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!

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

Unnatural Death
Dorothy L Sayers
Originally Published 1927
Lord Peter Wimsey #3
Preceded by Clouds of Witness
Followed by Lord Peter Views the Body

I read most of the Lord Peter Wimsey series during my teen years but until this past year I had not revisited them except to experience the televised adaptations. As a result those televised stories stand out quite vividly in my memory while the others, such as Unnatural Death, I seem to barely remember reading at all.

The curious thing is how quickly it all came flooding back. It has been at least eighteen years since I read this book but once the plot was outlined I had little difficulty remembering exactly how the crime was committed and why. Memory can be a funny thing!

The story begins with Lord Peter having a chat with a young doctor about the death of an elderly cancer patient in his care. He had examined her only a short time before and was certain that she should have lived at least another six months.

Dr. Carr suspected that the death was murder but the post-mortem showed no signs of trauma or poisoning. At this news the locals, already outraged at the idea that the investigation was only there to serve the young doctor’s ego, all shunned his practice forcing him to head to London to seek other employment.

Lord Peter listens to the story with interest and determines he and Inspector Parker should look into the case. Given that nearly a year has passed since then this involves speaking with the various members of the household, made possible by his careful placement of a spy in the village, and some creative thinking about just how a murder might have taken place and why.

Now one of the reasons this story should have stood out more for me is that it comes pretty close to being an inverted mystery in its style (Kate pointed this out in her review, linked below). From the start of the book Sayers is quite clear about who we ought to suspect – the problem is understanding the mechanics of the crime. This means that this was almost certainly the first inverted mystery I read – a pretty notable milestone!

I do think that the questions of how and why this crime was committed are each fascinating which is no doubt why the answers were so easy to recall! This is not in itself a problem but it does make it a little hard for me to gauge how well that solution is clued. My suspicion is that things do get a little technical but I felt it played fair and that the most important parts of the solution are clued, particularly with regard how the crime was done.

The question of why is a little more complex but I think it is also the more interesting and entertaining of the two puzzles. This is the first time we see Sayers play with the interesting idea that a death might need to occur at a particular time in order for someone to benefit – an idea that still feels relatively fresh ninety-two years later.

The explanation for this is pretty complicated but Sayers explains it well, using it to prompt broader discussions about the legal system as well as some other ideas that emerge from the specific situation Sayers sets up.

One of the most interesting of these is explored in a conversation between Wimsey and a priest as he reflects on the question of guilt and his own responsibility to the truth. In the previous two books I would suggest that Wimsey came off as largely flippant and irreverent in his attitudes towards his vocation but in this conversation he is shown to possess a more serious, reflective side which I think helps to make him feel like a more complete and interesting sleuth.

Another aspect of the book I really quite like is its use of the character of Miss Climpson, the middle-aged ‘surplus woman’ he engages to be his eyes and ears in the village. This is an aspect of the story that certainly went over my head at the time I first read it but I appreciated coming back to it a little better informed, thanks to a superb episode of the Shedunnit podcast.

The idea referenced here is that following World War I there was a significant imbalance in the numbers of men and women, resulting in a much larger portion of the female population of Britain being unmarried and living alone. This group were termed ‘surplus women’ and here Sayers is satirizing the idea that somehow these women had no function or use in society simply because they are unable to find partners.

Miss Climpson is not just a social or political point though – she is also an interesting and entertaining character in her own right. We mostly encounter her in the notes she sends to Wimsey to update him on the status of the case and to check about her expenses. She comes off as intelligent, opinionated and by the end of the book we see she possesses quite a lot of initiative too.

Unfortunately I do have to mention that these passages do include some racist words and sentiments (mostly the n-word) voiced by Miss Climpson, albeit they are usually employed while commenting negatively on the racism of other characters. The character of the West Indian priest might be viewed as an attempt to challenge the racist assumptions prevalent at the time and the language is hardly exceptional for the period but some of the comments are will be as problematic for today’s readers as the attitudes they are commenting on (as will that character’s seeming acceptance of that racism).

The book is also notable for its matter of fact presentation of sexuality. We hear about an older lesbian couple who had lived together for a number of years who are presented relatively positively and a younger couple who are treated a little more critically though the age difference between the pair and the fact that one is our murder suspect may be responsible for that. Both relationships though are treated in a practical, realistic way and, contrary to common perceptions of fiction from this era, are discussed pretty openly.

I found the plot to be well-paced and while I remembered enough of the plot to not be surprised by any of the developments, I still found this to be a very readable novel. Sayers includes several entertaining supporting characters – I particularly enjoyed the legal minds that Wimsey consults in a key sequence.

Aside from the issue of the racist language, the other problem with this novel is its villain. While the killer’s identity is never presented as a fact until late in the story, I think Sayers intends us to accept that they are responsible from the start. For that reason I would agree with those who would describe this as an inverted crime story.

Knowledge of the killer’s identity does not mean however that they are a compelling or particularly interesting figure. By the end of the novel we understand their motives and something of their thinking but I don’t feel that they ever really dominate the story or develop much of a rivalry or antagonism with Wimsey. This is understandable given how late in the story they meet but it is rare for this type of story to feel like you never really got to know the killer.

The final chapters of the book feature a shift in style away from the more conversational, detail-focused build-up to set up a more action-driven conclusion. For the most part I think this shift works and is welcome, though I happen to find the way the action is presented in sections from two different characters’ perspectives a little awkward. It does have the advantage though of allowing the action to move quickly before providing us with the necessary explanations so I think that on balance it works well enough.

So, where does that leave me on Unnatural Death? While I acknowledge the flaws in this book that can be barriers to its enjoyment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was more to this book than I expected or remembered.

The (sort of) inverted and cold case presentation of the story allows this to be a different type of crime fiction while the presentation of Lord Peter shows him to be more complex and human than he ever had before and I loved the use of Miss Climson as a proxy investigator. Throw in a clever (if apparently somewhat dubious) explanation for the crime and you have a story that I think is much more accomplished and interesting than either of its predecessors.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime is Crucial (When)

Further Reading

Let’s start with Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora who penned an excellent essay about this book as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme several years ago. He praises the plotting though points out that it reflects the prejudices of its time.

I have to thank Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime for enticing me to push this back up my TBR list after months of putting it off by suggesting that this could be seen as an inverted story.

DesperateReader’s post about this book draws particular attention to Sayers’ presentation of race and sexuality and I would certainly recommend taking a look at it. They also note that, aside from the problematic use of language, this is a really entertaining book to read – especially in comparison with some of the drier Wimsey stories.

Nick @ The Grandest Game posts a short and very positive review as well as some contemporary reviews of the book – always interesting!

Bev @ MyReadersBlock describes this as a marvellous vintage mystery that she does not tire of and comments on Sayers’ thoughtful exploration of ethics.

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.