The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder by Patricia Highsmith

Book Details

Originally published in 1975

The Blurb

Nowhere is Patricia Highsmith’s affinity for animals more apparent than in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, for here she transfers the murderous thoughts and rages most associated with humans onto the animals themselves.

You will meet, for example, in “In the Dead of Truffle Season,” a truffle-hunting pig who tries to whet his own appetite for a while; or Jumbo in “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance,” a lonely, old circus elephant who decides she’s had enough of show business and cruel trainers for one lifetime. In this satirical reprise of Kafka, cats, dogs, and breeding rodents are no longer ordinary beings in the happy home, but actually have the power to destroy the world in which we live.

The Verdict

This collection of short stories is certainly original and provocative but often makes for difficult reading with triggers abounding. Definitely not for everyone!

Worst of all, I was alone. No little creatures my own age. No mother, no friendly grandfather, no father. No play. No baths in a muddy river. Alone with bars and cement.

Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance

My Thoughts

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder has been on my radar for some months as one of the more unusual applications of the inverted mystery form. It is a collection of short stories by Patricia Highsmith each told about a different animal (or sometimes set of animals) that will be responsible for hurting or killing humans. I describe it that was because while the book title contains the word murder, many of the stories might well be considered Beastly Manslaughter.

It is an interesting concept and, as you might expect, the results are a rich source of trigger warnings – particularly for those who have a strong sensitivity to animal cruelty. This is a common theme running throughout the stories and means that the stories can sometimes make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Which is, of course, Highsmith’s intention.

What Highsmith is essentially doing is trying to place the reader into the mind of an animal and to encourage them to experience things from their perspective. Sometimes that means inhabiting the mind of a dog or a cat, other times more exotic perspectives like a rat or cockroach. It is surprising how effectively she is able to do this though there are a couple of stories in the collection that feel far more focused on the humans than their animals such as The Bravest Rat in Venice and Hamsters vs. Websters. Unsurprisingly these were the stories I found to be least interesting.

My favorites, though I feel a bit silly employing that word, were those that I felt either stuck very strongly to the murderous brief – such as There I Was, Stuck With Busby and Ming’s Biggest Prey – or that most successfully captured the perspective of an animal such as Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance.

Unfortunately I do have to reiterate though that while I think Highsmith was successful in what she was trying to do, I cannot say I particularly enjoyed the experience of reading it. The collection is an interesting and often quite provocative one, making for an interesting literary experiment but I cannot imagine myself returning to it.

Story-by-Story Thoughts

Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance

This is the story of an elephant that was taken from the wild in Africa to be part of a zoo. Highsmith describes a sense of loss about the freedom that the elephant had enjoyed, though also describes some new joys. The issue is that the elephant’s happiness is dependent on the way they are treated and when her kind zookeeper companion retires she finds that his replacement is not as understanding.

Though this is a really short story, I think it is very effective. Highsmith avoids sentimentality and so rather than piling misfortunes upon the elephant, instead encourages us to empathize with it by making the things it feels entirely relatable. Just like Chorus Girl, most of us long for freedom, friendship and to be treated with respect. Her response when she doesn’t get those things is completely understandable. The results are inevitably tragic and upsetting but also very effective.

My only complaint would be that while this story is excellent, it perhaps is an odd choice to start this collection with as it doesn’t really match premise of the collection’s title.

Djemal’s Revenge

Djemal is a camel who for the past year has lived with his selfish and lazy master Mahmet, giving rides to tourists. Mahmet dreams of owning his own little house and hopes to be able to do this by winning a seven-day camel race across the desert. In the process however he pushes Djemal to breaking point…

This story was closer to my expectations of what this collection would offer, not only presenting us with human cruelty but giving it deadly consequences. The moment of revenge itself is described pretty well emotionally, helping us understand what Djemal is feeling, but not particularly detailed in terms of what is actually taking place. Still, I appreciate the choice of animal and think Highsmith did a good job of describing its thoughts and experiences of the race.

There I Was, Stuck With Busby

The Baron is an aging dog – perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old – who is left living with a man named Busby after the death of his master. He has been trying to appeal to a woman named Marion who he likes much more in the hopes that she will take him to live in her apartment above a butcher’s shop. It is not just that she gives him cubes of raw steak when he visits, it reflects that she is kinder and sweeter with him, making him feel loved.

This story is one of the most successful in the collection, both as a tale and in terms of fitting the collection’s overall brief. Where Djemal arguably commits manslaughter in the previous tale, The Baron will resort to murder in the hope of achieving its aim. Highsmith remarkably makes this feel quite credible, utilizing a method that a dog really might conceivably employ. The reader will have little difficulty in spotting how this may be managed but I give Highsmith a great deal of credit for being able to setup up that situation in the first place and the sequence in which it takes place is written very effectively.

Ming’s Biggest Prey

Ming, a cat, encounters his mistress’ new romantic partner during an outing and the pair take an instant dislike to each other. As with the last story we are in more familiar animal territory and Highsmith does a fine job imagining the personality of a cat. One aspect I like about this story is that while we experience the cat’s perspectives of the events and learn what he thinks, we can also observe and reflect on things that the cat is not aware of using the information it observes.

It’s a solid story and, once again, Highsmith does a good job of imagining how a cat might feasibly commit a murder. I did like the way Highsmith concludes the story.

In the Dead of Truffle Season

In this story Samson, an enormous white pig, is taken on a truffle hunt by his owner and becomes increasingly resentful of the way he is treated. In particular, his realization that while he finds delicious truffles for his owner he never gets to taste them – instead he is given a bit of cheese, a trade that Samson feels is quite unfair.

The story maintains the higher standard of the last few and I found its presentation of the thoughts of a pig to be really interesting. Samson is probably the least sympathetic animal we have seen up until this point, though the sources of his resentment (the truffles and some recent operations that have been performed on him) are understandable enough. That makes some aspects of the ending a little unsatisfying but overall I still felt it was very solid reading.

The Bravest Rat in Venice

This story tracks a rat’s interactions with the two boys who will be responsible for it sustaining some heavy and pretty horrific injuries. Highsmith captures the casual cruelty of children quite well here but eventually these will be returned to their family in one of the most horrific ways imaginable.

Twisted and truly hard to stomach in places, I struggle with any story that sees a character take their revenge against a third party that is innocent of the original crime. As effective as the story can be in places, this is hard to read…

Engine Horse

A young couple decide that they will try and commit murder by staging an accident involving an animal. What they fail to recognize is that the animal will have a mind of its own.

I liked this story quite a bit, in part because we are in the more conventional waters of murderous humans. The issue from the point of view of this collection though is that this story, like its predecessor, spends much more time with those humans than it does with the animal who is meant to be the protagonist. The story is clever though and has a strong resolution but animal lovers may find the fate of an animal third party upsetting.

The Day of Reckoning

This thoroughly human story concerns the automation of a battery chicken farm and the relationships between a group of humans connected with it. The animals in this story have no agency at all and while the story presents some discussion of battery farming as a whole, their voices and experiences are completely absent making this feel a little out of place in the context of the collection.

The story is really dark and decidedly twisted and upsetting in spots. While undoubtedly effective, it was perhaps too much for this reader.

Notes from a Respectable Cockroach

This story presents a cockroach’s view of the activities of humans staying in a hotel. It’s incredibly short, not at all criminous and while effective at what it tries to do, offers little to discuss.

Eddie and the Monkey Robberies

Eddie is a young Capuchin who has been taught how to open doors by a group of thieves. This story concerns the way he is treated by a member of the group and how he comes to be involved in the death of that person. Once again this story feels tilted towards the human characters rather than the animal and while effective enough, didn’t engage me as much as some of the earliest stories in the collection.

Hamsters vs. Websters

Of all of the stories in the collection, Hamsters vs. Websters is possibly the oddest. This concerns some hamsters who are living outside in a garden and whose habitat is disturbed by some bulldozing and construction. Once again this story suffers a little from not feeling like it really fulfilled the brief of the collection as they, like the chickens a few stories ago, have little agency in the story and act out of instinct.

Harry: A Ferret

Harry is a ferret who has developed a taste for blood who is bought by Roland, a fifteen year old boy who is delighted by this. He is even more excited when the ferret bites old Antoine, even though it means he is forced to keep it outside. This story follows what happens after this incident and the relationship between the boy and his savage pet.

A solid story, even though it is once more entirely from the human’s perspective. I did appreciate though the somewhat different view it presents by looking at the relationship not of an animal and a human antagonist but rather a human admirer.

Goat Ride

This final story concerns a goat who is kept tethered at an amusement park. This is one of the shorter stories in the collection but it does return us to an animal’s perspective of events which is welcome. Highsmith does a good job of communicating the goat’s thoughts and feelings and while slight in comparison to some of the meatier stories early in the collection, it does end things on a relative strong note.

Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Book Details

Collection published in 2018.
Individual story titles and their publication dates are listed in the story-by-story comments section below.

The Blurb

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

The Verdict

An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

The thirteen stories here (perhaps a murderer’s dozen?) represent over a century of Japanese literary innovation in the genre of mystery fiction.

Foreword by Michael Tangeman

My Thoughts

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

CLICK HERE FOR COMMENTS ON EACH STORY

Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Junk Affair by Roy Templeman

Book Details

Originally published in 1998

The Blurb

In Sherlock Holmes and The Chinese Junk Affair, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are called upon once again to save Queen and Country. 

Upon receiving a card from Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the duo are debriefed by the Prime Minister on an astounding fact: a man named Rodger Hardy claims to be able to transport matter from one place to another through electricity, in what he calls transposition.

As the threat of Hardy selling his discovery to other countries weighs on the Prime Minister, he enlists Holmes to find out whether such a feat is possible, and whether or not Britain has anything to worry about.

Can Sherlock solve what seems to be an unsolvable mystery in time, and help Britain?

This book also contains Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man and Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room.

The Verdict

A mediocre collection of stories featuring Holmes but little of his genius. The idea behind The Chinese Junk Affair, the most original of the three plots, is clever but it unfolds much too slowly.


My Thoughts

I had not expected to be writing about any of the many, many Holmes pastiches until I had completed rereading the original canon but a recent review of this title by Tomcat on Beneath the Stains of Time caught my eye. In that review Tomcat praised some of the ideas in the stories but suggests that the Holmesian elements hold those stories back.

As you will see in the thoughts that follow I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Indeed I think it is telling that the story I enjoyed most, Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room, is the one that reads least like Doyle in terms of the narration yet because of its question of motive and resolution it manages to feel closest in spirit. Each of the other two stories would have benefitted from being shorter and more tightly focused on finding the solution to their central problems.

Thoughts on the three stories contained follow:

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair

A British government minister visits a friend from university who shows him that he is having a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk constructed in his home’s underground ballroom. The ship is much larger than any of the exits making it impossible to move the vessel once it is finished so the minister is puzzled why he is undertaking this strange project. He agrees to come back regularly to check on the progress.

On the day that the junk is completed, the minister visits to check its progress, dines with his friend and then they return to the ballroom only to find it has vanished. A short while later it is seen nearby on the river. The friend tells him that he has a method for transmitting matter that could revolutionize warfare. He is willing to sell it to Britain for a fee though he will keep the method secret until war comes, fearing that the technology could devastate a peacetime economy.

The minister is sent by the British government to consult with Sherlock Holmes to seek his opinion on whether the technology is real or if it represents some sort of trick.

One way that any pastiche will differ from the original works is that almost all are presented as historical pieces. While there are certainly some that incorporate elements of the supernatural or crossover with other literary universes, many works attempt to fit into our understanding of our own history. That means that when someone claims to have made a device that can transport a sailing vessel miles in a matter of seconds, we can dismiss the possibility that it really works. In other words, we can approach this story with certainty that the friend is performing some sort of confidence trick. The question is how the trick is worked.

The most impressive part of the story is the clarity of its central idea and of the circumstances in which the trick is worked. The image of the junk in the ballroom is a really striking one. Similarly, the passages in which the minister explains the situation are really very effective and do a good job of reassuring the reader that we are not looking at a secret door, false floor or removable ceiling.

Holmes’ explanation is clever and credible and the sequence in which he demonstrates how the trick was worked has a similar visual appeal. I was also struck by how satisfying the ending is in terms of its resolution. In other words, the basic structure of the plot is really quite solid.

So, why am I not in love with it? I think the problems begin with the lengthy investigation, most of which takes place in Watson’s absence. While that is practical in terms of streamlining the account, it leads to the investigation feeling strikingly sedentary. Holmes, it seems, does not really work out how it was done so much as figure out who he should ask to explain it. This is rather disappointing as it seems to diminish rather than reinforce his genius as a detective.

I was also rather disappointed in the presentation of its Chinese characters given at a few points in the story where Watson describes them as sounding like young children and moving like monkeys. While I recognize that these are intended to pastiche the attitudes found in Doyle’s own work, they are completely unnecessary to the story and so feel more like incidental affectation than an attempt to provide serious commentary or criticism of those attitudes.

Still, the case is the most intriguing of the three and a pretty solid example of an impossibility.

Sherlock Holmes and the Tick Tock Man

In which Holmes and Watson take a walking holiday, attend a church service and hear the story of the village’s German watchmaker who was found dead with a head wound. The old man supposedly was going to leave a small fortune to establish almshouses but when his home was searched no money could be found leading some to suspect that the watchmaker was robbed. That the watchmaker’s pet raven had escaped the home and would not return, repeatedly screaming a German word seems to confirm that idea for many of the village’s inhabitants.

This story is decidedly in the adventure mode, offering surprisingly little for Holmes to actually do. There is really just one clue that stands out and that can really only be interpreted in one way. We are left to follow Holmes as he connects those dots but given how elementary those connections are, I don’t think readers will feel particularly impressed.

Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room

The final story is also its shortest. Holmes receives a visit from a Viscount who recently returned from India with trophies including a collection of Japanese armor. He decides to house his collection in a building on his estate but is dismayed to find that a piece is stolen. This prompts him to establish an elaborate series of defences around the building including trip-wire activated shotguns, man traps and a flock of geese. Having once owned geese myself I can confirm that they are pretty loud and aggressive, making for excellent watchdogs. In spite of these precautions two further pieces are stolen raising the question of how this was done.

As setups go this is really rather interesting, particularly when the reader considers that the value of the armor is a fraction of that of pieces found within the main home itself. So far, so good.

Unlike the other two cases, here we get a small selection of suspects to consider. Holmes sets out to figure out how the trick was worked and why – two questions that are really equally important.

Unfortunately they are not equally interesting. The solution to why the crime was done is really rather good, being both clued pretty effectively and resolved in a way that feels authentic to many of the resolutions in other Holmes stories. The question of how it was managed however is rather underwhelming though it is explained quite logically.

Earlier I described the first case as the most intriguing of the three and I would obviously stand by that assessment but I will say that in spite of that I probably found this the most enjoyable of the three as a story. Its brevity is a big plus with little space feeling wasted and while its solution is a little too simple, I appreciated the question of the thief’s motives.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Blurb

Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.

The Verdict

A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.


My Thoughts

The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.

While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.

My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.

The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.

Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.

Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.

I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.

One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.

So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.

On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.

Continue reading “Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers”

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Story Details

Originally published 1844
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #3
Preceded by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

The Verdict

A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.


My Thoughts

The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.

The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.

The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.

We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.

If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.

Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.

I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.

Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.

Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.

I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well and makes this my favorite story in the trio.

The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman

Book Details

Originally published 1912.
This volume collected stories originally published from 1909 to 1911.

Dr. Thorndyke #5
Preceded by The Mystery of 31 New Inn
Followed by A Silent Witness

The Blurb

Silas has diamonds in the heel of his shoe. He is a thief, but until the night he meets Oscar Brodski on the footpath near his house, he has never considered murder. A diamond dealer, Brodski’s pockets bulge with more precious stones than Silas has ever dreamed of, and they will be his with one swift, violent act. Silas does the deed and arranges the diamond dealer’s body to make the death look accidental. He has provided for every contingency—except for the arrival of a doctor named Thorndyke.

In this collection of stories, the reader knows the killer’s identity long before the ingenious medical detective enters the scene. These are brilliant early examples of open mysteries, in which the question is not whodunit—but how will he get caught?

The Verdict

A key text in the development of the inverted mystery which includes several entertaining short stories.


My Thoughts

In the introduction to The Singing Bone, R. Austin Freeman takes the credit for inventing what he terms the inverted mystery novel when he wrote his short story The Case of Oscar Brodski. He suggests that this was something of a experiment – an attempt to refocus the reader’s attention from whodunnit to the question of how they would be caught.

Freeman’s reason for experimenting with the form was to reject the artificiality of the detective story with its focus on who did the crime and instead create something more realistic. The suspense would not come in waiting for the reveal but rather in smaller, incremental moments in which we see the killer’s deceptions coming undone.

Freeman wrote of his project:

Would it be possible to write a detective story in which from the outset the reader was taken entirely into the author’s confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection? Would there be any story left when the reader had all the facts? I believed that there would; and as an experiment to test the justice of my belief, I wrote “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” Here the usual conditions are reversed; the reader knows everything, the detective knows nothing, and the interest focuses on the unexpected significance of trivial circumstances.

R. Austin Freeman – Preface to The Singing Bone

While Freeman did not invent the idea of following a criminal as they conduct a crime, he does create a format that retained the structure of a detective story that would prove to be a model for later authors. Crofts, for example, follows the structure of splitting some of his inverted stories in half such as in Antidote to Venom, beginning by following the criminal and then switching to the investigator.

I have previously read and reviewed the earliest of the inverted stories, The Case of Oscar Brodski, on this blog but I wanted to go back and read the rest of the collection. This week I was given a little push towards doing that when I agreed to prepare for about inverted crime novels (more on that at a future time). It seemed to me that I couldn’t approach that without a fuller experience of Freeman so this jumped up to the top of my TBR pile.

Dr. Thorndyke is not the most animated sleuth around but Freeman’s stories are far from dull. The cases themselves and the process of deductive reasoning built on forensic evidence he uses can be really novel and entertaining. In a few cases, such as The Echo of a Mutiny, complex ideas are communicated and used very effectively.

I also appreciate that while Thorndyke is always successful at discovering everything the physical evidence has to offer there is no guarantee that the criminal will be held accountable. This not only adds an additional layer of interest to each story, it is also an acknowledgement that forensic scientists do not solve crimes themselves and also that sometimes you can find the killer but be unable to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

I found points of interest in each story in the collection but some particularly appealed. A Case of Premeditation engaged me with its challenges to the reader – something I had never encountered in an inverted story – and while I think Thorndyke guesses at some aspects of the case, it is very entertaining.

I also loved A Wastrel’s Romance which I think has an entertaining scenario and some charming character choices. Finally, I recommend The Case of Oscar Brodski for its importance to the development of the form.

On the whole I think that this is a very effective collection that left me keen to read more Freeman. Sure, the sleuth himself is a little dry but the situations Freeman creates are both colorful and interesting.

I offer more detailed thoughts on each of the individual stories on the second page of this review.

Continue reading “The Singing Bone by R. Austin Freeman”

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

Book Details

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

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

The Blurb

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

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories by Young-Ha Kim, translated by Krys Lee

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 살인자의 기억법
English translation first published in 2019

The Blurb

Diary of a Murderer captivates and provokes in equal measure, exploring what it means to be on the edge—between life and death, good and evil. In the titular novella, a former serial killer suffering from memory loss sets his sights on one final target: his daughter’s boyfriend, who he suspects is also a serial killer. In other stories we witness an affair between two childhood friends that questions the limits of loyalty and love; a family’s disintegration after a baby son is kidnapped and recovered years later; and a wild, erotic ride about pursuing creativity at the expense of everything else.

The Verdict

This collection of stories sits on the very edge of the genre as literary fiction but they show the writer’s skills at exploring and evoking feelings.


My Thoughts

Some months ago I wrote a review of Young-Ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You in which I praised the author’s creativity and ability to explore the nuances of human relationships. Those qualities are also present in this more recent collection of four short stories.

Like the novel, these stories touch on genre elements and themes but may be seen first and foremost as character and situation explorations. Each story places the characters into tense and challenging situations involving crime or the threat of violence and shows us how those flawed characters respond.

Young-Ha Kim creates some intriguing and striking situations, particularly in Diary of a Murderer which takes up almost half the page count for the collection. That story explores the idea of a serial killer experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease and how they respond when they fear another killer may be targeting their adopted daughter. It is a really clever story that plays with our perceptions and conveys the protagonist’s feelings of confusion.

The other story that really impressed me was Missing Child. As the title suggests, it centers on the way a child’s abduction affects the parents and the child themselves. I felt the characterizations were excellent and the plot unfolds in thoughtful and unexpected ways.

Those looking primarily for detective stories will probably want to pass over this collection but there are some really interesting ideas here that are worth exploring for those willing to venture outside the genre.

Thoughts on the individual stories follow on the next page.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

This collection was originally published in 1893. It contains stories published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893.

Sherlock Holmes #4
Preceded by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Hound of the Baskervilles

Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.

The Blurb

In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.

Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.

Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .

The Verdict

Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.


My Thoughts

Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.

The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.

Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.

Continue reading “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle”

Here Comes The Copper by Henry Wade

Book Details

This collection was originally published 1938.
It contains stories first published between May 1935 and June 1938 featuring PC John Bragg.

The Blurb

PC John Bragg is young and full of ambition, and with his eye on making Superintendent one day, he squares up to each case that comes his way as an opportunity to show himself brave, reliable and a good detective. In town and country, at scenes of murder, robbery, fraud, abduction, military and industrial spying and arson, PC John Bragg’s character grows as his mettle is tested.

From dealing with artists’ models in a murder case, to ensuring a bejewelled, high-spirited American heiress doesn’t attract the wrong sort of attention, to protecting the pay destined for a staff of quarrymen, PC Bragg has his work cut out for him.

The Verdict

A fairly unremarkable collection of procedural short stories. There are a few strong entries but, the collection as a whole is pretty bland.


My Thoughts

Henry Wade has been one of my favorite authors to return to since starting this blog and I hold several of his novels in very high regard (especially his excellent inverted story Heir Presumptive). Other than an entry in a British Library Crime Classics collection, this is my first experience reading his short stories.

Unfortunately I was less impressed than I had hoped to be.

These stories, each of which feature Police Constable Bragg as he strives to make a name for himself and earn promotion up the ranks, are first and foremost procedural adventures. The focus for the most part in this collection is not on the deductive process but rather his bravery and perseverance working on often quite straightforward cases.

Many cases are simply dull and lacking in a creative spark or the sorts of memorable elements to make them stand out but there are a few exceptions. The first story, These Artists, features a rather macabre idea to good effect. Steam Coal is even better, offering a genuine puzzle to the reader that I think has a clever solution.

The best two stories though, in my opinion, are The Little Sportsman and Lodgers, both of which are puzzles and require some thought on the part of the reader. I was engaged by both and appreciated that each took their plots in rather unexpected directions at times.

Sadly these stories are the exceptions in an otherwise rather pedestrian collection of tales. As much as I have enjoyed the Wade novels I have read to date, this fell a long way short of those experience.

There is only one other Wade short story collection – the earlier Policeman’s Lot – and after this I am a little less excited to read it.

Thoughts on the individual stories follow: