Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love by Carlos Allende

Cover for Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love

Originally published in 2022

Last November, I found a dead body inside the freezer that my roommate keeps inside the garage. My first thought was to call the police, but Jignesh hadn’t paid his share of the rent just yet. It wasn’t due until the thirtieth, and you know how difficult it is to find people who pay on time. Jignesh always does. Also, he had season tickets for the LA Opera, and well . . . Madame Butterfly. Tosca. The Flying Dutchman . . . at the Dorothy Chandler . . . you cannot say no to that, can you? Well, it’s been a few good months now—Madame Butterfly was just superb, thank you. However, last Friday, I found a second body inside that stupid freezer in the garage. This time I’m evicting Jignesh. My house isn’t a mortuary . . . alas, I need to come up with some money first. You’ll understand, therefore, that I desperately need to sell this novel. Just enough copies to help me survive until I find a job . . . what could I do that doesn’t demand too much effort? We have a real treasure here, anyhow. Some chapters are almost but not quite pornographic. You could safely lend this to nana afterward!

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love is another one of those books that is rather difficult to put into a genre box. It is, first and foremost, a work of comedic fiction. It is also the story of a relationship. A messed up, difficult relationship but then the two characters who end up in it are rather messed up, difficult people for reasons we’ll come onto. It discusses sexual and cultural identity and the search for belonging, all the while depicting a moment in California and America’s political climate – the start of President Obama’s second term at a point and the speculation about the administration’s stance on gay marriage.

In addition to being all those things, it is also a crime novel.

Allende’s story concerns an almost accidental serial killer. Jignesh never intended to kill anyone but when a former intern at his company mocks him he lashes out. Panicked and needing to figure out a way of disposing of the body – or at least hiding it – he turns to a one-night stand he had been avoiding who just happens to be in possession of a really oversized freezer.

In what quickly turns into a comedy of errors, Jignesh will soon have more bodies on his hands as his attempts to evade detection push him into more and more trouble. Adding to the complications, while Jignesh has a freezer to store the bodies in, he soon finds that he has to move in with that former hook-up, Charlie, in order to have somewhere to keep the freezer. And then, inevitably, Charlie looks in that freezer and finds himself involved too.

So let’s start by talking comedy. As I have often remarked before on this blog, humor is really subjective. Some will absolutely adore how dark this story gets and how awful the two protagonists behave throughout the story. Others are certain not to. My advice here is that if the concept of the book interests you, go check out the sample chapters on Amazon (or another ebook vendor that does samples). Allende’s two narrators maintain consistent voices throughout and so what you get in those three and a half chapters is pretty representative of the tone and style of the whole book.

Personally I found the situations more amusing than the often outrageous and offensive thoughts of the two protagonists. Charlie’s perspective in particular is laden with cringeworthy racial assumptions and stereotypes. I am quite clear that we not meant to think that those are right or laudable but reflections of the character’s prejudice and upbringing, reminding us that someone can be the subject of microaggressions and bullying behavior while happily engaging in them themselves all the while thinking of themselves as an outrageous wit. Still, while this may work as a character study, I found it a little wearying at points.

The construction of the farce however is superb. So often in these sorts of stories, authors will run out of steam in the later parts of the story. Here though Allende does an amazing job of continuing to escalate and both growing the stakes and the dangers his protagonists find themselves in. Even more impressive though is how he avoids the traps of predictability, delivering some plot developments that surprise while feeling absolutely in keeping with out previous understandings of the characters and the situation they are in.

While I may not have always enjoyed their narration, I did find the protagonists interesting and I enjoyed some of the character exploration that takes place often under the surface. That is perhaps necessary as neither Charlie nor Jignesh is particularly introspective, each seeming to make decisions on impulse, but there are still plenty of moments where we get insight, either from the other character or by the author providing the opportunities to read details or subtext into these characters.

That is particularly true in terms of understanding the complex dynamic of their relationship, much of which develops between chapters or goes unspoken. Neither character is particularly interested in the other romantically at the start of the story yet they are in a very different place by the end of the novel. It’s not exactly a love story – Charlie is quite open with us about how transactionally he views his relationship with Jignesh, particularly once he discovers the first body and opts to delay reporting what he has found to the police until after the LA Opera season is over.

I enjoyed the occasional moments of ambiguity in that relationship and how hard it is to ascribe a label to it. That relationship changes, evolving (and perhaps devolving at points) in response to the events of the novel. It feels very well-observed and that messiness and difficulty made their dynamic all the more interesting to me. I never quite knew what these characters would do in response to the other’s actions, making following that relationship all the more compelling.

What surprised me most is that while I am quite clear that Charlie and Jignesh are both terrible people, there are moments where their situation can elicit some genuine sympathy. That partly reflects that other characters are equally terrible or worse, such as most of the people Jignesh works with. I think it also reflects that their problems are all easy to understand and often to sympathize with. I don’t know that I necessarily wanted them to be happy with each other but I did find myself caring about them by the end.

Which brings me neatly to the book’s conclusion. I have previously mentioned that the book continues to escalate and complicate the situation until the final few pages of the book. By the time we reach that end, thing have become so crazy that the reader may be forgiven for wondering just how everything could possibly be tidied up.

The answer is that while there is a resolution and it feels quite satisfying in terms of paying off what has come before, there are a couple of loose ends left untied and resolutions not quite given. There is one aspect of the story which I had been particularly anticipating yet when we reach the conclusion it isn’t referenced at all. Those reading this for those farce elements though are likely to be pleased with how this wraps up and will excuse a little untidiness in a couple of plot threads for the overall effect of the novel’s punchline.

The Verdict – This often-outrageous crime farce won’t appeal to everyone but features some very clever plot construction and a pair of memorable, if not always likable, protagonists.

The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot by Robert Arthur

Originally published 1964
The Three Investigators #2
Preceded by The Secret of Terror Castle
Followed by The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy

Seven talking parrots have vanished into thin air with the Three Investigators in hot pursuit. Together, the three birds can repeat a coded message from beyond the grave. But the boys aren’t the only ones who want to hear the dead man’s secret…

In spite of the introduction promising a ‘spine-chilling adventure’ and the attempt to conjure up some spooky atmosphere with the cover art to this reprint edition (which sadly replaces Alfred Hitchcock with mystery novelist Hector Sebastian), one of the things that struck me most about this second novel was how lacking in atmosphere it felt. While there are certainly some moments of tension and peril for our young heroes, the action here takes place largely in the daylight and there is absolutely no attempt to conjure up any sense of the eerie or supernatural at work. This struck me as a bit of a shame given how that was one of the strengths of the previous volume and, indeed, many of the stories I remember best from this range.

Instead of spooks and eerie old houses, this outing sees our intrepid heroes on the trail of a couple of missing parrots. When they discover one of their potential clients tied up and a car speeding away, they realize that someone is stealing parrots – the question is, why?

While it is important to recognize that these mysteries were written for children, I ought to stress that the mystery angle of this story is pretty neglible. The concept that each parrot had a strange name and had been taught to recite a message by its previous owner is introduced very early and clearly suggests that we are being set up for a treasure hunt rather than a clearly clued puzzle. The book delivers on that, providing lots of adventure but next to no detection.

What makes that a particular shame, at least for this nostalgic reader, is that clues to the treasure hunt feel underwhelming. Some are quite clever, I think particularly of the one delivered by Shakespeare, but it feels that several of the other birds are only there to bulk up the numbers, contributing little to the problem’s resolution. It certainly didn’t match the complex riddle I remembered from the last time I had read the story as a preteen.

The book scores a little better for its action and adventure, such as the fun sequence which opens the novel. This throws us straight into the action as two of our heroes, Jupiter and Peter, arrive to speak with a client only to get a bit of a surprise and find themselves in a bit of unexpected danger. The scene, while admittedly a little silly, does do a fine job of reacquainting us with the characters, their personalities and their goals and also injects a little tension and suspense into the proceedings.

Later chapters follow throw on the promise of this opening, presenting multiple antagonists for our young heroes to overcome. These moments aren’t always subtle or even all that credible but they do help sustain that sense of excitement and provide a little pressure that helps sell the urgency of their investigation.

For me though the real pleasure in this story was not in its plot which I admit to be underwhelmed by on revisiting it, but in the efforts taken to build up the world of our three heroes. While we get flashes of Jupiter’s home in the previous novel, this delves deeply into it, providing a base of operations hidden in a trash heap that this reader, as a preteen, longed to get inside and explore. We also meet Jupiter’s family and get a nice glimpse of their values in the way they interact with a character we encounter in the course of this novel.

I also respected Arthur’s attempts to discuss child poverty and to have our heroes model kindness and empathy in their interactions with the character that affects. While the writing in those passages may feel a little heavy-handed and perhaps a little message-y, the author does make sure that the character is presented with dignity and their experiences are framed in a way that the children reading it could understand.

Still, as much as I like spending time with Jupiter, Peter and Bob, I don’t think this holds up with the best entries in the series. There is very little deduction or even much in the way of observation, and while there is some fun to be had – especially with the charming concept of a children’s telephone information network they call the Ghost-to-Ghost hookup that gets used a couple of times in this story – I wished the story had made the question of why these thefts were taking place a little more mysterious or sustained it for a little longer.

The Verdict: The case itself feels slight with the author giving us too much, too early, reducing the sense of mystery about what’s going on. There are a few nice, adventurous moments but on the whole this didn’t match the quality of its predecessor.

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event also viewed this as a step down in quality. Their post is a little spoilery, giving you all of the coded messages, but it makes some excellent points – particularly about the idea that a character in this story is reminiscent of one from Father Brown.

Elsewhere Bev @ My Reader’s Block liked the blend of elements at play here, appreciating the mix of mystery and adventure.

The Night They Killed Joss Varran by George Bellairs

Originally published in 1971
Inspector Littlejohn #48
Preceded by Murder Gone Mad
Followed by Tycoon’s Death-Bed

On the Night that Joss Varran was expected home after a visit to Wormwood Scrubs, his body was found in a ditch right opposite the cottage where he lived with his sister in the silent marshes in the north of the Isle of Man. Chief Superintendent Littlejohn, of Scotland Yard, soon becomes involved in the case as a result of Varran’s recent imprisonment in a London jail. 

Joss Varran had been a sailor on a container ship between Ramsey and Preston and somewhere in his voyages had been caught up in events which had made him a hunted man, not so much by the police as by his partners in crime. From all appearances, he had endeavoured to shake them off by getting himself imprisoned! 

His efforts, however, were in vain and his murder presents a confusing case in the Manx curraghs for Inspector Knell, of the Manx police, and his friends Littlejohn and the Venerable Caesar Kinrade, Archdeacon of Man. 

In the early days of Mysteries Ahoy!, George Bellairs was one of the writers I returned to most frequently. That partly reflected that there were several publishers reissuing them in that period which made new material easy to come by but also that I have found him to be a pretty entertaining writer. While I have yet to come across any works that I might dub a stone-cold classic, I have also not have many really disappointing experiences. Perhaps for that reason I have come to view him as an old reliable that I enjoy checking in with from time to time.

The Night They Killed Joss Varran is by far the most recent of his works I have read to date. It was published in 1971, the start of Bellairs’ final decade of writing, and it is curious to consider how the writer’s style seemed to have changed over the years. This work features many of the hallmarks of the series, being set on the Isle of Man and seeing him interact once more with some of his old friends on the island, but tonally it seems a far cry from some of the author’s lighter, earlier works.

The story concerns the murder of a sailor who has only just returned to the island after spending several years in prison at Wormwood Scrubs. No one should have been aware of his plans to return and it is far from clear quite what might have motivated the murder right outside his home. Keen for an excuse to return to the Isle of Man and see his old friends, Chief Superintendent Littlejohn volunteers to travel there to bring Varran’s prison records and to help with the investigation into his murder.

One of the most striking things about this book to me was the bleak tone struck in many of the interactions Littlejohn has with the locals on the island. Many of the characters are experiencing tough, difficult lives and the book strongly conveyed the idea that many are living in isolation. That bleakness is felt not so much through the descriptions of the physical location, which are surprisingly sparse, but rather in many of the curt social interactions we experience between the characters. It is the dialogue, more than the physical descriptions of places, that really brings the setting to life for me.

There is less humor here than in many of the other novels I have read so far, with the only regular source of light relief coming from some of the interactions around the dinner table at his friend the Archdeacon’s home. This more serious tone is by no means a bad thing, but I found it striking that Bellairs is far more focused on developing his central plot ideas than he had been earlier in his career.

On a similar note, while I think there are elements of the plotting of this story that the reader might deduce, building a puzzle does not seem to be the author’s focus here. For one thing, the title Bellairs gives this book goes a long way to steering the reader towards some critical aspects of the solution, even if they haven’t read the book’s rather revealing blurb. From the near the start the reader should be aware that we are looking for multiple killers but the questions to ask are who did the deed and what were they hoping to achieve by it?

The answers to those questions lies in discovering more about the life and personality of our victim, the late Joss Varran. This character is another in Bellairs’ long line of roguish male murder victims, reminding me a little of Harry Dodd. While we don’t really encounter him alive, I think we are given a strong sense of his character in the conversations about him with some of the other islanders.

The plot Bellairs develops is relatively simple and perhaps predictable given what we already know, though it is interesting to fill in some of the details. We may be able to make a good guess at the sort of motive lying behind the crime from the start of the book but finding the complete story will take a little more time. While those answers may not have surprised me, I found them pretty satisfying and I felt that the author does a good job of walking the reader through the events at the book’s end to piece the story together.

Yet while I felt that the elements of the story make sense, I did wish that the author had taken a slightly less direct approach at times. There is not much in the way of misdirection here and while I acknowledge that there is a puzzle here to solve, it is less a jigsaw than a giant toddler’s floor puzzle. There are so few elements at play that there are only a very limited number of ways you can combine them, perhaps unintentionally pushing the reader towards the solution.

I feel matters are not helped by the rather abrupt ending of the book which comes really quite suddenly. Bellairs does take some time to update the reader on what happened after the crime was solved but it feels so brief that it feels rather perfunctory. This struck me as particularly disappointing as I gather this is the final adventure Littlejohn has on the Isle of Man making this feel like a rather disappointing final bow for Archdeacon Kinrade. It would have been nice to get more of a moment between the old friends and I was disappointed that Kinrade does seem to disappear towards the end of the novel.

The Verdict: While I feel Bellairs rushes his ending, I think the case is quite solid and I enjoyed learning more about our victim. It is hardly a classic work and doesn’t offer much detection but like many other Bellairs novels it is an entertaining one and features some pretty striking characters.

The Case of the Painted Ladies by Brian Flynn

Originally published in 1940
Anthony Bathurst #25
Preceded by The Case of the Faithful Heart
Followed by They Never Came Back

Three remarkable things happen to Aubrey Coventry in one day. First, he is contacted by Wall Street financier Silas Montgomery with a lucrative business proposition – although Montgomery insists on meeting him at two a.m. the following day. Second, at a village garden party, a fortune teller cannot read his future, as he does not have one. And thirdly, a shabbily-dressed man reacts with a vicious snarl when simply asked for a light.

The fortune teller is proven correct when Coventry is found dead in his office the next morning. Private Detective Anthony Bathurst finds himself on the trail of the snarling man, reported to have been following Coventry in the night. To unmask the culprit, however, Bathurst is going to need help from some very special friends…

The last time I read and wrote about one of Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst novels, the sublime Such Bright Disguises, I ended up nominating it for Reprint of the Year. Little wonder then that I have been keen to return to the series but one of the challenges has been trying to figure out what I wanted to read next. With so many already reprinted and with more on the way, we are somewhat spoiled for choice.

Rather than defer to someone else’s judgment, I decided that I would eschew from reading reviews or soliciting recommendations. Instead I would base my choice purely on cover and blurb appeal, ultimately selecting this novel for the rather intriguing set of strange happenings described.

The novel opens by describing how in the course of a single day Aubrey Coventry ends up experiencing several strange events. The first is a telephone call from a leading Wall Street financier seeking a meeting alone in Aubrey’s home in the early hours of the morning. The second, a chilling session with a fortune teller who tells him that he has no future to read. The final, an odd interaction with a shabbily-dressed man in the park who snarls and backs away when Aubrey speaks to him.

The next day Coventry is discovered dead in his office having been murdered in the early hours of the morning after apparently meeting with that financier. No papers seem to have been stolen, nor any valuables as those were kept at his bank.

I quite enjoyed the rather unusual setup that Flynn creates for this story. Rather than trying to establish the victim as someone people would naturally want to kill, the murder of Aubrey seems every bit as odd as the things he had experienced the day before. It appears to be a motiveless crime and so the only leads open for our hero are following up on those strange events to see if any, or all, may be connected with the death.

The results are really quite intriguing and often the information we learn only makes the events seem stranger. Take, for instance, what we learn about the phone call that Aubrey receives to arrange the meeting which begs a further series of questions. Similarly Flynn plays beautifully with the idea of the psychic, creating a strong atmosphere both during Aubrey’s interview and subsequently in Bathurst’s questioning of them. The reader may well wonder quite how they could know as much as they do and wonder if they may possibly have some powers after all.

The plot that Flynn develops arguably reads more like a thriller than a typical detective story, though there are many opportunities for the reader to use their deductive skills to get ahead of the narrative. I suspect it would be hard though for anyone to predict quite where this story is ultimately headed until they are quite some way into the novel. That journey is, of course, a large part of the fun.

While some of the moments of deduction feel smart and creative, there are a few points I felt that Bathurst is made to seem brilliant by making MacMorran, in contrast, appear quite unobservant. One of the strongest examples of this for me was a visual clue, given to the reader, in the reproduction of the text from a torn note. Bathurst’s reasoning in that scene is perfectly fine but MacMorran’s fawning over his brilliance, rather than building up the character’s achievement seems to serve to make it feel like our hero is very late to tell us something we have likely already figured out for ourselves.

I liked a lot of what happens in this story though I think there are some points where Flynn’s language is distractingly odd. One akward sentence that stood out particularly to me was when Bathurst makes a comment about a blind person needing to utilize their other ‘sense assets’ to compensate for their lack of sight. Still, for the most part it works quite nicely.

Perhaps the aspect of the story I appreciate most though is its willingness to break conventions and expectations. I particularly enjoyed the way the story references some other great fictional detectives, even having some appear directly in the book’s wonderfully inventive, if utterly far-fetched, denouement.

The Verdict: This is, ultimately, primarily a fun read and I am glad I gave it a try. While it lacks the inventiveness of some of Flynn’s other plots I have read and reviewed here, there is plenty to entertain. Still, for those new to the author I might suggest checking out one of his other novels instead.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery is the authority on Brian Flynn and, of course, they pen the introductions found in the Dean Street Press reprints. They describe this one as a ‘fine outing for Bathurst, loads of fun’ and explain why one aspect of this book’s denouement is very unusual if not unique.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time suggests that while some aspects of the plot don’t stand up to more detailed scrutiny, it is another example of ‘Flynn’s mission to simply write good, imaginative and above all entertaining detective fiction’.

Columbo: Swan Song (TV)

Season Three, Episode Seven
Preceded by Mind Over Mayhem
Followed by A Friend in Deed

Originally broadcast March 3, 1974

Teleplay by David Rayfiel from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross
Directed by Nicholas Colasanto

Plot Summary

Gospel singer Tommy Brown is one of the most popular musical artists in America but he is frustrated that he cannot enjoy the benefits of his fame. His wife, Edna, has a hold over him and is keeping him performing for a pittance with a threat of blackmail. Tommy decides to dispose of his wife by staging an elaborate accident but unfortunately for him Lieutenant Columbo is assigned to the case.

Famous Faces

The part of Tommy Brown was written for country music star Johnny Cash (left) who had already been active as a recording artist for close to two decades when this was filmed.

Ida Lupino plays Tommy’s wife, Edna. She had previously appeared in an earlier episode, Short Fuse, and she had starred in the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

My Thoughts

The plot is one of the simpler ones from this season of Columbo. As is often the case with the show, we spend quite a bit of time following the killer as he plans and executes his murder. In this case we watch Johnny Cash’s Tommy as he finishes up a concert and prepares to travel to LA. I think his target will be pretty evident to viewers along with his motive but the question in those early scenes is just how does he plan of disposing of them.

It quickly becomes clear that Tommy is not one of the world’s great thinkers and his plan is somewhat reflective of that. Compared to the other plots from this season, the crime is messy. Most Columbo criminals try to assemble an undetectable crime or an unbreakable alibi – Tommy opts instead to try to mask his crime with its sheer audacity. It makes no sense that anyone would choose the method he uses, therefore the explanation for what happened must surely be something more logical.

Tommy’s plan does rather strain the resources of a network television show in this period – I think particularly of a sequence in which there is an attempt to suggest some movement with camera shaking and lighting that looks a little clumsy and unconvincing. In spite of those faults however I really appreciate how different it feels and I like some of the messiness of the crime.

More than anything though I just like how Tommy feels so different from the blend of technocrats and sneering business types who are the show’s usual picks to be murderers. His artistic temperament and folksiness mean that many of the typical episode beats – the confrontations and the deflections – play a little differently. Tommy is annoyed by the detective’s repeated questions, sure, but he doesn’t think himself above him. Once again it makes for a nice contrast with the more typical villain.

Johnny Cash is interesting casting in this part. We quickly learn that Tommy is a pretty bad guy all round and the part plays so much off aspects of Cash’s own persona that I was a little surprised he was willing to take on the role. Still, there is something authentic and well-observed in the way the character is created and the episode takes full advantage of his musical talents, having him perform at several points.

Falk plays off Cash superbly and I was interested to see the character takes a slightly different, less adversarial take in his line of questioning. The badgering is there, sure, but it gets blamed on the suits not signing off on things until he answers every little point and I like that both characters mirror each other, each putting on a false show of warmth. It’s a nice touch and, once again, feels a bit different.

I noted earlier that the plot is one of the simplest ones the show attempted in this season which is mirrored in the investigation. As is often the case in these stories, Columbo arrives a little late to the crime scene after much of the preliminary investigation is done and a theory as to what happened has already been reached. A huge part of the fun of Columbo is anticipating which small details at the scene he will point to as not quite making sense. The problem here though is that the mistakes feel too glaring and so he is unlikely to surprise the viewer with his deductions. It feels just a little underwhelming.

What the episode misses is that second act twist that complicates a case, taking it in a different direction. Instead we get unnecessary plodding detail, following Columbo into meetings with Tommy’s former commanding officer and a very talkative worker. The scenes themselves are fine and each have some entertaining moments but they don’t really move anything forward or contribute enough to our understanding of the crime or Tommy’s character.

Though the midsection of the episode is a little disappointing in terms of the plotting, I was far more pleased with the way it is resolved. This is one of those stories where we can tell Columbo is certain of the killer’s identity and yet it seems unclear how he will finally catch him. There is an aspect of trap-setting in that resolution to this story which usually frustrates me and yet I absolutely love the clue that finally convinces Columbo he was on the right track after all, enabling him to move in for the capture. Kudos to the episode for delivering an absolutely fair play clue, setting it up both in dialog and visually – I recall noticing it, musing on it and still not recognizing its significance even once the episode more directly draws our attention to it. I love to be fooled and this one did it brilliantly.

My only issue with the ending is that there is what I might describe as a Carsini moment where there is a sympathetic exchange between Columbo and Tommy that doesn’t feel earned or to reflect what has been shown of Tommy’s character throughout the episode. What makes it play even worse, at least for this viewer, is that we know the reasons Tommy had been blackmailed and we have seen evidence that he hasn’t changed much over the years. It may seem a small gripe, particularly given both actors play the scene quite nicely, but it felt a little forced and out of place in an otherwise very tidy conclusion.

Yet in spite of those complaints, I should stress that I think the episode works quite well overall. Part of that is the highly unusual murder means but it mostly reflects that this features a great piece of guest casting with Cash’s portrayal of Tommy being one of the more effective guest turns from the show’s third season.

The Verdict: This solid, if simple, story is enhanced enormously by a great piece of guest casting.

The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The cover to the American Mystery Classics reprint (2022) of The Cape Cod Mystery.

Originally published 1931
Asey Mayo #1
Followed by Death Lights a Candle

Meet Asey Mayo, Cape Cod’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Settled down from his former life as a seafaring adventurer, Asey is a Jack-of-all-trades who uses his worldly knowledge, folksy wisdom, and plain common sense to solve the most puzzling crimes to strike the peninsula. And in this, his first case, Asey finds himself embroiled in a scandal that will push his deductive powers to their limits.

A massive heatwave is scorching the Northeast, and vacationers from New York and Boston flock to Cape Cod for breezy, cool respite. Then a muckraking journalist is found murdered in the cabin he’s rented for the season, and the summer holiday becomes a nightmare for the local authorities. There are abundant suspects among the out-of-towners flooding the area, but they ultimately fix their sights on beloved local businessman Bill Porter as the murderer―unless Asey Mayo can prove him innocent and find the true killer. 

Our expectations coming to a book can definitely affect our experiences reading it. I have suggested before that my slightly underwhelmed reaction to Malice Aforethought may well have been a consequence of people telling me for several years that I was certain to love it. After so much build-up, the hype was so great that the reality of the book was unlikely to live up to what I had imagined it to be.

I experienced a similar sort of effect when coming to Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery. Admittedly this was not the positive sort of hype but rather some recent interactions with other classic crime fans who were not glowing in their sentiments about other books in this series. Still, I had paid for the thing and when it turned up I was curious enough to give it a couple of chapters and I was initially quite pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it. I can’t help but wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I came to it with no preconceptions whatsoever.

The story is set in Cape Cod where Prudence and her young niece Betsy have recently acquired a small holiday home and invited a few friends to stay. The murder takes place in a neighboring property where a bestselling author is found dead, his body covered with a sheet. Unfortunately the local sheriff, a former policeman from Boston who works as a grocery clerk, seems out of his depth and quickly settles on Betsy’s beau, a local businessman named Bill.

While there are flaws with the sheriff’s case, he seems settled on Bill’s guilt. Prudence talks with Asey Mayo, a sharp-witted local handyman who had once travelled the world as a sailor, and the pair decide to try and prove Bill’s innocence by doing a little sleuthing of their own…

Let’s start with the series’ setting because I think that this is one of the most inspired aspects of the book. One of the great things about the idea of setting a mystery series on Cape Cod is that you have the opportunity to have both that country, small town vibe married to some of the anonymity that comes with living somewhere where so many of the people are vacationing. This not only allows the author to introduce whole new casts of characters between books, it also enables the author to play with questions of identity – in the case of this book prompting us to consider who may have actually known the victim.

While I may not have been to Cape Cod, I did feel that Taylor provides the reader both with a sense of the physical space but also the rhythms of life there during the season. There are some neat observations about the way local businesses adjust to cater for their temporary residents and I enjoyed getting to know some of the colorful locals such as that sheriff and also the rather full-of-himself doctor.

I also quite enjoyed some of the early instances of our heroes engaging in simple, logical thinking. A prime example would be the short series of inferences that Prudence is able to make about the body to suggest murder from a few details of the circumstances in which it is found. I quickly found that my expectations were raising and I was quite hopeful that further logical sleuthing would follow.

As I spent more time with the sleuth, Asey Mayo, however I began to find myself frustrated with his folksy manner and the pacing of the story. Part of that is, no doubt, because I tend to dislike rendering dialect with phonetic spellings. We are told early on that Asey speaks in a very distinctive way, dropping whole parts of words, and while the spellings certainly convey that it also meant that I found myself having to slow down at points just to work out what he was saying. Sometimes that was fine as quite a bit of what he says can be quite amusing, but there are points where I found myself wishing that it had been eased back. The voice was strong enough just from the choice of words and sentence structure alone.

Another reason is that Asey is someone who seems to work on hunches and intuition, comparing situations to ones he has experienced before. Now, I think that is a legitimate type of crime-solving intelligence – I certainly don’t object to it with Miss Marple – but it felt that Taylor has her hero fall back on it too often, dulling its impact. That is, in this reader’s opinion, a particular shame as a key moment in the book really leans into that idea and I think it would have had an even greater impact if there had been fewer instances of it.

The final thing that I think doesn’t help is that the mid-section of the novel feels like a bit of a runaround. There certainly are some amusing and clever moments there, such as a very clever trick Asey plays to get someone to talk, but there is also quite a lot of what might be described as ‘business’ or ‘hijinks’. Some of its cute enough but the plot seemed to move at a glacial pace with few moments that shock or take the story in a strikingly different direction.

After finishing I started thinking about Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr and how often their books would feature a second killing. While sometimes those may feel like afterthoughts, that device can help to add interest into the second half of a novel and refocus the reader’s mind. Here the energy starts high but seems to drain away with the details, only really picking up in the final few chapters as we reach our denouement.

That strikes me as a bit of a shame because the actual solution is pretty interesting, particularly with regards the motive. Taylor goes on to enhance that conclusion by hitting some unexpected emotional notes towards the very end, tying things up in a surprisingly satisfying and powerful (if perhaps slightly convenient) way.

Were I judging this story purely on the setup and resolution of the crime I suspect I would be viewing it quite favorably. The problem I have with it though is that question of pacing which just didn’t work for me. It’s possible, of course, that it may just have been a poor match for my reading mood. Unfortunately as much as I liked the two ends of the story, the middle just proved too much of a slog for this reader.

The Verdict: Asey is a colorful sleuth and your enjoyment of this novel will likely reflect how much you like that sort of folksy character. While I think there are some neat ideas at play with the solution, the journey to that point exhausted me.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

Originally published in 2021.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy lake, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car – strange for a frigid night. Her husband and daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author. Eleven days later, she reappears, just as mysteriously as she disappeared, claiming amnesia and providing no explanations for her time away.

The puzzle of those missing eleven days has persisted[…] What is real, and what is mystery? What role did her unfaithful husband play and what was he not telling investigators?

I suspect that the first time I learned about the strange disappearance of Agatha Christie was in connection with the other great interest of my adult life, the British science fiction show Doctor Who. Several seasons into the revived run of the show there was an episode, The Unicorn and the Wasp, that was centered upon the mystery of the author’s disappearance. I saw and recall enjoying the story well enough but I can’t say I gave much more thought to the real life events that inspired it.

Then a couple of years ago I became conscious that interest in that case seemed to be on the rise. I started stumbling onto articles rehashing the circumstances of the disappearance, podcast episodes, chapters in non-fiction works about the evolution of detective fiction and in various books I read about Christie’s work. What really hit me though was the sudden appearance of fictional treatments of the story such as Andrew Wilson’s A Talent for Murder, this novel and, earlier this year, Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair. None offer as colorful an explanation for the disappearance as The Unicorn and the Wasp, but that there are so many takes on the events suggests that the public awareness of and interest in this strange event continues to grow.

I should probably say at this point that I have little personal interest in the case itself. I certainly believe that the events of an author’s life are often reflected in their work and it can be interesting to muse on how and why that happens, but I don’t regard this case as anywhere near as mysterious as I am clearly meant to. The reason for Christie’s actions has always seemed pretty clear to me, even if we are never going to have the satisfaction of anything approaching a confirmation from the author themselves. Christie avoids the topic in her autobiography and with all those involved now long since deceased, it’s hard to imagine that the matter will ever be closed to everyone’s total satisfaction.

My own reading of the events of those eleven days is pretty close to exactly the one presented by Benedict in this fictionalized account of the disappearance. For the sake of not spoiling those who wish to read and enjoy this book I will avoid stating what that is but I think that reflects that the author is quite thorough in their discussion of the facts of the case. While some aspects of the story are given more prominence than others, I felt that Benedict fits their story around the facts rather than altering them to make their story more dramatic.

The intrigue comes through the contrast they draw between events in the past, as presented in the chapters titled ‘The Manuscript’, a first person account of the Christies’ courtship and marriage told by Agatha, and those set during the eleven day search which follow Archie and are presented in a third-person present tense. The decision to alternate chapters between these two time periods and styles is largely effective. Even if the reader comes to this book with no prior knowledge of Christie’s life, they will quickly detect that the state of that relationship has changed quite significantly and much of the novel focuses on exploring the reasons why that change occurred. It doesn’t build tension as most who approach this will be aware that Agatha lived and wrote for decades after these events, but it does add to the intrigue building about the state of that central relationship.

As a character study into the power dynamics between a husband and wife it can be quite effective, though the conclusions it reaches are unlikely to surprise. Among the factors Benedict explores are the effects of World War I, the birth of a child, and the difficulty in balancing professional and personal obligations. I was not surprised by the identification and treatment of those themes which are generally handled quite thoughtfully.

Yet the discussion feels somewhat incomplete because the story focuses so tightly on this narrow, dramatic window of Christie’s life. Some questions feel unanswered: Could Archie and Agatha have ever been happy? Were their problems unique or representative of wider problems faced in relationships during this period? If so, why was Agatha’s relationship with Max so much more successful?

Some of the more colorful aspects of the case are present but minimalized. The celebrities involved in the search, Sayers and Doyle, are given little more than a name check while the choice to follow Archie rather than the investigators means that our focus is on the building resentment and fear he exhibits. This can be interesting on a character level but it also means that after a while that thread of the novel feels rather static as we wait to move to the story’s denouement.

That short final section of the novel is the most interesting portion of the novel by quite some way. It is in those last few chapters that Agatha’s voice and character is most clearly conveyed and where we see the conflict properly play out. Once again there are few surprises here, at least for this reader, but I think the direct way that Benedict lays out her characters’ positions and feelings is effective and does pay off the main plotline quite nicely. The ending may feel a little abrupt and, as I suggested earlier, the reader may have some outstanding questions but it does feel like a tidy resolution to the themes the author has been developing throughout the book.

In spite of how it may initially appear to those unfamiliar with the story, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie presents no crime to the reader. Well, apart from the unforgivable one of the author unnecessarily spoiling the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Still, as a character study of one of the giants of our favorite genre it can be interesting enough, though I am unconvinced that it adds significantly to our understanding of her personality, nor that of Archie. Others, particularly those less familiar with the story, may disagree however and find Benedict’s explanation of the mystery persuasive enough to make this a rewarding read.

The Verdict: Benedict’s work does a good job of capturing much of the detail of the investigation and does present a pretty solid interpretation of events, though I would suggest it adds little new to the story. Still, it does develop its themes well and those new to the tale may well be interested in how events unfold.

Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood

Originally published in 1990
Phryne Fisher #2
Preceded by Cocaine Blues
Followed by Murder on the Ballarat Train

Walking the wings of a Tiger Moth plane in full flight ought to be enough excitement for most people, but not Phryne Fisher, amateur detective, woman of mystery, as delectable as the finest chocolate and as sharp as razor blades. 

In this, the second Phryne Fisher mystery, the 1920s’ most talented and glamorous detective flies even higher, handling a murder, a kidnapping and the usual array of beautiful young men with style and consummate ease–and all before it’s time to adjourn to the Queenscliff Hotel for breakfast. Whether she’s flying planes, clearing a friend of homicide charges or saving a child from kidnapping, she handles everything with the same dash and elan with which she drives her red Hispano-Suiza.

After having a rough old time with The Institute earlier this week, I felt that I didn’t want to take any risks with my next read. Instead of trying something new I would instead revisit a book I had already read and hope that it would give me a much-needed lift.

I discovered the Phryne Fisher novels a little over a decade ago at a point where I was just starting to get back into reading mystery fiction. The books, as I noted in my review of Cocaine Blues, read more as adventures than detective stories and the reader should not expect to treat these as fair play mysteries. They are however enormously entertaining thanks to a broad cast of colorful recurring characters, the striking Australian settings, and the personality of our heroine, Phryne.

Phryne finds herself engaged in trying to solve two mysteries in Flying Too High. The first involves the death of a rather unpleasant businessman who has been bashed on the head by a heavy rock. The man’s son, whom he struggled to get on with, is blamed for the crime but Phryne points to some logical flaws with this explanation. Instead she commits that she will prove the man’s innocence and that she will track down the real killer.

The main focus of the novel however, or at least the source of the greatest drama and storytelling energy, is the other mystery: the kidnapping of a child. Once this story point is introduced, the urgency of that scenario dominates the story and almost all of the action and development occurs in this storyline. Greenwood will wrap up the other storyline by the end of the novel but it feels almost like an epilogue – the story reaches a crescendo with the resolution of this kidnapping.

One of the reasons that I think this second storyline comes to feel like the more significant one is the natural sympathy that the reader will feel toward the plight of a child. This is amplified by allowing the reader to follow the story not only from the perspective of the investigator but also from that of the victim, Candida, and her kidnappers. This adds to the sense of urgency, reminding us that Candida is in imminent danger and it also lets us into the thinking of her kidnappers. We know what they have planned adding to the desire to see Phryne succeed in rescuing the child.

As I suggest earlier, readers should expect the actual detection here to be quite slight. There are few clues to consider while the kidnappers’ motives and plans are known to the reader from the start, reducing the possibility of a surprise. The adventure angles here are great fun though, building beautifully to a rather memorable action sequence in which our hero comes by plane to try and save the day.

The only aspect of this story thread I didn’t love relates to an aspect of the resolution. I will try and treat as carefully as possible here to avoid spoilers!

Towards the end of the novel there is a point at which Phryne cuts a rather unsavory deal with someone to buy their cooperation. It’s a really odd moment, hitting a very strange and perhaps unsettling note in relation to the themes of the novel. What’s stranger, it doesn’t feel remotely necessary to the development of the story overall, nor its themes. In short, that part of the book just doesn’t sit quite right with me…

That first mystery plot, while receiving little narrative attention throughout most of the novel, is at least a little better-clued than some others – at least with regards a few points near the end. There are a few observations to be made, some very clever, concerning the murder method that the reader might work out before the sleuth.

The real heart of the book though lies not in the mysteries but in seeing the continuing expansion of Phryne’s circle of helpers. After the first volume gave us Bert, Cec and Dot, this one adds a pair of housekeepers into mix, amusingly each named Butler. This is nice firstly because it reflects that sense that Phryne is slowly putting down roots in the area but also because it allows for us to see Phryne once again through the eyes of someone who is not already accustomed to some of her behaviors, reintroducing some of her eccentricities and foibles.

It is this sense of an adoptive family building up around Phryne, comprised of a really unlikely blend of very strong but fun personalities, that I think is my greatest sense of pleasure when it comes to this series. There are still a few more elements to slot into place but overall I think it is very impressive how quickly this series comes to find a sort of rhythm.

So, where does that leave me with Flying Too High? I think it is often quite an exciting tale and I appreciated that it isn’t static but rather makes use of a range of backgrounds and settings. There are two barriers to me recommending it however. The first is that it doesn’t read so much like a mystery as an adventure. That may be just what you’re looking for. The bigger barrier though for me is that there are a few parts of the story that feel very, very dark, in one case bordering on being in rather uncomfortable taste.

For those that read and enjoyed the first in the series, Flying Too High is a solid choice for a next step. It’s quick, exciting and certainly worth a look – particularly for fans of historical stories.

The Institute by James M. Cain

Originally published in 1976

Professor Lloyd Palmer loves a good biography. His fantasy is to start an institute to teach young scholars the biographical arts, and it will take old money to make his dreams come true. Around Washington, the oldest money is found not in the District, but in Delaware, a land of wealth so astonishing that even the Du Ponts are considered nouveau riche. But when the professor goes to Wilmington, he comes away not with old money, but young trouble. Her name is Hortense Garrett. She is his benefactor’s wife, a twenty-something beauty trapped in an unhappy marriage, whose good looks conceal the most cunning mind this side of the Potomac. She needs a ride to Washington, and Lloyd offers to give her a lift. They’ve barely left Delaware before he falls for her. By the time they hit the Beltway, his biography will be in her hands.

I briefly contemplated skipping over writing up my thoughts on The Institute. For one thing it is barely a crime novel. Still, it is a noir-ish work and the blurb is suggestive (or derivative) enough of some of Cain’s early classic setups that some may be tempted to give it a go. Given how few reviews of this there seem to be floating around, I thought I owe it to any of those potential readers to save them some time and money: The Institute is an absolute turkey of a book.

The setup is that Dr. Lloyd Palmer, a university English teacher, has a whizz-bang idea to start an institute devoted to aiding those seeking to write biographies of American figures. His thinking is that biography is one of the great American literature forms and that they could provide financial support and resources to aid scholars in their work. He approaches multi-millionaire Richard Garrett to convince him to provide the funding and quickly wins him over. The stumbling block comes in the form of Garrett’s beautiful wife, Hortense, who refuses to relocate to Washington D.C. to serve as the President of the foundation.

Richard suggests Lloyd drive her into the city and try to win her over on the way. Instead the pair end up lovers. So begins an awkward love triangle in which the pair have to keep their relationship secret as they work together to get this Institute off the ground. This begs a number of questions: Will Richard find out? What will he do if he does? And will you even care by that point?

The Institute was the last of Cain’s novels to be published in his lifetime, just a few months before his death, and it is a pale shadow of his classic works. As with many of his stories the focus is on a seemingly doomed relationship between two young people, one of whom is in a loveless marriage, the other having a business relationship with the husband. It’s a setup found in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – and also the much inferior work The Magician’s Wife (which, incidentally, reads like a classic compared with this). This was not necessarily a poor choice – Cain typically renders tortured, self-destructive love affairs quite well – but this is handled badly from start to finish.

One of the biggest problems with the book for me lay with the way that relationship between Lloyd and Hortense begins and develops. In those early classic works, Cain presents us with couplings that it is clear we are meant to view as destructive. In Postman, Frank and Cora are greedy and vicious with a mutual appetite for destruction. Their lust for each other is evident from the start and gives that book much of its power and the reader will likely be wanting to see them brought down by the end.

With Double Indemnity we have a similar situation. The reader may feel a little sympathy for Walter by the end of the book but the ending of that book feels right given the scenario. Here however Cain seems unsure whether to present the affair as something the reader wants to see punishment for or something to be resolved happily. It gives the book a confusing, uncertain tone, only settling on a side in its final few chapters. Unfortunately I felt that Cain picks the wrong one, leaving this reader feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

One of the reasons for that is that I was repulsed by the manner in which the coupling begins. Hortense describes it as ‘rape’ – a descriptor Lloyd agrees with and repeatedly uses throughout the book – and things are not improved by the suggestion that she wanted it to happen. Cain played with this line before in earlier works but there it was clear that those relationships were negative and destructive. We are fascinated by those couples but it is obvious that we are waiting to see how they will be doomed. Here however the pair become trapped in a rather awkward, albeit somewhat sadomasochistic, domestic relationship.

The only tension then comes with the question of what will happen if and when Richard finds out. Cain keeps dangling that idea out for the reader, hoping that it will keep the pages turning as we await for that inevitable explosion when our protagonists suddenly losing control of events. I think that might have worked had the focus fallen on exploring the mental state of our pair of lovers. Instead though Cain decides to expound upon Shakespearian sonnet writing, the mechanics of starting a not-for-profit foundation, the popular conception of the Confederacy in the South and congressional corruption.

If that set of very specific interests captures your imagination you may find things to enjoy about The Institute. I do wonder though precisely how much of Cain’s audience that was likely to be. I will note for the record that I have a moderate amount of interest in several of those topics and I still found this quite tedious.

Are there bright spots? Sure. Cain’s prose may not be quite as muscular as in his earliest efforts but he can still turn a good phrase – just expect them much less frequently than before. I will also add that I think Cain’s enthusiasm for the biography as an art form is quite persuasive.

It’s not only a far cry from Cain at his best, it’s also pretty far from mediocre Cain. If you are desperate to read everything he ever wrote then this will certainly tick that box but otherwise I would avoid.

Columbo: Mind Over Mayhem (TV)

Season Three, Episode Six
Preceded by Publish or Perish
Followed by Swan Song

Originally broadcast Febuary 18, 1974

Written by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

When Dr. Cahill, the head of a scientific think tank, learns that a rival intends to expose his son as a plagiarist on the eve of his receiving a major award, he decides that the solution is to murder him before he can blow the whistle…

Movie poster for the film Forbidden Planet which featured Robby the Robot

Familiar Faces

Robby the Robot was a character created for the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. His highly iconic appearance and surprising amount of personality gave the character enormous appeal and the costume was reused in other MGM pictures and TV shows. One of the earliest was an episode of The Thin Man named Robot Client.

José Ferrer had won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. He didn’t have a lot of mystery credits but he did make an appearance of an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Jessica Walter made a number of appearances in mystery TV shows in the seventies and eighties including Ironside, Magnum P. I. and yes, Murder, She Wrote. I was most familiar with her though for her role as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development and as Mallory Archer in the animated spy comedy show Archer.

My Thoughts

It has been a number of months since I last wrote about Columbo which was quite unplanned. As I seem to be continually noting, there has been a lot going on these past few months and I fell behind in writing up my thoughts about things. This was particularly tragic in the case of this show as it meant that I had to rewatch Mind Over Mayhem to refresh my memory of it – which I think gives a suggestion that you’re not looking at a rave review…

The premise of the episode is fine enough. Dr. Cahill’s motivation to murder, to protect the reputation of his son (and, in the process, his own), is convincing enough and the circumstances meant that a little untidiness in the planning would be understandable given it is set up as a pretty spur-of-the-moment decision.

The writers even build in some interesting conflict with the victim’s wife, a psychiatrist treating Dr. Cahill’s son, being aware of his plagiarism and some other information that will pertain to this story yet being unable to reveal it because it was shared in a therapy session. This makes for an interesting element of the story, even if it feels a little wasted because it never really impacts Columbo’s investigation – only the actions of the other characters involved in the story.

Ferrer is interesting casting as Cahill and he does a pretty good job of showing both the intelligence and also the egotistical and domineering parts of his character’s personality. He is by no means one of the more colorful Columbo murderers and I would not call him a particularly memorable villain but he performs the character as written pretty well.

Unfortunately any subtly he was reaching for with his performance is quickly forgotten the moment Robby the Robot wheels forward to present himself. This is one of those cases in which a piece of stunt casting goes wildly awry. It is simply impossible to look at Robby and take him seriously in the role he has been given. This is not helped by pairing him with a boy genius-character who supposedly invented him, nor by the inconsistent manner in which he receives his ‘programming’. When he appears I found it utterly impossible to take him seriously and, what’s worse, I felt that Cahill and Columbo look really silly whenever they are called on to interact with him.

Robby turns out to have a really critical role in the murder sequence which, once again, may seem rather unconvincing. Certainly I think it confuses things as to what degree this crime is supposed to be commited on the spur of the moment as Robby should require considerably more programming than Cahill could surely give him before taking action. This might have been forgiven though had the murder method been more interesting – instead this episode delivers what may be the most underwhelming example of such a sequence since the start of the show.

The best Columbo murders are clever. As a viewer I want to believe that the case is uncrackable. That the killer would get away with it if it wasn’t for our hero’s strange mix of gut instinct and dogged determination. That is clearly not the case here though as the problems with the story Cahill is trying to tell are apparent from the start. What’s more, the plan hinges on an idea that we had seen just a few episodes earlier done far, far better – an unfortunate comparison.

Accordingly there is no wonderfully clever piece of deduction or observation needed to set him on the right track. There’s not even anything approaching a good gotchya moment. It is all rather depressing given how good some of the previous episodes had been and certainly far from the show’s best.

This is a shame because the episode does offer a few entertaining moments, even if they are a bit peripheral to the plot. Falk, for example, is in fine form and has some great bits of business with Dog as well as the recurring gag of his attempting to use a voice recorder to make notes on the case. It’s disappointing he doesn’t have more detection material to work with though as this story hinges on just one or two small observations…

I also quite enjoyed the performance by Jessica Walter as the victim’s wife and thought she was an interesting character but felt that she was ultimately rather wasted in what amounted to a bit role.

Sadly these few bright spots ultimately feel rather inconsequential because the murder plot feels so underwhelming. There is little imaginative or compelling here beyond its ill-advised and ill-fitting guest star turn. The result is an unbalanced, simplistic mess that has little to commend it. It is, in short, by far the worst episode of the show I have seen up to this point which given I have seen Short Fuse is really saying something!