Case Closed, Volume 4: Explosives on a Train by Gosho Aoyama, translated by Joe Yamazaki

The Verdict

Book Details

Originally published in 1995
English translation published in 2005
Volume 4
Preceded by One and the Same?
Followed by The Bandaged Be-header

The Blurb

Bloody murder is committed at a museum, reproducing a scene from a gruesome painting.

Later, the men in black are back! Will Conan be able to come any closer to getting his old body back? 

Also, Conan’s friends from grade school find a treasure map–but will it only lead them to a trove of trouble?

What? A medieval suit of armor was walking by itself?

My Thoughts

Today finds me returning to Case Closed, the manga series about a brilliant teen detective who has been transformed into the body of a grade schooler. It’s a fun, lighthearted series but given that it is best read in order let me send you back to the first review and I’ll see you in three books time!

Okay, where were we? While the previous volume featured just two cases, this one has three. The nice thing about this is that it does mean that there is a little more variety but that does come at the cost of depth. Each of these three cases feel a little simple compared to those in the previous volume.

The first involves the strange case of an ancient suit of armor that supposedly roams the halls of a museum. One day the gallery is being visited by its obnoxious new owner who steps into the Hell Gallery only to be run through by a sword.

The case is a solid murder mystery though it suffers a little from having just two characters who might be suspects, particularly when one becomes the focus of the investigation. I think though that rather than viewing this purely as a whodunnit, it is more interesting to view this as a howcatchem and ask what clues will lead Jimmy toward the truth.

While the case is short and relatively simple, it does offer some points of interest including a dying message and a pretty clever trick used to get to the truth. All in all, a very solid start to the volume.

In my previous Case Closed post I noted that I had one issue with the second and third volumes: that Jimmy seemed to have forgotten that his purpose in getting close to Rachel’s father and assisting him in his work as a private detective was to find out information about the gang who drugged and de-aged him. Happily the next story in this fourth volume sees Jimmy cross paths with two of its members, even if he gets sidetracked along the way.

He is traveling by train with Rachel and her father when he sees the two heavies climb on board carrying a dark briefcase. Following them to the dining car he learns that they have sold the case and its contents to a passenger but they have a secret. The buyer is unaware that their new locked briefcase contains a bomb that will detonate. Jimmy needs to find the buyer and dispose of the briefcase before that happens.

This is a fun setup and it feels like a nice change of pace from some of the previous cases. The time element certainly adds to the sense of tension but I also appreciate that this is another example of a story where Jimmy’s small size and apparent youth is a real barrier to his investigation. This is not just physical though there are moments where that comes into play – it’s also that Jimmy has to contend with Rachel trying to babysit him.

It’s a fun adventure and there is a subtle element of deduction involved. More than anything though I just feel it’s nice to acknowledge properly that Jimmy is supposed to be looking for the solution to his situation and while I understand that this obviously will be stretched out, it’s nice to see that addressed from time to time.

The final story sees the return of an idea from the second volume that I liked in theory, even though I felt that the case was not wholly satisfying. This is another case featuring the characters from Jimmy’s class in school who this time find themselves involved in something of a treasure hunt.

While the reader doesn’t have much opportunity to solve anything, the idea is a lot of fun and I do enjoy the dynamics of that group of children. It is always interesting to see Jimmy put in awkward situations and I do appreciate that the series is not forgetting to show the other half of his issue with de-aging – that he is intellectually far above those who are supposed to be his peers.

Overall then I felt this was another very solid installment in the series. I appreciate that each of the three stories feels quite distinct from the others though I did feel that the first two could each have benefited from a little more space to add complexity. In spite of that though this is a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing what other adventures Jimmy has in store for him…

Jonathan Creek: The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 1, 2013
2013 Special
Preceded by The Judas Tree
Followed by The Letters of Septimus Noone

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Joanna Lumley first became famous for her roles in The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steel but she is probably best known these days for her role in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Genre roles include playing Mrs Peacock in a series of Cluedo, Dolly Bantry in Agatha Christie’s Marple and Felicity Fanshaw in Paddington 2.

Okay, that last one isn’t exactly a genre film…

Sarah Alexander plays Polly, Jonathan’s wife. She will be most familiar for her roles in comedies such as Green Wing, The Worst Week of My Life and Smack the Pony though she also has a couple of genre credits. These include appearances in Midsomer Murders and Marple.

The Verdict

So much better than I remembered. While I have some issues with a development towards the end, the resolutions to the events in the present and in the past are each really interesting.

Episode Summary

A corpse is seen and photographed through the keyhole in the only door to a locked room. The door is under constant observation until help arrives and the door is kicked down. When they enter however they find that the body has completely vanished.

My Thoughts

Back when I started this project of rewatching the entire run of Jonathan Creek in order my object was to see the material through much more experienced eyes. As I have noted in some previous posts, when I first saw these they were pretty much the only locked room and impossible crime stories I had ever experienced. This meant that my reactions to the stories were often centered on the metrics of how much a story either surprised or amused me at the time.

That was unfortunate for a story like The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb. While the two previous specials had both featured dark themes and moments, they also had some familiar, more ostensibly comedic elements. In contrast, this story jettisons some of those and presents a somewhat different version of Jonathan – now obviously in his middle age and less quirky. I had been hoping for more of the same but instead we got something that sought to take the character forward. While that disappointed me at the time, I find that I have a completely different impression of those choices now.

The most significant change for Jonathan here is that in the space between the last special and this he has got married to Polly, played by Sarah Alexander. We will see much more of her in subsequent episodes as she has little involvement in the case itself but the marriage is used to show that he is in a very different headspace than he had been in the past. He is trying to be grown up, now being on the corporate ladder, and so his desire to investigate a crime becomes a point of conflict for the character in a way we haven’t seen before. This manifests in a costuming decision to switch him into suits, at least at the start, and so one of the most satisfying moments in the episode is when we see him reaching for the duffle coat – a scene that feels almost reminiscent of an aging Bruce Wayne reaching for the cowl in Batman: Year One.

The choice to reintroduce Rik Mayall’s Gideon Pryke in this story makes a lot of sense in this context. The character, who had been one of the highlights of Black Canary for me, was the first to be presented as almost a mirror of him. Equally brilliant, often pipping Jonathan to some key discoveries, the two seemed to come to a mutual respect for each other by the end of that adventure and the rivalry seems to bring out the best in each of them. Here we see that Gideon has also experienced his own significant life changes after a bullet leaves him confined to a wheelchair but he remains every bit as brilliant, charismatic and capable.

Pryke’s role then is to remind Jonathan of who he is. What makes Jonathan a great detective is not his background as a stage illusionist but his personality. In particular, his attention to detail and ability to think creatively. He is also there as someone for Jonathan to spark off and compete with. That he continues to have that relationship with Joey here, creating a sort of investigative super-trio, is all the more exciting.

This brings me to Sheridan Smith’s Joey Ross, sadly making her last appearance in the series here as she left after this due to her theatrical commitments. This character is, for me, the most appealing of all of Jonathan’s ‘assistant’ characters, in large part because she is anything but. She is a partner and an intellectual competitor with him. She isn’t there to be amazed or to be a source of romantic tension – her role is to be ahead of the audience but still ever so slightly behind Jonathan, spurring him on to greater deductions.

Smith is brilliant in the part, working equally well when she is interacting with him as when she is taking the lead on an investigation as she does at the start of this story. The actors play wonderfully off each other both dramatically and comedically. Perhaps most satisfying of all though is that unlike the previous departures of an assistant, this does at least have the feeling of a deliberate transition as we introduce Polly.

Turning to matters plot, this story presents two strange situations for our team to solve – one in the present, one in the past. I have shared in the past my feeling that this is a golden formula for the show that we have seen Renwick use in each of the specials and I am pleased to say I find it just as successful here. In some ways perhaps more so as I think both are fairly well clued.

Let’s start with the present as it is this that prompts Jonathan and Joey to start investigating. Our mystery here is the disappearance of a corpse from a room, the only door to which was under constant observation. We even have photographic evidence of what was seen, taken through the keyhole. It’s a pretty tantalizing problem to unpick, particularly given that no one seems to have had a motive for murder.

I feel that the circumstances of the disappearance are clued pretty thoroughly. While I have some qualms about an aspect of motivation – more about that in the spoilers below – I think the viewer does at least have enough information to piece together what happened and how the body disappeared and I felt that the explanation held together very well.

The historic thread concerns a strange set of events at a convent school in the sixties. We have the mystery of why a group of girls each had odd markings appear on their foreheads while sleeping, one of whom died. The other concerns a strange ‘quiet room’ with a painting that seems to come to life, reaching out to them.

This thread of the story gives me some serious Gladys Mitchell vibes in several respects. While the subject matter is clearly pretty dark and disquieting stuff, especially since it involves children, I think it is executed well and I think the solutions to each question struck me as broadly satisfying. A few clues that seal the deal come a little late in the game but even without those I feel we are given enough to have a general idea of what was happening and the motivations for it.

The link between the two strands of the episode is Joanna Lumley who plays Rosalind, the victim’s wife who was one of the children in the historic thread of the story. I think the casting here is absolutely perfect and I think enriches the character. Similarly I really like Nigel Planer’s Franklin – a much better role for him than his earlier appearance in The Reconstituted Corpse.

Of course, this is not a perfect episode by any stretch. I have already alluded to my having some issues with an aspect of the motive for the disappearance which feels a little weak. My bigger problem comes though with a secondary development that takes place towards the end of the episode which feels rather silly. Unfortunately I can’t discuss it here without spoiling it but I think this would have been a more satisfying outing had the story omitted it. It’s hard to view this as anything but an attempt to pad out the story with one extra surprising twist.

Overall then I have to say that this has been about the most pleasant surprise this project has given me. It’s tonally consistent in a way few episodes have been in the past few seasons and offers up several intriguing impossibilities. Had I been asked at the start of this to produce a ranked list of episodes I think this may have been towards the foot of that list – instead, while I would not say it is a Championship contender it may well be looking at a Euro Cup spot. As surprises go that’s a great one.

Finally, before I get to the spoiler section, let me offer a couple of links to some contemporary reviews of this episode for some alternate perspectives. TomCat reviewed this on Beneath the Stains of Time while the Puzzle Doctor shared thoughts on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

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They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall

Cover of They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall

The Verdict

Inspired by Christie but I wished more liberties had been taken with its structure.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime…

Delighted by a surprise invitation, Miriam Macy sails to a luxurious private island off the coast of Mexico with six other strangers. Surrounded by miles of open water in the gloriously green Sea of Cortez, Miriam is soon shocked to discover that she and the rest of her companions have been brought to the remote island under false pretenses – and all seven strangers harbor a secret.

Danger lurks in the lush forest and in the halls and bedrooms of the lonely mansion. Sporadic cell phone coverage and miles of ocean keep the group trapped in paradise. And strange accidents stir suspicions, as one by one…

They all fall down.

Something about Artemis, something about Mictlan Island made me breathless – and not in a thrilling way.

My Thoughts

A group of seven people, all apparent strangers, travel together to a remote island off the coast of Mexico. They go anticipating a pleasant time only to discover that they have been gathered under false pretenses. Each of the party has a dark secret known to its organizer and each is intended to die for their crimes.

As you may have guessed from the very brief summary above, They All Fall Down is a novel that reworks Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This is acknowledged both in the use of a quotation from that novel that opens the book and also its dedication to an English professor who ‘didn’t want me to interpret precious English things as something darker and American’.

While I think it is hard to imagine anything darker than Christie’s original novel, I felt that the intention to rework what is one of the most famous suspense novels was an intriguing one. Would Hall adhere strictly to the structure and story beats of the original or would it diverge in any places? Would she use it to explore different themes or ideas?

In most respects Hall opts to stick quite close to Christie’s original novel. She does narrow the cast of characters from ten to seven – a move that makes sense as it means they get more space in the novel. It also enables Hall to replace the nursery rhyme with another object related to the seven deadly sins. While the idea of a series of murders being committed based on a set of sins is not unique, this provides a nice structure as we wonder which of the guests will be linked with which sin and about the nature of the crime they have committed.

The more significant changes are rooted in matters of character. It is here that we can see most clearly Hall’s intention to reimagine the story as a modern American one. This is not just reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the guests, both ethnically and socially, but also their aspirations, troubles and world views. With this in mind, we must then consider how altering the geographic and cultural backdrop to the novel alters it.

In discussing this I want to be mindful of preserving the surprises about the various characters’ backgrounds. For that reason I only intend to describe the narrator, Miriam Macy. This is not because she tells us her whole story from the start – her crime will be one of the last to be confessed – but because we know significantly more about her background from the start of the novel, even if it is an incomplete picture.

Miriam arrives at the island under the belief that she has come to compete on a new reality tv show. This is not only welcome because it suggests an end to some financial problems she is facing, having left her job as a marketing and communications for a luxury goods consignment store, it also allows her to escape her problems at home. We know that she has a strained relationship with her daughter Morgan who is upset about how Miriam handled a situation involved a racist bully in her ballet class. We also know that there has been some sort of incident outside her home that has led to her being questioned by the police and that she is considering pressing charges against someone. Add in her resentment of her ex-husband who occupies her home with his new lover and an addiction to prescription pain and anxiety meds and it is easy to understand why she is keen to make a fresh start.

Throughout the novel we get snippets of emails and text messages sent between Miriam and some of the people in her life back home. This not only helps us to build a picture of her life prior to arriving at the island and of the way she is perceived by those who know her, it reminds us of the characters’ isolation. Internet access is patchy, offering little opportunity for the characters to communicate with those off the island.

When the crimes of each of the other guests are revealed there is some aspect of them that is intended to surprise. In most cases this is the nature of the crime itself. The exception is that of Desi, a young widow, but even there we get to discover the precise circumstances of what she had done. Miriam’s story unfolds a little differently however as the reader will likely get a growing sense of what she did as we work towards the end of the novel. That thread of the story is by far the most interesting and successful in the novel, allowing for a complexity of character and relationships that I found to be more compelling than the main thriller plot.

By far the most interesting of the other characters to me was Wallace, a man who begins the novel claiming to already know all about Miriam. This creates an interesting dynamic of suspicion and irritation between the two characters that shifts subtly throughout the story in response to the various things that happen. One of the reasons I felt that way is that I found his past to be one of the most surprising of the party, rendering him a more complex character than he initially seemed.

That is not to say that I was uninterested in the other characters. I enjoyed the process of discovering their stories and the reasons each had come to the island. It is just inevitably though several of them feel somewhat flat in comparison with Miriam given the additional space her story is given to be explored and a few of the characters’ fates seemed somewhat rushed. Their deaths are, however, generally quite memorable and imaginative.

This brings me though to the biggest problem I had with the reimagining of the book – the matter of the motivation behind it all. In altering some aspects of the setup to Christie’s original, Hall strips it of its most powerful and perverse thematic element. For all that is gained in bringing in some new and important discussions of issues such as racism and policing, it loses some of its power in relation to the question of justice.

I was also a little disappointed when we learn the truth as to what had been happening on the island and who precisely was responsible for the deaths. While this is at least clued, allowing the reader to detect who the responsible party is, I found their motivations to be less convincing than those of the killer in And Then There Were None and so aspects of the conclusion left me rather unsatisfied.

This is disappointing because I think Miriam’s story becomes increasingly compelling as we near the end and we learn more about what exactly happened that has made Morgan hate her. The issues that are raised by her story are complex and I felt Hall explores them very thoughtfully. Unfortunately the decision to mimic the structure of the source material rather than elevating Miriam’s story ends up being a barrier to its success. It forces the inclusion of lesser secondary stories and plot beats that I felt did little to enhance the telling of her story while it is not different enough to keep the overall work from feeling a little derivative.

Still, They All Fall Down is engaging and, at times, quite exciting. While I think the use of And Then There Were None proved limiting, I would still consider it one of the better examples of a reworking of that novel. If nothing else, it has left me curious to try more of the author’s work – happily I already own a copy of These Toxic Things in my TBR pile so I expect I will return to her soon.

Five to Try: Theatrical Mysteries

The theater is one of my favorite settings for a mystery because it feels so fitting. Murder mysteries are, by their nature, artificial with the clues carefully staged for the audience’s benefit. Mysteries set in the theater often acknowledge and own that artificiality, turning it into a virtue, by showing us how, with a little careful arrangement, a murderer is able to hide in the wings.

Just a reminder before I offer my suggestions, especially as it’s been a while since I last did one of these – I am not saying that the below are not the five best theatrical mysteries. I cannot claim to have read widely enough for that. I do think though that all five of my selections are interesting. They have stayed with me – in some cases for years after reading them – and I think they are all worth tracking down.

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Of course, the most common way that a theater can feature in a mystery is as a choice of setting for the story.

Many classic Golden Age series feature at least one installment in which a murder takes place on stage during a performance. Often the detective sits in the audience, unaware that the killer waits to strike. My first pick was actually written in the later part of the twentieth century, though it channels some of the spirit of the Golden Age, and was published a few years ago by Locked Room International.

In Come to Paddington Fair, Derek Smith has his sleuth – Chief Inspector Castle – receive an anonymous invitation to attend a play. During the performance in a scene in which one character should shoot another, a member of the audience stands up and appears to fire a gun at the female lead before trying to make their escape.

The case is an interesting one, in part because it only becomes clear how this is an impossible crime near the end. It even boasts a Challenge to the Reader! But the thing that stands out to me most about the book is the way it channels the geography of a stage and makes it important to the plot.

If you like this, you may also enjoy James Scott Byrnside’s The Opening Night Murders which also presents an impossible crime in a theatrical setting.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E. & M. A. Radford

This is another novel that utilizes the theater primarily as a space for murder but it does so in a slightly different way.

In this story an actor is murdered during a performance. The audience observes the murder take place and identify the actor portraying the cat as the murderer. The problem is that both the person meant to be playing that role and their understudy have pretty solid alibis raising the question of just who was wearing their costume.

I really enjoyed this story which presents a very carefully clued and logical case. Both the authors, who were a husband and wife writing team, had experience in the theater and they draw on that to produce a representation of a theatrical company that feels credible and detailed.

For another on stage murder, check out Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer which I reviewed earlier this week.

The Fourth Wall by Barbara Paul

Acting is often perceived to be a profession that brings together people with strong egos, all competing for top billing. The politics of the theater troupe can be fascinating, even if the deaths don’t take place on stage.

In Barbara Paul’s The Fourth Wall a series of gruesome murders take place behind the scenes of a theatrical production. One of the most successful aspects of this book is its rendering of an entire theatrical company. Paul explores the nomadic lifestyle of the actor and the different approaches that some have to the craft.

Throughout the book there are lots of references made to a famously lurid Jacobean drama, Middleton’s The Revengers Tragedy, helping to establish the idea that this is a case of some old scores being settled. While a few aspects of the book date it, I think it really captures the sense of a theatrical company very well.

Murder in the Title by Simon Brett

Of course, actors are not always the victim. Unlikely as it may seem, some can use their professional skills to solve crimes.

Simon Brett’s series sleuth, actor Charles Paris, is such a creation. He makes his first appearance in 1975’s Cast in Order of Disappearance and has since featured in nineteen further adventures which are usually quite lighthearted in tone. Typical plots feature digs at trends in the acting profession, rendering some of the stories decidedly of their time.

Murder in the Title sees Charles enter the world of provincial reportory theater, performing in a historic theater on the verge of closure. The production, a terrible mystery play in which he plays the corpse, is hit with a number of strange accidents that keep occurring on stage. This culminates in what appears to be a suicide but Charles suspects that it may be murder…

The case is one of the better efforts in the series and, for the most part, holds up well in spite of it being almost forty years since it was first published. The novel does a particularly strong job of portraying the fragile relationship between Charles and his estranged wife, Frances, and exploring the challenges that continue to face smaller, provincial theaters.

Those in search of another sleuth with links to the theater may enjoy Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder which is solved by a theatrical critic.

I have not reviewed this title on the blog.

Close-Up on Death by Maureen O’Brien

While an actor may be famous, how well do we really know them? The death of young television star Liza Drew creates a media sensation in Maureen O’Brien’s Close-Up On Death and brings her best friend Millie, a talented but little-known theater actor, into the spotlight.

O’Brien develops a compelling mystery plot but what makes this book so memorable for me is its discussion of the profession and the relationship between talent and fame. She uses the mystery structure as a way to explore these ideas and presumably draws on some of her own experiences from her rich and varied career on stage and screen.

Those themes do not sit apart from the mystery plot – in fact they prove just as important to solving the mystery as the clues and the character development.


So, there you have my suggestion for Five Theatrical Mysteries to Try. What are some of your favorite mysteries that are set in or around the theater?

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

The Verdict

A bleak but powerful story of how a crime looms over the life of the man who committed it.

Book Details

Originally published in 1926

The Blurb

Most famous for his Hornblower series, C.S. Forester wrote three seminal psychological thrillers at the start of his career that took crime writing in a new direction, portraying ordinary, desperate people committing monstrous acts, and showing events spiralling terribly, chillingly, out of control.

In Payment Deferred set in 1926, William Marble, a bank clerk living in south London with his wife Annie and their two children, is desperately worried about money and is in grave danger of losing his house and job. An unexpected visit by a young relative with an inheritance tempts William to commit a heinous crime.

Note: Do be warned that almost every modern blurb basically gives away aspects of the ending. The blurb reproduced above is from an ebook edition (the cover is the first edition which I sadly do not own) and so they do not go together – I decided though it was preferable to mix and match than throw around unnecessary spoilers!

But now that there was a chance of escape the danger in which he stood was forced home upon him, making him shudder involuntarily a little and setting his heart thumping heavily in his chest.

My Thoughts

The story begins with Mr. Marble facing imminent financial ruin. He has become badly overextended, borrowing heavily against future earnings but he has reached the point where payments are coming due that he knows he cannot meet. Then unexpectedly a possible source of salvation seems to present itself. 

The Marble family receives a visit from their Australian nephew who has just arrived in London. When he happens to pull out his wallet Mr. Marble notices that said nephew’s wallet is bulging as he had cashed a security upon arriving in the city. At first he hopes he might be able to convince his guest to stand him a loan or gift but when he offers resistance and happens to mention that they are the only people who know him in the country, Marble decides to commit murder and buries his victim in his garden.

The action I have described takes place in just a handful of pages at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book explores the aftermath of that crime as we learn what Marble does after his murder and experience the growing sense of dread he feels that he will be caught and hanged for his crime. This near-mania is captured really well, depicting the obsession and dread in such a way that we feel how relentless it is without having to endure that ourselves.

One way we can look at this novel is as a character study of a murderer, exploring how the criminal act appears to have changed him as a man. Certainly there is a sense that this action sets him on a dark path to destruction, an idea that is not uncommon in inverted crime stories (for a later take on the same idea you might see Crofts’ Antidote to Venom or Simon Brett’s A Shock to the System). I think though that what makes Forester’s novel interesting beyond its relatively early publication date is the chilling idea that murder has not changed Mr. Marble as significantly as we might expect.

Although we only know Marble for a few pages prior to the murder we do get signs as to his degeneracy. His relationship with his wife is hardly warm while his manufacturing of complaints to allow him to punish his children and send them to bed so he can start drinking is not the action of a caring father. These tendencies certainly become more pronounced, often as a consequence of his feelings of fear and desperation, but those aspects of his character were already there.

Often characters of this type are portrayed as somewhat emasculated or domineered within their home. We might think of Dr. Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought, published just a few years after this, for an example of that sort of portrayal. In contrast it seems quite unusual to find that our murderous head of the family here, while often ineffective, is genuinely loved and respected by his wife. She is not portrayed as a particularly strong individual and modern readers may feel frustrated that she seems to submit to her ill-treatment but I found the portrayal credible, particularly in her conflicted reactions to some of the developments later in the story.

The characters of the children, while clearly playing secondary roles, each get moments that explore how they react to the changes that take place in their household. This was, for me, some of the most interesting material in the novel because I feel it is here that the work is at its least predictable. Given that this novel, while possessing a short page count, takes place over a spread of several years we do get to see some significant growth in each character and I feel that they are used very thoughtfully in exploring Marble’s own story.

The Marble family’s circumstances undergo a considerable transformation throughout this novel and this allows Forester some room for social commentary, particularly in relation to matters of class. Some of these observations are quite familiar such as the idea that the nouveau riche may prize an item for its perceived status regardless of how tasteful it is but there are also some sharp comments about financial companies, middle managers and nosy neighbors.

While the book offers some satirical notes, I should emphasize that there is very little lightness or levity. It is not simply that Marble is an unpleasant man but that it becomes increasingly clear as you read that you are not heading for anything approaching a happy ending. While it may not be obvious how doom will come, it is clear that punishment of a sort will come. I think it would be fair to say that the book does deliver in that regard with Forester delivering a really punchy and effective conclusion that I think will satisfy fans of Francis Iles and other writers of his ilk.

The only other negative I might offer is that there is a financial action Marble takes at an early point in the novel that is quite technical and which Forester explains in more depth than some readers might wish. I understand why he felt the need to do so but the presentation feels quite dry and does little to provide clarity for those who would not already understand the basic idea. Still, this plays out over just a handful of pages and once explained is essentially not referred to again.

Overall I was really glad that I gave this book a try. While the tone is never light and there is a pervading sense of doom, Forester writes in an engaging way and I appreciated that there were several developments that I simply could not have anticipated at the start. As an example of an inverted crime story I found it even more interesting, particularly given it predates Malice Aforethought, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the sub-genre.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

The Verdict

An entertaining theatrical mystery feels like a significant improvement from Alleyn’s first outing, even if the case itself seems rather slim.

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Inspector Alleyn #2
Preceded by A Man Lay Dead
Followed by The Nursing Home Murder

The Blurb

Inspector Roderick Alleyn has been invited to an opening night, a new play in which two characters quarrel and then struggle for a gun, with predictably sad results. Even sadder, the gun was not, in fact, loaded with blanks. And when it comes to interviewing witnesses, actors can be a deceptive lot . . .

“I want to say,” said Gardener, “that I know I’ve killed him; but, before God, Mr. Alleyn, I didn’t load that revolver.”

My Thoughts

It has taken me quite a while to get around to reading Enter A Murderer, perhaps reflecting that I had been left somewhat cold by its predecessor and felt in no rush to get back to Alleyn. I suggested in that post one of my biggest problems with the book was that I felt I simply didn’t connect with Marsh’s detective, feeling that I never really got to know him. This second installment doesn’t exactly flesh him out in terms of supplying details of his life or backstory, nor does it make him much more heroic or likable. Still, I felt that I finally had a much better grasp on what Marsh was trying to do with the character by the end of this novel and I am happy to report that I found this a much more satisfying experience as a result.

At least part of the reason for that shift lies in my choice to listen to this, at least in part, as an audiobook. While I didn’t listen to the whole book that way, I appreciated the excellent reading given by James Saxon. Suddenly being able to hear his voice as Alleyn helped me catch the sarcasm and sardonic inflection laced into much of his dialogue, bringing it to life for me and giving me a much better understanding of his character. It probably doesn’t hurt either that I think the case itself offers a significant improvement on Alleyn’s previous one.

Arthur Surbonadier is the nephew of Jacob Saint, a former actor who had transitioned into theatrical management and now presides over the Unicorn theater. In spite of their family bonds however the pair enjoy a frosty relationship that has recently taken a turn for the worse when Arthur has discovered that he has been passed over for the hero part in The Rat and the Beaver in favor of his rival Felix Gardener. Tensions between Arthur and Felix are particularly high as the pair are vying for the hand of the company’s leading lady, the beautiful Stephanie Vaughan and so when he meets his uncle, Arthur decides to play at blackmail in the hope of changing the bill.

Inspector Alleyn happens to be in the audience for a performance of the play as a guest of his friend Nigel Bathgate and he gets a glimpse of some of the tensions within the company for himself when the pair visit Gardener backstage before the show. Things take a turn late in the production however during a scene in which Gardener and Surbonadier tussle with a gun as the firearm discharges a real bullet, killing Gardener. While the audience marvel at the realism of the performance as the curtain comes down, Alleyn is already heading backstage. He has recognized that Surbonadier’s death scene was no performance…

Though the earliest moments of Enter a Murderer feel soaked in melodrama, there is something quite intriguing about the way the book opens with the blackmail demands. Marsh keeps it brief, using it to establish one of the points of personal tension (and hinting at another), neatly positioning the reader to expect further developments.

Marsh suggests a state of building tension and foreboding throughout the performance as we may come to anticipate the murder based on the atmosphere backstage. That moment, when it comes, is handled quite strikingly and I couldn’t help but be pleased with the simple yet intriguing circumstances surrounding it. The idea of setting up a murder by proxy is a clever one made all the more so when you consider the events that precede it lead to the victim actually loading the gun themselves in full view of the audience. As problems go, this seemed like a pretty good place to start.

While I had been a little concerned that the opening to the novel seemed to push a single suspect, it soon becomes apparent that there are several other characters with reason to kill Surbonadier. The challenge here then is to learn what exactly those motives might be. The actual solution, while not especially surprising, shows cunning and explained very clearly.

Marsh seems to have a pretty good handle on the theatrical types she fills her story with, making them colorful and dramatic enough in their interactions to amuse without stretching into parody. Though the cast of characters is relatively small, most seem to be used very thoughtfully in terms of their roles within the story.

What will stay with me most though is the feeling that as I follow Alleyn and Bathgate, the case brought out aspects of each’s characters. One favorite moment for me came in Chapter 9 when Alleyn has a conversation with Stephanie Vaughan about how he feels about his suspects, drawing an intriguing parallel with jigsaw puzzles.

There are, of course, a couple aspects of the story that don’t entirely work for me. One of these is that Nigel Bathgate is often incredibly dense, completely ignoring some strong evidence because it doesn’t fit with his worldview. A good example relates to his chivalrous belief in Vaughan’s absolute innocence and ignoring any evidence that does not fit that opinion.

The other is that the dialogue does occasionally become quite stylized and overblown. This is one of those things I can forgive well enough but it is appreciated to have options.

Overall, I was delighted to find that I enjoyed this one far more than the previous one, liking the characters and the scenario all the better.

Jonathan Creek: The Judas Tree (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast April 4, 2010
2010 Easter Special
Preceded by The Grinning Man
Followed by The Clue of the Savant’s Thumb

Written and directed by David Renwick

Familiar Faces

Paul McGann played the eighth incarnation of Doctor Who, working with Sheridan Smith on a series of audio stories. He also has a number of genre credits including a recurring role in Luther, Waking the Dead and Poirot. My favorite of his roles though is as Eugene Wrayburn in the exquisite 1998 adaptation of Our Mutual Friend – not really a mystery though it has some mysterious elements…

Ian McNeice also has a Doctor Who connection in his recurring role as Winston Churchill but he has a varied career that includes roles in high profile shows such as Rome and Doc Martin as well as a wealth of genre credits including Inspector Lewis, Murder Rooms, Cadfael and Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

Doreen Mantle is perhaps most familiar for her recurring role on Renwick’s comedy series One Foot in the Grave as Mrs. Warboys. She does have several genre credits including Father Brown, Inspector Lewis and the 1979 adaptation of Malice Aforethought.

The Verdict

A failure but an interesting one. I appreciate that this at least attempts to try and tread some new ground. Sadly the solution feels undervalued and contrived…

Episode Summary

Years after witnessing a house vanish into thin air, Emily comes to work for the mystery novelist Hugo Dore in a house with its own strange history. Over a century earlier the owner of the house died at exactly the moment his death was predicted by his Egyptian mistress. Following her employment she experiences a number of strange events including seeing an apparition of that woman and Dore’s wife starts receiving notes predicting the moment of her own demise. That prediction comes to pass as she is seen falling from a window to her death and Emily becomes the prime suspect.

My Thoughts

So I finally get to The Judas Tree. I must confess that I have been both eagerly anticipating and rather dreading writing about this one. You see, I consider the episode to be one of the most interesting of the whole series run and yet I would also argue that it is among the least successful. It’s going to be tricky to explain exactly why, particularly in the spoiler-free section of the review, but I will give it my best effort.

The episode, like many of the previous specials, incorporates multiple strange events and impossibilities though I would suggest that the sheer number contained here is quite notable. Among the many events Jonathan will be called on to explain are the disappearance of a house in a matter of seconds, a photograph managing to alter its appearance, an apparition of a long dead woman appearing on a woodpile, a historical murder where a man died at a predicted time and place with no one in his vicinity and the murder of a woman in the present day where she seemed to be pushed out of a window while all the suspects were gathered below.

That is a long list and frankly it’s hard to escape the feeling that the episode is rather overstuffed. Though each of these strange events will be important to understanding the broader mystery of the episode, viewed individually several of these problems may strike the viewer as quite straightforward. Take for instance the appearance of the apparition which is so simple that it is disposed of in just a few moments as part of a broader explanation. Similarly, the matter of the photograph is also quite quickly explained although there at least there is a little cleverness in an aspect of the setup that I did appreciate.

The disappearance of the house, a problem which is introduced in the episode’s opening montage which is presented with some garish visual processing, is quickly set up but subsequently hardly mentioned except as evidence of Emily’s unreliable nature as a witness. There is at least a clue to what happened here, though I would suggest that it is not enough for Jonathan to be able to prove the solution he reaches. Instead we are supposed to accept it because it fits all of the facts we have been given.

There the episode is on stronger ground with its two murders with the episode once again playing with the idea of historic crimes influencing events in the present (and possibly being repeated). I think the way that idea is used here is less successful than Mother Redcap, Satan’s Chimney or The Grinning Man but I do appreciate that it seems that Renwick was trying to explore that idea slightly differently in this story. I would also add that given I rate those three stories incredibly highly, failing to live up to them is reflective more of those stories’ greatness more than the weakness of this effort.

The historical murder is the less interesting of the two, in part because it feels much more limited. Unlike those other episodes I referenced we are not looking at a series of events but a single, isolated occurrence. I think the bigger issue I have with it though is that the circumstances of that murder all feel rather convoluted and silly, being designed with the idea that we will try and link it to the modern day case rather than for it to make sense as a plan for murder. Still, given how brief the discussion of this case proves I appreciate it for its color and the atmosphere it gives the episode.

The meat of this story then must lie in its modern day murder. This seems particularly apparent if we acknowledge that all of these other puzzles exist to feed into it, creating a sense of atmosphere and being used to define Emily’s character. The moment in which our victim is murdered has a shock value, even if some of the ambiguity of the action is spoiled a little with the certainty that the camera gives. Regardless, it makes for an intriguing problem for Jonathan to solve.

Interest in the scenario is elevated by the introduction of a deadline being imposed upon Jonathan. While we saw a race against time element employed at the end of the previous story, this sets that expectation from the beginning by having the investigation take place against the backdrop of Emily’s trial and that he needs to discover the truth to prevent her from going to prison.

The case, which unlike the other plot threads does at least have some clueing, is elevated by some splendid acting performances – particularly from Paul McGann who gives a beautifully ambiguous performance as Hugo Dore. He has long been one of my favorite actors because of the way he is able to project sincerity and warmth, even when his character’s actions seem to have quite different motivations. He is great here, coming across as quite ambiguous throughout the case and I was really impressed by how well that is sustained throughout this episode.

The solution to how this is worked is mechanically smart, even if I think it relies a little too heavily on everything going according to plan. There is a moment for instance where I feel some witnesses should be able to see something and had they the story would have had a distinctly different resolution. Similarly I can’t help but think that there were countless opportunities for the killer’s plan to go wrong and yet everything miraculously comes off without a hitch. It’s all pretty convenient…

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about the solution though is that a key aspect of it feels like it emerges from nowhere. When it comes to the motive for the crime, there is little in the episode that I think suggests the solution that we end up with and so that aspect simply seems to come from nowhere. It is rather unsatisfying…

So, what makes this episode interesting? I think it has to do with some beats that this story takes towards its end that take the action into some territory that was entirely new both for Jonathan and for the show as a whole. This not only allows Alan Davies to portray the character in a different sort of situation, I think it raises some interesting questions about how this case ought to be resolved that the reader can consider and judge for themselves.

This somewhat different direction results in the ending feeling somewhat unsatisfying. Unlike most stories, we are left without the certainty that justice has prevailed. A brave narrative choice, even I’m not sure it quite pays off. Perhaps if the gaps between the episodes hadn’t been quite so long it would have been easier to accept.

Normally this is the point where I would moan about the secondary plot with Adam Klaus. While I cannot say I particularly enjoyed his subplot, I did appreciate that he becomes the figure of fun here and the victim of the joke. Is it needed? Probably not, though I also like that Renwick avoids going overboard and uses it mainly to cap the episode.

Overall then it’s hard to view The Judas Tree as anything other than a mess as a story but I will say that I appreciate that it was at least attempting to do something a bit different, even if it missed more often than it hit.

Aidan Spoils Everything

ROT-13:

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Ba gur fhowrpg bs snagnfgvpny guvatf, yrg’f nyfb ersyrpg ba gung bcravat frdhrapr. Guvf vf hfrq bfgrafvoyl gb perngr gur rivqrapr gb fhttrfg gung Rzvyl vf na haeryvnoyr jvgarff be cbffvoyl whfg n yvne. Gung ubjrire pyrneyl pnaabg or gur pnfr orpnhfr vs vg vf gura guvf jubyr fgbel orpbzrf abafrafvpny – vs gur fbyhgvba gb guerr vzcbffvovyvgvrf jrer whfg fur yvrq gura jr jbhyq unir n qrrcyl hafngvfslvat fubj ba bhe unaqf.

Vs jr gura erwrpg gung cbffvovyvgl gur bayl pbapyhfvba jr pna or yrsg jvgu vf gung gur riragf unccrarq naq gung gurl ner arprffnel sbe fbzr bgure ernfba. Guvf bs pbhefr vf gung jr arrq gb xabj gung fur unq n snapl fcbegf pne naq unq gung sevraq – vg vf gurer gb or rivqrapr. Gur ceboyrz V unir jvgu vg gubhtu vf gung guvf vf cerggl zhpu gur bayl rivqrapr jr ner tvira sbe gur pbzcryyvat onpxfgbel nobhg Uhtb’f oebgure naq vg srryf ernyyl fyvtug. Vg qbrf znxr zr jbaqre vs creuncf gurer jnf bevtvanyyl zber ba gung gbcvp gung tbg ybfg va na rqvg, creuncf jura gur cevrfg ortvaf gb gnyx nobhg gur uvfgbel bs gur Whqnf gerr. V’q or phevbhf vs nalbar unccraf gb xabj gur nafjre.

The Case of the Missing Brontë by Robert Barnard

Cover for Robert Barnard's The Missing Brontë

The Verdict

This is a lighthearted and entertaining mystery with a fun core concept.

Book Details

Originally published in 1983
Superintendent Trethowan #3
Preceded by Death and the Princess
Followed by Bodies

The Blurb

Superintendent Perry Trethowan was enjoying a peaceful motoring holiday in North Yorkshire when he and his wife, Jan, had a strange encounter in a country pub. The seemingly unremarkable elderly spinster who introduced herself as Miss Edith Wing, a retired schoolmistress, proceeded to produce form her capacious blue handbag a yellowing manuscript – and claimed that it was part of an undiscovered novel by one of the Brontë sisters. Was it a clever forgery, or the literary sensation of the century?

What started out as a harmless holiday diversion for the superintendent turned into a hunt for a vicious attacker as both Miss Wing and Perry himself found themselves in deadly danger.

Why should it not be the manuscript of Emily’s second novel? She knew that Charlotte deeply disapproved of Wuthering Heights. She knew she was also fantastically protective about Emily’s reputation.

My Thoughts

Today’s post marks another landmark for this blog as it is my 450th review of a novel or short story collection. That is not one of the big ones of course but I still wanted to be thoughtful about the book I would pick to discuss – it would be rather anticlimactic to pass it writing about something you were uninterested in. After looking over my shelves I decided upon this book, Robert Barnard’s The Case of the Missing Brontë.

This novel is completely new to me. While I have read one of Barnard’s novels before, Mother’s Boys, I didn’t enjoy the experience, noting that “I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon”. That may leave you wondering what prompted me to overcome my objections. The answer is that I really like the works of the Brontë sisters, particularly Emily, and so the subject matter of this book really appealed to me. I am glad as I did as I had a much happier experience this time around.

The Case of the Missing Brontë opens with Superintendent Trethowan and his wife traveling home from a visit to see his family. Stopping in a Yorkshire village to buy postcards, they are frustrated to find that their car won’t start again forcing them to stay there overnight while a mechanic works on it. During their stay they meet Edith Wing, a retired teacher, who tells them that she has recently inherited a manuscript and that she is uncertain what to do with it. Looking at it Trethowan is struck by how the tiny handwriting resembles that found in the tiny fantasy works that the Brontë sisters wrote as children and suggests she takes it to an academic at one of the local universities for their opinion.

After returning home, Trethowan is contacted by the Yorkshire police. They ask about the nature of the conversation they had in the village pub and share with him that Miss Wing was violently assaulted and has been hospitalized. Stretched thin and recognizing that Trethowan’s knowledge of the manuscript, which is now missing, could prove highly relevant, they ask if he would be willing to head up the investigation. He agrees and heads back to Yorkshire…

One of the unusual features of The Case of the Missing Brontë is that it is a novel without a murder. While I have come across other stories that have been about the discovery or theft of a famed manuscript, those have also featured murders which are used to heighten the stakes. Here though Barnard trusts that the theft will be enough to interest the reader, perhaps relying on our sympathy for Miss Wing who is shown to be by far the nicest character in the novel.

I think that the other reason that this plot works so well is the nature of the manuscript being discussed. There is something quite fascinating about the novelist who produces just one work. If we think back just a couple of years we might remember the enormous excitement that followed the announcement that Harper Lee would publish a second novel decades after her first, To Kill A Mockingbird. A newly discovered novel by Emily Brontë would doubtless cause at least as big a stir and so it is easy to understand how the desire to own and publish that novel might drive people to terrible ends. As MacGuffins go, this must be among the most desirable.

For those who are not a fan of the Brontë sisters, rest assured that Barnard will give you everything you need to understand what is going on but also exercises restraint to avoid burdening the reader with too much needless information. It’s a well-balanced approach that I think should work for most readers.

Who desires the manuscript? There seems to be a long list of suspicious individuals, each of whom has some different specialty or angle. My favorite of these were a pair of Scandinavians who put me in mind at one point of that pair of men who took the trip to investigate the famous 123-metre spire at Salisbury Cathedral a few years ago, but all of the figures involved in the case are very colorful. It soon becomes clear that no one can be considered entirely innocent, each appearing obviously villainous, and so the question becomes one of figuring out how in what way each of these characters is involved and how they might relate to one another.

Barnard keeps the story moving at a quick trot, helped by its comparatively short length, and he spaces out his reveals well so that the solution seems to gradually come into focus. Very little material feels extraneous and I was struck by just how economical his storytelling proves – almost everything we learn will have some relevance in the case though it is not always immediately clear how its various elements are connected.

One pleasant surprise for me was how funny Barnard’s Trethowan can be, albeit often in a very dry way, in his narration. I enjoyed reading his thoughts and feelings about the various characters he comes into contact with during his investigation, finding that the somewhat biting nature of some of those remarks endeared him to me, particularly as they so often had to do with other characters’ prejudices.

I found that I really rather liked Trethowan as an investigator. I not only appreciated the way he follows his leads in this story, piecing together a picture of what had happened, but I also enjoyed that his wife Jan gets involved in the case. This reminded me a little of the relations between the Owens in several of the E. R. Punshon novels I have read and while I think it would be a stretch to call them partners in crime, I appreciated the way she is used here.

The solution to what happened is neat but may seem farcical or rompish given how colorful those various suspects are. Personally I quite enjoyed that aspect of the novel though I will concede that there are some moments in a sequence toward the end of the book that might possibly be viewed as slapstick in style, taking what could be a tense and dangerous moment in the story and playing it very lightly. Some readers may view that as rendering the piece somewhat fantastical but I enjoyed it for what it was.

I suspect that is rather the key to The Case of the Missing Brontë – you will likely either appreciate or bemoan the choice to ultimately play up some of the silliness in the solution. In my case it delivered pretty much exactly what I wanted – a lighthearted criminous romp featuring a number of references to one of my favorite authors. Essential? Perhaps not. But highly enjoyable regardless.

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked it up until its final quarter where she felt the tone shifted and felt more violent, at odds with choices made earlier in the novel. Be sure to check the comments for a response from Martin Edwards giving a little more context concerning how Barnard felt about his book.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Inheritance Games cover

The Verdict

Barnes balances several plot threads pretty well and I enjoyed the puzzle elements, even though I grew a little tired of several of the Hawthorne boys by the end.

Book Details

Originally published in 2020
The Inheritance Games #1
Followed by The Hawthorne Legacy

Blurb

Avery Grambs has a plan for a better future: survive high school, win a scholarship, and get out. But her luck changes in an instant when billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and leaves her virtually his entire fortune. The only catch? Avery must move into his sprawling mansion, full of secret passages, riddles, and codes. Unfortunately for Avery, Hawthorne House is also occupied by the family that was just disinherited. This includes the four Hawthorne grandsons: dangerous, magnetic boys who grew up with every expectation that, one day, they would inherit billions.

Heir apparent Grayson is convinced that Avery is a con woman, and he’s determined to take her down. But his brother Jameson views her as their grandfather’s last hurrah: a twisted riddle, a puzzle to be solved. Caught in a world of wealth and privilege, with danger around every turn, Avery will have to play the game herself just to survive.

“The remainder of my estate,” Mr. Ortega read, “including all properties, monetary assets, and world possessions not otherwise specified, I leave to Avery Kylie Grambs.”

My Thoughts

The first time I heard about The Inheritance Games it was from a very enthusiastic bookseller who described it as the perfect book for teens who loved Knives Out. That, I thought, was me (well, admittedly not the teen bit) and while I didn’t buy it on the spot I remembered the sales pitch and eventually got around to picking it up a month or two ago. What I should have considered though is that there is more than one reason to love Knives Out and the bit the bookseller was referencing, quite correctly, was not so much the mystery element but the family dynamics.

You see, while The Inheritance Games is a mysterious read with some puzzle elements, I am not entirely convinced you should read it as a mystery – at least, not the sort the reader has much opportunity to solve. Instead I view it as a sort of treasure hunt for the truth with some moments of adventure and flirtation. Which is pretty much what the back cover blurb, quoted above, clearly indicates. Shame on me for not reading it carefully. Still, while the book may not be the neatest fit for this blog in terms of its content, I think it is close enough to make it worth writing about.

The question at the heart of the novel concerns an unexpected inheritance received by Avery Grambs from billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, a man she has no recollection of ever having met. What makes this even stranger is that the he has disinherited his own family to do so. The one stipulation is that Avery must live at Hawthorne House, where the disinherited family reside, for a full year to receive the money. A situation that proves every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Hawthorne had four grandsons who Avery soon comes into contact with. While most of the family wonder over questions of paternity or elder abuse, one of the four, Jameson, reads the situation quite differently. He suspects that their grandfather has left his grandchildren one last great puzzle to solve and thinks Avery must be the key to doing that. Together they begin to piece together the clues that have been left for them.

What follows can be divided into several story strands. The first concerns Avery’s efforts to adjust to her new wealth and position with the new demands and pressures that come with it. This includes managing her interactions with the Hawthorne family, the media and her existing friends and family. Barnes handles this material thoughtfully, particularly the questions around those interpersonal relationships, though I felt that the press interactions and her experiences at her new school were not particularly interesting in themselves. What I think they do however is reveal aspects of Avery’s character.

The second concerns the question of why Tobias Hawthorne selected Avery and disinherited the boys. This question runs throughout the novel and will be answered by its end. This strand of the story contains its strongest mystery elements with Avery and the brothers discovering several puzzles they must solve. Some of these are ones the reader can engage with too, though some of the earliest involve physical steps the reader cannot take for themselves. The nearer we get to the end however the more the reader can do and the answer to the ultimate question is one that I think most will work out before the answer is given to them.

The next involves some information about the Hawthorne family’s past. This is introduced midway into the novel – too late to describe in detail – but I felt that it helped flesh out the characters of some of the boys. It also prompts one of the strongest scenes in the novel which seems to consciously nod to a famous work of romantic suspense fiction, echoing one of its most memorable moments.

To describe the last would be to get into solid spoiler territory but it is alluded to in the blurb as “danger around every turn”. This is initially presented as a mystery though as there is only one character who feels like a credible suspect at that point, I think it doesn’t quite work in that way. It does provide the strongest moment of action in the novel however and it is all quite readable.

Barnes balances these different story strands, weaving them together in such a way that I feel that each gets enough time to develop. The only one that feels a little disconnected is the fourth, given its late introduction and comparatively simple resolution, although I understand that it added elements of action and physical danger that the book needed.

Avery’s background and personality make her an appealing protagonist that the reader will likely want to see survive and thrive in the difficult circumstances she finds herself in. Barnes’ depiction of what it would be like to suddenly find yourself wealthy beyond your wildest dreams is emotionally convincing, even if the descriptions and the details of that lifestyle sometimes feel a little ridiculous.

In contrast, I found the four boys sometimes felt quite flat in spite of the efforts of the author to give them each unique characteristics.

The most interesting of the four to me was Xander, the youngest one who has a much more limited role in this story. His personality is however the most distinct and the author does a good job of explaining those differences. I found myself looking forward to each of his appearances and I was happy that the ending of this novel hints that he will become more important in the subsequent volumes.

Nash, the eldest, I found to be more interesting when he was discussed by others than when he was actually present. His interactions with Avery are largely predictable, though I think his personality is interesting.

We spend most of our time with Jameson and Grayson however and while I enjoyed some aspects of their interactions with Avery, I soon tired of both. This is not helped by the way the book presents them as possible romantic interests for Avery – I certainly wasn’t sensing that these boys were as ‘dangerous’ or ‘magnetic’ as the blurb suggests (for good measure I checked with my wife, who loved this book, and she wasn’t feeling the romantic triangle either).

As for the extended members of the household, many feel quite bland and indistinct, having only limited interactions with Avery. I was a little disappointed by this given the promise of conflict that seemed to come with the idea that they would be forced to live together for a year which turned out to be largely indirect. Hopefully Barnes returns to this idea in the sequels and fleshes these characters out a little more. I think we actually get a much stronger sense of who Tobias Hawthorne was than most of his surviving family members in spite of his being dead before the book even begins.

There are two sequels planned for this book, one of which comes out next month, but this novel does resolve its core question by the end. We learn exactly why Avery was picked and what Hawthorne’s objectives were. The solution is pretty well clued and so unlikely to be particularly surprising but I felt it made a sort of sense given the way those characters had been drawn. It also sets up a promising new question that the next book will apparently address.

I am not sure yet whether I will plan on reading the next one. I enjoyed the puzzle aspects in this first installment, particularly those that we could solve (such as the riddle), but found some of the material with the brothers to be a little forced and I had little interest in the romantic tensions. For those who enjoy teen reads though I think there is some enjoyment to be found here, particularly for those who enjoy a more adventurous storytelling style.

So Pretty a Problem by Francis Duncan

The Verdict

A striking opening promises much which the rest of the book, saddled with an awkward structure and bland storytelling, fails to deliver.

Book Details

Originally published in 1950
Mordecai Tremaine #5
Preceded by Murder for Christmas
Followed by In at the Death

The Blurb

Adrian Carthallow, a dramatic and talented artist, is no stranger to controversy. But this time it’s not his paintings that have provoked a blaze of publicity – it’s the fact that his career has been suddenly terminated by a bullet to his head. Not only that, but his wife has confessed to firing the fatal shot.

The local law enforcement officer is less than convinced by Helen Carthallow’s story, but he has no other explanation for the incident that occurred when the couple was alone in their clifftop house. Luckily for the officer, amateur criminologist Mordecai Tremaine has an uncanny habit of being in the near neighborhood whenever a suspicious death strikes. As he mounts his investigation, Tremaine is quick to realize that however perfect a couple the Carthallows may have seemed, beneath the surface of their perfect life lay something much more sinister…

There was no doubt that she was a widow. Adrian Carthallow lay sprawled upon his face on the floor and the back of his head was a very unpleasant thing to see.

My Thoughts

Mordecai Tremaine is resting on a Cornish beach in the sunshine and on the verge of drifting to sleep when he is startled to attention by a woman’s voice. That voice belongs to Helen Carthallow, the wife of an artist who has a home nearby, and she is asking him for help, saying that she has just killed her husband.

Mordecai Tremaine, after ascertaining that she has not spoken to anyone else yet, agrees to accompany her back to the home where he sees the body. Her story, that a gun accidentally fired while the pair were fooling around with a gun, is not particularly convincing – a fact that only becomes clearer with examination of the crime scene. It soon seems clear that we are looking at a case of murder rather than an accident, prompting Tremaine to reflect on the events that led up to that moment on the beach.

The choice to begin with such a startling and dramatic moment makes for a pretty intriguing opening to the novel. By presenting those events to us in a relative absence of information about the victim or the suspects, emphasis gets placed on the apparent strangeness of the circumstances of that death. As openings go, this could have been quite unforgettable.

The problem lies however in the relationship between Mordecai Tremaine and this murder. If the moment on the beach was his first meaningful interaction with Helen or Adrian Carthallow we could expect that we would follow the investigation and gather evidence as he did. It would simply be a rather striking way to be brought into a case, not unlike the way Poirot and Hastings get pulled into Peril at End House. Instead Duncan decides that his hero would have long been aware of the tensions within the Carthallow household and this would necessitate a nonlinear structure involving a lengthy flashback.

To be clear, I have no problem at all with authors adopting a nonlinear approach. I think that such structures can be used thoughtfully to explore questions of memory as in The Red Right Hand or perhaps our perceptions of an event or events which might be read quite differently when we know the outcome of those events. The problem here is that the only reason to use it is to enable the book to begin with that mysterious image.

Why is that structure a problem? Well, for one thing it leads to some repetition in which we are given some background details in the first part that then have to be expanded upon and explained in the second. This prompted me to feel that the second part was quite slow paced, doing little to move our story forward. While those chapters gave us detail, they offered little that was new beyond the presence of Adrian Carthallow himself.

It doesn’t help that Tremaine’s prior entanglement with the various figures involved in the case often feels quite coincidental or contrived. Even his travel to Cornwall, necessary to have him on hand for the discovery of the body, is presented as a quirk of fate or perhaps destiny and it’s hard to understand what Duncan intended to be gained by the choice to have them already so well acquainted.

What is even more frustrating is that because Duncan begins with establishing many of the facts of the investigation, we actually do not have a lot of detection ahead of us. All we can do is learn the context to them that Tremaine will use in interpreting their significance. Unfortunately there are relatively few clues that require much context to make sense of them and so it feels like we are treading water, waiting to get back to the present in the timeline to resume what remains of the investigative and deductive portions of the mystery.

The structure thus serves to highlight that the case itself is not particularly complex, at least in terms of the elements involved. There are not a large number of clues given the page count and little in the way of misdirection, either purposeful or accidental. Instead things are often largely as they appear and so while I did not find any glaring fault with the solution, it offered nothing that surprised or particularly interested me.

Like many readers, I don’t ready detective fiction to be right. I want to feel stupid for missing the glaringly obvious implication of a detail or how two clues might interact with each other. I didn’t feel smart for figuring out the solution, I felt a little disappointed that the solution just confirmed what I had already felt sure of.

Adding to the book’s problems, the only character who made much of an impact with me was Adrian Carthallow himself. He is perhaps not the most nuanced figure, hitting many of the common artist tropes in fiction, but he is at least a vibrant figure who makes an impact. The other figures in the case by contrast feel rather underdeveloped and lacking color. For instance, while Helen’s entrance is striking I feel we learn very little about her or her personality beyond those opening pages.

This extends to Mordecai Tremaine himself who remains an enigma to me. His gentleness and susceptibility to romantic sentiment reminded me a little of Mr. Satterthwaite in Christie’s Three Act Tragedy but he is not as much fun and makes little impression here. That may perhaps be the issue with this book being a later outing for an established character but I noticed in rereading my review of the earlier novel Murder Has A Motive that I had a pretty similar reaction then, finding him unobjectionable but also uninteresting. I would add that I find it curious that he has this background as a tobacconist that has been completely irrelevant to both the mysteries I have read featuring him so far. Does anyone know if it is ever relevant in any of his investigations? It seems such a strange background to give him otherwise.

Not that I would anticipate getting around to trying another Duncan any time soon. While my experience with Michael Innes has taught me to never say never, it would take a fair amount of persuasion for me to reach for another in this series any time soon. Neither of my experiences of Tremaine have been terrible – it’s just that I would rather read a bad book than a bland one.

Second Opinions

Brad @ AhSweetMystery suggests that the problem is that the clues are all exactly what they appear to be. I do agree with him too that with the exception of Adrian Carthallow, the characterization here feels remarkably slight.

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery was not a fan either and makes an excellent point about the way Francis Duncan uses Mordecai Tremaine’s full name every time he refers to him. I hadn’t been conscious of that but I knew that something felt a little weird – now I know what it was! I am glad that he pointed out the differences in the covers – the yellow one seems a much better fit for the book than the blue one I have.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime didn’t love this one either, commenting that it reminded her why it has been years since she last read a Tremaine novel. I completely understand and I agree with her about an issue she has with an unsatisfying aspect of the resolution that I forgot to include in my own notes above.