of Monkeys is, I feel, one of the more successful episodes in this first season. Its traditional elements may appear unimaginative but I think Renwick combines them well to make something that feels more fresh and interesting than they would otherwise do on their own.

Jonathan Creek: No Trace of Tracy (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast May 31, 1997

Season One, Episode Four
Preceded by The Reconstituted Corpse
Followed by The House of Monkeys

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

The Verdict

One of Jonathan’s least colorful cases but the logic is sound and I appreciate how it continues to build Jonathan and Maddy’s relationship.


My Thoughts

Roy Pilgrim is an aging rock star who had been a part of the band Edwin Drood in the seventies. After coming back home from a jog outdoors, Roy notices his door is open and when he investigates he is struck from behind. He wakes up some time later chained to a radiator and then spends hours waiting for someone to come to rescue him.

Meanwhile teenaged fan Tracy is getting ready to meet her idol having received a letter from him. She is seen arriving at his home by some other teens and she enters. When she does not return home her parents contact the police who arrive at the house to investigate. When they and Pilgrim’s fiancee Francine enter they find Roy still handcuffed. He tells them that he never wrote the letter and that he never saw her enter the building. The question then is what happened to Tracy…

This story is a different sort of case to those we have seen in the previous three episodes. Each of those were presented as murder investigations but No Trace of Tracy instead places its focus on explaining the apparently inexplicable. If we accept that Roy really was knocked unconscious as we were shown and was awake as he appeared to be, how could he not see Tracy arrive at his home?

As such this represents an interesting change of pace for the series and I appreciate that it places a focus on the contradictions of these two credible accounts of what happened. By directly showing us the sequence of events leading up to Roy being attacked we are encouraged to view them as accurate and so it is clear that something more devious or unusual must be behind the incident.

This case, like many of the best Creek cases, boils down to an exploration of several small and seemingly innocuous details. Building on these small curiosities, Jonathan and the viewer can begin to make some logical inferences that change our understanding of what we are seeing. This is, for me, the show’s great idea and I think this episode presents us with several strong examples of it.

The deductions are all pretty clever. While I think the case is simpler than those in either of the two previous episodes, the focus on a single aspect of the case does place added attention on Jonathan’s process of logically working through the significance of each of those small details that seem out of place. In terms of the main mystery plot I think this episode works rather well although it should be said that this is the least whimsical episode of the first season.

I also appreciate the growing tensions between Maddy and Jonathan that we see develop during this episode. Those tensions had been hinted at in the B-plot in the previous story but there are a few moments in this story that seem to bring them into an even more direct focus. I think this gives their respective feelings and assumptions about their relationship a greater clarity while also suggesting that this relationship continues to change and evolve as they work closer together. It helps that there are a few very funny moments along the way.

Unfortunately I am a little less enamored of some of the other elements of this episode. The tree bonding antics at Hogs Belly Farm are rather broad and veer away from the quirky sweet spot that is so comfortable for the series. Comedy is, of course, subjective and others may well have loved this but in my opinion Jacob and Polly feel too consciously comedic and over-the-top to take seriously.

I also think that some aspects of Roy’s character have perhaps not aged well, particularly in light of events over the past decade. In particular the assertion that Roy likes them young, while important to the plot, sits pretty uncomfortably given it attracts no further comment or discussion. Ralph Brown is good in the part though, adding to the character’s credibility.

In terms of its mystery plotting I think No Trace of Tracy represents one of the stronger efforts in this first season of the show. The case is not only a welcome change of pace, it features a few genuinely puzzling elements and the solution is simple but clever and absolutely fair game for the viewer. The broadness of the comedy and the relatively bland backdrop for the story perhaps keep it from being one of the highlights of the season but it is clever enough that it didn’t struggle to keep my interest.

Jonathan Creek: The Reconstituted Corpse (TV)

Episode Details

First Broadcast May 24, 1997

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Jack in the Box
Followed by No Trace of Tracy

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

The Verdict

Though the image of a body appearing in a previously empty wardrobe is intriguing, I felt unsatisfied by the explanation.


My Thoughts

Zola Zbzewski goes onto a television show to promote her autobiography. The book, Finding My Form, details her experiences undergoing plastic surgery and discusses her affair with her plastic surgeon. During the interview he is produced as a surprise guest and angrily accuses her of lying, threatening to destroy her.

A short while later the surgeon is found murdered in his home and Zola has become a prime suspect. Maddy takes an interest in the case and begins to look to prove her innocence but the situation become more complicated when her body is found in a wardrobe that Maddy had just transported up several flights of stairs at her home and that had previously been empty.

While it is the less mechanically interesting of the two deaths, I do want to start with the murder of the surgeon. I think Renwick does a good job of giving us a good understanding of the background to that crime in just a few short scenes. The murder itself offers little to grab the imagination – it is a simple killing – but it does provide enough of a hook to involve Maddy in the case and allow for a short investigation.

During that investigation we get to meet the other members of Zbzewski’s household and circle of friends, setting things up for the second investigation. This does mean that we can jump into exploring that second death much faster and focus on the mechanics rather than defining relationships but I do think structurally it is awkward to have the second case be the more imaginative one.

If the first death is mundane, the second is much more in Jonathan’s usual line of seemingly fantastic crimes. Of all of the cases so far, this is the one that seems to be most like a magic trick – a reversal of the traditional disappearing person in a box trick. Certainly that moment in which the body is discovered is one that I could vividly remember from watching this the first time it aired so it clearly caught my imagination then.

Sadly I can’t really speak to how clever it is because I also had a vivid recollection of its solution. I can say though that while I think the explanation is interesting, I do not feel that every aspect of that solution was properly clued or that the explanation really feels satisfying although it seems quite logical. Instead this second death, while it appeals more to the imagination than the first, feels almost like an afterthought – an impossibility added to a more conventional case to make it fit the show’s style.

That is frustrating to me because there is a much better idea used here that I think gets overshadowed by the novelty of that corpse in the wardrobe. What impressed me was the way Renwick makes use of a familiar plot point that you see in many older works but finds a way to update it to fit into a more modern era. The result is that this element feels quite fresh here and is, for me, the most clever part of the case.

I think the other reason that this story doesn’t quite work for me is the amount of time given over to its b-plot: Maddy’s awkward blind date and the pair’s subsequent awkward interactions. Nigel Planer is entertaining and the way Jonathan gets worked into the date scene is amusing but the time given to it feels excessive given it neither moves the overall mystery plot or the relationship between Jonathan and Maddy forward much at all.

Other than the image of the body in the wardrobe, the most memorable moments of the episode all belong to that b-plot. That strikes me as unfortunate because it made me more aware of my lack of engagement in the main storyline. While there are certainly a few good moments and ideas here, I found the case to be rather unsatisfying, particularly when compared to its immediate predecessor.

Jonathan Creek: The Wrestler’s Tomb

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I found myself in a bit of confusion about exactly what I had planned to follow up on my Columbo posts. Well, after much thinking and feeling inspired by the recent discussion between Jim and John about magic in detective novels in the In GAD We Trust podcast, I decided it would be fun to take a look at and discuss Jonathan Creek.

Unlike Columbo I come to these having seen them all before though. I remember watching these episodes together with my family when they first aired. This first season however is probably the one I remember least – partly because I was much younger when it broadcast but also because, until recently, the US BritBox service only offered the second, third and fourth series.

I look forward to rediscovering these stories over the next few weeks and chatting about them with you.


Episode Details

First broadcast May 10, 1997

Season One, Episode One *
Followed by Jack in the Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

* Originally broadcast as a single ninety minute episode – it is now often split into two episodes.

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. He had previously played Paul Merroney, a ruthless banker in The Brothers.

Anthony Head was not intended to be a guest cast member – his role of the magician Adam Klaus was supposed to be an ongoing one. The filming of this show overlapped with his casting as Giles in the fantasy TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is replaced in the show’s second season by Stuart Milligan.

The Verdict

This episode does the important work of establishing the characters and their relationship well. Unfortunately the case is not particularly compelling and has a rather underwhelming conclusion.


A note: The thoughts below, while not explicitly revealing the solution, may well push you much further towards it than you would like. If you haven’t seen this episode I would suggest you do so before reading them to avoid being spoiled.

My Thoughts

Although I don’t write much about it here, I am a huge Doctor Who fan so I was particularly interested in rewatching the Colin Baker episode. I only started watching Who when the radio pilot for Death Comes to Time was released so when I watched this I had no idea who Baker was.

Strangely though I had misremembered which story he appeared in, thinking it was the season closer The House of Monkeys – I have no idea why given he doesn’t look at all like Charles Kay – so it was a lovely surprise to find I was getting to see him much earlier than expected!

Here he plays an artist, Hedley Shale, whose output seems to consist of nudes. We first meet him at an exhibition where he openly flirts with a model to his wife’s disgust. We see the pair in conversation as she prepares to leave for work the next morning and he works on a new painting. He insists that he has not had a live model in some time but shortly after she leaves he makes a phone call, telling his lover to “make me bark like a sea lion”.

Yeah, that’s an image that’s not going away any time soon…

A short while later his cleaner arrives to find him lying shot dead on the bedroom floor with a blonde woman tied up and gagged a short distance from him. Jewels had been stolen from a locked drawer but they had been dropped on the lawn, making it seem more like a plant to suggest robbery rather than murder. When a local thief is apprehended he confesses to other robberies with the same method but insists that he did not commit this crime, seeking the assistance of investigative journalist Maddy Magellan in proving his innocence.

Hedley’s wife, the editor of Eve Magazine, is the prime suspect but she has what appears to be a cast-iron alibi. Her assistant vouches for her that she had not left her office all morning. There is only one exit out of the office and the windows were sealed shut. Maddy, certain that the wife must be guilty, seeks help from illusion creator Jonathan Creek to find a way she could have pulled it off.

Okay, we have a fair amount we can discuss here in terms of the case but I think it would be best to start by talking about our two series leads – Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. A significant part of this episode is devoted to introducing these characters and building a relationship between them that is an entertaining mixture of flirtation and aggravation.

This episode not only has to bring these two characters together but it has to do it in such a way that, given their very different professions and personalities, we accept that they will seek each other out to solve mysteries in the future. I think this story accomplishes this in a couple of ways – firstly, by making it clear that the two bounce ideas off each other effectively (and sometimes competitively). Secondly, because of the chemistry between the pair. I think there is a sense, even in this first episode, that the cases provide a reason for these two people to spend time together.

The idea of someone with a stage magic background solving mysteries is hardly unique to this show. For proof of that (and some great reading recommendations) check out that podcast I linked at the start of this post. What Renwick does very effectively though is combine this sense of stagecraft with a consideration for the practical. This episode provides us with a clear example of that with the first solution which is pretty acceptable as a way to work around the facts of the case but unsatisfactory for logical and practical concerns.

I also really appreciate that Maddy plays an active role in the investigations, often proposing ideas that are helpful – even if they do not always turn out to be the actual solution. Her skill set is different than Jonathan’s but it is still important to solving the crimes, particularly given that she has an ability to persuade people to talk to her through means fair and foul. Well, mostly foul…

Turning to the case itself, I think this is a fairly typical mystery series pilot in that its focus is on developing the continuing series elements. I think this comes at the expense of the case itself which I found a little underwhelming once you get past that eye catching problem about the office door.

Let’s start with that problem because it so quickly becomes the focal point of the episode. The direction very effectively demonstrates that the layout of the office and the sight lines make it impossible that Serena Shale could have left it once the door was closed, assuming that the personal assistant’s statement that she never was out of sight of the door is to be believed. It seems wonderfully impossible and is built up so much that the resolution cannot match what the viewer was likely hoping for – to be dazzled by a very clever piece of logical reasoning.

The story instead chooses to reinforce an idea that Jonathan has already expressed – that the explanation for a magic trick is inherently disappointing. Establishing that from the beginning of the series may well have been a wise move in the long term but I feel later episodes manage to develop a second explanation that feels as compelling as the first in terms of motive, means and opportunity. Unfortunately, I just cannot buy that here.

My problem with the story is that while I think there is a mechanical ingenuity to the explanation, the killer’s motivations to commit the murder are beyond weak and their plan seems ludicrously risky. I cannot really say much more than that without explicitly discussing those elements but this killer either needed to have a better motive or there needed to be a better explanation of why the motive given would lead to them taking the enormous risks they do here.

Now, that being said, I was impressed with a couple of pieces of clueing in the episode. One of the best examples of this relates to information we find out in the second half of the episode that significantly changes our understanding of what has happened. When you look back at the episode you see that there are several moments that visually (and logically) hint at what that will be.

I guess you could sum up my view as I don’t love the ultimate destination but the path to that point is pretty good.

That just leaves me with one other thing I want to touch on – Adam Klaus.

I mention in the guest cast section above that Anthony Stewart Head plays this key role in this episode but due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy he had to drop out of the rest of the series. What strikes me on revisiting this episode is that he has a rather different take on the character than his successor in the role, playing it relatively straight.

The problem with Head’s Klaus is that he is too handsome and too dashing to make it feel ridiculous that everyone swoons over him. There is one moment that clearly ought to be comedic – in which he offers his protection to a young woman – but which ends up feeling almost gentlemanly and heroic. Two adjectives I would never associate with the more bumbling Klaus of the later seasons who I think better fits the tone of the series, becoming a very effective source of comic relief.

I did enjoy this return visit to the world of Jonathan Creek. I was impressed by just how many elements of the series’ success fell into place here and I still love the chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the motive given for the murder doesn’t work for me but the mechanics of the crime are clever and I did enjoy following our investigators as they work out what happened.

The Green Knife by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1932.
Dr Hailey #14.
Preceded by The White Arrow.
Followed by Case of the Red-Haired Girl.

The Blurb

“It’s a chance between murder which cannot have taken place and suicide, the manner of which is doubtful,” Mary said, when Sir Dyce Chalfont was found lying on his back, a green-handled knife gripped securely in his hand. At first the reader has a feeling it served him right ; Sir Dyce had a cruel streak in his nature – but – MURDER!

And then more murders – one, two, three of them – and all the while Dr. Hailey is probing every nook and corner. For him the green knife possessed a special and strange significance, and because of this he was able to solve as perplexing a mystery as ever found its way between the covers of a book.

The Verdict

The setup of the impossibility is quite marvellous – shame that the other aspects of the novel keep it from being as entertaining as it should be.


My Thoughts

The subject of today’s post is the book I thought that I had left at work (see my last post for more on that). Well, I was delighted to find it had just slid under the passenger seat in my car which means that I will get to write about it sooner. This is welcome as this book gives me PLENTY to want to write about.

Dr. Hailey is visited by a young woman who he met while caring for the fantastically wealthy Sir Dyce Chalfont the previous year. She asks if he will visit him to intercede on her behalf to help her avoid financial ruin after a speculation threatens to ruin her. Hailey agrees but finds Chalfont will not budge. A short while later screams are heard coming from his bedroom which is found locked with a barricade set up behind the door.

When the door is forced Chalfont is found dead with a stab wound in the back of his shoulder and a green knife lies nearby. The windows are bolted and a search produces no secret passage or hidden compartment. Unlikely as it seems, suicide seems to be the likely conclusion but then the impossible scene repeats itself another two times…

Of course the first place to start in discussing the novel is that impossibility. The scenario Wynne creates is wonderfully puzzling because it feels so complete. Every possible entrance to the room just seems to be accounted for as do everyone’s movements. Throw in the repetition and it becomes even more baffling.

Like TomCat whose excellent review is linked to below, I was perplexed by the question of how the murderer managed to get away each time. I certainly got nowhere near the solution myself!

This book was the fourteenth to feature Wynne’s sleuth, Dr. Hailey. While we spend quite a lot of time in his company, I did not feel that I knew much about him other than he was old, a little weak physically and that he has a fairly quiet demeanor, at least in comparison with the character more formally investigating the murders. Given that the character had been well established by this point, it may be that Wynne presumed readers already were familiar with him though it may reflect that he is more interested in the situation he creates than his characters.

The best comparison I could think of would be Rhodes’ Dr. Priestley in some of his earlier cases, though Hailey is a little more active and empathic towards the people involved in the case. He asks an occasional question, ventures some possible interpretations of evidence, but rarely dominates the proceedings except in the final couple of chapters and a thrilling sequence in which he finds himself trapped in the dark.

While Wynne’s plot is intriguing in a mechanical sense, unfortunately the psychological and character elements are simply not anyway near as satisfying.

A huge part of the story hinges on Chalfont’s mental state particularly in relation to his marriage to his young wife and questions he may have had about his child’s paternity. Certainly those questions hang over much of the story and Wynne tries to deal with them in a much more frank and psychological way than I might expect of a book published in 1932.

The problem is that some of that supposed analysis just makes no sense at all. One idea that particularly baffled me is that Chalfont may have disinherited his wife and willed his fortunes to the man he believed cuckolded him because he believed that man would be more likely to have his child’s best interests at heart. No amount of earnest discussions among learned authority figures could possibly convince me that makes sense yet it is returned to on several occasions.

Generally speaking the characterizations struck me as flat with few characters making much of an impression on me. Indeed there were a couple I struggled to distinguish, often having to flick back a few pages to remind myself of who they were. Pretty impressive given how small this cast of characters is.

The other issue that the novel has is one of pacing, particularly in the section of the novel between the third murder and Hailey accusing the murderer. On the one hand there is something to be said for the thorough way in which Wynne works through each possible explanation to discount it but I couldn’t help but think some could have been presented in a much more compact or at least more entertaining way.

Things thankfully liven up in the final couple of chapters as Dr. Hailey presents his case. I would argue that there are still aspects of these chapters that are needlessly drawn out – his efforts to answer and provide proof on several supporting questions – but there is a sense of movement and the key question is so baffling that I was desperate to know how it was worked.

Happily in this respect Wynne delivers, providing the reader with a clever method of killing that I think is pretty well clued although I can’t imagine beating Hailey to that solution. The reader may have to stretch their disbelief that the killer could pull off their trick several times over. Still, once Hailey begins to explain I could see all of the connections including a few Wynne never spells out clearly himself.

That is not to say however that every aspect of the ending satisfies. One of the biggest problems with the book is that the evidence for the killer’s identity is purely circumstantial. Basically the killer will give in at a point where they still had a pretty good chance to make a go of it. It isn’t a disastrous way to end the novel but it is an underwhelming one, particularly given ingenuity of the crime itself.

While I was disappointed by some aspects of the prose and character development, I was impressed by the solid plot construction and – in particular – the cunning impossible murders. This was my first encounter with Wynne and I am likely to have at least one more as I own a copy of Murder of a Lady which was released a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Just don’t expect me to rush to read it…

Second Opinions

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time offers some praise for the impossibilities but notes that the overwrought writing and characterizations will be a barrier for many readers.

More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Edward D. Hoch

Book Details

Collection originally published in 2006. It contains stories first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 1978 and 1983.

Dr. Sam Hawthorne #2
Preceded by Diagnosis: Impossible
Followed by Nothing is Impossible

The Blurb

Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a New England country doctor in the first half of the twentieth century, was constantly faced by murders in locked rooms, impossible disappearances, and other so-called miracle crimes.

More Things Impossible contains fifteen of Dr. Sam s extraordinary cases solved between 1927 and 1931, including impossible murder in a house that whispers; poisoning by a gargoyle on the courthouse roof; the case of the Devil in the windmill; the houseboat that resembles the Mary Celeste; the affair of the vanishing Gypsies; stabbing in the locked cockpit of a plane in midair; a ghostly pirate in a lighthouse; ad eight other ingenious riddles.

The Verdict

Another very solid collection of impossible crime short stories. Some are more ingenious than others but the best are sensational.


My Thoughts

Today’s reviewed was not planned out but rather thrust upon me. You see, the book I was reading is in my locker at work and although we were warned to take everything with us the other day I forgot about it. Unfortunately that means it is currently off limits for at least a couple of weeks and so I had to come up with a new read quickly.

Adding to what is frankly a comedy of errors on my part, I continued my tradition of reading Dr. Sam’s adventures out of order by picking up this second volume. So now I have read volumes two and four for no good reason (I own the others so this is just ineptitude on my part).

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Sam, he is a midwesterner who opens a medical practice in the New England town of Northmont. The stories began in the 1920s and this volume transitions between that decade and the start of the 30s, often incorporating outside events or some of the unique features of the period.

Each case features some sort of element that is supposed to be impossible such as a killing inside a locked room or an invisible murderer. I will say that some of these impossibilities are more satisfying than others and a few feel like not much of an impossibility at all (such as The Problem of the Gingerbread Houseboat – easily my least favorite of this collection).

Overall I enjoyed this collection, feeling that the quality of the stories was a good match for All But Impossible. A couple of stories have explanations that require the killer to be far happer taking risks than I would expect but the best of the stories are excellent.

My favorite story in the collection was The Problem of the Pilgrim’s Windmill which features two people being burned in fires that take place in the same abandoned spot. Other strong points come in The Problem of the Gypsy Camp and The Problem of the General Store.

For more detailed thoughts on each story check out the notes on the second page of this review below.

Death Out of Nowhere by Alexis Gensoul and Charles Grenier, translated by John Pugmire

Book Details

Originally Published as La Mort Vient De Nulle Part (French) in 1943
English translation published in 2020

The Blurb

Is Breule Manor cursed? Can a strange incantation predicting the time of death release an occult spirit to murder time and time again, in impossible circumstances and with no clues? As the terror gets closer, an amateur detective stumbles across the astonishing solution. Recognised as one of the great books of the French Golden Age, the story will grab you, baffle you and amuse you.

The Verdict

Though short, Death out of Nowhere is packed with superb ideas and a genuinely astonishing solution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

Death out of Nowhere begins at a gathering of four friends – a journalist, novelist, school supervisor and clerk – at the manor belonging to another of their mutual friends, the Baron Pierre de Maleves.

During a discussion about crime fiction Beaurieux, the school supervisor, makes a bet that he can commit a ‘perfect crime’ at the hour of a friend’s choosing. The friend accepts and tells him to do it immediately which he does, performing a small series of actions involving a handkerchief, a funnel, some playing cards and exclaims “and the Emperor be damned”. Moments later a shot rings out and a short while later the Baron’s great-uncle is found dead in a locked and bolted room with no weapon to be found.

Let me start by saying that the opening chapters of this novella are an absolute hoot. The book opens with the group bickering about crime stories with the dialog poking fun at some of the conventions and excesses of the genre. This is one of my favorite tropes in crime fiction – the self-aware discussion of the genre to make us aware that these characters are already aware of the tricks and promising, hopefully, something fresh. Gensoul and Grenier handle this well and I think the resulting novella does a fine job of fulfilling that promise.

The idea of the impossible crime bet is an appealing one and, once again, introduced quite effectively. Beaurieux has been highly animated in conversation and when he grabs LeBellec, the clerk, by the wrists and declares “All of a sudden, I feel like killing someone” I felt energized and excited by what struck me as a moment of quite wonderfully controlled yet dramatic madness and I wondered what that moment was setting up.

The ritual itself is interesting in its simplicity and immediately raises a number of questions about what happened, whether the murder was supposed to happen and what might happen next. I was highly engaged by the questions posed and while I had some guesses, I didn’t come close to answering them. Well, except that last one. There will be more murders…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the breakneck storytelling engaged in by the authors. From the start this book is constantly throwing ideas and story developments at the reader. This is not only highly effective in terms of keeping the reader bewildered as the pace barely lets you think, it also helps to add to the unsettling effect created by this series of murders as it does seem that things are continuing to accelerate and become more dangerous for the remaining house guests.

On the topic of those guests, it should be said that this book does not have a character formally designated as the sleuth and in whose good nature and truthfulness we can wholeheartedly trust. This does open up the possibility that any of the small cast might have been involved although the nature of their various alibis makes finding a suspect who had means and opportunity seem almost impossible.

I would also say that as you might expect from a work of this length, characterization of the various suspects and victims is fairly simplistic. The four friends do all have distinct personality types but exist mostly to fill functions in the story. I think in this case it works well and ultimately suits the tone and style of the story the authors were seeking to tell. In other words, come to this book for its plot and ideas rather than its characters and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution, when it is revealed, is one of the more audacious I have encountered in impossible crime fiction yet I think it is mechanically credible, particularly given the way it is executed here. It is perhaps the type of solution that it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with organically but I do think it is justified when you look back at the material with knowledge of what the solution will be although few of the most important clues are signposted.

My only complaint with the plotting comes with a mechanical reveal that takes place in chapter fourteen which hinges on an understanding of how something works that I didn’t think had been described. Had that been critical to understanding all of the murders I might have been less willing to forgive it and I will concede that this may just hinge on my own ignorance and may have been more apparent to other readers.

Putting that complaint to one side, I loved many other parts of the conclusion and think it did a fine job of making a complicated series of events understandable and credible. The explanation occurs after a flurry of excitement and here, once again, the authors do an excellent job of conveying both a sense of energy and intellectual curiosity.

Overall I must once again give John Pugmire and Locked Room International credit for translating this work and making it available for us to enjoy. While it is short, it has so many fantastic ideas at work that I felt thoroughly satisfied with my experience reading it. I had never heard of this novella or its authors prior to the announcement of its release being made so it was a particular delight to get to come to this with no foreknowledge or expectations and I can only hope that they continue for a long time to come.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event liked this overall, saying that it won’t be for everyone (and suggesting that it doesn’t really play fair).

(Apologies if the formatting is off on this post – I edited it on my cell after posting to add the link)

Rashomon Gate by I. J. Parker

Book Details

Originally Published in 2002
Akitada #2
Note: Though this is the second novel in the series, it was published before its predecessor.
Preceded by The Dragon Scroll
Followed by Black Arrow

The Blurb

Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, toils at his dull career when a former professor begs him to look into a case of blackmail at the Imperial University. He is quickly drawn into a web of gossip and rivalry before being sidetracked by the murder of a young woman belonging to the lower classes and the disappearance of young student’s high-ranking grandfather. He and his faithful servant Tora pursue both cases eagerly, but the body count rises, and danger stalks them. When Akitada loses his heart to a young woman and wins her against all odds, a murderer has marked him as the next victim.

The Verdict

Akitada’s second adventure is even stronger than his first, fleshing out his household as he solves several puzzling cases.


My Thoughts

Like its predecessor, Rashomon Gate is a novel that presents multiple cases for the reader to solve. Each case appears to be quite separate from the others and so the trick is to see if we can understand how the various stories overlap and fit together.

The most pressing case for Akitada is presented to him by the man who took him into his household during the period when his own father had disowned him. That man, a scholar at the university, had discovered a troubling note slipped into his gown that appeared to suggest a threat of blackmail. The assumption is that the message was intended for someone else but the question is who is the intended victim and why?

There is also a murder case to solve when a young woman is found dead having apparently been strangled. Much of the work on that is done by Akitada’s servant Tora with the case causing him to cross paths with merchants and enter the pleasure houses of the Willow district.

Then finally there is the strange disappearance of a prince from a shrine. The prince had entered alone and chanted his prayers but when his travelling companions entered afterwards they only found his empty robe. The building was thoroughly checked for exits and there was no sign of an abduction or murder so what happened to him and why were his companions so sure he transcended his form?

The interplay between these various cases is quite clever although it takes a while for it to become clear just how they are connected. The last of these three mysteries is perhaps the most intangible for much of the story as it is discussed in the background until events push Akitada to take a more direct interest in solving it.

The disappearance can be viewed as being within the impossible crime subgenre though it is not featured enough in the novel to satisfy reading it for that element alone. Essentially this is a watched room and I think the explanation of what happened is quite clever, particularly as it employs some variations on some familiar tricks to make it work in this historical period and cultural setting.

The murder of the young woman is a more earthy case and it really provides us with a window into several different aspects of Japanese life in this period. Perhaps the most significant of these is its presentation of the criminal justice system and the discussion about the use of torture to extort confessions. Akitada clashes with the official in charge of the investigation about their different methods and opinions about whether the priority is to ensure justice for everyone in the case or to risk harming innocents while tracking down and punishing the guilty.

Parker presents both sides of this argument in one of the book’s most powerful sequences – the one in which this case is solved. In it we see the efficiency and speed of achieving results but we are also reminded of the cost to those who were suspected of the crime. This is a tension that is often present in these novels and I think it helps establish that Akitada is something of an outlier in his culture, at least in some regards.

Another theme that is discussed quite effectively in this part of the novel is that of social class and the hierarchy in Japanese society. Tora ends up passing through multiple layers of society and a few locations where those different classes meet and interact, and in some cases that leads to some interesting comparisons with his master such as in their different attitudes to pursuing romance.

This case is arguably the most straightforward of those on offer. There is little deduction that the reader can perform to be ahead of the sleuth – the significance of some key parts of the evidence is not recognized until the point at which it is solved. Still, I think the case is important not only in the way it overlaps with the other cases but because of the light it throws on both Tora and Akitada’s respective characters, particularly in its immediate aftermath.

The question of the threatening message is the focus of much of the adventure, not only giving Akitada an interesting case to look into but it also prompts some intriguing character development.

I have already alluded to the discussion of his years as a student in which he was banished from the family home which I think this novel explains well. We understand, for instance, his feelings of gratitude and obligation to his mentor Professor Hirata and why that proves decisive in convincing him to get involved in this mystery in the first place.

As part of his investigation Akitada becomes a teacher at the university and we get to know several members of the faculty and student body, each of whom has a strong personality. There are a few more surprises along the way, not least the discovery of an additional body in quite striking circumstances.

While I found this historical and cultural background to be quite interesting, I do think that for much of the book this is the least compelling of the three major cases. Part of that relates to a sense that this plotline lacks urgency and blackmail feels quite small compared to the other crimes on offer here. I did appreciate however that this plot ends up prompting several significant character moments for Akitada, causing several changes to take place in his household that will expand the cast of ‘regulars’.

In addition to the mystery plots, I appreciate the time and effort Parker puts into developing Akitada’s household. Here we see him interact with his mother, get a glimpse of his sisters and see changes to the household’s roster of servants. Perhaps most memorable of all however is the romance storyline which is heartfelt rather than melodramatic or sensational, leading to a resolution that seems earned and sincere.

When I first read Rashomon Gate I was struck by its interesting cases and strong characterization. I am happy to report that I was just as impressed with it on a repeat reading and that for the most part it lived up to my expectations. At this point the household had really taken shape well and I looked forward to the events of the next book, Black Arrow.