The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirlI enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

ThrackleyI always look forward to getting my hands on titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but this one was particularly exciting for me. You see, Death of Anton from the same author was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year and remains one of my go-to suggestions when someone asks for a recommendation from the range.

Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.

The hero of our story is Jim, an unemployed young man who unexpectedly receives an invitation to a country house party from a man he doesn’t know. That man, Carson, claims to have known his father and while he is perplexed by this supposed connection, he is not one to pass up a weekend of fine dining so agrees to go. It turns out that one of his friends has also been invited down and the pair motor down together, making an agreement to have a coded message arrive should they wish to make an early escape.

When they arrive they encounter a fairly strange mix of guests, none of whom know Carson personally either and they have little in common with each other. We will soon learn the reasons why they have been invited however and, knowing those intentions, we then watch to see how those plans will play out.

The characters comprising the house party are rendered in varying degrees of detail with some remaining only loosely sketched. Freddie Usher, Jim’s friend, was a favorite as while he is quite affable he is not a great thinker. Kate in her excellent review suggests that he ends up acting as a sort of ‘not hugely bright sounding board for Jim’ which I think is pretty accurate.

There are three other characters who stand out: a shapely dancer named Raoul who is in a popular West End show, a socialite who enjoys supporting a diverse mix of causes and Carson’s daughter. Much like those early Christie thrillers, there is a light romantic subplot here that adds some appeal to the story. Happily though this character is more than just someone for Jim to hold at the end as she will play an important role in some key points of the resolution making her feel much deeper than the romantic interests often do in these stories.

Given we already know the villain’s identity and plans, there are really only two questions that the reader will be invited to solve: why was Jim invited to this party and how will Carson be stopped? While I found the twists and turns of Melville’s story to offer little in the way of shock or surprise, I did think it was very neatly executed and easy to follow.

While I think Weekend at Thrackley does what it sets out to do quite well, unless you are specifically a fan of lightly comical thrillers I would not suggest it as your first encounter with this author. The book certainly charms and entertains but it reveals so much so soon that it is not particularly mysterious while, if you are looking for a comic read, those elements become less prominent in the story in its action-dominated final third.

Melville’s Death of Anton feels like a more substantial and complete work, reflecting his development as a writer and a growing comfort in subverting some of the traditional beats of a mystery story. Alternatively, while I think Quick Curtain disappoints as a mystery it does at least maintain its humorous approach throughout the whole novel, building it into its resolution.

If you have read and enjoyed those other titles however, I do think there is plenty here to appeal. While it may have been his first novel, Melville had clearly already developed his voice as an author by this point and he writes an entertaining, charming piece of fiction. I really hope that the British Library will release his other remaining crime fiction works as I gather he played around with some of the other crime fiction subgenres and his work, even when not perfect, is always sparklingly witty and charming.

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 7 by Poisoned Pen Press.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClawsPrior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

DestinationUnknownDestination Unknown feels surprisingly like a Bond novel, albeit one stripped of its sex and brutal acts of violence. Okay, so it’s mostly a book set in an exotic locale with an amoral villain who possesses a secret lair but the story does have a surprisingly epic scope and contains some great spy story-style moments.

The story concerns the disappearance of a scientist during a conference in Paris. The British secret services are concerned that he may have defected behind the Iron Curtain and so have been keeping tabs on his wife, hoping that she will lead them to him. When she requests the right to travel abroad to get away from it all, they approve the request but hope that this may be when she makes her move.

Unfortunately before they can do anything her plane crashes and she is badly injured. This would be a dead-end in their investigation so they decide to recruit Hilary Craven, a woman who is on the verge of suicide after her child died and her husband left her. The handler argues that this may be a more interesting way to die and she may rediscover her wish to live in the process. She will adopt the persona of the wife and emerge from the hospital in her place, waiting to be contacted by her husband or his representatives.

This is really just the beginning of a much bigger journey, both physically as she finds herself transported to that secret lair but also metaphorically as she begins to feel alive and invests in relationships with people around her.

The physical journey is quite intriguing, in part because of the scale of the journey the character undertakes going from England to Paris to Morocco and then deep into the desert. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Man in the Brown Suit and it is interesting to consider the parallels – particularly when it comes to the development of a villain.

In both stories Christie develops an unlikely sort of villain, at least for these types of adventure and espionage stories. The villains are not scenery-chewing madmen but entirely rational figures – in this case someone who sees the world in a somewhat clinical way. Neither figure is planning acts of unspeakable evil but they do represent a threat to stability. The villain here may not be as likeable as the one in Brown Suit but there are similar ideas in their characters and the themes developed around them.

One of the themes that is central to this novel is the role of science within extreme ideologies. Here we see Christie posit an organization that does not belong to either side of an ideology where scientists whose outlooks on the world are utterly different are working alongside each other with uncertain ends. There are hints of the fears of nuclear annihilation, reflected in our knowledge that the missing scientist was a nuclear physicist, and a discussion of the genius scientist as a personality type. It is not a flattering portrayal and it seems clear that Christie was thinking about some of the wartime scientific breakthroughs as she wrote.

There are some wonderful moments within the journey itself as our heroine explores Morocco. While Christie sets many of her stories against exotic locales, I don’t think she ever really brings those settings as vividly to life as Fleming might but this work is full of lots of details that reflect her own travels both in terms of the practicalities of travelling but also in her observations about the British (and French and Americans) abroad. In that sense Morocco feels more dimensional than South Africa ever does in Brown Suit.

While I enjoyed the physical journey, Hilary’s emotional journey is the more convincingly developed. Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a wonderful, thoughtful review of this story that suggests that Christie felt some sympathy for her heroine based on her own experiences and I think she makes an excellent case. Certainly I think the chapter in which we first encounter her in Paris feels convincing in the way it depicts her mental state.

Christie does a superb job of making it believable that Hilary could undertake the physical journey, sometimes experiencing some luck but also showing some moments of perception. We get to share in her doubts, worries and fears and this helps build some really effective, tense scenes. One of my favorites comes when she finally makes it to her destination and she realizes that she doesn’t really know what to do next. The scene unfolds in an unexpected way, turning what we think we know on its head. Be prepared for a few more intriguing reversals after that.

The problem is that Hilary, while undoubtedly brave and quite capable, is not responsible for resolving the situation herself. Certainly she plays a significant role in moving characters into the final positions but too much of the action at the end is placed out of her hands. This is a shame because I would have liked to see her play an active role in at least one other character’s fate, especially when she is a witness who could prove something important if she were more heavily involved in that conclusion.

After showing resourcefulness and coolheadedness throughout the novel, in its final chapters Hilary is suddenly rendered quite passive and is, essentially, rescued by third parties. I wish that she might have played a more active role in her own fate, particularly as it is implied that the thing that gets her over her suicidal feelings about the loss of her husband is meeting another man rather than building a sense of self-worth, but if it had unfolded that way it probably wouldn’t feel like Christie.

In spite of some frustrations in plotting and, in particular, with its resolution, I did find Destination Unknown to be quite an enjoyable read. It’s not really much of a mystery but I think there are some excellent story beats and I think it does present some interesting ideas.

Next month’s non-series Christie selection will be The Sittaford Mystery. I have seen the Marple! adaptation of that one but have little memory of anything other than Timothy Dalton wearing a suit and grumping in a generally aristocratic sort of way around a stormy country house so we’ll see what I make of it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Has been read/reviewed by a fellow challenger at any time (Why) – Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer.jpgI really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

 

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman

BlessingThe Blessing Way is the first of a series of novels by Tony Hillerman, now being continued by his daughter Anne, featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. This is my first encounter with the series, having been pushed towards it by The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction lectures as one of the earliest and most influential examples of a series featuring Native American characters.

From what I gather having read a little about the book since finishing it, this novel adopts a slightly different focus than later entries in the series by splitting the focus between Leaphorn and white anthropologist Bergen McKee. In the course of the book we spend more time in the company of the latter though Leaphorn is there for the most significant parts of the book and will be the one to explain what happened.

Bergen McKee has come to the Navajo Reservation with an anthropologist colleague for a summer research trip to investigate reports of witchcraft. Leaphorn is working the case of a young man, Luis Horseman, who has fled into the desert under the belief that he has killed someone in a fight. Leaphorn is looking for him but soon receives the news that his body has been found near Ganado with its mouth full of sand. Though the narrative separates Bergen and Leaphorn, it will be clear to the reader that their efforts are linked.

The Blessing Way is generally described as a mystery novel and certainly there are mysterious things going on and a question to be answered but I think it reads more like a thriller. Heading into the final chapters, the book puts one of its two leads in significant physical danger and even in a little combat and when they are grappling with the villain they have little conception of who they are and what their purpose is. The reader can make inferences based on clues in the text but do not expect a series of suspects you could name and pick between. In fact the novel’s secondary characters are barely sketched out at all.

I struggled a little at points in this novel to follow exactly what was going on and I am not entirely sure why. It is perhaps because I came to the book expecting a more typical mystery than I ended up reading or it may reflect that I think the story suffers from the splitting the action between its two protagonists as I felt I never really knew either of them as well as I should like.

While I don’t like to abandon a read that I find frustrating, I think I may well have done were it not for my appreciation for the book’s anthropological details and the discussion of Navajo culture which are woven throughout the novel. Hillerman’s focus didn’t always quite work for me. Sometimes I found myself wishing for more details about an aspect of the culture he was discussing, at others I felt we were spending too long on something that seemed incidental to the story. Still, these details could be fascinating and coupled with the stark isolation of its setting, gave the book a very distinct feel that is quite unlike anything I have read before.

The Blessing Way interested me but left me feeling unsatisfied. Hillerman delivers some wonderful pieces of action and a great sense of place but I was somewhat disappointed by the mystery. I liked the book more as it progressed though and found the final seventy pages to be quite exhilarating, both in terms of its action and also in the way that the different elements of the novel finally fit together. While they won’t be high on my to read list, I expect I’ll return to try some others in this series.

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

KissAs many of you will know, one of my long-term aims has been to seek out lots of inverted mysteries with the idea of at some point making a top five list. I hate to spoil my future work before I’ve even really started it but as things stand A Kiss Before Dying is easily the best inverted crime novel that I have read. Suffice it to say that when the time comes, this may place in that list.

Ira Levin’s story is broken into three sections, each of them titled for a woman. The first of these is told from the perspective of a male character who is dating the daughter of a prominent industrialist. He receives the undesirable news that she has become pregnant and, realizing that her father will likely disown her if he learns about this, pushes her to take some pills to make their problem go away.

When she tells him the next day that the pills didn’t work, he begins to panic. He agrees that they should get married but persuades her that they need to wait for the weekend. And in those few days he plots another way to get rid of his problem.

As for those other two sections – I want to be careful not to spoil anything too much. I can say that the second section sees the victim’s sister arrive in town with the hope of proving that she did not commit suicide and to identify her murderer. This section is really quite wonderfully written and pulled off a reveal that I think was one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve had reading in a while. As for that final section, all I shall say is that it’s named for the third sister and centers around her interactions with the killer.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.

I was similarly impressed by the character of the killer, who is one of the coldest, most calculating figures I’ve yet to encounter in an inverted mystery. Sometimes when a character is written that way it becomes hard to understand why anyone would like him and be taken in by him, yet here it is clear that those traits are part of what enables him to seem devoted and caring. When he does kill his girlfriend it is all the more vicious and terrible because of the way he has manipulated her and, in that moment, the reader realizes that this is not the action of a selfish, frightened man who doesn’t want his dreams to come to an end but those of a sociopath who sees his girlfriend as a dead end to be disposed of. It is chilling stuff.

I also appreciated that the character’s plan is not allowed to go flawlessly in spite of the killer’s cold efficiency. He endures a couple of false starts and we see him having to rethink and recalculate how he will achieve his ends. My only issue with this first section of the novel is a moment in which he plays a piece of music on the jukebox which reinforces his intent, though his victim doesn’t recognize that in the moment. The author emphasizes the thematic relevance of the song by quoting portions of the lyrics while the action of the scene takes place. I can forgive it however as I do think it has a purpose. Later in the book Levin uses the same technique at a crucial point to much better effect and that moment would not work without the author having already used the technique once.

The second and the third sections of the novel are just as gripping as the opening as we wonder whether the killer can be identified and then, in the final section, what they will do next. There are a couple of moments that I think are genuinely shocking and because it is as much a thriller as it is a mystery novel, we may wonder if the killer will even be apprehended at all.

While the killer is a fascinating figure, the supporting characters Levin creates stand out just as much. Each of the three Kingship sisters are distinctive and credible, each having their own set of daddy issues created by their domineering father. I never struggled to believe that they would fall into the murderer’s orbit, nor that he would be able to manipulate them and I appreciated that Levin allows us the time to get to know each of them to make those interactions credible.

Similarly I appreciated the complex character of Leo Kingship, a man who is responsible for his daughters’ isolation and who we see transform a little as a result of his experiences. It would be easy to make a relatively minor character like this fit a standard type and yet Levin allows him to have conflicting tendencies and motivations. Some other relatively minor supporting characters receive similar thoughtful treatment.

The novel builds to an absolute belter of a conclusion that not only resolves our immediate questions of what will happen to the various characters but also recalls one of the book’s most striking images, providing some thematic closure as well. It makes for a remarkable end to a remarkable book that I think will stay with me for some time.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)