The Murders Near Mapleton by Brian Flynn

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

Anthony Bathurst #4
Preceded by The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye
Followed by The Five Red Fingers

The Blurb

Christmas Eve at Vernon House is in full swing. Sir Eustace’s nearest and dearest, and the great and the good of Mapleton, are all there. But the season of comfort and joy doesn’t run true to form. Before the night is out, Sir Eustace has disappeared and his butler, Purvis, lies dead, poisoned, with a threatening message in his pocket. Or is it her pocket?

That same evening, Police Commissioner Sir Austin Kemble and investigator Anthony Bathurst are out for a drive. They come across an abandoned car at a railway crossing, and find a body – Sir Eustace Vernon, plus two extraordinary additions. One, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Two, a red bon-bon in his pocket with a threatening message attached.

The Verdict

An enjoyable puzzler which offers up a number of interesting questions for the reader to solve.


My Thoughts

I really enjoyed my first taste of Brian Flynn’s work when I read and reviewed Tread Softly earlier this year and ever since then I have been keen to get back to him. When I remembered that he had written a mystery that begins at a Christmas Eve dinner party I thought that it might be a good candidate for my festive reads series and decided I would give it a try.

Sir Eustace Vernon hosts a gathering at his home which is attended by his friends and neighbors. After giving a short speech he opens a red bonbon, which the excellent introduction to the reprint explains is another term for cracker, and reads the message inside. Moments later he hurriedly excuses himself from the party, explaining that he has received ‘some very bad news’. The event continues for some time but eventually his absence is noticed. A note is found suggesting that Sir Eustace intends to take what some may consider ‘the coward’s way out’ prompting a search. Instead of Sir Eustace however they find the butler dead with a red bonbon in their pocket containing a threat that they have just one hour to live and will pay their debt that very night.

Coincidentally Sir Austin Kemble, the Police Commissioner, and Anthony Bathurst are in the vicinity when they notice an abandoned car near a railroad crossing. Stopping to investigate, they notice Sir Eustace’s body on the tracks. While the first thought is suicide, the discovery of an identicle threatening note in the bonbon in his pocket leads Bathurst to suspect murder – an idea borne out when the investigation reveals he was shot in the back of the head.

The opening chapters of the book are excellent with Flynn doing an excellent job of introducing the reader to the characters and establishing the chain of events leading to the disappearance, often in quite some detail. One example would be the careful descriptions of who was sat in which spots around the dinner table and how they were positioned in relation to the each. On occasions information that will be relevant later is almost buried in description or conversation, making it feel all the more satisfying whenever the reader does catch an important point.

Let’s dispense with the weakest part of the novel first: the murder of the butler. This is not weak because the concepts are poor but simply because there is so little time given to this story thread. In short, we are never given enough time with the character to feel truly invested in them and so their story can feel like a bit of an afterthought, particularly given the way it is suddenly resurrected in the final chapters and explained away.

In contrast, the main storyline feels rather more compelling. I think that this is partly because we get to know Sir Eustace before his vanishing and the subsequent discovery of his body, building the reader’s attachment, but it is also that the knowledge that he has a niece humanizes him, as does the story of his bravery in saving children from a huge fire. It helps too that the situation around the disappearance and murder raises so many interesting questions about the victim and the circumstances of his murder.

Bathurst once again makes for a fun and engaging investigator in the Great Detective style. He focuses in on small details of the crime scene and declares at several points that a piece of evidence or information is vital to the understanding of what happened. There are a few occasions where those declarations feel a little hasty, yet given they are there for the reader’s benefit it didn’t trouble me too much.

While I think the ultimate explanation of the crime is clever, if a little sensational, there is an aspect of the solution that I felt was insufficiently clued. I could guess at the idea based on other aspects of the scenario but it seemed that there were few if any positive clues for the reader or Bathurst to reach that conclusion. To be clear, I still appreciated and was entertained by the solution but some may feel that Bathurst doesn’t quite have enough evidence to back up every point in the case he will make.

Overall however I found The Murders at Mapleton to be a very enjoyable read and one that delivered exactly what I hoped for – a puzzling scenario with some unique points of interest. It makes solid use of its seasonal elements yet it can be easily appreciated at any time of year. In short, another positive experience with Flynn’s work that leaves me excited to delve more deeply in the new year.

The Shop Window Murders by Vernon Loder

Book Details

Originally published in 1930

The Blurb

The delight of Christmas shoppers at the unveiling of a London department store’s famous window display turns to horror when one of the mannequins is discovered to be a dead body…

Mander’s Department Store in London’s West End is so famous for its elaborate window displays that on Monday mornings crowds gather to watch the window blinds being raised on a new weekly display. On this particular Monday, just a few weeks before Christmas, the onlookers quickly realise that one of the figures is in fact a human corpse, placed among the wax mannequins. Then a second body is discovered, and this striking tableau begins a baffling and complex case for Inspector Devenish of Scotland Yard.

The Verdict

As much as I liked the premise of this mystery, I found the investigation and its sleuth to be rather unengaging. The solution to the puzzle is rather good though.


My Thoughts

The Shop Window Murders opens as a crowd gathers outside a department store’s windows to await the unveiling of a new display featuring fancy dress costumes. When the blinds are raised at nine the crowd are initially appreciative but it doesn’t take long for someone to notice the figure out of place in the scene – a man dressed in mechanic overalls – and that he doesn’t seem to be made of wax like the other figures.

The police are summoned and investigate, finding that the masked mechanic is the store’s owner and that he has been shot. Meanwhile another figure is spotted within the window – a woman who has been stabbed. She has a gun and yet close examination will prove that her weapon was not the one that killed Tobias Mander, only making the scene in the window more puzzling.

I selected to read The Shop Window Murders as part of my Festive Reads series this year but I should probably start by saying that there is absolutely nothing seasonal about this work. While the story is set in Novemeber, there is no mention within the text of the window display being related to the holiday and given that these window displays are changed weekly there is nothing to suggest that this was a particularly significant event in the store’s calendar. I will not hold that against the book itself but feel I ought to clarify that rather misleading blurb.

The best thing about this book is its initial premise which is delightfully puzzling. In just a couple of pages Loder lays out a crime that appears neat and tidy but that actually is far more complex than it seems as the reader realizes that the story the crime scene appears to tell simply does not make sense. There are too many gaps for the easy explanations to make sense.

The chapters that follow introduce us to our handful of suspects, some with clear motives while others’ are less obvious. I appreciated that there are efforts made to have those characters drawn from different spheres within Mander’s life and I respected the role they played within the context of the puzzle. I was less impressed however with the depth of their characterizations.

With the expection of the department store manager, Mr. Kephim, I never really had much sense of the various suspects or their personalities beyond a sense of their occupation. I did not find their voices to be strong or distinctive and, once again with the exception of Mr. Kephim who has an emotional reaction to the discovery of the bodies, I struggled to feel engaged with their stories.

It was not just the characterization of the suspects that disappointed me however but I similarly felt unengaged with Inspector Devenish, the detective Loder creates. In his excellent introduction to the edition reissued a few years ago, crime historian Nigel Moss quite rightly points out some of the similarities and differences between this work and Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery. What strikes me most as I think about book is that I think this sort of story needed a character like Ellery to inject a little more life into the investigation and, in particular, the various questioning sessions he conducts.

Inspector Devenish is, for want of a better description, a bore. He is hardly the first detective I have encountered who feels a little lacking in any strong characteristics but he does differ from the likes of Crofts’ Inspector French in that I never found his process or the way he intellectually approaches solving the crime to be particularly compelling. In short, I simply didn’t enjoy his company and that didn’t help with my overall engagement with this story which I found to be rather dry once we get beyond the first few chapters of the book.

This is unfortunate because the actual explanation of what happened is really interesting and I do acknowledge that the essential points are properly clued (though I think Devenish does guess a few points). Similarly I have to acknowledge that the explanation is quite clever and, as far as I can tell, fairly novel at the time. Perhaps most importantly though, I feel like it is fairly comprehensive and avoids leaving any loose plot ends.

There were clearly some parts of The Shop Window Murders that did hold some appeal for me. I think the core premise and the multiple contradictions within it are cleverly introduced and I think the explanation given feels compelling and sensible. The problem for me was that the path to reach that explanation felt dry and seems to move quite slowly. Others may feel differently though, particularly those who focus most strongly on the puzzle elements of a mystery.

Reprint of the Year: My First Pick

Reprints are really important and I have a story that I think illustrates my point well.

Two years ago I read Freeman Wills Crofts’ The End of Andrew Harrison which I found to be thoroughly enjoyable. It is one of two impossible crime novels he wrote and, having enjoyed it so much, I was keen to track down a copy of the other – Sudden Death.

I began by trying to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan but no institution would lend their copy. That left buying a copy but unfortunately where I live there is no possibility of stumbling onto a copy in the wild. Atlanta may be a big city but my efforts to scour second-hand and antiquarian bookstores rarely produce any mysteries from the silver age, let alone the golden age of crime. Reluctantly I realized I would need to try and source a copy online.

Immediately I realized that I was priced out of the market. The cheapest copies at that time seemed to be priced in the region of $400 to $500 which was simply out of reach for me. For a while I just hung in, checking various sites every few days and hoping that one would just turn up. With no sign of any Crofts reprints on the horizon and no affordable copies appearing I had given up hope until suddenly a copy turned up on Amazon marketplace for just $200. Now, that’s a lot of money but having watched these sites for eighteen months I knew that was less than half the previous best price I had seen. Keen to avoid getting beaten to it, I purchased the copy.

For the first few days after it arrived I was thrilled but then came the news I really should have anticipated. The Collins Crime Club would be reprinting six Croft titles for less than a tenth of what I had paid.

I should have been upset. Okay, I kind of was though more at myself for not considering the possiblity that someone had cashed in to sell before the news broke, but I was also happy because it meant that when I did get to read it I was more likely going to be able to discuss it with other people that have read the book or might feasibly go on to read it. That is after all why I do this whole book blogging thing.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am not nominating Sudden Death. That doesn’t reflect on its quality as a book – rather I find myself incredibly anxious any time I touch it that it’s going to fall apart or get stained or destroyed. Inevitably I have had to get myself a second “reading copy” and it arrived too late for me to consider for this nomination. Instead I decided to nominate another of the reprints that I actually have read: Mystery on Southampton Water (reprinted as Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water).

Mystery on Southampton Water is not my favorite of Crofts’ inverted mystery stories but I think it is one of his most interesting. A big part of the reason for that is the unusual structure he adopts which seeks to blend the inverted mystery and traditional detective story formats.

The book introduces us to a pair of men whose business is in trouble. A rival has invented a process that allows them to undercut their competitors, cornering the market. Desperate the men hatch a plot to engage in a little corporate espionage and steal some trade secrets.

The first section of the book covers the background to this scheme and the pair working out the details of what they need to do. This also helps us get to know our two criminals and get a sense of their personalities and behaviors prior to the scheme backfiring badly causing a death.

The next section we follow Inspector French as he arrives on the scene and tries to piece together a picture of what took place. French is, as always, a diligent detective and while this particular investigation certainly can be quite detail-driven, I found it pretty engaging. The book’s third section is much quicker paced, focusing on the actions of our criminals as they are placed under stronger pressure while the last one returns to French and sees him taking on a different but possibly related case.

One of the reasons this book works and is able to channel a little ambiguity is that Crofts omits to describe the details of exactly how the young men’s plans end up going so disastrously wrong. This is the mechanism that allows the book to shift into a more traditional whodunit structure towards the end, marrying these two styles together quite effectively, and it allows the reader to have the psychological focus of the inverted style while still enjoying the traditional puzzle mystery form.

Similarly I appreciate how much sense the plot makes. It is one of his most credible crime stories, based on an understanding of human nature and the idea that sometimes things just don’t go to a well-laid plan. It’s a good idea, executed well and I think it speaks to Crofts’ willingness to experiment as a writer. As I have remarked often, Crofts’ inverted stories each feel quite distinct in style meaning there is never a sense that the writer is repeating himself.

Even if this particular Crofts title is not for you however, I would suggest that a vote for it is really a vote for any (or all) of the six titles reissued this year. Several of those six books have been relatively rare in recent years and so in republishing them, the Collins Crime Club has not only done a wonderful job of honoring the legacy of one of the Golden Age’s most important crime writers, it has also performed a service for fans of vintage crime fiction. Thanks to their efforts, there are now six more titles that have been made accessible to readers once again. And that, I feel, is something worthy of celebration.

For more information on this year’s Reprint of the Year awards check out Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime. The post announcing the award and seeking nominations can be found here.

Mrs. Claus and the Santaland Slayings by Liz Ireland

Book Details

Originally published in 2020
Mrs Claus #1

The Blurb

Love is full of surprises—though few compare to realizing that you’re marrying the real-life Santa. April Claus dearly loves her new husband, Nick, but adjusting to life in the North Pole is not all sugarplums and candy canes. Especially when a cantankerous elf named Giblet Hollyberry is killed—felled by a black widow spider in his stocking—shortly after publicly arguing with Nick.
 
Christmastown is hardly a hotbed of crime, aside from mishaps caused by too much eggnog, but April disagrees with Constable Crinkle’s verdict of accidental death. As April sets out to find the culprit, it’ll mean putting the future of Christmas on the line—and hoping her own name isn’t on a lethal naughty list…

The Verdict

This lighthearted novel is build around a decent mystery but it is at its most enjoyable when it leans into the silliness of its setting and concept.


My Thoughts

In the past few weeks the weather has grown chillier and our nights longer which leads me to suspect that the holiday season is around the corner. While I am not much of one for celebrations, one tradition I do like to keep each year is reading festive and wintery mysteries in the month of December.

My first selection this year comes from the world of cozy crime fiction. Part of the fun with these sorts of books is their unorthodox sleuths – some titles I have reviewed on this blog see crimes solved by microbrewers, a former Vice President (who is now our President Elect) and even a kite seller. This book however takes that idea to a whole new level by taking place at the North Pole and casting Mrs. Claus in the role of sleuth.

After the death of her husband, April had opened a small hotel using the life insurance payout. Some time later she met Nick, a visitor from somewhere vaguely north of the Northwest Territories, and the two fell in love. It turns out that her beau is none other than Santa himself, newly installed in his position after the tragic death of his elder brother in a hunting accident. Marrying, the pair agree that they will spend their summers at her beachfront hotel and winters fulfilling their duties in Christmastown at the North Pole.

The book begins as the big day draws near when Giblet Hollyberry, a rather cantankerous elf, is found dead from the bite of a black widow spider that was in his stocking. This death came just hours after he had a heated argument with Nick in which he had called him a murderer and things look even worse for Santa when April sees a note written in his handwriting calling Giblet ‘a venomous elf’. Could April’s husband (who is, let us remember, Santa) be a murderer?

So, a lot of the fun in this book comes when the book leans most strongly into its rather ludicrous premise giving us rivalries in Santa’s workshops, fights between the various Mrs Clauses (both Nick’s mother, the Dowager Mrs Claus, and his elder brother’s widow) and a splendidly silly second murder of a different type of yuletide figure. The tone is definitely silly and in my case I smiled more than I laughed but it was a fun, lighthearted read that did a decent job of delivering on its premise.

I quite enjoyed April as the narrator of this story and I think her voice is used well, balancing moments evoking sympathy with ones that seem to suggest that she recognizes the craziness of the situation she has found herself in. The story never calls on her to do anything outrageously outside of that character’s likely experience or ability, and so she I found her pretty easy to accept. If I have any reservations at all, I think a few aspects of her character and background remain a little loosely sketched – for example, I remain a little confused about how old she is meant to be.

I also felt that the references to her life away from Christmastown and her squabbles with a busybody neighbor via email never seemed to have much purpose in the context of this story, particularly given how easily they could be resolved. Happily these diversions are rather limited and perhaps they will be more relevant in future installments.

Turning to the details of the mystery, I feel that the initial setup is pretty engaging. The evidence against Nick is fairly clear and this gives April a solid reason to get involved, particularly given her feelings about whether the elf constabulary will be up to investigating its first murder case. The stakes of her investigation are clearly communicated and the details of that crime seem fairly clear, making it easy to understand the initial facts of the case.

Similarly I think that the author also does a pretty solid job of expanding on this initial setup to add complexity to their plot, incorporating additional murders and providing the reader with a wealth of suspects of consider. While I think some characters stand out as more likely than others, the author does a good job of keeping most credible until pretty late in the novel.

Unfortunately when it comes to the solution for that mystery, I was a little less convinced. Though Ireland does well to maintain the reader’s suspicions of her various suspects, some are clearly more likely than others. By the time we near the resolution, the reader does stand a pretty good chance of guessing that guilty party’s identity. The problem is though that I think that is all the reader can do – guess.

The issue for me is that while I felt the evidence leant towards one character, there really is nothing definitively proving it. That means that when April does attempt to accuse the killer she cannot really prove what she is saying, making it more a really well-informed suspicion rather than a reasoned deduction of that person’s guilt. In spite of that however I did find the overall ending to be entertaining and satisfying in its handling of the character and her situation.

Most importantly, I found this ending to be in keeping with the overall tone of the book, keeping its sense of fun even as it injects a little peril into the mix. That lightheartedness helped to make this a quick and entertaining read that delivered much of what I wanted from this book – something light and silly.

Apparently Mrs Claus and the Santaland Slayings is intended to be the first of a new series of books. I am a little skeptical about the idea that this premise is sustainable as an ongoing series but I enjoyed this first one enough that I can imagine myself picking up the next for a future festive reads project.

The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

Book Details

Originally published 1920

The Blurb

The unloading of a consignment of French wine from the steamship Bullfinch is interrupted by a gruesome discovery in a broken cask leaking sawdust and gold sovereigns. But when the shipping clerk returns with the police, the cask and its macabre contents have gone. Following the clues to Paris, Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard enlists the help of the genial French detective M. Lefarge to check motives and alibis in their hunt for evidence of a particularly fiendish murder.

The Verdict

Boasting an inventive start and some clever characterization, The Cask is certainly worth your time although with the caution that it is quite unlike much of his later work.


My Thoughts

Somehow I had managed to overlook that this year marks the centenary of the first publication of The Cask, the very first novel by Freeman Wills Crofts. Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that while it took me a while to warm to his work, I found my appreciation for him steadily growing to the point where I now consider him one of my favorite authors from the Golden Age.

I bought a copy of The Cask some time ago but I had passed over it, being put off by the page count (it is one of the author’s longer works), a few negative comments I had read and the knowledge that it would still be there waiting for me to read it later. Once I learned about the anniversary though I decided that I could not let it pass unmarked and so I would make a special effort to ensure that I blogged about it before year’s end. I started reading it one lunchtime last week and found myself staying up to the early hours that same night to finish it. Which probably gives you some indication of how I liked it.

The story begins with a group of workmen unloading casks of wine from a French ship. They discover that one is broken and that, upon closer inspection, it is not part of that shipment at all but that while it has been labeled as statuary, it seems to have been filled with sawdust and gold sovereigns. And then one of the workmen notices a woman’s hand.

Before they are able to report the matter however a man purporting to be the addressee turns up to attempt to retrieve his shipment. Attempts are made to stall him while the Police are being summoned but somehow he manages to slip away with the cask, forcing the Police to try and track him down and examine the body themselves.

Crofts structures his story as a series of three linked investigations, each led by a different character. The first section focuses on the efforts of the Police to trace the movements of the cask and determine whether the reports are accurate and, if so, whether the man who collected the cask was aware of its contents. The next section sees Inspector Burnley head to France where he gets the help of a representative of the Sûreté in trying to identify the body, why they were murdered and understand how the cask came to make its way across the channel. The final section introduces us to a new character who also conducts an investigation (and yes, that’s as much as I’m going to give you about that section).

While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I think the most successful of the three sections is its first. Part of the reason for that is Crofts manages to create a sense of constant discovery in these early chapters as the investigators learn new details about the cask and the individual who collected it, some of which are quite wild and can quite dramatically alter the reader’s perceptions of a character or the situations they find themselves in.

The next phase of the novel is far more focused on corroborating details and introducing us to the other characters involved in the matter. This cast of characters is pretty small so I think the killer will likely stand out for many readers but in spite of that the reader will have questions about motive and the means by which the matter was arranged. I would also add that while it is tempting to view this book in the context of subsequent works of detective fiction, it really should be compared with the mystery fiction published in the previous decade did not feature multiple suspects but a more readily identifiable villain. This does bridge the two styles, adhering to the idea of playing fair with the reader, but those who are only interested in playing whodunit may find themselves disappointed.

I have more of an issue with the general pacing of this middle section which often feels quite leisurely. Some of that reflects that this is a very early form of a procedural crime story and so comparing stories and paying attention to the details of the case are obviously more important than in some other forms of mystery novel, resulting in a slower storytelling style with a focus on attention to detail. Personally I enjoyed the space to mull over the information we had been given but some may feel there is not as much to discover here as it initially seemed.

I also have some issues with the final section of the novel. In particular, I think that the introduction of some thriller story beats in the conclusion fall flat and feel rather underbaked – a pity because so many other elements of the book work wonderfully. Still, the change of perspective works nicely and I found I didn’t mind revisiting some details we already knew because we got to see them from another viewpoint, throwing new light on them and on the characters involved. I found it to be largely successful because of the extra space it gives for the characters to grow and develop.

Crofts’ decision to use multiple detectives may mean that there is no one figure dominating the story, though Inspector Burnley does at least feature throughout the book providing at least a little continuity, even when he comes to play second fiddle to M. Lefarge. More importantly though it allows the book to more accurately mirror the structure and beats of an investigation, creating a more realistic procedural in which we are encouraged to focus on the details of the case rather than the personalities of the investigators.

The cast of suspects and witnesses are a little more richly realized and while several do tend to speak in a rather crisp and formal manner that can feel a little forced, the content of what they say is interesting and does set up a complex puzzle for the reader to solve. That puzzle is fair play with a solidly reasoned solution. Some may suggest that a few conclusions will be obvious to detective fiction fans but that ignores that some of the familiar ideas were much newer at the time of writing. When judged against actual contemporaries I find this to be a far more intricate and cleverly reasoned solution and one which left me feeling quite satisfied.

Other than the issues of pacing, the only other complaint I have about the book relates to the manner of the ending. Putting it in general terms in the hopes of minimizing spoilers, I find it frustrating that after lots of slow, detailed detective story buildup, the ending switches pace and tone to become something much more familiar and frankly rather underwhelming. It is not so much that it is bad, just that it feels sudden and uninteresting.

Overall then I have to confess myself pleased with the book, particularly in the context of it being an author’s first novel. I think Crofts clearly had some excellent ideas that he does justice to and while I think he would soon refine and improve on some elements of style in his writing, this was an excellent base point to do that from and a pretty good story told well.

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #5
Preceded by Lord Peter Views the Body
Followed by Strong Poison

The Blurb

Even the Bellona Club’s most devoted members would never call it lively. Its atmosphere is that of a morgue—or, at best, a funeral parlor—and on Armistice Day the gloom is only heightened. Veterans of the Great War gather at the Bellona not to hash over old victories, but to stare into their whiskies and complain about old injuries, shrinking pensions, and the lingering effects of shell shock. Though he acts jolly, Lord Peter Wimsey finds the holiday grim. And this Armistice Day, death has come to join the festivities.
 
The aged General Fentiman—a hero of the Crimean War—expires sitting up in his favorite chair. Across town, his sister dies on the same day, throwing the General’s half-million-pound inheritance into turmoil. As the nation celebrates and suspicions run riot, Lord Peter must discover what kind of soldier would have the nerve to murder a general.

The Verdict

One of my favorite Sayers titles. This is a cleverly structured mystery with some powerful discussion about the effects the Great War was still having on those who had served a decade later.


My Thoughts

This is the book I was waiting to get to in my big reread of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories. While it has been years since I had last read the book, I remember it really clearly because the excellent 1970s television adaptation with Ian Carmichael was one of the very first televised mystery stories I ever watched. Even though the production values are rather dated, I still regularly rewatch it out of a mixture of appreciation for the performances and nostalgia for that first viewing.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the story is its hook – the way Lord Peter becomes involved in the case. The book opens at the Armistace Day commemorations at the rather crusty Bellona Club. During the celebrations General Fentiman is found dead sat in an armchair having apparently expired some hours earlier.

It turns out that on the same day General Fentiman died his much wealthier sister also passed away. Though the pair were somewhat estranged, she had made arrangements in her will that if he survived her that he would inherit the bulk of her estate. That would then pass down to his heirs. If she survived him then they would get a much smaller amount with the bulk passing to her niece. Lord Peter, who was at the club when the body was discovered, is asked by the General’s solicitor if he could make some discrete enquiries at the club to try and work out the precise time of death.

I would have been around ten or eleven when I first saw that TV adaptation so I saw this at a very early point in my journey to become a mysteries fan. This was the very first time I realized that a mystery story could ask a question other than whodunit – in this case, asking when a death occurred. While timing can certainly be a really important factor in a mystery, the idea of using it as the starting point for a story is far more impressive and while the story does expand to incorporate some more traditional elements, Sayers does an excellent job of sustaining interest in this initial question and also explaining the legal issue in an accessible way.

Compared to the three previous Wimsey novels this is a far more complex and intricately constructed story. Sayers structures her story around several relatively simple problems, each of which has a binary resolution. For instance, either the General died first or his sister did, either a character knew something or they did not and so on. The complexity comes from the need to piece each of those little questions together and seeing how what we learn impacts on our understanding of that bigger picture.

The solution is not particularly complex but I find it to be quite satisfying. I love that the reader is able to go back and see how crucial information has been layered into the story and, particularly, how the other characters are responding to the developments in the case or their perceptions of them. I think the explanation for what has happened, when given, is clever and makes a good deal of sense.

The other element of this story that really stands out to me is its discussion of the impact that the Great War had on a generation of young men. This is first addressed in its discussion of the Armistace Day commemoration and the different attitudes held by those marking the event. For the General and his professional soldier son, the commemorations are a celebration whereas for Lord Peter and George Fentiman, who was badly gassed in the war and suffers from shellshock, it is something to be endured – a reminder of a recent trauma they have not yet been able to resolve.

We have previously seen Sayers touch on the horrors of that war in one of the most striking sequences in the first Lord Peter novel, Whose Body?, but that sequence really exists to illustrate an aspect of his character. Here Sayers touches on the broader experiences of a generation, most of whom did not have Lord Peter’s personal resources and would need to try to hold down a job and support a family. George’s attitudes and stubborn rejections of any help offered can be frustrating but I find them completely understandable and I consider both him and his family to be really thoughtfuly characterized throughout the novel.

In several of my previous reviews of this series I noted that Lord Peter himself can be rather difficult to like because of his frustrating habit to be flippant and speak in a string of witty remarks. Sayers seemed to tone this down as the series went on and I think that trend continued with this novel. He still is more than capable of offering up a bon mot but that seems to be less the focus than the fact he cares for George and, most important of all, discovering the truth and securing justice. This is the version of the character I like best because I think the character is at his most appealing when he is fighting for someone rather than simply pursuing a hobby.

So, what are the problems with The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club? I can’t find many. The only one I can offer up falls heavily into spoiler territory, relating to an aspect of the resolution of the story. Personally I believe that moment is consistent with everything that Sayers has established about everyone involved in that moment but I can understand why it might leave some readers cold.

ROT-13 (Really do not read this unless you have read the book): V unir ab qvssvphygl va oryvrivat gung gur qbpgbe, n sbezre zvyvgnel zna, jbhyq erpbtavmr gung ur unq orra genccrq naq jbhyq evfx gur qvfubabe bs gjb jbzra vs gur znggre unq gb or chefhrq va pbheg. Guvf vqrn gung qrngu vf n pbagnzvanag gung jvyy qrfgebl gur yvirf bs gubfr jub ner oebhtug vagb pbagnpg jvgu vg ehaf guebhtubhg guvf obbx naq vf pyrneyl ersyrpgrq va gur gvgyr naq qvnybt va gur fgbel jurer punenpgref pnaabg oevat gurzfryirf gb ersre gb n qrngu – vg vf fvzcyl na hacyrnfnag rirag.

Juvyr gur ynpx bs na neerfg znl srry yvxr n ynpx bs n erfbyhgvba, V guvax vs lbh pbafvqre gur bgure punenpgref vaibyirq va gur fgbel nyy bs gurz jbhyq cersre gung gur znggre tb ab shegure. V guvax vg vf bayl gur ernqre jub znl cbgragvnyyl jnag n fgebatre erfcbafr gb gur pevzr va fhpu n fvghngvba.

Nqq va gung lbh trg nyyhfvbaf gb gur vqrn gung gur gjb fvqrf bs gur snzvyl jvyy riraghnyyl or wbvarq gbtrgure naq lbh qb unir n frggvat bs gur jbeyq gb evtugf, rira vs gur zrnaf fvgf bhgfvqr gur sbezny yrtny cebprff.

Given the importance that this book has for me as part of my journey to becoming a fan of the genre I was anticipating rereading it and I am happy to say that it more than lives up to those memories. In my opinion it is the richest and most interesting of Sayers’ works up until this point and well worth your time if you have never read it before.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

When Paul enters university in early 1970s Pittsburgh, it’s with the hope of moving past the recent death of his father. Sensitive, insecure, and incomprehensible to his grieving family, Paul feels isolated and alone. When he meets the worldly Julian in his freshman ethics class, Paul is immediately drawn to his classmate’s effortless charm.

Paul sees Julian as his sole intellectual equal—an ally against the conventional world he finds so suffocating. Paul will stop at nothing to prove himself worthy of their friendship, because with Julian life is more invigorating than Paul could ever have imagined. But as charismatic as he can choose to be, Julian is also volatile and capriciously cruel, and Paul becomes increasingly afraid that he can never live up to what Julian expects of him.

As their friendship spirals into all-consuming intimacy, they each learn the lengths to which the other will go in order to stay together, their obsession ultimately hurtling them toward an act of irrevocable violence.

Unfolding with a propulsive ferocity, These Violent Delights is an exquisitely plotted excavation of the depths of human desire and the darkness it can bring forth in us.

The Verdict

Exquiste character building and a palpable sense of tension make this a really powerful read. Like most other reviews I have to note that this will particularly appeal to fans of Highsmith.


My Thoughts

These Violent Delights begins with a murder. In a prologue we follow Charlie as he realizes late at night that his car won’t start. He is relieved when two young men, Paul and Julian, offer him a ride home and he gladly accepts a Thermos of hot soup, ignoring its soapy taste. As they talk however he begins to feel something is off. Charlie cannot do anything however as the effects of the drug in the soup set in, causing him to lose control of his body. He cannot understand why these two men, who he has never met, would be doing this to him.

The novel is about those two men and it explores the events in their life and the people around them that have shaped them into who they are and the intense relationship that develops between them. This is a work grounded in its exploration of character and discussions of theme rather than a work focused on exploring the mechanics of murder.

That is reflected in the decision to place the details of what happens on that night at the front of the book. This not only serves to hook readers into wanting to know about what led up to that moment, it also allows the narrative to skip over the actual mechanics of the murder. By getting them out of the way at the front and not repeating them, the reader is encouraged to focus on the characters’ feelings and the changes in their relationship that take place during and as a consquence of this event.

By external appearances Paul and Julian are quite dissimilar. Paul, who comes from a working class background, is awkward and insular. His family note, for example, that he has never really had a friend and they worry for him, particular given his father’s suicide less than a year earlier. By contrast Julian, whose father is a government official, exudes an easy confidence and charm. He is much wealthier, indulgent and clearly intrigued by his new friend’s expression of a philosophical worldview. Paul meanwhile is attracted to Julian’s beauty and that confidence. He desperately wants Julian’s love, even if he considers himself unworthy of it.

I think Nemerever does an exceptional job making each character feel credible and dimensional and establishing the reasons why they become so dependent upon one another. That relationship changes throughout the novel, in response to the events each is experiencing in their lives, and at each stage I felt the nature of the relationship and the reasons for the alterations taking place to it were clearly communicated and thoughtfully explored.

That attention to detail extends to the secondary characters in the story. The characters in both Paul and Julian’s families each possess strong personalities and feel quite credible. Perhaps the best example of this would be Julian’s parents whose disinterest in the happiness of their son marks them out as being quite unsympathetic. Yet while they are certainly not likable, I think we understand them well through the things we come to learn about them such as how they seem to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritage. We can see them as characters determined to conform in order to gain social acceptance.

Nemerever also skillfully explores the ambiguities in his characters and their relationships with one another, sometimes offering alternative readings or perspectives on them. Like Paul, I spent much of the book uncertain of the extent to which Julian was serious in his romantic interest in him. While I had a clear idea by the end of the book what Julian was getting from Paul, that ambiguity about Julian’s feelings clearly affects Paul and causes him to become more dependent on receiving that attention and affection, only making the relationship feel more intense and unstable. And all the time we are waiting to see when they will start to plan their murder and why certain choices are made.

While it takes a while to get to the murder in the story, the seeds of that idea are quite apparent both in terms of the characters and some of the specifics of their plan. What is least apparent until the moment it happens is the psychological context of that moment and how Paul and Julian are thinking about the act. That question of what the murder represented to each of them and why they decided to do it is really quite thought-provoking. I think Nemerever handles that question well, and it is from this point in the story that I feel the reader will understand the characters and their thoughts better than they understand themselves.

The point at which the murder takes place is the start of the novel’s endgame. I think the author does an incredible job addressing their themes in this section of the novel and, once again, I was struck by the thoughtful and credible characterizations of both Paul and Julian. I was most struck though by the ending to their story which seemed to wrap things up pretty perfectly.

I have little negative to offer about it at all. I might perhaps have ended the book a few pages earlier after a particularly powerful moment had taken place given how well that moment is written. In spite of saying that though I can see the significance of the ending and think it does feel fitting to the overall flow of the story.

My only other note would be that while this work may begin with a murder, readers should be prepared that it is not structured like a genre work. While there is a body and an investigation, the book is more interested in exploring how it affects the characters rather than detailing the way everything is connected by the investigators. That being said, I think the investigation – while clearly a secondary element of the plot – is quite effectively written in some other respects and while we are certainly kept distant from it, the reader is given enough to follow their thinking and suppositions.

As you can tell I found this to be a really thoughtful and engaging exploration of an obsessional relationship and the terrible things it inspires its participants to do. The book addresses some really interesting themes and ideas and features some exceptional character development. It is a remarkable debut novel. I look forward to seeing what the author does next, whether it is linked to the genre or not.

Murder in a Peking Studio by Chin Shunshin, translated by Joshua A. Fogel

Book Details

Originally published in Japanese in 1976 as Pekin Yūyūkan
English language translation first published in 1986 as Occasional Paper No. 19 by the Center for Asian Studies, University of Arizona

The Verdict

The historical details are excellent and do a good job of conveying a sense of place and time. The locked room, while it takes a minute to arrive, is good enough to justify the read on that score alone.


My Thoughts

Doi Sakutarō, a young man who is about to finish his apprenticeship in selling art antiques, arrives in Peking with instructions to make contact with a Japanese Foreign Office agent. He is asked to renew his contact with Wen Pao-t’ai, a Chinese expert in inscription rubbings who Doi had studied under a few years earlier. It turns out that Wen has been operating as an intermediary in passing bribes to members of the government and Japan, fearing growing Russian influence, initially wants Doi to get close to him to monitor his old friend’s activities.

Doi’s contact, Nasu Keigo, explains how Japan and Russia each have an interest in steering Chinese policy in relation to Manchuria. Tensions are building between the two countries over the future of the region and war seems inevitable but each side wants it to happen on their terms. Japan favors a quick war to take advantage of Russia’s poor infrastructure while Russia wants to drag the conflict out to give them time to move troops and weapons into the region.

The early chapters of the book, while interesting, are extremely heavy in terms of historical content. Chin Shunshin does explain the most important aspects of the background and I think he does a fine job of explaining the complex political tensions. Personally I found the setting to be quite fascinating but I recognize that for those who have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion or the background to the Russo-Japanese War may find the first dozen pages rather dense and overwhelming.

Readers primarily interested in the mystery aspect of the novel, rather than espionage and political maneuverings, will have to wait until about a third of the way into the novel for those elements to be introduced, though readers will no doubt pay close attention when Wen’s studio is initially described. Access to this small building with its single entrance is restricted to just one servant and Wen routinely engages a heavy deadbolt when inside. In short, we have a promising location for a locked room murder.

Once Japan decides to act, Doi is sent in a small party to deliver the first installment of a bribe. When they come to deliver the second the scene plays out much as before. They leave $250,000 with Wen who locks the door behind them. They are being escorted to the gate when they realize they forgot to ask for a receipt and so return to find that Wen is not responding. Just a few minutes have passed and the lock is still engaged so they decide to look through the window only to see him lying on his inscriptions slab. Forcing the door they find him dead having been stabbed with a poisoned dagger and no sign of the bribe money inside.

I found there was a lot to like about this setup which feels extremely well thought-out. I particularly appreciated that the two strands of the puzzle – the question of what happened to the money and how the murder was done – are solved at quite different points in the novel and not viewed as equally important by each player in the drama.

Of the two questions, the one that appealed most to my imagination was the matter of the vanishing money. The interior of the studio is pretty empty while the incredibly short time frame between Doi leaving and returning makes it hard to see how Wen would have had time to hide it anywhere. While the possible explanations feel pretty limited, that is understandable given the extremely constraining circumstances in which this crime took place. Though the investigation is perhaps a little rushed, the explanation struck me as pretty satisfying.

The other question, the matter of the murder, is both simple and complex. Like the issue of the money, the circumstances are extremely constraining, particularly as suspects are thin on the ground. The question of how the crime was achieved is much tougher however. While I note that the author does take pains to reference all important elements needed for the solution before delivering that to us, I came nowhere near to the solution. On reflection, I think the author does enough for the reader to conclude that they played fair.

Chin does introduce us to a sleuth, Chang Shao-kuang, who has an interesting backstory that reflects some of the themes he is discussing more broadly in this novel. For instance, when he is introduced to us it is as a young man who feels like he belongs to the era to come rather than the one he happens to live in that prizes merit above all else. As it happens his professional qualifications, the law, are of less use to him than you might expect. Rather than feeling born for this type of work, it was the only one he could think of when he made his return to the country after many years away and we learn that he has come to be quite successful.

He is certainly a smart investigator and I did enjoy that he does not necessarily feel that he wishes to share his findings with everyone. This does help differentiate him from other genius sleuths and I enjoyed watching him handle the other investigators with more formal standing to investigate the case. I also really appreciated the epilogue in which, several years later, he explains the things he wouldn’t share with the investigators. That felt both satisfying and in keeping with the character while providing the reader with the appropriate sense of closure.

Of course, one of the disappointments in writing this review is that I know that not many people will get the opportunity to read it. It had been published by an academic press, albeit quite affordably, which does mean there are limited copies kicking about.

While Murder in a Peking Studio may seem a little intimidating, at least to begin with, it is built around a solid locked room puzzle. Though a little dense and dry in places, I enjoyed the exploration of a moment in history which felt pleasantly neutral and felt that the solutions to the puzzles were handled and explained well. With the minor caution that the locked room is not the focus until some way into the book, I would suggest that this is worth a look for fans of the locked room or of this era of history.

Constable Guard Thyself! by Henry Wade

Book Details

Originally published in 1935

Inspector Poole #5
Preceded by Mist on the Saltings
Followed by The High Sheriff

The Blurb

Two threats from a newly released convict – a poacher framed on a murder charge – put Captain Scole, Chief Constable of Brodshire, on his guard. Special men are assigned to protect him.

But four days later, Captain Scole is found shot through the head at his desk in Police Headquarters.

A full week later, young Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard is called in to follow a cold trail in the face of open hostility from the local police. And the further he explores the murder, the more baffling it becomes.

Could Scole’s First World War past be catching up with him – or something much closer to home? 

The Verdict

A thoroughly interesting (and thorough) procedural complete with a compelling impossible murder situation.


My Thoughts

Henry Wade is one of my favorite writers of the Golden Age so I cannot really explain why it has been well over a year since I last read one of his books. I had been intending to get back to him again for the past few months but got an extra little push when I noticed several of his books listed in Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement. After reading the descriptions of the impossibilities this seemed like the one that intrigued me most based on the apparent audacity of the crime committed.

That crime is the murder of a Chief Constable within his office in the police station. Junior officers are present in the corridor outside when they hear shots and dash inside. There they find Scole dead having been shot in the forehead, yet there is no sign of the murderer in the room. They could not have escaped through the only door without passing the officers, nor is it easy to see how they could have got in or out through the window given the office is on the first floor and there are no signs of anyone having touched the old drainpipe which seems to be the only thing an intruder could grip onto.

Suspicion quickly falls on Albert Hinde, a recently released prisoner who had made several threats of violence to Scole including once in person. Years earlier Scole had been responsible for sending Hinde to prison causing considerable resentment. What doesn’t make sense though is why Hinde waited to commit murder when he had already had the opportunity and how could he have got through the police station when officers had been placed on alert to look out for him.

Scole’s subordinates are keen to get to work and find his killer and initially resist calls to summon assistance from the Yard but when they are unable to track down Hinde and with their investigation stalled they reluctantly recognize that they need help. Inspector Poole is dispatched and decides to take the case back to the beginning to look at all their base assumptions, taking no fact for granted.

While this book does contain a solid impossible crime story, it is important to stress that it is first and foremost a police procedural. What this means is that we have lots of care taken to establish the critical points of the investigation, checking over important details, carefully comparing pieces of information to make sure that they fit together and ruling out other lines of inquiry. This type of storytelling will appeal to those who like to focus on the details of the investigation but may feel a little slow for those seeking action or big reveals. I enjoyed the story but I would accept that it is quite deliberate in its pacing, although I found the sensation of circling ever tighter around the killer to be quite compelling.

I have now read several stories featuring Inspector Poole and I am increasingly coming to appreciate him as a sleuth. He is a detective of the Inspector French school, albeit a little more fallible in his reasoning. At several points in this story we see him make well-reasoned but incorrect guesses about what might have happened, only to see his theories crumble around him. That fallibility only adds to the book’s strong sense of realism and makes me like him all the more.

Wade not only draws Poole well but also creates a convincing group of policemen to fill the station. While there is not a lot of diversity in the conceptions of those characters, I think each is portrayed quite thoughtfully and credibly. Their squabbles and resentments all feel well observed and I had little difficulty in believing that the reactions of those characters were realistic. Similarly those characters beyond the police station are also portrayed thoughtfully and manage to make significant impact, even when they only appear in a single sequence or phase of the novel.

I was also impressed by the rich themes Wade works into this book, some of which feel quite heavy. While I think this book works simply as a really engaging puzzle story, I think the author thoughtfully raises and tackles a number of challenging topics, some of which feel quite modern.

Reading this I was struck by the thought that this book must have been in the works at about the time a national debate was taking place around the future of policing. In 1932 Lord Trenchard, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had presented his white paper with recommendations to reform policing and in the same year that this book was published the Police College at Hendon accepted its first cohort of trainees. There was some quite strong reaction to these reforms at the time however, prompting some heated debate about the future of policing.

Given the themes of this novel, which discusses issues concerning police recruitment and heirarchies, the tension between the civilian and military mindsets of policing and issues of malpractice, I do wonder if Wade was intending this work to be supportive of the need to professionalize and reform the police. It does seem clear that Wade places much of the blame for the events of this story on Scole and his uncompromising military mindset.

I do continue to find Wade’s discussion of social and political issues to be quite fascinating, in large part because they seem so at odds with the way I often see them described. Typically Wade is portrayed as a conservative, establishment figure which certainly matches his own social background and yet I continue to find his works to offer support for a more progressive view of justice. This book is certainly no exception, discussing the way excessive punishment and a lack of support can lead to greater odds of the individual returning to a life of crime or violence. Add in the discussion of police malpractice and this work does feel quite progressive for its era and at odds with the general picture so often painted of Wade (four years later he wrote an even more pointed work addressing the causes of recidivism, Released for Death, which I have previously reviewed on this blog).

Having discussed the book as a procedural, I do want to take a moment to address the impossible crime elements of the story. Those were after all the reason I was inspired to pick up this Wade.

While I stand by my earlier comment that this book is first and foremost a procedural, the impossible element of the story is quite pleasing and handled pretty well. The physical circumstances of the crime scene are explained well, as is the forensic evidence left at the scene. Though the investigation does hit several dead ends early on, I enjoyed following Poole as he tried to reason through the difference ways someone might have gained access, only to stumble when he realized why that plan did not work. We do drift away from the circumstances of the crime scene in the middle of the novel but I had confidence that there would be a thorough explanation of what happened later on and I was not disappointed.

That explanation may not be particularly dramatic or imaginative but I think it is detailed and convincing. Unfortunately I have to concur with Martin Edwards and J. F. Norris (see his review linked below) that Wade is a little heavy-handed in some of the clues he drops to the murderer’s identity at the start of the novel. I suspect he was assuming that readers would read this as an inverted-style story (or else ROT13: Abg pbafvqre n cbyvprzna orpnhfr bs n gehfg va nhgubevgl) and fail to register their significance. Unfortunately though it did stand out just a little too much for me. Still, even if you recognize the killer it is still satisfying to piece the other parts of this puzzle together.

Overall I was really pleased I made the choice to pick this book for my return to Wade. While its slow and methodical pacing will not suit every reader, the author crafted an interesting scenario with an equally interesting conclusion.

Second Opinions

J. F. Norris at Pretty Sinister Books also enjoyed this, finding it “fascinating on all levels”. He does raise a good point about the need for a character directory!

Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name describes it as ‘an interesting portrait of Police work’ though he notes that a couple of early clues give the murderer’s identity away too easily.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World also praises the book, saying it has all of Wade’s merits.