The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard by Hillary Waugh

Book Details

Originally published in 1958.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Beautiful bait.

His name was Andrew. He had married seven women and attended their funerals – each time a little richer. At first that was all they knew about him. But they wondered…

Then they thought of using bait. An eighth wife? A lonely, sulky, attractive girl who needed the money they were willing to pay.

It was a good plan. It began to work. The bait was taken. Too late they realized they could never know how or when she was due to die.

The Verdict

A clever story that blends the best features of the inverted mystery and heist styles.

This past week my wife, daughter and I decided to take advantage of our schedules aligning to enable us to get away for a few days. We spent a lovely few days in Greenville and Asheville (South and North Carolina respectively, visiting the marvellous Downton Abbey exhibit at Biltmore) and amazingly I even found time to actually read a couple of books.

The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard was one of the selections I received as part of my last month’s Coffee and Crime shipment. I had not heard of the story before, nor was the author particularly familiar to me (though I have heard of Last Seen Wearing and suspect I even have a copy of that boxed up somewhere), but I was intrigued by the allusion to the Bluebeard folktale in the title.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it generally goes something like this. A woman marries a powerful noble whose previous wives have all mysteriously disappeared. He then departs on a trip but before leaving he gives her the keys to his chateau, allowing her to go anywhere except for one mysterious room. Inevitably, driven by curiosity, she breaks that rule and upon entering she finds the bodies of each of his previous wives hanging from hooks.

The story is an interesting one that has been frequently reworked over the years and I was curious whether the references would be incidental or if the folk tale would be utilized in a more direct and meaningful way by the novella.

A key difference between that folk tale and this novel is that here we begin the story in the knowledge that Andrew is a killer who is murdering his wives for the insurance money. While we may not have a definite confirmation until later in the story, there is enough evidence pointing to that conclusion from the facts presented to Jack Graham, the insurance salesman who was responsible for selling him his most recent policy, for us to have no doubt of that.

What this means is that our characters are knowingly engaging with a dangerous killer and so, rather than building to a moment of shock, Waugh is building suspense as we see these characters working themselves closer to Andrew. This prompts us to wonder whether he will get wise to their plan and, if so, whether they can keep themselves safe. This is the stuff solid thrillers are made from and unsurprisingly it works well here, particularly once the tensions within the group become clearer.

Jack is pressured by his boss, J. B. Stanford, to run a sting operation to try and snare this insurance fraudster. This, we are told, is not because he thinks he can recover his money but because he feels a sense of anger at being defrauded. It is almost a point of honor for him and he is willing to spend well beyond anything he can hope to recover if he succeeds to make this happen.

Jack’s role is to confirm the identity of this serial wife-murderer based on his memories of the meeting he had with him in the past to sell him that policy. A private investigator, Charles Miles, tracks down some likely individuals and then, once their identity is confirmed, the plan is to entice him to marry Gene Taylor and then to try to catch him in the act of attempting to murder her.

Clearly this plan is both irresponsible and inherently runs a high risk of failure and I would not blame readers for feeling that it seems unlikely. Waugh’s solution is to make a conscious statement that we are throwing logic out of the window. Everyone acknowledges that this plan is foolhardy but they also know that their boss, Stanford, will be driven to seek his revenge regardless.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the story is told of how Stanford refused to hand over his wallet in an armed robbery, essentially daring the criminal to shoot him, only for it to transpire that he had less than five dollars in there – an amount he could easily afford to lose. I feel that story perfectly sums up this character and explains his personality and obsession with catching this man. While that does not exactly excuse some of the more far fetched plot elements here, it certainly goes a long way toward making the characterizations feel pretty logical and consistent.

Rather inevitably complications occur, not least as Jack and Charles are each drawn to Gene and become extremely competitive with each other. This rivalry is largely destructive, not only causing friction as they work to set up their plan but also causing them to become distracted and sometimes to take risks in the hope of blocking the other man’s advances.

At first Gene appears to be more of a plot device or lure than a fully dimensional character and yet I think she is actually one of the most interesting characters in the book. One question that looms over the early part of the story is why she would take the very high risk that she might be murdered and I am pleased to say that when we finally do get an explanation it both makes sense and also helps make her more relatable and likeable. Waugh frequently reminds us that for her this is far from a game – this is a life or death situation – and in doing so draws an interesting comparison with the other characters involved in the scheme.

Jack is arguably a less pleasant person, often seeming quite dismissive of what Gene is telling him that she wants. This is not a particularly pleasant attribute in a character, particularly when there is an allegedly romantic subplot on offer, though he certainly is easier to like than Charles who comes off as a pretty sleazy individual.

The sequences in which they set up their trap for Andrew are really quite fascinating and while the idea of avoiding going to the police feels very dangerous and foolish, the plan they develop and the psychology it relies on convinces. I enjoyed following them as they set things up and wondering just how Andrew would protect himself and escape from danger.

Things get even more compelling once the pair are married and I found myself gripped by the tension whenever it seemed that discovery was inevitable. It builds to an exciting and rather powerful ending that utilizes some other elements of the folk tale in interesting and rather clever ways.

Of course the other character we need to address is Andrew, our killer, who makes for a rather interesting specimen. As with Gene, he initially appears to be a rather simplistic creation who exists to create trouble rather than to respond to those problems. While he is given some character traits, he is often presented more as a looming or threatening presence than as an actual, three-dimensional man. In other circumstances I might be frustrated by the seeming blandness of the antagonist, particularly in an inverted-style story, but here I think it works well because it places the focus on the tensions within our group of protagonists.

The romance between Jack and Gene is treated more as a plot point that affects the plan rather than being developed as a convincing, deep connection between the two characters. That is not unexpected given the compact nature of this story but it did mean that I was not as invested in that relationship working as I could have been, keeping some moments from later in the story from having the sort of impact they might have achieved.

Similarly, I would note that the ending does feel rather rushed given the considerable build up that takes place. That being said, I was satisfied by the mechanics of those final chapters and felt that it hit the most important points, resolving everything.

That brevity and speed is both this story’s greatest strength and its flaw. It is fast-moving, interesting and compelling. I certainly had no difficulty remaining engaged with the story and I wanted to see how it would all be resolved. The least satisfying aspect for me was its underbaked romance but as a mixture of a thriller and heist story it delivered.

Second Opinions

JF Norris @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book noting that Waugh delivers a few tricks that elevate this from ‘a routine B movie plot’.

Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published in 1945.
This title is a standalone.
This book will soon be republished as part of the American Mystery Classics range. That edition is shown to the right of this post but I read an earlier reprint.

The Blurb

Four years after she arrived in Los Angeles, Kitten Agnew has become a star. Though beautiful and talented, she’d be nowhere without Vivien Spender: Hollywood’s most acclaimed director—and its most dangerous. But Kitten knew what she was getting into when she got involved with him; she had heard the stories of Viv’s past discoveries: Once he discarded them, they ended up in a chorus line, a sanatorium, or worse.

She knows enough of his secrets that he wouldn’t dare destroy her career. But he may be willing to kill her. On a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kitten learns that Viv is planning to offer her roommate a part that was meant for her. If she lets him betray her, her career will be over. But fight for the part, and she will be fighting for her life as well.

The Verdict
A superb, suspenseful story which cuts deep into the heart of old Hollywood but its themes are still relevant today.

I first encountered Dorothy B. Hughes’ work when I read The So-Blue Marble, the author’s debut novel which was reprinted last year as one of the earliest novels in the American Mystery Classics range. I loved that book, going so far as to nominate it one of my choices for Reprint of the Year, so I was excited to see that Penzler Press have opted to release another of her novels.

Dread Journey is set on a train that is headed to New York city. Among the passengers are Kitten Agnew, one of America’s biggest film stars, Vivien Spender, the movie mogul who made her a star, and Gratia, the young unknown who he intends to replace her.

The book begins shortly after a moment of revelation for Kitten. She has been assigned to share a compartment with Gratia and notices that she is reading Vivien’s copy of a book he keeps on his bedside table – a book he has long-intended to adapt as his masterpiece and in which she is contracted to play Clavdia, the female lead. This unbreakable contract, signed in the early days of her relationship with Vivien, is now her only leverage to try and ensure that she doesn’t end up like all of his other one-time proteges and that she can walk away on her terms. The price she has set is marriage – not because she loves Viv or wants to be with him but because she knows that will guarantee a divorce settlement and the status of having been Mrs Spender.

Then she learns what had happened to the first Mrs Spender…

The novel opens with Kitten saying to herself that she is afraid. She had felt that she was coming at Vivien from a position of strength but now she realizes that there is a good chance she will never make it to New York at all. Seeing Gratia with the book has made her realize that Vivien expects to be moving forward with his project and since there is no chance of an amicable settlement she begins to believe that he intends to kill her at some point during their journey.

It is this realization that gives the book its title and certainly a strong sense of dread and foreboding hang over the novel. Hughes quickly confirms to the reader that Kitten’s interpretation of the situation and fears are right. Viv is a dangerous man and he has killed before. The book draws its suspense from the question of whether he will manage to do it before they reach New York as we observe each character trying to anticipate the behaviors of the other which, in the process, pulls several of the other passengers into the story.

While the book is obviously set in the era of Hollywood’s studio system, it surprised me just how relevant this story still feels today. Questions of the power of Hollywood executives and the way it is exerted over young stars remain to this day as we have obviously seen in the past few years with Harvey Weinstein and so while the specifics of Kitten’s situation may be of their moment, the ideas it discusses retain their power.

At the heart of this story is the question of agency. Kitten the star has been created by Viv not out of a recognition of her talent but as a response to his infatuation. He has intended to use her and she, in return, recognizes the situation in both its opportunities and risks and is determined to take advantage of it. In this regard Kitten finds herself in an unusual position for a potential victim in a crime story – she is fully aware of the danger she is in, has a means to completely avoid it but refuses to consider it. He promised her that part and she is determined to make him pay for it.

An interesting side effect of this is that it is hard to entirely regard her as a victim. In any other context or situation she would be largely unsympathetic, particularly given her vanity. It just happens that she is placed opposite Vivien, a man who is quite clearly a villain and so, while we may not exactly be rooting for her, we certainly don’t want him to win.

In The So-Blue Marble Hughes gave us two utterly chilling villains but while Vivien is less obviously psychotic than those two brothers, he is arguably even more monstrous. Part of the reason for that is he is so clearly a type of figure we can recognize: the Hollywood svengali who creates starlets only to lose interest in them and destroy them. He justifies this because he believes he made those women the successes they were, raising them from obscurity, teaching them how to act and developing personas for them.

Ultimately each girl lets him down, not because of a lack of talent but because they cannot be the perfect creation he wants to imagine them to be. Once he realizes that he has to move on to repeat the process. The reader may well find themselves imagining what might happen to Gratia several years down the line. Is she actually his perfect Clavdia or is this process doomed to repeat itself over and over? We may also question to what extent he is being driven by lust and to what extent it is actually about his vision for the role. I’d argue it is the former and the latter is a veneer he uses to justify it but I think you could just as easily come up with an argument that he is first and foremost an obsessive, amoral artist.

These two characters are both quite fascinating and I really enjoyed seeing how they surprise each other at points in the story. The plot never really develops in a way that is truly unexpected but rather it sets things up and engages the reader in seeing how these elements and ideas overlap and interact with each other. Hughes sustains this tension well and I think uses it to develop a truly powerful conclusion that absolutely hits the notes I wanted, feeling like the appropriate way to end this story.

I also really appreciated Hughes’ writing style which is quite striking. The trick of making sections of the book just a couple of paragraphs long to provide us with other perspectives is interesting, reminding us of the reality that exists around these characters and also allowing us to see some other roles within the Hollywood system including screenwriters, personal assistants and musicians. Arguably a few characters, those without the direct ties to the action, never really feature in the narrative but even then I think they serve a purpose in that they remind us that these characters’ are existing within a sort of bubble and that their actions will be observed.

Just as in The So-Blue Marble, the prose is frequently poetical and highly impressive but where that book’s poetry could sometimes be a barrier to comprehension, here I think it supports and in some ways drives the story. It is never hard to follow what is going on or the ideas Hughes is driving at. It is a really engrossing and interesting read.

Clearly I loved this book. It is one of the most satisfying books I have encountered since starting this blog and by far the best of the novels I have read from the American Mystery Classics range so far.

It won’t be for everyone who reads this blog – it is first and foremost a suspense story so puzzle-driven readers may want to look elsewhere – but I would certainly strongly recommend it, particularly for those who are new to Hughes.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During trip/vacation/etc. (When)

Death in Dark Glasses by George Bellairs

Death in Dark Glasses by George Bellairs

Originally Published 1952
Inspector Littlejohn #19
Preceded by Death March for Penelope Blow
Followed by Half-Mast for the Deemster

It was meant to be a fool-proof scheme. The victim was a recluse, cut off from the world after the death of his wife. Nobody would think it strange when they didn’t see him. Nobody would make enquiries.Yet even the most meticulous of criminals can be caught out, especially if they don’t leave room for human error.

When a runaway bank clerk sets of a chain of investigation that grows to overwhelming proportions, Littlejohn is called in to handle the situation and the death of Finloe Oates is uncovered.

Murder, impersonation, disappearance, forgery, and embezzlement. Drawn into the bizarre world of the reclusive Finloe, Littlejohn and Cromwell find themselves with more than one mystery to unravel – but will they be able to find the elusive killer?

The Verdict

This solid procedural has an interesting starting point but the ending packs no surprises.

It has been quite a while since I last found time to read and blog so when I did get an opportunity I decided to go to my safe space and pick up a work by one of my favorite authors, George Bellairs.

I really enjoyed the rather bizarre sequence of events that lead to the discovery of a crime in this story. Bellairs begins by telling us about the discovery of a rather small-scale embezzlement scheme at a bank but when the investigation into that crime reveals that another account has been emptied with forged paperwork. Attempts to contact the account holder fail and when they visit the property in person they discover that the reclusive homeowner has vanished and a dead body in the attic.

These opening chapters contain some of Bellairs’ funniest and sharpest writing. I particularly enjoyed the way he lays out the sequence of events that follow the initial discovery of the embezzlement and the response of the guilty party.

While you could look on this introduction as being a rather complicated introduction to the case, I appreciated the idea that a major crime was discovered as a consequence of investigating that rather petty case. Firstly I feel it has the effect of making the concealment of the crime seem that much more impressive. Without that chance discovery there really would have been little chance of the body being discovered for some time. Perhaps more critically though it also allows Bellairs plenty of scope to have some fun with a cast of bank officials, no doubt drawing on his decades of experience as a bank manager.

Once the body is discovered, the book does take a somewhat more serious tone although there are still plenty of comedic observations about the characters as well as on topics like modern art and newspaper columns. Bellairs’ witty approach to telling his crime stories is one of the reasons that I keep coming back to his work and can often help paper over a less-than-thrilling case. Rather unfortunately that is exactly what it does here.

The focus of the investigation does not fall on the body that was discovered but on the missing occupant of the house. While that does make some sense as a focus for a Scotland Yard investigation, it does feel a little odd that we spend so little time focused on that death. That partly reflects that the murder is not particularly notable in terms of the method employed and also that the motive is fairly clear.

Bellairs acknowledges this pretty quickly, confirming any suspicions that the reader may have about why the gas man died. This is for the best as it does at least allow him to refocus the investigation on trying to discover the identity of that killer.

The problem here is that Bellairs sets up a situation that seems to quite clearly point at a solution. There are some gaps in our knowledge but from a very early point in the story the general thrust of the explanation as to who committed the crime and why will be quite obvious – all that remains is to follow Littlejohn’s investigation and discover how the guilty party will be caught.

While the reader may not have been able to anticipate the details of the ending at the start of the novel, Bellairs’ approach of carefully setting up each development means that there are relatively few moments in his story that could constitute a surprise to the alert reader. For that reason I would suggest that this book will have far more appeal to procedural readers than those who are looking to play at being an armchair detective.

One of Bellairs’ strengths as a novelist is his ability to create interesting and well-observed characters and that skill is, once again, quite evident here. In the course of the novel Bellairs introduces us to a mix of interesting characters from a variety of different backgrounds and situations.

These characters are not only interesting in terms of the way they are used in the context of the mystery itself but several possess interesting backstories of their own. I was particularly intrigued by the exploration of the life of the art teacher, Hunt, who lives with his invalid sister. These characters have strong and distinct personalities, doing a great deal to bring this scenario to life.

Littlejohn pursues his case with his typical quiet competence and, as always, he proves good company, even if he is not a particularly characterful sleuth. I do appreciate the way Bellairs is able to portray his steadiness and persistence, both qualities we see at play here, though I do not think that this case challenges him particularly compared to some of his other outings.

My only complaint about his investigation would be that he is gifted an enormously lucky break that he does little to earn. In other stories that might have irritated me but I did appreciate that Bellairs shows Littlejohn’s skill in taking that piece of luck and turning it into a bigger opportunity to progress his case which, in turn, sets up an interesting, if not particularly thrilling, conclusion.

Death in Dark Glasses is an amusing and often quite enjoyable story. Its characters are often quite interesting and the basic scenario Bellairs creates is intriguing enough. If you enjoy Littlejohn you will probably find this a comfortable read but the author has certainly written more complex and compelling cases.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)

Money from Holme by Michael Innes

Book Details

Originally Published in 1964.
This title is currently out of print.
This title is a standalone.

The Blurb

Sebastian Holme was a painter who, as the exhibition catalogue recorded, had met a tragic death during a foreign revolution. Art dealer, Braunkopf, has made a small fortune from the exhibition.

Unfortunately, Holme turns up at the private view in this fascinating mystery of the art world in which Mervyn Cheel, distinguished critic and pointillist painter, lands in very hot water. 

In One Line
A sometimes amusing but dated artistic caper story with weak mystery elements.

My relationship with Michael Innes has been a fairly frustrating one. He is certainly an author who is capable of frustrating me like few others can. At his best he can be witty and clever while the situations he creates are often imaginative and explore interesting ideas yet it is hard to escape the feeling that he was a mystery fiction writer who had little interest in writing mystery stories.

Money from Holme was a later, standalone effort from Innes that might be considered an inverted crime story. It begins with Mervyn Cheel, an art critic, attending an exhibition of Sebastian Holme’s paintings. Holme had been an up-and-coming artist who had been living in Africa when he had been caught up in a revolution and was killed. Much of his work was destroyed in the violence and so the values of his remaining small body of work have rocketed and his celebrity has grown. During the show however Cheel is surprised when he notices a man he is certain is Sebastian Holme attending the show.

Cheel soon learns that Holme did not actually die and so he devises a scheme that he believes will make him rich. Were Holme to return to life in the public’s mind then the prices of his work will inevitably fall. Cheel persuades him to remain dead and work to reproduce the destroyed works of art so that he can try to quietly sell them to collectors as though they were the originals.

Given the nature of Cheel’s plan, I think it is fair to question whether we should really consider this an inverted crime novel at all. As Mervyn Cheel points out at several points in the novel, it is hard to say if he is guilty of any great crime at all for much of the book. He is, after all, trying to sell works that are authentically by the artist he claims them to be, even if the circumstances he describes are not accurate.

Certainly the criminal aspects of this novel are not Innes’ focus. Instead, the most interesting aspect of Money from Holme is its discussion of various aspects of the art world. This touches upon an artist’s relationship to his subject, the commercial realities of art trading and the role of the art critic. Innes’ insights into this world are not exactly unique, nor are they necessarily profound, but the situations the characters find themselves in are clever and they are often explored with wit.

Having now read several Innes inverted stories I have noticed that each has involved a variation on a common theme – the idea of identity substitution. The approach taken here is a little different but it is interesting to see him continuing to play with these sorts of ideas. While Innes had been playing with related themes, each book feels quite distinct.

The treatment of the art world struck me as a little reminiscent of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Shoot Me (the novel which inspired the movie Mortdecai) with the protagonist finding himself in ludicrous situations often of his own devising and borne of his own personal weaknesses, working himself into deeper trouble. Bonfiglioli’s novel is a sharper and funnier read but both books possess an irreverent tone that did a lot to endear them to me.

The jokes that did not land for me were those related to the fictional African nation of Wamba. I can understand why Innes chooses to create a fictional African country rather than locating his action somewhere real – particularly given the rather fluid nature of politics in that decade – and there is some light exploration of British foreign policy but any subtlety is masked by the general presentation of that information, such as the “gag” that the country’s capital is Wamba Wamba. It is not untypical for this era of writing but it is disappointing.

One of the most curious decisions Innes makes is to emphasize how unpleasant his protagonist, the art critic Mervyn Cheel, can be. For instance, early in the book we learn about how he has previously forced his attentions on a woman. His disrespectful attitude towards women is largely treated as a matter of comedy, particularly his proclivity to pinch their bottoms.

While I think we are meant to take this as evidence that he is an unpleasant, unprincipled sort it seems rather odd to see him treated as a bit of a rogue rather than a villain at points in this story. Certainly those moments didn’t strike me as being as sharp comedically as Innes’ discussion of the art world was.

One consequence of Cheel not being a particularly pleasant or likeable character is that we can take some pleasure in his downfall. Although Innes’ story isn’t particularly complex in terms of its structure or plot, the ending he devises did feel fairly satisfying because of how well it reflects the other themes of the story. Dramatically it feels pretty appropriate, providing a fitting and gently comedic resolution to Cheel’s story.

Money from Holme is not a classic work of crime fiction by any means. Even if we ignore some of the problems I have with its dated sense of humor, the plotting is fairly light and Innes’ focus is on developing his comedic situations rather than a tightly structured story. Still, the themes and ideas Innes explores are interesting and quite clever, even if the approach taken is sometimes rather lacking in subtlety.

If you forget that this is described as a crime novel and instead enjoy it as a rather absurd adventure with some crime elements then I think you will likely get a little more out of this. Certainly I enjoyed it more than The Gay Phoenix. For those looking for an inverted crime story by Innes, I would still recommend you look at The New Sonia Wayward instead.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Book Details

Originally Published 2019
Su Lin #3
Preceded by The Betel Nut Tree Mystery

The Blurb

SuLin is doing her dream job: assistant at Singapore’s brand new detective agency. Until Bald Bernie decides a ‘local girl’ can’t be trusted with private investigations, and replaces her with a new secretary – pretty, privileged, and white. So SuLin’s not the only person finding it hard to mourn Bernie after he’s found dead in the filing room. And when her best friend’s dad is accused, she gets up to some sleuthing work of her own in a bid to clear his name.

SuLin finds out that Bernie may have been working undercover, trading stolen diamonds for explosives from enemy troops. Was he really the upright English citizen he claimed to be?

Meanwhile, a famous assassin commits his worst crime yet, and disappears into thin air. Rumours spread that he may be dangerously close to home.

Beneath the stifling, cloudless Singaporean summer, earthquakes of chaos and political unrest are breaking out. When a tragic loss shakes SuLin’s personal world to its core, she becomes determined to find the truth. But in dark, hate-filled times, truth has a price – and SuLin must decide how much she’s willing to pay for it.

In One Line
The strongest case so far in a historical mystery series with a fascinating setting and memorable main character.

In spite of the historical mystery being one of my favorite sub-genres of crime fiction, it seems to have been a really long time since I last read one for this blog. Not sure what happened there. In any case, I am happy to resume coverage with a look at the third book in Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series set between the two world wars featuring her Singaporean sleuth Su Lin.

While each novel does tell a self-contained story, I would suggest that this is a series you really want to read in order. The reason is that the author cultivates a sense of change between each book meaning that if read in order you see Su Lin gain in confidence while Singapore and the British Empire’s relationship also shows some signs of change. While you could follow what is going on in The Paper Bark Tree Mystery without reading the previous stories, I think you would miss out on the thoughtful characterizations and the sense of these adventures taking place in the context of world history.

This particular story opens with the discovery of the death of “Bald Bernie”, a man who has been responsible for getting Su Lin removed from her post as an assistant at the Detective Shack. She discovers the body when she turns up at the office to her help successor, Dolly, get to grips with the filing system.

As the first on the scene and given her history with the deceased, Su Lin is an obvious suspect but it soon becomes clear that the Police believe the death may have links to the rumors that an Indian revolutionary is at large in Singapore. When her best friend’s father is arrested on suspicion of being in league with the revolutionaries, Su Lin investigates the crime herself in the hope that she can clear his name.

There are lots of aspects of this series that appeal to me but the part that fascinates me most is its presentation of Singapore in this time period. Each novel has been able to utilize and comment on developments within the British Empire and this volume in no different. For instance, this story reflects the rising tensions within the Empire about the risk of revolution and the relationship between the colonial authorities and the natives. Su Lin’s dismissal after all comes as a consequence of an administrator’s fear that being a Singaporean her loyalty might be questionable.

This book also incorporates wider concerns about the political climate in the region. We read about Indian revolutionaries and the Congress party as well as the perceived threat that is posed by an expansionist Japan. What I think Yu does really well is to show these ideas and conflicts from several different perspectives, showing that there is a diversity of opinion and individuality within each of the cultures depicted.

The other idea that really comes over strongly is that many of the Singaporean characters are practical in their responses to these challenges and threats. While we do not spend time with Su Lin’s grandmother in this volume, we do hear her thoughts and plans reported to us. It is these details that I think make these characters feel rich and interesting enough to support multiple stories and that leave me curious to see how they will adjust to the changes that will take place over the decade that follows.

I also appreciate that each volume in this series attempts to move Su Lin’s personal story forward. While the first novel showed her building a relationship with Le Froy and the second had her working closely with him, here she is on the outside and feeling angry toward him.

Her reasons are quite understandable – she feels that having promised he would serve as a mentor for her, he did not stand up for her keeping her position in the Detective Shack. The novel explores how that choice has changed their relationship though Su Lin retains a strong bond to the group of detectives she used to work with.

One parallel that is explored throughout the novel is the contrast between Le Froy who has sought to build relationships and understanding with the Singaporean community leaders and Colonel Mosley-Partington, a more recent arrival. They have different personal styles and while the conflict is rarely direct, I felt the contrast between the two characters was interesting and helped draw out and show different aspects of Le Froy’s character.

Having discussed the background to the story I ought to also discuss the mystery itself. Opening the book with the discovery of the body does allow a certain compression of the case itself, throwing us straight into the investigation portion of the novel. This means that much of the background to the case is provided to us through the narration which can feel a little awkward and were this one death to be the sole focus of the book I would have been disappointed.

The story quickly expands its scope and focus, giving us a second body and placing that first death in a much broader (and more interesting) context. The reader’s challenge is to understand the connections between the different elements that have been introduced. I felt that the answers given were interesting and pretty satisfying, tying these various strands of the story together well.

Overall I found The Paper Bark Tree Mystery to be as entertaining and compelling as the two earlier volumes. Su Lin continues to be an appealing sleuth and I am enjoying seeing how she is developing from book-to-book. Because of those developments both in the character and in the historical background I would suggest however that these books would be best read in order rather than dipped into. If you did read and enjoy the previous installments in this series though I am sure you will enjoy this one every bit as much.

Death of a Train by Freeman Wills Crofts

Death of a Train
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published in 1946
Inspector French #26
Preceded by Enemy Unseen
Followed by Silence for the Murderer

Published in 1946, Death of a Train is set at the height of the Second World War and sees Inspector French taking on a case which has profound implications for the whole British war effort.

Crofts begins by detailing discussions in the War Cabinet in which the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Severus L. Heppenstall, is asked to decide on how to allocate Britain’s dwindling stocks of radio valves. There are nowhere near enough to serve the needs of the British army both at home and on the African front so the decision is made to try to sneak them out of the country by train to Plymouth then by boat.

The early chapters follow the preparations as they are made and we learn exactly what measures are being taken to disguise the shipment. The point that the reader will take on board is that only a couple of figures had knowledge of the shipment and its movements so when an attack occurs on the line it creates a panic that there must be someone leaking from high office.

These early chapters feature a lot of technical discussion of the train and the logistics of assembling and loading it. This clearly was of enormous interest to the writer who takes pains to try and explain these elements to the layman who may be reading the book to allow them to follow what is happening. These efforts are, in my opinion, only partly successful. Certainly I think the reader can follow the action without any specialist knowledge but progress can feel a little slow and, quite frankly, I felt a little bored.

That feeling changed however for me when we get to that moment where the train is attacked. Crofts gives us a dramatic and quite visceral description of what happens to the train that brings that moment to life and communicates a sense of the enormous power and force of the train. I rarely think of action-writing as one of the author’s strengths so this was a nice surprise and, after chapters of slow build-up, it does move us into the more interesting territory of an investigation.

After a brief inquest, Inspector French is dispatched to investigate what is going on. However, because of the sensitivity of the investigation, he cannot be seen to be directly involved in the case as to directly investigate would tip off those responsible that they were suspected. The solution is that a second case will be investigated at the same time, albeit one that is wholly fictitious, that will justify him asking questions in the area.

Crofts’ depiction of wartime Britain is excellent in many respects. He certainly captures the challenges of maintaining secrecy, even between government departments and cabinet colleagues, and I think he does a very good job of conveying the gravity of the situation, even if he is a little hazy at points about exactly why the radio valves are so important.

Other aspects of the period play an important part in the story at points such as civilians’ sense of duty and volunteerism, the attitudes of the soldiers working to load and unload goods as well as the blackout which both limits French’s choices and opens up possibilities for him at different points in the story. In general, I think Crofts makes good use of his wartime setting.

While the initial terms of French’s inquiry suggest that we are in whodunnit territory, it soon becomes clear that this is going to be a thriller rather than a fair play mystery. In fact it would be hard to think of any aspect of the plot that the reader has any chance of working out prior to French. This struck me as quite reminiscent of some of the earliest French stories like The Box Office Murders and I must say it is not my favorite style for Crofts to be working in. That being said, he does incorporate some interesting espionage elements and ideas that I do think were worth exploring.

One of the ideas that Crofts uses most successfully is the need to hide that the detectives are on the trail at all. Throughout the book there is a sense that someone might be watching and so he can never let on to how the investigation is progressing except to those in the highest authority. This, of course, is also the reason that a decision is made to commission a false crime to give separate grounds for French to come to the area and investigate.

This, for me, was the book’s most compelling idea but it is one that I think is not fully exploited. The sequence in which we see the elements of the phantom investigation being set up are quite fascinating and creative but once French is on the scene he doesn’t really acknowledge his reason for being there and he is never really forced to find a way to creatively maneuver ask questions about his real purpose as the setup seemed to hint he would.

This book also explores the idea of French as the wartime hero and his willingness to push the boundaries of what he is allowed to do in order to achieve his goals. Many of the earliest French novels show the detective purposefully misleading interviewees or engaging in covert actions using his skeleton keys and that side of his character is certainly on display here. What is different is the extent he is willing to take things to.

There are several instances in this story where French makes decisions for what he deems to be the greater good of the country and some of those risk significant harm to innocents and, in one memorable instance, to himself. This results-driven French is always interesting to read and Crofts handles him quite well, making it clear that he is compromising his own moral comfort for the war effort. In one instance what he is willing to allow to happen to preserve the secrecy of his investigation is quite shocking and certainly pushes this idea far further than I have ever seen in a French story before.

This brings us to the ending and here, frankly, we have a bit of a mixed bag. Crofts’ depiction of his villain is rather bland, offering them little depth or definition and never allowing us to really get to know them. Still, the final few pages are actually quite thrilling and return to the book’s most successful themes, rounding things off quite well.

It makes for a solid end to a mid-level Crofts adventure that features plenty of wartime adventure and espionage but at the expense of any sort of a puzzle element. The heavily detailed early chapters may delight train enthusiasts but I found them hard going. Still, the wartime setting is interesting and the espionage elements are used well.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set during WWI or WWII – wartime setting is obvious (When)

The Book of the Lion by Elizabeth Daly

The Book of the Lion
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1948
Henry Gamadge #13
Preceded by Night Walk
Followed by And Dangerous To Know…

The subject of today’s post, Elizabeth Daly’s mystery The Book of the Lion, was one of the books selected for me in a Coffee and Crime box. I have previously written about a couple of other Henry Gamadge stories, both of which I enjoyed, but this title stands out as being the first where the sleuth’s unique knowledge and skill set really proves important.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Henry Gamadge is a specialist from New York who investigates the provenance of rare books and manuscripts. He first appeared in Unexpected Night and this is one of the later installments in the series. By this point in his career he has had a number of successes as an amateur criminologist and one of the characters he will make use of in this investigation is someone he proved innocent of a crime in a previous novel.

The Book of the Lion begins which Gamadge receiving a telephone call from a financier asking him to handle the valuation and sale of his dead brother’s letters and papers. An irritated Gamadge explains that he is not a book dealer but, intrigued to learn that the papers belonged to Paul Bradlock, a poet and playwright who had been murdered a few years earlier. Gamadge agrees to come to dinner and offer his opinion of them.

When Gamadge arrives he is apologetically told that the sister-in-law had arranged their sale that very afternoon for the exact price the financier was hoping they might fetch. They conduct the final stages of the sale in front of him, a check for $1,000 being produced and the letters handed to the trader in a sealed box without any sort of an inventory being done. Gamadge finds this whole situation very strange and so begins to make inquiries into both the strange transaction and, less directly, into the dead playwright’s life and murder.

It is a rather curious coincidence that I came to read this immediately after Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death because the two books have some significant elements in common. For one thing, both are essentially cold cases where the amateur sleuth is drawn in by their general feeling that something isn’t quite right. For another, in both cases the involvement of the sleuth brings about further deaths that otherwise would not have happened (though Gamadge never feels the same degree of angst about his own role in events).

I think the initial scenario Daly creates for her story is very clever. The mention of a previous murder certainly intrigues but it is the behavior of the various characters Gamadge meets at that dinner that sucks the sleuth, and the reader, into the mystery.

While there is a credible, innocent explanation for the speedy sale, Daly makes it clear that the timing is suspiciously quick – particularly given that the widow has possessed those letters for over two years. There are several possible explanations explored, any of which would be fascinating, but Gamadge’s investigation sets him on a trail he could not have predicted.

This trail leads back to the literary and artistic communities of Americans that had settled in Paris between the wars and incorporates some interesting discussion about those communities, the art they produced and their ultimate fates. This is not only a fascinating backdrop for the mystery, that period of the murdered man’s life is directly relevant to the case which allows Daly to explore it in detail without feeling like a diversion from the main thrust of the plot.

In addition to the exploration of a literary community, Gamadge’s professional skills are put to the test in several ways throughout this novel. Firstly, in the assessments he makes about the dead playwright’s literary abilities and career which give us a sense of that man’s character. Secondly, in his understanding of how the market for trading personal papers works and how the process here has diverged from any typical practice or timeline. Finally, there is a point in this story in which he has to interpret and assess some historical and literary documents that will be hugely significant to this case.

Daly does a superb job of explaining what Gamadge knows and what that information means to allow the reader to follow the action. The focus here is on more general knowledge about literary documents rather than testing particular scraps of paper which helps keep those sections of the story from feeling dry or technical. I found the discussion of The Book of the Lion especially interesting and enjoyed doing some reading of my own about it after finishing the book (that is partly to blame for the slightly later upload on this post than usual).

As there is no direct suggestion of a crime until late in the story, the pacing of this story may seem a little unusual to readers. I was sufficiently intrigued by the context of the investigation to pursue it, much like Gamadge who at points is questioned about why he is persisting in his interest in a sale and situation that seems already settled, but I think it is fair to say that this is not treated as an intense or serious criminal investigation until very late in its page count. Even once a body turns up the pacing remains quite slow with Daly exploring some supporting characters including the relationship between a young couple that Gamadge meets.

I quite liked those interactions, feeling that those moments do a lot to convey Gamadge’s warmth as a character – something I commented favorably on in my review of Unexpected Night. This does a lot to offset some of the irritability we witness in him early in the story, making him a fundamentally likeable amateur sleuth.

The investigation of the death later in the novel is interesting and it plays fair with the reader. Because of the circumstances of the body there is an assumption that the victim committed suicide and while Gamadge may not be believed by the authorities, his reasoning for thinking that the victim was murdered are cleverly and logically reasoned. Similarly, the way he works out what actually happened is also quite satisfying.

The final chapters of the book bring everything to a close quite nicely with a conclusion I found to be quite surprising in several ways. There are some clever ideas, both in the discussion of historical events but also those in the present day, and I think Daly’s resolution to this particular case is really quite compelling.

Given the relatively brief page count of the Gamadge novels, it is probably no surprise that characters who are not directly relevant to the case get very little to do. Gamadge’s wife, for instance, is often referred to but hardly seen while David, who he enlists to help in this investigation, appears quite a lot but does not exude much personality. Readers of any previous stories in which those two have appeared may feel a little differently but if this is your first encounter with them you will not feel you particularly get to know them.

On the whole though I was much more impressed with this Gamadge adventure than either of my previous experiences with the character. Daly creates a clever plot and I think her discussion of a period of literary history is really interesting. While the pacing and the plot are perhaps not particularly thrilling, the ideas certainly are and I felt engaged throughout the whole story, in part because I enjoyed this sleuth’s company.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An Animal in the Title (What)

Further REading

Les @ Classic Mysteries shares his thoughts on this book as both a written post and a podcast. He is a Daly fan and while he likes this one, suggests there are even better books featuring the character – something that can only be good news for me as I continue to explore her work!