The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Verdict

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

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

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

“You are not the first. And you will certainly not be the last.” Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending and ingenious scheme that turns victims into criminals—and is making someone else very rich in the process. The rules are simple, the moral challenges impossible; find the money fast, find your victim, and then commit a horrible act you’d have thought yourself incapable of just twenty-four hours ago.

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

Keep calm. Put this blindfold on. What your mother does in the next twenty-four hours will determine whether you live or die.

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

The Verdict

This spy thriller also offers a pretty compelling and well-clued mystery.

Book Details

Originally published in 1961
George Smiley #1
Followed by A Murder of Quality

The Blurb

George Smiley is no one’s idea of a spy—which is perhaps why he’s such a natural. But Smiley apparently made a mistake. After a routine security interview, he concluded that the affable Samuel Fennan had nothing to hide. Why, then, did the man from the Foreign Office shoot himself in the head only hours later? Or did he?

The heart-stopping tale of intrigue that launched both novelist and spy, Call for the Dead is an essential introduction to le Carré’s chillingly amoral universe.

He’s dead. Killed himself at 10.30 this evening. Left a letter to the Foreign Secretary. The police rang one of his secretaries and got permission to open the letter. Then they told us. There’s going to be an inquiry.

My Thoughts

Last week I read a mystery novel by mistake.

The circumstances were that I found myself for once quite a way ahead of schedule (that wouldn’t last) and so I decided that I would take advantage of the opportunity to read something I had no intention of reviewing on the blog. I took a quick look at my shelves and picked out the very first book from my “everything else” pile, not even bothering to read the blurb.

The book, Call for the Dead, was the novel that introduced readers to George Smiley, the rather nondescript, desk-bound spy who is le Carré’s best known creation. I had picked this up some years ago around the time that the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie came out but never actually got around to it (nor, come to that, the movie). When I returned to it I expected an espionage story but it took just a couple of pages for me to realize my mistake as the book almost immediately presents Smiley with a suspicious death to investigate.

Call for the Dead begins with Smiley being contacted by his superior within the service to ask for details about a routine security interview he had conducted the day before. The reason is that the subject, Samuel Fennan, had committed suicide just a few hours after the meeting and left a note saying that he had been unable to take the pressure of the investigation. This note had gone to the ministerial level leading to some heavy pressure on the department and a desire for some answers.

Smiley expresses that he is baffled. The interview was, he assures him, a completely routine affair in response to an anonymous accusation that Fennan had dabbled in extreme politics at university. He insists that the conversation had been genial and points out that he had made it quite clear that the matter was a formality and that he had indicated that the matter was closed and that he would be exonerated in his report. What, he wonders, could have changed in just a few hours to drive the man to take his own life?

This is a fascinating starting point for the story as the author does an excellent job of exploring the situation logically, pointing out the inconsistencies and oddities of the situation as Smiley tries to think things through. Before long he is interviewing the dead man’s widow and finds that rather than making things clearer, the situation seems more confused than ever.

While Smiley tries to reconcile the suicide with his own observations, the reader will likely be somewhat ahead of the sleuth in these early chapters. Rather than feeling redundant however, le Carré uses this portion of the book to introduce us to Smiley and the nature of the work he does, giving us a better understanding of the man and the methods he will employ in this story. By the time he finds a decisive clue pointing at murder we have a good grasp of the man, enabling the reader to focus on some of the more curious details of the case.

There is one clue in particular, referenced in the novel’s title, that proves particularly helpful in steering the investigation away from suicide and toward murder. The significance of the clue is quite immediately apparent and yet it takes time to understand what implications we should draw from it and to begin to assemble a picture of the crime and the reasons for it.

Le Carré operates with a relatively small cast of characters which does rather limit the possible answers as to whodunit. I think though that even if the reader suspects the correct person there is still plenty that needs to be explained to fully understand what had happened and why. Discovering the answers to those questions is quite rewarding and I think the author paced the revelations of information well enough to allow the reader to feel that there is a gradual movement toward learning the truth. Even though I had guessed the killer, the motive and the identity of the letter writer some chapters before the truth is revealed, I still found this to be a really compelling read and I loved seeing exactly how everything would come together.

I really enjoyed the process of getting to know Smiley who, while not a particularly flashy character, struck me as good company. While I was new to the books, I was at least familiar with the concept of Smiley who has long been described to me as sort of the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. Smiley is rather dry and academic, rarely ventures out into the field and has no romantic encounters at all (he is, we learn, separated from his wife but given she does not directly appear here I do not feel she counts, at least in the context of this story). In spite of those traits though I find his sincerity and cool, logical thinking to be quite attractive and enjoyed reading how he comes to piece the whole matter together.

That explanation, as I indicated earlier, did not particularly surprise me but it did satisfy me. It hinges on some very careful, solid observations that I think helped make sense of the connections. For those who are less interested in the mystery than in the espionage, there is plenty of that here too with the author carefully laying out the meaning of what is being done and how characters’ actions may be influenced by or impact forces from mainland Europe.

It unfolds at a pretty smooth and solid pace, making it a relatively easy read, and it even incorporates a little action toward the end which is written well and easy to visualize. As for the novel’s espionage content, I found it to be quite fascinating and I appreciated the emphasis on attempting to realistically show details of how some things are worked and even, in a memorable chapter describing Smiley’s own work in the field during the thirties, what it would feel like to be on assignment. The result is a fascinating book that I found to be quite compelling and which I am glad I made the time to read. Whether read as a mystery or spy thriller, I felt Call for the Dead was a superb read and I am looking forward to making time to read the next now which I understand is also primarily a detective story.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 밤의 여행자들
English translation first published in 2020

The Blurb

Jungle is a cutting–edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. And until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday.

When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position? An eco–thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist introduces a fresh new voice to the United States that engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.

The Verdict

A fascinating exploration of the ethics of tourism and of the relationship between people and the corporations that employ them. It may not be a pure genre work but it is highly recommended nonetheless.

News of the deaths moved fast that week. Word was spreading quickly, but it wouldn’t be long before people lost interest. By the time funeral proceedings began, the public would have already forgotten the deceased.

My Thoughts

Yona has worked for Jungle for more than ten years. Jungle is a travel agency that takes tourists to visit and work in areas affected by natural disasters and climate change and Yona’s job has been to work out how to create their tour packages. Recently however it seems that her career has stalled as she is increasingly being tasked with handling customer complaints and she suspects that she may be on the verge of being forced out. The proof seems to come when her boss makes unwanted sexual advances to her in the elevator one day, apparently confident that if she complains the company will not want to do anything about it.

As she becomes increasingly disillusioned she decides to resign but instead of accepting her resignation, her supervisor suggests that she take a paid leave of absence and visit an unprofitable tourist destination to offer her thoughts on whether it can be salvaged. She is unsure whether he is trying to buy her off but decides to take up the offer, hoping at least to relax for the first time in years and possibly restore her reputation by preparing an excellent report.

Her destination is the island of Mui which lies a short distance off the coast of Vietnam. She soon discovers why it has become a failing destination but when she experiences a travel mishap she finds herself stuck on the island. As she waits for her papers to arrive to enable her to leave the island, she learns however that some on the island have a plan to restore its status as a thriving disaster tourism destination…

I should probably start by acknowledging that The Disaster Tourist is not easily categorized as a genre work, though I would argue that the scale of the crimes we see planned are on a scale far beyond those of any other novel I have written about on this blog to date. I would also add that while it doesn’t always read like a thriller, it certainly incorporates some elements of that style as the book nears its conclusion and that the book struck me as possessing an outlook on the world and the people that inhabit it that feels like it belongs firmly to the noir tradition.

Perhaps the place to begin is with the book’s central conceit that a company like Jungle could spring up. While some might find it hard to imagine that a company solely devoted to disaster tourism might be a thing, there are clearly examples of package tours that do exactly what is described. What I think Yun does brilliantly is to explore the relationship between those tours and the place that is supposedly being rejuvenated by its tourism industry might be and to sincerely question whether this is aiding the areas’ economic recovery or sustaining and perhaps even prolonging its poverty.

Some of the novel’s most powerful material comes in its exploration of the personalities of the different people who are on the tour along with Yona and their different motivations for visiting. Yun not only describes the reasons they believe they are making their visits and the power dynamics between the locals and the visitors but also gives us a powerful illustration of how Yona, who is more aware of the crafting of the tour experience, finds herself behave in a way she finds shameful at a point in the tour.

I have read some reviews that suggest that Yona is not a particularly forceful or dynamic character, and I think that there is a little bit of truth to that. While we get given a little bit of backstory at the start of the novel, we get little sense of her life beyond work. I think though that is rather the point as we come to realize that Jungle has really consumed Yona’s life and defined who she has become. Here she represents a corporate drone – someone who has little purpose beyond the company and who cannot really envisage their life without it.

The scenario that Yona finds herself in is clearly quite fantastic but I felt that the issues raised were powerful and compelling. What do desperate people do when they risk losing everything? This is a recurring idea throughout the novel and I find it fascinating to observe the parallels between these characters, often coming from very different backgrounds and situations, and the choices they decide to make. Here once again Yun does an admirable job of exploring the reasons behind those choices, even if we do not really get to know those characters on a truly individual level.

This arguably is the greatest issue with the book – that the scope of the story it tells within such a limited page count does not allow for much time to be spent on building up the characters as individuals. Instead they tend to be established with their plot function, described in shorthand such as ‘Man 2’. It is dehumanizing and perhaps numbs the reader to the individual cost of some of what happens, though here once again I feel that very clearly fits with the central argument that the book is making.

I don’t want to say much more about the novel for fear of spoiling the experience. The book is, after all, quite short and to discuss the exact nature of the thriller elements later in the novel would likely detract from them. I personally found them to be engaging and I think the story’s resolution feels appropriate to the themes that the novel had established and discussed.

I found The Disaster Tourist to be a thoughtful, provocative and highly engaging novel. It’s not a pure genre read but I nonetheless think it worthy of a strong recommendation.

A Reasonable Doubt by Phillip Margolin

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Robin Lockwood #3
Preceded by The Perfect Alibi
Followed by A Matter of Life and Death

The Blurb

Robin Lockwood is a young criminal defense attorney and partner in a prominent law firm in Portland, Oregon. A former MMA fighter and Yale Law graduate, she joined the firm of legal legend Regina Barrister not long before Regina was forced into retirement by early onset Alzheimer’s. 

One of Regina’s former clients, Robert Chesterfield, shows up in the law office with an odd request―he’s seeking help from his old attorney in acquiring patent protection for an illusion. Chesterfield is a professional magician of some reknown and he has a major new trick he’s about to debut. This is out of the scope of the law firm’s expertise, but when Robin Lockwood looks into his previous relationship with the firm, she learns that twenty years ago he was arrested for two murders, one attempted murder, and was involved in the potentially suspicious death of his very rich wife. At the time, Regina Barrister defended him with ease, after which he resumed his career as a magician in Las Vegas. 

Now, decades later, he debuts his new trick―only to disappear at the end. He’s a man with more than one dark past and many enemies―is his disappearance tied to one of the many people who have good reason to hate him? Was he killed and his body disposed of, or did he use his considerable skills to engineer his own disappearance?

Robin Lockwood must unravel the tangled skein of murder and bloody mischief to learn how it all ties together.

The Verdict

A Reasonable Doubt is built upon a surprisingly solid puzzle. Those approaching this in search of “the ultimate impossible crime” may be disappointed but fans of legal adventures may enjoy.

“In ancient Egypt, those who offended the gods were entombed alive in a sarcophagus and died a horrible death,” Chesterfield said. “I am known as an escape artist. Tonight, I will perform the ultimate escape: I will cheat death.”

My Thoughts

A Reasonable Doubt is the third in Margolin’s series of legal thrillers featuring Robin Lockwood, a young criminal defense lawyer who put herself through law school as a professional mixed martial artist. Normally I don’t like to start a series in the middle but I decided to make a rare exception for this one.

The book first caught my eye a few months ago when I spotted the rather bold claim on the inside of the dust jacket that a murder that takes place in it was “the ultimate impossible crime”. Of course, I learned from my recent experience never to trust advertising copy, particularly when it comes to impossible murders, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Murder plus magicians often makes for a pretty effective combination.

Robin is contacted by Robert Chesterfield, a magician who is seeking legal advice on patenting an illusion from a retired partner, Regina, who had helped him years earlier. While she considers whether to take him on as a client given his request falls outside her normal areas of expertise she decides to make contact with Regina to find out more about him. What she learns is that he had been accused of several murders before his wife died in mysterious circumstances. The legal cases against him failed thanks to Regina’s smart defense as well as some inept lawyering on the part of the prosecutor assigned the case and he used his new notoriety as a springboard to a Las Vegas residency.

After explaining why she cannot take the case she is invited to witness the first public performance of the illusion. Chesterfield is to be entombed in a sarcophagus that will be filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Robin herself checks the sarcophagus to make sure there are no trick doors. When the time comes to open it however he has vanished and everyone, including his assistants, seem genuinely baffled as to where he has gone.

While the above description of the first half of the book doesn’t seem to suggest any impossibilities, I am happy to report that the book offers up two though neither comes close to matching the hyperbole of “the ultimate impossible crime”.

Given how late these two incidents take place in the novel I feel I have to be pretty vague about the circumstances. Instead I will try to describe and address them in more general terms.

One involves a murder that takes place in front of a crowd. While the book seems to suggest that the fact the murder took place was impossible I think that ignores that there obviously were people who could have done it. Instead I would suggest that a better claim for it being an impossible crime lies in the problem that almost all of the suspects (and there are a lot) were observing each other in the audience or their movements were visible on stage.

This has shades of Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I suggested did not qualify as impossible) and The Problem of the Green Capsule (which does). Whether you accept it as an impossibility or not, know that the question of how it was done is quite short-lived. We quickly learn at what point the murder took place and how it was done, even if the exact identity of that person seems unclear for a while longer.

Regardless of whether it is impossible, I think the novel builds up to the moment of the murder really well building a strong sense of place and occasion. I had little difficulty imagining what was going on or where the key people were in relation to each other and while the reveal of the corpse is not exactly surprising, I think it is quite effective.

The second moment in the story that could be said to be impossible is simpler still but I think that simplicity gives it an added impact. This takes place in Chapter 20 and involves a character surviving something that ought to have killed them. Once again the explanation comes too quickly for it to really make a big impact as a puzzle but I think the idea is striking and I love the background to the incident and the way it is interpreted by the characters involved. Simple but effective.

Given how late these two incidents occur (and that one is fairly peripheral to the plot), it seems odd that the blurb would lead with them. Instead the novel places more emphasis on the reader gaining a sense of Chesterfield as a man and understanding the events he is widely believed to have committed. Over half the book is spent on those previous events and understanding the significance of the book’s title – why he would escape on a reasonable doubt even if he seems obviously guilty.

Still while the structure may be a little awkward in terms of creating an easy-to-summarize plot, I think there are some benefits to how it presents its timeline somewhat out of sequence. This allows us to encounter Robert for the first time without a knowledge of that background which will clearly be so important to the remainder of the story.

I also really liked the way that Margolin uses the character of Regina within the story. She is clearly a brilliant lawyer and has information that she simply cannot recall on demand. This features in a very powerful moment late in the story which serves almost as a challenge for the reader as a key deduction is given but completely stripped of the context needed to make sense of it. It’s a clever plot element that I think works nicely.

The novel’s two impossibilities are perhaps too insubstantial to feel properly clued but I had few complaints with the way the key points of the murder itself are presented. The reader is given enough information to deduce much of what had happened and why. If there is a problem it is that the suspects feel rather lightly sketched in comparison with the victim and so there is little sense of who those suspects are beyond knowledge of their motive or opportunity. Still, I think the choice of a killer is a good one and I enjoyed that reveal.

While I am on the subject of things I liked, let me mention the novel’s treatment of stage magic and illusions. This is not just a character’s profession but an important element of the story and I feel Margolin shows an understanding and appreciation for stage magic. It’s perhaps not as deeply woven into the story as in Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat but the novel not only discusses some aspects of stage performance, it also addresses some parts of the business side of the profession too.

I also appreciated that there was some actual discussion of legal principles and ideas. I am not sure it is the most naturalistic conversation but the author does a good job of making legal conversations feel accessible and important to the plot.

I was less enamored of the writing style which tends to be quite direct, particularly in the earliest chapters. While I can applaud the idea of getting the story moving as quickly as possible, the execution of that here feels off with Margolin often telling us things he could show us. At times that means that characters behave in ways that feel quite against their interests in that moment – such as when Robert makes a rather hard pass at Regina. While people certainly do things out of a sense of compulsion, Robert’s typical craftiness makes that seem unlikely, and so it comes off as staggeringly ill-advised.

The other complaint I have is that the book does not lean quite heavily enough into the concept behind its title. While the author doesn’t definitively state what the truth behind those initial murders were, I think it is clear who we are meant to believe did them. I really liked the idea that there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you can prove in court and I think the plot could have more closely reflected that and given us a corpse we are unsure how we feel about.

While I do not recommend reading this purely for the impossibilities, A Reasonable Doubt is a pretty quick read. I do wonder if I would have found the opening less grating had I already known the characters. The characters and their relationships are all clearly communicated however and I did find the elements of magic and illusion added some interest for me.

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

When Milla accepts an off-season invitation to Le Rocher, a cozy ski resort in the French Alps, she’s expecting an intimate weekend of catching up with four old friends. It might have been a decade since she saw them last, but she’s never forgotten the bond they forged on this very mountain during a winter spent fiercely training for an elite snowboarding competition. 

Yet no sooner do Milla and the others arrive for the reunion than they realize something is horribly wrong. The resort is deserted. The cable cars that delivered them to the mountaintop have stopped working. Their cell phones–missing. And inside the hotel, detailed instructions await them: an icebreaker game, designed to draw out their secrets. A game meant to remind them of Saskia, the enigmatic sixth member of their group, who vanished the morning of the competition years before and has long been presumed dead.

Stranded in the resort, Milla’s not sure what’s worse: the increasingly sinister things happening around her or the looming snowstorm that’s making escape even more impossible. All she knows is that there’s no one on the mountain she can trust. Because someone has gathered them there to find out the truth about Saskia…someone who will stop at nothing to get answers. And if Milla’s not careful, she could be the next to disappear…

The Verdict

The alpine setting is effective and the rivalry between Milla and Saskia intrigued me. Read this as a thriller rather than a puzzle you can solve and you may well enjoy it.

It’s that time of year again. The time the glacier gives up bodies.

A Note

A couple of months ago I pledged that I would be devoting my Monday reviews in April, May and June to writing about locked room and impossible crime stories. Some of you may have already noticed however in the way this post has been categorized that I haven’t applied that label to this book. That is because when I acquired this book it was on the basis of a number of reviews and a statement at the top of the Amazon listing describing it as a ‘propulsive locked room debut’. Unfortunately while it may be propulsive and it is the author’s debut novel, it simply isn’t a locked room mystery but rather a closed circle mystery.

I’m not holding that against the book and want to put that misleading marketing to one side. Authors are rarely responsible for the blurbs and this is hardly the only novel in recent years to be mismarketed in this way. I think the book deserves to be discussed on its own merits and have endeavored to do so below.

And for those who may regret that this isn’t a locked room review I’ll try to squeeze an extra one in during the next few weeks to make up for it!

My Thoughts

Shiver begins with the reunion of a group of retired snowboarders at a resort in the French Alps during the off-season. Ten years earlier they had become close while training and preparing for a big competition but that winter ended in tragedy when Saskia disappeared on the day of the big competition, never to be seen or heard from again. A lengthy court battle had followed and shortly before the reunion takes place Saskia had finally been declared dead though her body had never been found.

It quickly becomes clear though that something is wrong. When the group disembarks the cable cars they find that the resort is deserted and no one will admit to having been the one to send the invitations. Then during an icebreaker game that has been set out in which the group are supposed to trade secrets things take a sinister turn. Among the statements read out are that one person killed Saskia and another knows where she is. When they realize that they are stranded and that their cellphones have disappeared, leaving them with no way to contact the outside world, they begin to suspect that they have been gathered with a more sinister purpose in mind.

Reynolds tells her story from the perspective of Milla, one of that group, who lets us know that she has a secret about what happened with Saskia that no one in the group knows. After establishing what is happening at the resort (and making it clear that Milla neither considers herself to be the killer or the person who knows where the body is), the novel alternates chapters set in the present with those set ten years earlier, allowing us to slowly build up a picture of what actually took place all those years ago. This technique works pretty well as both timelines offer points of interest in terms of plot and character.

The historical chapters are set in the period before the disappearance took place. What that means is that the reader will not be given evidence of what has happened but will be encouraged to look for clues as to what is about to take place. These chapters also help build our understanding of the origin of the tensions that exist within the group years later and give us a better understanding of who Saskia was as a person. While she and all of the group are strong personalities, I felt each were believable.

These chapters are rich in discussion of what it is like to be a snowboarder and to be in a community of aspiring athletes. That world is quite foreign to me but I think Reynolds brings it to life quite effectively and helped me understand what it would feel like to compete and why, given how few snowboarders can support themselves exclusively through the sport, these characters would have pursued it. We also get to see how passions run high on occasion, fuelled by adrenaline and a sense of competition, leading to rivalries and romantic tensions within the group.

The modern day chapters read more like a thriller, as the group slowly grow to suspect one another. I would place an emphasis on the word ‘slowly’ – those expecting things to quickly descend into a bloodbath will be disappointed. While the murder teased in the book’s tagline does eventually take place, you will get through a lot of the book before you encounter a body. Instead the intention is to build a sense of tension, isolation and distrust.

It is partially successful. The portrayal of distrust within the group is certainly there are quite effective, as is the sense of isolation and the hostility of the environment around them. Reynolds quickly and convincingly establishes reasons why the characters can’t just snowboard their way to safety down the mountain and there are a few ominous suggestions that seem to point at excitement to come. Unfortunately I just didn’t feel the sense that tension was mounting, at least in the first half of the novel – after the initial disconcerting idea of the icebreaker game and their realization about being stranded, I didn’t feel like the level of danger was increasing – simply that characters were sounding each other out.

The second half of the novel is a different story as things seem to accelerate and we get some more direct evidence of the peril the characters face. A few of those moments are quite outlandish but generally in an entertaining way and I think that the book would have benefitted by embracing those elements a little earlier. My favorite of these, which I cannot describe without spoiling it, comes at the start of Chapter 57.

Reynolds has a lot to resolve at the end of the book, needing to explain both what happened to Saskia ten years earlier and who is orchestrating the events at the abandoned ski resort. I think she manages to pull together a convincing and satisfying explanation, at least for the circumstances surrounding Saskia’s fate. I was a little disappointed however when it came to the resolution to events in the present day – at least in terms of the resolution of the mystery elements.

The problem is perhaps one of my own expectations. I had unfortunately made a guess as to the villain’s identity at the start of the novel, long before I had any idea of why they would want to have done it. While I appreciated the development of their motives the ending did not surprise me at all, nor did I feel that it was really clued.

This is a particular shame as the events that follow their reveal are great. Reynolds delivers an exciting, tense conclusion that kept me engaged to the final page wanting to know what had happened.

While I may have been disappointed with the novel as a puzzle, I think it works pretty well as a thriller. I think the alpine setting and snowboarding details are incorporated well and that the characters each felt pretty distinct and credible (at least in the historical timeline). In particular, I felt that the rivalry between Milla and Saskia was developed in some thoughtful and interesting ways and that for me was the most successful aspect of the novel.

The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, translated by Ian Hughes

Book Details

The Black Lizard (黒蜥蜴, Kuro-tokage) was originally published in 1934
Beast in The Shadows (陰獣, Injū) was originally published in 1928
English translations published as a collection in 2006

The Blurb (Trimmed for Space)

The Black Lizard (Kurotokage) first appeared as a magazine serial, published in twelve monthly installments between January and December, 1934. It features Rampo’s main detective character, Akechi Kogorō: a figure who combines elements of Poe’s Auguste Dupin with the gentleman adventurers of British golden age detective literature. The Black Lizard herself is a master criminal and femme fatale, whose charged relationship with detective Akechi and unconcealed sadism have inspired shuddering admiration in generations of readers…

Themes of deviance and sado-masochism are central to Beast in the Shadows (Inju), a tale from the height of Rampo’s grotesque period, which appeared in serial form between August and October, 1928. This tale of secret identities, violent sexuality, and dark crimes stands in stark contrast to the genteel detective stories then popular in English literature. It bears comparison with the American pulp fiction serial, the genre that led to the classic modern American crime novel, and with the more extravagant moments of film noir. Beast in the Shadows, however, recalls classic themes in Japanese popular fiction, with origins in the illustrated novels and mass market shockers of the Edo period (1600-1868)…

The Verdict

A fun collection of two novellas. The Black Lizard is pure pulpy thriller stuff and good fun but Beast in the Shadows is a much darker and more interesting work. That story, while shorter, is worth the cost of the collection in itself.


My Thoughts

Edogawa Rampo is one of the most enduring and consequential writers of mystery fiction in Japan from the early 20th century. His work is heavily influenced by the likes of Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, so the focus is often not on crafting fair play stories of detection but memorable moments of horror, discomfort and adventure. I previously reviewed a collection of his short stories on this blog, many of which memorably play with grotesque and disturbing types of crime.

In addition to his own stories for adults and children, he established a journal dedicated to mystery fiction, the Detective Author’s Club (later renamed as the Mystery Writers of Japan) and wrote critical essays about the history and the form of the genre. His works were frequently adapted into films both during and after his lifetime and his significance is recognized in the name of a Japanese literary award, The Edogawa Rampo Prize, for unpublished mystery authors which was introduced in the 1950s.

In short, there was no way I would commit to writing several months weekly posts about Japanese works of mystery and crime fiction without including at least one of his works. Based on this experience I may try and rework my schedule to make that two…

This volume contains two works from earlier in his career. Both stories were originally serialized for publication in magazines which is quite evident in the way the stories are structured. Many chapters seem to end either on a significant revelation or with moments of peril, particularly in the case of the first story in this collection – The Black Lizard.

The story is essentially inverted with the reader being party to the planning of a daring crime in which the titular crime boss, The Black Lizard, plans to kidnap the daughter of one of Osaka’s leading jewel merchants as a means of securing a fabulous prize – the largest diamond in Japan. Being a sporting sort however she sends him notice of her intent to kidnap his daughter, leading him to engage that great detective Akechi Kogorō to protect her.

While this story features a detective, do not expect much, if anything, in the way of detection. The style is really pulpy and layers plenty of plot twists and reversals on top of each other, building a story that seems to get crazier and more outlandish as it goes on. Expect plenty of disguises, identity tricks, lots of random moments of nudity (though these are not described in detail), a truly perverse museum and snakes.

Perhaps my favorite bit of craziness though is the very casual way in which Rampo drops detailed references to some of his other stories as works of fiction, having characters comment on how one plot development is reminiscent of the plots of a celebrated short story. It is all very meta and fits the general arch tone of the piece.

The most striking aspect of the story, other than Akechi himself, is the character of our villain – the Black Lizard. Though her entrance performing a naked dance for her henchmen to the accompaniment of ‘an erotic saxophone’ feels quite ludicrous, Rampo quickly establishes her as smart, ruthless and cunning. While the warning to her victim is silly, I really enjoyed the way that she directly engages with her adversary and that she seems to be as interested in the game she is playing with Akechi as she is in achieving her real goal. It makes for an entertaining, page turning read.

As much as I enjoyed The Black Lizard however, I think Beast in the Shadows is the more interesting work. Though shorter at just a hundred pages, it is both a really cleverly worked detective story and also an early work of ero guro nansensu (erotic, grotesque nonsense). As Rampo’s career developed his work would increasingly shift in that direction, in part because of demand from his readership, and those themes are often associated with his work for adults.

The story is told by a writer of detective stories who has been approached by a married woman desperate for his help. She tells him that as a teenager she had lost her virginity to a man who became obsessed with her, stalking her and threatening her when their relationship broke down. A sudden move seemed to put a temporary stop to his activities and she subsequently met a merchant and married though she never told him about her prior affair.

Recently however she started to receive letters once again, detailing her movements within the family home and threatening both her life and that of her husband. The narrator visits her home and after making some disturbing discoveries devises a plan to protect her but when her husband ends up dead they worry that she will be next.

Rampo manages to balance the moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

The length of the work makes it hard to offer much detailed comment without getting into spoiler territory. I can say though that the pacing here is as strong as the atmosphere and that I think the two characters we spend the most time with – the narrator and Shizuko, the married woman – are interesting. Though there is one development related to one of the other character’s motives that is only speculated upon rather than clearly established and described as fact.

It is a fascinating and chilling read that for me is worth the price of the collection on its own, offering a view of both sides of Rampo’s writing. This left me excited to read more of Rampo’s work – now I just need to decide where to go next. If you are a fan, please feel free to offer advice!

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Dangerous Beasts category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong’s blog is a great resource offering a number of posts both about Rampo’s works and also some of the film and television adaptations of them. Though it is now over a decade old, this post about Rampo’s works in translation, then a shorter list, is a nice starting point. There is even a translation of one of his short stories – One Person, Two Identities (Hitori Futayaku).

Penance by Kanae Minato, translated by Philip Gabriel

Book Details

Originally published in 2009 as 贖罪 (Shokuzai).
English translation first published in 2017.

The Blurb

A chilling Japanese psychological thriller and Edgar Award finalist about four women, forever connected by one horrible day in their childhood — fifteen years later, someone wants to make sure they never forget.

When they were girls, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into leaving their friend Emily with a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurred: Emily was found murdered hours later. 

The four friends were never able to describe the stranger to the police; the killer’s trail went cold. Asako, the bereaved mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will be the ones to pay for her daughter’s murder…

The Verdict

A really dark and powerful read that is just as devastating as the author’s debut work, Confessions.


My Thoughts

When I read Confessions a little over four months ago I didn’t expect it to stay with me the way it has. That story grabbed me with its second person storytelling approach and its complex exploration of a horrible crime. I didn’t find it a particularly pleasant reading experience – not only because it offers no strand of positivity to cling onto but because the nature of crime crime, the murder of a young child, is always going to be affecting for any parent.

So, why am I putting myself through this again? The answer is because it is rare to find a book that continues to occupy your thoughts for such a long time and I was curious to see if her other translated work could do the same.

At this point a brief warning – I cannot really discuss this book without mentioning the crimes themselves. I will try and avoid being too detailed but there are plenty of triggers here so if in doubt I’d suggest passing over this post.

Penance shares much in common with Confessions. Each chapter is narrated by a different character offering their own perspectives on the same incident and exploring how it fits into the broader story of their lives which diverged afterwards. That incident is shocking and deeply upsetting and while we do get an answer as to who did the crime by the end of the book, the novel is more about how we respond to that sort of an event and how it changes people than it is about working out whodunit. It explores the links between events, some of them incredibly small, and how they can produce devastating, unforseen results. It also looks at how people may seek to deal with their pain and the inadvertant consequences of their choices. Finally, it is about how society as a whole responds to that crime and it, like Confessions, seems to question the nature of a law.

The novel concerns an event that happened when the book’s first four narrators were elementary-aged children, living in a rural town. The group were playing on school grounds during a public holiday when they are approached by a stranger who asks for their help to fix a problem in one of the school buildings. The fifth member of the group, Emily – a recent arrival from Tokyo, is chosen and when she does not return the group eventually investigate to find her dead.

The police question the four girls but they claim that they cannot remember what the stranger looked like causing the case to hit a dead end. Over the years that follow Emily’s mother makes several attempts to question them, hoping that something will jog their memories. Frustrated and forced to return to Tokyo, she tells the group that they must either find Emily’s murderer or do penance for the rest of their lives – a statement that each of them takes to heart and affects them in different but very powerful ways.

Each chapter of the first four chapters of the book explore what became of those girls and how they took those words to heart. All of them are deeply impacted by them and, unable to solve the case, seem to pay a sort of penance in their lives whether they are conscious of it or not.

This sort of an approach could easily feel repetitive but I felt that the author did a good job of repeating information when necessary to a character’s story but finding ways to address those common events more quickly when appropriate. For example the third chapter skips over the event itself entirely, reflecting that the character in question was less affected by the incident itself than the events that surrounded it.

I appreciated that while there are a lot of common characteristics between these four narrators, each has a very distinct voice and personality. While each of their penances are dark and painful, they are quite different and each feels tailored to their role within the group and the experiences they had. It would be fair to say that some of the experiences are unlikely but for Minato tragedy seems to beget more tragedy and so I could easily accept that as part of the view espoused by the author. Indeed I think it is rather the point of the novel that we are changed by our experiences and react to new ones through the prism of our previous ones.

The one story that I think feels a little out of place is the third one which is the chapter titled ‘The Bear Siblings‘. The penance in that chapter certainly is related to the main crime and yet I think you could argue that the other children’s experiences wouldn’t have happened were it not for Emily’s murder. I am not so sure that can be said of what she goes through and I am not sure I agree with Emily mother’s thoughts on those events when they are shared towards the end of the novel.

One of the criticisms I have seen in reviews of this book suggests that the events in the book are unrealistic or rely on coincidence. I have hinted above that I do not think that is true of the four individual narratives but I do think there is an element of coincidence involved in the explanation of what happened to Emily. To me that did not weaken the story however but fit with its theme that each action can have unintended effects – the idea that little ripples can eventually form a wave. I would add that while the things that happened to characters were sometimes fantastic, the characters’ responses to them always felt credible to me.

If I had a problem with these four accounts it was that I occasionally found that the economical prose made some parts of the stories a little challenging to follow, particularly in the chapters titled ‘An Unscheduled PTA Meeting’ and ‘The Bear Siblings’. At points I had to reread passages for clarity to be sure I knew which character was being discussed. In each instance it was clear when looking at sections carefully and I think it does reflect an idea that the book uses in several places that those characters are drawing parallels with their other experiences.

The explanation for the original crime struck me as powerful and, as with Confessions, I appreciated the thoughtful exploration of that idea of how choices have consequences. That being said, I can only reiterate that this is a deeply upsetting book. I think it needs to be in order to prompt the necessary response from the reader and from the characters but that does not make it comfortable to experience. In particular, be warned that in addition to being murdered, the child was also raped by her attacker and that while we do not experience that moment from her perspective, the state of her body afterwards is described.

While there is a question of who murdered Emily and why, I should stress that this isn’t a puzzle that the reader can really solve. They will not have enough information until right before the end to truly understand the crime, though they may be able to infer some clues that will be used to identify them at the end. I certainly wouldn’t suggest reading it for that purpose in any case.

Really this book, like Confessions, is about the themes and issues it chooses to address. It not only tells a compelling story of a truly horrific crime, it also offers some interesting reflections on life in the Japanese countryside as opposed to the cities and on the nature of guilt and how we respond to it, all told in a mix of second person voices which pull the reader closer into the tale.

It is not, I think, quite so punchy as Confessions. That novel tied its characters together even more closely, creating a stronger sense of cause and effect in their actions, and the epistolary format here is not quite as arresting as the lecture given at the start of that other novel. Still, I found it a dark and compelling book that will no doubt stay with me for some time, just as the other did.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.


My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Perry Mason #5
Preceded by The Case of the Howling Dog
Followed by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye

The Blurb

After con man Greg Moxley married Rhoda Lorton, he took her money and flew—only to have his plane crash. Years later, Rhoda weds millionaire scion Carl Montaine. But now Moxley has turned up alive and well….with plans to pocket the Montaine fortune—or else make Rhoda’s bigamy public. Desperate to protect the good name of Montaine, Rhoda seeks out Perry Mason. But before Mason can reel in Moxley, somebody murders the scheming blackmailer. In a case that abounds in lethal twists, Perry Mason suddenly finds himself on a collision course with a cold-blooded killer.

The Verdict

Pulpy but very engaging story about a woman. One of the most readable Mason stories I have read so far.


My Thoughts

I have been trying to read the Perry Mason series in order so I was pretty annoyed with myself when I realized that I had skipped over this book when I published my Counterfeit Eye review earlier this year. Rather than pressing forwards I decided I would double back and take a look at this one. I am pretty glad I did because I really enjoyed this story.

A young woman calls on Perry Mason to consult him about a situation on behalf of a friend. After asking some very specific questions about the amount of time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be produced, Mason loses his patience with her games and demands honesty. This backfires when, rather than confessing the truth, the young woman flees his office leaving him feeling guilty for not helping her.

After tracking her down, Mason learns her background and gets a better sense of what the problem is. Rhoda was a victim of a conman who had stolen her savings and left her in the lurch, apparently dying in a plane crash. She is just married to a young man with prospects when the conman turns up looking for a payoff. Mason agrees to help Rhoda with her legal problems but before he can get to work she finds herself in a deeper type of trouble when the conman is found dead with some evidence nearby that seems to place her at the scene.

The first few chapters in The Case of the Curious Bride were, for me, its weakest. Other early Mason novels also feature evasive, dishonest clients but typically there is a greater degree of mystery to what they are trying to conceal. Here it is not too difficult to infer much of the setup from Rhoda’s general attitude and the questions she is asking and Perry’s frequent interruptions seem to be designed to break up explanation and remind the reader he is there rather than bringing other aspects of the case out into the open. Still, though these chapters are a little padded the situation Gardner outlines is intriguing and sets up a scenario in which it is clear that all the odds will be against him.

Things pick up enormously from the moment Mason reads about the murder in a newspaper, setting the book on a much more dramatic and interesting path. This transition is handled pretty well, even if the newspaper report feels a little too detailed for an initial report into a murder. Given that some of the details described would have had to come from the police department, it does seem odd that they would provide quite so much information to the public given it can only prepare any potential witnesses. I suggest not to think about it too much, take those details on board and enjoy the rather wild ride that follows.

This book, like those around it, shows the strong pulpy influences in Gardner’s work. Mason pulls several tricks in this book, some of them quite clever and most rather unethical (if not actually criminal) in the aim of getting his client off. In a couple of cases it is clear what he is driving at, in others I think it can take a little longer to see what he is trying to accomplish. This is the Mason who understands human nature and predicts his opponent’s moves and honestly it makes for some pretty compelling reading.

One of the aspects of Mason’s character that I like most is the way he fiercely advocates for his clients’ interests. This is perhaps the strongest example to date in my reading of the series as we see him going toe-to-toe with some pretty formidable opponents in the search for justice for his client. Of course he never lets anyone know exactly what he has planned, making it understandable when his clients act contrary to instructions, but it is clear in the end that he has had his client’s best interests at heart throughout.

Though these series titles are generally fairly similar in terms of the basic character and structure, there are a few aspects of Mason’s character that I think this book sets out quite well. The first is that we see him use some deductive reasoning at a couple of points in this story with regards the actual physical evidence of the scene. Some of these are quite good and enable him to make some solid deductions from a fairly small collection of evidence.

The other thing that struck me is that I think this book does a fine job of explaining exactly why he places his priorities as he does in terms of both the way he runs his office and also how he conducts his case. His thoughts about how his job isn’t the sort to lead to repeat business, along with some observations offered by someone he interviews in his office midway through the book do a great deal to establish some background to his attitudes and help us know him better. In short, I think that this book does a great job of letting the reader understand what drives Perry Mason as a lawyer and how he operates.

Turning to the specific details of the case, I think Gardner fashions a pretty entertaining crime although the scope of the investigation is not quite as wide as a few of the other Mason stories from this time. Certainly we are not dealing with dozens of suspects and while we know whodunit at the end, I would suggest that question is not really the focus of the story. We, like Mason, will be most absorbed in the question of how he will prove her innocent with an increasing weight of evidence against her.

As simple as the setup is, the details of how it had been executed are significantly more complicated. While I had a fairly strong sense of what had happened early in the novel, I was much less sure about how the different aspects of the plot would play into each other. I needn’t have worried however as the explanation is full and convincing and I enjoyed learning several pieces of background information that I hadn’t predicted (or fully realized). In short, I was very pleased with the mystery plotting on show here.

The only other crticism I would offer up on this book is that I feel it tries a little too hard to justify Rhoda’s actions. Given she began as her new husband’s nurse, the way she ends up in a relationship with her patient may feel a little inappropraite. We are given several reasons why this relationship should be regarded as a good thing for her and particularly for hin but I cannot claim to be wholly convinced and I did worry early in the book that she may have coerced her husband into marriage.

Overall I really quite enjoyed The Case of the Curious Bride. The story begins with several interested legal questions and, by the end of it, I had very strong feelings about who I wanted to see happy and who not. In that respect I can only regard this as a pretty engaging effort and I look forward to reading more from him over the next year.

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.