The Double Alibi by Noël Vindry

DoubleAlibiOver the past year I have been slowly but surely working my way through the Locked Room International back catalogue in a rather haphazard way, picking titles based on positive reviews comments from blogging chums and on occasion because an element of the premise intrigued me. Though I own The Howling Beast and The House That Kills I decided I would skip over those titles after I read JJ’s review of this title.

There were a few aspects of the novel that appealed to me in advance but what caught my attention the most was the problem of a person appearing to have been in multiple places at once. As TomCat quite rightly points out, this is not really an impossible situation as there are perfectly clear explanations given for each of the sightings but the reader and M. Allou have to work out how these different threads are woven together.

The subject of those reported sightings is Gustave Allevaire, a thief who has been in prison several times to his cousins’ mortification. They are constantly trying to persuade their aunt who they care for and who expects to receive a sizeable inheritance whenever her brother passes away that he is a bad lot but she still sees him as a cheeky youngster rather than a career criminal.

They hear from a family friend that Gustave has been seen in the vicinity of their home so when they wake at one in the morning to discover that the silver and their life savings have been pilfered they instantly suspect him. Things are looking even bleaker for Gustave when his fingerprints are discovered on a few pieces of silver that were dropped in the house. The problem is that at precisely the same time he was supposedly stealing from their home he was also breaking into but not stealing money from his employer’s desk nine hours drive away and in a third location (I’m not spoiling that one for you – it is a great reveal).

Enter M. Allou, a juge d’instruction who takes charge of investigating these cases in spite of their occurring in separate jurisdictions. In the course of the novella he travels to each of the crime scenes, interviewing the witnesses and trying to make sense of how Gustave appears to have been in three places at once.

The novel is at its best in the opening and closing sections as it lays out the facts of the incidents and explains the links between them. I found the scenes with the Levalois sisters and their aunt to be entertaining and their relationship to be well observed. The characterization is strong and I appreciated the time Vindry spends explaining their living situation as it does help bring them to life rather than existing just to serve the puzzle.

Similarly I really responded well to the characters in the office where Gustave had been working and, in particular, to the uncertain interpersonal relationship between the witness who claims to have seen Gustave and the owner’s sister. Even the police officers that Allou works alongside prove interesting and colorful!

Unfortunately while I appreciated the strong character work, I did find that the novel seemed to drag a little for me in the middle. In this section we witness Allou and his colleagues mulling over the different theories about who may be at best incorrect or possibly lying about what they saw, a process that becomes a little repetitive as we wait for a breakthrough to happen.

Happily that does come along with a small locked room problem to liven things up as we get ready for Allou to have his breakthrough and work out what was done and how. Those explanations are quite clever and do make sense of the tangle of links between the three appearances. I certainly didn’t get close to solving this one and kicked myself about not picking up on a couple of points once the explanations were given which is really what I’m hoping to get out of reading an impossible crime story.

Overall, I am glad I finally got around to reading one of the Vindry books I have had sat on my to read pile for months and I certainly appreciated some of the interesting character choices the author made. The puzzle, while not impossible, is clever and stimulating and I did enjoy the way everything is brought together at the end. I will be curious to try the other Vindry novels in the future though I think my next Locked Room International stop will be a return to Halter.

The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch

StoryvilleLast month I declared that Ed Hoch’s All But Impossible did the unthinkable and made me a believer in the short form mystery. Having enjoyed that one so thoroughly I was keen to jump straight back in and decided I would like to try one of his other characters this time.

Though I am no expert of this particular period of American history, I do find it to be quite fascinating and felt it made for an inspired backdrop for these mystery stories. Many of the stories are quite action-focused and I think Hoch mostly does a good job with those sections.

The collection’s protagonist, Ben Snow, is an interesting creation who frequently falls into the Western trope as a hired hand or because someone mistakes him for Billy the Kid who had died several years earlier. He doesn’t really look out for trouble but it always seems to find a way to him.

Christian Henriksson very kindly has acted as a sort of sherpa for my explorations of Hoch’s work, compiling a frankly amazing blog post where he discusses all of the Hoch short story collections currently available. His view on this particular one is that it is uneven though he thinks there is a standout impossible crime.

My own favorite stories within this collection were The Ripper of Storyville, The Vanished Steamboat and The Sacramento Waxworks. Each of those stories strikes a strong balance between historical details, characterization and scenario and I think the crimes in each of the three stories are interesting.

Some of the others stories hit home too but the overall impression I had of this collection was that it was inconsistent, particularly if you are only in this for the clues. For fans of historical mysteries or this particular time period, there is plenty to enjoy here and some great, striking concepts to puzzle out.

Continue reading “The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Stories by Ed Hoch”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresThis is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

Continue reading “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle”

July 2018 in Review

It has been an utterly exhausting Summer so it has been a particular pleasure to be able to find the time to retreat into books, relax and lose myself for a few hours each evening.

The books I read in July were:

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler
The Paddington Mystery by John Rhode
The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner
All but Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne by Ed Hoch
The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter
The Lady Killer by Masako Togawa
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Sea Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts
Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley
The Face on the Cutting Room Floor by Cameron McCabe
It Might Lead Anywhere by E. R. Punshon
The Pint of No Return by Ellie Alexander
The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

There are an interesting mix of titles in contention for this month’s Book of the Month title and, for a fleeting moment, I seriously considered an Ellery Queen novel for this accolade. I ended up deciding that it may have benefited from good timing being read right before I made my selection and from my incredibly low expectations and so, while I liked it a lot, it does not walk off with the prize.

Several titles were on the more experimental side of crime fiction but while I found things to appreciate with Trial and Error, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor and The Skull of the Waltzing Clown, each of those books also possessed significant flaws.

I did enjoy the collection of Dr. Sam Hawthorne short stories I read, finding most to be quite imaginative and varied. I plan on returning to Ed Hoch soon as I received some great suggestions in the comments and in a whole post in response from Christian.

SeventhHypoThe title I ended up going with was an easy selection that became more apparent the more I thought about it. The Seventh Hypothesis is a wonderful story that I think boasts a highly imaginative concept, an audacious solution and some of Halter’s best storytelling. It is a joy to read and an easy pick for this month’s Book of the Month.

Acquisitions: The Invisible Circle by Paul Halter, Dead Man’s Shoes by Leo Bruce, The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode, The Dead Shall be Raised and Murder of a Quack by George Bellairs and A Graveyard to Let by Dickson Carter.

Expect reviews of at least some of these to appear next month. I’ll kick August off however by discussing a collection of short stories that I have read many times over and that was one of the first steps I took in my exploration of mystery and detective fiction…

The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen

EgyptianCrossBack in the fledgling days of this blog when I was trying to come up with regular features I made a foolish pledge that each month I would read a novel from the Ellery Queen canon. I was going to work through them in order to take in the evolution of the series. How could this possibly go wrong?

Well, I discovered fairly quickly that early Ellery can be a grind with both The Roman Hat Mystery and The Dutch Shoe Mystery striking me as frustrating reads. In spite of those disappointments I always intended to return to the project but my first few attempts to tackle The Egyptian Cross Mystery resulted in my falling asleep listening to the audiobook version. Not a great sign.

Several months passed and I decided to take another stab at it taking the high-risk strategy of listening while operating my vehicle. It turned out that this was exactly what I needed to get past the coroner’s sequence at the beginning of the book and to begin to feel engrossed in the mystery. Once that began to happen I found my interest in the scenario building as the bodies begin to pile up.

The story begins with Ellery hearing about a strange murder taking place in Arroyo, West Virginia where a school master’s decapitated and crucified body is found at a crossroads. Ellery attends the inquest and after offering some thoughts proceeds to forget about the affair until six months later an identical murder happens in a different state. Ellery believes there is obviously a connection between these two murders but it is hard to see what could link these two victims.

The first observation to make about this novel is that it is the first to break Ellery out of New York and the cosy set-up with his father and servant Djuna. While I miss Richard Queen’s sensible, earthy presence at points in the novel I think it does a lot to make Ellery seem a more likable and independent figure. He is still capable of arrogant statements designed to prove his intelligence but he accepts his mistakes far more easily here than in some of his previous adventures.

The change of scene also works nicely because it gives this story a much grander sense of scale. While Dannay and Lee would win no awards for the quality of their travel writing, the delays caused by different types of transportation play an important role in several crucial sequences towards the end of the novel as does the geographic spread of figures who play a role in this investigation. It helps gives a sense that this story takes place in something approaching our world and proves to be a strong source of tension at key points in the novel.

As I mentioned in my introduction, I struggled a little to get through the details of the first death. While I certainly thought the use of the crucifixion was intriguing, the Arroyo setting is somewhat drab and the mystery about the victim’s origins seemed to offer no unexpected moment or twist. It is only when it is combined with the second death that the story really captured my imagination and engaged me in trying to work out ways in which those two deaths could overlap.

It turns out that there are more links between the victims than the reader may initially expect and one of these is the presence of a man Ellery had previously encountered in Arroyo who believes himself to be a reincarnated Egyptian figure. In one of the book’s more lurid elements he runs a nudist camp which has been set up on an island near the home where the second death occurs. This element feels surprisingly brazen for the period and taken along with the crucifixions gives the book a far more colorful feel than any of the other Queens I have read so far but while it is clearly there to draw readers in, I didn’t feel it detracted from the mystery.

I do think it is fair to say though that the book can feel a little sprawling and unfocused in its sense of scale and scope. While I appreciate what it does for the character of Ellery in that it opens him up and makes his world feel larger, it does mean that the reader has fewer defined suspects to consider and this may lead to a little disappointment if you approach this story purely as a whodunnit.

Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the order of events and draw inferences from them. This process of detailed, logical deduction is Ellery’s strength as a detective and I think this book is particularly successful in the way it works through information, reframing it at times to produce different inferences. The reader can absolutely follow along with Ellery as each of the key logical deductions at the end are clearly clued and seem well thought out, though I was a little unsure about the motivation behind the very final killing other than making for an exciting moment in the race towards the conclusion.

It is also noticeable that the book adopts a far more action-focused conclusion than I have found in the previous Ellery stories with the final chapters setting up a race against time for the detectives to catch their suspect. These sequences are exciting and help keep the reader engaged in the run up to the moment where Ellery reveals what happened.

It is in these final chapters that I think the book encounters its biggest problem, that of the killer’s motivation. The authors provide us with a reason of sorts but it feels rather ill-defined and lazy. Certainly I think that the reader deserves something a little more solid and thought-out, particularly when explaining their actions with their final murder.

In spite of my issues with that part of the plot I think that the novel as a whole holds together very well and provides the reader with several striking moments. Some of the plot elements may feel a little lurid and cheap but I admire and appreciate the thoroughly logical plot structure and that, rather than making the reader wait for Ellery to explain everything, the writers try to keep readers engaged through action and by periodically providing additional developments in the story.

While it may not be perfect and I have to admit that the first tenth of the book underwhelmed me, I was more entertained by this than I have been with any of its predecessors. It is a clever story that plays fair, that works to keep the reader engaged throughout the whole novel and that builds to an exciting conclusion. It leaves me hopeful that this project may be back on course and that better things may be in store…

The Pint of No Return by Ellie Alexander

PintofNoLast year I picked up Death On Tap on a whim as a quick lunchtime read and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Certainly there were some aspects of the novel that were more successful than others but it had a charming protagonist, a nice mix of supporting characters and lots of small town charm.

The Pint of No Return picks up a short while after the events of that novel as the town of Leavenworth gets ready to host its annual Oktoberfest celebrations. A film crew is in town, hoping to capture the festivities to use as part of a film about beer and Sloan is initially excited by the opportunity for some publicity for the microbrewery she works at when the crew ask to come by to film her at work.

Her excitement is soon dashed when she meets Mitchell, a former child star who has been hired to host the production but who seems rude, obnoxious and demanding. The bickering between Mitchell and the film’s producer, director and cameraman creates an uncomfortable tension in the bar while his loud complaints about the town and the accommodation that has been provided for him wins him few friends. It will not come as a shock to the reader when he is found dead several hours later with one of his fans accusing the owner of the rental company of killing him.

Being the second title in the series, Alexander does not need to devote quite so much space to establishing the cast of characters or the setting and instead uses it to creating a wide mix of suspects, each with distinctive motives for murder. Some of these are perhaps dismissed as suspects a little too readily with plausible cases still to be made against them but I think this is typically in service of the lively pace the book establishes.

In any case, as with the first novel the reader will not be able to prove their case against the actual murderer based on the evidence given but they may well suspect them. The reader will likely work out the killer based on intuition based on aspects of their characterization rather than any firm evidence. The explanation given at the end seems to hang together pretty well and the case is tied up quite neatly.

Unlike the first novel, here Sloan does not have much in the way of a personal stake in the investigation once she is reassured that Mitchell did not die of alcohol poisoning. Sometimes this can create problems with the cozy format but I think Alexander pitches it well here, having Sloan show interest in part because she wants to know whether she should trust someone. Her investigative style is quite conversational and laid back and the reader is not called on to accept anything too outlandish in the way she handles the case. For the most part it works.

A supporting plot that builds out of a cliffhanger at the end of the previous book feels like something of an afterthought. The tone of this subplot struck me as a little too dramatic and some may feel frustrated that there weren’t clearer answers given yet but I think it probably sets things up nicely for the next installment. I suspect it is probably for the best that it not be rushed in any case.

The supporting cast of characters Alexander creates are, once again, a strength of the novel and I think one of the new additions is fun, even if some of her motivations are left a little unexplored. With the exception of her boss, the other characters are not given much to do and some of the threads are left unresolved, presumably to be picked up in a future volume. This in part reflects that the world of the investigation and the brewing community are kept quite separate in this story and so time spent with the staff at Das Keller or Nitro is time away from the murder mystery.

One of my complaints about the first novel was the way that the author’s research sometimes sat awkwardly with the story itself as Sloan would suddenly break away from the narrative to explain about a particular method of brewing beer. Alexander still has a lot of information to share with the reader but rather than putting it into the narration, she is able to use either the need to explain something for the documentary or a conversation with other brewers as a way of incorporating it in a much more natural way.

Epicureans will likely respond favorably to the descriptions of beers and German cooking and though I am not a beer connoisseur, I did find the description of a sausage, pepper and potato scramble to be quite delightful. Sadly nothing I could whip up in my kitchen could quite live up to that concept. As with the research, I felt that these aspects of the book were better integrated to the story and hung together very well making for a very solid, enjoyable read.

While not perfect, The Pint of No Return is a fun whodunit set against the colorful backdrop of a beer festival. Alexander’s characters are fun and the story unfolds at a good pace making for a frothy but engaging adventure for those who enjoyed the first volume.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Pint of No Return will be released in October 2018.

It Might Lead Anywhere by E R Punshon

ItMightLeadAnywhereAs I noted in my review of another E R Punshon novel, Diabolic Candelabra, I have been guilty of taking advantage of introductory pricing and sales from Dean Street Press, amassing a large digital library I have barely started to read. While it has taken me nearly half a year to get around to giving another book in the series a try, I came to It Might Lead Anywhere feeling quite intrigued by its premise.

Policeman Bobby Owen hears word of a religious riot taking place in a nearby village and, though it is not in his jurisdiction, he heads over to try to break it up. He discovers that among the villagers is Duke Dell, a former boxer who now passionately preaches what he calls The Vision. His views frustrate many within the community but one of the villagers, Alfred Brown, seems to have been drawn to him. In the course of the riot that Bobby witnesses Dell thrown Brown into the river with such force that his head begins to bleed.

The next day Brown is discovered dead in his cottage by a police officer who happens to be passing the home and notices the wireless playing and the door ajar. Entering the home he sees that Brown has been brutally beaten to death with a poker. Though he has no authority in the area, Bobby decides he will consult the area’s Chief Constable and share the information he has. In the course of that conversation he manages to manipulate the Chief into asking Bobby to assist in their investigations.

The sequence in which Bobby subtly convinces Chief Constable Spencer to invite him onto the case is one of my favorites in the whole novel, in part because it brilliantly captures the fragile egos and concern for status that exists in many forms of local government. The tentative negotiations that take place are superbly observed and I liked the working relationship that is established between the two men in the first part of the book.

One of my biggest complaints about Diabolic Candelabra was that I felt I hardly knew Bobby Owen by the end of the novel. While It Might Lead Anywhere still places its focus on the mystery and adventure, I think the novel takes more time to develop the character and showcase his personality. Here we see his method at work, particularly in the way he interacts with the various suspects. Though he is not a large personality here, I think his methodical approach works well and his actions seem logical and clear even if he seems to be making little progress with his investigation for much of the novel.

I continue to enjoy his interactions with his wife, Olive, though she only features in a few short sections of the novel. Their interactions do feel like those of a couple who know each other well and I appreciate that Olive does have some input into the investigation, although there is no decisive contribution here. I did find Bobby’s apparent lack of awareness of why his wife was not thrilled to hear that an attractive young woman had flirted with him to be quite entertaining and I do hope that the next Punshon I read features her more prominently.

I have been quite sparing with my description of the plot because this is not a story with a lot of incident or development and so I do not want to reveal too many of this book’s secrets. In spite of the simplicity of this case, I did enjoy the way the story unfolded and I think the case is certainly intriguing, if not particularly dynamic. I would agree with TomCat’s assessment in his excellent review that the plotting is ‘slender’ and just focused on a single problem.

I would add that the cast of suspects is relatively thin and one character can be quickly identified as the likely party. While questions of motive and means remain, this does mean that those approaching this in the hope of a good puzzle may feel a little disappointed in what they find.

In spite of the quite simple plot, I still found that there was plenty to interest me here. While this was published a year after World War Two ended, it is set during the final months of the conflict and it reads like a wartime novel. Having followed PuzzleDoctor’s Do Mention The War series of blog posts about novels written during the conflict I found myself paying more attention than I would normally do to details relating to blackout regulations (lifted in the later days of the war), petrol rationing, fears of invasion as well as a very spam-heavy dinner menu (spam jardiniere, omlette au spam and spam pie all feature – yum!).

Another aspect of the book that pleased me was the characterization which I felt was pretty strong. While one character did stand out to me as the likely murderer, the other suspects were each interesting in their own way and I enjoyed discovering their stories and seeing how they interacted with each other.

While It Might Lead Anywhere is not a classic mystery novel, I did find it to be an enjoyable read and a more satisfying and coherent experience than Diabolic Candelabra. My hope is that when I next return to Punshon I will find a slightly more complex and satisfying mystery along with the atmosphere and the characterization.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a small village (Where)