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.

The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis

Pein
The Niece of Abraham Pein
J. H. Wallis
Originally Published 1943

It has been a while since I last wrote about any of the works of the American mystery writer James Harold Wallis in part because getting hold of them is quite difficult. With the exception of his novel Once Off Guard which was later reissued under the title The Woman in the Window, his mysteries do not seem to have been reprinted since they were initially published in the 1930s and 1940s. I was understandably very excited when I happened upon an affordable copy of this novel.

The Niece of Abraham Pein was one of the last novels published by Wallis although he would live for a further fifteen years after its publication. It was published in 1943 and it is clear that this was a book written to remind readers of the Nazi persecution of Jews, to encourage support of the war effort and to influence readers to be on their guard against similar attitudes developing in the United States.

The story is narrated by Arthur Dyce, a headmaster from a New England preparatory school, who has bought a holiday home in a small town in rural New Hampshire. In the summer of 1939 he takes his annual holiday only to find that the usually peaceful community is riddled with tension and suspicion at the arrival of a pair of Jewish refugees who had escaped from Nazi Germany several years earlier.

Dyce feels that Abraham Pein and his niece Esther are the victims of racial and religious intolerance and he tries to intervene but with no success. When his enemies notice that the niece has not been seen for a few days they begin to ask questions, causing Pein to become agitated and evasive. Before long the authorities are checking up on his story and, unable to confirm it, Pein finds himself arrested for her murder and placed on trial.

Deeply disturbed and concerned that Pein will not be given a fair trial, Dyce contacts Clenard, a lawyer friend, who reluctantly agrees to take on the case as a public defender. The lawyer notes that while he finds Pein to be an unconvincing witness, the authorities have been unable to produce a body which puts the prosecution at a disadvantage and he feels optimistic. The rest of the book details the pair’s efforts to construct a defense and then the conduct of the trial itself.

Though there is a mystery here concerning the fate of Esther, this book is not structured as a detective novel. Instead it is presented as a legal thriller in which Dyce and Clenard are less focused on detection of the truth than they are in presenting a defence.

Typically in legal thrillers the protagonist would be the lawyer for the defendant but Wallis opts instead to present the story through the eyes of an outsider to the community. I think this is an interesting and effective choice on several levels. Firstly, it gives us an authoritative moral voice within the story to identify those antisemitic forces within the community and to act as a witness to some of the most crucial developments in the case before it goes to trial. While we know Dyce feels sympathetic to Pein, we are also aware that he is an inherently trustworthy narrator and that facts he establishes are likely to be truthful allowing us to focus on other questions.

Secondly, this creates a secondary character, Clenard, to act as Pein’s lawyer who is able to examine the situation on legal merit as opposed to a sense of moral justice. This has the benefit of creating a dynamic where the defence and progress of the trial are explained to Dyce and also to the reader. This helps the reader follow the action of the trial and to understand how new evidence will affect Pein’s chances.

Where Dyce is principled and rigid sometimes seeming a little patrician in his attitudes, Clenard is a much more grounded and pragmatic figure. He recognizes the problems inherent in their case, even though he has faith in the judicial process.

The problem is principally that Abraham Pein does not trust them or the American legal system. Pein cuts an interesting and ambiguous figure, simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious. It is pretty clear from the moment he is introduced that he is a victim of antisemitic prejudice and persecution first in Russia, then Germany and then in the United States. While we understand the forces that have made him hard and bitter it is clear that his treatment of his niece was frequently violent.

The tension is derived from not knowing exactly what evidence the prosecution will produce to support their case and our uncertainty as to what actually took place in that house. While I suspect many readers would be able to deduce some elements of the book’s conclusion from consideration of my brief outline and the themes of the novel, even if you know where this is ending up the journey there is pretty effective.

There are surprisingly few sensational developments in the trial and it is clear that the author aims to accurately portray the American legal system with equal time given to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In this I think he is quite successful.

Judged purely as a mystery or thriller I think it is a little less successful, in part because so much of the conclusion can be inferred at the start and Wallis does not provide many surprises. I think though that Wallis understood that he was using a genre as a vehicle to discuss societal issues. In that respect this work is more successful as Wallis writes boldly, with passion and conviction, building to a powerful if not surprising ending.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Person’s Name in the Title (What)

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

Howling
The Case of the Howling Dog
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #4
Preceded by The Case of the Lucky Legs
Followed by The Case of the Curious Bride

I am a little nervous of declaring any reading projects for 2019. It’s not that I don’t want to take anything on – goodness knows I have ideas – but I have poor follow-through as anyone who has been following my one-a-month Christie and Ellery Queen series knows… So while I am not saying that I am intending to review all of the Perry Mason stories in order I will say that I plan to review the Perry Mason stories in order.

The Case of the Howling Dog is the fourth in the series and while I have some issues with it (more on that later), I am pleased to say that I found it a more engaging experience than The Case of the Lucky Legs. Where I struggled for months to enthuse myself to finish that title, this one I did in just two sittings which I think says everything.

So, what’s it all about? Perry is approached by a man named Cartwright who asks him questions about writing his will and then engages him to take legal action to stop his neighbor’s dog from howling. Perry carries out his instructions but is soon approached by the neighbor who insists that his dog is calm and that he is being persecuted and that Cartwright is unhinged and spying on them.

The situation becomes odder still when Perry receives a will from Cartwright that is written contrary to the specific advice he had given him, leaving his money to his neighbor’s wife. Keen to get to the bottom of things Perry heads to the neighbor’s home where he finds a body and a dead dog, not to mention a missing wife.

An attribute of Gardner’s writing that I am appreciating is his ability to set up an apparent legal situation and then transform it in an altogether more interesting case. We saw that in the previous novel which began with a contract dispute and here we begin with a case of poor relations between neighbors. There are several clues to suggest that these two men have considerably more history than they initially seemed to but the most interesting part of the case for me are the differing accounts of the dog’s behavior.

Let’s take a step back though and consider Perry’s previous stories and the way he was handled there. In those novels he takes an aggressive and active role in protecting his client’s interests but what detective work he does takes the form of listening to information and testing its validity. He uses his professional judgement and common sense to work out why his client is innocent but there is little deductive work.

This novel feels different. He still interviews persons of interest in the case and tests information but at points in the story he clearly utilizes deductive reasoning to make sense of that evidence in a way we haven’t seen before. This culminates in a moment towards the end of the novel in which Perry lays out his understanding of what happened. This is not only fascinating as a dramatic reveal, I loved how that moment fits in to some of the broader themes and ideas of these early novels and builds on our understanding of Perry as a man and as a lawyer.

In my previous reviews I have mentioned that I enjoy moments where Mason skates on the edge of the law which was apparently a feature of these earlier stories. Gardner really pushes Mason into some ethically dubious territory in this one which is certainly entertaining, even if I think he goes way further over that line than he claims. What I appreciate most about those moments in this story though is the point Gardner makes about how witnesses are manipulated and I appreciated how it shows Mason being particularly cunning.

Once again we get a hefty dose of courtroom action and see Perry at work, developing his approach to fighting this case. These chapters are effective though I think Perry’s strategy is clearer than the author seems to realize. In particular there is one element that he has to explain to Della at the end that I imagine will jump out to anyone who has seen more than a handful of legal dramas. It’s not really Gardner’s fault that others have since covered similar ground but it does reduce the impact of that revelation.

For the most part I found the characterization of the supporting figures to be just fine, albeit with no outstanding figures. It does feel a bit strange that we spend so little time getting to know Perry’s client but I can accept that it is not a priority given the themes and plot ideas that Gardner intends to explore.

Della and Paul Drake play a pretty limited role in the story and I will say that I missed them. Gardner does find other characters to fill the need for someone to question Mason’s methods and approach to the case but what I appreciate about these two is that they know him and care for him, particularly Della.

Where I think Gardner’s characterization falls down is with the portrayal of the Chinese cook Ah Wong. This character only plays a small role in the story and it seemed that Gardner had intended to make a point about the treatment of Asian immigrants. Certainly I think we are supposed to think Pemberton is an idiot when he insists that you have to know how to handle the Chinese but then he has Ah Wong communicate in broken English. On top of that this section of the book features repeated uses of racial epithets in a way that doesn’t sit particularly well including from Mason. Regardless of the author’s intentions I think that this aspect of the book has not aged well and though it is hardly out-of-place within the fiction of the time, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Were those chapters not in the book or had the subject been handled differently I would be quite comfortable suggesting this as the best of the four Masons I have read so far. Certainly it is the strongest of the four as a mystery featuring some genuine pieces of deduction on the part of Mason and I think it has a very effective ending. Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.