Whistle Up the Devil by Derek Smith

Book Details

Originally published in 1953
This title is collected in an omnibus edition with Come to Paddington Fair and Model for Murder

The Blurb

Roger Querrin died alone in a locked and guarded room, beyond the reach of human hands. Algy Lawrence …could not explain the mystery of this “miracle” murder. And then, faced with a second crime which could not possibly have been committed, he began to wonder, at last, if somebody had conjured up an invisible demon who could blast out locks and walk through solid walls…

The Verdict

Offers an intriguing opening and some clever points in the solution but I was a little frustrated by the pacing and some of the choices made in the investigative section.

“An uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach? A nasty thumping at the top of your head? I call that detective fever.”

My Thoughts

You find me sitting down for the second time to write up my thoughts on Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil having contrived to accidentally delete all of my scheduled posts that were supposed to go out last week. To say that was frustrating is rather an understatement than better that then my first thought which was that they had gone live and simply no one had found them interesting enough to respond to. That, of course, could still happen…

Whistle Up the Devil has been on my TBR pile for nearly as long as I’ve been doing this blog. That is not entirely unprecedented – I have a bad habit of reading half of an omnibus and leaving the rest untouched for years (for example, The Dead Shall Be Raised and Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs). It may also reflect though that while I admired the ending of Come to Paddington Fair, I found the first half of that novel pretty uninspiring.

The novel begins with Algy Lawrence being asked by Chief Inspector Castle to visit Querrin House in the countryside in his stead after he has been called away by the Yard to work on an urgent case. We learn that Castle is concerned for the safety of his friend Roger Querrin who is about to get married as he is insisting on recreating a family tradition that had led to the death of an ancestor.

Lawrence tries to decline the request but his curiosity gets the better of him and he joins the vigil, assisting the local police in providing a perimeter around the room’s entrances and windows. Inevitably however history repeats himself and Querrin is discovered dead with a knife in his back. The entrances to the room had been under constant observation making the murder seem impossible.

Okay, so plenty to discuss here but before I get into the investigative portion of the novel I do want to stress how well I think the first two chapters set up the conditions of the crime and point to some possible points of interest. One thing I particularly noted is how quickly this material is set up and the clarity of the descriptions of the space and of the various players’ positions. The impossibility is clear and it is easy to see why the conditions of the crime would appear so puzzling to those keeping guard.

I should also say that the family legend of supernatural doom and destruction is a favorite trope of mine in this sort of fiction and while this is not as outlandish as some (for example, Paul Halter’s The Lord of Misrule), I think it is sufficiently simple that you could accept both the idea of the family ceremony and also the reason why a supernatural event might be tied to it. As starting points for stories go, I think this is pretty solid.

Unfortunately, I was less pleased with the body of the investigation. Part of the issue here is connected to the book’s pacing. After getting things off to such a quick start, throwing us into a potential murder case on the day it is supposed to happen and giving us an account of the wait for something to happen, the sudden deceleration that occurs once questions begun to be asked struck me as quite jarring.

Perhaps it also didn’t help that the cast of potential suspects provided is fairly small and contained a character in the form of Uncle Russ, an older man with a predilection for young, attractive women, that I found boorish rather than charmingly roguish as I suspect I was supposed to. Meanwhile the female characters are almost entirely characterized and described in terms of their sexual appeal.

Derek Smith was clearly a huge enthusiast of the impossible crime story. There are references and call-outs galore to writers like Carr and Clayton Rawson that will no doubt be a source of delight to some. I get the appeal of those moments – I am, after all, also a huge Doctor Who fan and get the joy that comes with seeing things I love get name checked. Here however I felt it gets in the way of the story and highlights the artificiality of the detective story format and contributed to the sense that we went from a place of apprehension and suspense to something rather more self-aware. Halter, of course, is just as well read and similarly draws influence from classic works but those parallels feels more like treats for the widely-read impossible crimes enthusiast to spot and appreciate for themselves.

Things do pick up a little with the introduction of a second impossibility which offers another take on the idea of a crime being committed under the detectives’ noses. I do feel that the ultimate explanation of how and why that second murder took place struck me as a little less clever than the first but as secondary crimes go it is solid enough and I do appreciate what it ends up adding to the story overall.

While I may have felt that the middle of this novel seemed to sag, I will say that the solution is at least interesting and I enjoyed some of the developments that occur in the final few chapters. I also appreciate that while the crime may seem complex, the solution to it is quite simple and the tricks worked are pretty clever and make sense – even when the killer seems to be taking some pretty big risks. Occasionally I have complained about problems of motive with impossible crime novels but that is not the case at all here – indeed one of the aspects of the novel that impressed me most was that there was some thought given to the psychology of what was happening in the discussion of the crime at the end.

I also think Lawrence’s explanation is laid out very well. Each aspect of the solution is clearly and logically explained, making it seem all the more convincing. Is it flawless? Perhaps not. The author acknowledges one problem, admittedly more to do with plotting clarity than feasibility, in a letter included in the edition I read where they also describe how they would have made some small changes to tighten an aspect of the solution. Overall I felt quite satisfied, even if it lacked the excitement I felt as the impossibility came into view towards the end of Come to Paddington Fair.

Overall I felt that Whistle Up the Devil offered up some points of interest, even if it didn’t manage to sustain the excitement of its first few chapters. Personally I think there are some stronger titles in the Locked Room International library but it is certainly worth a look for puzzle fans, especially as the omnibus edition represents some excellent value for money.

The Mystery Train Disappears by Kyotaro Nishimura, translated by Gavin Frew

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as ミステリー列車が消えた
English translation first published in 1990.

The Blurb

Japanese National Railways runs a special Mystery Train that leaves Tokyo on a Saturday night, scheduled to return the following Monday morning. It has no announced schedule or destination, just the promise of an entertaining trip for the passengers.

This time, the passengers end up getting more “entertainment” than they bargained for. A phone call to railway officials demanding one billion yen in exchange for the safe return of the train and its passengers is thought to be a hoax – until the train fails to arrive at one of its scheduled stops.

Now railway officials really have a mystery train on their hands. How can a twelve-car train just vanish? Where can more than four hundred hostages be kept without being seen?

Clues are scarce and time is short. Nishimura uses masterful plotting and gripping suspense to create an investigation where the police are seemingly always one step behind the kidnappers – until some unexpected twists at the end.

The Verdict

Some interesting ideas but the focus lies with procedure rather than the puzzles. The train setting adds some appeal however.

We are talking about a twelve-car train, you know? Eight hundred and thirty feet of train doesn’t just disappear like that.

My Thoughts

Earlier this year when I reviewed the short story anthology Old Crimes, New Scenes, I remarked on how I wanted to read more Nishimura in translation. Well, in doing my research for that post I learned that one of his many, many novels (there are over 400 apparently) was translated into English in 1990 and after doing a little scouting around I was able to track down a reasonably-priced copy.

The novel is The Mystery Train Disappears – a title that seemed to be suggestive of an impossible crime plot. As such, I was tempted to read and review it for my impossible crime series but having been burned on impossibilities several times lately I decided to go for a sure thing instead and to read this with no expectations. For the record it offers two impossible crimes. First, let’s outline the general scenario:

Japanese National Railways, keen to find ways to reduce its operational deficit, has decided to run a series of special journeys with the exciting hook that the passengers will be traveling to a mystery destination. The promotion seems to be a hit with the railway receiving a huge number of applications for the four hundred seats. A magazine decides that it is a good enough story to send a reporter to write about the trip and a reporter is dispatched, promising his fiancée that he will call her when they reach their first stop. When he fails to do so she is concerned and approaches the railway to ask for details of the trip.

The railway officials feel sure that everything is okay, particularly when they call the museum that the travelers were meant to visit who confirm that the travelers had shown up as expected but when they call the next station they are told that the train never arrived. While there is some speculation that the train may have broken down they learn that other trains have travelled on each of the tracks between the two cities, suggesting that the eight hundred foot train has just vanished off the tracks. As concern seems to grow the train company receives a phone call demanding a ransom payment for the safe return of the train and its passengers.

The disappearance of the train is our first impossible scenario. While I think some explanations will come to mind, the scale of the crime and the challenge of abducting a train when no one knows its eventual destination adds layers of complexity to the situation. I might suggest however that while this is an impossibility, the way it is explored does not really focus on the question of how it was done as the process of following leads to discover where the train and its passengers are now.

Ho-Ling Wong in his excellent post about this book (linked below) notes that a Japanese mystery fan wiki suggests that the solution to how this was done is actually impossible. Even without that knowledge, I think there is something rather underwhelming in how it is described even though I appreciated a few elements of it. I think I might have appreciated it even more though had the publisher provided a map of the line and a timetable to pour over – not that they would necessarily have helped me but it would have made me feel like there was a greater chance of my working out the relationships between the various clues and snippets of information that we are given.

The second impossibility, while shorter and less flashy, struck me as a more compelling one for impossible crime fans to work through. It concerns the ransom money which manages to vanish from the moving train while traveling between stations. The passengers’ luggage is thoroughly searched while the windows are sealed and the baggage train was completely inaccessible, adding to the mystery.

There are times that I feel rather stupid for failing to solve an impossible crime but this is not really one of those. I certainly think that the solution is pretty clever but I never really had a strong enough sense of the space to have been able to imagine what happened. Perhaps that reflects more on me and my lack of regular train travel than the mystery itself as the moment the explanation was given I could see exactly how that would work.

While the novel offers up two impossibilities, the style of the storytelling is all procedural and not unlike taking a mystery train journey. It soon becomes apparent that the investigation is on a set of tracks, offering a clearly defined path with few surprises or diversions. It is also clear that the reader has little chance of drawing any firm conclusions from what they have learned until close to the end. Even when we near that resolution, solving this has less to do with applications of logic or thinking through a problem as it does simply piecing the bits of information we have together and even that feels rather minimal.

The bigger issue is that the investigators themselves feel quite bland and I certainly had little sense of who they were beyond their function in the story. That perhaps reflects that one of the characters had appeared in a number of previous Nishimura stories but it means that there is no sense of personalities within the department – something that can often liven up those moments in a procedural in which the investigators seem to be getting nowhere (which in this book is quite a frequent feeling).

The characters from the railway company perhaps feel a little more defined though here I have an issue with empathizing with those characters. While they are doing the right thing by paying out the ransom, it is hard to sympathize with a company’s prime concern being avoiding a public relations scandal, even if that is quite a realistic view of how many executives would view the situation.

Perhaps the biggest cause of dissatisfaction for me lies in the ending’s novel. Now, I have no intention of spoiling exactly what that resolution is but I think it is worth stressing that there is a decisive part of the ending that happens in spite of the investigation rather than because of it. While such moments are pretty common early in an investigation, it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory to have a key development happen regardless of your protagonists’ involvement and while probably realistic, it struck me as quite anticlimactic.

Overall then my first novel-length Nishimura struck me as rather disappointing. There are some fun ideas here and it offers some appeal points for those who like gentle thrillers and stories involving trains but I found it rather underwhelming in terms of its puzzle plot. That being said, assuming that this isn’t the pinnacle of his achievement as a novelist, I still hope that some day I will get to read more of his work in translation. He was so prolific it would be nice to get to know him better.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests lowering your expectations for this one but considers it an ‘interesting curio’.

Ho-Ling Wong shares his thoughts on this book, regarding it as rather underwhelming (and querying why this was the title out of his vast, vast catalog of work to be translated into English).

It Walks By Night by John Dickson Carr

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Henri Bencolin #1
Followed by Castle Skull

The British Library Crime Classics reprint also includes the short story ‘The Shadow of the Goat’ (1926).

The Blurb

In the smoke-wreathed gloom of a Parisian salon, Inspector Bencolin has summoned his allies to discuss a peculiar case. A would-be murderer, imprisoned for his attempt to kill his wife, has escaped and is known to have visited a plastic surgeon. His whereabouts remain a mystery, though with his former wife poised to marry another, Bencolin predicts his return.

Sure enough, the Inspector’s worst suspicions are realized when the beheaded body of the new suitor is discovered in a locked room of the salon, with no apparent exit. Bencolin sets off into the Parisian night to unravel the dumbfounding mystery and track down the sadistic killer.

The Verdict

This story delivers on atmosphere but I felt that it distracted a little from the puzzle parts of the plot.

It will not be best to marry her. I am watching. I have put myself close to you, but you do not know it.

My Thoughts

The famed sportsman the Duc de Saligny is about to get married. His bride, Louise, had previously been married to a man who had become mad and tried to murder her, ending up in an insane asylum. In a worrying turn for the couple, Laurent appears to have escaped and may even have changed his appearance with the help of a skilled plastic surgeon. Our sleuth, juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin, suspects that Laurent’s actions have been with the intention of returning to Paris to kill the Duc and possibly Louise too.

Bencolin arranges for the couple to be guarded while visiting a gambling house but his fears become reality when, a short while after entering an empty card room, the Duc’s decapitated head is found on the floor. The position of his body suggests he intentionally knelt before the murderer, raising the question why he would just meekly submit to that fate, while there is also the problem that no one was seen entering or leaving the room by its only entrance. The crime seems impossible…

It Walks By Night has been on my to read pile for a long time. Long enough that I accidentally purchased two additional copies of it after receiving a review copy when it was first published. Whoops (this would be one of the reasons I created my publicly-accessible TBR pile page).

The novel was Carr’s first to be published and while it features an impossible crime and discovering the explanation of that will be key to solving the mystery, I think it would be fair to suggest that this doesn’t feel like its focus. Instead I would suggest that Carr is more interested in creating a thick atmosphere of dread using elements of the supernatural, sex and implied gore to unsettle the reader.

The obvious comparison would be with the works of Poe, one of the fathers of the genre who gave us another genius-level French detective in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (and its two sequels). Carr clearly leans into this, referencing the writer repeatedly including in a chapter’s title, but it is not simply a question of atmosphere. The character of Bencolin himself possesses an almost diabolic appearance with a Mephistophelean beard and an apparent appreciation for the macabre elements of this case.

Bencolin is the first of Carr’s significant recurring sleuths and differs somewhat from his subsequent and more popular creations, Dr. Fell and Sir. Henry Merrivale. Part of this is presentational as each of those characters felt lighter and more comic, but he also fulfills a slightly different role in relation to the investigation. While those characters are typically reacting to a crime that has already been committed, Bencolin begins this story aware of the likelihood of a crime and taking action to try and prevent it. Even once the crime takes place, he seems far more physically active than either Dr. Fell or H. M. and seems to be constantly moving rather than cogitating.

That sense of constant action makes this feel more like a thriller or adventure story than a straightforward detective story. While there certainly are clues that the reader can use to get to much of the solution, the story is peppered with improbable and far-fetched developments. To give just a couple of examples that leap to mind, I think the author has a misplaced idea about precisely what could be achieved with plastic surgery while a visit made to a woman in a darkened room feels rather ridiculous in the context of what had just occurred.

It was all a bit much for me, overwhelming the puzzle aspects of the novel, and I wished that the story had been a little more consice. Perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind and this was just the wrong book for my mood at the moment. I will note though that I found the additional short story included in the British Library reprint, The Shadow of the Goat, to be significantly more entertaining and engaging. I certainly enjoyed the puzzle elements of the story and found the conclusion to be both logical and satisfying.

I am sure that I will return to Bencolin at some point. I have copies of Castle Skull and The Four False Weapons on my TBR list after all. But for now I suspect my next Carr will likely mean a return to Dr. Fell.

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review though I purchased my own additional copies.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #14
Preceded by The A. B. C. Murders
Followed by Cards on the Table

The Blurb

Suspicious events at a Middle Eastern archaeological excavation site intrigue the great Hercule Poirot as he investigates Murder in Mesopotamia, a classic murder mystery from Agatha Christie.

Amy Leatheran has never felt the lure of the mysterious East, but when she travels to an ancient site deep in the Iraqi desert to nurse the wife of a celebrated archaeologist, events prove stranger than she could ever have imagined. Her patient’s bizarre visions and nervous terror seem unfounded, but as the oppressive tension in the air thickens, events come to a terrible climax–in murder.

With one spot of blood as his only clue, Hercule Poirot must embark on a journey not just across the desert, but into the darkest crevices of the human soul to unravel a mystery which taxes even his remarkable powers.

The Verdict

Not a favorite. The setting and characters feel well-observed but I find Amy Leatheran tiresome and to say a couple of plot points are incredible would perhaps be understating things.

“She’s an odd woman. A mass of affection and, I should fancy, a champion liar – but Leidner seems honestly to believe that she is scared out of her life by something or other.”

My Thoughts

Last week I put the call out on Twitter for my followers – a small but intrepid band – to help me select the title I would read and write about for today’s locked room or impossible crime post. It was quite rightly pointed out that I had somewhat stacked the decks by including a Christie title among the ones offered. While I do not think it was conscious, I suspect that my doing so was rather purposeful. I needed a little extra push to get around to reading Murder in Mesopotamia again so thank you to the Big Four who voted this into the lead.

Before I explain why this novel is not a favorite, let me first recap the scenario. Amy Leatheran is a nurse who is invited to join an archaeological dig to help care for the wife of the leading archaeologist, Dr. Leidner. It seems Mrs. Leidner appears to be nervous though it takes some time for Amy to discover the cause of that anxiety and learn about her past. Soon afterwards she is discovered dead in the bedroom of her house having been forcibly struck on the head. There was only one entrance to the bedroom, which could not have been entered, while the window was shut and barred. Nor was there any sign within the room of an object that might have been used to murder her.

The mystery of the death initially puzzles the local police. Fortunately Hercule Poirot happens to be traveling in the region and he is persuaded to travel to the dig to assist with the investigation. He soon appalls everyone however when he asserts that the murder must have been carried out by someone involved in the dig. With the assistance of Amy Leatheran who documents the case, he begins to look into the matter…

It is the choice of narrator that is largely responsible for my lack of enthusiasm for this title and I am sorry to report that my feelings are not significantly altered. While I think there are some positive things that come of Poirot’s association with a tough and rather straightforward nurse, I find this particular character rather unlikable and I am not a fan of the awkward structure that this then imposes on the novel’s opening chapters.

Some of my issues with Amy Leatheran stem from her personality traits. From the start of the novel she comes off as highly judgmental and occasionally xenophobic, particularly towards Poirot. While I appreciate the idea of undermining some of Poirot’s own pretentious behaviors and quirks, my problem is that I find Leatheran’s less endearing. That is in spite (or perhaps because) of their being quite realistic and well observed. This means that I can find her company something of a chore.

Her role in this particular story requires her to enter as an outsider, both to the characters involved at the dig but also to Poirot. This leads to a certain amount of awkwardness however as it requires a certain degree of setup to be done to explain her presence and then her involvement with the investigation. This would not be such an issue if Christie didn’t also include a rather awkward and frankly quite unnecessary preamble in which we learn how she came to be asked to write this manuscript. All of this slows down the start of the story and leads to it feeling somewhat self-conscious.

The introduction of Poirot is welcome, both in terms of signaling the start of the investigation but also because it gives the proceedings a greater degree of focus. He quickly focuses our attention on some specific questions and pieces of evidence as well as starting to interview the various suspects. This section of the book is done fairly well and I appreciated that those interviews are not presented in full but rather key moments from each are pulled out and put into focus for us.

Poirot is on pretty solid form here. Certainly he has some moments where he not only shows off his brilliance and imagination but also his understanding of people’s characters, drawing some rather striking conclusions at times. More on those later… What I like most though, and this is the one aspect of the narration I think works well, is the sense of Poirot as an outsider. We have had some hints of that in previous stories, perhaps most recently in Three Act Tragedy, but I think this novel presents it as far more significant than most of its predecessors, even if it is not terribly important to the plot.

The main strength of this novel though lies in its depiction of the workings of an archaeological dig and of the types of individuals who might be involved in them. Christie by this stage in her life had quite some experience of digs, having accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to some. She even is supposed to have drawn on some real people as inspiration for characters in this story. That detail helps the setting and characters feel quite credible, even if the narrator threatens to eschew providing any sort of local color in her narrative.

Let’s turn to the locked room aspect of the story which was, after all, my inspiration for revisiting it this time. The circumstances of the murder are intriguing and I appreciate that the clues are rather limited and relatively subtle. I think it might be fair to suggest that Poirot is rather fortunate that the murderer feels it necessary to commit a second killing as that does push things forward quite a bit and highlight some key aspects of the crime – certainly I cannot imagine him solving it based on the initial pieces of evidence.

There are challenges in accepting some of the aspects of this plot. Much has rightly been made of a rather ridiculous matter of identity and while I think Christie wisely tries to prime the reader early by discussing the idea in generalities, it is really hard to believe that it could work in practice. Some may also feel that the murder method relies on everything working in the killer’s favor and some extremely fortunate timing that they could not have counted on. I am rather more forgiving of this however as I feel that had things not happened that way then the murder would simply have been quickly solved and the case would never have come to Poirot’s attention at all.

Murder in Mesopotamia does have some points that I think do commend it. The setting feels credible and well-observed and while Amy may intend to provide no color, I think this is one of Christie’s more atmospheric locations for a Poirot story. I do also enjoy some of the aspects of the solution. My problem is that there are a couple of points which feel incredible in all the worst senses of that word. Those few ludicrous reveals, coupled with a tiresome choice of narrator, make this hard-going for me.

A Reasonable Doubt by Phillip Margolin

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Robin Lockwood #3
Preceded by The Perfect Alibi
Followed by A Matter of Life and Death

The Blurb

Robin Lockwood is a young criminal defense attorney and partner in a prominent law firm in Portland, Oregon. A former MMA fighter and Yale Law graduate, she joined the firm of legal legend Regina Barrister not long before Regina was forced into retirement by early onset Alzheimer’s. 

One of Regina’s former clients, Robert Chesterfield, shows up in the law office with an odd request―he’s seeking help from his old attorney in acquiring patent protection for an illusion. Chesterfield is a professional magician of some reknown and he has a major new trick he’s about to debut. This is out of the scope of the law firm’s expertise, but when Robin Lockwood looks into his previous relationship with the firm, she learns that twenty years ago he was arrested for two murders, one attempted murder, and was involved in the potentially suspicious death of his very rich wife. At the time, Regina Barrister defended him with ease, after which he resumed his career as a magician in Las Vegas. 

Now, decades later, he debuts his new trick―only to disappear at the end. He’s a man with more than one dark past and many enemies―is his disappearance tied to one of the many people who have good reason to hate him? Was he killed and his body disposed of, or did he use his considerable skills to engineer his own disappearance?

Robin Lockwood must unravel the tangled skein of murder and bloody mischief to learn how it all ties together.

The Verdict

A Reasonable Doubt is built upon a surprisingly solid puzzle. Those approaching this in search of “the ultimate impossible crime” may be disappointed but fans of legal adventures may enjoy.

“In ancient Egypt, those who offended the gods were entombed alive in a sarcophagus and died a horrible death,” Chesterfield said. “I am known as an escape artist. Tonight, I will perform the ultimate escape: I will cheat death.”

My Thoughts

A Reasonable Doubt is the third in Margolin’s series of legal thrillers featuring Robin Lockwood, a young criminal defense lawyer who put herself through law school as a professional mixed martial artist. Normally I don’t like to start a series in the middle but I decided to make a rare exception for this one.

The book first caught my eye a few months ago when I spotted the rather bold claim on the inside of the dust jacket that a murder that takes place in it was “the ultimate impossible crime”. Of course, I learned from my recent experience never to trust advertising copy, particularly when it comes to impossible murders, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Murder plus magicians often makes for a pretty effective combination.

Robin is contacted by Robert Chesterfield, a magician who is seeking legal advice on patenting an illusion from a retired partner, Regina, who had helped him years earlier. While she considers whether to take him on as a client given his request falls outside her normal areas of expertise she decides to make contact with Regina to find out more about him. What she learns is that he had been accused of several murders before his wife died in mysterious circumstances. The legal cases against him failed thanks to Regina’s smart defense as well as some inept lawyering on the part of the prosecutor assigned the case and he used his new notoriety as a springboard to a Las Vegas residency.

After explaining why she cannot take the case she is invited to witness the first public performance of the illusion. Chesterfield is to be entombed in a sarcophagus that will be filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Robin herself checks the sarcophagus to make sure there are no trick doors. When the time comes to open it however he has vanished and everyone, including his assistants, seem genuinely baffled as to where he has gone.

While the above description of the first half of the book doesn’t seem to suggest any impossibilities, I am happy to report that the book offers up two though neither comes close to matching the hyperbole of “the ultimate impossible crime”.

Given how late these two incidents take place in the novel I feel I have to be pretty vague about the circumstances. Instead I will try to describe and address them in more general terms.

One involves a murder that takes place in front of a crowd. While the book seems to suggest that the fact the murder took place was impossible I think that ignores that there obviously were people who could have done it. Instead I would suggest that a better claim for it being an impossible crime lies in the problem that almost all of the suspects (and there are a lot) were observing each other in the audience or their movements were visible on stage.

This has shades of Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I suggested did not qualify as impossible) and The Problem of the Green Capsule (which does). Whether you accept it as an impossibility or not, know that the question of how it was done is quite short-lived. We quickly learn at what point the murder took place and how it was done, even if the exact identity of that person seems unclear for a while longer.

Regardless of whether it is impossible, I think the novel builds up to the moment of the murder really well building a strong sense of place and occasion. I had little difficulty imagining what was going on or where the key people were in relation to each other and while the reveal of the corpse is not exactly surprising, I think it is quite effective.

The second moment in the story that could be said to be impossible is simpler still but I think that simplicity gives it an added impact. This takes place in Chapter 20 and involves a character surviving something that ought to have killed them. Once again the explanation comes too quickly for it to really make a big impact as a puzzle but I think the idea is striking and I love the background to the incident and the way it is interpreted by the characters involved. Simple but effective.

Given how late these two incidents occur (and that one is fairly peripheral to the plot), it seems odd that the blurb would lead with them. Instead the novel places more emphasis on the reader gaining a sense of Chesterfield as a man and understanding the events he is widely believed to have committed. Over half the book is spent on those previous events and understanding the significance of the book’s title – why he would escape on a reasonable doubt even if he seems obviously guilty.

Still while the structure may be a little awkward in terms of creating an easy-to-summarize plot, I think there are some benefits to how it presents its timeline somewhat out of sequence. This allows us to encounter Robert for the first time without a knowledge of that background which will clearly be so important to the remainder of the story.

I also really liked the way that Margolin uses the character of Regina within the story. She is clearly a brilliant lawyer and has information that she simply cannot recall on demand. This features in a very powerful moment late in the story which serves almost as a challenge for the reader as a key deduction is given but completely stripped of the context needed to make sense of it. It’s a clever plot element that I think works nicely.

The novel’s two impossibilities are perhaps too insubstantial to feel properly clued but I had few complaints with the way the key points of the murder itself are presented. The reader is given enough information to deduce much of what had happened and why. If there is a problem it is that the suspects feel rather lightly sketched in comparison with the victim and so there is little sense of who those suspects are beyond knowledge of their motive or opportunity. Still, I think the choice of a killer is a good one and I enjoyed that reveal.

While I am on the subject of things I liked, let me mention the novel’s treatment of stage magic and illusions. This is not just a character’s profession but an important element of the story and I feel Margolin shows an understanding and appreciation for stage magic. It’s perhaps not as deeply woven into the story as in Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat but the novel not only discusses some aspects of stage performance, it also addresses some parts of the business side of the profession too.

I also appreciated that there was some actual discussion of legal principles and ideas. I am not sure it is the most naturalistic conversation but the author does a good job of making legal conversations feel accessible and important to the plot.

I was less enamored of the writing style which tends to be quite direct, particularly in the earliest chapters. While I can applaud the idea of getting the story moving as quickly as possible, the execution of that here feels off with Margolin often telling us things he could show us. At times that means that characters behave in ways that feel quite against their interests in that moment – such as when Robert makes a rather hard pass at Regina. While people certainly do things out of a sense of compulsion, Robert’s typical craftiness makes that seem unlikely, and so it comes off as staggeringly ill-advised.

The other complaint I have is that the book does not lean quite heavily enough into the concept behind its title. While the author doesn’t definitively state what the truth behind those initial murders were, I think it is clear who we are meant to believe did them. I really liked the idea that there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you can prove in court and I think the plot could have more closely reflected that and given us a corpse we are unsure how we feel about.

While I do not recommend reading this purely for the impossibilities, A Reasonable Doubt is a pretty quick read. I do wonder if I would have found the opening less grating had I already known the characters. The characters and their relationships are all clearly communicated however and I did find the elements of magic and illusion added some interest for me.

Jonathan Creek: Gorgons Wood (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 28, 2004
Season 4, Episode 6
Preceded by The Chequered Box
Followed by The Grinning Man

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

Celia Imrie is one of the most familiar faces in British cinema, having featured in a number of films that have been international hits including The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Calendar Girls and Bridget Jones’ Baby. She also has appeared in episodes of a number of genre television shows including Inspector Lewis, Poirot, Marple and Midsomer Murders.

Michael Cochrane is another easily recognizable face who frequently seems to be cast as either aristocrats or villains. Among his genre roles are episodes of Law and Order UK, Murphy’s Law, Rosemary and Thyme and A Touch of Frost. Perhaps my favorite of his performances though is as Redvers Fenn-Cooper (yes, an aristocratic type) in the Doctor Who episode Ghost Light.

The Verdict

A clever impossible disappearance trick but some incredibly dark plot elements feel designed primarily to shock. It works but it also makes for rather disturbing viewing.


Episode Summary

A porcelain statue connected with a Shinto monk has been loaned to a small museum by Owen Glendower, a celebrity cookbook author. Given the value of the object there is a small security detail on hand to supervise the unboxing of the vase when it arrives and to ensure its safety.

When the shipment is received Thelma Bailey, the museum’s curator, carefully sets it on a pedestal within a special display unit and asks if she can have a moment in privacy with the statue and lowers the curtains on each door while she sits before it and closes her eyes. A minute or so later she shrieks and the guards enter the unit to find that the statue is gone. The space and Bailey are thoroughly searched but they can find so sign of it and the entrances to the space were under constant supervision. Where could the statue have gone?

My Thoughts

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen me post a few weeks ago that I had discovered that there was an episode of Jonathan Creek I found that I had never seen. It was this one which I somehow missed on original airing. Given that new episodes of Jonathan Creek seem unlikely at this point, though I remain hopeful, this is the closest thing I will have to a new episode and that was pretty exciting for me, even though there are some elements of this that I don’t love.

Let’s start by discussing the impossibility which is a fairly neat example of a disappearing object. The direction does a good job of establishing the physical space both inside and outside of the display unit and while the meditating in front of the statue moment feels a little contrived, I think the moment of the disappearance is quite effective.

This is a scenario in which there seems to be an obvious suspect and I appreciate that Renwick acknowledges that pretty much immediately, having Glendower quickly point the finger at Bailey. There are not many other characters that could be considered suspects and so the question is less who did the crime as how it was pulled off. I came pretty close to guessing how it was done, mostly because I read something that worked a similar trick not too long ago, but I am fairly confident that had I not have come close to working it out and would likely have been quite wowed by it as an idea.

The relationship between Glendower and Bailey is interesting and I think it is elevated by the quality of the casting. Both Imrie and Cochrane are superb actors and bring a fair amount of self-righteous intensity to their parts, making their animosity quite believable. I think their history and that of Gorgons Wood itself is quite intriguing and does give the episode a strange and rather disturbing intensity that can be quite effective.

There are some other elements of this story however that sat far less comfortably with me, striking me as being designed primarily to shock the viewer. I have felt that this intention to disturb or outrage the viewer was noticeable in several earlier episodes this season (most notably The Seer of the Sands) but this episode takes it to a whole new extreme. While I cannot fault the portrayals by the actors involved, I think the extreme darkness of the episode’s themes and elements feels a little out of keeping with the show’s more usual tone up until this point particularly as we reach the episode’s climax.

It’s a shame because as a puzzle I think the episode has much to commend itself. Not only is the solution to how the statue vanished quite clever mechanically (and several of the doubts I had about it were removed when we see the method in action), I think some of the clueing here is quite solid. The grim tone and the rather melodramatic storytelling obscure some of the episode’s subtleties and unfortunately draw attention away from the often rather clever plot construction.

This story would be Carla’s last alongside Jonathan though there is little sense of a conclusion or that a departure is in any way imminent. Instead it is very much business as normal with Carla getting a comical subplot in which she is surprised by the reason some people are buying her exercise videos. Sawalha plays this pretty well and while I don’t think of it as riotously funny, it doesn’t feel at odds with the rather sleazy tone of the rest of the episode.

As for Brendan – well, he’s absent here. JJ quite rightly suggested that this was no bad thing given that it is hard to imagine his more overtly crazy behavior sitting well with this episode’s heavier material (Adam Klaus’ antics on the farm fit better because they are also quite disturbing, albeit in a more lighthearted way) but it does add to the sense that Carla’s departure was unplanned and that there is no real sense of resolution to the character or her relationship with Jonathan. It just ends.

Now that I have reached the end of the Carla Borrego era, I do think of it as a bit of a missed opportunity. I think there was the potential to use Carla’s role as the host of a crime show to bring cases to Jonathan in a way that could have felt quite natural but this was quickly forgotten and her role ends up feeling rather poorly defined. Sawalha was fun in the part and I appreciated that her relationship with Jonathan feels different from what he had before with Maddy. I perhaps would have liked it better however had they remained at odds with one another as a result of their forced professional relationship.

It’s a shame really that she didn’t go out on a better story. Maddy at least had The Three Gamblers which was a case that gave her some moments to shine and felt like a pretty solid puzzle. In contrast Gorgons Wood draws attention away from its two leads. While I think its plot is often quite clever and Imrie and Cochrane are both excellent, the story’s darker themes feel out of place and feel like they are trying too hard to be shocking. In that they perhaps succeed but, for this viewer at least, it comes at the expense of the episode’s sense of fun.

Case Closed, Volume 1: The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Book Details

Originally released in 1994
English translation released in 2004
Volume 1
Followed by The Woman of Mystery

The Blurb

Ghastly beheadings, bloody murders, and coldhearted child abductions–

Precocious high school student Jimmy Kudo uses his keen powers of observation and astute intuition to solve mysteries that have left law enforcement officials baffled. Hot on the trail of a suspect, Jimmy is accosted from behind and fed a strange chemical which physically transforms him into a grade schooler! Taking on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa, he attempts to track down the people who did this to him. But until he finds a cure for his bizarre condition, Jimmy continues to help the police solve their toughest cases.

Can you crack the case before Conan does?

The Verdict

An entertaining introduction to the series and its young protagonist. This volume is really about setting up the key elements and so the first two cases can feel a little slight but they were great fun nonetheless.

“I don’t want to write about detectives… I want to be one!!”

My Thoughts

The detective manga Case Closed has been on my radar for some time thanks to Tomcat’s enticing reviews of the later volumes in the series. Rather than jump in at the end I thought it best to start at the very beginning with this first volume which Wikipedia tells me is titled The Sherlock Holmes of Modern Times.

The protagonist is Jimmy Kudo, a rich and unsupervised teenaged detective story fan. He has grown up studying his parents’ library of vintage detective novels and fancies himself to be a new Sherlock Holmes, honing his deductive and physical abilities in the hopes of emulating his fictional hero’s feats. Though he is only a junior in high school, Jimmy is already putting his skills to the test and building a reputation for himself by assisting the police in their investigations. For instance, when we first meet him he is on the way to announcing the identity of an unlikely murderer in front of a group of suspects.

There is a further short case (which I will get to in a moment) that follows this introduction before an event happens that changes Jimmy in some quite profound ways. After he solves that case he grows suspicious of a pair of men and follows them, only to get caught. Rather than shoot Jimmy, the men decide to poison him by feeding him an experimental drug and leave him for dead. The drug does not work as expected however and rather than kill Jimmy, instead it deages him by about ten years.

Turning to a family friend, an inventor, for help, Jimmy is told he needs to find the original formula to try and reverse its effects on him. To do this it is suggested that he adopt a false identity so the would-be killers do not know he survived and live with his friend Rachel and her private detective father. The idea is that Jimmy will be able to use the father to help him research the villains who had attacked him. Unfortunately Rachel’s father turns out to be a rather inept detective however Jimmy, who rebrands himself as Conan Edogawa after two favorite detective novelists, finds ways to help him solve his cases.

There are three complete cases contained within this volume though they are not all given equal space. The first is easily the simplest, taking place in just one chapter (which are termed files), and it is really used to provide an origin story for the character. It is quite a colorful case however in spite of its short page count.

Jimmy has taken his friend Rachel to the theme park where they go on a roller coaster ride. Everyone is securely strapped into the cars in pairs. During the ride one of the passengers is suddenly decapitated though it does not appear that the ride itself is at fault. Given the distance between the cars and the use of mechanical restraints it seems that the only possible killer would be the victim’s girlfriend who was sat next to him. Of course appearances can be deceptive…

Because the conditions seem to preclude anyone but the girlfriend from being the killer, I think this can be considered an impossible crime. Certainly I think the question of how the crime was achieved receives the bulk of the focus and while I have some doubts whether the killer could actually pull off their rather daring crime without being seen and suspect most will instinctively guess at at least one element of it, I still think it is a pretty creative murder method. It certainly gets things off to an entertaining and rather macabre start!

The second case involves the kidnapping of a rich businessman’s ten year old daughter by a mysterious figure in black. This case initially seems relatively straightforward with it quickly seeming clear what has happened, only for an end of chapter revelation to spin things off in a somewhat different direction.

The main purpose of this case is to establish the challenges that Jimmy in his Detective Conan guise will face in trying to get adults to listen to him. That makes sense as a choice in developing the series though I think it is unfortunate that it results in a case that it driven more by action than points of deduction. I think it does a good job of establishing the basic structure where Rachel’s father is hired to look into a case and Conan finds a way to tag along and influence the investigation, subtly inserting his own theories, and so it is important to the overall development of the series.

The final case is far cleverer and, offers the reader a locked room murder. A beautiful and popular idol consults Rachel’s father to ask him to investigate a series of home intrusions, strange messages and silent phone calls made to her. He accompanies her to her apartment which she left locked but when they open it they find an unknown man lying dead with a knife in his back.

It seems logical that the idol would not have hired a detective to draw attention to the death if she had committed the murder herself but she was the only person who should have had access to her apartment. Of the three cases, this one was easily my favorite. This case is less twisty than the previous one but I think that the solution is much better clued and rather imaginative.

Having discussed the cases briefly, I think I should end by reflecting a little on our young sleuth.

Jimmy is certainly a rather arrogant kid but I could relate to his detective novel fanboying. There is something rather appealing about the idea that simply reading lots of mystery novels could be the basis for a great career as a detective. The change he undergoes is largely physical but it does mean he must adapt his methods too. For one thing, he is incapable of performing some actions physically while perhaps most significantly, he must figure out ways to be able to influence cases when no one will take him seriously. This leads to many of the book’s most comedic and madcap moments.

One complication that Jimmy has to work with is that he must pretend to not be himself around Rachel, apparently to protect her as if the criminals who transformed him learn his identity then she might be in danger. This is perhaps not the most convincing reasoning but at the same time it does avoid the potentially rather uncomfortable problem of the person she is in love with being in the body of an elementary schooler. While the setup is a little weird, I do like the character and I think she has a few nice character moments late in the volume.

Overall then I enjoyed my first encounter with Detective Conan. I enjoyed the silly premise of the series, loved the references to classic crime writers and appreciated the blend of cases. While none of the solutions are likely to blow the reader’s mind, I like the creativity involved. These stories were great fun to read while I look forward to learning the truth behind the greater mysteries concerning the men who attacked Jimmy.

Jonathan Creek: The Chequered Box (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 21, 2004
Season 4, Episode 5
Preceded by The Seer of the Sands
Followed by Gorgons Wood

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

Colin McFarlane is probably most widely known for his role as Loeb in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but he has also appeared in a number of other high profile films and television series including Outlander and Doctor Who. Genre fans may also remember him from episodes of Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise (I really enjoyed his role and performance in that episode) and Judge John Deed.

Steve Speirs is best known to me for his role as Burbage in the sitcom Upstart Crow but he has made several appearances in genre shows including Midsomer Murders, The Last Detective, New Tricks and the historical crime mini-series City of Vice.

The Verdict

One of the simpler stories, lacking the high concepts found in many of the show’s later adventures, but it executes those ideas really well.


Episode Summary

Inspector Fell is one of the most respected detectives in the police force with his sharp mind and attention to detail, making him a perfect subject for Carla to shadow for a week. She is on the scene when he is called to a locked room death in which a man has died in a room secured with two deadbolts from the inside and she is impressed when he produces a complete solution in just a couple of minutes.

Freelance photographer Hattie Baron is also at the scene in search of a story. After being ejected she receives a message that she should be at a specific location at a certain time to look out the window. When she does she sees and photographs Inspector Fell searching the desk of a lawyer’s office while her dead body is hanging from the ceiling. Is Inspector Fell a murderer or is there more to the story?

My Thoughts

Compared with the other episodes in this season of Jonathan Creek, The Chequered Box feels decidedly low key. While previous episodes have presented us with some audacious impossibility, the problems in this episode are far less flashy and convoluted. Yet I would suggest that is largely a matter of presentation as there are two excellent problems at the core of the episode that, while understated, hold together much better than those in either of the previous two episodes. I would certainly rate it much higher as an hour of television.

The first of these problems is the locked room problem that Inspector Fell appears to solve at the very start of the episode. The pace of this early scene is such that the viewer has very little chance to beat Fell to his conclusions but I don’t think that is really a problem for two reasons. Firstly, because it helps establish Fell’s character quite perfectly, setting him up as a credible rival to Jonathan. This was a dynamic I absolutely loved in Black Canary so I was very happy to see the premise used again here though the episode comes up with a great variation to make it feel ultimately quite distinct.

The second reason I don’t have a problem with it is that Fell will not have the final word on that scene. Ultimately there is more to learn there and I quite enjoyed seeing how Jonathan reaches a different set of conclusions. Were this the main impossibility I might be disappointed but as a secondary problem I think it works quite nicely.

The meat of the episode however lies in the problem of the hanging in the lawyer’s office. While this problem does not appear to be impossible, if we take Fell at his word that he did not murder her then an impossibility quickly establishes itself. How does an observer see him walk right up to her when he claims the room was empty? The two accounts appear unreconcilable.

Of course there is a solution and it is relatively simple. This is one of the few cases that I recall actually figuring out pretty quickly on first viewing and that solution can be reached through a series of simple logical deductions. It may be less flashy than a message magically appearing in a bottle but I think the viewer is much better placed to solve this one themselves as everything is very neatly clued.

Inspector Fell is played very well by Colin McFarlane who offers a very strong, authorative presence that contrasts nicely with Jonathan’s more laid back personality. I think the moment when we first see him in the office still feels quite shocking and so it makes a pretty big impact.

If I have a problem with the character of Fell it lies not with the performance but with some of the moments that are given to him in the script. There are a number of points, all clustered around a single sequence mid-way through the episode, that are designed primarily to manipulate the viewer rather than because they make sense in the context of a situation or to that character. McFarlane plays these moments well, delivering them for their maximum impact and I think connecting with what they mean to his character, but they do feel rather forced and unnatural, particularly once we reach the end of the episode.

The simplicity of the plot leaves me with little else to comment on in the main mystery thread so let’s turn to the episode’s secondary plots. These are Adam Klaus’ misadventures as he attempts some David Blaine-style endurance feats, Carla’s home renovation and Brendan’s obsession with his colonoscopy video.

All three secondary storylines are primarily played for laughter with the characters themselves being the butt of the joke. In Brendan’s case quite literally. Admittedly the humor here is hardly highbrow stuff but Edmondson plays it well to further develop his character’s sense of self-obsession to a comical extreme. An attempt at a punchline at the end with Carla and Jonathan fell a little flat but it’s all pretty harmless stuff.

The issue with the toilets in Carla’s home is less crude than you might expect and plays on the comedic idea of someone attempting to keep their dignity in an embarrassing situation. This strand is also quite brief and has an added benefit that it is used to push the plot forward at one point.

Finally, Adam is the comedic target of his own subplot in which we see him make a public spectacle of himself while trying to become a public spectacle. I found it to not only be an entertaining riff on that type of event which was big news back around the time this went out, I appreciate how ridiculous Adam is made to look at a couple of points. The punchline to the underground burial scene was done very well and subverted my expectations of where that was headed pretty well.

Three perfectly fine, non-offensive subplots (the episode script suggests that Adam’s second publicity stunt is meant to be profoundly offensive but I think it just speaks to his complete narcissim and lack of self-awareness). Two of the three actually feed back into the main plot in a meaningful way. A welcome change from the last few weeks.

I think that phrase – ‘a welcome change from the last few weeks’ – can be applied to this episode as a whole. Look, The Chequered Box is not a particularly puzzling or complex mystery. It lacks the high concept hooks that you find in many of the best episodes. That is not an inherently bad thing though. This episode does less but it does it well, lacking any really obvious flaws. As such, by default, it places in the top half of the episodes from this season and I would not be shocked if it ends up in the top half when I get to compile my ranked list of all of the Jonathan Creek episodes at the end of this project…

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Dr. Hailey #12
Preceded by The Yellow Crystal
Followed by The White Arrow

The Blurb

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom―but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body.

Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick―perhaps too quick―to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.

The Verdict

I enjoyed the Highland setting and the impossibilities. Unfortunately Dr. Hailey is a little anonymous as a sleuth, making the novel feel a little awkwardly paced.

He bent and saw a small round object which adhered closely to the skin. He touched it; it was immediately dislodged. He recognized a fish’s scale.

My Thoughts

This month (and next month) I have committed to starting each week with a post about a locked room or impossible crime novel. One of the reasons I have been keen to do this is to provide a little structure for my week’s blogging, limiting the time I spend browsing through my collection and library bookshelves in search of something to read, but it also was aimed at encouraging me to make more of an effort to work through my TBR pile.

The subject of this week’s post, Anthony Wynne’s Murder of a Lady, was particularly deserving of such attention. I cannot be certain but I am pretty sure that this was one of the very first British Library Crime Classics novels I purchased along with Death in the Tunnel but while the Burton quickly got read, this one somehow fell through the gaps and escaped my attention. Even when the time came for me to find a Wynne novel to blog about I overlooked the one I already owned in favor of a copy of The Green Knife. For the curious, I thought that one had a very clever impossible crime but was a bit tedious to read. Happily Murder of a Lady is a much more readable novel, though it is not without its own set of flaws.

Amateur detective Dr. Hailey is staying with a friend in the Scottish Highlands when he receives a visit from Mr. Leod McLeod, the Procurator Fiscal of Mid-Argyll, who is seeking his help with a strange case. He is told that there has been a murder at Duchlan Castle and that the victim, an elderly spinster who ‘hadn’t an enemy in the world’, was brutally murdered in her bed. The problem is that the room was locked and the windows barred making it far from clear how a murderer could have gained entry. With the Police presumed to be unable to attend the scene for some time, McLeod wants to have Hailey start work while the crime scene is still fresh.

The initial investigation turns up some intriguing points, not least the strange matter of a deep scar on the victim’s body from years earlier. Before Dr. Hailey can get too far however the professional detective makes his appearance and asserts his control on the scene and the investigation, temporarily relegating Hailey to the role of bystander. Further murders however see Hailey called into action once again…

One of the most appealing aspects of this book for me was its setting in the Scottish highlands. I would suggest that the strength of this book is not its geography or its description of a physical location – Duchlan Castle does not feel anywhere near as haunting as the one Innes creates in Lament for a Maker – but in its depiction of the people, the customs, traditions and beliefs. While Duchlan Castle does not necessarily make a huge impression on me as a physical space, its inhabitants struck me as very credible as did their somewhat strained relationships.

The first victim, Mary Gregor, was the sister of the laird and when she is first described she seems to have been pious and lived a rather faultless existence, financially supporting both her brother and his son’s family. Of course we soon realize that things were not quite so idyllic as they may have appeared and that there were other sides to her strong religious character that may have been a source of resentments within the household. While she is already dead at the start of the book, she feels really quite alive and dimensional.

I found the other members of the household to be equally colorful and interesting, with the exception of a few of the servants who fade a little into the background. Even these characters though are helpful in fleshing out the staff of the house and making it feel like a credible old home. Of these the two standout characters would be the laird himself and the family’s doctor who among his many attributes can boast a wooden leg. Compared with The Green Knife, the characterization here feels a lot richer and more intriguing.

Wynne offers up a series of murders, starting with the impossible murder of Mary Gregor. He is careful to set out the rules of this space, making it quite clear that the room was really locked by giving us the testimony of an independent witness. The question of how the crime was managed seems genuinely puzzling and I think Wynne does a pretty good job of stretching out the investigation, doing a particularly fine job of exploring the complicated web of relationships between the various suspects.

While the murder of Mary Gregor is the most striking of the murders committed in this novel, I should say that I find it the least satisfying on a mechanical level. I certainly think the basic concept is a clever one but I struggled to imagine how it would work physically in a way I never did with the solution to The Green Knife. This is unfortunate as I think a few of the elements are quite clever and I think the explanation for what follows and why is interesting and well explained. Perhaps most impressive is the way Wynne is able to keep adding to the death count without seeming to point the finger too much at one character – I was certainly kept guessing right up to the end of the novel.

Wynne creates two professional detectives that Dr. Hailey will have to interact with in the course of the case. This does present some interesting wrinkles as we get some clashes between Hailey as the pros in which there is discussion of their investigative philosophies but it does also slow the novel down, particularly when the second investigator is introduced. While I recognized the reality that a professional investigation will need someone in charge at all times, a consequence of having two such characters is that they eat up some narrative space that could have been given to the suspects and the novel comes to feel as much about the details of the investigation as it is the events that precipitated it. That being said, I do enjoy a number of moments of the pro vs amateur rivalries within the book and I feel it does make this a little different than many such detective stories.

One unfortunate aspect of this choice is that Hailey spends a surprisingly large amount of the novel simply observing or being told about events. This is understandable given his personality – he is not likely to want to play second fiddle to another investigator and ignore his own thoughts and instincts – but it does mean that he does not seem particularly active or involved in steering how things turn out. That being said, I do appreciate his role in the context of the story and once he does get more heavily involved things do begin to move quite quickly.

Unfortunately I think that the structural issue here is hard to ignore. Hailey spends far too long as a bystander on the edge of the case and so comes off as one of the blandest figures in the book. I felt pretty similarly about him in The Green Knife so I suspect that this is just part of his character but I consider it an unfortunate and undesirable one. As interesting as his discussions with Dundas about their respective methods are, I wanted him to take hold of this investigation – not simply wait to be given it.

As such it is hard to strongly recommend the novel. The murder method is interesting even though I struggle to accept it could have worked as initially described (unless I am just not picturing an element of the scene correctly). I just wish it moved a little faster or that Dr. Hailey was a stronger protagonist. For now all I can say is that this is a better read than The Green Knife and that while I have goodwill toward Wynne, I have yet to be blown away. If anyone has a Wynne recommendation they want to give though I am very willing to receive it…

Further Readings

JJ @ The Invisible Event described this rather wonderfully as ‘a classically-styled piece of rococo detection’. I do agree with him that the false solutions are a nice feature of this book.

Tomcat @ Beneath the Stains of Time commends the solutions to the crimes, calling them ‘simple, but convincing’. I do agree that this is particularly true of the second and third murders. He points out that Wynne doesn’t really do enough with the legend of the swimmers – a fair point that I totally forgot to pass comment on above. So yes, I agree that this thread had a great potential to be quite creepy and unsettling but doesn’t quite have that level of impact here.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime praised the choice of murderer (once again, I agree).

Jonathan Creek: The Seer of the Sands (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast February 14, 2004
Season Four, Episode Four
Preceded by The Tailor’s Dummy
Followed by The Chequered Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Familiar Faces

So, umm… Adrian Edmondson is in this one again.

Honestly – I’ve got nothing.

The Verdict

A potentially great impossibility is wasted with an unconvincing scenario and some of the worst secondary plots the show ever featured.


Plot Summary

Justin Mallory has spent years searching for and debunking mystics, mediums and spirtualists. One day he is lying in bed with a headache and wakes to find he has received a fax from his lover, a woman married to a US congressman. He reads it then proceeds to get drunk and then takes his speedboat out on the water, crashing into the rocky coastline and drowning. His body is found on the shore by his assistant who recognizes that he is dead and goes to fetch his servant, Mickey, but when they return they find the body vanished.

On investigation Mickey finds the fax which clearly gives good news making the circumstances of Justin’s death all the more puzzling. Meanwhile Justin’s lover has a strange encounter with a mystic who tells her to ask Justin five questions, then reveals that the answers to them are beneath her. She digs up the sand under her mat to find a bottle with the answers to her questions written on a note stuffed inside. Perplexed, they send for Jonathan to help explain what had happened.

My Thoughts

The Seer of the Sands boasts one of the most remarkable and inventive impossibilities that Jonathan Creek ever did. The idea that someone could make a message appear directly beneath a person without moving them is incredibly clever both in terms of the way it appeals to the imagination and also in terms of the explanation of how the trick is worked. I was and remain seriously impressed with how this was conceived. Unfortunately in spite of this enormous stroke of creativity, The Seer of the Sands is one of the most frustrating and poorly-conceived episodes the show ever made.

The episode has much bigger problems than its impossibility yet I think that’s a good place to start because even this – a potentially breathtaking puzzle – has some significant problems in the way it is conceived and executed.

To be clear, I do believe that the core concept and technique of the trick here would work both mechanically and psychologically. I mean, I am as cynical as it comes and if this had been pulled on me – had they been able to get me to venture five questions in the first place – I believe I would have been every bit as amazed as Geraldine. It’s a great trick.

The problems lie in two main areas. First, this is a trick that relies on some things happening that are beyond the direct control of the person or persons arranging it. Now I happen to believe that this is quite easily solved, even within the constraints of the scenario presented here, but it isn’t and so the viewer is forced to accept an element of chance within the solution. This is rarely satisfying and it certainly isn’t here.

The other problem lies in the matter of the motive for the trick being achieved in the first place. Renwick does provide us with one that certainly goes some way to explain why someone might want to go to the lengths that they do yet I think there are some pretty significant inconsistencies with other aspects of the setup and there is never any explanation of what would have happened if the mark had not gone for it.

This is a shame because the problem is otherwise really good and it could easily have been the basis for a really effective episode. Some small adjustments or a little further explanation, perhaps from the perpetrator themselves, would have gone a long way.

This is not the only mystery in the episode however – we also have the question of what happened to cause Justin Mallory to take to the water in the first place. It’s an intriguing question psychologically but I was left unconvinced by some aspects of the answers we are given.

We are told early on that Justin is one of the most ‘level-headed’ men around which sets up some expectations of how a character might behave when placed into different situations. I equate that phrase to mean calm, rational and logical. The very traits we are told made Justin effective at his work debunking mystics and spirtualists. Ignoring the content of the fax for just a moment, I would expect that if he diverged from those character traits that we would get a really good explanation for why.

We don’t. His behavior remains largely inexplicable given the context of what he read. So sure, while I think that there is a germ of a clever idea at play here, the execution once again feels very poor.

Then we get to the third mystery – the question of what happened to cause Justin’s body to disappear. While the explanations to the other two problems have aspects that feel quite clever or inventive, this feels like an enormous afterthought and really rather cartoonish. Similarly the much smaller (and less significant) mystery of why a smudge appeared on a picture frame each and every day.

Four mysteries. That’s a lot for any episode of the show and I was struck by a sense that Renwick was really trying to do far too much here. There are simply too many elements at play to do them justice and I think several of the problems with these plot points lie in the need to set them up in such a way to make space for the other mysterious elements of the episode. And this doesn’t even touch upon the secondary plots…

I have problems with the execution of the mysteries. I have bigger problems with the concepts behind each of the secondary plots in this episode. Let me start though by taking a moment to praise something that works: the way this episode calls back to Maddy.

There is a wonderful moment, handled with surprising subtlety, in which conversation turns to Jonathan’s past relationship with her. What I appreciate so much about this brief moment is not just that it gives us a tiny bit of continuity and a link back to the past but that it feels so organic, emerging both from the ongoing tension between Jonathan and Carla but also an action Jonathan has taken in pursuing this specific case. It even seems to spark a little realization for Jonathan about the relevance of a clue that had previously escaped him. It’s clever, subtle and played really well.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the start to the plot thread that Adam Klaus is attempting to make his own street magic video, presumably to capitalize on some of the success that performers of that type were having at the turn of the century. The montage where Adam walks the streets plays on an amusing idea, contains a moment that I think some Adam-detractors may empathize with, and demonstrates something that is easily forgotten about TV magic – that the viewer can be manipulated.

Unfortunately part of the reason that these moments stood out to me so much is a reflection on how poor the rest of these secondary plots are.

The Adam Klaus stuff is an expansion on the running joke that he is a frankly terrible person who will do anything to sleep with a woman, even when it is clearly against his own professional or personal interests. This episode places him in some particularly uncomfortable and frankly rather ludicrous positions and situations that are entirely of his own making but they didn’t work for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there are several developments that feel really cartoonish and extreme to the point where I felt the episode was seeking to cause offense. For another, the episode seems to suggest that we should feel sorry for Adam at points – particularly at the end.

This plot thread also includes a piece of terrible prop work. Quite why anyone at the BBC has ever believed they could create a convincing puppet or animatronic snake I do not know but they failed to achieve it here (this snake slithers comfortably alongside the terrible Mara puppet from Doctor Who and the snake in BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair).

And then we get to Brendan. If he was poorly served by The Tailor’s Dummy, he fares even worse here.

There clearly was an intention when the character was introduced to position him as a block or foil for Jonathan and Carla, preventing them from immediately getting together. I actually felt that this was quite a clever idea as it would allow the will they, won’t they dynamic to be sustained far longer and more naturally than was possible with Maddy.

Instead the previous episode pushed things along quite sharply, putting Jonathan and Carla into some very awkward physical situations that made Carla all the more awkward about working with him. This episode picks up that thread which feels necessary – those feelings obviously needed to be addressed.

The start of that exchange is handled quite well and certainly seemed to address that well. And then Renwick blows that moment up with a revelation of a secret past that feels ill-conceived and poorly developed.

Part of the problem here is that the revelation is unbelievable (it would not have been possible for one thing) and so it doesn’t play dramatically, instead it is treated comedically and feels devoid of any realism. It takes Brendan from being a character that was being used satirically to comment on the industry to becoming the joke himself prompting a few really lazy exchanges, particularly the one-liner Jonathan drops during the car journey.

All in all, not the show’s finest moment…