Murder on the Enriqueta by Molly Thynne

Book Details

Originally published in 1929

The Blurb

News travels quickly and mysteriously on board ship. By the time lunch was over, the rumour began to spread that Mr. Smith’s death had not been due to natural causes.

The bibulous Mr Smith was no pillar of virtue. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on the Enriqueta, he met someone he knew on board at midnight – and was strangled. Chief Inspector Shand of the Yard, a fellow traveller on the luxury liner, takes on the case, ably assisted by his friend Jasper Mellish. At first the only clue is what the steward saw: a bandaged face above a set of green pyjamas. But surely the crime can be connected to Mr Smith’s former – and decidedly shady – compatriots in Buenos Aires?

The Murder on the Enriqueta (1929: originally called The Strangler in the US) is a thrilling whodunit, including an heiress in peril and a jazz age nightclub among its other puzzle pieces. This new edition, the first in many decades, includes an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

The Verdict

This standalone work, focused on sensation rather than detection, relied too heavily on the foolishness of its protagonist for my taste.

…the murder was obviously unpremeditated, and, it would seem, the work of a man with an unusually exotic taste in undergarments.

My Thoughts

Molly Thynne was an author who wrote six novels of mystery and detection in the late 1920s and early 1930s all of which were reprinted a few years ago by Dean Street Press. In my first couple of years of blogging I read and wrote about half of her novels. I found each of those stories entertaining though I had a clear favorite, The Crime at the Noah’s Ark. I don’t think I will be getting too far ahead of myself if I say right now that there is no risk of The Murder on the Enriqueta dislodging it from that spot.

The book opens with a murder that takes place on the Enriqueta, a luxury liner making an Atlantic crossing. One of the passengers, a Mr. Smith, is travelling to England from Argentina in the hopes of persuading his sister to support him financially. During the crossing however he has lost almost all of the limited funds he brought with him at the gambling tables and having exhausted the goodwill of his fellow passengers, he proceeds to get thoroughly drunk. Stumbling around he accidentally bursts into a cabin only to find himself face-to-face with someone he knows but that he wasn’t aware was on board. We never find out that person’s name but a short while later Smith’s body is found having been dumped in a corridor by a figure wearing some rather distinctive sleeping attire.

It happens that one of the other passengers aboard the Enriqueta is Chief Inspector Shand of Scotland Yard who was on board in the hopes of catching a criminal but was thwarted when they appear to have booked an earlier crossing. Learning of the murder he offers the captain his services and learns that Smith carried money forged by the man he was looking for but he is unable to find either the killer or their distinctive clothing.

Among the figures Shand interviews is Lady Dalberry who is travelling to England in mourning after the death of her husband, Adrian Culver, who had died in a tragic car accident shortly after ascending to the title of Lord Dalberry and inheriting one of the richest estates in England. She is met at the dock by members of the family including Carol Summers, a young woman who is set to become one of the richest young women in the country on her twenty-first birthday. Dalberry, a newcomer to the country, offers Carol rooms with her which are gratefully accepted but Carol soon becomes suspicious of a foreign man who appears to exert a strange hold over Lady Dalberry…

That rather complicated description of the setup for this novel reflects that the scenario feels somewhat disconnected and disjointed. While there is a murder to investigate that really is only the focus of a couple of chapters at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book is structured and plotted far more like a thriller in the mold of Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? There is a detective at work in the background looking into some criminal matters but our focus is on the danger that a young heiress finds herself in with the dots only being connected at the very end of the novel.

One of my biggest problems with the book is its heroine, Carol Summers, who commits that cardinal sin of being perfectly aware of a source of danger yet apparently discounting it for no good reason whatsoever. Even late in the novel when she gets clear evidence of the danger to herself she opts to remain in a perilous situation in spite of the protestations of her guardians. I found this to be quite ridiculous and felt that it shifted my perception of her from naïve to reckless and foolish, significantly reducing my sympathy for her.

There is little doubt from the moment we first encounter Carol what the villain or villains’ purpose will be. We are frequently reminded that on her twenty-first birthday she will become one of the richest women in England and so the motive is a rather clear one, as is the intended means. The villains are similarly clear from the start and so there are really only two points of mystery in the novel: who killed Mr. Smith and what is the nature of the relationship between Lady Dalberry and Juan de Silva?

As I indicated earlier the questions related to the death of Mr. Smith sit entirely in the background until the end of the case so the focus of the story is almost entirely on the second of these questions. While I don’t love that these two characters’ most distinctive traits are their foreignness, I think Thynne does use them pretty cleverly and manages to sustain that mystery longer than I might have expected knowing its solution. While there are quite a few sensational developments by the end of the novel, I think Thynne had a solid idea and executed it pretty well though I think it would have worked better in a shorter form of fiction.

Thynne’s secondary characters are all fine and pretty well drawn with my favorite being Mr. Mellish, Carol’s legal guardian. He is the sharpest of the various characters concerned in this story and while Carol never follows his advice, he does his best to try and protect her. He even gets a few rare comedic moments related to his unwillingness to dance or exercise. I found myself looking forward to each of his appearances which I feel provide a little relief from the sometimes quite sensational and melodramatic tone of the rest of the story.

Still, as much as I enjoyed Mellish I sadly cannot recommend The Murder on the Enriqueta. I appreciate Thynne’s skill as a writer but the plot of this one held little appeal for me. Instead I would suggest The Crime at the Noah’s Ark or The Case of Sir Adam Braid as better starting points for exploring her work.

Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

Every sports fan in New York knows Al Judge, the hard-bitten reporter whose column is the scourge of gamblers, gangsters, and corrupt players across the city. Sixteen-year-old George LaMain is Judge’s biggest fan—right up until the night he decides the writer has to die. George is in his father’s saloon, waiting for his dad to give him his birthday present: a trip to the fights at Madison Square Garden. They are about to leave when Judge demands George’s father strip and lie down on the barroom floor. George doesn’t know why, but his old man does it—and Judge beats him senseless in front of the whole bar.  
 
When he’s finished crying, George takes his father’s gun and sets out into the night. To avenge his disgraced father, he plans to gun Al Judge down. But before he can become a killer, this birthday boy will have to grow into a man. 

The Verdict

More coming of age story than crime novel. The character work and development of theme are very good though.

When you’re going to kill somebody, you’re not a kid any more, and when you know in your heart you’re not a kid, somehow or other, everybody else seems to know it too.

My Thoughts

Some months ago JJ from The Invisible Event suggested that as a fan of inverted mysteries I really need to check out a copy of Stanley Ellin’s The Speciality of the House. That book, a collection of short stories, is definitely one I want to get to even if I have to split my coverage of it into several blog posts but when I stumbled onto a copy of this much shorter work – Ellin’s first novel – I couldn’t resist picking it up.

The book is told in the inverted style though it doesn’t exactly align with any of the labels I have given other examples of the genre so far. We know who it is that George plans to kill, how and why right from the start of the book, meaning that this is probably more accurately classed as a crime story rather than a mystery, though the reader will likely find themselves asking questions that our protagonist never seems to get around to considering. By the end of the story Ellin will give us answers.

The story takes place on the day George LaMain turns sixteen. He is looking forward to attending a big boxing match to celebrate with his father Andy. Before they can get going however Al Judge, a prominent sports writer, turns up at Andy’s bar to confront him and demand that Andy take off his shirt and lay down on the floor. To George’s horror his father meekly acquieses and Al sets about beating him senseless, humiliating him in his son’s eyes. Flushed with anger George grabs his father’s gun and the tickets for the match which he expects Al will be attending and sets out to kill him.

Ellin tells the story from George’s perspective and in his voice, brilliantly capturing the false maturity and bravado of a child who is determined to be seen as an adult. In the early chapters as George tells us his story and offers his opinions of others, the reader may well find themselves thinking that he is someone who does not recognize how dependent he is on his father for guidance and worry about how he is going to fare navigating the city on his own, let alone dealing with someone as worldly and tough as Al Judge.

It should also be said George is not necessarily a good kid or even a particularly likeable one. While he praises his father for keeping him from getting into trouble, his narration frequently infers that he has potentially violent appetites and that he is choosing to view his mission to kill Al as a coming of age story. It is as if seeking revenge or even to kill someone validates his manhood in his own eyes and throughout the early chapters he regularly repeats his intention to kill Al as a sort of mantra.

While George may not be a particularly pleasant character, I do think he is an interesting one. I was reminded a little of some of Jim Thompson’s creations – a sort of more innocent version of William Collins from After Dark, My Sweet. In playing at being a tough guy, his naïvety and inexperience dealing with adults and understanding their intentions becomes painfully clear. Ellin places him in several situations that expose that inexperience and it is interesting to see how he interprets them and the ways they seem to change him. As a character journey I think it is quite compelling and it offers an interesting perspective on the awkwardness of that transition from childhood to adulthood that is largely successful.

Ellin introduces George to several colorful characters in the course of his quest who often get in the way of his plans, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertantly. These characters not only serve as interesting complications for George to overcome, they are also used to draw a contrast with George’s character and to demonstrate his immaturity and poor judgement. I felt most were drawn pretty well and felt pleasingly dimensional given how short the work is overall.

The least vibrant characters are probably the two that are most important to the story’s plot: George’s father and his target, Al Judge. It is not that they are poorly drawn or particularly unconvincing but rather their appearances are both quite short, talked about more than they are seen. This is a little unfortunate in that I think after chapters of build-up the brevity of the resolution with Al may feel a little anticlimactic to those primarily interested in the plot.

While the moment of confrontation felt a little rushed, I think Ellin does a superb job of exploring the consequences of what happens and following his themes to their logical and appropriate conclusions. I think the tone struck at the end is really surprisingly powerful and, to my surprise, even a little emotional as it wraps up that coming of age story quite perfectly.

Which is, I suppose, the issue if you are coming to this for the criminous content. Dreadful Summit‘s least interesting element is the one it is building to. As important and necessary as that moment is as a catalyst for all of the other stuff that happens, it is not particularly complex or thrilling in itself while almost all of the build-up to that point is character rather than plot-driven.

That didn’t bother me – I think it tells the story it tells well and I appreciate Ellin’s economy in telling it. The book’s short page count is appropriate and the choice to focus on what George thinks and feels is absolutely the right one. Those who are primarily interested in plot though may want to pass this one by.

Second Opinions

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora shared his thoughts on the book in this excellent review. I seem to have enjoyed it more than he did though I think the review is quite fair and I think he is right to suggest that the substance to the book lies in the interruptions to the plot.

Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name offered up these thoughts as part of his Forgotten Book blog series, drawing parallels with The Catcher in the Rye and his own Dancing for the Hangman.

The Red Locked Room by Tetsuya Ayukawa, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Book Details

Stories were collected and published in English in 2020

The Blurb

Few writers of detective fiction can match both John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts at their own game. Included in this superb collection by Tetsuya Ayukawa, recognized as the doyen of the honkaku mystery, are four impossible crime stories and three unbreakable alibi tales. The final story “The Red Locked Room” can lay claim to be one of the finest ever written in the genre. Judge for yourself.

The Verdict

A very strong collection of locked room and unbreakable alibi stories. Based on this sampler let’s hope more Ayukawa will follow!

“It can be confidently stated that there is not one writer belonging to the shin honkaku movement who does not hold Tetsuya Ayukawa in the utmost regard.”

Taku Ashibe, Introduction

My Thoughts

For the first three months of the year I have tried to post a weekly review of a Japanese crime or mystery novel as part of my participation in the Japanese Literature Challenge. This week’s post will be the final one in that series, though of course my TBR pile still contains plenty more Japanese mystery books to read. It is also something of a transition to my next weekly post theme but there will be more on that in a moment!

An excellent introduction from Taku Ashibe provides some background both about Ayukawa and how the stories he wrote fit into the general development of the honkaku mystery. It discusses his two series detectives Chief Inspector Onitsura and the gifted amateur Ryūzō Hoshikage, both represented in this collection, and outlines the differences between them. Essentially the latter’s stories tended to be howdunnit tales while the former blends elements of the police procedural and the puzzle plot, typically focusing on breaking alibis.

There were seven stories selected for this collection – four featuring Hoshikage and three Onitsura and they are alternated which does help to make the stories here feel more balanced between the different styles which is to be welcomed.

The quality of the stories on offer is generally very high and there is no failure in the collection. Even the weakest stories (which I felt were The White Locked Room and The Five Clocks) still had points of interest and each story felt well clued with solid and detailed explanations.

The best stories on the other hand are quite exceptional. The Clown in the Tunnel is a wonderfully worked story where a killer appears to have disappeared while escaping in a short tunnel that was observed at either end. The author is meticulous in charting out the various movements of the characters throughout the house and I appreciated the clever solution.

The other story that really grabbed me was the preceding one – Death in Early Spring. This story about a man found murdered in a construction site is similarly very cleverly timed, presenting a wonderful unbreakable alibi scenario. Ayukawa’s plotting here is really quite ingenious and everything is very fairly clued.

It is a really strong collection that I think should be of interest to anyone who enjoys Japanese puzzle plot mysteries. I hope that further Ayukawa follows in translation as I was very impressed with this sampler of his work. For those interested in more detailed thoughts on the stories contained in this collection be sure to read the second page of this review!

Finally, as I trailed at the start of this post my Monday posts will have a different theme for at least the next two months. After throwing out some suggestions for themes to that small but brave band of folk who follow me on Twitter I can announce that in April and May #mondaysareimpossible as I post about locked room and impossible crime novels. Is there a better way to start the week?

Second Opinions

I strongly recommend checking out this review from TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time who was similarly very impressed with the collection but has some different preferences as to what he considers the best stories.

Also check out Nick’s review @ The Grandest Game in the World for his thoughts on each of the stories here.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

From the very first book publication in 1920 to the upcoming film release of Death on the Nile, this investigation into Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot celebrates a century of probably the world’s favourite fictional detective.

This book tells his story decade-by-decade, exploring his appearances not only in the original novels, short stories and plays but also across stage, screen and radio productions.

Poirot has had near-permanent presence in the public eye ever since the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From character development, publication history and private discussion concerning the original stories themselves, to early forays on to the stage and screen, the story of Poirot is as fascinating as it is enduring.

Based on the author’s original research, review excerpts and original Agatha Christie correspondence, Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World is a lively and accessible history of the character, offering new information and helpful pieces of context, that will delight all Agatha Christie fans, from a new generation of readers to those already highly familiar with the canon.

The Verdict

A comprehensive overview of the development of the great detective both on the page and beyond it. Pitched well to offer something to both newcomers and established fans. Let’s hope a similar volume follows for Miss Marple!

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, (probably) the greatest detective in the world, will outlive us all.

My Thoughts

If you follow a lot of Golden Age of Detection blogs you have probably already come across a review of this book which was published in the UK last year and arrives in the US next month. Even if you haven’t you probably already will instinctively know whether this type of book will appeal to you and so rather than attempt to respond to the book in exhaustive detail it seems more productive to share some general thoughts about it that may answer some of your questions about whether it is the book for you.

Probably the place to start is with describing the book itself. Aldridge has designed this book so it could either be read cover-to-cover or dipped into on a more random basis. Knowing that I intended to write about this book here I decided to do the former but prior to doing that I opted to read the chapter on The A. B. C. Murders on its own in preparation for my reread and I found it to be perfectly self-contained and very easy to follow.

Aldridge avoids giving out spoilers in the main body of the text and while there are a few in the (excellent and comprehensive) endnotes they are flagged to warn those who wish to avoid them. That means that this is a book you can put in the hands of someone who does not have an exhaustive knowledge of the character with confidence that they won’t curse you forever for spoiling the end of Elephants Can Remember for you.

Each book and short story collection receives its own chapter. I think it is important to stress that these entries are not plot recaps or reviews, nor are they collections of facts related to the book. Instead these chapters tell the story of where a project came from, some of the background about its journey to publication including details of exchanges between Christie and her agent. Where critical opinion is offered it is usually in the form of contemporary reviews or Christie’s own reflections rather than Aldridge’s.

In addition to the core canon texts, there are also chapters discussing projects in different media such as film, television, video games and key theatrical productions as well as Sophie Hannah’s continuation novels. These are treated with the same level of detail and care, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Poirot was developing beyond the written page. While I feel I got something out of every chapter in the book, these were the ones that offered the highest concentration of new information for this reader and helped me better understand Christie’s highly possessive relationship with her own creation and the decisions that her estate is taking in more recent years. In fact some of the most intriguing pieces of information relate to the projects that didn’t happen rather than those that did.

The book does go right up to date with comments on the development of the upcoming Death on the Nile movie, listed here as released in 2020 (but now pushed back to 2022). That was of course unfortunate but the information offered is interesting and makes me even more curious to see the finished movie whenever it does finally appear.

The entries themselves are organized in chronological order rather than being grouped together by their medium meaning that we learn about the theatrical and film experiments as they occurred between the development of the various novels. This is really helpful because it adds context of Christie’s broader endeavors and also allows us to see how experiments in one field sometimes affected the chances of another quite different project happening.

The hardcover print copy is also illustrated with lots of black and white pictures, usually with various book cover images but also production photographs, hand-drawn sketches and the like. This not only adds a little visual interest to the page layout, I think it also makes the print copy feel even more special. It certainly made me feel glad I made the decision to import my copy rather than get the plainer ebook edition (which is already available in the US).

Though the book is quite thick it is a quick and accessible read that I think offers interesting information at a level that should please both those starting to love the character and those who can already claim a lifelong appreciation for him. I certainly have already made good use of it and expect I will continue to do so whenever I revisit the Poirot novels. I just hope that we don’t have to wait until 2027 for a Miss Marple-themed sequel to appear…

Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand

Book Details

Originally published in 1941
Inspector Cockrill #1
Followed by Green for Danger

The Blurb

As war rages in Europe, the citizens of London flee to the country. At Pigeonsford, a group of guests plays cards, drinks tea, and acts polite—but Grace Morland knows the strong emotions that lurk beneath the placid social surface. She’s painfully in love with Stephen Pendock, the squire of Pigeonsford, but Pendock’s smitten with young beauty Francesca Hart.

One afternoon, Fran debuts a new hat, and Grace’s jealousy gets the better of her. She exclaims, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch in a thing like that!” She will soon be proven wrong. Grace is found dead with the hat on her head—and her head removed from her neck. To the scene comes the incomparable Inspector Cockrill, who finds that far more than petty jealousy lies beneath this hideous murder.  

The Verdict

The murders are memorable and I appreciated the direct storytelling but the ending felt a little underwhelming.

“There a woman lying in the garden, Pen, down by the drive. She – I – she seems to be wearing Fran’s hat – Fran’s new little hat…”

My Thoughts

Recently I contributed to an episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where bloggers were asked which authors they most want to see back in print. Listening back to the episode recently reminded me that while I own several of her novels, my experience with her writing boils down to one or two short stories. Clearly this was something I needed to remedy!

Heads You Lose was Brand’s second detective novel and the first to feature Inspector Cockrill, one of her series detectives. The book begins some months after the bound and decapitated body of a young woman had been found in the woods near Stephen Pendock’s house. No culprit for that murder was ever found and life appears to have got back to normal with Pendock entertaining guests at his home.

During the night Pendock is woken by Lady Hart who tells him that a woman has been seen in a ditch in his garden and she appears to be wearing a hat that her granddaughter Francesca had shown off earlier that day. That hat had been the subject of a barbed remark from Grace Morland who said that she would not be seen dead in a ditch in such a hat yet when Pendock investigates the body he lifts it to find Grace’s severed head staring back at him.

Inspector Cockrill, who had known Grace and briefly been the subject of her affection, is called in to investigate the case. Though this is quite a short novel (my ebook copy was 220 pages), it is remarkable just how effectively Brand establishes this character and sketches out his personality. In just a couple of paragraphs we not only get a sense of his figure but also his life story and reputation. I think that it helps that he is familiar to several of the other characters, allowing us to get to know him through their interactions rather than simply presenting him as an outsider.

I liked Cockrill a lot as a sleuth though and appreciated his somewhat irascable manner when dealing with others. He is not presented as a superhuman but rather as a dedicated and thorough detective carefully following his leads to compile a complete picture of the crime.

Decapitation is not a particularly common crime for this period but while the horror of the idea is described though Brand doesn’t go into graphic detail about what the injuries look like. It definitely helps these murders to stand out though and while I think the brutality of those crimes is not really explored as thoroughly as it perhaps would have been a few decades later, there was more than enough to the puzzle to keep me occupied.

Among the elements that Brand includes are some threatening telephone calls to the Police, a lack of footprints in the snow around a body, a curious difference between the murders and false solutions. Those elements, coupled with the short page count, mean that the story chugs along at a good pace. Technically the virgin snow would constitute an impossibility though I would stress that it isn’t really a focus of the story.

One of the things that I also enjoyed was that prior to the book even beginning Brand includes a statement at the bottom of her list of characters that two of them would be murdered and one would be the killer. While I no doubt would have anticipated secondary murders, knowing for sure that a further death would occur for sure only heightened my anticipation for that happening and left me incredibly curious who that second victim would turn out to be.

As much as I enjoyed the build-up to the final reveal, I shared that same feeling of disappointment in the ending that several other bloggers reported. The explanation of what was done certainly makes sense but it feels more conventional than the developments that precede it and so I think I expected something a little more complex than the answers we are given.

Before finishing up this post though I probably ought to address another aspect of the book that often features in reviews of this title – the antisemtitic comments made towards one of the characters. These comments are frequent and make for pretty uncomfortable reading, in part because Brand offers no explicit commentary on them for much of the text. As such it can seem like she is condoning those attitudes or considers them a character trait. I don’t think that was the intention – I read the final chapter as attempting to play against those negative stereotypes but even with that in mind, I don’t think it works well and I can understand why some readers felt discomfort at the handling of those elements here.

Though I had some issues with aspects of the book, I did find much to admire in this novel and I certainly was left curious to try more of her work. I am pretty sure I will be doing so again soon so if you have any recommendations please feel free to share them below!

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime noted that she prefers some other later works by Brand and notes similarities between this and Suddenly at his Residence.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was much more enthusiastic and lavishes particular praise on the sequence where the suspects attempt to recreate the problem of the lack of footprints in the snow. He also notes that the thing I loved about the characters list is a feature of Brand’s work more generally – good news for me!

Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as 斜め屋敷の犯罪
English translation published in 2019

The Blurb

The Crooked House sits on a snowbound cliff overlooking icy seas at the remote northern tip of Japan. A curious place for the millionaire Kozaburo Hamamoto to build a house, but even more curious is the house itself – a disorienting maze of sloping floors and strangely situated staircases, full of bloodcurdling masks and uncanny, lifesize dolls. When a man is found dead in one of the mansion’s rooms, murdered in seemingly impossible circumstances, the police are called. But they are unable to solve the puzzle, and powerless to protect the party of house guests as more bizarre deaths follow.

Enter Kiyoshi Mitarai, the renowned sleuth, famous for unmasking the culprit behind the notorious Umezawa family massacre. Surely if anyone can crack these cryptic murders he will. But you have all the clues too – can you solve the mystery of the murders in The Crooked House first?

The Verdict

The puzzle construction is technically impressive but I was unconvinced by the motive both in its conception and how it was clued.

It’s been for sale for many years, but it will probably stay that way. It’s less the fault of the remote location; it’s far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away.

My Thoughts

Murder in the Crooked House takes place in an isolated and rather oddly-designed mansion on the northern tip of Japan. The inside of the house is a maze of staircases, requiring guests to go up multiple floors in order to then climb down another staircase to reach their room, and the floors are slightly tilted. Next to the mansion is a large tower made of glass, leaning at the same angle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and connected to the main house with a staircase in the style of a drawbridge. This is the sort of architectural design that makes the homes in Death in the House of Rain or The 8 Mansion Murders seem pretty conventional in comparison.

Kozaburo Hamamoto, a retired business executive, has gathered a group of guests to his home to celebrate the Christmas holiday with him most of whom are strangeres to him. Telling them that he loves puzzles, he shares several challenges with them before telling several guests that whoever can solve the mystery of the meaning of a fan-shaped flowerbed at the base of the tower would have his blessing to marry his daughter. Leaving his guests to socialize, he retires to his bedroom and several others follow. During the middle of the night however a scream is heard when one of his guests awakes to see a burned, frostbitten face staring in at her window, seemingly impossible given she is on the top floor, and most of the household rises to investigate.

The exception is Ueda, a chauffeur, who cannot be roused by the other guests. When they break down the locked door to his room they find him stabbed in the chest with a hunting knife, one hand tied to the foot of his foldout bed, and his limbs arranged in a strange pattern. Meanwhile outside they find a dismembered lifesize doll lying in pieces in the snow, two large stakes embedded in the ground and no footprints. And then, with several members of the Police staying in the house, a further murder occurs…

That may sound like a lot of elements but keep in mind that I have only really described in very loose detail the first of what will be a series of murders. There are several additional killings in the book and while there are certainly some similar traits shared between the murders, there are also some curious differences as well as plenty of further odd details to discover about the house.

The book can be divided broadly into four sections which Shimada terms “acts”. The first introduces the characters, contains the events described above and brings us to the point where the police are summoned. The second sees the police investigate and realize they are out of their depth when another murder occurs. The third brings in the fortune teller Kiyoshi Mitarai, the sleuth from The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, to begin his own investigation, culminating in the challenge to the reader before a shorter final act explains the case.

The first two acts are incredibly detailed, explaining various features of the house and key rooms within it at some length, often with the aid of diagrams. These are actually quite useful and for that reason I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this as an ebook utilize a device that is at least as wide as the paperback book to ensure you can take in all of the details.

I personally found the level of detail in those acts to be rather overwhelming. In spite of the diagrams and some pretty clear descriptions, I struggled to visualize the relationships between the different aspects of the house until close to the end. I blame that on my not being a particularly visually imaginative reader when it comes to architecture, something I previously confessed to in my comments on The Honjin Murders. This is hardly the book’s fault – I don’t think it could have been described any better than it is.

Happily though while the architecture may have been beyond me, there were plenty of other details of the crime to intrigue me. It was these elements, such as the long cord on the hunting knife and the golem doll, that interested me most and kept me engaged with the story to persevere throughout its first half.

My interest increased considerably once Kiyoshi Mitarai arrived on the scene. Mitarai remains as brilliant and as infuriating as he was in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. From the point he first appears the style of the story becomes much more direct (thankfully Mitarai is already aware of the key elements of the case avoiding repetition). I also appreciated that he is such a strong and rather abrasive personality because so with so many characters – thirteen inhabitants of the house plus the various investigators – few really seemed to stand out in those early chapters. Indeed I think some of the characters’ personalities become clearer in the process of interacting with him.

Which I suppose brings me to the book’s resolution. Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love the way Shimada builds up to the point at which Mitarai nabs the guilty party which struck me as very creative and effective. I was, of course, quite sure who the killer was long before that point though the manner of murder I could not visualize until it was explained. At that point it all became very clear and while I think the idea is clearly quite incredible, I respect the imagination that created it.

The problem for me with the scenario is ultimately one of motive. While I fully concede I should have been able to visualize how the crime was carried out, I did not feel that the reasons for it were clued anywhere near as thoroughly. This is particularly frustrating because as ingenious a method as this is, it strikes me as completely unnecessary and therefore far too convoluted for reasons I’ll go into on a second page linked below.

Overall then I feel rather unsure of how I feel about this book. Its puzzle ideas are quite thrilling and often pretty technically inventive. Some will admire the ambition of Shimada’s creation and they will be right to do so but I really wish it was built on a stronger foundation of motive.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Locked Rooms category as a Silver Age read.

Second Opinions

TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time loved this book far more than me, describing it as a ‘good and memorable locked room novel’. While I was not as enthusiastic, I do echo his calls for more Shimada (and shin honkaku) in translation.

John Norris at Pretty Sinister Books offers a thoughtful comparison of this book and The Honjin Murders describing this as ‘nothing but a puzzle’. I share his preference for The Honjin Murders and would agree with his reasons.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1913.
Expanded from a short story published in 1911.

The Blurb

One damp November evening on the Marylebone Road, a couple sits in silence. Though their thoughts are the same—money and the lack thereof—the time has long since passed when Mr. and Mrs. Bunting could find comfort in sharing their anxieties with each other. Now every word is a reproach—a reminder of luxuries forsaken and keepsakes pawned. Retired servants, the Buntings sunk every last shilling into their London lodging house. Now they are trapped. The rooms are empty, the rent is due, and ruin awaits. When the paper boys’ cry of “Horrible Murder! Murder at St. Pancras!” rings out in the street, Mr. Bunting risks his wife’s ire to buy the Evening Standard. The latest exploits of the killer known as the Avenger will give him something to think about besides his own misery.

Just when he is settling in with the paper, there is a knock at the door. Mr. Sleuth enters, seeking “quiet rooms” to rent. He bears no luggage, save one nearly empty leather bag, and his demeanor is odd, to say least. The beautiful sitting room on the second floor interests him not at all, but the obsolete gas stove on the underfurnished third floor is exactly what he has been looking for. Best of all, he wants to pay a month’s rent in advance. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting believe that the new lodger is a godsend until a dark fear grips their hearts. Could the strange Mr. Sleuth be the Avenger in disguise? And if he is, can they afford to know?

The Verdict

Though I prefer the tighter, punchier original short story, the book’s creation of dread is quite masterful.

On the top of three steps which led up to the door, there stood the long, lanky figure of a man, clad in an Inverness cape and an old-fashioned top hat.

My Thoughts

After suffering several unfortunate misfortunes, the respectable Buntings have found themselves on the brink of destitution. Following years in service the couple had attempted to open a lodging-house but have difficulty letting their rooms. This forces them to pawn almost everything of value including Mr. Bunting’s suit, leaves him unable to find occasional work.

Their prayers seem to be answered when a man turns up asking to see their rooms. After a brief examination he declares the rooms on the top floor to be satisfactory as a place to conduct his experiments but tells Mrs. Bunting that as he does not wish to be disturbed he will rent the rooms below as well, paying a full month in advance. He also insists that he should not be waited on and plans to make minimal demands of them, saying he will call for them if needed.

The new lodger, who calls himself Mr. Sleuth, is a strange fellow but they are certain that he must be a gentleman. His habit of creeping out in the middle of the night is odd but they are too happy at their return to financial security to question his behavior too much. It is only as they learn more about a spate of murders committed by a mysterious figure calling himself The Avenger that they separately start to wonder about the true nature of their lodger…

The Lodger was apparently conceived following a dinner when Lowndes spoke with a man who shared the story of how a pair of his father’s former servants believed a murderer had stayed at their lodging house before committing one of his crimes. Lowndes took inspiration from this to write a short story which was published in 1911 before being expanded into a novel two years later.

The story is a psychological one and I think you can make an argument that it is an inverted story, though it should be said that Lowndes spends much of the novel dealing in suspicion rather than statements of fact. The reader will likely assume that those suspicions are right, if only because if they’re not it wouldn’t be much of a tale, but it is inverted by inference rather than design. What is more important though is that Lowndes chooses to focus not on the details of the crimes but the responses of two bystanders who come to suspect the killer’s identity.

Why is that important? Lowndes is far more interested in the way her characters respond to a crime, particularly of the gory and sensational type that is shown here, than in exploring what happened. This is reflected in the text which avoids going into much detail about exactly what the Avenger does. We get a sense of what that may be through Mrs. Bunting’s distaste for the news reports and the tone of the newspaper headlines, but often we are shown their reaction to information rather than being told exactly what was said. As a technique I think this is rather effective as it allows the reader to project their own ideas onto the situation.

Some of those ideas the readers may well have drawn on would have had parallels in two then-recent cases: the Ripper murders in London and the crimes of Dr. Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. Lowndes seems to have combined elements from both their crimes, depicting some of the press fervour of the Ripper crimes as well as the killer’s exclusive targeting of women while physically describing Cream and using ideas like his having committed crimes in multiple countries. From this basic framework, Lowndes then further develops her killer, giving him traits like a religious mania, extreme discomfort around women and a furtive and spiky personality, creating a pretty richly drawn character who is a striking and disconcerting presence whenever he is near.

While Sleuth is a strong presence, our empathy and focus falls on the Buntings. The early chapters do an excellent job of describing how they came to be in their situation and helping to connect the reader to their sense of desperation. This is teeing things up for later in the novel where we will need to accept their silence while retaining our sympathy for them – a tough ask but one I think Lowndes mostly achieves. Certainly I had no doubt that the couple really did face ruin without his money and I think she is very effective at conveying the gradual realization on the part of them that he could pose a danger to them.

What this means is that the book is structured to focus on a point of conflict where they will have to confront the nature of what they believe their lodger to be and decide what to do about it. This ought to be a really impactful moment and certainly we get a lot of buildup that really elevates the tension, creating a sense that we are headed for something explosive – an idea that seems to be confirmed by the choice of the location of that climactic sequence.

Unfortunately though I think Lowndes whiffs the ending. For all the dread generated in the lead up to these final chapters, the actual resolution struck me as highly frustrating and unsatisfying. I think the problem is that while she sets up the notion that the Buntings will have to make a choice, the resolution is quite different and done in such a way that we never have to see them make that hard choice.

In the short story that ending doesn’t bother me at all – it not only seems appropriate to the length of the piece, it also reflects that we have spent significantly less time exploring whether the Buntings will do something to act on their suspicions. That story felt really sharp and compact – two things that I do not think could be said of the novel. For that reason alone I would suggest that the short story is the more essential read.

Still, while the pacing can feel a little too slow and deliberate at points and the ending seemed to diminish the roles of our two protagonists, I do think this is an interesting and highly worthwhile read. It is a study in the creation of dread and I am happy to say it succeeds in keeping that up til the very end.

Desire to Kill by Anna Clarke

Book Details

Originally published in 1982

The Blurb

Before Amy’s arrival, Digby Hall had been tranquil. Its soothing lawns and lilac arbors were the perfect setting in which to spend one’s golden years. But now there is a terrible gloom hanging over the old house: people are dropping like flies. It was appalling. Or so it should have seemed to Amy. She thought it delicious; and the fun had just begun.

First, Mrs. Graham dies – no one is surprised, as she had terrible arthritis and a heart condition. But when Mr. Horder is killed in a car accident and Amy is unscratched, people begin to wonder. One of those who distrusts Amy is Sue Merry, who, with her husband Bob, serves as manager of Digby Hall. When she is found nearly drowned in the bathtub, having over-dosed on tranquilizers, suspicions seem well-founded. Has murder come to visit Digby Hall, or just a series of unfortunate accidents?

The Verdict

A disappointing inverted tale. The killer, an aging woman sent to a nursing home, has potential but the character development left me unconvinced.

It was strange how these last days had changed her. She had always known, she supposed, that her helplessness brought her many advantages, but she had never before been conscious of using it as a weapon.

My Thoughts

Recently I discovered that I had access to the Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction encyclopedia through my local library. This multi-volume work has biographical notes and analysis of the works of hundreds of authors, some familiar to me but many not, and I have been scouring through it to find works and authors that might be of interest to me.

Anna Clarke was not a familiar name but I was intrigued enough by the description of her work to decide to track down one of her novels. I quickly settled on this novel from the latter part of her career which is highlighted in the essay as a significant work being intrigued with its rather unorthodox killer.

After Amy Langford’s husband dies her son makes the decision that she cannot live alone and so arranges for her bungalow to be sold and for her to move to Digby Hall, an old home that has been converted into a set of flats. The setting is picturesque and while the company is a little stale, most of the residents try to be welcoming. Amy however feels angry at being abandoned and quickly grows to hate the others, fantasizing about doing them harm.

We are conscious from the start of the novel that she plans to murder all of the other inhabitants, even if the book’s blurb appears to suggest this is a whodunnit. The exact means are not revealed, at least with the first murder, until after the body has been discovered but while that could suggest some ambiguity as to whether Amy is actually responsible, confirmation comes within a few pages making this a clear example of an inverted story.

There are parts of Amy’s character that seem quite well observed, such as the descriptions of how she created a personality for herself as a housewife while her husband was still alive. I had little difficulty believing in that aspect of her character, nor of understanding her bitter feelings of abandonment and social isolation. These themes are developed quite thoughtfully and credibly, and I think Clarke does a fine job of exploring both how she sees herself and how she is perceived and understood by others and the overlaps and contradictions between those images.

The problem is that this book is not simply a work about social isolation but it is supposed to be an exploration of the making of a murderer and there it falls quite short. There are several problems, not least that Clarke never really establishes where the skills required to imagine and commit these crimes comes from. These are not, after all, crimes committed in the heat of the moment – they are each carefully constructed based on what Amy percieves their weaknesses as being. While Clarke certainly convinced me that Amy was a skilled bully, capable of convincing the men in her life to try and please her, that is a fundamentally different skillset from committing a locked room murder (don’t read it for that though – the book only describes those conditions in passing long after the point at which it is committed).

Another frustration is the choice to keep the reader at arm’s length, hinting at what Amy is noticing that she might use but not directly sharing her plans with us. That makes this a howwillshedoit – that approach can generate tension if done well but, as I note above, the details of what is done are left a little vague keeping those moments from having the impact they might otherwise have. At several points in the story we see characters respond to Amy’s actions before we actually learn what they were which struck me as a choice that only serves to reduce clarity.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have though is with the book’s final third which is only possible because a group of characters consciously make a spectacularly unwise decision for what struck me as pretty unconvincing reasons. Which is a shame because the denouement is very effectively written in an almost impressionistic style, allowing the reader to sense what is happening before the details are given. In contrast a development in the final few pages, while intriguing, feels utterly unearned.

It’s all rather disappointing. There were some interesting ideas here but I just don’t think they come together in a particularly interesting or entertaining way. The result is a rather sad and depressing read. In spite of that though I am not closing the door on reading more Clarke. While the development of Amy’s psychosis is rather clumsy, her other characters are constructed with empathy and I would be willing to give her another go if anyone has any suggestions.

This counts towards the Serial Killers category in the Silver Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

The A. B. C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #13
Preceded by Death in the Clouds
Followed by Murder in Mesopotamia

The Blurb

There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way though the alphabet. There seems little chance of the murderer being caught — until her makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans …

The Verdict

One of Poirot’s most interesting cases. As good upon revisiting it as I felt it was the first time around. Highly recommended.

“Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack.”

My Thoughts

When I realized that I was headed for my 400th book review I thought that I needed to mark the occasion somehow. Rather than trying something new, I decided that I would use the milestone to revisit and review an old favorite and took a list of possibilities to Twitter for people to vote on. The overwhelming favorite turned out to be this novel which I have often suggested is my favorite Christie. The thing is though that while I have often revisited the book’s radio adaptation over the years, it’s been over a decade since I read it which rather begs the question – would it hold up to my memory?

The story begins with the return of Captain Hastings from Argentina to London for a brief stay. After catching up with Poirot he learns about a strange letter that his friend had recently received. That letter was signed by ‘A. B. C.’ and challenged Poirot to stop him from committing a crime saying that he should ‘Look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month’. Poirot shares the information with Scotland Yard but when an Alice Asher is found dead in her tobacco shop it seems he has failed. Then another letter arrives referring to events to come at Bexhill…

One of my favorite tropes in mystery fiction is the idea of the cat and mouse game. While the detective and killer are always conscious of each others’ activities in detective stories, I really enjoy when the killer interacts more directly and try to influence the other’s actions as opposed to simply waiting to get caught. When done well this can make for a rich source of intrigue and tension and The A. B. C. Murders does this extremely well.

There are lots of things that I like about the setup here but let’s start at the beginning with the manner in which we, and our heroes, learn of the challenge. The idea of the anonymous taunting letters being sent directly to Poirot works well and serves to personalize this conflict very effectively. These letters not only come to insult Poirot’s professional abilities, seeming to suggest that his powers may have diminished, they also are imbued with a hint of xenophobia while the act of giving the detective the date and the general location of each crime feels shockingly arrogant. We understand what will drive Poirot to take A. B. C. seriously and why he will so active in this case – far more so than in any of the previous few adventures Christie had written for him.

The idea of a killer working with an ‘alphabetical complex’ is equally interesting and it is striking just how quickly Poirot comes to that idea. What I like about this as an idea is that it seems to narrow the focus, imposing a series of rules that the killer must work to. Those restrictions level the playing field a little, allowing the detective and the team of police profilers a chance to interpret those rules and the choices that are being made in the efforts to get an edge in identifying the killer.

Finally by starting at a point after the first letter has been received establishes the novel’s pace which is notably far faster than any Poirot story up until this point. Given that we do not know any of the victims prior to their murder, Christie avoids setting up households of characters or multiple motives. Similarly it is made quite clear that the victims come from quite different places and backgrounds. The killings appear to be the work of a madman, albeit a very neatly organized one, and so the focus instead falls on the story’s action and the sense that a net is slowly closing in around the killer.

Each murder feels quite distinct from those which precede it and while we do not spend much time with each of the other figures in their lives, I feel that each manages to pack a lot of impact and information into a very small number of pages.

Christie makes an interesting structural deviation from her usual style, mixing typical first person narration from Captain Hastings with some chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’ Personal Narrative’. These are short at first but increase in length and detail as we get further into the book and introduce us to the character of Alexander Bonaparte Cust who we encounter as a lodger in a shabby room, surrounded with paraphenalia that appears linked to the crimes that will soon occur.

The decision to have Hastings imagine the thoughts and experiences of Cust can be a rather awkward one at times given that he admits he didn’t witness these events himself. The benefit is that it raises the possibility that we may be reading an inverted mystery and while it is not clear whether that is the case for a substantial portion of the book, the reader is able to glean information that may help them make their mind up on that matter.

Structural issues aside though, this is probably my favorite of the Hastings stories and the reason is that Christie has a clear idea for how to use him. He shares several important exchanges with Poirot in the novel such as the memorable discussion about the importance of clues, each of which throw light on the character and his investigative philosophy. The most interesting of these exchanges though, at least for me, is highlighted by Poirot himself at the end of the novel and earns Hastings a ‘full meed of praise’ from his friend. It is built on a very simple idea but I feel that the novel accurately captures just how much it forces a reevaluation of the broader evidence. This not only works to contrast the pair but it shows us that Hastings actually does have a role in that partnership and can make important deductive contributions, even if he doesn’t always recognize their importance.

Another notable aspect of the novel is its incorporation of some psychological profiling techniques. While we have seen Poirot use similar techniques himself to whittle down a field of suspects in previous stories, here it seems to be used in a more critical way. The distinction between the way Poirot does it and the Police experts do may feel rather arbitrary and hard to fully understand but I think I appreciated it more on revisiting it this time. The techniques may be similar but Poirot disregards aspects of the profile when they do not conform to the logic of the crime scene.

So, what doesn’t work here? Well, not a lot. A few of the secondary characters from the investigation perhaps feel a little underdeveloped but each are recognizable as types and most play important roles in terms of the plot. I think that this is unfortunate but not unexpected given the amount of incident packed into this story. There is a particularly unconvincing example of a final pages coupling that seems to come from nowhere though and suggests some strikingly bad decision-making on Poirot’s part.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that some aspects of the solution feel rather obvious in the context of the focus being placed on certain aspects of the story. I think were this book read slowly the reader would be strongly positioned to work out the solution – the challenge is in whether they keep the story moving swiftly enough as to distract everyone. For me this definitely managed to do that and I am happy to be able to report that I enjoyed it as much on revisiting it as I did the first time around.

I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to revisit this story which brought some memories flooding back. It remains one of my favorite Poirot adventures and I look forward to hopefully wrapping up this reread project over the next 400 posts.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published 1946

The Blurb

Three desperate men converge in the midst of an annual carnival in New Mexico

Sailor used to be Senator Willis Douglass’ protege. When he met the lawmaker, he was just a poor kid, living on the Chicago streets. Douglass took him in, put him through school, and groomed him to work as a confidential secretary. And as the senator’s dealings became increasingly corrupt, he knew he could count on Sailor to clean up his messes.

Willis Douglass isn’t a senator anymore; he left Chicago, Sailor, and a murder rap behind and set out for the sunny streets of Santa Fe. Now, unwilling to take the fall for another man’s crime, Sailor has set out for New Mexico as well, with blackmail and revenge on his mind. But there’s another man on his trail as well―a cop who wants the ex-senator for more than a payoff. In the midst of a city gone mad, bursting with wild crowds for a yearly carnival, the three men will violently converge…

The Verdict

A strong example of a thoughtful and nuanced character study though the plot feels rather straightforward in comparison.

He wasn’t the only one who’d caught up with the Sen. McIntyre was here. Tonight the villagers were burning up their troubles. But the Sen wasn’t burning his. They’d caught up with him at last.

My Thoughts

Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel by Dorothy B. Hughes to be reprinted as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I held both of the previous reprints, The So-Blue Marble and Dread Journey in very high regard so I was really excited to see this release announced some months ago. Knowing that the book is one of Hughes’ most widely admired novels (along with The Expendable Man and In A Lonely Place), I was keen to get started on it and so it inevitably jumped to the top of my TBR pile as soon as my copy arrived.

It takes place on the streets of Santa Fe during the three-day carnival Fiestas de Santa Fe which commemorates the Spanish retaking the city. Sailor has arrived in town on the trail of his former employer, Senator Douglass of Illinois. He plans to stage an impromptu meeting with him to extort a sum of money from him before he flees south of the border. Unfortunately for him, he soon discovers that all of the local hotels are booked leaving him on the streets for the night. This forces him to try to befriend some of the locals to find shelter. To make matters worse, he also learns that McIntyre, an investigator from back home, is already in town and also hot on the senator’s trail…

The novel is neither a work of detective fiction, nor is it particularly mysterious. There is a question about what exactly Sailor intends to blackmail the Senator with but it soon becomes pretty clear what sort of information it is. Similarly we can pretty quickly guess the nature of his grudge against his old boss. Instead this is the story of the consequences to a crime and it offers a noir-infused exploration of the mentality of a man and the situation he finds himself in.

While the novel is generally very well reviewed on Goodreads and similar sites, one common thread in critical reviews is the suggestion that the book does not contain much in the way of plot. There is admittedly some truth in this as there is not much incident in the novel and yet there is a lot of character exploration and development. In the course of two hundred and fifty pages we see Sailor absorb and respond to his environment and the thoughts it evokes in him. The question is whether this what effect those experiences will have on his will to follow through on his plans and how that final inevitable confrontation between Sailor and the Senator will play out.

Sailor makes for an interesting, if rather difficult protagonist. Though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes’ narration is sympathetic to his thoughts, reflecting how he feels about the things he sees and the people he interacts with. That narration is liberally sprinkled with racial epithets towards the Mexican-American and Pueblo Indian characters as Sailor makes his discomfort at his new environment quite clear at every turn. Yet as the novel progresses we see those attitudes soften as he develops what Sara Paretsky terms in her excellent introduction to the AMC edition a ‘reluctant empathy’ towards those groups, even if he never quite connects the similarities between the complex relationships between the various ethnic communities of Santa Fe and those of Chicago.

Each relationship that Sailor enters into in the course of this novel is similarly hard to define. Take for instance his interactions with Pila, the young Pueblo girl to whom he gifts a bottle of pop and a ride on the carousel. Others expect that this is a prelude to sexual advances but his relationship with her turns out to be more complex and interesting. He listens to her story, hears what she wants and clearly comes to see something of himself in her. When he gives her a final piece of advice towards the end of the story he is speaking to his younger self as much as he is talking to her. His interactions with ‘Pancho’ and the Senator are just as richly nuanced.

Where I think Ride the Pink Horse stumbles is that its discussion of race often feels a little pointed and clumsy. Hughes clearly intends to educate the reader at the same time as Sailor but those passages can sometimes feel heavy-handed or confusing. This is a problem I often find with works that were trying to address social issues (for example: The Niece of Abraham Pein) as unfortunately what seems progressive in one era can seem anything but in another.

To give an example of what I mean let me once again draw on Sailor’s conversations with Pila. Towards the end of the novel he tells her she should return to the pueblo and give up her aspirations to live in the city. The suggestion seems to be that the city is a source of depravity and corruption and that life on the pueblo, while unsatisfying for many reasons Sailor acknowledges, will allow her to retain her purity. The problem is that his statement can equally read as supportive of racial segregation which would clearly be a very different message. While I think it is clear from the broader context of the book that this is unlikely to be the message Hughes intends, the author’s choice to not connect this speech directly to Sailor’s own experiences means that the ambiguity does exist – particularly given how direct she can be elsewhere in the same novel such as when a character relates the history of racial relations in the era.

The other dominant theme in the book is that of forgiveness and redemption. The question of whether Sailor can make a safe and sensible choice and let go of his feelings with regards the Senator to survive runs through the whole novel, being most clearly addressed in his conversations with McIntyre. Though the imagery here can also feel a little heavy at points, I think this theme is developed and addressed more clearly and directly building to a powerful resolution.

While I doubt that the resolution to Sailor’s situation will surprise anyone that doesn’t make those final pages less powerful. Indeed the sense of the inevitability of some aspects of the conclusion is a large part of why that ending works for me.

As satisfying as the ending is however, I think the novel never quite overcomes its clumsiness in its handling of its themes, nor its simplicity as a crime narrative. Those attempting to read this solely for the plot will come away disappointed. For those more interested in the exploration of a character or setting however, there is much to admire here and it leaves me all the more curious to delve deeper into Hughes’ other works. Hopefully more reissues will follow…

This counts towards the Colorful Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Second Opinions

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime cared for this much less than I did, and her review notes her disappointment with the pacing of the story.