Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Originally serialized between 1947 and 1948, then collected in 1971 as 獄門島
English translation first published in 2022
Kosuke Kindaichi #2
Preceded by The Honjin Murders

Kosuke Kindaichi arrives on the remote Gokumon Island bearing tragic news – the son of one of the island’s most important families has died, on a troop transport ship bringing him back home after the Second World War. But Kindaichi has not come merely as a messenger – with his last words, the dying man warned that his three step-sisters’ lives would now be in danger. The scruffy detective is determined to get to the bottom of this mysterious prophesy, and to protect the three women if he can.

As Kosuke Kindaichi attempts to unravel the island’s secrets, a series of gruesome murders begins. He investigates, but soon finds himself in mortal danger from both the unknown killer and the clannish locals, who resent this outsider meddling in their affairs.


Before I share some thoughts on this book, I probably need to acknowledge that I have not been posting here much lately. This past weekend was the fifth anniversary of Mysteries Ahoy! and normally I would have marked that with a post but my life has been unusually busy of late, leaving me little time to read or write. One of the reasons for that is that I am starting a new adventure, taking on postgraduate study. I’ll be balancing that alongside full-time work and family commitments so blogging will be on a “when I find the time” basis for a while, particularly once my classes begin in the New Year.

So the plan going forward is not to have any kind of formal blogging hiatus but to acknowledge that posting (and responses to comments, emails, etc.) will likely be more sporadic than I would like. I would also like to put on record though how much I appreciate your engagement with my posts – particularly when you share your own thoughts on those titles I am writing about or your recommendations for further reading. It makes this my favorite hobby by quite some way and I hope to be able to continue to do it in the year to come.


With that being said, let’s talk about Death on Gokumon Island. Having enjoyed the first Kindaichi novel, The Honjin Murders, I was pretty excited when further novels from the series appeared in translation in the Pushkin Vertigo range. As it happens though I never quite got around to actually reading them so I was pretty pleased when I realized that this, the latest translation to be published, is actually the second story in the sequence and represents the detective’s second case.

The story, often described as a homage of sorts to Christie’s And Then There Were None, takes place in the aftermath of World War II. Kindaichi is travelling to Gokumon Island, an isolated and sparsely populated island where feudal traditions remain. His public mission is to break the news to the island’s leading family that the heir has died but his true reason is to prevent some murders. In his final words the heir warned Kindaichi that with his death his three stepsisters would also be murdered.

The novel’s setting is one of the most successful elements of the story and provided much of its appeal to me. I felt that Yokomizo does a great job of conveying how the island’s isolation has affected the personality of the community and its inhabitants. One of the things he stresses is that the reason for the island’s isolation is not geography – it is in the Seto Inland Sea – but cultural. It is the island’s history, with its inhabitants being descended from pirates and convicts, that has led to its inhabitants feeling tightly bound to each other and suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders like our detective, Kindaichi.

This status as an outsider is slightly offset, at least at first, by a letter of introduction he possesses but once the murders occur it becomes a distinct barrier to his investigations. For one thing, the residents are naturally suspicious of him and his motives in remaining on the island and getting involved in trying to solve the murders. For another, he quickly decides that he cannot really trust anyone on the islands and so is reluctant to share what he knows with anyone.

This leads to one of the more frustrating aspects of this book – there is a strong sense that Kindaichi might have prevented at least one of the murders had he been more vocal about his reasons for being there. While I understand his hesitancy in declaring those reasons in public, he might have at least addressed it with those identified as potential victims. As it is, he keeps quiet and before long the killings begin.

The victims, the dead heir’s three stepsisters, are supposedly pretty obnoxious individuals though they did not make much of an impact on me. While they are clearly frivolous and do not take the death of their half-brother particularly seriously, they are not given much space in the narrative and so I didn’t have strong impressions of them as people. Rather than feeling that they get their just desserts, instead I was struck by the cruelty of the theatrical murder methods we see employed and the sense that there are some common thematic elements between this and Honjin:

ROT-13 (this spoils the motives and reveals the murderer's identity in both this and The Honjin Murders):  Va obgu obbxf, gur zheqrere'f orunivbe ersyrpgf n qrrc-sryg zvfbtlal. Va Ubawva gur zheqre vf pbzzvggrq orpnhfr gur ivpgvz vf abg n ivetva nf vf fbpvnyyl rkcrpgrq juvyr urer gur qnhtugref ner xvyyrq gb erzbir gurz sebz n punva bs fhpprffvba, rafhevat gung gur rfgngrf jvyy tb gb n znyr urve. V nz irel phevbhf nobhg jurgure guvf jnf gur nhgube znxvat n fbpvny pbzzragnel nobhg znyr nggvghqrf gb jbzra, nf V vapernfvatyl fhfcrpg, be vs guvf vf fvzcyl gur nhgube frnepuvat sbe gur xvaq bs zbgvir gung zvtug yrnq gb n gevcyr zheqre. V'q or n yvggyr qvfnccbvagrq vs vg'f gur ynggre, ohg V guvax vg jbexf rvgure jnl va gur pbagrkg bs guvf abiry.

While I wasn’t struck much by the victims as characters, Yokomizo dispatches each of them with dramatic flair, crafting three distinctive and theatrical deaths. This is perhaps the way this work mostly closely resembles its inspiration, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and while I think the deaths lack the connection that would come if they had shared a common reference, it certainly leads to some very striking and disturbing imagery.

Though I would not describe any of the murders in Death On Gokumon Island as impossible crimes, the book does have some elements in common with stories in that style. There is something self-conscious in the construction of those murders with one in particularly being rather needlessly convoluted, unnecessarily elevating the risk of the killer’s discovery. I accept that as a stylistic choice and think that the book would have been diminished without it, but those who want murderers to behave credibly may be left scratching their head at the murderer’s decision-making here.

ROT-13 (Spoils aspects of murder #2): Bar bs gur guvatf V dhrel vf ubj gur xvyyre pbhyq unir xabja cevbe gb chyyvat bss gurve gevpx jvgu gur oryy gung vg jbhyq npghnyyl jbex nf vg erdhverf bar vgrz gb svg pbzsbegnoyl vafvqr nabgure. Tvira gung bar bs gubfr gjb vgrzf vfa'g cerfrag ba gur vfynaq ng gur gvzr vg vf pbaprvirq naq cerfhznoyl unfa'g orra zrnfherq, pbhyq gur xvyyre unir orra pregnva vg jbhyq svg?

If we put those practical concerns to one side however, I was generally very engaged with the puzzles on offer and enjoyed several aspects of their solutions. I, for one, have no real issues with a key aspect of the solution that has proved rather divisive with other bloggers which seems pretty fairly clued. What’s more, I really enjoyed the variety on offer in this story and I felt that this was one of the more interesting pastiches of And Then There Were None I have encountered so far (to the point that I made it a rather long way into the story before I could figure out exactly what they were).

It perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the sense that you have just read something rather clever that I got when I finished The Honjin Murders but I appreciate that this feels significantly fairer and thus makes for a more satisfying read overall.

The Verdict: An entertaining read that explores some interesting ideas and contains some striking imagery. The novel’s theatricality is both its strength and its weakness requiring the reader to accept some illogical or risky choices by both the detective and murderer, but I think the key points are clued pretty well.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number is 9781782277415.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

Bad Kids by Zijin Chen

Originally published in 2014 as 隐秘的角落
English translation first published in 2022
Yan Liang #2
Preceded by The Untouched Crime

One beautiful morning, Zhang Dongsheng pushes his wealthy in-laws off a remote mountain.

It’s the perfect crime. Or so he thinks.

For Zhang did not expect that teenager Chaoyang and his friends would catch him in the act. An opportunity for blackmail presents itself and the kids start down a dark path that will lead to the unravelling of all their lives.


Thirteen year old Zhu Chaoyang lives a pretty sad and isolated life. Though he is a brilliant student, always at the top of his class, he is bullied and put down by his wealthier classmates. His homelife is also difficult as his mother works a poorly paid job at a national park that leaves him alone for days at a time while his father, having abandoned them when he was two, devotes all his attention and money on his new wife and their young daughter.

He is surprised one day when he encounters a friend from his early childhood who has come in search of him. Ding Hao, who had abruptly disappeared from his life years earlier, turns up on his doorstep with a girl nicknamed Pupu in search of shelter after the pair stole money and fled from the abusive orphanage where they had been living. You might expect that their revelations that they both had parents who were murderers might be red flags for Chaoyang but instead he is just grateful to finally have friends.

After acquiring a beat-up old camera, Chaoyang and his new buddies decide to pay a visit to the national park where his mother works to take some photos and videos. While they are there they witness what seems to be an accident where an elderly couple sat on a wall tragically fell to their death. When they watch back the video of the incident however they are shocked to see them toppled over deliberately. While Chaoyang’s instincts are to turn the video over to the police, he realizes that to do so would result in his two friends being sent back to the orphanage. Instead the trio develops an alternative plan to blackmail the killer, hoping that they can use the payoff to secure their futures…

Bad Kids is the second of Zijin Chen’s Yan Liang novels featuring a retired policeman turned college professor to be translated into English. If, like me, you are not a fan of jumping into series in the middle however you can rest assured that doing so here will not disadvantage you as he has very little involvement for much of the story which mostly treats him as an observer, making this read like a standalone.

After a short but punchy opening in which we follow Zhang Dongshen as he carries out the crime Chaoyang and his friends will witness, brutally dispatching his wealthy in-laws in a staged accident, our focus shifts to follow Chaoyang and his new friends. While we will return to Dongshen and have occasional interludes with Yan Liang, our focus is really on these young characters and the decisions they make in response to this initial crime.

Chen structures their story as an evolving series of problems and opportunities, exploring the ripples caused by the children’s witnessing of that crime. The chapters in which the trio discuss their options and make their decisions feel convincing, particularly given what we learn of the two visitors’ backgrounds, and I think their discussions do a great job of illustrating each of those three characters, their personalities and instincts as well as the power dynamics between them. Those relationships change subtly over the course of the novel but these early chapters do a good job of establishing a baseline.

One of the other things that I think is particularly effective in those early chapters is the way Chen depicts the trio having to figure out how to practically achieve their goal. How, for instance, do you negotiate with someone who was prepared to kill their own in-laws? Here, once again, Chen’s writing feels really quite organic as they are forced to reconsider and rework parts of their plan as they get a better gauge of their target and what he is capable of.

That game of wits between the murderer and his young blackmailers is a large part of the book’s appeal and produces much of the novel’s tension. The decision to tell the book in the third person allows us little insights into Zhang Dongshen’s thoughts, letting us know some of his secret thoughts and plans. This not only provides us with additional insights into his character but it also reminds us that no matter what he is saying, he remains dangerous and has little intention of just giving in, building our anticipation as we wonder whether the trio will lose their control over him.

While Zhang Dongshen’s crime provides a starting point for the novel’s exploration of these characters and its discussion of desperation and criminality, before long Chen supplies us with further crimes to explore. Unlike the first murder, which happens so quickly with barely any description, the subsequent crimes feel more immediate and – frankly – cruel. There is one that more than earns the book its title and left me feeling really rather shaken. While the chapters related to that incident did not make for easy reading, I think the author does depict the situation quite realistically and I suspect that part of the reason it did upset me was because it feels quite credible.

This event, along with the others in the book, explores the children’s characters and personalities in interesting ways. We observe as the power dynamics within the trio shift and change, also seeing their priorities and concerns shift as well. As a character study I found it understated but very effective, though I quickly realized that I had abandoned hope of finding anyone I liked among the cast of characters. We may certainly empathize with the children’s situations but bad decision-making abounds.

Chen neatly structures his plot to have these situations snowball as pressures grow and situations become more complex. He juggles multiple plot strands with ease, tying them together very effectively as these problems seem to feed into each other, making the idea of a clean resolution seem quite unthinkable (and that sidesteps the question of whether we would really want such an ending).

As interesting as the plotting can be however, I should stress that for much of the book it is striking how poorly the various investigations are handled. In almost every case the most obvious suspect seems to evade suspicion, sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. To give one example, there is a murder that characters assume that someone has a solid alibi for where there is one rather obvious way that they might be guilty. While the details of how that murder was managed are quite clever (and the reveal of that pays off all the expectation built in the preceding chapters very nicely), the police do not come out of this story looking particularly competent.

This brings us to the conclusion which does feel suitably dramatic, powerfully playing off the themes that had been carefully developed throughout the novel. There are some interesting and satisfying choices made in that conclusion which realize ideas and themes explored in the preceding chapters but perhaps the bravest choice is Chen’s decision to leave the resolution a little incomplete, leaving at least a few questions unanswered. It’s the sort of ending that could make for rich fodder for book club discussions.

Yet while Chen’s exploration of his themes and these characters can be quite compelling and complex, the crimes depicted here are seedy, realistic and relatively straightforward. This is, of course, understandable given the age and inexperience of the protagonists but I wished I would see a little more ingenuity and cunning from Zhang Dongshen, who had supposedly been something of a prodigy as a student, to really test them.

At its best Bad Kids is a fascinating read, particularly in its rich and multi-layered exploration of Zhu Chaoyang’s character and the way this experience changes him. The book occasionally made for uncomfortable reading and I could understand readers struggling with its cast of unlikeable characters, but I found the journey they take to be worthwhile and I would certainly be curious to go back and investigate the previous novel in this series, The Untouched Crime.

The Verdict: A dark read but a fascinating one. More powerful for its thoughtful character studies than for the crimes it depicts, I found this to be an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable read nonetheless.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? The English translation of this title was published earlier this year in the UK by Pushkin Press for their Vertigo imprint. The ISBN number for this title is 9781782277620. As availability in the United States seems to be limited, I had to order it online from a UK-based bookseller who ship internationally.

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignay Avsey

Originally published in 1933 as Ich war Jack Mortimer
English translation first published in 2013

Tonight will be the longest, darkest night of Ferdinand Sponer’s life – the night when a passenger is shot to death in the back of his cab. But how is it that he neither heard nor saw the killer? Alone with a dreadful secret, Sponer courses through the backstreets of Vienna, playing out possible outcomes in his tortured mind. And as the fear and paranoia close in, he realises that there is only one thing for him to do…
Twice adapted for the silver screen, I Was Jack Mortimer is a sinister tale of stolen identity, seedy underworlds, and the demons inside our heads. Of the many different sides to a man. And of the almost impreceptible line – all too easily crossed – between good and evil, love and revenge, truth and madness.

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging has slowed down considerably over the past couple of months. It has been challenging to find time to read, let alone write about those books, so content has been a bit sporadic. I’d suggest that this is going to improve as I have amassed a bit of a backlog of books to write about except that the danger is that some of them were read long enough ago that their memory has started to fade. For that reason I’m starting out with the most recent read, though as you will see, it is really more thriller than mystery.

I Was Jack Mortimer was an Austrian thriller penned in the 1930s. It follows a cabby, Ferdinand Sponer, on a terrible evening. He is outside the train station when a man in a heavy overcoat steps into his cab, asking to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Ferdinand starts driving and then realizes that their are two hotels by that name, turning back to speak to the passenger only to see that he is dead with bullet holes in his neck and chest.

While this could be a promising start to an impossible crime story (an idea hinted at in the blurb quoted above), the book develops quite differently. Lernet-Holenia operates with a relatively small cast of characters, at least in relation to the crime itself. There is little mystery to the relationships of those few suspects to the victim, meaning that there is little for the reader to deduce here. Similarly the mechanics of the crime prove quite straightforward. Our interest then is supposed to be in seeing if he can escape this pretty dire situation rather than working out the truth of what took place.

The problem with I Was Jack Mortimer as a thriller is that it is predicated on Ferdinand experiencing a moment of panic after discovering the body and making some pretty terrible initial decisions. Those decisions place him in a pretty impossible, if contrived, situation prompting further erratic choices, placing him in even greater peril. The results can be quite tense, particularly in the second half of the novel, but the reader will likely be shaking their head and may struggle to find much empathy for Ferdinand’s self-inflicted situation.

Poor decision making is not the only barrier I had to liking this novel’s protagonist. The book begins by showing us how he becomes interested in an aristocratic woman who had been one of his passengers, calling on her repeatedly and waiting outside her home. She understandably reacts uneasily to this attention which reads as stalkerly and obsessive rather than an act of romantic devotion.

Ferdinand is obviously meant to be a morally complex character. This stalking behavior could be read as an example of that, particularly as he has a long-term girlfriend he treats with little consideration throughout the book. Those who follow my blog regularly will know I have little difficulty with books that explore these sorts of darker, unpleasant characters.

What I find problematic here is the way that this obsession subplot is handled throughout the book as a whole. There are some developments late in the story that would seem to vindicate his ignoring her repeated requests to leave her alone and repeatedly pestering her. This is hardly unique to this book – plenty of other works from this period and later take similar or perhaps worse lines – but it isn’t comfortable reading, nor was it all that satisfying on a thematic level either.

While I am on the topic of elements that haven’t necessarily aged well, I should note that there are a pair of characters introduced midway through the book that strike some pretty stereotypical notes. These characters make sense in the context of the type of story being told here but it’s hardly subtle with the male feeling particularly lacking in depth.

All of which is a shame because in those moments where I Was Jack Mortimer works, it can be really quite compelling. The story ticks along at a splendid pace, the situation feeling increasingly wild as the book nears its conclusion. While some of those choices made by our protagonist may have been poor ones, the situation they create is compelling and it is hard to see just how things can be resolved.

What attracts me most to this book though was its sense of place and the tone it evokes so effortlessly. Lernet-Holenia doesn’t achieve this sense of place by description but rather by showing us how these characters live and interact with one another. This book gives us a glimpse of inter-war Vienna with all its social contrasts and the clash between modernity and tradition. There are the wonderfully observed social interactions between Ferdinand and the servants in the aristocrat’s household and hotel as well as the scenes in a gaudy bar where the drinks are dispensed by coin-operation. It was these details, as much as the plot, that I found to be most engaging as I read.

This is not enough of a reason for me to recommend the book to genre fans, particularly as I feel the ending plays a little anticlimactically. Still, for all the frustrations I felt with it at times, I didn’t want to put the thing down. It left me curious not only to try some of the author’s other works should any further genre-related works be published in translation but to also see how this was adapted for film (it was several times) as I could imagine it could be even more compelling on screen.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Originally published in 1987 as 十角館の殺人
English translation first published in 2015

[…]The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before[…]

A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.

Today’s post is going to be rather special as it will be my five hundredth book review on this blog. As this struck me as a pretty significant milestone, I wanted to be sure to mark the occasion with a book review of a title that mattered to me.

I mulled over a number of titles before finally settling on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. There were a couple of reasons for my selection. One is that it was relatively recently reissued in a very handsome new edition by Pushkin Vertigo which is pictured above. The other is that this is one of a handful of titles that caused my interest in mystery fiction to blossom, leading me to discover some of my favorite detective fiction blogs and eventually, a couple of years later, to start my own.

The story takes inspiration from the premise of one of the most famous works of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As with that story a group of people arrive on a remote island to spend time together in a house. They settle down to enjoy themselves, only to find that they begin to get picked off one-by-one.

The Decagon House Murders is hardly the first example of a mystery novel to take inspiration from that story. Look back over my previous 499 book reviews and you will find at least a couple of overt homages, not to mention a handful of stories that less directly reference it. What I think elevates this effort and helps to make it a masterpiece of impossible crime fiction is that the characters are aware of that work, directly referencing it at points in the narrative, and that it uses it as the basis for a fascinating exploration of detective fiction as a genre.

The group of characters who find their way to Tsunojima Island are all members of a university detective-fiction club. Each of the members has adopted the name of a classic crime writer – Carr, Christie, Leroux, Orczy, Poe, Queen and Van Dine – and they refer to each other by those pseudonyms. I loved that idea on my initial read but I have only come to appreciate it more having returned to it with significantly more knowledge of some of those writers. Part of the fun for me was observing the similarities between the student and their namesakes, particularly in the case of Ellery Queen whose insistence on treating the whole thing like an intellectual exercise feels absolutely in keeping with the character of Ellery from the books.

Soji Shimada’s introduction to the Locked Room International edition mentions that when the book was first published, some critics found the characters a little shallow. I can understand why some might feel that way as the game always comes first for Ayatsuji and we get minimal details of the lives these people lived outside of the club beyond a few details about the subjects they study. In this case however I think that a lack of detail about their background does not equate to a lack of a personality. Each of the people on the island, as well as those on the mainland, possess striking and identifiable personalities. The interactions between members of the group can be quite dramatic, particularly as tempers flare and those differences in approach come to the fore.

Ayatsuji tells their story quickly, rattling through a number of the deaths in quick succession. That will also play into that sense that we are not really invested in the group as human beings and yet I think that is part of the point of what is being done here. Several of these mystery enthusiasts are responding by indulging in playing detective, indulging their egos with the notion that they might somehow solve this crime themselves.

In spite of the speed at which the bodies pile up, I feel that the deaths are impactful. That reflects in part that Ayatsuji employs a nice variety of methods so the killings never feel repetitive. I think it is also elevated by the idea that the killer surely lies within this group which seems so close-knit. With each new death the monstrousness of what is being done only seems to become more apparent.

Each death brings with it questions about how and why the murders were conducted. The answers to those questions are clued pretty effectively. By the time the novel is completed you will both know the solution and what the killer had planned. Some of those explanations will be more surprising than others but I love the way the author walks us through what happened and provides context for why some choices were made.

Another thing that I think the writer does really well is set up a parallel investigation that takes place on the mainland. Several individuals receive suspicious letters and come together to try to work out what they mean and why they had received them. This strand of the story involves investigating the history of the island itself and some grisly murders that had taken place there some time before. I enjoyed discovering how neatly these story strands fit together and felt largely satisfied with the cleverness of the ending.

My complaints with the book are all relatively minor. My biggest is that I think a pronoun choice is made in a chapter near the beginning from the killer’s perspective that helps eliminate some suspects a little early. In practice that will happen anyway as the bodies stack up but I don’t think it would have harmed the story too much to give it an extra suspect.

The Verdict: I had a wonderful time revisiting The Decagon House Murders which is just as entertaining and creative as I recalled it being. It’s a truly clever story and I really hope to discover more soon!

Crush by Frédéric Dard, translated by Daniel Seton

Originally published in 1959 as Les scélérats
English translation published in 2016

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine.

When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

Dripping with tension and yearning, Crush is a chilling Fifties suspense story of youthful naivety, dark obsession – and the slippery slope to murder.

I have been hoarding my last few Dard works in translation, being all too aware that I will soon run out of them unless one of two things happens. Either Pushkin release some more translations or I need to learn to read French. The latter seems unlikely given four years of secondary school tuition failed to get me anywhere so let me start this review with a plea that someone get to work to translate them. There are hundreds to choose from and I’ll lay down money for any of them.

The reason I felt a strong need to get that plea out there is that of the four works by Dard I have read, this is easily my favorite and that includes a work I nominated as a reprint of the year a few years back. I was seriously impressed, devouring this in a single sitting.

The story is narrated by Louise Lacroix, a seventeen year old who yearns for a better life. A life away from her mother’s brutish drunk of a partner, her factory job, the town’s regimented architecture and the smell of cabbages. One day as she is walking home by an indirect route she happens across a home occupied by an American couple who seem to be living a charming existence. She alters her route home to pass them each day and observe them, noticing that the sun always seemed to be shining there.

Louise gets up her courage and approaches the couple, suggesting that she could work for them as a maid. They are initially a little baffled by the suggestion and so Louise is surprised when the husband, Jess Rooland, arrives at her home to offer her the job. She quickly accepts and manages to convince them to let her live with them.

Soon Louise comes to realize that the reality of the Roolands’ lives does not match the image she had of them and we see that there were tensions within the household that predated her arrival. And Louise’s obsession with Jess grows…

I think Louise is a tremendously relatable protagonist, even if we identify some of her behaviors as selfish or self-destructive. Dard does a fine job of communicating the sense that she is feeling trapped in a routine she knows she will never be able to escape from and her wanting something more from life. The choice to tell the story in her voice is a smart one too, as it not only allows us to get a strong sense of her personality but it also means that we experience the story as she percieves it.

Louise’s age and relative inexperience in life sets her up to appear to be someone at risk, entering a world that she does not entirely understand. There are certainly some moments in the novel that would describe quite well, and yet I think it is a much richer, more complex work than it first appears. That is reflected both in the complexity of the plot but also some of the themes the book touches upon.

Dard’s story begins with the idea that the appearance of the Rooland’s marriage differs from the reality. We observe that marriage through Louise’s eyes and so we read it the way that she does, interpreting it through her understanding and her desires. Understanding that relationship is important and I was pleased to find that it was more nuanced and complex than I had expected with each character’s feelings explored and revealed. Their emotions and actions sometimes appear to contradict themselves but I feel by the end of the novel we have a very good idea of who each of those characters are and why they have acted in the way they did.

While I have obviously enjoyed and admired Dard’s work before, I hadn’t really considered him a particularly subtle writer prior to reading this. Instead he struck me as a writer reminiscent of Cain, delivering muscular prose and plotting with powerful, strong emotions. This book however features a number of wonderfully subtle moments where a character’s thoughts and feelings are hinted at rather than directly announced to the reader. One moment that particularly grabbed me was a throwaway reference to how Louise was asked by Thelma to model her clothing which may have a literal purpose but also seems quite interesting psychologically. Dard embraces the contradictions in characters’ desires and personalities, creating complex characters that reward close examination.

The story does unfold quite quickly with Dard covering a passage of months in just a few pages. In doing so though he is always careful to track the shifts within a relationship and highlights particular incidents that set things in a different path. There are two events that seem particularly pivotal. One of the two is too spoilery to go into here but the other features a party taking place that does not go the way Louise anticipates at all. In each case Dard does an excellent job of exploring Louise’s feelings and responses to what is happening, showing us not only what happens but how it affects her and her relationships with those around her.

The novel gets quite intense emotionally and is very focused on exploring relationships, though there is a more conventional mystery element that gets incorporated in the latter part of the book. This is handled quite well and while it is not particularly complex, I enjoyed trying to unpick how it was affecting the characters psychologically. It builds up to a really strong conclusion that I felt not only tied things up nicely but also packed a considerable punch, ending things in an interesting way.

As with the other Dard novels I have read, I think that Crush is a really interesting work thematically and I appreciated that its characters are more complex and nuanced than they may initially appear. Louise is a superb protagonist and I think Dard does a good job of managing to tell a story in which I found myself feeling rather sad for everyone involved. That takes some skill, particularly given a few of the plot developments here, but I believe Dard pulls it off brilliantly.

If you’ve never read any Dard but are interested, I can heartily recommend this one to you as a starting point.

The Verdict: Featuring strong and surprisingly nuanced characters, Crush is a punchy and powerful read that I recommend as a starting point with the writer.

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Originally published in 1982 as 斜め屋敷の犯罪
English translation published in 2019

The Crooked House sits on a snowbound cliff overlooking icy seas at the remote northern tip of Japan. A curious place for the millionaire Kozaburo Hamamoto to build a house, but even more curious is the house itself – a disorienting maze of sloping floors and strangely situated staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny, lifesize dolls. When a man is found dead in one of the mansion’s rooms, murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances, the police are called. But they are unable to solve the puzzle, and powerless to protect the party of house guests as more bizarre deaths follow.

Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the renowned sleuth, famous for unmasking the culprit behind the notorious Umezawa family massacre. Surely if anyone can crack these cryptic murders he will. But you have all the clues too – can you solve the mystery of the murders in The Crooked House first?

Murder in the Crooked House takes place in an isolated and rather oddly-designed mansion on the northern tip of Japan. The inside of the house is a maze of staircases, requiring guests to go up multiple floors in order to then climb down another staircase to reach their room, and the floors are slightly tilted. Next to the mansion is a large tower made of glass, leaning at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and connected to the main house with a staircase in the style of a drawbridge. This is the sort of architectural design that makes the homes in Death in the House of Rain or The 8 Mansion Murders seem pretty conventional in comparison.

Kozaburo Hamamoto, a retired business executive, has gathered a group of guests to his home to celebrate the Christmas holiday with him most of whom are strangeres to him. Telling them that he loves puzzles, he shares several challenges with them before telling several guests that whoever can solve the mystery of the meaning of a fan-shaped flowerbed at the base of the tower would have his blessing to marry his daughter. Leaving his guests to socialize, he retires to his bedroom and several others follow. During the middle of the night however a scream is heard when one of his guests awakes to see a burned, frostbitten face staring in at her window, seemingly impossible given she is on the top floor, and most of the household rises to investigate.

The exception is Ueda, a chauffeur, who cannot be roused by the other guests. When they break down the locked door to his room they find him stabbed in the chest with a hunting knife, one hand tied to the foot of his foldout bed, and his limbs arranged in a strange pattern. Meanwhile outside they find a dismembered lifesize doll lying in pieces in the snow, two large stakes embedded in the ground and no footprints. And then, with several members of the Police staying in the house, a further murder occurs…

That may sound like a lot of elements but keep in mind that I have only really described in very loose detail the first of what will be a series of murders. There are several additional killings in the book and while there are certainly some similar traits shared between the murders, there are also some curious differences as well as plenty of further odd details to discover about the house.

The book can be divided broadly into four sections which Shimada terms “acts”. The first introduces the characters, contains the events described above and brings us to the point where the police are summoned. The second sees the police investigate and realize they are out of their depth when another murder occurs. The third brings in the fortune teller Kiyoshi Mitarai, the sleuth from The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, to begin his own investigation, culminating in the challenge to the reader before a shorter final act explains the case.

The first two acts are incredibly detailed, explaining various features of the house and key rooms within it at some length, often with the aid of diagrams. These are actually quite useful and for that reason I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this as an ebook utilize a device that is at least as wide as the paperback book to ensure you can take in all of the details.

I personally found the level of detail in those acts to be rather overwhelming. In spite of the diagrams and some pretty clear descriptions, I struggled to visualize the relationships between the different aspects of the house until close to the end. I blame that on my not being a particularly visually imaginative reader when it comes to architecture, something I previously confessed to in my comments on The Honjin Murders. This is hardly the book’s fault – I don’t think it could have been described any better than it is.

Happily though while the architecture may have been beyond me, there were plenty of other details of the crime to intrigue me. It was these elements, such as the long cord on the hunting knife and the golem doll, that interested me most and kept me engaged with the story to persevere throughout its first half.

My interest increased considerably once Kiyoshi Mitarai arrived on the scene. Mitarai remains as brilliant and as infuriating as he was in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. From the point he first appears the style of the story becomes much more direct (thankfully Mitarai is already aware of the key elements of the case avoiding repetition). I also appreciated that he is such a strong and rather abrasive personality because so with so many characters – thirteen inhabitants of the house plus the various investigators – few really seemed to stand out in those early chapters. Indeed I think some of the characters’ personalities become clearer in the process of interacting with him.

Which I suppose brings me to the book’s resolution. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love the way Shimada builds up to the point at which Mitarai nabs the guilty party which struck me as very creative and effective. I was, of course, quite sure who the killer was long before that point though the manner of murder I could not visualize until it was explained. At that point it all became very clear and while I think the idea is clearly quite incredible, I respect the imagination that created it.

The problem for me with the scenario is ultimately one of motive. While I fully concede I should have been able to visualize how the crime was carried out, I did not feel that the reasons for it were clued anywhere near as thoroughly. This is particularly frustrating because as ingenious a method as this is, it strikes me as completely unnecessary and therefore far too convoluted for reasons I’ll go into on a second page linked below.

Overall then I feel rather unsure of how I feel about this book. Its puzzle ideas are quite thrilling and often pretty technically inventive. Some will admire the ambition of Shimada’s creation and they will be right to do so but I really wish it was built on a stronger foundation of motive.

The Verdict: The puzzle construction is technically impressive but I was unconvinced by the motive both in its conception and how it was clued.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Locked Rooms category as a Silver Age read.

Second Opinions

TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time loved this book far more than me, describing it as a ‘good and memorable locked room novel’. While I was not as enthusiastic, I do echo his calls for more Shimada (and shin honkaku) in translation.

John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books offers a thoughtful comparison of this book and The Honjin Murders describing this as ‘nothing but a puzzle’. I share his preference for The Honjin Murders and would agree with his reasons.

CLICK HERE FOR SOME FURTHER COMMENTS WITH SPOILERS

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Originally published in 1946 as 本陣殺人事件
English language translation by Louise Heal Kawai first published in 2019

Kosuke Kindaichi #1
Followed by Death on Gokumon Island

In the winter of 1937, the village of Okamura is abuzz with excitement over the forthcoming wedding of a son of the grand Ichiyanagi family. But amid the gossip over the approaching festivities, there is also a worrying rumour – it seems a sinister masked man has been asking questions about the Ichiyanagis around the village.

Then, on the night of the wedding, the Ichiyanagi family are woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music – death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. The murder seems impossible, but amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to get to the bottom of it.

I had been envious of all of my friends based in Britain who were able to get access to The Honjin Murders when it was released there several months ago. Those of us who are Stateside had to wait several months for its US publication date, only adding to my anticipation, as did the recent episode of In GAD We Trust featuring the book’s translator, Louise Heal Kawai. So, could The Honjin Murders live up to its enormous hype as one of the best examples of a Japanese locked room mystery?

The book is presented as a true crime account written by a journalist about events that had taken place in the village of Okamura many years earlier. At the point at which the story starts, those events are distant enough that the grounds of the Ichiyanagi home have become overgrown and some of the buildings have fallen badly into disrepair. The solution to the case is known, though naturally the narrator holds back on providing it until the end of the account.

The mystery concerns the death of the first son of the Ichiyanagi family and his bride on the night of their wedding. In the early hours of the morning a scream is heard followed by the frenzied playing of a koto, a stringed instrument, coming from the annex building in which the young couple were staying. Those who go to check on the couple find that the building is locked and the couple brutally slaughtered inside. Outside a katana is found thrust into the frozen ground in the middle of the garden with no footprints on the snow around it.

The bride’s uncle takes charge and summons a young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who happens to be in the area to come and investigate the crime scene. He has to not only explain how someone was able to commit the murder inside the locked room and get away without leaving any footprints in the snow but also why the crime was committed in the first place.

There are several intriguing lines of inquiry for Kindaichi to pursue. The marriage was unpopular with the Inchiyanagi family who felt that the bride was not of a suitable standing. The son had unexpectedly retired from his academic life yet the reasons were confusing. And then there was the strange three-fingered warrior who was observed in the village asking about the estate.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this book is the short time period in which the investigative phase of the novel takes place. Much of the book is spent describing the events leading up to the death with the actual investigation really being contained within the second half of the novel. While the means by which the crime is committed is technically complex, Kindaichi seems to quickly assess the scene and the investigation is restricted to a handful of interviews and physical examination of the space.

The most obvious comparison to make with Kindaichi is Sherlock Holmes. There are some aspects of Kindaichi’s character that seem to directly reference the Great Detective, such as his history of substance abuse and his unusual status as a private consulting detective. Both men seem to instinctively read a crime scene and make judgments of those they interact with, though I would suggest that Kindaichi is a softer, more humane character in his interactions with those other characters.

The narrator clearly admires Kindaichi, though he does not know him. We are aware that he will solve this case but a consequence of this distance is that we never really get inside the detective’s head or get a broader understanding of his character. The focus then falls on the strange series of events which thankfully are intriguing enough to be worthy of that interest but it does mean that I did not put this down feeling attached to the sleuth. While I am keen to read The Inugami Curse, I do not feel particularly attached to Kindaichi yet and will be reading it primarily for the author’s skill at plotting.

On the other hand the journalistic approach does result in a very tight narrative that focuses on the most pertinent points of the investigation. I feel that this works well with this sort of impossible crime tale and it does mean that we can trust that we are being given everything we need to solve the crime.

Of course, having said that I think I should say that I would be surprised if anyone could work out exactly how this particular crime was carried out. The mechanics of the murder are extremely complex and while I think they are well described, I certainly had no clue how the murder could have been worked.

The question of who did it and why however is much fairer. There are plenty of clues, some physical and some psychological, to point to the guilty party and their motivation to kill. While I was not surprised by those aspects of the explanation, I felt that the reasons given were quite satisfying.

I will say however that the impossible crime aspects of the novel are perhaps the least rewarding parts of the book. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the mystery or its resolution, but I can imagine that readers may well find the explanation rather convoluted and too complex to easily imagine. Certainly I did not come close, though I must admit that I am not a reader who can easily visualize a scene, even when it is described well (as is the case here). I found that I had some sympathy for a character in the novel who is an avid reader of locked room mysteries who laments stories that rely on mechanical explanations, a charge which I feel can be fairly levelled at this book.

Still, while I may not have been able to effectively play at armchair sleuth I did enjoy following along with this investigation and observing how Kindaichi is able to piece the details of the crime together. His account of what happened, while quite far-fetched, does feel like it ties up all of the important plot points well.

In my opinion, Yokomizo creates an interesting mix of characters and there are several moments in the plot that I found quite striking and, in at least one case, quite chilling. There is one strand of the story that seems to infer the supernatural and while I can assure readers that the real explanation of the crime is quite rational, I felt that those aspects of the plot were introduced quite effectively.

I already had a copy of the author’s The Inugami Curse on preorder and I am happy to report that I do not regret that decision. This story had enough striking images and ideas to capture my imagination and I found the explanation of the crime to be both inventive and quite compelling. Is it a perfect impossible crime story? Perhaps not, but I do think it is interesting enough to be worth your attention if you are a fan of the subgenre.

The Verdict: An interesting murder story told in a journalistic style. The murder mechanism is a little much for me, but Yokomizo’s choice of killer and exploration of their motivations are excellent.

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

Originally published in 1981 as 占星術殺人事件
English translation first published in 2004
Kiyoshi Mitarai #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Second Opinion

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

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Coward

Originally published in 1956 as Le Bourreau pleure
English translation first published in 2017

On a quiet mountain road near Barcelona, a woman steps out in front of a car. When the driver, a well-known artist, stops to some to her aid, he finds she is alive, but without any memory of who she is or where she has come from. As he tries to help her remember her past, the artist finds himself falling in love, but as secrets from the woman’s forgotten life start to come to light, he finds his new romance turning into a nightmare…

Frédéric Dard was tremendously prolific author and only a tiny fraction of his work has so far been translated into English. I have previously read and reviewed two of his other novellas on this blog, both of which were also part of the Pushkin Vertigo range, and I liked both tremendously. Happily I am able to say that this my experiences with this book were equally pleasing.

I had found both of the other Dard titles I read to be short but punchy reads and this is no exception. He writes with a splendid sense of economy that helps focus on what he establishes as the themes of his work, really immersing the reader in the dilemma the protagonist finds themselves in.

This novella, like the others I had read, belongs to the noir style of storytelling. Here the protagonist is Daniel Mermet, a French artist who is on vacation near Barcelona. Here he finds himself in a situation in which his actions, though generally well-intentioned, only seem to lead him towards misery and disaster.

Daniel is driving late at night when a woman carrying a violin steps in front of his car. Everything happens so suddenly that he cannot avoid the collision and she is knocked to the ground, her violin and the case smashed in the impact. Daniel is worried but finding that she is still breathing decides to take her back to his hotel and get her some medical attention.

It is easy to empathize with Daniel as he finds himself in a difficult and possibly dangerous situation. We are told in the first couple of pages that the collision was no accident – that the woman had leapt in front of the car. With no witnesses and a very limited command of the Spanish language or knowledge of the area, his choice to take her to his hotel and summon medical attention there is understandable. It may not be the perfect choice but it was certainly not malicious either.

The physical damage from the accident is fortunately quite limited so she makes a swift recovery. Unfortunately though when the woman wakes she has no memory at all of who she is beyond that she is French. When the consulate tells Daniel they are unable to help her, he decides he will piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity.

The mystery of the woman’s identity sits at the heart of the story. Daniel will play investigator, using small clues and observations about the woman and her possessions to try and discover who she is. This is necessary both because he cannot leave her alone without a memory but also because he is falling in love with her. Something within him needs to know.

Based on the circumstances of the injury though the reader will already be aware that the answers will not provide happiness or the closure Daniel seeks. This realization on the reader’s part is the source of the tragedy of the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. The woman she is now is someone he loves but he will not feel comfortable unless he can be sure of the woman she was.

Dard handles this simple idea extremely well, setting up a credible scenario in which Daniel will have to confront this question. The choice he has is either to abandon her or to see the investigation through in the hope it will enable them to be together. As we follow that brief investigation we are aware of how his discoveries are affecting him and how he struggles with the question of what to reveal to the woman.

Just as it was easy to empathize with the very likeable Daniel at the moment of the accident, it is equally easy to understand how difficult each of his decisions are. Dard is really effective at communicating Daniel’s shifting emotional state as well as that of the woman, all the while building to a dark and devastating conclusion. This emotional journey is really effective and I found myself completely engrossed in the story, aware that what I wanted and what was likely to happen were clearly not going to be the same thing.

I am reluctant to write much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it too much – this is, after all, a very brief work. I should probably take a moment however to judge the mystery elements of the novella in their own right.

Earlier I described this as a brief investigation and what I meant by that is that while the mystery has enormous significance, Daniel will not need to work particularly hard to uncover the truth. This is a matter of following up on the leads he already has – the question is whether he will have the nerve to see the matter through to the end.

The reader may well deduce some aspects of the woman’s past based on the early clues but too much is revealed to the reader right before the solution is given to be able to effectively play armchair detective. I think that fits Dard’s focus on the emotional component of this story and was broadly in line with my expectations but were someone to read this primarily for the mystery I think they would be underwhelmed. For Dard the mystery is a device to instigate uncertainty and drama rather than the point of his tale.

It is a superbly well crafted story with some strong characterization and a compelling problem to explore. I was, once again, impressed with Dard and I am certainly not regretting having previously bought up all the other Dard titles published in translation. It seems I have some good reading ahead of me!

The Verdict: A powerful and effective noir story which delivers a suitably punchy climax.

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Originally Published 1952
English translation first published in 2017

Jean-Marie can’t believe his luck when he has a passionate triste with a beautiful young Englishwoman, Marjory, who is holidaying in the Cote d’Azur. However, when he discovers his lover is married he is crestfallen, and when she returns to her home in rainy Edinburgh he is heartbroken. He takes a fateful decision: to follow her. 

He arrives in Scotland but soon the jealous husband appears, and a deadly encounter is only the beginning of a nightmarish, disorienting drama.

Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.

The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.

One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.

A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.

This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.

To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.

It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.

I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.

There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.

I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.

Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.

I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!