My Annihilation by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Sam Bett

Originally published in 2016 as 私の消滅
English language translation first published in 2022

What transforms a person into a killer? Can it be something as small as a suggestion?

Turn this page, and you may forfeit your entire life.

With My Annihilation, Fuminori Nakamura, master of literary noir, has constructed a puzzle box of a narrative in the form of a confessional diary that implicates its reader in a heinous crime. 

Delving relentlessly into the darkest corners of human consciousness, My Annihilation interrogates the unspeakable thoughts all humans share that can be monstrous when brought to life, revealing with disturbing honesty the psychological motives of a killer.

Blurb and cover from 2022 Soho Crime edition

Recently one of my friends, curious to start exploring some Japanese crime fiction, asked me what I thought of Fuminori Nakamura’s work. It was a really nice question to be asked but it proved to be surprisingly difficult to answer, at least with a simple response. You see, while I have only a limited sample size to judge, what I had read had left me feeling quite conflicted. Certainly I admired the author’s skill and his ability to depict some very uncomfortable psychology, especially with regards to disaffected young men. I cannot however describe any of them as particularly enjoyable reads, including this latest work.

The novel is narrated by a young man who is in a cabin in the woods. There he encounters a short, autobiographical manuscript apparently written by the person whose identity the narrator has intended to usurp. As he and we read that story, it soon becomes clear that this person was a deeply damaged and dangerous person. The question is what has the writer of that manuscript done and how will it affect the reader.

It’s an intriguing starting point for a story that lives up to its billing as a ‘puzzle box of a narrative’. Nakamura carefully constructs a story in which we are not prompted to answer who or why something has happened but rather to simply try to comprehend exactly what is taking place. Multiple documents and accounts are stitched together and our task is to see if we can comprehend how ideas and characters interact with one another so we can understand how this story will be resolved.

I admire the tightness of that construction. Nakamura’s story is far more complex than you would expect from a book of this length (like many of his other works, the pages are generously spaced meaning that it reads quite quickly) but I felt it was ultimately cohesive and coherent, even if I occasionally had to revisit some passages to be sure I understood how everything connected. While some elements of the story struck me as fantastic, Nakamura takes care to explain those ideas to provide context for the reader so they can understand their relevance and anticipate how they might be expanded upon.

As interesting as some of those ideas are, I do not intend to discuss them in any detail. This is a short work and to do so would inevitably strip the book of much of its sense of surprise. That would be a shame as I think it is a more compulsive read than either of the other works by the author I have read up until this point. While I may praise the book for its construction and thoughtful development of its themes, I doubt many readers will guess where this is headed until much later in the story. If I can, I would suggest preserving as much of the surprise as possible.

There are a couple of aspects of the book though that I do want to address as they relate to that question of the book’s entertainment value, at least for this reader. I have found each of the Nakamura books I have read to date to have elements that are unsettling or disturbing but this is the darkest that I have read by far. Part of that is the nature of reading the thoughts and experiences of the young man as recorded in that journal which, were I minded to include a trigger warnings section to my reviews would prompt one of the longest ones for any of the works I have written about to date. Be warned, some of that material gets pretty disturbing.

That of course reflects on the effectiveness of Nakamura’s writing. It wouldn’t unsettle if it wasn’t well observed. That young man strikes me as being a pretty disturbed individual and while the first person nature of his account may have us wondering about its reliability, some of the descriptions of the things he has done or tried to do may well unsettle and horrify readers.

The other aspect of this book that really struck me as adding to that sense of darkness is that the book draws upon some true crimes, namely the murders of four very young girls by Tsutomu Miyazaki. There are a few lengthy passages describing and reflecting upon that man’s crimes and while I understood their relevance to this story and the themes the author was exploring, they made for some very uncomfortable reading.

Which leaves me with one other aspect of the book I want to discuss which is its genre categorization. Those who remember my review of The Thief may recall that I find this topic a little frustrating. There is an assumption often made that crime fiction and literary fiction are exclusive terms but as with the other Nakamura titles I have reviewed, I would stress that I think this has a fair claim to belong to both traditions.

I will certainly acknowledge that the reader is not really involved in much of a game of wits with the writer so much as they are being carefully steered through a series of sensations and reactions. With context comes greater understanding and so it can feel a little like the reader is simply waiting for that context to come properly into focus.

At the same time, this is undoubtedly a work about crime. There are multiple transgressions, both legal and moral, explored in the course of this book and there are attempts to exact what may be viewed as either vengeance or justice depending on the reader’s perspective. While there may not be a detective-style investigation, there is certainly an exploration of causes and the context of those crimes and while some aspects of their treatment may feel akin to a thought experiment, the reader will eventually be given the answers they need to understand them.

To reiterate, readers should not come to this expecting a quick or easy read. My Annihilation is, as the title may suggest, a heavy and often difficult book that delights in confusing and unsettling its reader. While I cannot say I enjoyed it as an entertainment, it is undoubtedly an interesting one that is more often successful than it is not. I would suggest though that crime fans new to the author might be better served with starting with The Thief which has a somewhat more traditional structure before trying this.

Columbo: Publish or Perish (TV)

Season Three, Episode Five
Preceded by Double Exposure
Followed by Mind Over Mayhem

Originally broadcast January 18, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler

Plot Summary

When his bestselling author makes a deal to switch to a new publisher, Riley Greenleaf decides to hire a hitman to kill him. Knowing that he will be a prime suspect, Riley decides to lean into that fact while also establishing what seems to be a cast iron alibi. Unfortunately for the punitive publisher, Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case…

Familiar Faces

There are lots of familiar faces on Columbo with genre credits but this episode stands out for casting a crime writer. Mickey Spillane (shown to the left) was one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction in the mid-to-late twentieth century. While the author may not have found success with the critics, he certainly built a huge audience. His Mike Hammer series, which started with I, the Jury, would sell hundreds of millions of copies.

Jack Cassidy makes the second of his three appearances in the series, this time playing publisher Riley Greenleaf. The actor and singer had achieved broadway success, winning a Tony award, before appearing in a string of guest appearances on the small screen in a variety of shows including Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Banyon.

My Thoughts

There is lots that interested and amused me about this episode but top of the list is the decision to cast Mickey Spillane as the victim. It’s not simply a matter of the novelty of putting a mystery writer on screen but I love the way that his character plays off the author’s own personality and image. Allen Mallory, like Spillane, writes supposedly low-brow potboilers that are leaving him creatively unfulfilled. It’s playful and it serves as a sort of shorthand, helping us get to grips with his character in just a handful of scenes.

The episode itself follows a pretty typical Columbo structure of following the killer as they set up the elements of their plan. Often we are left completely in the dark about what will happen, the episode teasing us with those details of the crime to come as we wonder how the elements will fit together. This episode approaches things a little differently.

Right from the start it is clear who the target is and the reason for their murder. We also know the means the killer intends to use and while we may wonder about the involvement of a third party, viewers will quickly realize that the killer intends to establish an alibi for themselves. The exact nature of that alibi will be a secret but rest assured it’s pretty amusing and I do consider it to be a pretty good one.

The sequence in which the murder is carried out is one of the more engaging ones I have encountered up to this point, enhanced by a little creative editing, a highly entertaining rampage from Riley and a rather striking death moment from the victim. At the point at which Columbo enters the story it does seem that Greenleaf has set things up rather nicely and you can imagine he would feel quite safe.

So, let’s talk Riley Greenleaf as I think the success of this episode really hinges on this character and the performance from Jack Cassidy. Rather unusually for a Columbo killer, it seems to me that Greenleaf is not so much acting from a rational motive but rather out of pure vindictiveness. Sure, there’s a mention of a million dollar life insurance policy at one point but as there’s never any discussion of that motive again it feels like it’s just mentioned to give a better excuse than “I can’t have him so you can’t either”.

Cassidy’s performance feels larger than life, veering wildly from moments of suave, seemingly sincere calm to sharp expressions of antagonism. That could so easily feel cartoonish and inconsistent but here I think it fits in well with some other aspects of a character who often seems incredibly unstable, at times treating Columbo’s investigation quite flippantly. It feels different from the vast majority of Columbo killers we have seen up to this point and much more satisfying than the nearest performance I can think of, Roddy McDowall’s in the first season’s Short Fuse.

Given that Riley is not one of the more ingenious killers, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of this story is not overly complicated. After carefully setting up the details and tidying up a loose end after the murder, there are no major twists or surprises to change our perception of those details. Nor does it feel like Columbo has to work particularly hard to extract the information needed to bust this case open. In fact, it ‘s honestly quite surprising that Greenleaf sustains his act as long as he does given some of the risks he takes both in the planning and execution of his scheme.

One of the most intriguing risks is John Chandler’s turn as an explosives-obsessed Vietnam veteran who dreams of publishing his own book. The performance is certainly colorful and his introduction is a memorable one, lobbing home-crafted explosives into a testing zone. While the performance is a broad one at times, I think it does help to convince that he might really put his trust in someone like Greenleaf. I will say though that I found it much harder to believe that the publisher would be willing to trust that he would be able to pull the action off in the first place.

As for Falk’s Columbo, it’s a solid enough outing though while I enjoyed the performance, little of it is particularly memorable. One bit that is however and which lands really well is a bit of business in a restaurant. While I anticipated the sort of punchline that scene would have, I think it is delivered beautifully.

The gotcha moment is fine enough. I certainly buy the logic of it but felt that given the episode seemed to be quite short, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Still, I am happy to say that I had a pretty good time with this one overall and while I much prefer the similarly-themed Murder by the Book, there’s little denying that he fit the part nicely.

The Verdict: An entertaining episode that seemed to move rather quickly but which delivered a fun performance as the villain from Jack Cassidy and one of the most memorable corpses in the show’s history!

The Tick of Death by Peter Lovesey

Originally published in 1974
Also titled An Invitation to a Dynamite Party (UK)
Sergeant Cribb #5
Preceded by Mad Hatter’s Holiday
Followed by A Case of Spirits

London, 1884: A series of bomb blasts in public places is causing mayhem throughout the city. Even Scotland Yard’s CID office becomes a target, throwing suspicion on Constable Thackeray. The primary suspects are Irish terrorists seeking independence, but could the villain be someone else? A beautiful Irish woman? An American athlete? Sergeant Cribb reluctantly enrolls in a bomb-making course and infiltrates the Dynamite Party. 

Based on the real events in London between 1884 – 1885, the story had its own resonance ninety years on.

Blurb and cover from Soho Crime edition (2009)

The very first post on this blog was about one of Peter Lovesey’s Sergeant Cribb novels (The Detective Wore Silk Drawers) so it feels rather fitting to return to that series for post #501. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I needed some motivation to reread a book I remembered as one of the weakest in the series which that reasoning just about supplied.

The book begins in the aftermath of several bombings that have taken place across London in apparent support of the cause of Irish independence. Sergeant Cribb is recruited not only to learn more about how to make bombs but to also learn more about the activities of his former subordinate Sergeant Thackeray who is believed to be involved in the campaign. He soon identifies a group of suspicious individuals and finds himself infiltrating their group.

One of the reasons I was not particularly excited to return to this book is that I regard its mystery elements as incredibly slight. The questions posed at the start of the book are pretty simple – who are the dynamiters and how is Thackeray involved with their activities? Neither question proves to be particularly puzzling – we just need to wait to meet the very obvious suspects in the case of the first, and talk with Thackeray a couple of chapters in for the second (this explanation is one of my favorite parts of the book but it comes very easily and early in the novel). From that point onwards there is no puzzle to speak of at all – we are simply watching the action unfold and wondering how Cribb will get himself out of trouble.

That is, of course, not a problem if you have come to this book in search of a pretty competent historical thriller. Lovesey moves quite quickly to put Cribb in an intriguing and dangerous situation where he is forced undercover and he manages to emphasize the risks involved quite effectively. It is not dissimilar in fact to some parts of The Detective Wore Silk Drawers which also played with the idea of putting a detective undercover. However I think the choice to use Cribb himself for that task, as Lovesey does here, is better than inventing a third party for a one-off adventure.

The disadvantage with that approach however is that Cribb spends much of the book on his own, working under an assumed identity. Cribb’s personality is a huge part of what made the previous volumes in the series so much fun along with his interactions with Thackeray. While I think this has a tighter, tidier narrative than some of its predecessors, I found myself missing the lighter, more humorous exchanges Cribb would have in those stories. The few flashes we see of the old Cribb and a handful of appearances from Thackeray are certainly welcome but they also serve as a reminder of what is missing for much of the book. The material here is just less whimsical and fun.

As for the historical context, I do appreciate the author’s attempt to draw on some real events and the note included at the end of the book. The issue of home rule certainly defines the politics of this era, but I do not feel that I came away with a greater understanding of the period the way I normally do when I read entries from this series. Even the sporting elements, typically one of the strongest features of Lovesey’s early work, feel a little colorless and bland compared to the depictions of competitive pedestrianism in Wobble to Death or bare-knuckle boxing in The Detective Wore Silk Drawers. To be clear, I do not feel that the treatment here of those elements is bad but rather that there is little here to grab me beyond the core premise.

On the plus side, the author avoids unnecessarily stretching out the story and does a good job of keeping things moving forwards, building a strong sense of tension as we near the denouement. While there may not be much in the way of a puzzle for the reader to engage with, there are a few memorable sequences in the latter half of the book that have a page-turning quality.

The problem for this reader though is that the book simply doesn’t deliver on what I like about the Cribb stories. While Cribb may not be the greatest proponent of ratiocination, here he just seems to blunder through the case, getting carried to its end by accident, coincidence and coercion. As for the character himself, he feels conspicuously absent for much of the undercover portion of the novel, even though we are following his activities. Some detectives simply need a Watson and I believe this book demonstrates that Cribb falls firmly into that camp.

The Verdict: A competent historical thriller but it fell short for me both as a mystery and in the way it uses Cribb.

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

Originally published in 1987 as 十角館の殺人
English translation first published in 2015

Taking its cues from Agatha Christie’s locked-room classic And Then There Were None, the setup is this: The members of a university detective-fiction club, each nicknamed for a favorite crime writer (Poe, Carr, Orczy, Van Queen, Leroux and — yes — Christie), spend a week on remote Tsunojima Island, attracted to the place, and its eerie 10-sided house, because of a spate of murders that transpired the year before. That collective curiosity will, of course, be their undoing.

As the students approach Tsunojima in a hired fishing boat, ‘the sunlight shining down turned the rippling waves to silver. The island lay ahead of them, wrapped in a misty veil of dust,’ its sheer, dark cliffs rising straight out of the sea, accessible by one small inlet. There is no electricity on the island, and no telephones, either.

A fresh round of violent deaths begins, and Ayatsuji’s skillful, furious pacing propels the narrative. As the students are picked off one by one, he weaves in the story of the mainland investigation of the earlier murders. This is a homage to Golden Age detective fiction, but it’s also unabashed entertainment.

Cover and blurb from 2021 Pushkin Vertigo reprint

Today’s post is going to be rather special as it will be my five hundredth book review on this blog. As this struck me as a pretty significant milestone, I wanted to be sure to mark the occasion with a book review of a title that mattered to me.

I mulled over a number of titles before finally settling on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. There were a couple of reasons for my selection. One is that it was relatively recently reissued in a very handsome new edition by Pushkin Vertigo which is pictured above. The other is that this is one of a handful of titles that caused my interest in mystery fiction to blossom, leading me to discover some of my favorite detective fiction blogs and eventually, a couple of years later, to start my own.

The story takes inspiration from the premise of one of the most famous works of mystery fiction, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As with that story a group of people arrive on a remote island to spend time together in a house. They settle down to enjoy themselves, only to find that they begin to get picked off one-by-one.

The Decagon House Murders is hardly the first example of a mystery novel to take inspiration from that story. Look back over my previous 499 book reviews and you will find at least a couple of overt homages, not to mention a handful of stories that less directly reference it. What I think elevates this effort and helps to make it a masterpiece of impossible crime fiction is that the characters are aware of that work, directly referencing it at points in the narrative, and that it uses it as the basis for a fascinating exploration of detective fiction as a genre.

The group of characters who find their way to Tsunojima Island are all members of a university detective-fiction club. Each of the members has adopted the name of a classic crime writer – Carr, Christie, Leroux, Orczy, Poe, Queen and Van Dine – and they refer to each other by those pseudonyms. I loved that idea on my initial read but I have only come to appreciate it more having returned to it with significantly more knowledge of some of those writers. Part of the fun for me was observing the similarities between the student and their namesakes, particularly in the case of Ellery Queen whose insistence on treating the whole thing like an intellectual exercise feels absolutely in keeping with the character of Ellery from the books.

Soji Shimada’s introduction to the Locked Room International edition mentions that when the book was first published, some critics found the characters a little shallow. I can understand why some might feel that way as the game always comes first for Ayatsuji and we get minimal details of the lives these people lived outside of the club beyond a few details about the subjects they study. In this case however I think that a lack of detail about their background does not equate to a lack of a personality. Each of the people on the island, as well as those on the mainland, possess striking and identifiable personalities. The interactions between members of the group can be quite dramatic, particularly as tempers flare and those differences in approach come to the fore.

Ayatsuji tells their story quickly, rattling through a number of the deaths in quick succession. That will also play into that sense that we are not really invested in the group as human beings and yet I think that is part of the point of what is being done here. Several of these mystery enthusiasts are responding by indulging in playing detective, indulging their egos with the notion that they might somehow solve this crime themselves.

In spite of the speed at which the bodies pile up, I feel that the deaths are impactful. That reflects in part that Ayatsuji employs a nice variety of methods so the killings never feel repetitive. I think it is also elevated by the idea that the killer surely lies within this group which seems so close-knit. With each new death the monstrousness of what is being done only seems to become more apparent.

Each death brings with it questions about how and why the murders were conducted. The answers to those questions are clued pretty effectively. By the time the novel is completed you will both know the solution and what the killer had planned. Some of those explanations will be more surprising than others but I love the way the author walks us through what happened and provides context for why some choices were made.

Another thing that I think the writer does really well is set up a parallel investigation that takes place on the mainland. Several individuals receive suspicious letters and come together to try to work out what they mean and why they had received them. This strand of the story involves investigating the history of the island itself and some grisly murders that had taken place there some time before. I enjoyed discovering how neatly these story strands fit together and felt largely satisfied with the cleverness of the ending.

My complaints with the book are all relatively minor. My biggest is that I think a pronoun choice is made in a chapter near the beginning from the killer’s perspective that helps eliminate some suspects a little early. In practice that will happen anyway as the bodies stack up but I don’t think it would have harmed the story too much to give it an extra suspect.

The Verdict: I had a wonderful time revisiting The Decagon House Murders which is just as entertaining and creative as I recalled it being. It’s a truly clever story and I really hope to discover more soon!

Five to Try: Aidan’s Picks

Aidan's Picks: Five to Try

A few months ago I happened to mention on Twitter that I was thinking about what I should post to mark the occasion of my four hundred and fiftieth book review. One of the suggestions that I received was from the mystery writer James Scott Byrnside who replied that I ought to do a list of my best reads up until that point. It was a good idea. Too good in fact to waste on review four hundred and fifty and so I made a note of it, putting it away until I reached my five hundredth book review – a milestone I will pass with my next review!

One thing I was keen to avoid was simply trying to pick the five best books. While I know all too well the appeal of a ranked list, I doubt the results would be particularly interesting or surprising. Particularly given I mention quite frequently that my favorite crime novel is Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying. A top five list where you already know the winner would surely be rather anticlimactic.

Instead my aim here is to surprise you (in other words, not all five are inverted mysteries) and throw a spotlight on some more obscure titles I have reviewed rather than pick something that needs no further introduction. For that reason there will be no Christie, Crofts or Carr on this list and when a notable name does crop up, rest assured it is for one of their less famous efforts.

With all that said, here’s my list…

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

Penned in the eighties, this book is an inverted mystery in the best Ilesian tradition featuring a protagonist trapped in the middle of the corporate ladder. When he is passed over for a promotion in favor of a ruthless colleague something inside him snaps and he accidentally murders a panhandler, dumping his body into the Thames.

After the initial shock of what he has done passes, he comes to think of murder as a solution to the other parts of his life he is dissatisfied with.

It’s a superb, darkly amusing read that offers some interesting reflections on the social changes and corporate culture that was developing in Britain during the eighties. For those who have only experienced Brett’s lightly comic works, this is an interesting change of pace that showcases some of his range as a writer.

Read my review here

The File on Lester by Andrew Garve

Since starting this blog I have read and enjoyed a number of books by Paul Winterton who wrote as Andrew Garve, Roger Bax and Paul Somers including a couple of excellent inverted crime stories. The File on Lester stands out though for its unusual structural approach and concept.

The novel is structured as a dossier of documents and press clippings all concerning a political scandal. Lester is a charismatic young politician who leads the Progressive Party who seem to be on the eve of a landslide election victory. Then suddenly a young woman turns up at a press event and asks a photographer to pass on a personal message to him, prompting huge press interest.

The author structures the story very well and does a fantastic job of teasing the reader so that they may find their assumptions shift at several points over the course of the novel. Moreover, it is a convincing depiction of a political scandal with well observed characters while the relative short page count feels just about right, making this an interesting, quick read.

Read my review here

The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

What I love about The Man Who Didn’t Fly is that it is a traditional puzzle mystery but one in which we are not asked whodunnit but tasked with trying to work out a character’s identity.

The story concerns a group of four men who were supposed to catch a flight together to Ireland. On the day however only three of the four men turn up at the airport to catch the flight which crashes, leaving the police unsure who the three men were that died and who is still living.

It’s a highly novel concept that Bennett works through brilliantly. The book is entertaining and often quite funny while the writer plays fair with the reader, providing heaps of clues that can be pieced together logically to find the answer.

Read my review here

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

Payment Deferred predates Iles’ celebrated inverted mystery Malice Aforethought by several years and is, in my opinion, the stronger read. Certainly it is a book that ought to deserve to be more widely celebrated.

Mr. Marble has exhausted the goodwill of everyone he could think of and is now sure to be financially ruined when he receives a surprise visit from a young, rich relative. Their visitor is without a family and newly arrived in England – what’s more, he has come with a wallet full of cash. Marble sends his family to bed then sets about killing the young man and taking that money.

The book is a study in what follows as Marble finds himself rich but also discovers that simply having money cannot fix all of your problems. Instead guilt over the crime and fear of discovery also seem to loom over him.

It’s not a light read but it is a brilliantly written book and I think deserving of recognization as one of the great inverted mysteries.

Read my review here

The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

Generally speaking when I do these Five to Try lists I try to select books where it is easy to find affordable copies. Currently that is not the case with my final selection but the good news is that a reprint of this one is just around the corner!

The novel is a bit of a curiosity – one of just two books Crofts wrote that can be described as a ‘locked room mystery’. It should be said that this problem is only a relatively small component of the novel – playing out over just a chapter – but it is done so well that it left me wishing that Crofts had done more of them.

The book concerns the disappearance of a wealthy man following a trip to France. After a short outcry followed with a bit of a financial panic, the man reappears and hosts a lavish party on his boat. When his body is found in his locked and sealed cabin the next morning it is assumed he must have committed suicide but Inspector French soon comes to suspect foul play.

It’s a very cleverly plotted story and I remember loving the solution to the locked room problem. Honestly, I’m just thrilled that finally others will be able to read this without breaking the bank and I can’t wait to read more people’s thoughts about it.

Read my review here

So, there you have my five to try from my first 499 reviews. Next up will be my thoughts on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. Thanks to you all for being with me for my reading adventures. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on many, many more vintage mysteries with you all in the years to come!

Columbo: Double Exposure (TV)

Season Three, Episode Four
Preceded by Candidate for Crime
Followed by Publish or Perish

Originally broadcast December 16, 1973

Written by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Richard Quine

Plot Summary

Dr. Bart Kepple has been on the cutting edge of advertising research for years after publishing several highly regarded books about techniques. Among the secrets to his success is a lucrative blackmail business. When one of his subjects threatens to stand up to him rather than pay, Kepple decides he must act to eliminate them. He has what seems to be an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murder – a room full of people can say he was on stage narrating a film at the time. Unfortunately for the advertising guru, Lt. Columbo just isn’t buying it…

Robert Culp NBC publicity photo
Image credit: NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Robert Culp (left) had already featured as a killer twice before in Columbo, once in each of the first two seasons. This would be his final appearance in the show’s initial run though he would return for one last outing as Columbo Goes to College in 1990. He did however also make an appearance in the pilot for Mrs. Columbo in the meantime.

Louise Latham is perhaps most widely remembered for a role in the 1964 Hitchcock movie Marnie but she also has a number of other genre credits to her name on television. These include appearances in Perry Mason, Ironside, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote.

One familiar face making an early television appearance is George Wyner as the film editor consulted later in the episode. Wyner is still active in Hollywood today appearing in shows like The Umbrella Academy and Grace and Frankie. Genre credits include Boston Legal, Bones and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Quincy.

My Thoughts

There is a line in this episode where Lt. Columbo says that one of the reasons he loves his job is that he gets to come into contact with interesting people. On a related note, I think that this episode really drove home to me the idea that we love Columbo the show for similar reasons – part of the thrill, at least for this viewer, lies in discovering what background or career path the next antagonist will come from. In the case of Double Exposure we get our first encounter with the world of marketing as Dr. Kepple specializes in the field of ‘motivation research’.

In a recent post I referenced the idea that most of Columbo‘s antagonists share some common characteristics. They are often quite elitist, looking down on the scruffy police lieutenant because of his slovenly dress, clumsy manners and personal habits. Many equate those qualities with a lack of intelligence and so underestimate him, not putting up their guard soon enough.

Dr. Kepple certainly possesses those qualities as well but what strikes me as interesting about this character is that he seems far less wary than most. He is a man who believes his own hype – that his ability to read a consumer and predict their behavior will also lead to him having the upper hand when dealing with the police.

For the role of Dr. Kepple we get the third and final appearance of Robert Culp as a Columbo killer, though he would appear in another part when the show came back in the nineties. He proves an excellent fit for the part, seeming comfortable with the technical requirements of the part (cutting film, repositioning cameras, working the technology, etc) and the dialogue about his character’s profession while also driving home the man’s arrogance and sense of complacency in all of his dealings with Columbo. It is, in my opinion, the best of Culp’s three turns as the killer.

Part of what I appreciate is that Kepple is a distinctly different creation from the previous two killers Culp portrayed. This man is a planner who treats his murder like he is writing the script for one of his promotional films. He intends to create an evidence trail that will tell a story and encourage the police to interpret the crime scene in a particular way. It’s a pretty brazen plan and certainly unusual among the Columbo killers up until this point, marking the character out as a little different. Equally interesting to me though is that I think this is the reason Columbo comes to suspect him in the first place. The story he attempts to present to Columbo is simply too neat and tidy.

Some parts of Kepple’s plan are admittedly very clever and I love that while the episode shows us all of his preparations and actions, the meaning of some of his actions are not instantly apparent. To give one of the strongest examples of this, the means by which the murder weapon is made to appear not to have been used is shown to the viewer yet some (such as myself) may not initially grasp the significance of what we have seen or what it means.

Kepple’s plan here is to construct a seeming unbreakable alibi by creating a situation in which a group of people will all appear to witness him standing behind a curtain on the stage narrating in perfect time to a film reel. This boils down to a variation on an old trick and I think that there are some issues with the plan that would make it impractical in reality (ROT-13: Gurer jvyy or n irel abgvprnoyr fuvsg va fbhaq dhnyvgl orgjrra n crefba fcrnxvat yvir naq n erpbeqvat cynlvat bire n fcrnxre, abg gb zragvba gur zvpebcubar pbhyq jryy cvpx hc ba gur juveyvat bs gur gncr jvguva gur znpuvar). In spite of that however, I appreciated the basic idea and enjoyed how smoothly the character pulls off his murder before returning to the stage without breaking a sweat.

The most interesting aspect of the case however relates quite specifically to the skills and background of the killer and it struck me as quite a novel way of pulling off his plan. It’s one of those situations where I wondered if a viewer in 1973 might have had a different experience from a viewer today as I wonder how well known the technique shown was at the time while the meaning of what Kepple seemed quite obvious to me from the start. Still, I appreciated the originality of that as a method and I appreciated that the script and filmmakers do not try to oversell the idea of how effective that could be. Instead they go for something that feels much more limited in scope but still clearly of enormous importance to his plan.

There are a number of excellent hints dropped about how Columbo will end up putting this case together, helped with some strong foreshadowing. The episode did a good job of drawing attention to each of these clues while keeping the relevance of them hidden until late in the episode, giving the sense of a sudden rush of discovery as we near the point where Columbo can prove his case.

My favorite of these hints relates to an object that Columbo finds as Kepple expected. What struck me as really clever is that while Kepple reads many aspects of the crime scene effectively, doing a fine job of steering Columbo away from the truth with his storytelling, he overlooks something very simple and logical. Watching Falk as he slowly comes back to the significance of that clue and tries to work through every possible explanation is both agonizing and compelling – a little like seeing a bar of soap slip repeatedly from hand to hand. Kepple keeps thinking he’s finally convinced Columbo that he’s on the wrong track only to be told that there is another practical reason why his explanation for the inconsistency simply doesn’t work. It’s great television that shows off how well these two actors could play off one another.

There are other things I love such as the wonderfully seventies banana yellow jacket Culp wears which you can marvel at yourself in the screenshot above or the descriptions of what Kepple’s work actually entails. It is the interplay between Falk and Culp though that I think is the core reason this episode works so well. Each actor anticipates and plays off the other brilliantly, creating a wonderfully antagonistic relationship between them.

While I still feel a little underwhelmed by the idea of an actor returning to play other killers, I do understand why the filmmakers brought Culp back. He got better with each appearance and my only regret is that we won’t see him again in that role. Of course, he wouldn’t be the last Columbo killer to make repeat appearances as we will see next time…

The Verdict: A fun story which pulls a few interesting tricks, not least with regard the murder weapon. Featuring some entertaining antagonistic banter and wonderful performances from the leads, I consider this the best of the Culp as murderer episodes.

The Detection Club Project: Anthony Berkeley – Jumping Jenny

Anthony Berkeley at Sherborne School in 1911, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Berkeley, wit, charm and flair warred with demons. He loved to confound people’s expectations. The contradictions of his personality infuriated many of his contemporaries. He was the most vociferous advocate of the need for the detective novel to focus on the motivation for murder rather than mere puzzles. Yet the complexities of his own psychological make-up would baffle the most expert profiler.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

When I launched my project to read works by every member of the famed Detection Club I made a conscious decision to start out with writers who were new to me. After all, the whole idea behind this was to take in the breadth of styles and personalities who shaped the development of the detective novel. However I could not go too long without writing about one of the most important figures in the founding of the club – Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Cox was a complicated man as Martin Edwards’ portrait of him in The Golden Age of Murder makes quite clear. There are few writers whose name or, in his case, pseudonym can be used to describe a type of story yet fans of Golden Age detection will often refer to a book as being Ilesian. What we mean when we say that is the book will often have a darkly ironic tone, particularly in terms of its ending that is reminiscent of his works written as Francis Iles, the most famous of which is Malice Aforethought.

The majority of his mystery novels were written as Anthony Berkeley and a number feature his series sleuth, mystery novelist Roger Sheringham. The book I will be discussing in a moment is one of the final published novels in that series.

Sheringham first appeared in The Layton Court Mystery in 1925. Cox had published that novel anonymously and followed it a year later with The Wychford Poisoning Case – a work I described as ‘tremendously frustrating’ when I read it last year. It is clearly intended to be a comical and perhaps argumentative work, being written to make a point about the institution of marriage and the conflation of sexual behavior with a person’s broader moral state.

One characteristic of the Sheringham stories is that he does not conform to the Golden Age model of a heroic detective. Sheringham can be rude and obnoxious, vain and judgmental. He sometimes makes mistakes or decisions to interpret justice in his own way. Edwards quotes Cox saying that he intended Sheringham to be ‘an offensive person’ but notes that there were some significant similarities between the character and his creator.

Certainly in later life Cox seems to have been a divisive and quarrelsome figure within the Club’s membership. One point of particular contention was his claim that he should be allowed to exercise a veto when new members were nominated. While his relationships with some other members may have soured, he remained a strong advocate for innovation and new voices within the genre as a critic.

Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley

Cover for The British Library Crime Classics reprint of Jumping Jenny (2022)

Originally published in 1933
Roger Sheringham #9
Preceded by Murder in the Basement
Followed by Panic Party
Also published under the title Dead Mrs. Stratton

At a costume party with the dubious theme of ‘famous murderers and their victims’, the know-it-all amateur criminologist Roger Sheringham is settled in for an evening of beer, small talk and analysing his companions. One guest in particular has caught his attention for her theatrics, and his theory that she might have several enemies among the partygoers proves true when she is found hanging from the ‘decorative’ gallows on the roof terrace.

Noticing a key detail which could implicate a friend in the crime, Sheringham decides to meddle with the scene and unwittingly casts himself into jeopardy as the uncommonly thorough police investigation circles closer and closer to the truth. Tightly paced and cleverly defying the conventions of the classic detective story, this 1933 novel remains a milestone of the inverted mystery subgenre.

Blurb and cover from the 2022 British Library Crime Classics reprint

My original plan when I started thinking about Berkeley was that I would write about The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a work of some renown that I have yet to tackle. That would have been a particularly apt fit for this set of posts as it deals with a dining club of notable people, headed by Sheringham, who each try to solve a murder coming up with markedly different solutions. I decided to change course however when I realized I would be reading Jumping Jenny, a recent reprint from The British Library’s Crime Classics range, as it didn’t make sense to read something from the author and not tie it into the project. As it happens though I think this serves to illustrate several aspects of the author’s work and style very nicely.

Jumping Jenny is billed as an example of the inverted mystery – a subgenre of mystery fiction the author had helped popularize a few years prior with Malice Aforethought. While that story focused on following the protagonist as he planned his murder, Jumping Jenny quickly disposes of its victim in its first few chapters. We then follow Roger Sheringham’s efforts not to solve the case but to ensure that none of his fellow guests are held responsible for the victim’s death as he regards the murder as an altruistic one. However he soon finds that his efforts have some unintended consequences as he and others in the party blunder and contradict one another.

As with The Wychford Poisoning Case, Jumping Jenny is intended to be a comical read but as with that other story, how effective you find the results will likely depend on your taste and whether you sympathize with Berkeley’s opinions. To give one example, Sheringham’s efforts to obfuscate the details of a crime scene may be highly amusing if you agree with the notion that the victim was a deserving one but may appall those who think that her theatrical behavior is a reflection of her mental health and that while her antics may be embarrassing, her husband’s inconsiderate behavior is never discussed quite as critically either by Sheringham or in the narration.

I personally fall between those two extremes. I think there are some moments in the story that are very sharp and funny, particularly as we see the characters unwittingly talk themselves into peril, but I do think that the treatment of Ena is often heavy-handed and unsympathetic. As trying as I would find someone like that, particularly in a social context like the costume party thrown here, I do think the notion that her death would be a public service is in rather poor taste.

It should be said that Sheringham’s interpretation is not simply a matter of that character’s judgment as when we witness the moment in which the guilty party chooses murder, they do so not for any personal gain but out of the belief that it would help another. While that is useful in terms of setting this up as an altruistic event, the lack of a strong motive makes the crime seem rather unbelievable. Would someone really put their life and career at risk in that way? Perhaps, but Berkeley didn’t convince me of that here.

Still, it is a delight to see Sheringham flounder so badly at points in this story and make a series of really poor assumptions about how others will act. Sheringham can be, as I alluded to in the preamble to this review, a little vain and unlikeable so it is really satisfying to see him flustered as he is frequently here. Much of the entertainment here is to be aware of how the evidence ought to steer him toward the truth and trying to understand how it will be misinterpreted or applied.

I should also say that I rather enjoyed some aspects of the setup to this story, particularly the details of the costume party to which everyone turned up dressed as famous murderers. It’s a neat, if occasionally confusing, introduction to the characters and while I think this could have been featured even more strongly, I was amused by the notion that several draw attention to that a real murder should have been committed while everyone was playing at murderers.

Structurally the book is interesting too. While Sheringham notices a telltale piece of evidence at the crime scene, he is not attempting to discover the truth. Instead he picks up pieces of genuine information in the course of his attempts to manipulate the evidence and he uses that to formulate theories about who he must be covering up for. It feels rather novel and fits nicely with the book’s irreverent tone.

Jumping Jenny is a relatively short read which is probably just as well as I think the joke threatens to run out of steam as we head towards its final chapters. Here I think the author does a pretty good job of playing with our expectations, throwing in a couple of developments that may catch them by surprise. While many of the details of the case were known to us from the near the start, it is still satisfying to see how the clues are pieced together and to learn some things that we had not been privy to earlier giving us a richer understanding of what happened.

At its best, Jumping Jenny can be witty and quite clever. For instance, I love the depth of the discussion about a piece of evidence Sheringham interacted at the scene and the way Cox dissects what it might have been able to show. I also think that the murder method is quite striking and while the path to get to that moment might be a little convoluted, I felt that the mindset of the victim – if not the person who makes that split second choice to murder her – is credible.

The Verdict: Though I think Jumping Jenny has a few tonal problems, I find it to be a very clever work and far more satisfying than my most recent experience of his work. Its concept and structure are novel and I think the piece is paced well overall and offers a good insight into the author’s work and some of his favorite themes. Worth a look!

The Cage by Bonnie Kistler

Cover from US edition (2022) of The Cage by Bonnie Kistler

Originally published in 2022

On a cold, misty Sunday night, two women are alone in the offices of fashion conglomerate Claudine de Martineau International. One is the company’s human resources director. Impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed, she sits at her desk and stares somberly out the window. Down the hall, her colleague, one of the company’s lawyers, is buried under a pile of paperwork, frantically rushing to finish. 

Leaving at the same time, the two women, each preoccupied by her own thoughts, enter the elevator that will take them down from the 30th floor.

When they arrive at the lobby, one of the women is dead. Was it murder or suicide?

Cover and blurb from Harper (US) edition published 2022

I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Cage since I first read the plot synopsis a few months ago. I was immediately grabbed by the boldness of its central idea – that two women enter an elevator and that when it completes its descent one of the two is dead. This is about as extreme a closed circle murder as I can think of and I was really curious to see where Kistler took the story from there.

Perhaps the first thing to note about the book is that while there are things to deduce (some of which are clued and foreshadowed very effectively), this book is first and foremost a legal thriller in the vein of Grisham’s The Firm or the TV series Damages. The book certainly concerns the investigation into that death in the elevator and the question of whether Lucy Barton-Jones committed suicide or Shay Lambert shot her but once we are past the opening chapters the story style transforms into something a little different.

Kistler divides the story into chapters narrated by Shay recounting her story and third person chapters written from the perspective of one of the senior executives at Claudine de Martineau International (CDMI). These figures soon become oppositional to one another, each presenting a different story about what happened that night. In theory this approach should present the reader with a binary choice between the two different stories and yet, while neither side tells the whole truth, the reader will likely quickly establish who the villain will be.

Rather than focus on the guessing game of who to believe, instead the reader is drawn into the game of seeing how each side will try to convince the police investigators of their case. It is here that I think the decision to provide us with a first person account for Shay really works as we share in her sense of disorientation as pieces of unhelpful information are presented to the police. It is less a matter of whether we think she is innocent as how she will be able to convince the investigators of her arguments.

The true focus of the book is not whether Shay is innocent but on the question of why the executives at CDMI would want her to be arrested for the murder. It’s an intriguing problem and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Kistler clues the answer to this quite well, providing the reader with lots of small hints to piece together.

I found the first half of the book as we wrestle with that question to be really engaging. For instance I think Kistler uses flashback very effectively, dropping hints about an event in the past but making us wait to go back and show us what occurred. These small reveals are spaced out well with each chapter seeming to turn up some new idea or information that helps us better understand Shay and the situation she has found herself in.

The reader will have most of the answers to what happened by the midpoint of the novel at which point the thriller aspects of the story are amplified. In this latter half of the novel Shay finds herself in danger and has to use her brain and legal skills to work out what is going on and to turn the situation around. This material is also quite entertaining and engaging, especially as we near the end and some of the plot threads start to get wrapped up.

The acceleration of the storytelling though does coincide with a slight distancing between Shay and the reader. While we still observe her actions in these chapters, there is less dwelling on the reasons or meaning behind them. One consequence of this is that I became a little less emotionally involved with her fate in that second half of the story. Another is that I felt that the second half of the book lacked a central question that tied everything together and provide the same sort of focus as the police investigation had done in the first.

The other problem is that I felt the antagonist was not a particularly striking character. While they are clearly monstrous, the book never quite delves deeply enough into the question of how they justify their actions. Nor do they share many scenes with Shay, giving little opportunity for the sort of conflict that helps sharpen the presentation of their character. That seems a shame to me as I think a stronger antagonist could have provided some of the focus that I felt the plot needed towards the end.

The Verdict: This entertaining corporate legal thriller is good fun in the best traditions of early Grisham. Do not come to this expecting a mystery novel (particularly a locked room puzzle) and you won’t be disappointed.

Case Closed, Volume 6: The Last Loan by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

Originally published in 1995
English translation first published in 2005
Volume 6
Preceded by The Bandaged Be-header
Followed by The Case of the Moonlight Sonata

It’s Conan versus the Phantom Thief! Who is this mysterious masked man? And why does he know Conan’s true identity? 

Later, an investigation of an extramarital affair leads to bloody murder! Also, Conan’s elementary school friends decide to become super sleuths when they form the Junior Detective League! But will they get into more trouble than they can handle?

Can you figure out whodunit before Conan does?

My Thoughts

The previous installment of Case Closed left us on a bit of a cliffhanger with Detective Conan in peril from a masked man. This sixth volume begins with the conclusion to that Conan Kidnapping Case but while it does wrap things up, I cannot say that I found it at all satisfactory.

One of the things I had liked most about the story as it began in the previous volume was that it seemed to tie into the series’ on-going mystery about the identity of the men who transformed teenaged detective Jimmy into the body of an elementary schooler. This final part does not deliver on those suggestions though and while it may provide a necessary explanation for why our hero will remain in the care of Richard Moore, I found the circumstances to be far too contrived. The good news though is that this is just one chapter and the remainder of the volume is of a significantly higher standard.

The first full case here, presumably titled The Last Loan, concerns the savage murder of a moneylender. Richard Moore and Conan visited the victim to report their findings after trailing his wife, revealing that she has taken a lover. They are interrupted during their meeting and asked to wait while he speaks with a visitor. When he does not return they investigate to find him dead having been run through with a sword and the walls and ceiling of the room are covered in vicious slashes from a similar blade.

The police arrive on the scene and quickly establish that the killer must be one of the four people the victim planned to meet with that afternoon. Three are people he had loaned money but the other is Richard Moore as he stumbles over explaining his own presence there.

One of the aspects of this story I enjoyed most was the rather bizarre crime scene. This not only provides us with a really striking visual, I appreciate that the oddness of the killer’s actions grow more apparent as you ponder the scene. While there is one aspect of the case that would require some detailed cultural knowledge to fully appreciate, the reader should still be able to recognize its significance by thinking about the evidence logically.

The crime scene from The Last Loan

I also really enjoyed the story’s colorful cast of characters. This begins with the victim who I felt is one of the most distinctive we have had to date in the books and extends to his wife and the three men who visited him. Each feels well-defined and the story does a good job of providing each with a credible motive.

As much as I liked that one, I liked the next story, The Junior Detective League, even more. This is another story that features Conan interacting with his elementary school classmates who have now banded together to form a detective agency. It’s a very cute conceit that plays with the junior detective agency trope nicely and I love the way the scope of the group’s investigation expands from trying to find a missing cat to investigating a bloody murder.

The puzzle at the heart of this story involves the disappearance of a body from within a house that our kid detectives kept under observation while they waited for the police to respond to their call. The investigation does a great job of reinforcing those constraints and emphasizing the impossibility of that disappearance and several elements of the explanation of what happened are rather clever.

I only have one problem with the story and that is I am not entirely convinced that the killer, who had little reason to expect the police to show up, is able to pull together a plan to hide the body rather quickly. This seems to me to be reinforced in the confession at the end of the case. If you can suspend a little disbelief about that, I really enjoyed some of the ideas here and I found it to be one of the most entertaining storylines in Case Closed up to this point.

The final story in the volume was particularly suited to my tastes as it is essentially an inverted mystery. The case involves the murder of a famous writer in his hotel room during a festival. From the start of the case we and Conan will suspect the man who had been staying with him but he seems to have an unbreakable alibi – one that involves Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan themselves.

The tone is not unlike that found in many episodes of Columbo in which we have what amounts to a cat and mouse game between our sleuth and an overly confident killer. The latter is absolutely sure that he will get away with it, seeming to invite suspicion on himself with some of his actions.

Readers should be aware that they will not get the solution in this volume but you will have everything you need by the end of this book to solve the case. Expect that you will want to immediately go and get the next volume to check that you are right! I will cover that solution properly when I come on to write about the next volume but I think it delivers a satisfying conclusion to the story here.

The Verdict: With the exception of the first chapter which concludes a story from the previous volume, this has been one of my favorite volumes to date. The three new stories it starts are all very entertaining and are well clued. The only problem is that you’re bound to want to immediately go and buy the next one to find out if you were right!

Deadly Nightshade by Elizabeth Daly

Originally published in 1940
Henry Gamadge #2
Preceded by Unexpected Night
Followed by Murders in Volume 2

With talk of war all over the radio waves, antiquarian book dealer Henry Gamadge is back in Maine, this time by invitation of his friend Detective Mitchell. Mitchell has a real puzzler on his hands: three different children have been poisoned with deadly nightshade, and there is no motive that could possibly link all three poisonings, beside the fact that the children all live in the same small community. Could the nearby encampment of Gypsies be involved? And was the death of a state trooper at about the same time a mere coincidence? Gamadge sets out to separate fact from fiction and find the killer before they strike again…

Cover and blurb from the 2013 Felony and Mayhem ebook reprint

A few years back I stacked up on Elizabeth Daly novels when I happened upon a set of them in a secondhand bookshop. I have been slowly working my way through them ever since and while I have yet to be completely blown away by one (the closest to date was a later volume, The Book of the Lion), I have enjoyed those I have read well enough to keep returning to them.

Daly’s series sleuth is Henry Gamadge, an antiquarian book dealer. One of the challenges writers with amateur detectives face is working out how they come to investigate their second crime. Daly handles this by having Inspector Mitchell, the police detective from her first novel, reach out to Gamadge to ask if he can once again throw light on a puzzling and potentially volatile situation.

Several children, each from separate households but living in the same community, all became sick on the same day having eaten the berries from the deadly nightshade plant. One has died while another has vanished and tensions are running high with suspicion falling on a nearby community of gypsies. Mitchell does not believe that they are responsible but has struggled to come up with any explanation. Sensing that the community’s patience is running out and without the help of a state trooper who died in an accident around that time, he asks Gamadge to travel to Maine and help him with his investigation.

The obvious place to start in discussing this book is by addressing its really dark subject matter. Crimes against children are not uncommon in modern mystery fiction but are certainly rare in works from this period. While I can recall a few stories that involve kidnappings and one with an accidental death (Blake’s The Beast Must Die), I cannot think of any that feature the murder of a very young child.

The expectation that I have when I encounter this sort of subject matter is that it will be matched by a dark and broody tone. I have shared that I often avoid stories of this type because as the parent of a young child myself the subject matter can be quite uncomfortable for me. I doubt I would have picked this off the shelf if I had looked at the blurb. As I read however I was struck by how the book never really taps into any of that emotional material instead presenting it as simply a curious puzzle for Gamadge to solve. While we are told at the start of the book that emotions have been running high, I rarely felt that communicated through the characters’ speech or actions.

The exception would be the animus directed toward the gypsies camped nearby. This is also often told rather than shown but we do hear enough to get a sense of the resentments, fears and suspicions that have developed toward that community. Daly tries to be thoughtful in how she addresses these, using Gamadge and Mitchell’s belief in their innocence and the sense that they are being persecuted to provide some balance to that discussion.

Turning to the investigation itself, I think Daly does a good job in the initial chapters of drawing out and exploring the nature of the puzzle she is setting us. The main question is one of motive – to explain why these children from different households were all targeted. I do think this is an interesting question and I appreciated the way Gamadge logically works through the possibilities at the outset to arrive at the few most likely options.

I also appreciated that Daly does a good job of showing how Gamadge is able to interact in a different way with some of the witnesses, particularly the children and the gypsies, to persuade them to share information with him. I could understand why he was able to make some progress where Mitchell had failed and so here I felt the tandem approach of pairing an amateur with a professional detective worked well).

The problem I had with the investigation though is that it frequently feels rather unstructured. I think part of the reason for this is that Gamadge is not joining out the outset but instead at a point where most of the evidence has already been collected. That allows for a neater presentation of the puzzle but it also means that there is little sense of discovery, particularly beyond the first few chapters. Instead many of the interviews seem more focused on expanding upon details already learned.

That is not to suggest that the investigation is without interest. To give an example, the question of the identity of a person seen driving in the area on the day of the poisonings is an intriguing one. Unfortunately I feel that Daly takes a little too long to get to these points and bring them into focus which leaves the midsection of the novel feeling rather slow.

Which brings me to the conclusion.

Let me stress that I think the solution is very interesting and that it ought to have been a satisfying one. It certainly pulls together a number of story strands and helps make sense of some aspects of the story I had not been entirely satisfied by prior to that. The problem is that while I can look back at what came before and see how everything fits, I am far from convinced that the reader is truly given enough information to reach that conclusion themselves ahead of the detectives.

This ends up undercutting the cleverness of the ending. Rather than marveling at the detective for their work at piecing it all together and thinking we might have reached the same result, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed – if not cheated – when Gamadge reveals the truth.

The Verdict: A frustrating read. Daly has some interesting ideas and themes for this book but the pacing in the middle third seems off while the novel’s solution feels inadequately clued. While it is not without interest, puzzle fans may want to look to other works first.

Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime was disappointed with the book, noting that we are told but not shown information and was dissatisfied with the sudden solution.

Bev @ My Readers Block found the story a little hard to follow though wondered if this might be attributed to her slightly abridged copy. I had a similar experience in spite of having the full text.