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.

The Therapist by B. A. Paris

Originally published in 2021.

When Alice and Leo move into a newly renovated house in The Circle, a gated community of exclusive houses, it is everything they’ve dreamed of. But appearances can be deceptive…

As Alice is getting to know her neighbours, she discovers a devastating secret about her new home, and begins to feel a strong connection with Nina, the therapist who lived there before.

Alice becomes obsessed with trying to piece together what happened two years before. But no one wants to talk about it. Her neighbors are keeping secrets and things are not as perfect as they seem…


The Therapist is a domestic suspense novel set in a small, gated community in London. It is narrated by Alice who has just moved into one of the homes in the neighborhood with her boyfriend Leo. While she is excited at the prospect of spending more time with him in the future, she is feeling a little lonely as he spends much of the week away while she works from home. Going against Leo’s wishes, she arranges a party to get to know the neighbors but is shocked when an uninvited guest gives her information about their home that makes her realize that her new home is not all it appears to be, making her deeply uncomfortable.

At its core, The Therapist is a book about trust, reflected in multiple relationships to be found within the book. Some examples are the still-new relationship between Alice and Leo, between Alice and her neighbors and between an unnamed therapist and their clients – a relationship explored in short snippets spaced out throughout the novel. As Alice finds herself investigating the truth behind the stories she has heard we see those relationships tested as trust is built and destroyed.

Alice is an amiable but often frustrating protagonist. I empathized with her feelings of isolation and her desire to find friends in her new community but, at times, I found myself annoyed with the decisions she makes. Some of those decisions are consistent with her character’s backstory, though a choice Paris makes to provide the strongest motivation for Alice’s actions only towards the end of the book is not helpful in selling those choices. The result is that readers may spend much of the book wondering why she doesn’t simply leave when she has the chance and that they may be less sympathetic with her choice than they would be if they had all of that information.

Where I think the book achieves its greatest success is in depicting her state of mind as she grows to doubt the safety of her home and the intentions of those around her. I have previously shared on this blog how, years ago, after my home had been burglarized I struggled to feel comfortable in that space and so I could certainly relate to Alice’s growing sense of discomfort with her new home given what she learns and how sinister some of what seems to be happening in that space feels.

The other area in which I think Paris’ story works well is in depicting how the relationship between Alice and Leo changes in response to that information. Given how that relationship is still quite new at the start of the novel, I found the areas in which mistrust grows to be convincing and I think the author succeeds in making the deterioration in that relationship feel both compelling and realistic. I also appreciated the way Paris focuses our attention on a few elements of that relationship, building our anticipation of what we might learn and these generally pay off well, providing the reader with interesting new information that opens up new areas of investigation and conflict.

While I think the book is effective in exploring the sense of a present day threat, I found it less interesting and compelling when looking at the historical crime introduced early in the book. This is partly because I never really felt that I had a handle on the victim’s actual personality as so much of the discussion of them is affected by the way in which the other characters choose to present them as seemingly flawless, even in spite of other things we learn. The bigger challenge though for me was that few of the other residents within the community feel significant at all with those developed the most seeming the least likely to have committed that crime.

It struck me as I read that this is one of those premises that might actually be better suited to a more visual medium such as a television mini-series. Given additional time and the ability to provide additional space for the development of those secondary characters, I may have found those other possibilities more convincing, resulting in the search for motive and suspects becoming more entertaining.

The book is a little more effective in its presentation of The Circle as a physical, claustrophobic space with one particularly memorable moment coming where the protagonist reflects on how the houses all seem to look in on one another. Here again though I wondered if those ideas could have been taken further visually or if it could have been utilized more in Alice’s own investigation – looking out over the neighborhood to observe others. Instead the idea is introduced but dropped in favor of other, more immediate sources of threat and discomfort.

The other aspect of the book that sometimes frustrated was Alice’s manner of investigation which often feels quite careless and unstructured. That is appropriate given that she has no particular skills or experience in investigation yet it also means that progress is uneven as she upsets and sometimes threatens to alienate the other residents with her manner of questioning. It is this aspect of her character that frustrated me more than her own occasionally dubious decisions as there comes a point where you might wonder why anyone bothers talking to her at all, let alone revealing their secrets.

When the time comes to bring everything together, there is a sense of escalation with some more direct suspense elements introduced. The key reveal is handled quite well though readers may reflect on what happened and those approaching this as a detective story may find that they have additional, unanswered questions in light of some of the information learned. In the moment though it does feel both quite exciting and unsettling and it should satisfy those who are reading this primarily as a thriller.

Some other aspects of the resolution though fall a little flat and I struggled a little to believe that an idea hinted at in the final chapter could be credible given what had previously happened. The reflections on how life changes in The Circle following the events of the novel feel more convincing and provide a neat coda to all that had happened before.

The Verdict: This uneven domestic suspense story is at its most effective exploring how its protagonist begins to feel unsafe in their home but the investigation into a past crime can drag at points.


Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book is in print and your local bookseller should be able to order a copy for you. The ISBN for the US paperback edition, published by Griffin, is 9781250784056 (9781250274120 for the hardcover). The ISBN for the UK paperback edition, published by HarperCollins, is 9780008412043.

If you prefer to shop online however, you can find a copy of the Griffin paperback and hardcover at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support independent bookstores. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Complete Adventures of Feluda 1 by Satyajit Ray, translated by Gopa Majumdar

Originally published in 2000
Collects stories published between 1965 and 1978
Followed by The Complete Adventures of Feluda 2

This omnibus edition features the ever-popular adventures of Satyajit Ray’s enduring creation, the professional sleuth Pradosh C. Mitter (Feluda). In his escapades, Feluda is accompanied by his cousin Topshe and the bumbling crime writer Lalmohan Ganguly (Jatayu). From Jaisalmer to Simla, from the Ellora Caves to Varanasi, the trio traverse fascinating locales to unravel one devious crime after another.


Several weeks ago I stumbled upon an article on CrimeReads written several years ago that discussed Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories. These were short stories written for a young audience, though they also had appeal to adult readers, several of which were adapted for film. I was intrigued by what I read and came away from the piece keen to give the tales a try for myself.

Pradosh C. Mitter, known as Feluda, is a private investigator who raised himself on mystery novels and is keen to test his abilities. He is assisted by his teenaged cousin Topshe and in later stories gains an additional, more comedic sidekick in the form of the writer Lalmohan Ganguly who writes potboiler thrillers as Jatayu. The stories are not dissimilar to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories which are referenced in the introductions to this collection with Feluda deducing details of people’s lives from details of their dress and general appearance as well as frequent action scenes.

Unlike Holmes however many of the stories feature puzzles that the reader can solve for themselves. While the stories were written for younger readers, some of these are quite cunningly worked and a few may well pose a challenge for any adults who try to tackle them. One of my favorites of the puzzle-driven stories is The Key which is also one of the shortest stories in the collection. That case sees Feluda trying to solve the meaning of a riddle that should enable him to open a lockbox. It’s simple but clever and, perhaps most importantly, it is perfectly paced for the length of the story.

Other tales are driven more by their adventure and suspense elements. For example two of the stories feature tigers on the loose and threats against our heroes made over the telephone are a recurring plot point in many of the earlier stories collected here. Ray writes these sequences well, conveying a sense of the action and building tension superbly. Many of the stories are quite cinematic in scope, no doubt explaining their success on film, though I am a little puzzled as to why Trouble in Gangtok (my favorite story in the collection) has not been adapted when it seems so ideal for film treatment.

This volume, the first of two published by Penguin, collects the stories in chronological order. It is a pretty hefty tome – 785 pages – which makes it a solid contender for the longest book I have reviewed on this blog to date. Happily the quality is pretty consistent throughout and while Lalmohan Ganguly is introduced later in the series, the stories with just Feluda and Topshe are every bit as entertaining as the later ones.

Were I looking for issues I might note that there are some recurring themes in the stories, reflecting that the author was trying to stay away from what he considered to be more adult themes. Art and jewel-based crimes feature heavily here and readers may want to plan to spread out their reading to allow the stories to have their maximum effect. In spite of those common elements though each story has its own elements of setting that help to define it and add some additional interest and appeal.

I had a thoroughly good time reading this and I already have my copy of the second volume so I will look forward to seeing how Ray continued to develop the character. Had these stories been available in translation when I was a preteen discovering Sherlock Holmes, I am sure I would have devoured these exciting, funny and mysterious stories.

The Verdict: I loved this collection of short stories which offer intriguing situations, exciting action and a memorable cast of heroes. While intended for younger readers, I appreciated the stories’ settings and found the puzzles much stronger than expected. The standard of the stories in this first volume is consistently high and, at nearly 800 pages, it offers tremendous value for money.

This first collected volume offers tremendous value and the standard of stories is consistently high.

click for Story-by-story reviews

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 Cage by Bonnie Kistler

Originally published in 2022

On a cold, misty Sunday night, two women are alone in the offices of fashion conglomerate Claudine de Martineau International. One is the company’s human resources director. Impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed, she sits at her desk and stares somberly out the window. Down the hall, her colleague, one of the company’s lawyers, is buried under a pile of paperwork, frantically rushing to finish. 
Leaving at the same time, the two women, each preoccupied by her own thoughts, enter the elevator that will take them down from the 30th floor.
When they arrive at the lobby, one of the women is dead. Was it murder or suicide?

I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Cage since I first read the plot synopsis a few months ago. I was immediately grabbed by the boldness of its central idea – that two women enter an elevator and that when it completes its descent one of the two is dead. This is about as extreme a closed circle murder as I can think of and I was really curious to see where Kistler took the story from there.

Perhaps the first thing to note about the book is that while there are things to deduce (some of which are clued and foreshadowed very effectively), this book is first and foremost a legal thriller in the vein of Grisham’s The Firm or the TV series Damages. The book certainly concerns the investigation into that death in the elevator and the question of whether Lucy Barton-Jones committed suicide or Shay Lambert shot her but once we are past the opening chapters the story style transforms into something a little different.

Kistler divides the story into chapters narrated by Shay recounting her story and third person chapters written from the perspective of one of the senior executives at Claudine de Martineau International (CDMI). These figures soon become oppositional to one another, each presenting a different story about what happened that night. In theory this approach should present the reader with a binary choice between the two different stories and yet, while neither side tells the whole truth, the reader will likely quickly establish who the villain will be.

Rather than focus on the guessing game of who to believe, instead the reader is drawn into the game of seeing how each side will try to convince the police investigators of their case. It is here that I think the decision to provide us with a first person account for Shay really works as we share in her sense of disorientation as pieces of unhelpful information are presented to the police. It is less a matter of whether we think she is innocent as how she will be able to convince the investigators of her arguments.

The true focus of the book is not whether Shay is innocent but on the question of why the executives at CDMI would want her to be arrested for the murder. It’s an intriguing problem and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Kistler clues the answer to this quite well, providing the reader with lots of small hints to piece together.

I found the first half of the book as we wrestle with that question to be really engaging. For instance I think Kistler uses flashback very effectively, dropping hints about an event in the past but making us wait to go back and show us what occurred. These small reveals are spaced out well with each chapter seeming to turn up some new idea or information that helps us better understand Shay and the situation she has found herself in.

The reader will have most of the answers to what happened by the midpoint of the novel at which point the thriller aspects of the story are amplified. In this latter half of the novel Shay finds herself in danger and has to use her brain and legal skills to work out what is going on and to turn the situation around. This material is also quite entertaining and engaging, especially as we near the end and some of the plot threads start to get wrapped up.

The acceleration of the storytelling though does coincide with a slight distancing between Shay and the reader. While we still observe her actions in these chapters, there is less dwelling on the reasons or meaning behind them. One consequence of this is that I became a little less emotionally involved with her fate in that second half of the story. Another is that I felt that the second half of the book lacked a central question that tied everything together and provide the same sort of focus as the police investigation had done in the first.

The other problem is that I felt the antagonist was not a particularly striking character. While they are clearly monstrous, the book never quite delves deeply enough into the question of how they justify their actions. Nor do they share many scenes with Shay, giving little opportunity for the sort of conflict that helps sharpen the presentation of their character. That seems a shame to me as I think a stronger antagonist could have provided some of the focus that I felt the plot needed towards the end.

The Verdict: This entertaining corporate legal thriller is good fun in the best traditions of early Grisham. Do not come to this expecting a mystery novel (particularly a locked room puzzle) and you won’t be disappointed.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Originally published in 2020

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed[…]

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

The Guest List takes place on a remote but picturesque island off the coast of Ireland. The site is the location of the high profile wedding of trendy digital magazine publisher Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater. The picture perfect couple seem to have arranged the best of everything and have gathered with friends and family to share their special day together. As the wedding approaches and the partying begins, secrets are revealed and resentments grow within the group. When a storm briefly knocks out the power a murder takes place but who is the killer and, equally importantly, who is the victim?

Foley employs a complex structure that mixes chapters set in the run up to that moment told from the viewpoints of several members of the wedding party (the wedding planner, the bride, the plus one, the bridesmaid and the best man) with chapters set in the present told in the third person. While this makes for a rather disorientating start to the novel, the benefits of that structure soon become clear.

The first of these is that Foley grants the reader clues as to where the story might be headed. There are a number of moments where we are given a glimpse of some item or a reference to something that will happen. This encourages the reader to compare past and present, notice the differences and question how the situation may have changed so rapidly.

The main advantage of this choice though is that Foley is able to manufacture several big revelations in the space of a few chapters towards the end as everything is brought together. The narrators in those first-person chapters do not always share everything they know and in a few cases, they simply lack the knowledge to tell us everything at that point in the story. Several characters have been keeping their secrets for a while and only share them in reaction to external events.

Foley is also careful to be extremely sparing in the details she shows us of the murder. We are given enough to convey an impression of what is going on – the story, the blood and the chaotic search for some missing people – but those images lack context. The reader will have to wait until past and present collide to have a full understanding of what has happened. That relates not only to the identity of the murderer but also their victim.

It is very hard to pace a story so that such an important detail as the identity of the victim is withheld until the end. It is an approach that could easily read as gimmicky. Foley manages to craft a situation however where there are multiple credible suspects no matter the identity of the victim.

One other thing I want to praise with regards the structure is the choice to use multiple narrators. This not only works very well for exploring different functions of that job, it also allows Foley to suggest something to us that one of his other narrators may be unaware of. The narrators make for an interesting mix of types which I will come onto in a moment and also make this a story that feels particularly suited for the audiobook format (each narrator has their own reader).

The other thing I really like about the way that the multiple narrator thing is realized here is that each chapter heading not only reminds us who the narrator is and when it is taking place, it also spells out their role within the party. I loved this as an approach, particularly when dealing with those early chapters where we were getting to know everyone.

Turning to the thematic content of the book, I think Foley does a fine job of exploring the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and some of the mindset of wealth and priviledge and culture often found in British public schools. These themes also can be seen reflected in the very different backgrounds and personalities of the various narrators. References to the like of Lord of the Flies are dropped in, providing a little context and encouraging comparison. It’s not a very pretty sight…

Foley paces the various revelations that are made exceptionally well, creating a sense of growing tension as we prepare for the storm to hit and those lights to go out. There is a sense in those middle chapters that there is always some new information being discovered and because of the use of those first person perspectives, we have a strong sense of how those revelations are affecting each member of the wedding party.

Individually those stories are very powerful and thematically I think they fit well alongside each other but the reader will have to accept a significant amount of coincidence in how this situation is set up. I think, reflecting on the individual characters, that their choices are all credible and I could understand, given their personalities, why they didn’t always talk to each other or ask challenging questions.

There is one character however who lies at the intersection of these story threads that I think becomes harder to understand as we learn more about what has happened. I felt that the explanation of their backstory is, in contrast to many of the other characters, very simplistic. I suspect that is a feature, rather than a fault, of the novel – that our focus is meant to be on the affected rather than the perpetrator. I would not argue with anyone who feels that this important character feels a little two dimensional.

The point at which the individual narratives catch up to the action in the present is really powerful and sets up a really gripping conclusion. It is not an ending that really surprised me – I think Foley sets her story threads up well enough that by the point you reach that conclusion it will feel like the only fitting resolution – but the execution is very good and I have to say there is an aspect of the resolution that I really enjoyed.

The Verdict: I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Guest List. It is a cleverly constructed thriller that executes its ideas and discusses its chosen themes well. For those who enjoy audio, I can strongly recommend the excellent audiobook.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Originally published in 1935
Perry Mason #7
Preceded by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
Followed by The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece

WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY THE MURDERER WILL PLAY…. 

In his will, Peter Laxter guaranteed his faithful caretaker a job and a place to live… for life. But Laxter’s grandson Sam says the deal doesn’t include the caretaker’s cat—and he wants the feline off the premises by hook, crook… or poison.

When Perry Mason takes the case, he quickly finds there’s much more at stake than an old man’s cat—a million dollars or more to be exact…

Last week I found myself picking up my first Perry Mason novel in quite some time. The break was unplanned and reflects more on my desire to discover new authors and characters but every now and again it’s nice to pick up a book and be sure you are going to have a great time with it.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun from the very start. It opens with Perry agreeing to meet with an elderly man who has been sat waiting in his office on several occasions, insisting he needs to speak with Mason. He explains that his employer recently died and the terms of his will guaranteed the caretaker a job while he was able to work and a place to live once he retired. The employer’s grandson however has insisted that the provisions of the will did not extend to the caretaker’s cat and has vowed to kill it if he does not dispose of it.

Perry, sympathizing with the caretaker’s desire to be able to live with his feline companion, agrees to write a letter that he hopes will scare the grandson off. In it he brazenly suggests that any move against the cat would risk putting the man’s own inheritance in danger. He expects that to be an end to the matter and so he is surprised when the grandson and his lawyer turn up in his office in an argumentative mood. Before long Mason finds himself dug into his position and, ever keen to protect the interests of his client, he starts to dig into the circumstances of Peter Laxter’s death, soon turning up evidence of murder…

One of the most entertaining things about this book is the idea that a massive criminal case will emerge out of what is a pretty inconsequential dispute. While the nature of that dispute is, as is often the case with these stories, quirky and colorful, Gardner quickly and convincingly escalates that situation while never losing sight of the amusing idea that Perry has a cat for a client in this story.

This entry in the series also continues to explore the idea that Perry at this stage in his career is a scrapper by nature. When challenged as he is from an early point in this story, he chooses to act forcefully and often acts to provoke his opponents.

Perry could so easily be an obnoxious character. That confidence, so often manifesting itself in lengthy speeches to Della or Paul in which he talks passionately about what it means to be a lawyer, could read as smug and obnoxious were it not for the idea that he is championing the downtrodden and providing access to the protection offered by the law to all regardless of their wealth or station. That is shown here by his willingness to put himself to a great amount of inconvenience for what amounts to a $10 fee.

Gardner had packed his previous Mason novels with plenty of exciting and surprising developments but, compared to those, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat seems all the more densely plotted. Each chapter seems to bring at least one new revelation or idea that changes your understanding of what has happened or what may happen in the future. Many of these are excellent and well-clued but there is a lot of detail about characters’ movements to absorb, some of which feels a little unnecessary.

Fortunately the concept of the crime is much more interesting and novel with the murderer employing a rather creative means to dispatch Peter Laxter. Readers should not expect Perry to deduce that method for himself – it is handed to him directly early in the book – but it is interesting to follow how he interprets and responds to that information. The alert reader may well detect other clues to what exactly is going on in interactions with those other suspects.

The issue is not the book’s ingenuity but rather that it can feel a little too clever and as if it is trying to do a little too much. Further murders follow but because they occur in such quick succession, not all of them left a big impact on me. In fact there was one point where I had to reread a section when I had forgotten that a character had died – it was not that the writing was unclear but simply that it was followed so quickly by another very dramatic moment.

Were this intended to be a fair play detection story, I might perhaps have felt frustrated by the complexity of the plotting. Read as a thriller however it makes for page-turning stuff. I loved the process of uncovering the truth behind the characters’ movements and the connections between the various elements of the plot. Yes, some parts of the plot are quite incredible but they are also highly entertaining.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is unlikely to be in contention for Perry’s greatest case but it may be one of the most entertaining. From its rather amusing concept of Perry representing an animal client to some of the unexpected developments that complicate the case, the book is enormously entertaining and has some wonderfully colorful moments.

The Verdict: Is this Perry’s quirkiest client? It certainly seems that way to me. Boasting a strong case with a clever resolution, this was a real page turner.

Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Originally published in 1940
Detective Maclain #3
Preceded by The Whistling Hangman
Followed by Blind Man’s Bluff

[…]The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 
Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

For much of this week the fates seemed to be conspiring to keep me from reading my book club’s latest selection, Odor of Violets. At the start of the week I began reading a copy on my lunch break at work, only to get thrown a curveball when a COVID-quarantining situation left me unable to retrieve it, forcing me to order a second print copy. Which got delayed. Or lost. So with twenty-four hours to go, I had to switch things up, shift to a digital edition and force myself to read it in one sitting.

I mention the background to how I came to read this because I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read this in ideal circumstances and I think it is possible that my reading, particularly my ability to focus, may have been affected. Certainly the plotting was the part of the novel I seemed to absorb the least although it had been much of the draw for me when this book was selected. Whether that reflects on the complexity of the plotting or my own inattention, I cannot say.

Odor of Violets begins by introducing us to Norma Tredwill who has decided she must speak with her ex-husband, the actor Paul Gerente, after beginning to suspect that he may be having an affair with a member of her family. She visits his apartment and is buzzed inside, only to find his dead body lying on the carpet. Someone must have buzzed her inside, but who could that have been and where did they disappear to?

Meanwhile across the city private detective Captain Maclean receives a visit in his office. The visitor, identified as Paul Gerente, has a message from Naval Intelligence seeking Maclean’s assistance in identifying vulnerable points in the city’s defenses. A short while later he visits Gerente’s apartment only to discover another man inside along with the dead body. A man who admits to murdering Gerente…

Odor of Violets, written in 1940, is principally a pulpy, espionage thriller though I was quite pleasantly surprised to realize that it also has elements of the traditional whodunnit. While some developments such as kidnappings and our detective finding themselves in physical peril clearly reflect a pulpy style, there are several occasions where those developments come about because of the detection (or to enable it to occur).

I do really like the conceit of Maclain speaking with a man only to learn that he was already dead. It gets things off to a fun start by introducing the idea of impersonation and also reminding us quite clearly of the wartime backdrop to the story. The success of Maclain’s investigation will, we realize, have a huge impact on national security and it may very well affect America’s contribution to the war. These are pretty compelling stakes and I felt they helped to not only build interest in the detection process but also to introduce a bit of a race against time as we near the end of the story.

As much as I liked this initial hook, I did find the early chapters a little slow and perhaps even a little unfocused. There is a lot going on here and I initially struggled a little with the combination of a domestic and a national security focus, wanting the writer to commit to one or the other. Things pick up considerably with a second murder that uses a pretty novel murder weapon and kick into another gear entirely when, close to the end, a third body turns up in circumstances that are very memorable.

Though I struggled a little to get interested in those early chapters, two things kept me going and engaged with this. The first was that Kendrick’s pulpy writing style is entertaining and ensures that there is plenty of incident to keep the reader engaged. The second, and perhaps more important one, was the character of Maclain himself.

Maclain is a fascinating creation for a number of reasons, not least the depiction of his blindness. While Kendrick’s depiction of sensory compensation can feel a little incredible and overdone, I appreciated firstly that the author attempts to show how a dedicated individual might be able to refine their skills to still make an important contribution – in this case to the war effort.

One of the most striking behaviors Maclain demonstrates seems to be drawn straight from the Sherlock Holmes playbook. On several occasions in the story Maclain draws huge observations about a character based on some small details of their personality or manners. Some of these can be a little fantastical, much like those found in Holmes, but the core idea here is excellent. What’s more, while I think Kendrick uses it a little too often, I think the execution and explanation of those moments is very good.

After a slow start my interest picked up considerably at the time of the second murder and gained still further with the third – which is introduced in quite a wonderfully macabre way. It’s a strong image in a book that’s absolutely packed with them (Kendrick was evidently quite a visual writer) and the moment it is introduced is quite startling. By the end of the book I was quite hooked on the action and keen to see what would happen.

It is, in short, a pretty engaging read – even when I wasn’t always clear exactly what was going on (as a reminder: that may be on me rather than the novel). While I found the direction of the story to be a little unclear at times, I really enjoyed the overall conceit and felt that the idea had been executed very well. Is Maclain a character I would seek out again and again? I am not sure though I will be curious to read any thoughts from others if anyone has any recommendations!

The Verdict: I struggled to find the thread of the story in the earliest chapter but things picked up for me considerably with the discovery of the secondary murders. Ultimately very solid and readable but the plot itself is less remarkable than its hero.

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

Originally published in 2019

No visitors. No nights spent elsewhere. No disturbing the rich and famous residents. These are the rules for Jules Larsen’s new job apartment sitting at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile buildings. Recently heartbroken—and just plain broke—Jules is taken in by the splendor and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

As she gets to know the occupants and staff, Jules is drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who reminds her so much of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew has a dark history hidden beneath its gleaming façade, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day when Ingrid seemingly vanishes.

Searching for the truth, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s sordid past. But by uncovering the secrets within its walls, Jules exposes herself to untold terrors. Because once you’re in, the Bartholomew doesn’t want you to leave….

Things have not been going well for Jules. After losing her job, her apartment and her boyfriend in a single day, she has been surviving thanks to the generosity of a friend. With just a few hundred dollars left in the bank, she replies to an ad looking for an apartment sitter and is astonished to find that the property is a two-floor luxury apartment at the Bartholomew – a storied property supposed to be the home to some of America’s most famous figures. When she learns that she will be paid $12,000 to live there for three months, it seems too good to be true.

While Jules initially ignores some red flags it soon becomes clear that something weird is going on. Suspicion turns more serious following the disappearance of a fellow resident. Ignoring some pretty clear directives from the property manager, Jules decides to investigate…

The most striking element of the book is its setting, the Bartholomew. Sager does an excellent job of giving us a potted history of this fictional building, explaining its reputation and also the draw it holds for Jules. It is not just a matter of the building’s famous yet secretive clientele or that its exterior had appeared in countless movies but that it was the setting for a book she cherished while growing up – a rags-to-riches story where a girl moves to Manhattan and finds romance and success.

Sager does a good job of setting the scene without falling into the trap of cataloging the furnishings. The few detailed descriptions we get however are both interesting and meaningful. I was particularly drawn to an idea he returns to several times throughout the novel of the wallpaper in a part of the apartment, using it as a metaphor to explore Jules’ changing feelings about the space as we go from fantasy to horror narrative. These touches work nicely, feeding into some broader themes that the novel will develop such as how appearances can be deceptive, and help to make the building itself feel like a character within the novel.

Jules makes for a solid protagonist for this sort of story. Her background of short-term misfortune and a longer-standing sense of loss about the disappearance of her sister years before is arguably a little emotionally manipulative but it works, not only to build empathy with her situation but also to help explain why she overlooks the many red flags thrown up in her interview. Sager doesn’t try to make out that Jules is unaware of these issues – they are directly put to her by her best friend – but she overlooks them because she doesn’t have an alternative. She comes to the Bartholomew out of desperation and a desire to reinvent her life. It may be foolish but I felt that it was quite understandable and it helped me like her.

The novel takes the form of a slow realization and acceptance that something is wrong within the building. This is partly a matter of acknowledging some of those earlier red flags but the unexpected disappearance of Ingrid, another resident, becomes the catalyst for her to start an investigation. It’s an interesting problem and while concern escalates into fear rather quickly, I could understand why the circumstances surrounding that disappearance feel odd enough to prompt that worry.

While the key points of this mystery are clued, I should emphasize that the style does not emphasize deduction or reasoning but rather reads like a suspense story as Jules asks questions, forms alliances and places herself in danger through her prying. There are a few moments where I suspect the reader will be aware that she is making ill-advised choices but that is part of what makes it so compelling.

The secretive nature of the building’s clientele means that we do not spend much time with most of the other residents but there are a few that do stand out. One is the young and handsome Doctor Nick who lives next door and whose advice she seeks as she wants to learn more about the building. That relationship adds an element of flirtation and romance to the novel, though I would suggest that it is not worth reading this novel for that alone.

While several of the other guests and staff make an impression, none do so quite so much as Greta Manville – the author of that book which Jules was obsessed with. Their interactions are initially quite sparky but subsequently seem to grow warmer. It’s an intriguing relationship and I enjoyed trying to work out exactly who Greta was and why she behaves in the rather cold and brusque way she does at the start of the novel.

There are a number of secrets for Jules, and us as readers, to discover and I enjoyed much of the journey, even if it does venture into some pretty wild territory at points. There are certainly some fantastical ideas here but I was struck upon doing some research, that the main ideas hung together reasonably well. In fact, while Jules never really takes us back over the case, upon careful consideration I recognized the points in the novel where the appropriate clues were set up.

That is not to say that everything is resolved. The novel leaves one question unanswered and I am uncertain as to how deliberate that is meant to be. Were we meant to be uncertain or will there be a sequel some day? As far as I can tell this was conceived as a standalone so presumably the question is meant to linger. It’s not particularly satisfying as a narrative technique goes, but I understand what prompted it.

As much as I was entertained by the audacity of the idea here, I do think that the antagonist – once identified to the reader – becomes a rather broad and ‘colorful’ creation which undermines that premise a little. It certainly became hard for me to take that character seriously from that point onwards. Fortunately that coincides with the book taking a heavy shift towards focusing on its plot. And, happily, lie the book’s real strengths…

The Verdict: A very entertaining and surprisingly well-clued mystery marred only by its ridiculously cartoony villain.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Originally published in 2019

It’s something parents do every morning: Rachel Klein drops her daughter at the bus stop and heads into her day. But a cell phone call from an unknown number changes everything: it’s a woman on the line, informing her that she has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will see her again is to follow her instructions exactly: pay a ransom, and find another child to abduct. This is no ordinary kidnapping: the caller is a mother herself, whose son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn’t do as she’s told, the boy will die.

Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending and ingenious scheme that turns victims into criminals—and is making someone else very rich in the process. The rules are simple, the moral challenges impossible; find the money fast, find your victim, and then commit a horrible act you’d have thought yourself incapable of just twenty-four hours ago.

But what the masterminds behind The Chain know is that parents will do anything for their children. It turns out that kidnapping is only the beginning.

Rachel Klein is driving to a doctor’s appointment when she receives a call from an unknown number. She is told that she will need to pull over and prepare herself for another phone call she should get just a couple of minutes later. There will be instructions to follow and she must not contact the police or any other kind of law enforcement. She is now part of ‘the Chain’.

The next call gives more information. Her teenage daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the first thing she will need to do is raise money for a ransom. That’s the easy part. The second stage is the hard bit – she will have to carry out her own kidnapping, just as her daughter’s kidnappers have done. Kylie will only be released when her own victim pays the ransom and carries out their own kidnapping.

The Chain is a thriller, through and through. It is an exploration of the terrible things that a parent might feel compelled to do to save their child’s life. I wrote in my review of Brad Park’s Say Nothing (another child kidnapping story) how I felt that having a child made me susceptible to all sorts of emotional manipulations. A decade ago this sort of material would have left me quite cold but it’s hard not to engage your imagination to think how you would feel in those same situations. This is the sort of book that could easily make you never want to let your child out of your sights again.

You can imagine then that this proved pretty uncomfortable reading for me and I am sure that if I wasn’t reading it for my work, I would likely have abandoned it long before the end. That would not be so much a reflection of the book’s quality as my feeling about its intensity and that it sits outside my usual areas of interest. Still, having read it I feel that I ought to try to organize some of my thoughts about the book as a crime story.

Let’s start then with the concept of the kidnapping scheme that is described here. It is easy to understand why such a scheme could prove highly effective. Everything about the system is designed to ensure complicity, making it near-impossible for the victims to go to the authorities. In the author’s notes at the end of the novel McKinty suggests that he was inspired by what he learned about exchange kidnappings during a stay in Mexico – my own thoughts went to tiger kidnapping crimes like the Bank of Ireland robbery a little over a decade ago.

What makes McKinty’s idea feel incredible is not the premise but the scale. The idea that such a scheme could be successful, running through countless victims without a breakdown seems to really stretch credibility. Even with the most careful victim selection and the odd dead end, the scheme would require a clinical tidiness that feels quite far-fetched.

The novel is broken into two sections, the first dealing with the kidnapping of Kylie and what Rachel does in response, the second exploring what happens afterwards. The first part was by far the more engaging for me as it focuses on establishing the principal characters and exploring how it would feel to go through their ordeal. I had little difficulty putting myself in either character’s position and while I may question the wisdom of some of those choices (I am thinking particularly of a character Rachel comes to rely upon), I always understood them.

Both Rachel and Pete, her former brother-in-law, feel credible and I appreciate that there is an attempt to portray them as relatively normal people, each going through problems that predate the kidnapping. I appreciated the way that these can both sit in the background but also at times are shown to clearly inform or affect the characters’ choices, often in quite critical ways.

While I empathized with Pete, I cannot say that I found him particularly likable. I found it rather hard to relate to his intensity of feelings about his niece and can’t say that I was rooting for some of the later developments in the story to happen. The social issues that his storyline raises and discusses however are handled very thoughtfully and I appreciated that McKinty didn’t go the route of giving us overtly heroic characters to follow but rather more flawed and three-dimensional characters.

There are few surprises in this first section but to be honest that didn’t trouble me at all. The pacing is so strong and the stakes are set out so clearly that I found myself quite gripped and wanting to see how things would play out. My issues with the novel really lie with its second phase.

Here I have to be a little more vague to avoid giving too much away about the key developments. I can say that this second section of the novel is more action-focused than the first and might be summed up as ‘Rachel goes looking for trouble’.

It is this section of the novel that has to demystify the Chain, giving us information about its origins. This was, of course, necessary but it struck me as rather anticlimactic. Rather than feeling satisfied and that I understood these events better, I found it even harder to believe how the Chain could have started in the first place once I had met those responsible. It doesn’t help that, in contrast to characters like Rachel and Pete, they feel somewhat disconnected from reality – a sort of cinematic evil rather than a truthful one. The more we know them, the further we get from the character-focused material in the first part that had been so interesting, and instead we find ourselves in thriller territory.

It really didn’t work for me. While I can understand why Rachel might decide not to let matters lie, I feel that the novel seems to lose its focus on exploring its characters from that point on. The shift in tone and style feels quite abrupt and it tries to push Rachel into more clearly heroic territory that I am not sure was earned by the character up until that point. Nor can I say that I found the action particularly exciting although it is described in quite cinematic terms. It probably doesn’t help that the reader is required to accept a few really contrived plot developments that are needed to set up that big action-driven finale.

For all of my complaints about this second section, one aspect I did appreciate was that it didn’t completely forget about the things that had been done in the first. This was welcome, even if it feels a little half-hearted – I suppose the question of what justice would look like in this situation is a debatable one. While I understood the choice that McKinty makes at this moment, I think it might have been more interesting to either leave it open-ended or go darker.

The Chain had been at its most interesting when our protagonists were reacting to events beyond their control. It is the question of what they would do with so much on the line and under such intense pressure that made the early chapters feel so compulsive. Once that pressure is withdrawn, the novel seems to lose much of that propulsive momentum and so, for me at least, my interest went with it.

The Verdict: A story of two halves. The first is a tight and propulsive story that will have you asking what you would do in an impossible situation. Sadly the second falls into more standard action thriller territory and left me underwhelmed.