Holmes on Film: Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) & A Canine Sherlock – Movie (1912)

In early January 2021 I started work on preparing a series of posts in which I would explore some Holmes-related and Holmes-adjacent films. Over the course of about five days I binge-watched close to a dozen movies, making some loose notes. Before I actually got around to doing the hard part (the writing of blog posts) the political events of that moment had grabbed my attention. By the time I could turn my attention back to the project my vacation time was over and the movies had all merged together in my memory. I would have to begin from scratch.


Rather than picking a full-length feature to start with, I decided to pick on some of the very short works I haven’t seen before. Both of the short films I will be writing about today can be found in the US on the Flicker Alley Blu Ray release of the 1916 William Gillette movie (of which more at a later date).

So, with that preamble out of the way – let’s talk movies!

Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)

Why didn’t this film get its own post? Well, it’s less than a minute long and it is clearly intended to be just a novelty that has some fun with some trick photography.

Still, while it may not be a substantial work it is nevertheless an important film because it represents the earliest known appearance of a character called Sherlock Holmes on screen. I do use that wording deliberately – the name is used to convey intelligence so the viewer will be even more astonished at the visual trickery but that is the extent of the characterization.

The story, such as it is, is that Holmes is in his flat when a burglar appears to take his silver. This figure is able to suddenly appear and then vanish with the aid of some stop tricks, then a very recent development in film, producing the titular bafflement in the Great Detective.

It’s cute enough, if obviously very slight, but what interested me was that it uses Holmes in the first place. This was an American production, made a year before Doyle returned to the character with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I think that the use of the name illustrates how widely known the character was. Of course that popularity, and the character’s association with film, would only increase in the years to come…

A Canine Sherlock (1912)

The first thing to note is that A Canine Sherlock is not really a Sherlock Holmes film as the name is really being used as a synonym for a master detective. It is about fifteen minutes long and offers something of a plot as the detective will have to find and capture a gang of villains who have robbed a bank. As the title suggests, the gag in this lightly comic adventure is that it is the dog rather than his master, the detective Hawkshaw, who will ultimately solve the case and save the day.

In an opening scene we learn that their plan hinges on the use of a poisoned coin that will render the person who touches it unconscious. It’s not a bad trick and it suits the generally silly tone of the piece, though it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. The poisoning, while dramatic, does absolutely nothing to advance their scheme which hinges on them producing guns and threatening to blow up the bank if anyone tries to stop them.

After getting away Hawkshaw arrives with his canine helper in tow who sets about investigating while his master mostly just stands there. Getting the scent, he then sets off to track down the villains at their lair, finds evidence, and then brings his master to pull off the arrest. It’s all pretty silly but it can be very entertaining, particularly as the dog pulls a trick to get admission to the house and then riffles through some papers. I suggest that you don’t think about it too hard or look for credibility and instead just enjoy the cuteness.

It is, as noted, still a slight work and there’s no detection really worth speaking of but it’s cute nonetheless. Are there any actual Holmesian touches? Not really, beyond the trickery used to gain admission to the house in the first place and the detective’s expertise at fighting. The latter is actually the most ludicrous part of the film as we see the detective holding a hardened criminal in place by crossing his ankles, but in the build-up we do see him anticipate the villain’s moves, dodging attacks even when his back is turned.

Still, I was entertained and pleasantly surprised at how quickly the fifteen minutes passed. What’s more, it looks pretty amazing as presented on the Blu Ray release with a very sharp image. Of course that’s not always to the film’s benefit – the set paintings in the bank look pretty dodgy when seen in high definition – but while its staginess is evident, the rather cartoonish approach to the fireplace in the villain’s lair looks pretty striking and added a little interest for me.

As Holmes-adjacent works go, this is pretty cute and while I wouldn’t buy the Gillette movie Blu Ray for it alone, I was very pleased that it was available as an extra.

The plan for this occasional series is to for it to be an occasional effort, like my Detection Club project, rather than a weekly endeavor (there will be more Columbo soon, honest!). There will be more whenever I have the time and inclination but be prepared for me to jump around rather than to try to watch things in any sort of structure or order!

One by One by Ruth Ware

Originally published in 2021

Getting snowed in at a luxurious, rustic ski chalet high in the French Alps doesn’t sound like the worst problem in the world. Especially when there’s a breathtaking vista, a full-service chef and housekeeper, a cozy fire to keep you warm, and others to keep you company. Unless that company happens to be eight coworkers…each with something to gain, something to lose, and something to hide.

When the cofounder of Snoop, a trendy London-based tech start-up, organizes a weeklong trip for the team in the French Alps, it starts out as a corporate retreat like any other: presentations and strategy sessions broken up by mandatory bonding on the slopes. But as soon as one shareholder upends the agenda by pushing a lucrative but contentious buyout offer, tensions simmer and loyalties are tested. The storm brewing inside the chalet is no match for the one outside, however, and a devastating avalanche leaves the group cut off from all access to the outside world. Even worse, one Snooper hadn’t made it back from the slopes when the avalanche hit.

As each hour passes without any sign of rescue, panic mounts, the chalet grows colder, and the group dwindles further…one by one.

Like many I have recently found myself looking for a new social media outlet in anticipation that one of the ones I use already may soon not be around any more (or so frustrating to me that I may not want to use it). So far I have tried several different options from some that stick pretty closely to the sort of experience I get from Twitter to others that offer more unique experiences. Still, as open as I am to trying new things it is hard to imagine that I would ever be interested in something like Snoop, the trendy social app from Ruth Ware’s One by One which allows its users to spy on and share the music currently being played by their friends, family and celebrities they follow. Fortunately I was able to put those reservations to one side to focus on the mystery itself here.

Ware’s novel takes place in a luxurious ski lodge high in the French alps. The senior management behind the Snoop app have arrived to ski, plan and bond together but it soon turns out that several of those attending have another purpose in mind: they want to push the shareholders to accept a lucrative buyout offer that would make them all rich.

A bad-tempered meeting is followed by some time on the slopes but the weather is turning treacherous forcing the group to return to the chalet. Shortly after they get back an avalanche leaves the party snowed in and without power or cell reception. More worryingly, one of them never made it back at all. As the group waits to be rescued they find their numbers diminishing and before long they are wondering if there is a killer among them…

It is quite likely that at some point I will put together a ranked list of And Then There Were None pastiches. If and when that happens, there is a very good chance that this book will place quite highly on that list. Ware’s novel is quite purposeful in using the basic elements that make Christie’s story such a success but it avoids the trap of simply retelling that story with a different setting or characters. Instead it makes use of some of those conceptual elements while ultimately doing something a little bit different with them.

Exactly how Ware handles those elements differently here is hard to discuss without immediately clueing in anyone with a decent background in vintage crime fiction. In fact I caught onto where this was headed very early but while I guessed where this was heading, I was still able to really enjoy the journey to that ending.

After a very short excerpt from a news report describing the aftermath of the story, we jump back in time to the moment where the party first arrived. We then follow the events over those five days from the perspectives of two characters – Erin, one of the two staff members working at the chalet, and Liz, whose background and role in the story is initially a little mysterious.

I found both narrators interesting and felt that Ware used them in clever ways, playing on the idea that each character is on the outside of the party. Erin, as a staff member, is always present, observing what is happening yet at least up until the point that a body is found, she is barely acknowledged by the guests. Also, as she is far from trendy when it comes to her cellphone use, Ware uses her well to explore what exactly this app is, how it works and why it might have appeal for some users.

Liz on the other hand is more purposefully excluded. The reasons for her evident discomfort at being there are intriguing and while Ware hints pretty strongly at their nature early on, I found the exploration of her mentality and her status within the group to be quite compelling and felt that it made the character an interesting one to explore.

The other members of the skiing party are in contrast a little more colorfully drawn. With titles like Friends Czar, Head of Beans, and Head of Cool, the novel enjoys poking fun at trendy but shallow corporate cultures and effortful attempts to appear effortless. While these characters are not particularly sympathetic and often appear to be larger-than-life, I did appreciate that there are moments where we do at least understand them a little better and where the author uses these broad character types to explore themes of entitlement, class, and gender in the workplace.

While those themes are interesting, this is one of those stories that is really all about its atmosphere and plotting. Ware’s use of an avalanche to isolate her group of characters and create a closed circle is an effective one. It not only provides an effective boundary for keeping those characters together, it also adds some extra menace as the characters have to confront their increasingly inhospitable environs. Even a deluxe ski chalet becomes inhospitable without power or heat and Ware does a good job of reminding us of just how dire their plight may be throughout the book, particularly as we near the conclusion.

The discomfort caused by that isolation is amplified by these characters already being in a heightened state of tension with one another at the start of the novel. The matter of the buyout causes tensions to rise and characters to already be suspicious of the others in the party and so the reader must consider whether this is directly linked to the deaths or simply contributing to the quarrels among those stranded, adding to the interest of the premise.

Without a formal detective character, the investigation is a cooperative effort, at least in theory. In practice however the two chalet staff take the lead and show the most initiative in the search for the truth. This works pretty well, not only because Erin is learning everything about these characters for the first time but also because they have a clearer motive in trying to resolve the matter, even when it isn’t clear that anyone has been murdered at all. Given the considerable damage to the chalet neither would want the scandal of a guest (or two) dying to be still circulating while they are searching for a new position.

The least compelling part of that investigation is really in the immediate aftermath of the first disappearance. The choice to not have the characters immediately recognize the danger has strengths and weaknesses – on the positive side it means that most of the characters have their guard down for a while but it also gives those chapters a rather leisurely pacing. Thankfully the book speeds up once we have a verified corpse on our hands!

As for the solution, I think it works pretty well. I noted earlier that I worked out where this was going very, very early and so I wasn’t surprised but what I like about the ending is that it isn’t dependent purely on the shock factor. Rather what is interesting about the ending is how it ties into some of the broader themes addressed in the novel overall and some of the character notes struck in the reveal. Add in a rather thrilling action sequence and it makes for an entertaining conclusion.

Given that I had come to this bracing myself for disappointment, I was rather pleased that I found things to interest me here. While it clearly draws some pretty significant inspiration from Christie, I see that as a strength of the book and I appreciate that Ware doesn’t simply emulate the source material but does things to make it her own, both in terms of the structure and the themes addressed. It certainly increases my interest in trying some of the author’s other work, so don’t be too shocked if you see more Ware appear on this blog in the future!

The Verdict: I have read a lot of works inspired by And Then There Were None over the years – this is one of the most successful and entertaining. Worth a look.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was only published in 2021 so there’s a pretty good chance that your local bookstore will have it in stock. If they don’t however they should be easily able to order you a copy. The ISBN number for the US paperback is 9781501188824.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

Death from the Clouds by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Gavin Frew

Originally published in 1988 as 雲から贈る死
English translation first published in 1991

“I will send them all death from on top of the clouds.”

In a dream, Toko hears her Uncle Okito utter this deadly threat. Now the dream appears to be coming true. The first is Uncle Ryuta, president of the family electronics corporation – dead in an inexplicable plane crash. Next is Yaeko, Uncle Ryuta’s mistress – poisoned. Who is next? Uncle Koji, in line for company president? Or Toko’s own beloved father?

The police suspect the author of these brilliant crimes to be Uncle Okito, the genius brother who had made the family fortunes. But Okito is dead, an apparent suicide more than a month before.

Toko has her own idea of where the key to the mystery lies – and sets about finding it. Meanwhile, the chain of tragedy continues its inexorable, perhaps endless course…

To the best of my knowledge there were six English language translations of mysteries by ‘Japan’s Bestselling Mystery Writer’ Shizuko Natsuki published in the late 80s and early 90s. A few months ago I happened upon a set of them and snapped them up, curious to see how they would compare with Murder at Mt. Fuji – my first encounter with her work. A couple of months ago I shared my thoughts on The Third Lady, a trading murders story which caught my attention with its obvious parallels to Strangers on a Train.

Of the novels that remained the one that appealed most to me was Death From The Clouds. I think what intrigued me was its structure in which a group of executives from one of the world’s leading electronics corporations are killed one by one. Where the blurb for The Third Lady put me in mind of Highsmith, this made me think of Christie. Not so much the apparently random killings of The ABC Murders but the more purposeful, structured approach of And Then There Were None in which there is clearly meant to be an order and a purpose, even if it seems impossible to imagine at the start of the novel.

The novel begins a few months after the death of Okito, a brilliant engineer who had revolutionized the microcomputer over a decade earlier, kickstarting the growth of the Ruco corporation in the early seventies to make it one of the leaders in its industry, with several family members becoming senior executives. The precise circumstances of Okito’s death are a little shadowy – his older brother Ryuta describes them as ‘miserable’ – and the family is only just emerging from a period of mourning.

Ryuta is keen to get back to his hobby of piloting his private plane and decides to take a flight. He calls his niece Toko who tries to dissuade him from flying, sharing that she had a dream in which she imagined Okito on top of stormy clouds. Ryuta decides to fly anyway but the plane’s engines stutter and fail, causing a fatal crash. It’s a tragic death but it turns out to be the first of several with other members of the family, all connected with the company, each dying in turn.

There are several aspects of this setup that appealed to me. The first was the element of premonition. Toko’s vision of her dead uncle vowing vengeance on his family is a striking one, particularly as described. It certainly helps to create a sense of dread and an atmosphere that hangs over those early chapters as we wonder just what he may have intended and also why Toko dreamed of him at all. Is that vision her imagination at work or is it based on something she subconsciously observed? It’s a great question that unfortunately falls out of focus in the later chapters of the book but which initially helped to hook me into the story.

Another is the way Natsuki slowly releases information to the reader, hinting to us about resentments and characters’ relationships long before we know the details of them. We know, for instance, that there was some resentment between Okito and his family but it takes some chapters before we know exactly what that was. I enjoyed learning about these characters’ histories and that of the company they built and I appreciated that our field of potential killers is kept quite wide until close to the end.

The most obvious killer would be Okito himself. He not only had by far the strongest motive to kill, he was also one of the few people with the requisite skills and knowledge to carry out those plans. The problem with that theory however is that he also has the strongest alibi. He is dead.

The other thing I really appreciate about the setup here is that there is some ambiguity about whether deaths are natural accidents or the result of foul play. The first few murders are able to be committed without anyone knowing that a serial killer is at work meaning that the reader is never forced to accept characters behaving in an unrealistic way, staying in a situation where they are obviously in danger. This, of course, ends up helping with the subsequent murders as no one is ever really on their guard until it is too late to do anything about it.

Where I think the problems with this book lie is in understanding the relationships between what is a pretty large cast of characters. This is one of those novels that I think could have really done with a family tree and chart showing their roles within the corporation as I found myself losing track of how those characters were connected to one another. Similarly a few of the characters feel barely sketched, making several of the victims feel more like names on a death roll than fully-dimensional, memorable characters.

That extends a little to the police as well when they are introduced later in the novel. These characters do not make much of an impression here with the author relying on the reader remembering them from Murder at Mt. Fuji. If it wasn’t for some direct references to their involvement in that case I don’t think I would have noticed that they were recurring and although it is just over a year since I read that novel, I have to say I have no memory of them at all (perhaps not a surprise as I characterized that investigation as ‘rushed and anticlimactic’ in my post). They gave me little reason to remember them from this one either.

Fortunately I think that the events of this novel are more interesting than that one, helping to make up for some deficiencies in the characterization and the investigation. For example, several of the deaths occur in quite striking ways. This includes an example of a poison used that I don’t think I can recall seeing used in a mystery novel before (even if it is curiously translated with a name that isn’t its standard English language spelling). I also really appreciated the thoughtful use of misdirection at a few points which I think make the case a little more complex and interesting.

In spite of that however, when it comes time for the actual solution to be revealed I found it a little underwhelming. As is often the case with talking about a novel’s ending, it’s tricky to lay out precisely why it didn’t entirely satisfy without getting into the realm of spoilers either directly or by implication. I think my frustrations lay in the idea that while each aspect of the solution is explained, I felt disappointed by the way that some elements are not as tightly incorporated into that solution as I had hoped.

Still, in spite of that I have to say I enjoyed my experience with this novel overall and would say it was the most intriguing of the three Natsuki novels I’ve read to this point. It’s a little uneven at points, sure, but there are some interesting ideas here, even if they don’t come together quite as neatly as I would have liked.

The Verdict: This novel offers some striking and unusual murder methods and I enjoyed the corporate politics elements of the story, even if it didn’t entirely come together for me with its solution.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1991 Ballantine Books edition.

The Fiancée by Kate White

Originally published in 2021

Summer’s looking forward to a break when she, her husband, Gabe, and Gabe’s nine-year-old son arrive at the annual family get-together at her in-laws’ sprawling Pennsylvania estate. On the agenda are leisurely gourmet meals, tennis matches, and plenty of relaxation by the pool.

But this year, Gabe’s brother Nick has invited his new flame, Hannah, whom Summer immediately recognizes from an acting gig they both did a few years before. Oddly, Hannah claims not to know her, putting Summer on high alert. Yet Hannah charms the other family members, and Nick soon announces they’re engaged.

Then the reunion is rocked by tragedy when a family member is found dead, supposedly from natural causes. A grieving Summer fears that the too-good-to-be-true Hannah is involved, though, and as she investigates just what Nick’s fiancée might have done to keep her perfect image intact, she fears that the first death might be only the beginning…

It is always interesting to see how a book is described by other writers. The US hardcover edition of The Fiancée has a quote on its front cover from Megan Miranda that makes me wonder if we read the same book. That description of the book as ‘tense, fast-paced… a captivating thriller’ doesn’t really describe the qualities of the book at all for me and places the emphasis on the least successful aspects of the novel rather than its strength – some pretty strong character work.

The novel is told from the perspective of Summer, an actress whose career has never quite managed to take off, mostly consisting of voiceover work and small theater parts. A few years before she married Gabe, a divorcee with a charming young son (incidentally the most likeable character in the book). She has been accepted into his large family and looks forward to the yearly trips to his parents’ palatial home and time bonding with her in-laws, their sons and their wives.

This year however Summer gets a bit of a surprise when she learns that the youngest, Nick, has brought his girlfriend with him. That’s partly because Nick’s relationships never seem to get serious enough to warrant family introductions but the bigger surprise comes when she realizes that she knows his new flame, another actress by the name of Hannah. When she tries to point out the connection however she is surprised when Hannah claims to have never met her in spite of Summer’s certainty that they worked together on an acting gig several years before.

When Nick and Hannah announce their engagement at dinner that first night, Summer is a little concerned as she is convinced that she is lying, though no one seems to take her suggestions seriously. When a family member suddenly dies in suspicious circumstances the following day, Summer begins to suspect that Hannah may have been involved and becomes determined to investigate to expose her and protect her family.

I flagged up at the start of this post that I think one of the strengths of this novel is its attention to character. Kate White creates a number of complex, nuanced characters to populate this book with the chief of these being its protagonist, Summer. She is not always a likeable figure, at times coming off as quite obsessive and I think readers would be justified in questioning the extent to which her suspicions about Hannah are rooted in professional and personal jealousies rather than any kind of evidence. Still, while I didn’t always care for Summer, I found her quite credible and appreciated some of the depth and ambiguity the author provides about her character.

Perhaps the most likeable part of Summer is the way she has embraced and cared for her young stepson who, it is clear, she is very fond of. The depiction of that stepparent, stepchild relationship as respectful and caring is handled very well and it helps balance out some of those moments where she seems to be obsessively pointing to Hannah, often ignoring the evidence she has collected.

I also really enjoyed discovering the complex and subtly different relationships members of the family had with one another. While Summer is fairly close to everyone in the family and feels welcomed and accepted, some of her sisters-in-law perceive and experience quite different relationships with other members of the family. Likewise, the brothers each seem to fall into slightly different roles, interacting with the others in slightly different ways. It all felt very credible and carefully thought out.

While I did not experience much tension in these early chapters – it feels like White leaves us a long time before we get a clear sense of a crime to be investigated – I found those relationships and character moments quite compelling. It certainly helped me feel invested in what was to come.

My issues with the book lie in the development of its mystery. While I enjoyed the careful build-up leading to the discovery of the body, I found the case a little bland and the process of detection lacked much interest for me. The focus, rather than gathering concrete pieces of evidence, is more on the complications caused by Summer being so quick to point to Hannah and the way others respond to those suggestions. I found this interesting on that character-level but those hoping for something clever or ingenious in terms of how the murder was worked may well find the book a little disappointing on that point.

Things do pick up quite a lot however in terms of the plotting when a second murder is discovered, giving us (and Summer) a little more to go on. This prompts some very solid, if simple, pieces of deduction as well as one of the book’s few grisly moments which is to be welcomed. Even then however the pace never feels all that brisk and there isn’t much sense of any personal threat here for Summer until right before the end of the novel.

The Verdict: The family drama interests more than its mystery or ‘thriller’ elements. Still, this is quite readable and I’ll happily return to Kate White again. If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to share!

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback is 9780062945419, the hardcover is 9780063092723.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the links above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Originally serialized between 1947 and 1948, then collected in 1971 as 獄門島
English translation first published in 2022
Kosuke Kindaichi #2
Preceded by The Honjin Murders

Kosuke Kindaichi arrives on the remote Gokumon Island bearing tragic news – the son of one of the island’s most important families has died, on a troop transport ship bringing him back home after the Second World War. But Kindaichi has not come merely as a messenger – with his last words, the dying man warned that his three step-sisters’ lives would now be in danger. The scruffy detective is determined to get to the bottom of this mysterious prophesy, and to protect the three women if he can.

As Kosuke Kindaichi attempts to unravel the island’s secrets, a series of gruesome murders begins. He investigates, but soon finds himself in mortal danger from both the unknown killer and the clannish locals, who resent this outsider meddling in their affairs.

Before I share some thoughts on this book, I probably need to acknowledge that I have not been posting here much lately. This past weekend was the fifth anniversary of Mysteries Ahoy! and normally I would have marked that with a post but my life has been unusually busy of late, leaving me little time to read or write. One of the reasons for that is that I am starting a new adventure, taking on postgraduate study. I’ll be balancing that alongside full-time work and family commitments so blogging will be on a “when I find the time” basis for a while, particularly once my classes begin in the New Year.

So the plan going forward is not to have any kind of formal blogging hiatus but to acknowledge that posting (and responses to comments, emails, etc.) will likely be more sporadic than I would like. I would also like to put on record though how much I appreciate your engagement with my posts – particularly when you share your own thoughts on those titles I am writing about or your recommendations for further reading. It makes this my favorite hobby by quite some way and I hope to be able to continue to do it in the year to come.

With that being said, let’s talk about Death on Gokumon Island. Having enjoyed the first Kindaichi novel, The Honjin Murders, I was pretty excited when further novels from the series appeared in translation in the Pushkin Vertigo range. As it happens though I never quite got around to actually reading them so I was pretty pleased when I realized that this, the latest translation to be published, is actually the second story in the sequence and represents the detective’s second case.

The story, often described as a homage of sorts to Christie’s And Then There Were None, takes place in the aftermath of World War II. Kindaichi is travelling to Gokumon Island, an isolated and sparsely populated island where feudal traditions remain. His public mission is to break the news to the island’s leading family that the heir has died but his true reason is to prevent some murders. In his final words the heir warned Kindaichi that with his death his three stepsisters would also be murdered.

The novel’s setting is one of the most successful elements of the story and provided much of its appeal to me. I felt that Yokomizo does a great job of conveying how the island’s isolation has affected the personality of the community and its inhabitants. One of the things he stresses is that the reason for the island’s isolation is not geography – it is in the Seto Inland Sea – but cultural. It is the island’s history, with its inhabitants being descended from pirates and convicts, that has led to its inhabitants feeling tightly bound to each other and suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders like our detective, Kindaichi.

This status as an outsider is slightly offset, at least at first, by a letter of introduction he possesses but once the murders occur it becomes a distinct barrier to his investigations. For one thing, the residents are naturally suspicious of him and his motives in remaining on the island and getting involved in trying to solve the murders. For another, he quickly decides that he cannot really trust anyone on the islands and so is reluctant to share what he knows with anyone.

This leads to one of the more frustrating aspects of this book – there is a strong sense that Kindaichi might have prevented at least one of the murders had he been more vocal about his reasons for being there. While I understand his hesitancy in declaring those reasons in public, he might have at least addressed it with those identified as potential victims. As it is, he keeps quiet and before long the killings begin.

The victims, the dead heir’s three stepsisters, are supposedly pretty obnoxious individuals though they did not make much of an impact on me. While they are clearly frivolous and do not take the death of their half-brother particularly seriously, they are not given much space in the narrative and so I didn’t have strong impressions of them as people. Rather than feeling that they get their just desserts, instead I was struck by the cruelty of the theatrical murder methods we see employed and the sense that there are some common thematic elements between this and Honjin:

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While I wasn’t struck much by the victims as characters, Yokomizo dispatches each of them with dramatic flair, crafting three distinctive and theatrical deaths. This is perhaps the way this work mostly closely resembles its inspiration, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and while I think the deaths lack the connection that would come if they had shared a common reference, it certainly leads to some very striking and disturbing imagery.

Though I would not describe any of the murders in Death On Gokumon Island as impossible crimes, the book does have some elements in common with stories in that style. There is something self-conscious in the construction of those murders with one in particularly being rather needlessly convoluted, unnecessarily elevating the risk of the killer’s discovery. I accept that as a stylistic choice and think that the book would have been diminished without it, but those who want murderers to behave credibly may be left scratching their head at the murderer’s decision-making here.

ROT-13 (Spoils aspects of murder #2): Bar bs gur guvatf V dhrel vf ubj gur xvyyre pbhyq unir xabja cevbe gb chyyvat bss gurve gevpx jvgu gur oryy gung vg jbhyq npghnyyl jbex nf vg erdhverf bar vgrz gb svg pbzsbegnoyl vafvqr nabgure. Tvira gung bar bs gubfr gjb vgrzf vfa'g cerfrag ba gur vfynaq ng gur gvzr vg vf pbaprvirq naq cerfhznoyl unfa'g orra zrnfherq, pbhyq gur xvyyre unir orra pregnva vg jbhyq svg?

If we put those practical concerns to one side however, I was generally very engaged with the puzzles on offer and enjoyed several aspects of their solutions. I, for one, have no real issues with a key aspect of the solution that has proved rather divisive with other bloggers which seems pretty fairly clued. What’s more, I really enjoyed the variety on offer in this story and I felt that this was one of the more interesting pastiches of And Then There Were None I have encountered so far (to the point that I made it a rather long way into the story before I could figure out exactly what they were).

It perhaps doesn’t quite deliver the sense that you have just read something rather clever that I got when I finished The Honjin Murders but I appreciate that this feels significantly fairer and thus makes for a more satisfying read overall.

The Verdict: An entertaining read that explores some interesting ideas and contains some striking imagery. The novel’s theatricality is both its strength and its weakness requiring the reader to accept some illogical or risky choices by both the detective and murderer, but I think the key points are clued pretty well.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number is 9781782277415.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

Originally published in 2018

Pete Banning was Clanton, Mississippi’s favorite son—a decorated World War II hero, the patriarch of a prominent family, a farmer, father, neighbor, and a faithful member of the Methodist church. Then one cool October morning he rose early, drove into town, and committed a shocking crime.  Pete’s only statement about it—to the sheriff, to his lawyers, to the judge, to the jury, and to his family—was: “I have nothing to say.” He was not afraid of death and was willing to take his motive to the grave.

In a major novel unlike anything he has written before, John Grisham takes us on an incredible journey, from the Jim Crow South to the jungles of the Philippines during World War II; from an insane asylum filled with secrets to the Clanton courtroom where Pete’s defense attorney tries desperately to save him. 

The Reckoning is far from my first encounter with the work of John Grisham though this is the first time I have written about one of his books for the blog. Like many, I first encountered his stories through the many film adaptations made in the late 90s and early 2000s and then went back to read the novels that inspired them. At his best Grisham is a highly engaging storyteller able to create tension and excitement in his stories about our legal processes and the search for justice.

Like much of Grisham’s output, The Reckoning follows a series of trials and legal processes connected with a crime: the murder of a pastor by a decorated war hero, Pete Banning. What is most notable about the murder however is that the killer initially admits his guilt but refuses to justify or explain his actions. While we will spend the novel following the legal processes connected with that murder and its aftermath, the mystery at the heart of his novel is what was the motive for the killing.

In other words, The Reckoning is an example of a mystery in the inverted style. We begin the novel witnessing the murder so we know who did it and the means used – what we are doing is searching for an explanation for its causes. I typically refer to stories in this style as justification narratives or whydunits. This is not always an easy type of story to do well but I think it pairs particularly well with legal thrillers because those stories tend to involve a lawyer looking for some good reason they can supply to try and prepare the best defense possible for their client. One example of that approach working well is Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case which was one of the first novels I reviewed on this blog.

Before I go much further though there is one way in which the book was a little atypical of Grisham’s usual style and that is it being a work of historical fiction. Grisham’s historical setting, rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era, is convincing and important to the content of his story in several ways. For example, Pete Banning’s war service is very recent.

As you may expect, a novel set during this period and with those issues in the background can sometimes be quite uncomfortable to read. For instance the Banning family, we are told, treat their black workers better than almost anyone in Clanton yet there is an element of self-satisfaction in their thinking that is never directly explored. Grisham is far more effective when articulating how the legal system of that time was set up to protect the interests of wealthy, white landowners like Banning in ways it never would for the area’s black residents.

The scenario that Grisham creates for this novel is an intriguing one and I did appreciate that he does create and sustain some ambiguity in how we should think of Pete Banning. By not stating the reason for the murder until close to the end, all we have to go on is our perception of him as a man and his own sense of conviction that he has done the right thing both in committing his murder and then being prepared to be punished for his own actions.

Whether this is effective will depend on whether you consider Banning to be a sympathetic character or not. I think it is clear that Grisham considers him a hero, particularly from the book’s lengthy mid-section in which we follow his wartime exploits in far too much detail, but I personally struggled to warm to him or care what his reasoning was for the murder.

I was more sympathetic towards Pete’s two children and his sister who have to try to navigate the fallout from the murder. Both children begin the story at the start of their adult lives and so are stuck between their impulse to live their own lives and to return to Clanton in the hope they can do something to help their father. Given that they had no involvement in the situation themselves and everything they stand to lose, it is easier to invest in them and empathize with all they have lost.

Perhaps the character I sympathized most with however was a more minor one – Pete Banning’s attorney. He spends the entire novel being frustrated at every turn by his uncooperative client who blocks every avenue of defense open to him all while dodging paying his legal fees. Grisham does a good job of exploring the ways a client can frustrate their defender.

The other thing I found really interesting about the book was some of the historical background Grisham works into the first section. After reading more about Jimmy Thompson, a particularly colorful character, after encountering him briefly in the novel and I felt that the inclusion of some real historical figures helped bring the story to life all the more.

The mid-section of the novel covering Pete Banning’s war experiences is similarly well researched and features several real historical figures. His treatment of those is also very effective but here I felt Grisham gets lost in his enthusiasm for his historical research and loses track of the core of his story. Clearly the historical events Grisham covers were fascinating to him but given they are just providing background, I feel that far too much time is spent here, only slowing the story down.

Towards the end of the novel we do finally learn the reason for the murder. The circumstances described are interesting and expands on some of the themes Grisham had been exploring very well. Some important details are foreshadowed or clued pretty well which does make it feel pretty satisfying in how it ties some plot threads together, even if I don’t think it makes me feel quite the degree of sympathy for Banning that I think I was meant to.

While the book didn’t quite manage to prompt the emotional reaction I think the author intended, I think it has some interesting things to say about justice and also how unsatisfying that process can be. Even more powerful though is the book’s presentation of the period and place in which it is set. As much as I may grump about the book’s bloated midsection, the historical context of the story is important and Grisham does a really good job of exploring the ways that that the story’s setting affects how events unfold. It is that discussion that I think will stay with me longest when I think about this book.

The Verdict: Grisham is at his best with the sections of this novel focused on the legal processes surrounding the murder. I was less convinced by the book’s middle section which struck me as unnecessarily long and detailed, slowing down the story, but the ending was interesting enough to me to justify the journey.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? There is a pretty good chance you will be able to track down a copy of this book at your local bookstore or perhaps secondhand or thrift stores. If you need to special order a copy the ISBN for the US hardcover is 9780385544153, the US paperback is 978-1984819581 and the US mass market paperback is 978-0525620938.

Full disclosure: the links above are for Bookshop.org, an online bookstore where your purchases help support your local, independent bookstores. These are affiliate links so if you do purchase a copy through them I may receive a small commission.

Death by Bubble Tea by Jennifer J. Chow

Originally published in 2022
LA Night Market Mystery #1
Followed by Hot Pot Murder

When Yale Yee discovers her cousin Celine is visiting from Hong Kong, she is obliged to play tour guide to a relative she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Not only that, but her father thinks it’s a wonderful idea for them to bond by running a food stall together at the Eastwood Village Night Market. Yale hasn’t cooked in years, and she hardly considers Celine’s career as a social media influencer as adequate experience, but because she’s just lost her job at her local bookstore, she feels she has no choice.

Yale and Celine serve small dishes and refreshing drinks, and while business is slow, it eventually picks up thanks to Celine’s surprisingly useful marketing ideas. They’re quite shocked that their bubble tea, in particular, is a hit–literally–when one of their customers turns up dead. Yale and Celine are prime suspects due to the gold flakes that Celine added to the sweet drink as a garnish. Though the two cousins are polar opposites in every way, they must work together to find out what really happened to the victim or the only thing they’ll be serving is time.

Long before I started blogging about mystery fiction I used to do a podcast with my wife where we would read and talk about a book we each read (along with occasionally compiling book-themed lists). The demands of family life brought that little adventure to an end and these days we tend to read pretty different types of books so we don’t have that many opportunities for crossover reads. When my wife let me know that she was about to start reading this book however I leapt at the chance to join her – particularly as I had actually purchased my own copy of it just a few days earlier and had already been planning to give it a go.

Death by Bubble Tea is, as the cover and title will probably suggest, an example of a culinary cozy mystery. Its protagonist, Yale Yee, begins the book by losing her part time job at a bookshop. Her father suggests that she might like to run his restaurant’s food stall at a new Night Market with her cousin Celine, a foodstagramming influencer who has just arrived from Hong Kong. The pair will get to split the proceeds from the venture and so, though Yale is not enthused at the prospect of the collaboration, they set about preparing a small menu of drinks and snacks for the event.

After a slow start, business picks up when a customer purchases a bubble tea made by Yale and for which Celine devises an eye-catching presentation. At the end of the evening they seem to have done pretty well but when they head back to their car, Yale is shocked to find the a body lying under it. When the police tell them that they suspect that the victim may have been poisoned by one of the drinks made at their stall, Yale and Celine have to come together to demonstrate their innocence and discover the real killer’s identity.

One of the biggest challenges any amateur detective story faces is in convincing the reader why an individual would take matters into their own hands and investigate it themselves. We not only have to accept the credibility that they would be drawn into the case themselves, we then need to believe that they might have the skills, drive, and initiative to find its solution.

The author, Jennifer J. Chow, takes the well-worn path of having the sleuth appear to be in considerable peril if things stay as they are. Inaction seems not to be an option as the police have got an idea into their heads that they cannot shift – that a piece of evidence links the victim to their stall. Their initial involvement thus is not to try to solve a murder but rather simply try to find some other possible explanation for that piece of evidence. This works quite nicely, making it clear that Yale doesn’t set out to play detective but that she and Celine are acting out of a sense of self-interest and the desire to protect the reputation of Yale’s father and his restaurant. This not only helps sell that choice, it also tells us something about Yale as a person.

While Yale’s motive for getting involved works quite well, this circumstance does not automatically bestow detective skills. Chow avoids making unrealistic demands of her characters in terms of technical knowledge of abilities, focusing instead on their efforts to get those they speak with to open up and talk. Where more specialized knowledge is required, such as in working out whether an ingredient in their drink could have poisoned the victim, Chow provides clear and credible means for them to get that information and use it to interpret the evidence effectively.

I quite enjoyed my time with Yale and Celine and I appreciated the rather uncomfortable relationship between the pair at the start of this story. Their relationship is not presented as a static one however as it morphs over the course of the novel in response to the events taking place. The role of this adventure in bringing about gradual change in that relationship was one of the most successful aspects of the book for me.

Their efforts bring them into contact with several other vendors and stall operators from the Night Market who make for a pretty diverse bunch. The conversations between sleuths and suspects are not all that shocking in terms of the secrets learned but they do go some way to explaining their traits and characteristics, though I would suggest that we don’t get to know many of those characters particularly well. On the other hand, I did enjoy the way our heroes play to their strengths in figuring out ways to get those people to talk.

It is perhaps a little unfortunate that the killer stands out a little early, though I did really appreciate that the author provides proper clues as to their identity. This is a case which can be solved through the application of logic and while that the reader may be left with some questions about their plans, I think that the messiness of some aspects of it make it feel more, rather than less, credible.

As a series start it does a good job of setting up the characters, building their world and making us care about them. While the mystery here is not particularly challenging as a crucial clue to the killer’s identity will likely jump out at genre fans, it is a lot of fun. It kept my attention for a couple of hours and left me interested enough that I am pretty sure I will want to pick up Hot Pot Murder when it comes out next Summer. In that respect it was a win.

The Verdict: A very solid start to an interesting new culinary cozy series. The book is at its best when exploring its family relationships but the mystery is engaging with a solution that is clued better than most.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number is 9780593336533.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

So Much Blood by Simon Brett

Originally published in 1976
Charles Paris #2
Preceded by Cast, in Order of Disappearance
Followed by Star Trap

Appearing in his own one-man show on Thomas Hood at the Edinburgh Festival, middle-aged actor Charles Paris finds himself falling for a gorgeous young girl with navy-blue eyes. He also finds himself being dragged into a complex murder investigation involving the death of a fading pop star, a bomb scare in Holyrood Palace and a suicide leap from the top of the Rock.

It had been a few years since I last read a Charles Paris mystery so, inspired by having recently binged several of the radio adaptations starring Bill Nighy, I decided to keep going in order and pick with the second in the series – So Much Blood.

I had read the novel a little more than a decade ago during a period where I was rediscovering my love of the genre. I happened to pick up one of the books (this was one of the earliest, if not the first I read) by chance when looking for something quick and easy to read during a lunch break and soon found myself tracking down all of the others. The books even led me to write some of my first reviews of mystery fiction as I wrote up my thoughts on each of the books on Shelfari. Sadly I never kept copies of them elsewhere so I can’t say with any great confidence how I originally received this.

So Much Blood finds Charles heading to the Edinburgh festival fringe where he is to perform his one-man show about the poet and humorist Thomas Hood. As a last-minute stand-in, he has been set up with lodgings along with many of the performers from the Derby University Dramatic Society who are preparing for their own show, Mary, Queen of Sots.

During the rehearsals however calamity strikes when during the stabbing of Rizzio one of the prop knives turns out to be all too real and effective. The victim is a former pop star who in addition to playing the play’s murder victim has composed the music for the production. While the death appears to be a tragic accident, Charles becomes suspicious when he learns of a previous accident on set and decides to flex his investigative muscles…

While I am unsure how I originally received this book, one thing I am certain of is that I came to this with a greater appreciation of some of the references made than I had the first time around. Part of the reason for this is that I recently read Denise Mina’s novella Rizzio which explores that crime (the murder of Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary), helping me better understand some of the historical references made here. The other is that after reading the book the first time I took the opportunity to read some of Hood’s work, giving me a better sense of that much-discussed figure. Though I think you can follow the book without that background, having it made for a richer and more satisfying experience overall.

What impressed me most however is the conceit of the murder in which an actor is killed in circumstances that seem to mirror those of the character he was playing. The unexpected and unwitting murder feels quite shocking, in part because it comes so suddenly and because Brett takes the time to treat the moment seriously, exploring the psychological impact that inadvertently stabbing someone might have on a young person. Though the book is still first and foremost intended to be a comical work, this more emotional material is both powerful and effective while also allowing the novel to play with the ambiguity of whether it was a murder or simply a tragic accident.

Brett does a wonderful job both in conveying a sense of Edinburgh during the busy festival season and also of the amateur, student actor dreaming of turning their passion into a career. He seems to have a really good grip both on the setting and also the type of characters he wants to use to tell that story and while I have some issues with the way a couple of them are used in the story, I was struck by how convincing they were.

Several characters, beside Paris himself and his long-suffering wife Frances, particularly stood out as interesting to me. One, the former owner of the digs where Charles is staying, makes an impression for being so different from most of the other characters in the story and I enjoyed the friendship he forms with him over the course of the adventure.

The other that really stood out to me was the young actress Anna, who Charles quickly shows an interest in and pursues. I have mixed feelings about these scenes which are rather reflective of the period in which the book was written. I think we are meant to read that relationship as sweet and enlivening, at least at first, but there is something rather uncomfortable about the size of that age gap (previous blurbs played up the desirability of her youth) and power relationship between the two. Brett does end up acknowledging and exploring that a little towards the end of the novel, reflecting on Paris’ feelings about her and the relationship, but I wouldn’t blame those who feel uncomfortable with some passages prior to that.

The investigation itself though is superb and stands out to me as one of the best puzzles Brett created for the series. As an amateur with no really applicable skills, Charles tends to rather bungle his way through a mystery, accusing almost every character in turn of the crime. Here he certainly makes his fair share of missteps and poor judgements but he sets about this case quite logically. Though he may struggle to get to the correct solution, the reader is given pretty much everything they need to explain what happened and why. Those answers largely satisfy and while I think the killer will likely not be too tough for seasoned mystery readers to identify, I think the manner of the reveal and the way it plays out are both memorable and satisfying.

My only disappointment, other than the occasional ‘of its time’ moment, are that I think the attempt to draw a few recurring characters into the action feel a little too self-conscious. One in particular seems like an unlikely coincidence, though I understand and appreciate the effect it has on Charles and I would have missed that character. The other, while generating some humorous commentary about unethical billing practices, doesn’t do much and so feels rather redundant to the investigation overall.

Beyond those issues however, I found the book to be rather engaging and entertaining. In terms purely of the quality of the puzzle, I would place this among the author’s best efforts.

The Verdict: Though not perfect, the puzzle is broadly satisfying and I would suggest that this is the best the series has to offer.

He’d Rather Be Dead by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1945
Inspector Littlejohn #9
Preceded by Death in the Night Watches
Followed by The Case of the Scared Rabbits

The mayor of Westcome, Sir Gideon Ware, has a speciality for painting a target on his own back. Most recently, he has gained numerous enemies for transforming the quaint harbour town into a sprawling, manmade boardwalk through a series of bribes, blackmail, and backhand deals.

So when Sir Gideon Ware dies at his annual luncheon, it’s no surprise that foul play is suspected.

Inspector Littlejohn is brought in to investigate the murder, but with so many motives to sort through, the suspect list is endless. And with the Chief Constable covering up critical clues at every turn, Littlejohn is left on his own to get to the bottom of Ware’s murder.

But when a second body is found, Littlejohn’s investigation gets put on a fatal timer.

Sir Gideon Ware came from humble beginnings before striking it rich as a property developer, taking the sleepy harbor town of Westcombe and turning it into a thriving, if garish, holiday destination. It is a change that many of the locals resent, feeling exhausted by the steady stream of holidaymakers most of the year round. In spite of that ill-feeling though, Ware has been able to find success in local politics, becoming the town’s mayor just a few years after first being elected.

He’d Rather Be Dead opens by giving us a brief overview of Ware’s background and career as he prepares to speak at a luncheon he is throwing for local dignitaries. Many of the town’s most prominent people have been seated at his table yet, as we learn, most have reason to loathe their host. As Ware rises to give his speech he shows signs of being unwell, collapsing just a short while later. His appearance and subsequent autopsy points to strychnine poisoning but it is difficult to see how the drug, which should be fast-acting, could have been administered to him when everyone ate from the same communal pots and there is no trace of the poison on any of his dishes.

This is the basis for a case in which the question of how the murder was achieved will be as much a focus as whodunnit. I even briefly considered whether I ought to classify this novel as an impossible crime story; it’s the closest thing I have found in Bellairs’ oeuvre so far, though I would suggest that those reading purely for that aspect of the puzzle are likely to be disappointed but the solid but unexciting explanation as to how it was managed.

Like most of the Bellairs novels I have read the author’s greatest interest seems to lie in trying to capture a sense of a place and the people who might reside in it. The victim, Ware, should rank among his best creations (up there with the wonderfully-drawn Harry Dodd) for some of the complexities and contradictions in his character. He feels dimensional and realistic, reminding me of a few people I have met in my own life, and the author does a fine job of exploring the gap between how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by those who have come to rely on him.

This attention to characterization is replicated throughout the rest of the novel’s cast of characters with even some of the most incidental of figures given unexpected depth or personality traits that help to bring them, and the story’s setting, vividly to life. Their resentments that we learn of in the course of Littlejohn’s investigation feel credible and realistic to this sort of town setting and I enjoyed the process of uncovering those secrets and building fuller portraits of each of the figures involved in the case.

One particular source of pleasure for me was in the depiction of the local police who make for rather colorful figures. I am used to these figures quickly becoming anonymous once they call in the assistance of Scotland Yard but I was rather pleased to realize that they would actually be given some prominence in the story. Bellairs captures the tensions between two of the most important police figures in the story, once again helping to build that sense that Westcombe might be a real place.

As wonderful as the character development is, the actual procedural aspects of the case are unfortunately a little less exciting. There was certainly some interest for me in that central question of how the poison could have been administered but I felt that the investigation was rather straightforward with little to cause unexpected shifts in focus or thinking.

It perhaps didn’t help that I think the killer’s identity becomes clear rather earlier in the story than I think Bellairs believed it would as our focus quickly narrows to just a couple of serious suspects thanks to some of the more technical components of the case. I am the last person to complain about an obvious killer but the book isn’t set up to read as an inverted story and aside from the rather awkward shift to a first person account right at its end, does little to capture that killer’s perspective or voice.

Nor does it help that the solution as to how the crime was committed turns out to be quite practical and straightforward, making it feel a little less clever than I had hoped. What’s more, discovering that nature of that solution only makes the solution as to whodunnit even more obvious long before we actually reach the novel’s conclusion.

Bellairs, to his credit, does try to add some dramatic elements to the book’s conclusion, giving us one of the few moments of surprise in the novel, but then undercuts its effect with that strange choice to cut to a first person account from the murderer. This, written in a rather formal and old-fashioned way, feels stylistically strange and also a little redundant as very little of what is revealed was unknown to us. The one thing that this could have given us was an exploration of the emotional angle but here he misses and we never get any deep contemplation of that aspect of the killer’s crimes. It’s a missed opportunity that also blunts the impact the author might otherwise have achieved with the remainder of the ending.

These disappointments, both in terms of the investigation and its resolution, unfortunately waste what was one of the author’s most intriguing setups and some truly marvelous character development. He’d Rather Be Dead is still quite readable with some beautifully observed moments but those reading primarily for the puzzle are likely to be a little disappointed by how straightforward the case becomes.

The Verdict: One of the authors’ most promising setups is not fully realized thanks to some straightforward plotting that indicates the solution far too early. The rich setting and interesting characters compensate somewhat.

Further Reading: Rekha and Kate discussed the book in a spoiler-filled buddy read at Kate’s blog, CrossExaminingCrime.

Anjana at Superfluous Reading also admired Bellairs’ characterizations here in their review.

Bev at My Reader’s Block shared my dissatisfaction with the final few chapters and also seemed to find that the killer’s identity leapt out at them.

The Detection Club Project: John Rhode – The Claverton Affair

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.
Image Credit: John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) by Howard Coster (1930) © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#11: John Rhode

He possessed enough scientific, medical and practical know-how to set in motion an almost never-ending conveyer belt of ingenious methods for committing murder.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile

Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.

Spiderman Pointing Image - labeled as John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye

In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.

Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.

I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.

My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.

Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…

The Claverton Affair by John Rhode

Originally published in 1933
Dr. Priestley #15
Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery
Followed by The Venner Crime

After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.

But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .

This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.

When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?

One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.

The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.

Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.

A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.

This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.

Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.

As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.

The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.

That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).

The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.

Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.

Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.

Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.