A Baker Street Wedding by Michael Robertson

BSWSince starting this blog I have tended to look forward and tried new books rather than revisiting old favorites. For this reason you haven’t seen my thoughts on the earlier titles in the Baker Street Letters series and so I feel I ought to offer a little context before sharing my thoughts on this latest entry.

The concept of the series is that a solicitor acquires an inexpensive lease on a building that comes with a catch. Because his office is 221B Baker Street he is required by the building’s owners to process and issue a form response to all of the letters that members of the public send in addressed to Sherlock Holmes. It is an entertaining concept that has spawned five previous stories, many of which are charming and well plotted.

The appeal of these stories for me lies chiefly in the characterization of the two solicitor brothers, stodgy Reggie and his rather free-spirited brother Nigel. They have distinctly different outlooks on life and complement each other well when they do work on solving a case together. The pair share our attention in each of the first four titles in the series but things changed with the previous story, the excellent The Baker Street Jurors, which focused solely on Nigel. While I missed the interactions between the brothers, I felt Nigel worked pretty well solo because he is an inquisitive person who feels a sense of duty to the truth. He had, after all, been responsible for the pair’s involvement in solving cases in several of the previous stories. He is a natural lead sleuth.

Reggie Heath is not.

I think the problem stems from Reggie’s personality. He lacks Nigel’s inquisitive nature and is a safe, conservative sort of person and so never goes looking for trouble. Instead his motivation lies in protecting Laura who he has just married at the start of this novel. This is certainly a credible piece of characterization but it also means that trouble has to come find him.

This happens after the paparazzi discover where Reggie and Laura’s wedding will be taking place and the pair have to rapidly escape and find somewhere to enjoy their honeymoon. They end up in the Cornish village of Bodfyn where Laura had grown up staying in the home of her former drama teacher. She asks Laura if she will take a small role in a regional theatre production benefitting her old school building which risks being sold.

Reggie soon discovers that one of the reasons Laura decided to return to Bodfyn was that a letter had been received in his chambers requesting he bring her there. I did think it was enormously coincidental that Laura should happen to see the one letter sent to Sherlock Holmes that directly concerned her right before the wedding but I think I could have accepted it had the reason for that letter been better.

Robertson’s plots are typically quite fanciful, featuring some unlikely coincidences and motivations but I think they have previously all possessed a solid internal logic. The villains have been mad, believing themselves to be linked in some way to the Holmes mythos or that Reggie was actually Sherlock Holmes, but their schemes made sense to them. The villain’s reasoning in this story is unconvincing and their plan relies enormously on factors beyond their control. Even if you accept their motivation and goal, it is hard to imagine they would ever conceive of the plan they develop in this story because it leaves so much to chance.

A Baker Street Wedding feels messy, keeping the reader in the dark about Laura’s motivations for wanting to get involved. This seems an odd choice because it gives the reader little sense of what the story will be about or what they are trying to solve until well into the novel.

The other significant problem is that having effectively written Nigel out of the narrative, Reggie is also sidelined for much of the second half of the novel. Instead Robertson focuses on several supporting characters who have appeared in previous installments of the series, one of whom is a rather direct Holmes pastiche. While I appreciate that character in short doses, he lacks the charm or personality of either of the brothers while his identity is kept too well hidden to ever feel like we get to know him.

It’s all a bit of a shame because there are parts of this book that are very enjoyable and will satisfy long-term fans of the series. For one thing it is nice to get some more details about Laura and a sense of where she came from and several other supporting characters get similar treatment. Reggie and Laura both get some fun character moments and I appreciated that their story continues to move forward rather than being kept static between each book.

Though A Baker Street Wedding has its moments, few of them relate to the core mystery plot which I feel falls short of the standard set by previous installments. I still think that this is a very enjoyable series though and I will look forward to another volume. I just hope that when it does we will see a little more Nigel alongside his brother.

Copy provided by the publisher for early review. A Baker Street Wedding is set to be released on December 11.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Religious Body by Catherine Aird

ReligiousBodyThe Religious Body is the first in Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles series set in a fictional English county. I must confess that when I picked up this book I had never heard of this series but clearly it has its fans as over fifty years after this was published Aird continues to write Inspector Sloan stories.

The story concerns the disappearance of Sister Anne, a nun within the Convent of St. Anselm. She appears to have vanished suddenly from the building but without any clear cause and there is some confusion as to when she was last seen. Concerned, the nuns organize a search of the building and she is discovered dead at the foot of a set of stairs.

Though it is presumed that she just slipped and tumbled to her death the crime scene presents some problems. For one thing, the door to those stairs was supposed to be locked and access to the keys was limited. For another, there are signs on the skull that are consistent with being hit with a heavy spherical object. And then there is the problem that there are no signs of either a weapon or physical evidence suggesting violence at the scene of death, suggesting Sister Anne was killed elsewhere and her body moved some time later.

The Religious Body seems to often get labeled as a procedural novel yet the setup is pure puzzle mystery. While this is close to being a closed circle mystery, Aird does not present us with a clearly defined list of suspects to pick from but instead she challenges the reader to understand why Sister Anne might have been targeted in the first place.

One of the reasons for this approach is that the victim seems an unlikely target. Sister Anne has no known enemies and as a longstanding member of the convent it is hard to understand why she would suddenly be targeted. Also the sequence of events on the night in question seems confusing while the appearance of the dead woman’s glasses on a guy effigy at a local school’s Bonfire Night festivities shortly after the murder to make little sense. On the face of things there is little outlandish in this case and yet when examined more closely nothing seems to make sense.

Investigating the case are Inspector Sloan and his assistant, Detective Constable Crosby. They make for a pretty pleasing, if not particularly colorful pair of lead characters. We largely interact with them professionally in this novel, getting only short glimpses of their private lives but both are shown to be smart and observant.

The aspects of the book that really resonated with me were those detailing convent lives. For instance, in the opening chapters of the book we read about the monotony of a nun’s responsibility to wake up all of the others each morning and later about the restrictions concerning the visitors they may receive or the way they can spend their time without specific work assignments. The details feel well-researched and authentic, helping to bring this setting and the characters to life.

I think Aird handles these aspects of her setting quite skillfully, at times presenting strong opinions on the part of her characters while ultimately remaining respectful of the women’s right to choose that life and make that commitment. Most of these characters and their conflicts feel convincing and I was interested to learn more about their lives.

As much as I appreciated following the investigation and learning about the suspects and incidental characters, I did feel a little disappointed with an aspect of the solution to the case. While I thought the murder was interesting mechanically and I understood the killer’s motive in committing it, I couldn’t quite get to grips with their motivations for some of the events in their life that precede it.

In spite of my issue with this aspect of the book, I still found it to be interesting and entertaining. Aird clearly had researched her setting well and I had little difficulty believing that these characters could exist. Though the case is quite low-key and lacks any shocking or unexpected moments, I think it is quietly effective and I appreciated the convincing and detailed setting.

It adds up for a solid read, particularly if you are someone who enjoys mysteries set within religious communities, and while I don’t feel any great sense of urgency I fully expect to read others within this series in the future.

A New Lease of Death by Ruth Rendell

NewLeaseWhen I reviewed the first of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford mysteries, From Doon With Death, I described it as a competent but unsurprising plot. The bright spot for me was the character of Wexford who, while not a flashy or big personality, approached the case in a likeable and straightforward manner.

I was a little disappointed when, about halfway into A New Lease of Death, I realized that he would not play a large active role in this investigation. Certainly his presence looms large over the story but it is not his investigation and his biggest contribution is to recap the details of the crime at the heart of this story.

The novel begins with Wexford fielding a meeting with Henry Archery, a clergyman, who wishes to discuss one of his old cases. It turns out that the man’s son is engaged to the daughter of the man who Wexford identified as the killer of an elderly woman and who was executed. Archery wants to look into the case again to see if Wexford made a mistake as he and his wife are unwilling to consent to the marriage otherwise.

Wexford recaps the details of the case and gives his opinion that his reasoning was sound though he does not object to Archery’s plan to meet and talk with some of the witnesses. The investigation that follows explores ideas of family secrets and respectability but I think Archery’s experiences conducting the investigation are as much the focus of the novel as the information he discovers.

I commented in my review of the previous novel how differing social attitudes affect a modern reading of that novel with a contemporary one and I suspect that the same is true here. I think that a reader in 1967 was expected to feel a degree of sympathy with the attitudes of Reverend Archery at the start of the novel that a reader today may find a little harder to extend to him.

The attitudes in question relate to Archery’s belief that criminality is hereditary. Rendell’s novel examines that belief and its implications at points throughout the novel though it ultimately sidesteps having to take a stance on the matter. The thing is, Rendell writes as though the reader’s expected reaction will be to think he is a sound-minded and diligent parent rather than to think him narrow-minded and judgmental.

Rendell’s novel takes this character on a journey that if it isn’t quite transformative, will at least shake him and present him in a (somewhat) compromised light in terms of his own personal morality. I imagine that in the time that the book was written this would have been quite shocking, particularly in light of his position as a clergyman, but common social attitudes have shifted enough that I do not think many readers will be shocked or outraged by his thoughts and actions.

To put it more simply: I didn’t think that the character journey said anything particularly interesting or profound about the themes it was discussing. That is a problem because Rendell has made it the focus of the story and, if we look simply at the case I think the reader is likely going to feel disappointed.

The circumstances of the murder are relatively simple and much is already known to the reader at the start of the novel. There are some questions of motivation and the details of family relationships to uncover but the novel lacks much in the way of twists or surprises, relying instead on engaging the reader with the exploration of its characters. Anyone approaching this in search of a puzzle plot will likely feel very disappointed.

I did appreciate Rendell’s attention to character not only for the characters we may suspect of the crime but the other more incidental figures in the case. They are a surprisingly complex group and I think she succeeds in creating characters who have interesting backstories and that sometimes subvert expectations.

Had the narrative concentrated more closely on those elements I suspect I would be writing a more enthusiastic review. Unfortunately I did not care for Archery, his son or their journeys as protagonists and I struggled to engage with the details of the case itself.

In spite of those frustrations however I find I really enjoy reading Rendell’s prose and I think there are some wonderfully atmospheric and poetic moments within this story. The themes and the plot of this novel didn’t work for me but I am hopeful that the third Wexford story, Wolf to the Slaughter, will be more to my taste.

This book was released in the United States under the alternative title ‘Sins of the Fathers’ which is, in my opinion, a much better fit for the book.

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer

HopeNeverOne of the things I have learned since starting this blog is that humor is entirely subjective. What may strike one reviewer as being restrained may seem like little more than juvenile slapstick comedy to others. Perhaps the only thing more personal than that is politics so no doubt I am on doubly sound ground here…

The premise of the novel is that Joe Biden is struggling to adjust to life after the Vice Presidency. His Secret Service protection ended shortly before the start of this novel and he enviously watches news reports about the celebrity friends Barack Obama is now hanging out with. He is surprised then when one evening the former President shows up in his garden smoking on a cigarette to tell him that his favorite Amtrack conductor is dead having apparently committed suicide on the train tracks.

The reason Obama is sharing this information with him is that a map to Joe’s house was found among his personal possessions leading law enforcement to be concerned that he may be in danger. Joe cannot see the man as a potential assassin but then he struggles to believe that anyone who worked on the trains would commit suicide by lying down in front of one knowing how it would affect the driver.

Hope Never Dies affectionately riffs on Biden’s public persona as an everyman and Obama’s as being somewhat aloof and professorial. Generally speaking it avoids being too political, reflecting on the nature of the men’s political legacies rather than savaging their successors. There’s a bit of stuff about Hillary’s run but it is mostly from the perspective of Joe feeling that had he been the candidate he would have wound up in the White House and beyond a throwaway gag about the Russia investigation the Republican side of things isn’t touched on at all.

For what it’s worth I found Hope Never Dies to be more chucklesome than hilarious. There is nothing new in the way either man is portrayed or anything subversive or out there. I suspect that Republican readers may roll their eyes at moments but they will not find much to object to while Democrats will likely be pleased that it has fun with both men without ridiculing them other than a few jokes about Biden and Obama aging in office.

The best way of judging whether this will work for you is just to start reading an excerpt. The opening two chapters are very short, set up the mystery and basically sum up the book’s approach to each man.

As important as the comedic elements are to this novel, I think it is easier to assess this book as a piece of mystery fiction.

Shaffer’s novel touches on several different sub-genres of mystery fiction resembling at times the modern cozy with its focus on interpersonal relationships, the adventure novel and even the gentle thriller. It blends these elements to tell an incident-driven story in which Joe is interviewing people and reacting to the things he is observing and the actions of others. There are even a couple of pretty solid action sequences.

It is not, however, a work of fair-play detective fiction. For one thing, there is not much of a focus on identifying suspects, working out alibis or assessing motives. For another, some important information is withheld from the reader until very late in the novel. Neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the novel as the action drives the story very effectively but those hoping for deduction may be a little disappointed.

The case does touch on some themes that do feel very much of the moment including rising levels of opiates use in America amongst groups that would not have traditionally been labelled as at-risk and the expense of medical care and the devastation unexpected bills can have on personal finances. These issues are not addressed from a party political standpoint (after all, the opiates epidemic was discussed by politicians of both parties in the 2016 campaign, particularly in the New Hampshire primary) but rather they serve as background in understanding the events that take place.

I felt that the solution to what had happened was fine and I did enjoy the action sequence that followed the reveal of the killer’s identity. The moment of revelation itself however felt anticlimactic and a little drab given how colorful the story had been up until that point.

What did work for me was the rendering of Joe as a sleuth, using his knowledge of his home state and contacts he had built up over decades working as a Senator to follow-up on leads. He approaches the case with heart, occasionally bordering on schmaltz, and also with a genuine interest in connecting with people. He does not possess many technical abilities beyond a few things he has noticed in episodes of Law and Order but the case does not require much of him other than that knowledge of people. This is a similar model to that found in Peter Lovesey’s Bertie Prince of Wales stories (although Joe is far more self-aware than Bertie) and I think it works well.

His angst about whether Barack still has time for him is perhaps stretched out a little too much throughout the novel but that relationship is interesting, as is the thematic discussion of when it is time to take a step back. That discussion reminded me a little of a book I recently read and reviewed, Murder for Lunch, as Reuben Frost also feels a little lost now that his professional career is over and he is looking for a sense of purpose. I do feel that this is one of the most successful aspects of the novel and it helps make it easy to relate to a former Vice President.

While I may not have laughed quite as much as I hoped, I did find Hope Never Dies to be a fun and entertaining read. It works as a pastiche of the buddy cop relationship and while it does feel a little odd to read fictionalized renderings of living figures, I think Shaffer captures their public personas fairly well. I am not entirely sure that it could work as a long-term series unless further elements were added to the mix but should a sequel appear I would probably check it out.

Murder for Lunch by Haughton Murphy

MurderforLunchMurder for Lunch is the first in a series of mystery novels featuring the character of Reuben Frost, a semi-retired lawyer with a firm on Wall Street. Forced to step down as a senior partner when he hit the firm’s retirement age of 68, Reuben continues to go into the office each day for a few hours though his successor George Bannard has little use for him. Instead he spends his time helping redraw legal documents, talking with clients and trying to find ways to be useful.

Everyone is shocked when Graham Donovan, one of the firm’s senior partners who is himself expected to be a future managing partner, suddenly collapses and dies during a company lunch. Reuben is placed in charge of making the arrangements for the man’s memorial service and of going through Donovan’s confidential papers but soon turns up evidence of murder in the form of a poisoned carafe of water.

If I had not known that the author had himself been a New York city lawyer I could certainly have guessed. The novel brings the politics and tensions found within a law office to life with convincing detail and does a fine job of reflecting the changes taking place within the profession during that time.

Throughout the novel Frost’s approach to running an office, conducting business or dealing with others is contrasted with that of his replacement Bannard. We see that Frost is frustrated with the younger associates’ attitudes towards drafting legal documents and he thinks Bannard is too focused on implementing the sorts of efficiencies and practices found in the business world and feels that Bannard has surrounded himself with the wrong sorts of advisors.

While there are certainly aspects of that relationship that may be thought of as representing a conflict between traditional practices and unnecessary modernization, Haughton’s presentation of both characters is pleasingly nuanced. For instance, Bannard has chosen to design his office to look very traditional and conventional while Frost had a much more modern design aesthetic reflecting his personality. These details help these characters avoid the trap of feeling like generic lawyer types and bring them both to life.

Frost makes for quite an appealing sleuth, if not a brilliant one. His mind is solid and methodical which is reflected in the way he approaches this case and I particularly appreciated the way he draws on the talents of others to help him. For instance, in the course of this investigation he seeks the help of a young associate and also the advice of his wife. Each make valuable contributions to his efforts and enable him to get closer to the truth of what had happened.

I should say at this point that the relationship between Reuben and Cynthia, a retired ballerina who is using her talents for arts philanthropy projects, is quite lovely and it is one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Their relationship seemed credible and I appreciated that it was quietly loving and mutually supportive as you may expect from a long-standing relationship.

I was less impressed with the character of New York detective Luis Bautista who feels like little more than a badge and a general professionalism and competence that subverts Bannard’s expectations. He has little personality beyond that and although he features about as much as Bannard in the novel, I felt I had far less of a sense of who he was at the end. Some of the other supporting characters feel similarly slight, particularly the other senior partners who are presented as types but given they feature far less prominently I found that a little easier to accept.

The plot is solid enough and I did enjoy the way the author incorporates a secondary plot about how confidential notes on a press statement that Donovan had written were leaked to the press, causing a slide on a client’s stock price and for much anxiety within the senior partners about who the source of the leak might be. The problem for me was that the case unfolds at a very slow pace with little progress being made until the end when suddenly it seems a solution comes from nowhere.

That issue is compounded with a resolution that struck me as rather unlikely, both in terms of the criminal’s motivation and also in terms of the actions of Bannard and Frost which seem needlessly risky both to their well-being and to the health of their law firm. I did not believe that Bannard, as his character had been established prior to that point in the story, would have made the choices that he did and that pulled me out of the ending a little.

The other problem that struck me was that the author leaves several suspects’ motives and movements largely unexamined. There are several characters who we are told are under serious consideration to be the murderer and yet they hardly feature in the narrative at all leaving the story feeling somewhat incomplete.

In spite of those problems however I do want to stress that I did enjoy reading this. Reuben Frost is an inherently likeable character, as is his wife Cynthia, and I found the legal office setting to be appealing and convincing. While it may be some time before I am able to get around to it I would be interested to try other titles from this series to see how Reuben developed as a character and to see if they are more tightly plotted.

From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell

FromDoonI have mentioned before that my parents’ love of crime fiction played an important role in my formative years. One of my strongest memories growing up was my mother’s stack of Ruth Rendell and Colin Dexter novels, one of which always seemed to be on hand for those sorts of occasions in which you were stuck in a waiting room.

While I did get into Morse in my late teens, I actually never got around to trying Rendell either in print or in the televised adaptations. Given that those starred one of my favorite actors, George Baker, I am not sure quite how I have achieved that. I probably should rectify that…

From Doon with Death was Ruth Rendell’s debut novel and concerns the disappearance of a fairly modest, conservative housewife and the subsequent discovery of her body in a wood, strangled to death. Among the clues that Inspector Wexford will have to work with are a tube of lipstick in an unusual shade and a set of books with messages all inscribed with notes to Minna from Doon.

Rendell hangs a lot of the narrative on the question of Doon’s identity, revealing something of that person’s personality to the reader in the form of short excerpts from letters that they had written to Minna as caps to the chapters. The way the book is structured, it will all build to a moment in which that identity is revealed and if the reader feels surprised it will likely result in a rush of excitement and general good feeling.

Unfortunately I think that this reveal does not really hold up, as it heavily reflects the novel’s age and aspects of the time in which it was written. I have mentioned that at times I have found not having the appropriate context or period knowledge to be a barrier in solving an older crime novel but here I feel that not belonging to the mindset of that period makes it easier to predict where it was headed and lessens the power of the ending.

It is not so much that this story could not be told today but that it would be told differently and our sympathies might be expected to be somewhat different. For instance, there is a male character who is treated far more softly and sympathetically than I think he would be had the novel were to be written today.

Whether the reader is surprised by where the novel goes, I think the appeal of the book is in the very competent execution of those ideas. Let’s face it, the clues in this case are fairly slight so it was a pleasant surprise that she manages to lay a convincing trail to the killer with such a weak starting point. There are no significant developments or twists along the way, at least until those final scenes, but just diligent police work such as Wexford and Burden conducting interviews and going from store-to-store in the hopes of finding where that striking shade of lipstick had been purchased.

I found Wexford to be a likable figure as a sleuth. He is not flashy and has no particular character tics, at least in this novel, that would distinguish him from detectives in scores of other procedurals yet I appreciated his matter of fact attitude toward the case. The pairing with Burden works well and I found their interactions to be quite entertaining.

I was a little less fond of the use of a trap which is used to prove a case – something that I think is usually pretty uninventive and underwhelming in these sorts of stories. Perhaps more importantly, I have seen some readers question whether this is a fair play mystery as Wexford receives some information in the form of a telephone call, the contents of which we are not privy to.

My own thought is that while Wexford receives helpful information that we don’t have, the reader ought to be able to get ahead of him by at least thinking to ask a question. While it is a manipulative move designed to try to add power to his explanation at the end, I think that information is only needed if something does not occur to the reader that they might figure out for themselves. I think the reader ought to be able to come to that conclusion for themselves so while it may technically not be entirely fair, I think the impact is minor.

Overall I felt that this was a solid if unremarkable start to the Wexford line of novels but it is one that gives me hope for when the time comes to read some of the later installments. What makes me sad is that Terrence Hardiman, who did such an amazing job narrating this, did not record the later stories when they were turned into audiobooks as I had loved his voicing of Wexford and Rendell’s prose. He does a great job here voicing the different characters distinctly and he is easy to follow so I would certainly recommend that recording if audiobooks are your bag.