The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClaws
The Case of the Velvet Claws
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1933
Perry Mason #1
Followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl

Prior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

DestinationUnknown
Destination Unknown
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1954

Destination Unknown feels surprisingly like a Bond novel, albeit one stripped of its sex and brutal acts of violence. Okay, so it’s mostly a book set in an exotic locale with an amoral villain who possesses a secret lair but the story does have a surprisingly epic scope and contains some great spy story-style moments.

The story concerns the disappearance of a scientist during a conference in Paris. The British secret services are concerned that he may have defected behind the Iron Curtain and so have been keeping tabs on his wife, hoping that she will lead them to him. When she requests the right to travel abroad to get away from it all, they approve the request but hope that this may be when she makes her move.

Unfortunately before they can do anything her plane crashes and she is badly injured. This would be a dead-end in their investigation so they decide to recruit Hilary Craven, a woman who is on the verge of suicide after her child died and her husband left her. The handler argues that this may be a more interesting way to die and she may rediscover her wish to live in the process. She will adopt the persona of the wife and emerge from the hospital in her place, waiting to be contacted by her husband or his representatives.

This is really just the beginning of a much bigger journey, both physically as she finds herself transported to that secret lair but also metaphorically as she begins to feel alive and invests in relationships with people around her.

The physical journey is quite intriguing, in part because of the scale of the journey the character undertakes going from England to Paris to Morocco and then deep into the desert. It is somewhat reminiscent of The Man in the Brown Suit and it is interesting to consider the parallels – particularly when it comes to the development of a villain.

In both stories Christie develops an unlikely sort of villain, at least for these types of adventure and espionage stories. The villains are not scenery-chewing madmen but entirely rational figures – in this case someone who sees the world in a somewhat clinical way. Neither figure is planning acts of unspeakable evil but they do represent a threat to stability. The villain here may not be as likeable as the one in Brown Suit but there are similar ideas in their characters and the themes developed around them.

One of the themes that is central to this novel is the role of science within extreme ideologies. Here we see Christie posit an organization that does not belong to either side of an ideology where scientists whose outlooks on the world are utterly different are working alongside each other with uncertain ends. There are hints of the fears of nuclear annihilation, reflected in our knowledge that the missing scientist was a nuclear physicist, and a discussion of the genius scientist as a personality type. It is not a flattering portrayal and it seems clear that Christie was thinking about some of the wartime scientific breakthroughs as she wrote.

There are some wonderful moments within the journey itself as our heroine explores Morocco. While Christie sets many of her stories against exotic locales, I don’t think she ever really brings those settings as vividly to life as Fleming might but this work is full of lots of details that reflect her own travels both in terms of the practicalities of travelling but also in her observations about the British (and French and Americans) abroad. In that sense Morocco feels more dimensional than South Africa ever does in Brown Suit.

While I enjoyed the physical journey, Hilary’s emotional journey is the more convincingly developed. Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a wonderful, thoughtful review of this story that suggests that Christie felt some sympathy for her heroine based on her own experiences and I think she makes an excellent case. Certainly I think the chapter in which we first encounter her in Paris feels convincing in the way it depicts her mental state.

Christie does a superb job of making it believable that Hilary could undertake the physical journey, sometimes experiencing some luck but also showing some moments of perception. We get to share in her doubts, worries and fears and this helps build some really effective, tense scenes. One of my favorites comes when she finally makes it to her destination and she realizes that she doesn’t really know what to do next. The scene unfolds in an unexpected way, turning what we think we know on its head. Be prepared for a few more intriguing reversals after that.

The problem is that Hilary, while undoubtedly brave and quite capable, is not responsible for resolving the situation herself. Certainly she plays a significant role in moving characters into the final positions but too much of the action at the end is placed out of her hands. This is a shame because I would have liked to see her play an active role in at least one other character’s fate, especially when she is a witness who could prove something important if she were more heavily involved in that conclusion.

After showing resourcefulness and coolheadedness throughout the novel, in its final chapters Hilary is suddenly rendered quite passive and is, essentially, rescued by third parties. I wish that she might have played a more active role in her own fate, particularly as it is implied that the thing that gets her over her suicidal feelings about the loss of her husband is meeting another man rather than building a sense of self-worth, but if it had unfolded that way it probably wouldn’t feel like Christie.

In spite of some frustrations in plotting and, in particular, with its resolution, I did find Destination Unknown to be quite an enjoyable read. It’s not really much of a mystery but I think there are some excellent story beats and I think it does present some interesting ideas.

Next month’s non-series Christie selection will be The Sittaford Mystery. I have seen the Marple! adaptation of that one but have little memory of anything other than Timothy Dalton wearing a suit and grumping in a generally aristocratic sort of way around a stormy country house so we’ll see what I make of it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Has been read/reviewed by a fellow challenger at any time (Why) – Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer.jpg
Closer Than You Know
Brad Parks
Originally Published 2018

I really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman

Blessing
The Blessing Way
Tony Hillerman
Originally Published 1970
Leaphorn & Chee #1
Followed by Dance Hall of the Dead

The Blessing Way is the first of a series of novels by Tony Hillerman, now being continued by his daughter Anne, featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. This is my first encounter with the series, having been pushed towards it by The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction lectures as one of the earliest and most influential examples of a series featuring Native American characters.

From what I gather having read a little about the book since finishing it, this novel adopts a slightly different focus than later entries in the series by splitting the focus between Leaphorn and white anthropologist Bergen McKee. In the course of the book we spend more time in the company of the latter though Leaphorn is there for the most significant parts of the book and will be the one to explain what happened.

Bergen McKee has come to the Navajo Reservation with an anthropologist colleague for a summer research trip to investigate reports of witchcraft. Leaphorn is working the case of a young man, Luis Horseman, who has fled into the desert under the belief that he has killed someone in a fight. Leaphorn is looking for him but soon receives the news that his body has been found near Ganado with its mouth full of sand. Though the narrative separates Bergen and Leaphorn, it will be clear to the reader that their efforts are linked.

The Blessing Way is generally described as a mystery novel and certainly there are mysterious things going on and a question to be answered but I think it reads more like a thriller. Heading into the final chapters, the book puts one of its two leads in significant physical danger and even in a little combat and when they are grappling with the villain they have little conception of who they are and what their purpose is. The reader can make inferences based on clues in the text but do not expect a series of suspects you could name and pick between. In fact the novel’s secondary characters are barely sketched out at all.

I struggled a little at points in this novel to follow exactly what was going on and I am not entirely sure why. It is perhaps because I came to the book expecting a more typical mystery than I ended up reading or it may reflect that I think the story suffers from the splitting the action between its two protagonists as I felt I never really knew either of them as well as I should like.

While I don’t like to abandon a read that I find frustrating, I think I may well have done were it not for my appreciation for the book’s anthropological details and the discussion of Navajo culture which are woven throughout the novel. Hillerman’s focus didn’t always quite work for me. Sometimes I found myself wishing for more details about an aspect of the culture he was discussing, at others I felt we were spending too long on something that seemed incidental to the story. Still, these details could be fascinating and coupled with the stark isolation of its setting, gave the book a very distinct feel that is quite unlike anything I have read before.

The Blessing Way interested me but left me feeling unsatisfied. Hillerman delivers some wonderful pieces of action and a great sense of place but I was somewhat disappointed by the mystery. I liked the book more as it progressed though and found the final seventy pages to be quite exhilarating, both in terms of its action and also in the way that the different elements of the novel finally fit together. While they won’t be high on my to read list, I expect I’ll return to try some others in this series.

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

Kiss
A Kiss Before Dying
Ira Levin
Originally Published 1953

As many of you will know, one of my long-term aims has been to seek out lots of inverted mysteries with the idea of at some point making a top five list. I hate to spoil my future work before I’ve even really started it but as things stand A Kiss Before Dying is easily the best inverted crime novel that I have read. Suffice it to say that when the time comes, this may place in that list.

Ira Levin’s story is broken into three sections, each of them titled for a woman. The first of these is told from the perspective of a male character who is dating the daughter of a prominent industrialist. He receives the undesirable news that she has become pregnant and, realizing that her father will likely disown her if he learns about this, pushes her to take some pills to make their problem go away.

When she tells him the next day that the pills didn’t work, he begins to panic. He agrees that they should get married but persuades her that they need to wait for the weekend. And in those few days he plots another way to get rid of his problem.

As for those other two sections – I want to be careful not to spoil anything too much. I can say that the second section sees the victim’s sister arrive in town with the hope of proving that she did not commit suicide and to identify her murderer. This section is really quite wonderfully written and pulled off a reveal that I think was one of the most satisfying surprises I’ve had reading in a while. As for that final section, all I shall say is that it’s named for the third sister and centers around her interactions with the killer.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is its careful construction. Take that first section of the novel which manages to make the reader feel like they have got to know the murderer. I managed to get all the way to the second section of the book before I realized that Levin has avoided ever giving you the character’s name, either in conversation or narration. This allows the writer to then switch format from the inverted style to a more traditional investigation format.

I was similarly impressed by the character of the killer, who is one of the coldest, most calculating figures I’ve yet to encounter in an inverted mystery. Sometimes when a character is written that way it becomes hard to understand why anyone would like him and be taken in by him, yet here it is clear that those traits are part of what enables him to seem devoted and caring. When he does kill his girlfriend it is all the more vicious and terrible because of the way he has manipulated her and, in that moment, the reader realizes that this is not the action of a selfish, frightened man who doesn’t want his dreams to come to an end but those of a sociopath who sees his girlfriend as a dead end to be disposed of. It is chilling stuff.

I also appreciated that the character’s plan is not allowed to go flawlessly in spite of the killer’s cold efficiency. He endures a couple of false starts and we see him having to rethink and recalculate how he will achieve his ends. My only issue with this first section of the novel is a moment in which he plays a piece of music on the jukebox which reinforces his intent, though his victim doesn’t recognize that in the moment. The author emphasizes the thematic relevance of the song by quoting portions of the lyrics while the action of the scene takes place. I can forgive it however as I do think it has a purpose. Later in the book Levin uses the same technique at a crucial point to much better effect and that moment would not work without the author having already used the technique once.

The second and the third sections of the novel are just as gripping as the opening as we wonder whether the killer can be identified and then, in the final section, what they will do next. There are a couple of moments that I think are genuinely shocking and because it is as much a thriller as it is a mystery novel, we may wonder if the killer will even be apprehended at all.

While the killer is a fascinating figure, the supporting characters Levin creates stand out just as much. Each of the three Kingship sisters are distinctive and credible, each having their own set of daddy issues created by their domineering father. I never struggled to believe that they would fall into the murderer’s orbit, nor that he would be able to manipulate them and I appreciated that Levin allows us the time to get to know each of them to make those interactions credible.

Similarly I appreciated the complex character of Leo Kingship, a man who is responsible for his daughters’ isolation and who we see transform a little as a result of his experiences. It would be easy to make a relatively minor character like this fit a standard type and yet Levin allows him to have conflicting tendencies and motivations. Some other relatively minor supporting characters receive similar thoughtful treatment.

The novel builds to an absolute belter of a conclusion that not only resolves our immediate questions of what will happen to the various characters but also recalls one of the book’s most striking images, providing some thematic closure as well. It makes for a remarkable end to a remarkable book that I think will stay with me for some time.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

Dark River Rising by Roger Johns

DarkRiver
Dark River Rising
Roger Johns
Originally Published 2017
Wallace Hartman #1
Followed by River of Secrets

We all have something that creeps us out. My rather conventional thing is snakes of any description. You might think after living in Georgia for a decade and having had several unintentional close encounters of the serpent kind that those irrational fears would have gone away but they remain deep-rooted. That is why the opening image of this book absolutely terrified me. If you share my fear you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Dark River Rising begins with the body of a big-time drug dealer being discovered in a disused warehouse. It is tied upside down, its fingers are crushed and there are recent signs of surgery visible on the corpse’s stomach. The reason for those cuts, and for the sleepless night I will likely endure tonight, is that a living emerald boa snake has been sewn inside the victim while they were still alive. Thankfully this turns out to be a very small part of the case.

While the local Police start to interview witnesses and compile their list of suspects, the case catches the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency who recognize that gross snake-move as a calling card of a major drug kingpin south of the border. One agent is particularly worried that this is a sign that two cartels will begin aggressively competing with each other in Louisiana and he gets in touch with Wallace, the lead investigator on the case, to ask to meet with her and share information.

Wallace and Mason have different objectives and at times gently spar about issues of jurisdiction which I always enjoy – this is one of my favorite tropes of the American crime novel. Wallace is focused on the homicide and wants to be clear that this is her case while Mason would prefer to use federal resources to handle aspects of the investigation. Ultimately the pair get on well though and establish a solid working relationship with some romantic overtones, though those moments are kept in the background for almost all of the novel.

Wallace is undoubtedly the lead character however, getting the most to do and a much more detailed back story. In the course of the novel we encounter her family, learn about a tragedy that still affects her years later and meet her mentor and partner who is on an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a medical issue. I found her to be a likeable protagonist and appreciated that Johns balances the darker aspects of her thinking with lighter aspects of her character.

While most of the novel follows the actions of Wallace and Mason, there are occasional interludes presented from the killer’s point of view. At times these directly contradict some evidence or theory that the Police have gathered, helping the reader connect things together, explaining an action they have taken or to eliminate a suspect from consideration.

Given this exposure to the killer’s psychology I toyed with labeling this an inverted mystery but stopped myself based on how little of the novel is in that format. I did find those sections of the novel to be very effective though and I was glad of the chance to get to understand the killer’s actions a little better.

That these sections do not help the reader much in identifying the killer and the reasons for their actions reflects that this is not really a puzzle mystery but rather would be better described as a thriller. Certainly I do not think that a reader could deduce the identity of the killer before it is revealed though I suppose they might be able to work out the motive and what the victim was up to before the detective works it out. I rather enjoyed the approach taken here and found that the little timestamps at the start of each chapter were a nice touch both to give a sense of the passage of time and also to help build some tension as time seems to run out.

I found the case itself to be quite intriguing and will admit to not guessing the murderer’s identity at all. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen and devoured the book in just two sittings. For the most part I was very satisfied, though there are a few story threads that just seem to get forgotten or at least never completely resolved. For the most part though the case makes sense and I enjoyed watching our heroes solve it.

On the downside, there are a few moments where the dialogue didn’t quite ring true to me. I also felt that though the case takes several fascinating twists and turns, the ending seemed a little too low-key after some of the craziness that had preceded it.

Overall, I really did enjoy Dark River Rising. I don’t think it quite did enough to grab my January Book of the Month award but it certainly deserves to be in the conversation. There are some fun ideas here and I felt that were this to be the fist in a series it shows a lot of potential. I did find myself hoping that Johns may follow it up with another adventure for Wallace or Mason. As debuts go, this was very promising and I will look forward to seeing what Roger Johns has in store for us next.

Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe

MurderontheWay
Murder on the Way!
Theodore Roscoe
Originally Published 1935

Murder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.

After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.

The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.

The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.

If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct.  One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.

Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.

I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.

Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.

This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.

Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.

Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.