The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson

The Mind’s Eye
Håkan Nesser
Originally Published as Det grovmaskiga nätet in 1993
English translation published in 2008
Inspector Van Veeteren #1
Followed by Borkmann’s Point

While I have previously written about several crime novels by Scandinavian authors most have fallen outside the publishing powerhouse that is Scandi Noir (perhaps the exception would be The Murder of Harriet Krohn though even that is a little different as it was structured as an inverted crime story). Today’s book, Håkan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye is clearly an example of that type of fiction so I was curious to see whether I would take to it.

The novel begins with Janek Mitter, a schoolteacher, waking up from a night of heavy drinking to find his bathroom door locked. After knocking and yelling for his wife to open the door, he decides to take the door off its hinges and, when he does, he discovers his wife drowned in the bathtub.

Inevitably he comes under suspicion and the first third of the novel details his response to the investigation and eventual trial. Of course the actual solution could not be quite so simple and a second murder at the end of that first section sets the investigation on a different track, exploring the life and history of the victim.

Perhaps the first thing to question is whether, with the crime taking place in a locked bathroom, we ought to consider this a locked room mystery. I feel the locked room is a plot device rather than the point of the mystery. It helps point the police even more strongly toward the idea that Janek, as the one who found the body, is guilty but a mechanical explanation for how it might be achieved is presented fairly early in case anyway. Once the second murder takes place that question is basically forgotten.

This is frustrating for several reasons, not least because the reason for creating the locked room is never really explained, making it an apparently unnecessary step that raises the chances of detection with no apparent benefit to the criminal. In short, locked room connoisseurs will likely feel unimpressed with this element of the story.

Instead this first third of the novel is far more interested in exploring the preparations for the trial both from the perspective of the police and Mitter’s lawyer. This was my favorite phase of the investigation, in part because I found Mitter to be an engaging, if not particularly likeable, character but also because these chapters do a good job of building the reader’s unease with the case being built against him.

As I alluded to earlier there is a second murder and that marks a shift in the story, both in terms of the type of investigation being done and our focus. From this point onward it is Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren’s story as he probes into the pasts of the two victims and tries to understand exactly why they were targeted.

While the investigation of the first murder focuses on some of the more physical aspects of the crime scene, the investigation of the second murder seems to occur in the abstract. The details of the second murder are not really the focus of the investigation, though the location where it takes place is quite interesting, but rather Van Veeteren is focused on exploring the motives and the possible links between the two murders.

I did not particularly warm to Van Veeteren who is presented as a brilliant but unassuming mind wrapped up in a rather dour and caustic shell. He is led by his instincts and intuitions and crucially he has the ability to conceive of ideas that might not occur to most of us because they seem too outrageous or outlandish using only small pieces of evidence.

My problems lie in the way the narrative seems to keep us at an arm’s distance from Van Veeteren, allowing us to observe what he does but not to see everything he sees. This allows Nesser to pull off a moment that feels quite shocking and yet this is only achieved by withholding some information from the reader. I am pretty confident that I was not given everything I needed to solve the mystery myself and so I felt a little cheated by that conclusion.

What makes that all the more frustrating for me is that the ending is in many ways quite memorable. That shocking moment may not be entirely fair in the way it is set up but I think Nesser handles it extremely thoughtfully and seriously, exploring it in a way and with a sense of empathy I would not have expected.

As powerful as that moment is however, I cannot overlook some of the frustrations involved in getting to that point. The lack of resolution for the locked room is one source of irritation as is the withholding of information needed to solve the crime ourselves. Perhaps if this had been pitched more as a thriller rather than a procedural I might have had more tolerance for the latter but unfortunately it fell short of my expectations in that regard.

The result is a book that intrigued me but left me hungry for more. Van Veeteren can be quite funny, albeit in a sort of dour and sarcastic way, and I would have liked more to delve a little deeper into his character to understand him better. Similarly I liked a lot of the characters who struck me as well-observed, particularly the rather odious headmaster of the school Mitter worked at, but Nesser stacks all the most entertaining figures at the start of the story.

Will I return for more? I expect so. There was enough here that I can certainly see the potential in the character and in Nesser’s engaging writing style. It may be a while though before I get around to it…

Further Reading

John Grant had a much more positive take on the novel than me, describing it as gripping, but we do share a disappointment with its locked room.

Close-Up On Death by Maureen O’Brien

Close-Up On Death
Maureen O’Brien
Originally Published 1989
Inspector Bright #1
Followed by Mask of Betrayal

Close-Up On Death begins with stage actress Millie Hale arriving at a house she has arranged to view with her best friend, the popular and talented TV actress Liza Drew, only to find her lying dead on the floor, her mouth eaten away with acid (this sounds grizzly but the descriptions of said damage are thankfully minimal).

The initial appearance of the body suggests suicide although the circumstances are confusing but when an autopsy reveals that the damage was administered after death it becomes clear that Liza Drew was murdered. The problem is understanding who might have had a reason to kill her, particularly when everyone keeps asserting that she was loved by everyone who knew her and worked with her.

The investigation soon focuses on three individuals, all of whom were closely linked with Liza. Her best friend, her boyfriend and her mother. Each of the three had the opportunity to kill Liza but the stumbling block is understanding exactly why.

Maureen O’Brien decides to present her story from the perspective of that best friend, Millie. This is an interesting choice, in part because it puts a little more distance between the reader and the investigation, but also because it allows us entry into her mind, understanding how the case affects her and also giving us additional insight into her personality and allowing the author to focus on how a murder affects the lives of the people around the victim.

I think each of the main characters in the book are interesting and complex, each changing as a result of the murder investigation, but Millie has the most complicated journey, in part because the death of Liza has a material effect on her career. Pushed into the spotlight when the media hounds her, she finds herself responding unexpectedly to that pressure and this results in some opportunities opening up for her.

One of the most appealing aspects of the novel is the way O’Brien fills her story with details about what it is like to work as an actor. Clearly drawing on some of her own experiences, she not only captures the factual details but what it feels like to live that life. An example that is likely to stick with me is Millie’s comparison of the way backstage people treat you when working on the stage as opposed to the way a star might be handled on television. It makes for fascinating reading that feels grounded in real, personal observation.

I think it is also important to say that those theatrical themes and details are not treated as dressing but are actually as important to this story as catching a killer. O’Brien ruminates on the nature of success as an actor, the idea of the public and the private persona and the casting process and while those moments sometimes impact on the mystery narrative, they are also interesting explorations of theme in their own right.

The sleuth, Inspector John Bright, is an interesting creation, in part because O’Brien chooses to present him in a highly antagonistic manner. He agitates, irritates and manipulates the three suspects, trying to break apart their support networks to try and make them more vulnerable to his influence. For much of the book he is far from likeable, particularly given we see him through Millie’s eyes and she tends to dehumanize him, referring to him as “knife blade” for most of the novel.

What makes him so compelling is that his method is shown to work. His actions destabilize the relationships between the group, twisting and turning them against each other as he acts the provocateur. It is fascinating to see how he achieves this, to see the effects it has on their lives and how unrepentant he is about the damage he does. He has a job to do and he will cheerily do it.

The choice to keep him in the background, albeit as a lurking and threatening presence, for much of the story is similarly pretty interesting. Some of the comments I have read about the book question why it is billed as the first Inspector Bright novel when he is not the protagonist but I think the point is that he is always affecting the characters, even when he is not present in a scene.

It ought to be said that the approach to solving this case is principally psychological. There are no problems of alibis to sort out – we learn very early on that all three suspects cannot prove their stories – and the means of death is similarly clear. The question becomes understanding which of these three people would have committed that crime and how they could have done so given everyone’s insistence that Liza Drew was sweet and had no enemies. Puzzle-focused readers may be frustrated with this approach but I found that to be a compelling problem to try and solve.

This brings me to the novel’s solution and here I must confess to having some mixed feelings. Let’s start with a positive – I think O’Brien’s exploration of the killer’s reasons and the choices they made makes a lot of sense both psychologically and practically. Those reasons are explained pretty clearly in the final chapters and I never had any difficulty accepting them.

On the flip side, I think while the story tries to maintain multiple suspects right to the end, I think the eventual solution comes to feel quite inevitable by the end because the other possibilities would not resolve some of the key themes of the novel. That, to me, dulls the surprise in the reveal.

How you view that ending will ultimately depend on whether your interest is purely in the puzzle or if you prefer a more thematic approach to your crime fiction. If you fall into the former group then it is likely you will be frustrated by the choices, particularly in the manner in which O’Brien reveals what had happened. She does this through a device that I think is a little clumsy, providing some finality and a sense of resolution that is not directly and deliberately prompted by the mechanism of the investigation.

When viewed the other way, looking at it in the context of the themes developed throughout the novel, I think it becomes a much more powerful ending. I personally fall into this second camp and with the exception of not liking the mechanism by which all is revealed, I felt satisfied by a conclusion that made sense and helped me understand exactly why that crime took place.

Overall I had a great time with this first Inspector Bright novel and I am certainly eager to read more of the series. I have already set to work tracking down a copy of Mask of Betrayal so expect thoughts on that at some point in the next month or two.

Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (July 2019)

Let’s do something a little different today…

I have been wanting to treat myself to a Coffee and Crime subscription for a while and when my wife suggested I should treat myself I couldn’t resist. I was very excited when I found out that the box was waiting for me when I got home today and I decided to go ahead and shoot a quick video where I open it up and let you all see what I got along with me.

Suffice it to say that I am not a natural in front of camera but hopefully this gives you a better sense of what these boxes are like and whether they may appeal to you!

One thing I forgot to say in the video is that the two books themselves were both in excellent condition given their age and had minimal wear and tear. In fact in the case of the Holly Roth the text itself was pristine. I was very pleasantly surprised!

If you are interested in checking these out for yourself they can be purchased from Etsy here. Please note that if you want to make requests such as changing the coffee to tea or hot chocolate or sharing your reading preferences that you can message Kate through the store.

I am really excited about the two books that Kate sent, not least because they’re now the first Penguin green cover paperbacks in my collection. Quite how I got away with being a vintage crime fan without any of these before I don’t know. I hope to review both books at some point soon as they sound excellent.

If you have any questions about the box or opinions about either book do let me know!

The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes

The Gay Phoenix
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1976
Inspector Appleby #30
Preceded by The Appleby File
Followed by The Ampersand Papers

Few writers frustrate me as much as Michael Innes does. My first two experiences were so irritating and disappointing that I swore to myself that I would never pick up one of his novels again. I broke that pledge when I stumbled on The New Sonia Wayward which turned out, against all my expectations, to be one of my favorite inverted mysteries. This got me wondering, could I have misjudged Innes?

The Gay Phoenix was the natural book to follow up on that positive experience given that it is also an inverted story. Like The New Sonia Wayward this book begins with two characters at sea (aboard the titular Gay Phoenix), one of whom dies in a way that the other is not responsible. Also like that book this leads to an assumption of a false identity, albeit in a more direct way.

The two men are brothers, Arthur and Charles, who have a rather strained relationship. Charles, the dead man, was the elder brother and had achieved considerable success in the business world, living the jetset lifestyle of lavish spending, eating and promiscuity. Arthur has long resented this, not only because he has failed to find that same success in life but also because his bachelor brother has told him that his money will not pass to him on his death.

When Charles is struck dead by a loose beam, Arthur sees an opportunity and decides to cast his brother’s body over the side of the ship and assume his identity. The two share a similar appearance although he has to make a small sacrifice with the help of a sharp, heated blade to pull the deception off. It seems that Charles’ fortune and lifestyle will be his for the taking and then things take an inevitable turn for the worse…

Let’s start with a positive – Innes may have repeated himself with several elements of this story but Arthur’s plan on how he will pull off this trick is rather impressive and quite ingenious on a psychological level. Unfortunately this section of the story is relayed to us as a tiresome anecdote from an Antipodean doctor at a dull dinner party but while this has its frustrations, it does allow the reader to work to deduce exactly what Arthur is playing at for themselves as at first it seems his actions will be counterproductive.

I also really enjoyed the two chapters that follow in which we follow Arthur as he returns to England and begins spending his brother’s fortune. At this point we suspect that something will go wrong but the nature of the problem will probably surprise the reader, as will the manner in which it is raised.

Innes’ approach here is to cultivate a sense of unpredictability, creating a situation in which Arthur is forced to respond to events he has no knowledge of. At its best this can be very funny, leading to some very memorable moments where he is caught off guard, but it also means that we find ourselves quite far away from anything approaching mystery writing. Innes does not lay any groundwork for these developments and so the reader cannot reason what will happen, they simply have to sit back and see where the story will take them.

Nor can we say that we are in thriller territory. While there is a sequence in which Arthur finds himself in physical danger, most of the rest of the story is talkative as opposed to being action-driven. What plot there is will often be relayed to the reader after the fact in gossipy society conversations which clearly amused the author. Sadly they didn’t do the same for me.

That is not to say that I was completely immune to the book’s sense of humor. Not only did I laugh out loud at a few early wrinkles in Arthur’s plan, there is one very successful comedic sequence later on as Arthur finds himself unexpectedly face-to-face with someone who evidently knows him well, forcing him to try to bluff his way through the exchange. Here Innes lets us live in the moment, following the action as it happens, and the result is a scene that is not only surprising but that builds very effectively to a punchline moment, setting up the novel’s final act.

Increasingly I am coming to wonder if my real problem with Innes’ work lies in his series detective, Sir John Appleby. I have now read three Appleby mysteries and in each of the three I have felt that the character never asserts himself properly on the story, his investigations tending to meander around the actions of others’ rather than taking control of the action. His lack of any official standing here only amplifies that problem.

This case takes place after his career is over with him living in retirement with his wife in the English countryside. This means that his involvement here is in a strictly unofficial capacity, his interest aroused as a neighbor rather than as a detective. Even when he does get involved he remains relatively disinterested in providing a resolution to the affair, seeking answers mostly for the sake of his own curiosity.

As I read this I was struck by the feeling that we have a decent blend of a crime story and a comedy of errors ruined by the unwelcome intrusion of an ineffective investigation. The parts of the story that work best are those in which we live in the moment, following the unpredictable twists and turns as Arthur’s best laid plans threaten to collapse all around him. He is, after all, the more interesting character psychologically and I think it would have been interesting to explore precisely how things turn sour.

Unfortunately Innes’ interest lies in exploring the relationships between the social classes in the English countryside but I found little on offer either illuminating or particularly amusing. When you add in the author’s irritating habit of demonstrating his own superior vocabulary by using words such as otiose and bedizened at every opportunity and dressing key moments with literary allusions, it all makes for a rather frustrating and ultimately quite tiresome reading experience that brought all my bad memories of Innes’ writing flooding back.

While this book does have a few positive moments, I ultimately found it a rather unrewarding experience. It does offer up a few good ideas and moments but when you consider that Innes’ earlier novel The New Sonia Wayward trod a very similar path with far more wit, originality and a clearer sense of purpose I can see little reason to suggest you seek out a copy of this.

Further Reading

Nick Fuller is far more receptive to Innes than I am but he shares my disappointment in this one while Bev at My Reader’s Block appreciated this as a character study and liked Appleby’s wife but was disappointed in it as a detective story.

The Dragon Scroll by I. J. Parker

The Dragon Scroll
I. J. Parker
Originally Published 2005
Sugawara Akitada #1
Followed by Rashomon Gate

The subject of today’s post is a book that holds a special place in my heart and that certainly played a large part in reigniting my interest in the mystery genre. For that reason what follows is perhaps not really so much a review as a celebration of a book and a character that mean a lot to me and while I will try to discuss the merits of the book in its own right, I do have to give a warning that I may not be entirely impartial.

To explain why I have to take you back and explain my relationship with the mystery genre. As some of you may remember, I began reading mysteries at a young age. Early favorites included the Three Investigators and the Five Found-Outers though I also read a few classics of the genre. Getting older I transitioned to reading whatever titles I could find on my father’s bookcases which meant I dipped into stuff like Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries.

But then during my college and university years things changed. I didn’t exactly stop reading but my relationship with books changed significantly and I found that I was more focused on reading to support my learning than for the love of it. This continued after I graduated and started working, particularly because the type of work I was in at that time left little time for recreation.

In 2008 though everything changed for me. In that year I got married and emigrated to the United States where I spent eighteen months waiting to receive my employment visa and, for the first time in years, I had time on my hands. I decided to fill that time by watching a whole lot of Japanese cinema, developing an interest in Samurai movies, and from there I decided it would be cool to read some fiction set in that era.

I started out with Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries which were set during the era of the Tokugawa shogunate. In researching that series however I happened upon an article about I. J. Parker’s relatively new series which was set several centuries earlier during the Heian period of Japanese history.

The protagonist of the series is Sugawara no Akitada, a junior official in the Ministry of Justice who in this book arrives in the Kazusa province to investigate why several shipments of tax revenue have not made it to the capital. What complicates his mission is that the provincial governor who appears to be a prime suspect is about to become the emperor’s father-in-law, putting Akitada in a difficult and potentially career-threatening position.

A further complication arises when the former governor of the province, who had reached out to Akitada to seek a private meeting, is found dead having apparently fallen in his library. Suspecting foul play, Akitada decides to investigate this matter too with the help of his elderly family retainer Seimei and an impudent, womanizing soldier he meets on the road named Tora.

The least interesting of the various plot elements is the question of what has become of the tax shipments. Here the story suffers a little from a lack of suspects, essentially allowing the reader two possibilities, but this story strand leads to further, more challenging questions such as how the money is being hidden and transported. It likely won’t wow puzzle readers but I found it a solid starting point that justified Akitada’s involvement in the story.

I was more interested in the questions raised by the death of the former governor and the mystery about the information that he wished to share with Akitada. There are a few reasons for this, not least that I always enjoy seeing how a detective works out that a death that appears to have been natural or an accident is actually murder without witnesses or clear clue pointing at that explanation. Akitada begins with a suspicion but he is able to expand on it through logic and observation, helping to establish him as a skillful (if still fairly inexperienced) investigator.

There is a third strand to the mystery that is principally investigated by Tora that relates to some strange goings on in the streets of the provincial capitol and that introduces us to a set of characters from its underworld. Here I want to avoid giving away any firm details as it is the least expected and most creative part of the novel but I want to give some credit to Parker for the way in which this is developed. Essentially Tora’s investigation will be presented as its own story strand, incorporating different levels of society, and it runs parallel to the main investigation. Typically there is eventually some crossover between his adventures and those of his master and it is no different here but a large part of the fun comes from trying to figure out precisely how those threads will eventually converge.

This establishes a structure that runs throughout most of the novels in this series in which Akitada and Tora end up investigating several different puzzles that seem unconnected. Eventually we learn a piece of information that bridges these plots, drawing the action together and presenting what we know in a different light. I will say that The Dragon Scroll is not quite as intricately structured as some later entries in the series as many of the connections can be worked out relatively early in the novel but while it is not particularly surprising, I still found it to be quite entertaining.

Perhaps the thing I like most about this series is the development and evolution of its protagonist, Akitada. Born into a noble but impoverished family, I love the complexities and contrasts Parker finds in the character. As with the plot structuring, I think later titles in the series showcase this better (and explore some of the less likable parts of his character) but there is still plenty of dimension to admire and appreciate here.

This story serves as a good introduction to the character because of the way it pushes him out of his comfort zone. When he travels to Kazusa he finds himself stumped by some awkward social situations he has to resolve according to proper etiquette. Some of the situations he finds himself in are quite fascinating, exposing different aspects of Japanese culture and society such as attitudes towards the Buddhist clergy and the nobility.

The most awkward situations Akitada finds himself in are those which involve women. He is pretty inexperienced in that area anyway but in the course of this story he finds himself attracted to two quite different women and unsure how he should respond and where to take things. These two situations explore different aspects of Akitada’s personality, personal background and values and help to bring him to life.

The supporting characters of Tora and Seimei have an interesting and complicated relationship that also evolves over the course of this novel. Seimei has a relatively limited range as a character, often falling into particular patterns of behavior though Parker gifts him a wonderful and surprising moment later in the adventure that I find extremely entertaining and shows a slightly different side to him. Tora, by contrast, is a fuller creation and I enjoy the energy and passion he injects into the story, even if some readers find it unbelievable that he would be so openly insubordinate to Akitada.

So, how do I feel about The Dragon Scroll on revisiting it (for the third time)? Well, I think it succeeds as an introduction to these characters and the world. The mystery itself is quite serviceable, if a little slanted towards adventure storytelling, though I think that the style feels appropriate to the historical setting. Perhaps the storytelling is a little slow, sensual and detail-oriented though once again I found that fit the tone and setting of the story very well.

Based on this I can certainly see why I was so drawn to read more about these characters and why it spurred me on to develop an interest in historical mystery fiction. My memory of the series is that the next novel, Rashomon Gate, was even more compelling and I will look forward to revisiting that one at some point soon.

Note: The series order for the Akitada mysteries can be confusing as Parker’s first publisher opted to release the stories out of chronological order. The Dragon Scroll is the intended starting point and when Parker changed publishers it was issued as the first title in the series.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

The Killer Inside Me
Jim Thompson
Originally Published 1952

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is often cited as the author’s masterpiece. Certainly I think it remains his best known novel in spite of other books having had more popular movie adaptations.

The book, written in 1952, is also one of the earliest examples of a inverted crime novel featuring a psychopathic protagonist. There had been killers who killed multiple victims before and arguably even seemed to enjoy it but never with the degree of violence present here.

The novel concerns a Texas lawman, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. He comes from one of the older families in the neighborhood and has lived there all his life. The book opens with him being dispatched to chase a woman out of town who has set herself up as a prostitute.

When he encounters that woman, Joyce, he begins to get violent with her but rather than inspiring her to get out of town, it prompts the start of a sadomasochistic relationship between the pair. Lou enjoys himself but expresses the feeling that he is experiencing the symptoms of what he terms “the sickness” that has plagued him since his teen years when he sexually abused a young girl – a crime that his brother took the blame for.

Lou’s long-term girlfriend Amy Stanton, a schoolteacher from one of the most prominent families in town, becomes suspicious of his behavior and when Joyce expresses a desire to run away with him and get married he realizes that the situation can’t go on. He concocts a plan to kill Joyce and put the blame on Elmer, the son of a local construction magnate who he blames for the death of his brother. He carries the plan out but soon realizes that he is under suspicion, prompting further murders as he tries to clean up loose ends.

One of the reasons I had held off on reading this book until now, aside from my long-stated preference to avoid starting out with an author’s most famous work, is that I had heard that this was an incredibly violent novel. Certainly I do not think that people are wrong to say this – Lou is vicious, administering severe beatings that reduce his victims to a bloody pulp – but I think it slightly mischaracterizes the work. Thompson’s writing is not as explicit in the details of violence as that of some other hard-boiled from the decades that follow – what sets it apart is the focus on exploring how Lou feels during and after those events. We are put into the mind of a killer and it’s not a pleasant place to be.

I don’t want to spoil the later parts of the novel so the safest part to discuss in detail is the relationship with the prostitute Joyce. As I indicated earlier, this begins with an act of brutal violence and yet it seems to quickly turn into a relationship in which he abuses her body. I say seems because Thompson does not directly describe what they do, only the feelings it creates in Lou and we see their interactions outside the bedroom as she discusses wanting to run away with him. Assuming that Lou’s narration is truthful and accurate, something we have no reason to doubt as this is not presented as an attempt to convince the reader of a character’s innocence or guilt, the relationship seems quite consensual by this point.

Later, when Lou decides to murder her, we are reminded that he felt he was in love with her. Even if that is not the case it is apparent he is far more attracted to Joyce and feels he has far more in common with her than he does with the prissier Amy but Joyce is an inconvenience. She represents the side of him that he needs to cover up in order to fit into Texan society.

For years Lou had been able to hide the violent side of his personality by developing an “aw, shucks” persona and masking his fierce intelligence. His work in the sheriff’s department, attendance at weekly Bible classes and long-term relationship with Amy have led most to consider him to be a pillar of the community. Part of what makes this book so shocking is the way Thompson has him abuse their trust, acting viciously towards them and the people they love while looking them directly in the eye.

Thompson attempts to give us a psychological understanding of Lou, actually supplying us with a probable diagnosis by the end of the novel. That diagnosis is both medical and rooted in the exploration of an event from Lou’s childhood which is intriguing though I was not entirely convinced in the latter, perhaps because the details remain vague as Lou makes an active choice to repress them.

Some criticism I have read of the book focuses on the relative treatments of Lou’s violent acts when targeted at men and women. The argument goes that the novel is misogynistic because the murders of the women are more brutal, detailed and vicious while the murders of men are barely described at all. I agree that they are correct to describe those murders in that way however I feel that Thompson’s point is that Lou’s “sickness” is directed specifically at women and are tied up in that event from his past. That is to say that the violence aimed at women and the hypocrisy of American society on this issue is an intentional theme of the book rather than something that critics have revealed through textural analysis. That isn’t to say that it makes for comfortable reading however and I certainly would sympathize with anyone who finds it makes for a difficult or unpleasant experience.

If we switch perspectives a little and look at this as an example of an inverted crime story I think there are some further points of interest worth exploring. For one thing, this is much closer to a traditional inverted mystery story than any of the other Thompson works I have read so far. Lou develops something approaching a reasonable plan but there are flaws in it that the reader can discern and use to work out how everything might unravel. Several developments are clued pretty well in the text and while a few of those developments are complete surprises, I never felt cheated by the book.

Thompson attempts to portray a police investigation, albeit one that often operates in the background of his story with the protagonist not always aware of the details of what is going on. We focus on movements, motives and opportunity, although Lou attempts to subvert those investigations using his own knowledge and access, making it clear that this is not just the tale of a man committing crimes but also the efforts to bring him to justice.

It makes for pretty compelling reading, helped along by Thompson’s witty writing style. Lou is never someone you feel the slightest shred of sympathy for however, nor does he blend in quite as successfully as Nick Corey does in Thompson’s later novel Pop. 1280.

It is that latter point that I think ultimately makes that novel stand out to me as a more successful and complete work, even if it offers a less convincing explanation of its killer’s actions than this novel does. I would suggest that book is often funnier and lighter in tone, in spite of being just as violent. That, for me, is Thompson’s masterpiece and so, I suppose, I have to say that The Killer Inside Me is a little overrated (though it was the more influential work).

That is not to say however that it is a disappointing read or not worth your attention. While its themes and tone won’t be for everyone, The Killer Inside Me is certainly one of the milestone texts in the history of the crime novel and while that alone would justify a recommendation, I think it is an interesting read in its own right.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Death on the Cherwell was the second of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s, all of which were reprinted a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range.

I previously read and reviewed Murder Underground, the first of her novels but found it to be a frustrating read in the way it blended (or rather, failed to blend) its comical and mystery elements into a plot. Still, I owned Death on the Cherwell already and felt that it was worth giving the book and the author another chance to impress.

The novel opens with four students gathering on top of a building to discuss their shared loathing of their college’s bursar, Ms. Denning. They form a secret society where they can share their complaints and frustrations about her. As they talk they notice a canoe drifting down river and the very person they were talking about lies dead inside having drowned. The problem is that if she drowned as a result of an accident how did she come to get back in the boat?

As introductions for murder victims go, having your corpse drift slowly down a river is fairly memorable while also serving to reinforce that university setting. At the same time, the situation is genuinely mystifying, in part because the manner of discovery is so suggestive of murder when you consider that were the body not in the boat the assumption would have been accidental drowning.

The four girls decide to play sleuth and start looking into the death on their own, inspired by the exploits of one of their cousins. Now, when I had read Hay’s previous novel, Murder Underground, I had assumed that it was a one-off novel so I was surprised to discover that two characters from that novel make extended “guest” appearances here. I can only assume that Hay intended to create a Marvel-like Pongleton Extended Universe with Betty and Basil serving as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson-type characters…

The tone of the investigation, much like that previous novel, is often quite comical. Betty and Basil do end up making pretty significant contributions to the story and contribute a light and breezy tone to the proceedings. While I felt this often worked against the premise of Murder Underground, coming off as callous given the characters’ relationships to the deceased, here it fits much better. Indeed I found myself wishing that more time was spent following their somewhat amateurish efforts rather than the somewhat drab and lifeless police investigation portion of the narrative.

This procedural element feels, in contrast to the adventures of the Pongletons and company, to be simultaneously detail-focused and lacking in energy. We traipse up and down the banks of the Cherwell, following a grumpy farmer and spend lots of time tracking movements. I often like those types of detail-driven detective stories (I do, after all, enjoy the adventures of Inspector French) but I found little to excite or interest me here because for much of the book there seems to be little progress being made.

This weakness in the middle section of the novel feels particularly disappointing because the plot’s ultimate destination and explanation of the circumstances behind that death are really quite interesting. Hay clues these developments fairly but I think the relevance of those clues passed me by as I allowed myself to be distracted by some other aspects of the story. This made for quite a satisfying reveal and certainly one of the more memorable resolutions to a Golden Age mystery I have encountered for quite some time.

Fortunately while the mystery elements drag in this section of the book, I found other aspects of the story’s setting to be appealing enough to keep me going. For instance, the characters Hay creates to populate her book with are all pretty recognizable university types of the era and certainly help to ground the action in its Oxford setting. There is a little bit of conflict between town and gown to navigate and some jokes are directed at the students who are studying English Literature and Language because they lack any other passion to pursue.

One aspect of the book that seems to trouble some readers is the portrayal of an Eastern European student who comes under suspicion for basically being foreign in England. While I can see that there are definitely some stereotypes at play, I feel Hay ultimately punctures them later in the story and in the process she shows that character to be a little more developed than she initially appears.

Perhaps my favorite sequence in the novel doesn’t really have anything to do with the mystery at all. It involves a character who has produced a (very!) slim volume of poetry that he is endeavoring to sell through the local bookstore. We are told that students and dons alike have got into the habit of reading entire books while in the shop itself and this character has developed a rather elaborate plan to make sure his copies actually sell. This sequence is handled with a wonderfully light touch and it is probably the thing I will retain longest from this book.

So when it comes to evaluating this novel I am left with a bit of a problem. While Death on the Cherwell starts and finishes well, the middle meanders and is mostly forgettable as a mystery, even if I found other parts of the story that appealed to me. As a result I am a little uncertain about how I feel about it. I certainly found it to be a more entertaining and balanced read than its predecessor and I found its university setting to be pretty appealing but were I reading this purely for the mystery I would probably have given up and not reached the ending.

As things stand though I have bought the final of Hay’s mysteries and will be curious to see how that compares (and if it also fits into the Pongleton universe).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)