Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Cover: Penzler Publishing – American Mystery Classics Reprint (2021)

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

Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. 

The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 

Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict:

The 9 Dark Hours was my first Lenore Glen Offord but I am sure to read more. It’s a funny, exciting and thoroughly readable thriller with a great premise.

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

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

The Verdict

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

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

No visitors. No nights spent elsewhere. No disturbing the rich and famous residents. These are the rules for Jules Larsen’s new job apartment sitting at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile buildings. Recently heartbroken—and just plain broke—Jules is taken in by the splendor and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
 
As she gets to know the occupants and staff, Jules is drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who reminds her so much of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew has a dark history hidden beneath its gleaming façade, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day when Ingrid seemingly vanishes.
 
Searching for the truth, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s sordid past. But by uncovering the secrets within its walls, Jules exposes herself to untold terrors. Because once you’re in, the Bartholomew doesn’t want you to leave….

That’s when it hits me: I get to live here. In the goddamn Bartholomew, of all places. In an apartment beyond my wildest dreams.

Even better, I’ll be getting paid to do it.

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.