Perry Mason: Season One (TV)

Series Details

Originally Broadcast 2020
Starring Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin
Available on HBO Go

The Blurb

An infant boy is kidnapped and an exchange is set up. The parents will provide a $100,000 ransom to get their son back. They make the drop and rush to their son only to find him dead.

Perry Mason is an investigator working for a lawyer defending one of the parents against claims that they orchestrated the affair for their own personal gain. With the media spotlight falling heavily on the case and a District Attorney keen to use the case as a springboard to higher office, the odds seem to be firmly stacked against their efforts…

The Verdict

Though it starts slow, the show hits its groove by midseason. The casting is excellent and the characters’ journeys are compelling.


My Thoughts

While millions of viewers will have grown up watching episodes of the long-running Raymond Burr series on television, my encounters with the character to date have been confined to the printed page. I have read and blogged about five of his earliest adventures on this site, finding them to be highly entertaining and engaging stories.

For those who haven’t read the Mason books of that era, our hero is less a courtroom performer than a scrappy, backroom lawyer. He is smart, resourceful and has principles though he is perfectly willing to cross the line and behave in ways that might well get him disbarred in the search for justice for his clients. This series leans heavily on this rough-around-the-edges interpretation of the character but is set several years earlier, exploring how he became that man.

Mason begins the series as a washed up shell of a man and he is not a qualified lawyer. Instead he is working as an investigator for the lawyer E. B. Jonathan, struggling to deal with the effects of his broken marriage and his harrowing experiences during the war. While I know that it was a shock to some that Mason isn’t even a lawyer at the start of the show, this first season does explore the way that he transitions from being in this washed-up state to becoming a lawyer himself. Think of it as Perry Mason Begins with us getting to see the pieces falling into place and how some of the things he has experienced cause him to practice law differently than many of the other lawyers around him.

Matthew Rhys is well suited to portraying this character at every stage of that evolution. His face is enormously expressive, allowing us to see what he is feeling and he seems to physically shift throughout the series, appearing more confident and powerful by the end. It is an impressive and nuanced performance, emphasizing the character’s humanity and the ways the details of this particular case come to affect him.

The case in question is that of the kidnapping of Charlie Dodson, an infant boy who was kidnapped from his parents’ home. A ransom demand was made for $100,000 which Matthew Dodson, the boy’s father, was able to get from his own father, the enormously wealthy Herman Baggerly. The parents follow the kidnappers’ instructions but when they rush to their son they find him dead with his eyes stitched open.

This tragic death is the starting point for the series as Mason is engaged as an investigator to look into the matter by the lawyer E. B. Jonathan who is working for Baggerly. The nature of the case is so shocking that it stirs up an enormous press and public interest. Maynard Barnes, the district attorney sees the case as a springboard he can use to launch his campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. E. B. Jonathan and, by extension, Mason sit on the other side of the case, defending those who are suspected to be guilty of orchestrating the crime for their own benefit.

The first few episodes are rather slow and ponderous, focusing on establishing each of the characters, their relationships to each other and building our understanding of exactly what the case against E. B.’s client will be. It probably doesn’t help that Mason can feel rather peripheral to the main story, particularly in the first episode which contains a rather tedious subplot where he and a colleague try to catch Chubby Carmichael, a prominent comedy film star, in flagrante.

I felt that the story became significantly more engaging following the conclusion to the series’ third episode. This is not a twist but rather a moment that heightens the tensions and serves to make E. B. Jonathan’s job all the harder. The episode that followed seemed to find a sharper focus than those up until that point, binding the different plot strands together much more closely and clearly.

While I am keen to avoid spoiling the various developments in the case, I can say that I found the final explanation of who orchestrated the kidnapping and why it went wrong to be both effective and convincing. Like the legal process itself, the case is sometimes rather slow-moving but that reflects both the workings of the court system and also that our focus is as much on the way the characters are affected by that process and how they interact with each other as it is the details of the case itself. I felt like each character was thoughtfully developed with several lingering in interesting gray areas.

One of the most interesting characters to me was Sister Alice played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). She is a preacher who leads the Radiant Assembly of God, whose meetings are rather reminiscent of those run by Sister Aimee during the 1920s and 30s incorporating lavish theatricals and acts of faith healing. Those sequences are gorgeously designed and performed, standing out as really colorful and lively, drawing an effective contrast with the otherwise quite muted color palette we see in Depression-era Los Angeles.

Her motivations for her actions throughout the season are often quite ambiguous and one of the biggest questions I had while watching was what her motivations were for interfering in the case. Maslany leans into that ambiguity very effectively, at times appearing quite helpful and sincere while at others her actions only seem to muddy the waters and make it harder for Mason to defend the client. While ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating in a mystery, here I felt it was used very effectively and I felt that by the final episode I had a strong handle on her character and the reasons for her various choices thoroughout the season.

I was similarly very impressed by Gayle Rankin, an actor who I had previously admired in Netflix’s GLOW (she plays Sheila the She-Wolf in that show). I felt she did a superb job of bringing to life the various conflicted feelings that Emily would feel as Charlie’s mother as she struggles to cope both with her grief and also her feelings of guilt that her own actions may have made the kidnapping possible. Rankin is able to portray different facets of each of those feelings, creating a character that feels both dimensional and credible even when we don’t agree with her actions, making her more than simply a victim.

John Lithgow is rightly being celebrated for his performance as E. B. Jonathan, a lawyer at the end of his career who is frustrated by his inability to protect his client. He really draws out the character’s humanity, creating a character whose frustrations we feel and share. Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Root as Barnes, the District Attorney who sees an opportunity to engage with voters’ sympathies and ruthlessly pursues it. I really enjoyed seeing these two actors playing off each other, particularly in the scenes that take place in court.

Finally I have to give praise to Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk, the actors playing Della Street and Paul Drake. Where all the other series characters have to shift to fill their eventual roles, Della is essentially in place at the start of the series working as a legal secretary, albeit for E. B. rather than Perry Mason. This role is enormously important to the series however as she is ultimately responsible for the really inexperienced Perry stepping into a courtroom and helping him through that process. She also gets to make several important contributions to the shaping of the case.

One alteration that is made to the character is that she is portrayed as a lesbian, living secretly with her girlfriend in a boarding house. This does not sit entirely with the flirtations and jealousies towards Perry we see Della engage in during these early books, particularly in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though I am personally not too worried about that sort of continuity. The core of the character, particularly her values, her comptence and her willingness to tell Perry what she thinks are all present and correct and I am excited to see how the character continues to develop in the second season.

I was more familiar with Chris Chalk who had appeared as Lucius Fox in Gotham, the Batman prequel series. Paul Drake begins the series as a uniformed cop who is told that he will never make detective in spite of his aptitude for the job because of his race. Like Mason, Drake has to find his place and realize what he values and who he wants to be. I thought that the character had an interesting journey and that Chalk plays well off Rhys once their paths cross. I am looking forward to seeing him take a more central role in future seasons.

The final aspect of the show that I want to mention is its visual style. It is an impressive evocation of the era and place in which it is set. Depression-era Los Angeles is brought to life with plenty of atmosphere and period detail. As I previously alluded to, the color palette tends towards black, gray and sepia tones which feels appropriate both to the setting and the tone of the piece. It also means that when you do see splashes of color they stand out all the more.

Between the cinematography and costuming, the characters and performances I found a lot to like in this first season and I am glad that it has already been renewed for a second. It does get off to a slow start but I felt it found its groove by the fourth episode, finishing strongly with compelling seventh and eighth episodes. I think the core elements put in place here are strong and bode well for future seasons. The one thing I’d love to see is for the show to mimic the way Gardner would setup the next case at the end of last, giving us an image or idea to hook our interest in that next client.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

At the age of twelve, Eve Black was the only member of her family to survive an encounter with serial attacker the Nothing Man. Now an adult, she is obsessed with identifying the man who destroyed her life.

Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle has just started reading The Nothing Man—the true-crime memoir Eve has written about her efforts to track down her family’s killer. As he turns each page, his rage grows. Because Jim’s not just interested in reading about the Nothing Man. He is the Nothing Man.

Jim soon begins to realize how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first …

The Verdict

A clever premise elevates this serial killer tale though I found the survivor a much more compelling character than her tormentor.


My Thoughts

I think I have mentioned before that serial killer stories aren’t usually my sort of thing. I am not sure if it reflects that they are often more graphically violent or that the motivations to kill are often weaker and rather repetitive but I rarely seek these sorts of stories out.

There are, of course, a few exceptions though. I suppose several of Jim Thompson’s stories would technically constitute serial killer stories and yet I have happily sought those out. I suspect that reflects that I find the characters to be quite rich and that character’s perspective is usually shared with the reader. I also enjoyed Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View which closely follows the character of a retired serial killer. It is primarily then with that interest in stories that follow the killer that I picked up a copy of Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest book The Nothing Man after reading a review of it a week or two ago on Puzzle Doctor’s excellent blog In Search of the Classic Mystery.

The Nothing Man was a serial killer who was responsible for a series of rapes and murders in County Cork at the start of the twenty first century. This series of killing culminated in the murder of two parents and one child in their home with one survivor, Eve, who was also a child at the time. No one was ever caught and the Gardai never had any strong leads as to the killer’s identity. Years later she decides to write a book about her experiences and those of the other victims in the hope that it might reignite interest in the case and lead to the killer’s capture.

Supermarket security guard Jim was the Nothing Man. He is shocked one day when he sees customers carrying books about the murders he carried out and realizing that he may be in danger, he acquires a copy and settles down to read Eve’s account to see exactly what she remembers.

Howard utilizes a story within a story framing structure, going so far as to reproduce a book cover and copyright page for Eve’s book within her own to add to the illusion. We get big chunks of that book reproduced here, not only presenting us with some of the facts about those murders but also introducing us to the character of Eve and describing how the events affected her and how she came to want to share her own experiences. This is done very well and I think Howard manages to write those passages in a noticeably different voice to those in which we follow Jim (as well as typeface), which adds to the distinction between these sections.

From time to time Howard interupts the Nothing Man book excerpts to show us Jim’s reactions to what he is reading. These cutaways are typically quite short but they do serve to remind us that this story will conclude in the present day. For the most part I feel that this technique works well enough to justify its use although I will admit to feeling that the passages featuring Jim as he is reading the book are probably the least interesting part of the novel for me. This is because I feel that they rarely change our perception of what we have read or move the story in a different direction. They are short enough however to be fairly unobtrusive and my interest in his reactions picks up considerably from the point where the book begins to detail her own encounter with Jim.

The accounts of each of the attacks are presented in sequence so we do get a sense of seeing the Nowhere Man develop as he becomes a murderer. This does not give us an understanding of the forces that made him a murderer in the first place but there is a clear sense that we are building towards Eve’s own incident, increasing anticipation of that moment. As you might expect from a story that features multiple instances of rape and a child murder, these accounts may prove uncomfortable reading and while the actions are not described in much detail they may be upsetting for some readers.

The bits of the story that Eve cannot relate tend to be wrapped up in the question of the Nowhere Man’s identity and so the answers end up coming from Jim. Not that he is particularly talkative. His sections of the book are presented with third person narration and it is that narrator who fills in the gaps and explains some of the missing connections. My feeling is that answers are given for most of the questions I had, though I did not always find them as satisfying as I would have hoped. We learn of shaping incidents that created the killer and certainly get a good understanding of his methods both of selecting victims and also committing his murders.

One question that I think doesn’t get answered as well as I would like is Jim’s reasons for stopping. I think those reasons are implied well enough for the reader to be able to connect the dots but it would have been nice to have been given a fuller account of that part of Jim’s story, particularly given one of the later revelations in the book.

I remarked earlier how my interest in Jim’s story grew once we get to Eve’s own incident in her book and I feel that the same could be said of the book as a whole. From this point onwards I think the story seems to open up and some interesting questions and ideas are introduced. Of course, coming late in the novel keeps me from discussing them in any kind of detail but I appreciated the introduction of another perspective and a question that Jim has concerning Eve’s account of that night. That these ideas coincide with some action only serves to elevate that ending and make it feel more impactful.

That ending is quite tense and I was interested to discover how Jim and Eve’s stories would be resolved. I cannot claim to be all that surprised by many of the developments but I did find the answers to those questions that are raised to be quite satisfying.

So, how did I feel about The Nowhere Man? Keeping in mind that serial killer stories aren’t my thing, I am certainly glad I gave it a try though I am glad I was able to finish it with the lights on! As killers go, I did not find Jim to be an especially compelling figure. Instead I found myself much more interested in Eve, the survivor and her journey to take some control of her life. That may not have been exactly what I was expecting to find when I picked up the book but it was enough to keep me engaged and, coupled with the book’s creative premise, make me feel like my time was well spent.

Your Turn, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

Book Details

Originally Published in 1935 as No Hero (US) and Mr. Moto Takes A Hand (UK)

Mr. Moto #1
Followed by Thank You, Mr. Moto

The Blurb

During World War I, Casey Lee was one of the best pilots around. Known for his boldness and bravery, he was heralded as a hero. But now the war’s over, the Depression is on, and Americans no longer have time for public heroes, leaving Lee washed up and desperate for work. When a tobacco company suggests he fly from Japan to North America, a feat which has never been accomplished, Lee jumps at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the idea is abandoned soon after he arrives in Tokyo, and he receives the news in the midst of one of the daily drinking binges with which he now passes the time.

Stranded in a foreign land with wavering loyalty to his home country, Lee has few friends, but his situation changes suddenly when he meets the intriguing Mr. Moto, a Japanese man who takes a particular interest in the down-and-out pilot. By the time he meets Sonya, Moto’s beautiful Russian colleague, Casey has unknowingly entered into a life-threatening plot of international espionage at the service of Japan’s imperial interests ― but will he realize the severity of his situation before it’s too late?

The Verdict

The thriller elements move quickly while the setting is treated much more sympathetically than I expected from a work of this era. While it is perhaps not an essential read, it is certainly an entertaining one.


My Thoughts

American aviator Casey Lee has travelled to Japan under the belief that he will be undertaking a commercial project to fly tobacco across the Pacific. If he could pull it off it would be the first time a pilot had accomplished the feat. Unfortunately he soon learns that the project has fallen through and is preparing to return to America when he is approached by Mr. Moto who asks if he would be prepared to undertake the same project in a Japanese plane.

Soon Lee finds himself travelling by boat rather than air and is surprised to find he is not alone on the ship. Several strange incidents occur during the trip but the most shocking comes when a body is found in his cabin. Finding himself in danger and unsure who to trust, Lee soon realizes that he is caught up in some political games and has to figure out what he ought to do.

While there is a dead body in this novel, I ought to stress that this is really not a conventional detective story or mystery. Rather it has much more in common with the sorts of adventure thrillers you might find from Agatha Christie in this period with an emphasis on incident rather than psychology or even careful clueing.

Casey Lee belongs to that category of thriller protagonists who are sympathetic largely because we are aware that they are caught up in events they cannot control. Still, I think he takes an interesting journey, starting the book as a washed up drunkard and ending it a little more aware of what exactly he wants. He can, at times, be frustrating but I did find myself invested in his fate and hoping he could avoid becoming collateral damage in these political games.

One of the most surprising aspects of the novel for me was how little Mr. Moto actually features in it. While his presence is certainly felt throughout the novel and he is responsible for bringing the protagonist into the adventure, he spends much of the book observing what was happening and takes little in the way of direct action. This reflects that Moto is not a detective – at least not here. He may ask questions and he is seeking an answer but he plays the role of spymaster, recruiting others to do that work for him.

The presentation of the character is generally quite sympathetic with Moto shown to be courteous, mannered and possessing a great deal of humanity. He is a man who is somewhat at odds with the nature of the role he finds himself playing and Marquand does a good job of indicating how he is sometimes uncomfortable with the work he is doing.

In terms of the structure of the story however at times he finds himself acting almost as an antagonist, creating dangers and problems for our protagonist. It is an interesting and often quite ambiguous characterization that is much more richly layered than you may initially assume.

Prior to reading the book I had been concerned whether the characterization of Moto or the Japanese setting might not have aged well. After all, I have read several books from this decade and the ones that followed it that, while seemingly well-intentioned, made some uncomfortable descriptions or uses of language.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that while Japan may at times be presented as mysterious and exotic, Marquand treats the Japanese with a great deal of understanding. Japan is shown to be a country keen to modernize and attain respect and power on the international scene. At the same time, Marquand places that within the context of other nations’ efforts to expand their influence in east Asia, making for a more thoughtful presentation of those issues and Japanese society than you might expect.

Similarly the portrayal of the American characters is not particularly positive and readers will likely understand why Lee is feel disaffected. Even when he starts to feel some patriotic sentiment later in the novel, he remains aware that the American officials he is interacting with are far from helpful and possess their own agenda. Lee’s best interests are a secondary concern for most of the people he interacts with.

All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. The final few chapters of the novel do a pretty good job of increasing the scope of the adventure and applying some additional pressures to the protagonist. This is not so much a case of adding more action elements but rather creating a situation where Lee is caught up in a race against time. This works pretty well and contributed to create a conclusion that I found to be pretty satisfying.

Overall, I was pretty pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. I would repeat my warning that this is really an adventure or thriller rather than a detective story and I think readers should be prepared to be frustrated with Lee’s decision making at points. Still, the adventure is well-told with a few striking moments and I had no difficulty staying engaged.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

Book Details

Originally published 1935
Perry Mason #6
Preceded by The Case of the Curious Bride
Followed by The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat

The Blurb

Wealthy businessman Hartley Bassett has killed himself. There’s a typewritten suicide note and three guns lying near his body. But for Perry Mason, that’s evidence overkill. He knows there has been trouble in Bassett’s life. His wife wants out, his stepson hates him, an embezzler can’t pay him back – and there’s the man with a glass eye who hired Perry Mason even before his glass eye went missing and was found in the hands of the deceased.

There are too many suspects and too many lies. But leave it to Mason, his resourceful secretary, Della Street, and clever detective Paul Drake to their wits about them and their wiles tucked away, as they piece together the missing parts of this fatal family puzzle.

The Verdict

An absolutely crazy ride. Always entertaining, even if there is a little too much coincidence at points.


My Thoughts

The release of a first full trailer for the upcoming HBO Perry Mason series last week was a helpful nudge for me to get back to my plan to read all the novels in order. Rather unfortunately I spectacularly failed to remember the book I read last (The Case of the Howling Dog) meaning I skipped over The Case of the Curious Bride.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that I already owned a copy of that one. Fortunately the series is not particularly continuity-driven and I am sure I will play catchup soon.

This novel opens with Mason being consulted by a man named Brunold who is concerned that one of his glass eyes has been stolen and replaced with a cheap imitation. He tells Mason he is worried that the eye will be planted to tie him to some sort of crime as the eye stolen would be of a rare enough type to be quite identifiable.

Immediately after that meeting he is called on by a young woman and her brother. He was working for the businessman Hartley Bassett and was caught embezzling funds. Bassett is demanding the money back and as the brother has lost the sum, the woman begs Mason to intercede on their behalf to persuade him to accept payments by installment.

When Mason calls on Bassett he finds the latter unwilling to countenance any sort of a deal. As he leaves he gains yet another client when Bassett’s wife approaches him, asking for legal advice about how to run off with another man without committing bigamy. Unfortunately more clients just equals more problems for Mason when Bassett is discovered dead in his home clutching a glass eye…

This description of the events of the book sounds pretty wild but I think it actually understates some of the craziness you will encounter in this story. Compared to the previous Mason books I’ve read these characters are even more colorful and their stories are thoroughly wrapped around each other. The pleasure here is in unpicking those story threads and understanding just how each aspect of the plot is linked together.

Now I will say that, for me, the hardest bit of the story to swallow is that first consultation from Brunold. Everyone else who consults Mason has a very clear legal issue to resolve whereas his is much harder to define and so struck me as a little unfocused. Fortunately the other two clients each have much clearer reasons to want Mason’s help and, in the case of Mrs. Bassett, some interesting ways of forcing him to assist her.

Surprisingly Gardner is able to sustain the same crazy energy throughout the rest of the story, both in terms of the things that happen to Mason and also some of his own actions. I commented in some of my previous Perry Mason posts about his willingness to bend or subvert the law and Gardner gives us plenty of examples of that here. He even writes an entertaining exchange where another character provides a little meta commentary about Mason’s willingness to twist the law.

This side of Perry Mason’s character is, for me, the most entertaining part of the character. I enjoy seeing him put tricks in place, particularly when it is not always clear to the reader what the exact purpose of the trick is or how it will be worked. We get several really great examples of that here.

The novel also introduces a character who apparently becomes an important recurring figure in the series – District Attorney Burger. These stories are all new to me so I can’t compare him here with the character he becomes but I enjoyed him and, in particular, the way Mason works to establish his relationship with that character. I appreciated that while they are presented as antagonists in terms of the legal proceedings, Burger is not personally antagonistic towards Mason and understands that the lawyer is seeking to find the truth, even if his methods are sometimes sneaky.

The novel builds towards a substantial and dramatic courtroom scene which sees Mason working a variety of tricks and angles. We are not in on all of his schemes, even though we have seen the preparations he has made, so I enjoyed seeing just what he was playing at. There is a certain audacity to some of the moves he makes during this chapter and I felt the character was taking too many chances but the explanation given afterwards convinced me both as to what he was up to and why he thought it worth the risk.

Perhaps the least interesting part of the book is the solution to who killed Bassett. In his excellent (and much more detailed) post about the novel, Brad suggests that the killer stands out. I certainly guessed at it almost immediately, recognizing the setup even if I didn’t understand every aspect of the crime. For that reason I would suggest that those looking primarily for a whodunnit may want to skip over this one.

For those more interested in being amused and entertained, I can recommend this as an often audacious and thoroughly enjoyable read. While the whodunnit aspects of the story may be a little predictable, the real excitement for me was seeing just what Perry Mason would do next and waiting for an explanation to be given as to just what he was up to. Happily in that respect this story definitely delivered and reminded me why I was enjoying this series so much. I am sure I will be making a special effort to return to the series soon for another case.

Why I Love… The Third Man

A few weeks ago I was asked to pick my favorite film as part of a getting to know you exercise. While some people agonized over their choices, I found it to be a really easy question to answer because that film has been my favorite since I first discovered it in my teen years. In fact, it was a sufficient draw for me that I bought my first Blu-Ray player specifically to watch it when Criterion reissued it a number of years ago.

Of course once I gave it as my answer I felt drawn to rewatch it again and, in doing so, I was left with a strong desire to post about it here. As it happens I already planned to discuss the novella Greene wrote (while he was commissioned to write a screenplay, he found it easier to write a story that he could then adapt – a practice Disney would use a few years later on Lady and the Tramp). This struck me as an ideal opportunity to play around with the video camera a little bit more and explain my thoughts about the film.

So, here they are – my thoughts on what I consider to be my favorite film and one that I think mystery fans ought to watch. I did keep my comments spoiler-free and if you haven’t seen it yet I would strongly suggest avoiding reading anything else about it before you do – even the blurbs tend to spoil the film’s biggest moment…

Whether you agree with me or not, I would love to hear your own thoughts about the film and, if not, of course I’d be interested in your own picks!

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell

The Gun
Fuminori Nakamura
Originally published as 銃 in 2003
English translation published in 2015

The Gun is the story of a young man’s growing obsession with a gun he discovers next to a body under a bridge near the river while wandering late at night. Instinctively picking it up, he takes it home with him where he cleans it and examines it more closely, finding there are four bullets left in its chamber.

After he starts to carry it with him everywhere he begins to fantasize about firing the gun…

Though it is labelled a crime novel, I think it would be more accurate to describe The Gun as a piece of literary fiction, albeit one placed in the noir tradition. After all, for most of the novel’s page count there are no crimes beyond the possession of the gun itself and our focus is on exploring the protagonist’s precarious mental state.

The narrator, Nishikawa, is a university student who is something of a loner. While the novel begins with the discovery of the gun we get an impression of his life prior to that moment and it is clear that he was already exhibiting some warning signs.

He has one friend, Keisuke, but he has little affection for him, seeming disgusted by his lifestyle of heavy drinking and womanizing. While he also seduces women, he has little interest in them afterwards and certainly no interest in forming anything approaching a relationship. Not that he seems to find much pleasure in those pursuits either…

Possessing the gun does not change Nishikawa so much as it encourages some dormant personality traits to develop and emerge. In effect it serves as a catalyst, giving him the power and the confidence to become the person he would like to be and ignore his inhibitions. We see this manifest itself in several ways including his interactions with two women (it would be misleading to call them relationships or either woman a romantic interest). His behavior in both encounters becomes increasingly less responsive to the women’s preferences.

One of the most successful aspects of the novella is in the way it conveys the sense of obsession. The word gun appears frequently throughout the story, sometimes as often as every two or three lines and this is a really effective way of suggesting just how ever-present it is in Nishikawa’s thoughts. The writing conveys a fascination with the mechanism and with the sense of power it bestows and while I think there is a sense of inevitability about the story’s ultimate destination, I did find it interesting to witness some of the developments that push the story towards that conclusion.

The other aspect of the novella that I found to be particularly successful was the way it posed the question of whether the gun gives Nishikawa power or whether it is actually exerting it over him. At times the gun seems to almost possess a personality or an aura and seems to be willing him to act in particular ways and the reader may question whether this is simply a projection of his own desires or if it really does have a sort of hold over him. After all, he tells us quite clearly that he never had any interest in guns prior to finding this one and we have little reason to think he is manipulating us. Is it simply the allure of the forbidden or is there something almost supernatural about the gun?

As interesting as that idea can be, the problem for me was that the plot was not sufficiently complex. Indeed there is relatively little incident at all beyond his interactions with the two girls and a subplot involving a trip to the hospital to visit his father. The latter sequence provides an interesting viewpoint of his mindset and sense of priorities and self but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been expanded on to explore the origins of Nishikawa’s sociopathic tendencies.

Instead the author chooses to provide the reader with suggestive moments but no clear answers. Denying the reader answers or a sense of resolution can be an interesting choice as it can provoke and engage a reader but here it feels that it simply fell outside the scope of the writer’s interest.

This is a shame because I think at its best the author’s depiction of obsession can be really quite effective. The problem is that as the novella strikes one note repeatedly, it ends up feeling a little repetitive by the point we reach the end and it fails to develop any great moments of surprise or the sense that the reader is engaging in an act of discovery.

So, overall this didn’t quite work for me but while I was a little underwhelmed by some aspects of this particular title I did enjoy the writing style enough that I am keen to try more of his work.

Hopefully the next title I pick will be more to my taste.

Further Reading

Normally I link to other blog reviews but I found this discussion between the author and his French translator and discussion of the film adaptation so interesting that I had to link to it. I will say that while I had some reservations about the novella, I am intrigued by the stills from the movie adaptation and would be curious to see it for myself.

The Sleeper by Holly Roth

The Sleeper
Holly Roth
Originally Published 1955

The Sleeper was one of the two books I received in my first Coffee and Crime shipment and after a quick skim of the blurb it immediately leapt to the top of my TBR pile.

The novel is a Cold War-era spy-thriller from the American author Holly Roth. Writer Robert Kendall is surprised when representatives of the FBI and Counter Intelligence Corps turn up to investigate an attempted robbery at his home. As he is questioned he becomes certain that the thieves were seeking notes he may have made relating to a series of articles he is writing for The Courier about an army lieutenant who had been sentenced for treason.

The nature of the crimes committed by Lieutenant Hollister were not known to the public. After receiving heavy criticism for its handling of the affair, the army agreed to allow a journalist of their choosing to write a general profile of the man on the condition that the article would not touch on any specifics of the case.

This conversation begins a cagey game played between Kendall and the two agents throughout the novel as they each attempt to extract some information from the other party. This leads Kendall to follow up on some leads from his article as he attempts to understand what the attempted burglars hoped to find hidden in his notes and what crime Hollister had committed.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the question concerning the nature of Hollister’s crime. Roth basically tells the reader what he is accused of in the title and so the revelation will hardly come as a surprise to most. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to get to that point and once this information is broken however, deeper and more complex questions and puzzles follow. There is some really clever and thoughtful plotting and I was pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities Roth provides for the reader to engage in ratiocination – a far from typical feature in the spy thriller genre.

One of the cleverest aspects of Roth’s story is the way she constructs the narrative, starting us at the point at which Kendall learns about the government’s suspicions. This produces a slightly disorienting effect as we wait to learn more details about Kendall’s circumstances but it does allow Roth to focus on providing us with the most important information up front, filling in the details once the reader has been hooked with the promise of detecting some sort of conspiracy or cracking a code. In essence it enables Roth to compact her narrative, creating an intriguing situation where Hollister is much talked about but never actually present.

This choice also highlights the importance of the characters of the two agents, Gregory and Windham, and the tension that is created with Kendall. The relationships between these three men really dominate the rest of the story, providing it with much of its intrigue and tension, and it is interesting to ponder whether this is an aspect of the book that would be read differently today by modern readers than its contemporary audience. I certainly was struck by how hard it is to get a solid read on the men and their intentions and while I do not think that Roth’s presentation of these two government officials would register as provocative today, there is a certain cynicism in the way they are attempting to manage things that I find fascinating and ahead of its time.

The character of Marta Wentwirth is also quite curious, appearing quite enigmatically throughout much of the story. I appreciated that Roth writes her as being intelligent and acting independently of the other characters, in part because her interests in the case are quite different (she feels her reputation was damaged by Kendall’s article). Roth does a good job of keeping characters’ allegiances ambiguous, helping to build that sense of mystery as to just what is going on. If there is an issue it is with the attempts to build up the character as a sort of love interest, though the lack of depth to that relationship is perhaps inevitable given the length of the novel and the extreme circumstances in which the characters are thrown together.

While I would describe Roth’s story as a thriller, I suppose it should be said that the emphasis here is on understanding situations rather than action sequences. There is only one sequence in the whole book that really fits that description and even that is kept quite short with the emphasis falling on the discovering the reasons for that situation rather than describing the action. Regardless I found the work to be very effective at building tension, particularly as Kendall spends so much of the story acting instinctively without all of the information he needs to make informed decisions.

Roth’s story builds to a really strong, dramatic conclusion that I mostly liked. Here, once again, I think that the book reflects the time it was written in and while it wasn’t necessarily the ending I would have written, I still found it made for a striking conclusion to a story that I had found thoroughly engaging and entertaining.

Overall, my first experience of Holly Roth was an overwhelmingly positive one. I was impressed by how compact this story was, feeling that not a page was wasted and that everything served the narrative and its themes well. While the overall direction of the story will probably be anticipated by most modern readers, I think it is executed quite brilliantly and dramatically, building some clever puzzles and proving interesting thematically.

If you can track down an affordable copy, I would thoroughly recommend this.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Out of your comfort zone (Why)

Your Republic is Calling You by Young-Ha Kim

Your Republic Is Calling You
Young-Ha Kim
Originally Published as 빛의 제국 in 2006
English translation published in 2010

This blog is dedicated to reviewing mystery and crime fiction but occasionally I find myself covering a book that doesn’t easily fit a genre label. Your Republic Is Calling You is one such story, being very difficult to summarize effectively with just a single phrase or sentence.

While the main character of this novel has been committing a crime for over twenty years, this book is really not a mystery or crime novel. It is not the focus of the narrative, nor of the themes it develops. Instead it is a starting point for an exploration of identity and family relationships on the micro-scale and of the development of Korean national identities, perspectives on history and cultural destiny over the course of thirty years.

Given that, you may wonder why I have chosen to write about it here. One reason is that I learned about this novel in a list of the best crime stories set in South Korea and I have seen it shelved as mystery fiction on Goodreads. I began reading it with the assumption that it would be a thriller and was sufficiently interested in the situation and characters to continue reading to finish the book once I realized my error.

The book introduces us to Ki-Yong, a businessman living in Seoul who imports movies from overseas to distribute to Korean theaters. He is successful enough to live comfortably but his business is pretty small, not being helped by a full-time employee scaring off any new hires with his habits of watching porn in the office. He is married to Ma-Ri who he had met at college when they were both members of a socialist student organization and they have a teenage daughter, Hyon-Mi, who seems to be doing well at school. He may not be rich but he seems to have a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

Then one morning he logs into his workstation at the office and discovers a coded message telling him that he must return to North Korea within twenty-four hours. This forces him to assess his life and consider his own identity while trying to understand the reasons for his recall and get his affairs in order. Meanwhile his wife is questioning what she wants when she meets her young lover in secret and he proposes they invite a male friend to join them and his daughter as she deals with her own issues with a boy.

I think given this is a mysteries blog it is most appropriate to start by considering those elements that most strongly align with the mystery and thriller genres. Those would be the espionage storyline, the discussion of the maintenance of a false identity (and the fact that anyone who learns that identity becomes a criminal under South Korean law) and the questions concerning the reasons for Ki-Yong’s recall.

The espionage elements were some of the most interesting in the novel. Young-Ha Kim explores the way Ki-Yong prepared for his mission and describes processes well such as the way a drawer might be arranged to spot if someone has tampered with it or messages are passed. I cannot speak to whether these elements are accurate but they struck me as credible and helped me understand how this character was able to serve his role.

I found the parts of the story that address the construction of a new identity and the questions that raises about what is real and what is performance to be both interesting and thought-provoking. For me the most interesting representation of this theme comes in his relationship with another North Korean agent in a sequence in which they share an awkward conversation in his apartment while reflecting on their life there. While those sorts of experiences are far removed from my own, I felt I had little difficulty imagining the emotional state that would create for this character and the questions he would have to wrestle with about whether he was acting or if he has become the persona he created.

The final of those points, the question of why the recall has been issued, is the aspect of the story that comes closest to being a mystery. This question hangs over much of the story and we are encouraged to consider a couple of possible explanations. It is certainly interesting but I would say that it is hardly a focus for the story. Rather this absence of knowledge is presented as an obstacle to Ki-Yong’s decision making, generating considerable feelings of indecision and paranoia in him. An answer is given by the end of the book however and I think it is satisfying, if not particularly surprising.

These genre elements largely serve as the backdrop for the family drama that unfolds in response to these events. While they only directly inform Ki-Yong’s own storyline, I think we come to see that Ma-Ri and Hyon-Mi’s stories are affected indirectly even if the connections are less obvious. For instance, is the breakdown in intimacy between Ki-Yong and Ma-Ri a reflection of his living a manufactured identity or perhaps a reflection of the loss of his youthful zeal as he finds himself assimilating into South Korean society and his values shift.

The author develops some interesting themes and ideas throughout the work but they are not all equally successful. Hyon-Mi’s struck me as a little hard to follow while I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading parts of Ma-Ri’s story. This was not so much a result of the subject matter as the way in which she is objectified both by the characters and in the descriptions. I think this is entirely intentional on the part of the author and designed to make a point but I did not find it those sections in any way enjoyable and felt they dragged on for far too long.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I would not propose reading this novel as a work of mystery or suspense fiction. While some of its most interesting and successful elements draw of ideas from those genres they are not the focus of the book and so it is hard to recommend reading it for those alone though it may interest those who enjoy espionage stories.

Although not all of its ideas are entirely successful, this is a provocative and creative work. Those who enjoy stories that explore complex cultural situations and interpersonal relationships will likely pull more out of this.

Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie

Passenger to Frankfurt
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1970

My project to read and review all of the non-series works by Agatha Christie hit a bit of a brick wall part-way through last year. I had promised that my next Christie would be The Pale Horse but somehow that just didn’t seem to grab me and I found that I was prioritizing other reading.

Late last year I realized that I couldn’t indefinitely put Christie on hold for a review that might never come and so I started to review some Poirot works. I did not forget about this project however and I eventually decided to pass over The Pale Horse and come back to it with more enthusiasm later. Instead I would tackle Passenger to Frankfurt, a novel that has a bit of a reputation as one of Christie’s worst (it is also the last non-series novel she wrote).

The novel begins with Sir Stafford Nye, a British diplomat who has been passed over for serious postings on the basis of his being a bit of a jokester, encountering a young woman in an airport. She has noticed their physical similarities and asks to borrow his passport, plane ticket and face-covering travelling cape so she can evade some people who are looking for her. Being the sort of man who doesn’t turn down an adventure when one is offered, Sir Stafford agrees and goes along with the plan, drinking a drugged beer to make the story of how he came to lose his passport and ticket more credible.

Before we go any further let’s just take a moment to consider what a terrible set of choices Nye makes here. This is partly a reflection on the differences between the world in 1970 and the world today but it is impossible to imagine this forming the plot of a novel today. One doesn’t just allow someone to assume their identity, let alone board a plane. And to deliberately drink a drink spiked with who-knows-what? I think even the adventurous would balk at that.

On returning to London he quite rightly has a lot to explain to his bosses who amazingly swallow much of the story, accepting this as just the sort of foolish thing he would be likely to do. He soon discovers however that visitors have been to his home to ‘collect’ his suit that he wore on the flight and then there is a strange message in the classified section of the paper instructing him to visit a location at a particular time…

It is rather hard to describe where this story leads from here without spoiling its secrets. In a way though it doesn’t much matter as the plot is rather disjointed and hard to follow anyway. The motivated reader may well be able to force the narrative into a sort of shape but it requires them to imagine connective tissue to stitch the various story threads together into some semblance of order. It is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess.

I am somewhat torn about where to assign blame however. I have previously written here about my feeling that some later works by established authors often suffer from being under-edited and I have a suspicion that we are in the same territory here though it could be a case of the exact opposite – material might have been trimmed by the author or editor that may have made better sense of the story.

One of the issues is that this book feels unfocused, boasting a frankly enormous cast of characters most of whom have little to do. There are several government meetings that take place, each involving their own sets of characters, all of whom say much the same sorts of things. The youth are trouble, rebellion is in the air and so on. Apparently several minor characters are recurring ones from earlier works though I will say that I wouldn’t have known that were it not for Wikipedia.

Of the characters that do stand out, none is quite so vibrant and entertaining as Aunt Matilda. She, like most of the others, reflects on the age she is living in with disappointment and regret but she also sees some signs of the dangers that might arise. She’s sometimes quite witty, at other times quite sharply judgmental. I doubt I would like her if I were to meet her but she is an interesting character and that is enough to hold the attention even if some of the stuff she says is questionable.

The reason that Aunt Matilda is so interesting to me is the way she relates to the primary themes and ideas of the work. You see, on the face of things Passenger to Frankfurt appears to be a rather reactionary piece. All the way through there are references to the dangers of youth and we hear a lot of thoughts from members of the establishment about the risks this poses. Often they focus on the superficial – the way these teenagers look and act – but few characters really reflect on why they are upset or how that may manifest itself.

Aunt Matilda is decidedly of that older generation as well as being part of that establishment. She comes from an old family, has money and lives a comfortable existence. She is also nervous about the youth movements springing up across Europe and yet she is far more interested in the causes behind them and how their outrage and protest could be guided in negative directions by those with bad intent. While it may appear quite conservative, I think that there may in fact be a case to be made that Christie is arguing that society has been too slow to change and adapt.

In that respect it feels like an extension of the themes found in At Bertram’s Hotel, another later Christie work that has its detractors. I wouldn’t say that I think it the most persuasive piece of socio-political analysis I have ever read but I am struck by the idea that Christie is trying to say something that she considers important.

Unfortunately that discussion is wrapped in a plot that is largely impenetrable, particularly in the last third of the novel. There are too many meetings, too much discussion and yet the conclusion seems disconnected with anything that preceded it (except in its relationship to the theme).

I wish I could say something more original than this but it is far from Christie at her best. Those looking for a Christie adventure-thriller would be better served seeking out Destination Unknown or The Man in the Brown Suit which are at least coherent.

Further REading

JJ @ The Invisible Event, like myself, found the book to be much more interesting thematically than it is successful as a mystery or thriller. The comments section is great too with several bloggers who have no wish to revisit the book sharing their thoughts.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

mysister
My Sister, The Serial Killer
Oyinkan Braithwaite
Originally Published 2018

My Sister, the Serial Killer begins with Korede, the book’s narrator, receiving a phone call from her younger sister Ayoola who tells her that she killed her boyfriend. She claims that the boyfriend attacked her in a jealous passion but while Korede wants to believe her, she quickly notices inconsistencies in the scene. For one thing he was stabbed in the back and then why was Ayoola carrying a knife in her boyfriend’s bedroom anyway? And then she can’t escape the realization that this is the third time Ayoola has been attacked by and killed one of her boyfriends…

Rather than directly questioning her, Korede helps to clean the scene and dispose of the body. She even talks through the events with Ayoola and gives her advice about how to behave, censoring her social media and reminding her that an innocent girlfriend should appear to be concerned about her boyfriend’s sudden disappearance. She soon becomes worried that events are going to repeat themselves when Ayoola starts to date Tade, a man who Korede is interested in herself.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a rather difficult book to categorize. Certainly the story utilizes some themes and elements from the thriller and mystery genres but it also deviates significantly from their structures. In some ways it resembles an inverted crime story and yet the focus is not on catching the criminal or trying to understand how or why they kill. We learn a little of their back story but, once again, the focus is on understanding the relationship between these sisters rather than her path to becoming a killer.

Instead I think it would be fair to describe this as a book in which we are primarily focused on exploring interpersonal relationships, cultural expectations and familial obligations. Braithwaite’s use of a serial killer as a character in this story heightens some of these elements and feelings to a point that can verge on the comical and yet I think the story explores what it means to have a sibling and the sense of responsibility that can engender very effectively. The book’s narrator, Korede, has been told from birth about how she needs to take care of her younger, prettier sister and within a few pages of the start of the novel we become aware of just how far she is willing to take that commitment.

Korede is an intriguing protagonist though not an entirely sympathetic one. An interesting question that I think the book raises but does not take a firm position on is to what extent she is responsible for her sister’s behavior. Clearly she does not ever make the choice to kill and yet by cleaning up her sister’s messes she ends up enabling her to go on and to kill again.

The situation Braithwaite places this character in works because we it exposes the tension within the character between what she desires and what she feels she should do. In each of the short chapters we learn a little more about Korede’s past, her family life and her relationship with her mother, father and sister.

I really admired Braithwaite’s ability to distill her story down into a series of short chapters that capture short interactions, key moments and feelings rather than steering the reader through Korede’s every single thought and action. There is a clear and strong narrative here but it is built slowly, almost impressionistically, with occasional flashbacks interspersed between action in the present. There is no one piece of information or moment that completely explains how these two characters end up being who they are and yet I think the reader is able to piece it together over the course of the book.

There are no huge shocks to be found here. Braithwaite’s skill can be seen in the way she assembles and places each of the plot elements carefully in such a way that the reader can anticipate some of their interactions and characters’ choices. This is most effectively seen in the relationship between Ayoola and Tade where Korede and we all expect it not to end well, building a tension that ratchets ever tighter as we work towards the end.

I found its ending to be both striking and effective, feeling like a logical culmination of the themes and the way characters have been developed throughout the novel. The closest reading experience I have had is Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Lady Killer which was also constructed to slowly build towards an ending that may seem a little surprising while still feeling like the only ending possible once you consider the overall development of the novel and its themes.

While I found this book to be a very satisfying and engaging read, I should perhaps point out that it will not be to everyone’s taste. I was entertained by its dark themes and sense of humor but some readers will find those elements and the subject matter distasteful and possibly disturbing (though we do not directly witness any of the acts of violence). Others may feel frustrated that there isn’t a likeable protagonist or character to root for in the story.

Given that this is a mystery and crime fiction blog, I should also repeat my earlier caution that this is not really a genre read. Those who come to this looking for a puzzle mystery will likely feel disappointed though it may have appeal for those who appreciate noir-style fiction. For those seeking something a bit different however I think this is a dark and intriguing exploration of a strange situation and a relationship that feels interesting and distinctive. Recommended.