My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers
Strangers on a Train
Patricia Highsmith
Originally Published 1950

Most of the time on this blog I write from the perspective of someone who is encountering a story for the first time. In those few instances where I have revisited a book, I have done so many years after reading it for the first time which helps me to approach it fresh.

Strangers on a Train is a very different case. It is a book I have read three times in the space of four years having previously seen the Hitchcock film adaptation a number of times. It is possible that this review may read a little differently than many of my others as a result.

Each time I have read this book I have done so from a slightly different perspective. The first time I recall looking for the differences between the movie and its source material. The second, I was looking at in a more structural sense, looking to understand Highsmith’s themes and perspective on her characters. What motivated this third look at the book, other than the desire to simply enjoy it once again, was to see whether I would consider it to be an inverted mystery or if it is something else.

Before I start to discuss that question and the book’s themes, I need to describe what it is about. The book concerns a meeting on a train between two men and the way that meeting affects their lives. One, Guy Haines, is a celebrated architect trapped in a marriage to his unfaithful wife Miriam while the other, Charles Bruno, is a playboy who is doted on by his mother and feels deeply resentful of his stepfather for controlling his allowance.

During the journey Bruno proposes that the pair exchange murders, each committing a crime to which they have no obvious personal tie. While Guy does not really take Bruno seriously, a while afterwards he receives letters from Bruno reminding him of this plan. When Miriam is murdered he does not go to the police and tells himself that it is coincidence. Some weeks pass and then Bruno starts to contact him, pressuring him to fulfil his end of the bargain.

If you have seen the famous movie version of this story be aware that the stories diverge after this point leading to decidedly different conclusions and developing somewhat different themes. What remains constant is the toxic relationship between Guy and Bruno which in the book has hints of homoeroticism (the film is far more overt) and a murder plot that, were it not for Bruno’s obsessive behavior towards Guy, would be almost certain to work.

We see the danger early in the novel, even when Guy is oblivious to it, because we can see that Bruno feels bound to Guy and that once that murder is committed that bond becomes even the stronger. From that moment Guy is the only person who can really understand Bruno and the guilt that eats away at him only leads to him indulging more heavily in his self-destructive vices.

Raymond Chandler apparently considered this novel to be ‘a silly little story’ which boggles my mind. Certainly the idea of the murder swap could be treated as little more than a colorful story hook but Highsmith does not use it that way, instead developing the idea that Guy becomes trapped by his inaction and compelled into following a particular course. To me it is really rich in character and theme and develops its plot with a powerful predictability where the reader can see where the tale is ultimately headed, even if they are not sure how it will get there.

I find both characters to be interesting in their own right though they become compelling in combination. Guy is cautious, practical and sturdy while Bruno dreams and seeks to find something that will give him a sense of happiness and fulfilment. One of my favorite passages in the book relates to one of Bruno’s ambitions for how he might spend his money by giving away a sizeable sum to a random beggar. He has developed a romantic image of a way in which he can achieve a sense of personal satisfaction and yet the reality of human nature turns it grubby and disappointing. In fact I would suggest that Bruno is happier imagining his stepfather dead than he is at any point once he begins to enact his plan.

With so much of a focus falling on Guy and Bruno, it is perhaps inevitable that the other characters feel far less dimensional. Only Guy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Anne comes off as a fully realized character though I felt a little disappointed that Highsmith does not directly address her situation at the end of the novel or allow her to play a more direct role in the conclusion. In spite of this I found her to be very sympathetic and I did appreciate that she is presented as a professional woman in her own right. It was easy to see why Guy so desperately wants to be with her.

I mentioned in my introduction that part of my motivation in revisiting this book now was to consider whether it is an inverted mystery. I think, on balance, that it is although I would say that because there is a sense of forces inexorably pushing the characters towards an outcome that there are few developments in the narrative that are truly surprising. Nor does Gerrard, the Bruno family’s private detective, really exercise much deductive reasoning during his investigation and, in any case, we spend surprisingly little time with him.

In spite of that however the reader can engage with the story by pondering what evidence might exist and how it may be interpreted. There is even the question of how the relationship between Guy and Bruno will be resolved. As much as I love the movie version of this story, I think the book takes a more interesting and subtle approach to the latter and while I wish that the ending had struck a slightly different tone in places, I think it very effectively resolves the main themes of the novel.

While Highsmith’s text is sometimes a little ponderous, particularly during Bruno’s drunken outbursts, I am impressed by how polished it feels considering it is a first novel and I do think that those moments fit the character even if they drag on a little. I am particularly struck by how well she captures a sense of paranoia and the different ways that guilt can affect a person, making the reader feel Guy’s hopelessness at being trapped in a situation that threatens to destroy him completely.

I said earlier in this review that it is rare for me to revisit a book. It is even rarer for me to get more out of it on subsequent reads. That I have found it a rewarding enough experience to revisit it twice now speaks to the book’s striking premise, bold characterization and interesting discussion of guilt and justice. The only thing that is likely to keep me from revisiting it any time soon is the sense that I should probably try reading another Highsmith at some point…

The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

So Blue
The So Blue Marble
Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally Published 1940
Griselda Satterlee #1
Followed by The Bamboo Blonde

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is one of six vintage titles that were chosen by Otto Penzler to launch his new American Mystery Classics range. Like the British Library’s range, these books each feature an introduction giving some context to the work and information about the author.

Coming months will see titles from familiar names such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen as well as less widely known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge. I think the range looks to showcase the enormous variety to be found in American Golden Age crime fiction.

While I knew that Dorothy B. Hughes is a relatively well-known name in American mystery fiction, this was my first encounter with her work. The So Blue Marble was her first mystery novel although, as the introduction notes, it might be better described as a thriller or work of sensation fiction.

The story concerns Griselda Satterlee, a former actress who has given up show business to become a fashion designer, who is taking a couple of months vacation in New York. Not being fond of hotels, she is staying in her ex-husband’s apartment while he is away on assignment as a news reporter. When she walks home one night she is stopped by two handsome, well-dressed twins who force their way into the apartment. They tell her that they have come in search of the So Blue Marble which they insist she or her ex-husband must possess.

What is the So Blue Marble? Well, in truth it is little more than a MacGuffin albeit with a mystical back story and a rather odd name. The desire to possess it provides motivation for some of the characters but the nature of the object is of little consequence. What is really important is what it means to the Montefierrow twins and what they are willing to do to acquire it.

Danny and David Montefierrow make for a fascinating pair of characters. Initially we see them in terms of their charm and physical perfection but Griselda quickly notices the blankness in their eyes which she finds quite unsettling. We see that they can be quite ruthless and prepared to harm innocent third parties while I think the triangle that forms between them and a woman reads as sadistic and disturbing while it is also hard to understand just who is dominant within the relationship.

We are introduced to a number of other characters who play roles within Griselda’s life that she will seek to protect. She has two sisters, Ann and Missy, each quite fascinating and possessing very distinct personalities. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and was pleased that they played meaningful roles within the plot.

Her ex-husband’s neighbor, an archaeology and art professor at the university, is an intriguing presence and possible romantic interest. He, of course, is concerned that he not do anything that might jeopardize his friendship with Con. One early scene in which she convinces him to stay in the apartment overnight after the incident referred to earlier is really quite charming.

Con, on the other hand, was a character that never quite worked for me. Part of it, I think, is that I was hungry for more details about their relationship, why they were initially attracted to one another and why it failed. He spends a significant portion of the novel as little more than a reference or an idea and as a result I never really felt I knew him and what makes him tick.

As for Griselda, I found her to be easy to empathize with and I appreciated that while she occasionally accepts help from male characters that she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress. I appreciated the way this story affects her relationship with Con and her desire to keep him from harm. While I think a story beat at the end is not quite earned, I did enjoy spending time in her company.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that it feels like an absolutely unpredictable, crazy ride. It is not just the surprising plot developments, although there are a few moments I never saw coming, but rather it is the character beats that make this feel quite different and unusual. It is a joy discovering these characters and seeing how they will all interact with each other to drive the story.

The So Blue Marble is a wonderfully entertaining, even amusing story which feels far too polished and rich to be anyone’s first novel. I had a good time discovering the secrets behind the marble and its history as well as seeing how the conflict between the twins and Griselda would play in it. For those who enjoy thriller-type stories, this would be Highly Recommended.

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

Lucky
The Case of the Lucky Legs
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #3
Preceded by The Case of the Sulky Girl
Followed by The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Lucky Legs is the third Perry Mason mystery and the first which I found a bit of a struggle to get through, at least at first. My first few attempts to read it ended with me falling asleep or losing concentration and while it is possible that this was not entirely the book’s fault, it certainly did not bode well. But before I delve too deeply into my feelings about the book I should outline what it is about.

The previous novel had ended with Mason receiving a letter from an “Eva Lamont” requesting his legal services but the meeting is actually attended by Bradbury, a wealthy playboy. It turns out that he is looking for help in a matter concerning a lady friend who might have married him had it not been for a roguish movie promoter, Frank Patton, who held a beauty contest for women to win a picture contract with a movie studio. His lady friend, Marjorie Clune, won the title of ‘The Girl with the Lucky Legs’ but the studio wiggled out of their contract leaving her too embarrassed to return to her hometown.

Bradbury is hoping that Mason will track down Patton and get him to confess to his deception or unethical behavior to give grounds to sue the studio. As he remarks, Patton seems to have had some ‘shrewd legal advice’ and he wants to get some of his own. One complication is that there is another man in Marjorie’s life, spendthrift dentist Dr. Doray, who is also seeking some justice for her. Bradbury wants to make sure that whatever happens, he receives the credit for helping her rather than Dr. Doray.

The early part of the novel sees Mason following up on this request and I found them to be somewhat slow and lacking in intrigue. The setup as first expressed seems pretty clear-cut and I was not particularly drawn to any of the characters. The most intriguing aspect of the case, the film studio setting, is really only background to the story and offers little in the way of color or excitement.

These chapters are not only somewhat drab in terms of the content, they move surprisingly slowly in spite of Gardner’s athletic, punchy prose style. Several conversations are quite lengthy yet they neither advance our understanding of the plot or the characters involved, particularly those with Bradbury whose demanding attitude quickly becomes tiresome.

Fortunately the pace does pick up a little as we move into the second phase of the story in which Perry discovers a body. This sequence is notable enough that it is explicitly referenced in an author’s introduction to the book in which he notes that some readers may be surprised to read about Perry Mason making use of a set of skeleton keys in this sequence and it certainly does seem like a surprisingly reckless decision from anyone practicing law. This is far from the only reckless decision he will make in the course of the story but given the others all are well within spoiler territory I had best not say more. Many of these moments are amusing but they do come at the expense of the story’s credibility.

One aspect of this novel that I cannot fault it on is its discussion of what it means to represent someone. Perry may act recklessly at points in this story but he is always clear on who his client is and how he should best serve their interests. This is a theme that dominated each of the previous stories but I think it is particularly effective here, especially bearing in mind Bradbury’s repeated attempts at interference.

The other aspect of this adventure that appealed was the divergence in the interests of Mason and Paul Drake, the head of the Drake Detective Agency who he advises Bradbury to hire. While some of the early exchanges between the two in this story are a little dry, I appreciated that this story acknowledges that Drake is not simply an extension of Mason and may disagree with his actions. This idea is not fully realized within the story but it does make Drake seem a more independent and interesting creation.

I was a little disappointed that Della Street is largely sidelined in this story and is given little opportunity to do anything beyond make shorthand notes of conversations and answer the phone lines. This is a far cry from the more vocal character we saw in The Case of the Velvet Claws and it does seem like Gardner had lost some interest in her by this point.

Turning back to the case itself, I think the solution works though it is not particularly surprising. Gardner does not give us many suspects to choose from so the solution is fairly easy to predict. The circumstances in which Mason reveals the killer’s identity are fun if a little convoluted but, once again, the scene plays out surprisingly slowly and rather than building anticipation, I was wishing he would just get on with naming them.

While I found parts of this story to be very entertaining, I do think it is a weaker work than either of the two previous Mason adventures. The opening to the case offers little in the way of intrigue and some of the plot developments feel convoluted. Mason is still a fun hero, if a little rougher and less ethical than in some of his other outings, and I do think he gets some good moments here but if you are new to this series I would certainly not start here.

Windy City by Hugh Holton

WindyCity
Windy City
Hugh Holton
Originally Published 1995
Larry Cole #2
Preceded by Presumed Dead
Followed by Chicago Blues

I was not familiar with Hugh Holton before picking up Windy City, the second in his series of novels to feature Detective Larry Cole of the Chicago police force. The book jumped out at me though for being told in an inverted style and I was curious to discover Holton’s take on the form.

The novel opens with a retired prostitute being followed by a man in disguise intent on raping and killing her. When he breaks into her home he is surprised by her cop fiancé and hastily acts to kill him and dispose of the body.

Within a few pages we know the killer’s identity: Neil DeWitt, one of the richest men in Chicago. We also learn that his wife Margo is fully aware of his proclivities and, when she makes a slip up in conversation with Police at a gala, we learn she has some of her own.

Unlike many inverted stories the detective does not need to search for the killer. Cole suspects the pair from the beginning of the novel but the challenge for the police and for the reader comes in proving the connection, particularly when the DeWitts hire a corrupt former governor of the state to represent them.

This proves to be an intriguing starting point because it enables Holton to focus on a small group of characters. We spend a lot of time in the novel following the DeWitts and seeing them plot and scheme to try and throw Cole off their trail and I do think we get to know them well as a result. The problem for me was that I found their characterizations very hard to accept as credible.

The two characters are given some back story and Holton does take the time to explore their motivations. Unfortunately the aspect of their story that is the least detailed is the early phase of their relationship as they begin to commit crimes and explore their sociopathic desires together. Given their status as a married pair of murderers makes them unusual, it is all the more disappointing to see this aspect of their relationship not treated with much depth or detail.

Instead Holton focuses on following their reactions to Cole’s investigation and attempts to throw him off the trail. This sort of a cat-and-mouse game has the potential to be interesting and there are a few points where I feel it is quite successful. One of those comes at the end of the second section of the novel where there is a big development in the case but unfortunately the next chapter takes the action to a lurid and melodramatic place undermining any good work the previous chapter had done.

Not only does Cole quickly identify the killers, he seems to quickly work out their plans and their likely next steps. The positive aspect of this is that it enables the book to sustain a surprisingly brisk pace but it may prove disappointing to those who want to see the police having to work hard to make those key connections.

Cole is not the most dynamic of protagonists although his family are appealing and sympathetic characters. He is shown to be persistent and hard-working however and I did appreciate that Holton uses his own Police background to flesh him and the other Police characters out.

That is not to say that this is an entirely realistic police procedural. That one of his team is nicknamed the Mistress of Disguise or High Priestess of Mayhem suggests at least a little eccentricity but the conflicts within departments and details of the cultivation of relationships with the coroner’s office feel more grounded in something approaching reality.

There are however some plot elements that struck me as too far-fetched to be taken as credible. This is not just a matter of the lucky breaks that Cole seems to get but also some of the risks that the couple willingly face when carrying out their tasks often leaving evidence pointing right at them. While being immensely wealthy could conceivably shield them from some accusations, their behavior is so inept and obviously suspicious at points it is hard to imagine how they wouldn’t have already come under deeper suspicion.

As much as I wanted to love this book I came away feeling frustrated and disappointed. I thought that the pair of killers had a lot of potential but the decision not to treat the story in a realistic way but rather as a thriller contributes to their story feeling somewhat ridiculous.

In spite of its faults however I would say that it was an engaging read. There were some good ideas here and while I think it gets the balance wrong, it is at least quite interesting.