Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (September 2019)

This past weekend I travelled to Port Townsend near Seattle to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding. With a five and a half hour flight each way, I was left with plenty of time to read and I managed to polish off four or five books over the course of three days – not to mention several comics into the bargain.

A few of those books you will already have seen reviews for here – others will be added in the next couple of days.

Aside from the festivities themselves, the other highlight of my trip was finding some used book stores that actually stocked some vintage crime novels. I posted the photo below of some of my haul – the discovery of a set of three pristine Levin paperbacks was particularly pleasing to me, and while I have been able to buy Carrs through AbeBooks, it was nice to see a few actually on the shelves in person. Unfortunately the only one I didn’t already have was The Hollow Man but still…

The flight home was exhausting and honestly I think I will be spending most of the week recovering, not least from the repeated kicking my back received the whole way back. Still, Seattle looked pretty cool from my all-too-brief time there and we hope to make it back there again someday.

Happily a surprise awaited me when I collected my held mail – my latest Coffee and Crime subscription box. If you are curious what was contained within, I once again opened the box up on camera.

As always I was thrilled with the contents – particularly the selection from one of crime fiction’s more divisive figures. Expect reviews of these in the next few weeks!

The Coffee and Crime subscription box is a venture by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime where the recipient receives a box containing two vintage crime novels (in very good condition) and other assorted goodies that crime fiction fans will enjoy. You can find out more details about the box itself and the various subscription offers at Kate’s Etsy store.

A Perfect Crime by A Yi, translated by Anna Holmwood

A Perfect Crime
A Yi
Originally Published as 下面,我该干些什么 in 2012
English translation first published in 2015

A Perfect Crime is the story of a teenage boy who commits a vicious and seemingly senseless murder before going on the run. We follow the action so we know who he is and what he has planned – the question that the reader must consider is why the protagonist has committed his crime and what his end goal is.

The first section of the book introduces us to Su, our killer, and gives us some details of his home life. He lives with his aunt who he hates and spends most of his days pleasuring himself. His only friend is Kong Jie, a girl from the neighborhood whose dog he killed while he was supposed to be hiding it and caring for it in secret. She is oblivious to his role in that, accepting his story that someone else had been responsible.

We follow him as he makes his preparations to commit his murder, brutally kills Kong Jie and goes on the run. In spite of the English language edition’s title, there is no artistry to the killing it depicts – Kong Jie suffers a cruel, vicious death and the police know who they are looking for. The original Chinese title of Cat and Mouse is far more appropriate as we spend the rest of the book following his attempts to evade the police.

Given that we know the killer’s identity and his plan at all times, the only question the reader really needs consider is why he is committing a murder at all. Now, I am a pretty big advocate of inverted crime stories but even I would suggest that this question is not really all that challenging, particularly when you consider the authors referenced as read alikes in the blurb. This is a story of youthful disaffection and while I think the cultural specific references and context add some interest, I would suggest that the mystery element of this story is closer to wafer thin.

While Su’s motive may not be explicitly spelled out until the end of the novel, he is not a particularly complex or compelling character to explore psychologically. Throughout the novel we learn small details about his life and background but few of these feel in any way surprising – most serve to confirm things the reader will likely suspect based on things Su appears to allude to or suggest earlier in the story.

His obsession with sexual and bodily functions may be intended to shock the reader but comes off as trite and puerile, saying little beyond adding to the general image of Su as a disaffected teen. I found him exhausting and tedious company and was grateful when the book shifts perspective for its final phase, exploring the reaction of the Chinese judicial system to the case.

This section of the novel is by far its most interesting and novel, offering us some perspectives on the Chinese legal system and the ability of society to acknowledge and respond to this sort of a senseless crime.

Perhaps the novel’s most interesting idea is the way it plays with how the media and society attempts to understand those who deviate from established social norms. This occurs both in terms of the legal arguments that take place but also the way other characters discuss him, trying to find an individual or incident they might be able to point to as instrumental in setting him on that path.

There are some compelling moments to be found here, in particular those involving the mother of the deceased, but the problem is that while this may interest readers of crime fiction in translation, they are not A Yi’s focus. Unpinning this whole section of the novel is that question of motive that is far less interesting or shocking than it is clearly intended to be.

That, in the end, is the problem with this novel. While it has some interesting things to say, the parts that interested me most are simply not the same things that interest the author. The exploration of this protagonist’s reasons and attitude toward society are simply too familiar and well-worn to make this worth the effort of seeking out unless you are a fan of sociopath crime stories.

Why I Love… How To Steal A Million

After receiving such a positive reaction to my previous Why I Love video post in which I discussed Carol Reed’s The Third Man, I have decided to make this a monthly series. The plan is that I will discuss a crime or mystery-themed film each month and list five reasons that I love that film.

My selection this month is 1966’s How to Steal a Million. If you are unfamiliar with this film directed by William Wyler and starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, it is based around a heist at an art museum though it arguably is more romantic comedy than serious crime film.

Have you seen the film? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts whether you agree with me or not. Feel free to drop suggestions for other comedic heist or mystery films as well!

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs

Surfeit of Suspects
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1964
Inspector Littlejohn #41
Preceded by Death of a Shadow
Followed by Death Spins the Wheel

This novel opens with a literal bang as an explosion occurs in the offices of the Excelsior Company, killing three members of its board who were having a late night meeting inside. When it is discovered that dynamite was to blame so assuming foul play, the local police send for help to the Yard.

Littlejohn and Cromwell are dispatched and quickly set about interviewing the two surviving board members, several employees of the company and the bank to learn more about the situation. They discover that the Excelsior Company had run close to bankruptcy for several years and the directors were personally liable for far more than they could afford to repay. As is remarked at one point, the company is the sort of place you wouldn’t even accept as a gift, let alone buying it, so Littlejohn is puzzled when he finds the charred remains of a paper referring to a takeover offer in the debris.

In addition to the company’s financial problems, Littlejohn uncovers infidelities and resentments, with one of the dead directors, John Dodd, at the center of all of them. With a large number of suspects to consider, Littlejohn must try to understand who or what the intended target was, how the weapon was procured and the motive behind the attack.

Bellairs’ novel is told in the procedural style as we follow each stage of the thorough and methodical investigation. The case is rather detailed and given that several possible explanations for the crime involve a financial angle, we spend quite a bit of time with the Yard’s fraud department trying to understand the company’s position.

These sections of the book clearly make considerable use of the author’s own knowledge and experience from his work as a bank manager. While this is a positive from the point of view of the novel’s credibility, I suspect that these chapters may feel a little dry and detailed to readers whose interests lie outside of balance sheets and financial projections. They are necessary though to understand the novel’s plot and I think Bellairs does a good job of making a complex topic accessible to readers who may have little knowledge of the business world.

As indicated in the novel’s title, Bellairs does give us a wide cast of characters to consider as suspects. This reflects the uncertainty about who the intended victim was, particularly early in the book.

Though there are three victims who die in the explosion, we quickly come to focus on one of them – John Dodd – who we learn may have been a bit of a charming rogue. This is not the first Dodd we have met of that type in Bellairs’ work (A Knife for Harry Dodd) which leads me to wonder what the author had against this particular surname. The Dodd in this story is perhaps a little less colorful than his counterpart in that book but I still enjoyed learning more about him and the way he had been operating the Excelsior Company.

One of the problems with establishing a larger cast of suspects is that many of the characters are not really given the time to make much of an impression on the reader. Few really establish themselves as personalities and while I remember that there were a large cast of possibilities, I would have to think hard to remember exactly who most of them were.

The actual villain of the piece stands out as being a bit of an exception to this but of course that isn’t necessarily a positive as the thinner characterizations elsewhere means that there are few credible alternatives. Their motive for murder is at least pretty strong and was, for me, the most compelling part of the story.

There are also issues in the choice of weapon used. While the explosion makes for a strong hook to the story, the lack of dynamite on site means that we have to spend quite a while working out how it was acquired and why that was the method used. These questions are not uninteresting but I do feel that some of the space used would have been better spent on fleshing out the other suspects a little more.

In his introduction to this book Martin Edwards makes mention that by the time this book was written its style would have been considered a little old-fashioned. This is certainly the case in terms of the style and structure Bellairs employs and I was a little surprised to realize that the action was meant to be taking place in 1964. The Sixties were certainly not swinging in the new town of Evingden.

There are some signs of the commercial changes that were beginning to take place in this period, not only in the problems that the Excelsior Company faced but also in the way the town is being redeveloped. It may only be a small part of this story but I think Bellairs handles this well, depicting it quite simply as a change that is taking place rather than offering any particular take or opinion on them.

I have now read quite a few of Bellairs’ novels and I would consider this to be a lesser work though it is still quite readable. The puzzle aspect of the novel is quite serviceable and I think the financial aspects of this story are well handled, even if they won’t have the broadest appeal. The novel’s title points to its greatest problem – with so many suspects, few are established well enough to be taken seriously and neither the questions of how or why are interesting enough to make up for this.

Further REading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime enjoyed it more than she expected and appreciated some of the comedic notes.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder comments that while she enjoyed it, Surfeit of Suspects felt a little slow in the banking scenes and is not on the level of some of Littlejohn’s earlier cases.

Reputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

Reputation for a Song
Edward Grierson
Originally Published 1952

Reputation for a Song opens with a trial scene in which we hear that Rupert Anderson, a teenager, is standing accused of patricide. The novel then flashes back to show us the events that led up to the death of his father before presenting us with the legal arguments and verdict of the case.

The Anderson household is comprised of Robert and Laura, a couple whose marriage has long since devolved into thinly veiled hostility and contempt, and their three children who have become pawns between them. The eldest daughter favors the father while young Rupert is doted on by his mother.

Rupert has been performing poorly at school and so Robert plans to punish him in the hopes that a little corrective action will push him to take life more seriously. He believes Rupert ought to work toward following in his own footsteps as a lawyer but Rupert and his mother hate this idea, instead pushing for him to take a job working for Laura’s cousin’s brewery. Robert tries to enforce his will but when Laura ignores his dictat that Rupert should be forced to stay home, their marriage hits its breaking point.

While the opening trial scene might leave the possibility open that Rupert may not have been involved in the death of his father, Grierson soon provides us with a clear account of exactly what happened and Rupert’s role in that moment. This places us firmly in inverted mystery territory with the questions being why did Rupert kill his father and will he be held to account for his actions?

The question of motive is an interesting one and I think Grierson does a superb job of rationing out small revelations and hints, engaging the reader in trying to guess where the story is headed. These hints are placed quite fairly and while they are generally psychological in nature, I think it is possible for the reader to be able to use reason and experience to judge what future developments might be in store.

Many of these revelations relate to the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and while I suspect some revelations would have been more shocking to readers in 1952, most of them still have an impact today. Indeed the tone of the book is strikingly modern and candid in places, addressing issues of sexual desire and the sexual power dynamics that existed at that time in surprisingly frank terms. One example of this can be found in the discussion of the appeal of a barmaid and the way she is viewed and interacted with by different members of society. Grierson suggests there is a degree of hypocrisy in high society and that respectability is something of a sham.

Our victim, Robert Anderson, is not a wholly innocent man as he is shown to be controlling, haughty and oblivious in his interactions with his family although Grierson is quite clear that he does not deserve to meet the fate that is meted out to him. His death is quick, violent and shocking and while the descriptions of the violence might seem relatively tame to modern readers, the relationship with his killer and the tragic circumstances of the death make it seem all the more disturbing.

Although Rupert is identified as the killer, the book does challenge the reader to consider whether he is guilty and to what extent justice is functioning correctly as the narrative shifts into the police investigation and trial phases. Some of this relates to his particular circumstances such as his age and obvious lack of maturity while others are more environmental and psychological.

Grierson himself was a lawyer and so it is of little surprise that the courtroom scenes feel well observed both in the details of procedure but also in the thoughtful portrayals of the lawyers, judge and observers. While the courtroom interviews do not reveal any new information in themselves, the examinations of witnesses and points of order do shift the direction of the trial quite dramatically at times and affect the way their statements are interpreted.

The tone and presentation of the legal process can be, at times, quite surprising in its cynicism. We see lies under oath, witnesses being tampered with and a reputation destroyed. You could view these as an exceptional set of circumstances but I wonder if Grierson was pushing at a broader point about the capacity for the British legal system to secure justice when those before it act in bad faith.

Several of the contemporary reviews of the book I have read seem to suggest the book is unpleasant and I suspect the reason lies in some of the darker themes in the book and Grierson’s pessimistic outlook on justice.

Those hints that his would be an unpleasant or seedy read were largely responsible for me putting off reading this until now and led me to expect that this would be a very heavy read. Instead I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book is frequently extremely funny and well-observed. For instance I enjoyed the description of Robert’s clients as being the sort of people who were most keen to make sure that legal documents looked ‘legal-looking and as full of adjectives and possible’. The darkness in the novel’s themes and plot are certainly present but there are plenty of lighter, more humorous moments too.

While the central focus of the novel is on Rupert’s trial, I did appreciate a few of the subplots that Grierson develops. Chief among these is the discussion of a romance between the Anderson’s eldest daughter and the local vicar and the challenges that get thrown in its way. This is not a tangent or diversion from the main plot, it does feed into things in an interesting and compelling way, but it also offers Grierson some opportunities for some well observed social commentary about relationships and the interest everyone in a village seems to have in their vicar’s choice of partner.

In terms of faults, I can find relatively little. Certainly the tone and themes of the piece won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think they are technically well developed and Grierson is largely successful in the way he raises and discusses issues. Perhaps Robert is a little too sympathetically portrayed, especially given his rather imperious attitude towards his family, though I think it would be hard not to feel he is extremely badly used based on everything we learn.

My biggest complaint would be that I did find the ending a little abrupt. While Grierson does give us some answers, I wished we could have had a little more time following the end of the trial to learn what happened to the various figures we had met. The ending wraps up the themes but arguably doesn’t truly satisfy although I think the author probably achieved the goal he set for himself.

In spite of those few complaints, I found Reputation for a Song to be an entertaining, fast and largely satisfying read. It portions out revelations well, engaging the reader in trying to figure out what will happen next, and though I wanted a little more punch in the ending, I do think it does a fine job of summing up the themes of the piece.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Lawyer/Barrister/Judge (etc) (Who?)

Further Reading

Tom Ruffles writes that while the book is ‘inclined to plod’ the characterization makes up for it.

The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr

The Mad Hatter Mystery
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1933
Dr. Gideon Fell #2
Preceded by Hag’s Nook
Followed by The Eight of Swords

Of all of the American Mystery Classic releases to date, none have excited me quite so much as The Mad Hatter Mystery. It wasn’t just the prospect of owning a shiny, fresh hardcover of a Carr work (a novelty after their being out of print for so long) but also a reflection of how appealing I found the blurb.

The Mad Hatter Mystery promises a lot. We get a strange murder at the Tower of London, a curious spate of hat thefts and the missing manuscript of the very first Poe detective story (predating The Murders in the Rue Morgue). The cover of the Penzler reprint even alludes to Carr’s reputation for impossible crimes which may set a false expectation since this novel really doesn’t fit into that category of crime fiction.

Before I discuss whether it lived up to those expectations I should probably go into a bit more detail about the setup…

London has been terrorized by a prankster who has been dubbed The Mad Hatter. This individual has been stealing hats off the heads of Londoners and putting them in odd places. Among the newspaper reporters following this case is Phil Driscoll who is the man found dead in the mist at Traitor’s Gate, a crossbow bolt through his heart and his uncle’s oversized top hat pulled over his head.

The guards at the Tower have quietly detained all of the visitors to the Tower that day for questioning but no one appears to have been near or seen what happened clearly through the heavy fog. Fortunately Dr. Gideon Fell is on hands to work through the various accounts and make sense of this baffling crime.

I really appreciate and admire how novel and imaginative the circumstances of this crime are. The idea of a hat thief terrorizing London society makes me smile and I think the question of why the hatter would have placed a hat on a corpse (or possibly killed the man themselves) is a really strong hook for the story.

The initial batch of interviews only makes the circumstances of the murder more baffling. The problems lie in tracking various suspects’ movements around the Tower and throughout London and the ways that information affects their alibis for the crime. I particularly enjoyed a evasive interviewee who lived in the same building as the victim and learning more about their reasons for being at the Tower.

The problem with these interviews is that the more information we receive, the harder it becomes to keep in your head exactly who is where and when. I ended up having to switch from the ebook copy to reading the print edition to make it easier to refer back to the map regularly (perhaps the first time I have really found a map to be essential in following the action of a case) and rereading sections to make sure I was sure I was remembering those movements correctly.

As I noted above, readers should be prepared that this is not one of Carr’s impossible crime stories. The case reads more like an unbreakable alibi story where no one who could have committed the crime would have done and those who might have a motivation can be shown to be away from the Tower at the time of the crime. As an example of that type of story, it is fairly solid but the complexities of the case can make it a surprisingly heavy read at times.

Carr does try to keep things light by incorporating quite a lot of humorous scenes and elements into his story. Some of these moments land quite well such as the grouchy Police doctor who has the misfortune to share his name with a famous fictional character and the interrogation where Fell decides he needs to project the image of what a lawman is expected to be through some elements of costuming to be taken seriously but others can fall a little flat or might be more entertaining if they could be seen rather than described. For the most part I would describe it as a gently amusing rather than hilarious read.

Though I do have issues with the middle investigative section of the novel, I do think the conclusion to the mystery is really quite cleverly thought out and, after such a complicated investigation, surprisingly simple. I do wonder if one of the reasons that this story seems to be pretty fondly remembered is the cleverness of this resolution.

A revelation shifts our understanding of the basic facts of the case and it is the sort of thing that the reader does have a fair chance of beating the detectives to. I don’t happen to love the way we get to that moment, in part because it relies on an unpredictable external event, but I was at least satisfied that Dr. Fell had basically solved the thing prior to that, keeping it from frustrating me too much.

I think the other reason that this story is fondly remembered relates to an event in the final chapter that feels organic and earned. It is, of course, the sort of thing that you can’t discuss without spoiling it but I think anyone who has read the book will know the moment I am referring to. It is the type of moment that defines a character and I think it gives us a very clear sense of who exactly Fell is not only as a detective but as a man.

Where does that leave me overall? Well, I liked moments from this story a lot and I certainly liked the ideas but the middle third turned out to be a bit of a slog. I am glad that further Carr stories are getting reprinted, both by Penzler and the British Library, so that this isn’t the only of his stories that is widely available as I would not suggest this as a first outing as it is hardly Carr at the height of his powers. Those who have already read and enjoyed books by the author will find there to be enough here to make it a worthwhile and solid, middle-of-the-road sort of read.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title with a literary allusion in it (What)

Further Reading

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World describes the novel as one of the best in concept, characterization and execution of the Fell novels.

The Green Capsule’s review is pretty mixed, praising some of the humor and appreciating the bit of background we get about Fell but noting that the case is a little too open ended and underwhelming on the question of how the murder was done.

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his views of this book, noting that it didn’t quite match up to his fond memories on a second reading.

Mask of Betrayal by Maureen O’Brien

Mask of Betrayal
Maureen O’Brien
Originally Published 1998
Inspector Bright #2
Preceded by Close-Up On Death
Followed by Dead Innocent

Close-Up On Death was a superb first novel so I was excited to track down a copy of Maureen O’Brien’s follow-up novel, Mask of Betrayal.

Like that earlier title, this novel also features Inspector John Bright though he is used slightly differently. In the previous book he was a presence in the background who occasionally asserts himself on the narrative until its final third, a consequence of that story being more focused on the impact a murder investigation has on a trio of characters. Here we follow his investigation more closely, making him a more active participant in this story.

The novel begins with the discovery of a decomposing body in a bathtub. The presence of the water in the tub has made it impossible to identify the victim – at a glance they can’t even tell if it is a man or a woman – but they are able to detect a trauma to the back of the head that suggests murder.

There is no sign of forced entry so the initial assumption is that the victim is the owner of the house, the actress Kate Creech. When Detective Inspector Bright follows up with the theater she was performing at in Coventry he discovers that she is still alive and multiple witnesses can confirm that she could not have returned to London in that period to commit a murder herself. So, who was the victim, why did they die and how did they gain access to the house?

Creech is wary of Bright, particularly after her first answers lead to several of her friends being harrassed and aggressively questioned. She becomes highly guarded, avoiding answering questions or sharing information with the police investigation. While she claims that she has no idea who the victim might be, she does have some suspicions which she tries to follow up on while dodging both Bright and the journalists who crowd around her home.

Meanwhile Bright is hot on her trail…

The opening of the book is, admittedly, the sort of thing you don’t want to read over breakfast though for the most part the grotesque images lie in the reader’s imagination rather than anything explicitly described on the page. O’Brien doesn’t need to describe the details – the reactions of the police to what they see are more than enough to let us imagine the disturbing sight and smells that await the police and that haunt Kate throughout the novel. She becomes intensely uncomfortable in her home, which she had been so proud of, to the point where she feels that no amount of cleaning would ever be enough to make it somewhere she could be happy again.

The questions about the corpse’s identity are interesting and while we quickly learn that there were several keys to the house in people’s possession, O’Brien is able to sustain the mystery of the body’s identity quite some way into the novel. There are two people in particular that Kate comes to suspect might be the body and so much of her investigation focuses on trying to track these people down and to understand what may have happened there.

Unlike the first novel which was told in the first person, here O’Brien shifts to a third person storytelling style which allows her to keep information back from the reader. In particular, we know that there are reasons Kate feels guilty about her past interactions with one of the possible victims but we do not know exactly what her reasons are at first. This adds additional layers of mystery to the story and helps to ensure that the reader feels they are always uncovering something new.

Meanwhile Bright’s investigation has a more traditional, procedural feel. One difference between this book and its predecessor is that we get the sense of a team around him with one character, a young and bright trainee named Edgeley, standing out and making some important contributions to the case. Here he directs his colleague’s actions, responds to the occasional bit of ribbing he gets from the other officers about his issues with actresses (his response to one instance of this early in the book is wonderfully sharp), and generally makes a nuissance of himself.

I love Bright as a character. At several points he reflects on how he is an investigator who is tired of investigating and yet he is clearly very effective at both getting under suspects’ skins and turning up leads. His general approach is to shake people up and see how they respond, both to get a sense of their characters but also to unsettle them so that they make mistakes or give information away they would otherwise want to keep guarded.

He remains capable of behaving quite callously towards the people he deals with. To give an example, early in this novel his aggressive questioning of a character and exposure of their secrets is directly responsible for the breakup of a relationship. Yet at other points, once he has got those results, he can be quite tender and thoughtful. The contrasts between Bright on the case and away from it are initially surprising but I think they make sense and perhaps help explain his lack of passion for a job he is very good at.

O’Brien enjoys playing off the persona he projects professionally and the person he actually is. One of my favorite moments in the story is when he responds quite dismissively to the idea of studying classics at university but then goes on to discuss Clytemnestra. He is a great creation who is capable of being quite surprising.

While I think this story is perhaps not so tight thematically as the first novel, it is a richer and more complex case. Bright and Creech’s investigations both have some interesting twists along the way and I enjoyed those moments when they would intersect. It isn’t the sort of case where I think the reader can prove anything before the detective but I thought that the developments and reveal of the killer made sense and felt quite credible.

Overall I loved this second installment in the series and would happily recommend it for the procedural fans, though with the note that you are best off reading these books in order. There are a few references made to the ending of the previous story that while they do not spell out what happens, would probably push you enough in that direction to impact your enjoyment of it.

Perhaps the biggest mystery about these first two books has been trying to figure out why they are out of print. Both are excellent, well-plotted procedural mysteries with interesting and complex characterizations. I would certainly be willing to stump up for new paperbacks with matching spines should they ever be reprinted!