Jonathan Creek: The Wrestler’s Tomb

If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I found myself in a bit of confusion about exactly what I had planned to follow up on my Columbo posts. Well, after much thinking and feeling inspired by the recent discussion between Jim and John about magic in detective novels in the In GAD We Trust podcast, I decided it would be fun to take a look at and discuss Jonathan Creek.

Unlike Columbo I come to these having seen them all before though. I remember watching these episodes together with my family when they first aired. This first season however is probably the one I remember least – partly because I was much younger when it broadcast but also because, until recently, the US BritBox service only offered the second, third and fourth series.

I look forward to rediscovering these stories over the next few weeks and chatting about them with you.


Episode Details

First broadcast May 10, 1997

Season One, Episode One *
Followed by Jack in the Box

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Marcus Mortimer

* Originally broadcast as a single ninety minute episode – it is now often split into two episodes.

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor in Doctor Who. He had previously played Paul Merroney, a ruthless banker in The Brothers.

Anthony Head was not intended to be a guest cast member – his role of the magician Adam Klaus was supposed to be an ongoing one. The filming of this show overlapped with his casting as Giles in the fantasy TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is replaced in the show’s second season by Stuart Milligan.

The Verdict

This episode does the important work of establishing the characters and their relationship well. Unfortunately the case is not particularly compelling and has a rather underwhelming conclusion.


A note: The thoughts below, while not explicitly revealing the solution, may well push you much further towards it than you would like. If you haven’t seen this episode I would suggest you do so before reading them to avoid being spoiled.

My Thoughts

Although I don’t write much about it here, I am a huge Doctor Who fan so I was particularly interested in rewatching the Colin Baker episode. I only started watching Who when the radio pilot for Death Comes to Time was released so when I watched this I had no idea who Baker was.

Strangely though I had misremembered which story he appeared in, thinking it was the season closer The House of Monkeys – I have no idea why given he doesn’t look at all like Charles Kay – so it was a lovely surprise to find I was getting to see him much earlier than expected!

Here he plays an artist, Hedley Shale, whose output seems to consist of nudes. We first meet him at an exhibition where he openly flirts with a model to his wife’s disgust. We see the pair in conversation as she prepares to leave for work the next morning and he works on a new painting. He insists that he has not had a live model in some time but shortly after she leaves he makes a phone call, telling his lover to “make me bark like a sea lion”.

Yeah, that’s an image that’s not going away any time soon…

A short while later his cleaner arrives to find him lying shot dead on the bedroom floor with a blonde woman tied up and gagged a short distance from him. Jewels had been stolen from a locked drawer but they had been dropped on the lawn, making it seem more like a plant to suggest robbery rather than murder. When a local thief is apprehended he confesses to other robberies with the same method but insists that he did not commit this crime, seeking the assistance of investigative journalist Maddy Magellan in proving his innocence.

Hedley’s wife, the editor of Eve Magazine, is the prime suspect but she has what appears to be a cast-iron alibi. Her assistant vouches for her that she had not left her office all morning. There is only one exit out of the office and the windows were sealed shut. Maddy, certain that the wife must be guilty, seeks help from illusion creator Jonathan Creek to find a way she could have pulled it off.

Okay, we have a fair amount we can discuss here in terms of the case but I think it would be best to start by talking about our two series leads – Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin. A significant part of this episode is devoted to introducing these characters and building a relationship between them that is an entertaining mixture of flirtation and aggravation.

This episode not only has to bring these two characters together but it has to do it in such a way that, given their very different professions and personalities, we accept that they will seek each other out to solve mysteries in the future. I think this story accomplishes this in a couple of ways – firstly, by making it clear that the two bounce ideas off each other effectively (and sometimes competitively). Secondly, because of the chemistry between the pair. I think there is a sense, even in this first episode, that the cases provide a reason for these two people to spend time together.

The idea of someone with a stage magic background solving mysteries is hardly unique to this show. For proof of that (and some great reading recommendations) check out that podcast I linked at the start of this post. What Renwick does very effectively though is combine this sense of stagecraft with a consideration for the practical. This episode provides us with a clear example of that with the first solution which is pretty acceptable as a way to work around the facts of the case but unsatisfactory for logical and practical concerns.

I also really appreciate that Maddy plays an active role in the investigations, often proposing ideas that are helpful – even if they do not always turn out to be the actual solution. Her skill set is different than Jonathan’s but it is still important to solving the crimes, particularly given that she has an ability to persuade people to talk to her through means fair and foul. Well, mostly foul…

Turning to the case itself, I think this is a fairly typical mystery series pilot in that its focus is on developing the continuing series elements. I think this comes at the expense of the case itself which I found a little underwhelming once you get past that eye catching problem about the office door.

Let’s start with that problem because it so quickly becomes the focal point of the episode. The direction very effectively demonstrates that the layout of the office and the sight lines make it impossible that Serena Shale could have left it once the door was closed, assuming that the personal assistant’s statement that she never was out of sight of the door is to be believed. It seems wonderfully impossible and is built up so much that the resolution cannot match what the viewer was likely hoping for – to be dazzled by a very clever piece of logical reasoning.

The story instead chooses to reinforce an idea that Jonathan has already expressed – that the explanation for a magic trick is inherently disappointing. Establishing that from the beginning of the series may well have been a wise move in the long term but I feel later episodes manage to develop a second explanation that feels as compelling as the first in terms of motive, means and opportunity. Unfortunately, I just cannot buy that here.

My problem with the story is that while I think there is a mechanical ingenuity to the explanation, the killer’s motivations to commit the murder are beyond weak and their plan seems ludicrously risky. I cannot really say much more than that without explicitly discussing those elements but this killer either needed to have a better motive or there needed to be a better explanation of why the motive given would lead to them taking the enormous risks they do here.

Now, that being said, I was impressed with a couple of pieces of clueing in the episode. One of the best examples of this relates to information we find out in the second half of the episode that significantly changes our understanding of what has happened. When you look back at the episode you see that there are several moments that visually (and logically) hint at what that will be.

I guess you could sum up my view as I don’t love the ultimate destination but the path to that point is pretty good.

That just leaves me with one other thing I want to touch on – Adam Klaus.

I mention in the guest cast section above that Anthony Stewart Head plays this key role in this episode but due to scheduling conflicts with Buffy he had to drop out of the rest of the series. What strikes me on revisiting this episode is that he has a rather different take on the character than his successor in the role, playing it relatively straight.

The problem with Head’s Klaus is that he is too handsome and too dashing to make it feel ridiculous that everyone swoons over him. There is one moment that clearly ought to be comedic – in which he offers his protection to a young woman – but which ends up feeling almost gentlemanly and heroic. Two adjectives I would never associate with the more bumbling Klaus of the later seasons who I think better fits the tone of the series, becoming a very effective source of comic relief.

I did enjoy this return visit to the world of Jonathan Creek. I was impressed by just how many elements of the series’ success fell into place here and I still love the chemistry between the two leads. Unfortunately the motive given for the murder doesn’t work for me but the mechanics of the crime are clever and I did enjoy following our investigators as they work out what happened.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published 1927
Hercule Poirot #5
Preceded by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd *
Followed by The Mystery of the Blue Train

* Based on publication order. The events of this story may be taken to suggest that it is placed before that one.

The Blurb

Framed in the doorway of Hercule Poirot’s bedroom stands an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man stares for a moment, then he sways and falls. Who is he? Is he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what is the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper?

Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life—and that of his “twin brother”—to uncover the truth.

The Verdict

A tedious attempt at a espionage thriller. Largely dull, this suffers from poorly defining the aims and motivations of its villains.


My Thoughts

Having thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I approached The Big Four with a little less enthusiasm. While it has probably been fifteen years since I last read it, my memories of it were of being a pretty underwhelming experience. Still, I tried to approach it in the hope that the memory may have cheated or that perhaps I might enjoy it more as an adult.

The book opens with Captain Hastings returning to London from his new home in Argentina. He looks forward to catching up with his old friend Poirot during his trip but arrives to find the detective will shortly head to Argentina on a case that he had accepted, in part, because of his hopes of seeing Hastings. His imminent departure means that their conversation is brief but Poirot expresses some regret about how he is having to put another investigation to one side – a look into the activities of a worldwide crime syndicate called The Big Four.

This book is composed of a series of cases, each of which work Poirot a little closer to discovering the identities of the four crime bosses who make up this shadowy organization. Typically Poirot finds himself engaged in solving a smaller problem, only to find there are links to that wider case.

The reason for this unusual, more episodic storytelling style was that Christie reworked a number of previously published short stories into this novel, altering the openings to tie them into a wider thriller narrative. This does seem to be a creative approach to generating a novel from previously existing material and I feel on balance that Christie manages to wrangle her material into enough of a coherent form that it feels purposeful.

The problem is that while the stories are linked, the narrative still feels somewhat disjointed. In this sort of story I think there should be a sense of progressing deeper into the mystery yet each case seems to be pretty much in line with the others in terms of the dangers and the information to be gained. As a consequence, Christie’s storytelling seems flat to me.

I believe that the problems start with the way that Christie introduces us to the idea of the Big Four. At the start of the book we learn that Poirot is already basically aware of what they are and the extent of their power. This is not dissimilar to the way that Moriarty is introduced in The Adventure of the Final Problem which I think works in the context of a short story but I feel it is unsatisfactory in a novel-length work.

Christie could have shown us Poirot slowly becoming aware of the group but by jumping into the middle of the investigation there is no sense of discovery of the scale or scope of their operation. The only question for Poirot and the reader to solve is who the four individuals at the top of the organization are.

Once again, this is not in itself a bad question to focus on. After all, The Man in the Brown Suit had charmed me with its hidden villain – wouldn’t four such villains be four times the fun?

Well, no. Where that novel had fun with its game of finding the villain, The Big Four makes no attempt to play the game with the reader at all. We are never invited to find spot the villains among the seemingly innocuous supporting characters – it is all done for us (the exception to this is a reveal so obvious that it is hard to fathom how it takes Poirot so long to think of it).

Nor are the characters that make up this group particularly interesting. There is no real sense of an ideology or character to this group or their activities. We get no real sense of the scale or meaning behind their ambitions. Christie certainly hints at a significant threat to world order but the nature of that threat never seems to be spelled out, nor is there a clear time limit imposed. If it is a race against time, we lack the context to understand how near we are to destruction.

Contributing to the problem is the presentation of the mastermind of the group, Li Chang Yen. This characterization evokes ideas of the Yellow Peril with its suggestion of secretive Chinese societies controlled by a mandarin-style figure. Yes, it evokes the Fu Manchu stories but it neither offers a counterpoint, nor does it do anything particularly new or inventive with the trope. This idea was tired in 1927 and time has only rendered it more uncomfortable and offensive.

The one thing that I think Christie does achieve with her four crime bosses is a sense of a global organization. We are frequently reminded that our focus is on just one aspect of their operations and that stopping Poirot is critical to them because they regard him as the greatest threat to their own rise. I do have big questions about how they came to join forces that Christie never really answers but the scale of operations certainly impresses and makes them appear a more formidable group of opponents for Poirot.

While I am striking a positive note (don’t blink – this won’t last long), I should also say that I enjoy the treatment of Hastings here. Not only does Christie have Poirot show some real warmth and affection for his old friend, she also allows Hastings to make some smart and strong choices under enormous pressure. Sure, he is sometimes wanting in the application of methodical, logical thinking but it is nice to see him looking quite competent for long stretches of this novel.

Having dispensed with the compliments, I do need to comment on the adventures our heroes have in this book. With the exception of the section involving a chess match, the stories here are drab and slight. Several feel quite trivial and almost all lack the sort of imaginative elements that usually pull me into Christie’s story. I think there is some truth to the idea that Christie worked much better in longer form fiction and this seems to me to be pretty clear evidence of that.

With no detection to speak of, this work is best compared with Christie’s other thrillers but even if we look at it through that lens I think it is pretty lacking. Sure, it makes more sense than Passenger to Frankfurt but at least that seemed to be about something.

In contrast The Big Four is simply dull and not a patch on the stories that preceded it. For that reason, I would certainly not suggest this as an early stop if you are getting to know the author or Poirot – this is a distinctly lesser work and can be easily skipped.

The Condamine Case by Moray Dalton

Book Details

Originally published 1947
Inspector Collier #12
Preceded by The Longbridge Murders
Followed by The Case of the Dark Stranger

The Blurb

In London, rising young movie director Stephen Latimer learns of a gentrified family in Somerset with an old history of witchcraft and haunting. Scenting an excellent subject for his next film, he visits their ancestral manor.

Pleased with his discoveries, Stephen returns to London, planning to spice up the family legend still further for the film. But he is soon to learn that after his departure Death came to Little Baring.

Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard arrives on the scene, facing a case that concerns not one murder, but two. Whodunit? Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring? Or someone farther afield? And is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?

The Verdict

The mix of vintage film and a mysterious haunting worked for me.


My Thoughts

Having enjoyed myself so much reading Dalton’s The Art School Murders last month I have been keen to explore more of her work. Rather than trying to go through these in a particular order I decided to go for the book that had the most elements that grabbed me. This one won out with its mix of a story of an ancient witchcraft trial, ghosts and the workings of the film industry.

Stephen Latimer is a young British director who has had great success with his first two projects and is now set to develop a third. He receives a proposal to make a film based on historical events that took place in a village in Somerset where a woman conspired to have a rival accused of witchcraft and drowned only to find herself haunted by her.

Latimer travels down to Somerset with his assistant director Evan to research the story and determine how they would film it. They meet with Mr. Condamine and his wife to learn more about the legend and to scout out locations. Things seem to be going well until Condamine suddenly dies after going out on a picnic with his wife and it is found that he had been poisoned.

Dalton’s story takes a while to get to this first murder with much of the opening chapters dedicated to exploring and building up our understanding of the dynamics at play in the Condamine household as well as some of the history of the witch trial and subsequent hauntings. These chapters are suitably atmospheric and I was interested in the story of that earlier crime although its prominence in these early chapters does make those details seem more important than they perhaps are.

While it may have a slow start, Dalton does a fine job of creating an intriguing set of circumstances around this first murder. Some of the questions Inspector Collier will have to contend with include figuring out exactly when the poison was administered as well as whether Condamine was the intended target. The answers to both questions are interesting and I think the situation only becomes more intriguing with the discovery of a second murder.

Dalton’s characters can be broadly split into two categories – the locals and those associated with the film. Most are quite colorfully drawn and make enough of an impression that it is easy to follow who everyone is.

Latimer, the film’s director, struck me as the most interesting of the bunch – in part because of his somewhat caustic manner and relationship with his assistant, Evan. Their relationship is pleasingly complex, at moments affectionate yet at others quite exploitative. Evan recognizes that the director is brilliant but it is clear he does not always enjoy spending time with him.

I think it is fair to criticise the prominence of the film development elements of the story for slowing down its early chapters but I must say that I found its presentation of the film industry in this period to be interesting and handled well. Dalton does a good job of balancing the idea of Hollywood and movie making as being glamorous with the practicalities of standing around waiting for filming or the strong egos involved in creating art.

Inspector Collier makes his introduction to the story relatively late. We are well beyond forty per cent of the way into the novel before he appears to take charge of the investigation. Happily once he does we see him quickly exert his influence and perspective onto the case.

I continue to like Collier a lot as a detective, appreciating those moments in which he shows his consideration or humanity. He is shown to be diligent and attentive, asking perceptive questions and making some critical logical connections from the answers given. He remains a detective who interests me and I hope to read more of his adventures soon.

So, what doesn’t work about this novel? Not much – it is a pretty quick and entertaining read. I think Dalton structures her story very well and I enjoyed seeing how she spun the plot points together, creating a pretty exciting and dramatic build up to its conclusion. Happily that conclusion is built upon some solid deductive reasoning!

Were I to stretch for a problem it would be that the novel’s opening does seem to lack some focus, though I do think it highly entertaining in places. On the whole though, I feel that the various elements are crafted well and the story built to a conclusion I found both clever and satisfying.

It is definitely worth a try if you are curious about Dalton’s work but I might suggest that because of Collier’s late entry in the story it might make sense to pick and try one of his other adventures first if learning about the sleuth is your primary focus in reading mysteries. I certainly enjoyed it enough that I plan further reads in this series. If anyone has read the Collier series I would appreciate any suggestions you can make concerning which to read next.

Second Opinions

Curtis Evans shares his thoughts on this story in an essay on his blog, The Passing Tramp.

Outfoxed: A Cooperative Whodunit Game

Details

Ages 5+
2-4 Players (Cooperative)
20 minutes

The Blurb

Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie has gone missing and now it’s a chicken chase to crack the case! Move around the board gathering clues and then use the special evidence scanner to rule out suspects. You’ll have to work together because the guilty fox is high-tailing it towards the exit! Will you halt the hungry hooligan before it flies the coop… or will you be Outfoxed?


Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had planned last week when I said to be prepared for something a little different this weekend. Actually, as I noted on Twitter I have no memory at all of what I had planned but all my ideas had to be shelved after what has been a really busy week.

We are still currently in the working from home phase which we have been balancing with frequent meetings and the need to entertain our five year old. Throw in the really frustrating mix of our AC unit breaking and really warm weather and it has not been the most comfortable week! Hence no Wednesday or Friday reviews.

Fortunately we were able to get our AC unit and furnace replaced. While that means I have to be a bit better behaved when it comes to expanding my TBR pile in the coming months, fortunately I had a whole set of books on their way before that and, it turns out (because I ordered it at the start of the stay at home order), a whodunnit board game that we could play as a family.

There is also an instruction booklet that is not shown.

While I normally would grumble at a game taking over a month to arrive, in this case the timing could hardly have been better. As it happens my daughter had recently discovered a children’s book series with animal detectives (The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake) and so the idea of a mystery game was enthusiastically embraced.

This game is also animal-themed as the players each play as detective chickens while the culprit is one of sixteen fox suspects. The players work together to identify clues that will enable them to identify and whittle down the suspects. The problem is that while they work to do that the thieving fox is making their way to their den along with their loot.

In terms of gameplay this feels like a blend of a sort of cooperative version of Clue and Guess Who. Players decide whether they will be looking for clues or identifying suspects on each turn. Then they need to roll three dice and get each of the sides showing a symbol matching their goal. If they fail to do this within three rolls the fox gets to move instead of the players.

The clues that are uncovered each show a different item of clothing that the different foxes are wearing in their suspect card pictures. Any individual item is held or worn by three or four foxes so the key is in balancing looking for suspects and new clues.

When a clue is uncovered it is placed into the viewer shown below. Each clue has a hole cut into it in a different place around its edge. When aligned with the window, if a green dot shows through then the guilty party holds or is wearing that item. If not, the guilty fox will not be. It is a clever mechanic that works well and keeps you from accidentally seeing the guilty party.

My daughter did raise the concern that the fox may have changed their clothing to avoid suspicion. She also wondered if all of the foxes may have been working together in some sort of conspiracy. She really enjoyed the story of the game and quickly understood the object of the game and the rules.

So, I love that this game has a luck component that allows adults and children to play together (though their role will be to support the young players in gathering evidence). Younger children could easily play with an older sibling and each feel that they contributed to the solutions. I also think that it teaches coordination of activities and deductive reasoning skills well to young ones.

The game pieces feel durable and the instructions are reasonably easy to follow. I enjoyed the theming of the game as much as my daughter and the twenty minute set up and play time is about perfect for a five year old’s attention span. There are also suggestions of ways that the players can adjust the rules to make the game more challenging.

Having had this for several days now, my daughter shows no sign of losing interest in the game yet and so I feel pretty good about this purchase. To my delight she is showing interest in other detective stories and I am looking into some series I might be able to shake with her (I may, for instance, return to the Miss Mallard mysteries or try the Cam Jansen books).

Do you have any favorite mystery stories or series that you might recommend to a 5 or 6 year old? If so I’d love to hear any suggestions.

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

Book Details

Originally published 1984

The Blurb

Graham Marshall is a respectable husband and father and dedicated London businessman. He’s always played by the rules, believing that’s the surest way to climb the corporate ladder. But when he’s passed over for promotion by a ruthless colleague, something snaps. On a drunken walk home late that night, Graham unleashes his fury on a hapless panhandler and dumps his body into the Thames. As days pass for the anxious exec, he realizes to his astonishment that he’s gotten away with murder. And it appears to be much easier than anyone’s been led to believe.

Feeling more powerful than he has in years, Graham now has his eyes on the future—and on everyone who stands in his way, professionally and personally. It might have all begun with a terrible accident. But for Graham, his new objectives are entirely by design.

The Verdict

A superb inverted crime story in the best Ilesian tradition.


My Thoughts

The subject of today’s review was one of the books I was inspired to pick up after reading Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. It was not one of the featured titles – the focus there is on works from the first half of the twentieth century – but it does get a very positive mention in the Inverted Mysteries essay where Edwards selects it as one of the best inverted stories from the second half of the century.

He is not wrong.

Graham Marshall is a man who has become accustomed to success. Growing up in postwar Britain, his parents went without to give him the best chances of success and he exceeded their expectations, finding career success working for an oil company where he has quickly climbed the corporate ladder to become the assistant manager of the personnel department.

Graham believes that he can soon expect another promotion as his boss, many of whose duties he already performs, is due to retire soon. Believing that he will soon be the head of the department he takes on additional expenses, moving to a house he can barely afford. As expected the job is advertised and he goes in for the interview but he is shocked when he is passed over in favor of a younger man.

After an evening drinking his sorrows away, Graham drunkenly walks home and on the way he is pestered by a panhandler. Angry when the man refers to his good fortune, Graham lashes out and accidentally kills him. He dumps the body and for the next few days he anxiously awaits the police but when they do not show up he finds himself feeling confident and in control.

And then it occurs to him that murders may solve some of his other problems…

Graham naturally inspires some comparison to Dr Bickleigh, the protagonist in Malice Aforethought. Both are men who feel a sense of inadequacy and view murder as an act of liberation.

The earliest chapters of this book are focused on building our understanding of Graham’s background and the social pressures that formed him. These are, understandably, narration-heavy but Brett keeps up a brisk pace, using the various incidents and relationships to develop broader themes.

In the process of learning about Graham’s rise at Crasoco, we also get to see how business culture was shifting between the sixties and the mid-eighties. This is an important theme of the work and also an essential part of our understanding of Graham’s character – he is a man who resents having played by the rules of the game only to discover that those rules are changing as he is poised for success. This, coupled with his realization that domesticity was something he accepted out of an adherence to those rules rather than any desire to be a husband or father, really sits at the heart of the character and is central to the character’s transformation.

The impetus for that transformation is the first murder. While this is a really significant moment, Brett chooses not to linger on describing the physical action of the killing. Instead he frames our focus on Graham’s mentality in the moments leading up to and following the murder and seeing how that comes to change him. This struck me as effective and helped me accept the subsequent transformation in his personality.

While it is clear where several threads of the story are headed based on the elements Brett sets in place, the satisfaction comes from seeing how each of those threads overlap and influence each other and the occasional subversions of our expectations.

While the first kill may have been unplanned and instinctive, the subsequent murders are quite different. Brett gives us several more and manages to make each distinctive and mechanically interesting while still ensuring that our focus is on what Graham is thinking and what he is planning to do next.

As I read it occurred to me that Graham’s journey is relatively unusual in terms of inverted stories in that our killer begins the novel concerned that they will be caught but their control of the situation increases as the story goes on. Usually in these stories the later murders occur out of desperation or panic. This story is not without those sorts of moments but Graham enters the final few chapters confident that he will achieve his goals.

While the subject matter and style of the piece is much more serious than Brett’s more famous Charles Paris or Fethering series there are still some touches of dark humor. Much of this is rooted in its observations about the corporate business environment of that period and the characters that inhabit it.

Those secondary characters – the victims, the witnesses and those affected by Graham’s actions, most are well drawn and convincing. I enjoyed discovering how each would interpret and respond to what they were experiencing and seeing which would come to suspect him.

The ending will likely not surprise many – Brett sets his elements up too neatly for that – but the journey to that point takes a few unpredictable turns. More important though that ending seemed a fitting cap to what had gone before and left me feeling satisfied.

Now, I should say that while I enthusiastically recommend this book, I do so with a few caveats. The first is that this is a crime story from the perspective of the killer rather than an inverted detective story. While there is a detective character involved they end up being incidental to the story. As such there is nothing really for the reader to solve – it is more a case of predicting story structure. I love that but I know others find that unsatisfying.

The other reservation I offer is that I know some readers simply will not like Graham. In fact he’s pretty loathsome. That is not to say that we do not come to understand him and sometimes empathize with him – I actually think of that as one of the greatest strengths of the novel and reflects the quality of the characterization – but if it is important for you to like a character this is probably not for you.

With those reservations in mind, if you do enjoy an Ileasian-style inverted crime story then I think this is a tremendous read. I enjoyed the exploration of the corporate environment and the reflections on the social and work changes taking place in Britain during the seventies and eighties. It is a superbly crafted story that shows a side of Brett as a writer that you may well find surprising if, like me, you know him from his long standing series.

I certainly plan on exploring more of his standalone works in the future…

Columbo: Blueprint for Murder (TV)

It is about two months since I launched this weekly feature in which I look in depth at episodes of Columbo. Well, this post concludes the first season and so I plan on taking a short break from the good lieutenant’s adventures. I do plan on resuming after Summer with a look at the eight episodes from Season Two.

Oh, – just, one more thing… Tune in next weekend for a look at something quite different.


Episode Details

First broadcast on February 9, 1972

Season One, Episode Seven
Preceded by Short Fuse
Followed by Étude in Black (Season Two)

Story by William Kelley
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Peter Falk

Key Guest Cast

Forrest Tucker appeared in multiple movies and television shows but would have been best known to viewers at the time for his role in F Troop.

The Verdict

A solid, if unexciting, finale to the first season. The idea behind the hiding place for the body is clever though.


My Thoughts

Elliot Markham is a shady property developer who has a plan to develop an enormous and very lucrative construction project. He is going to call it Williamson City after Bo Williamson, the Texan millionaire who will be funding it. The problem is that the arrangements have been made in his absence by his impressionable young wife and when Williamson arrives back in the United States he is furious about the deal, driving to the construction site to confront Markham.

Williamson tells Markham that he will not pay for the construction despite his protests that it is already too far advanced to stop. Set to lose a fortune and see his big project collapse Markham plots to murder Williamson and then hide the body to ensure that construction go ahead. Unfortunately for him, Williamson’s ex-wife contacts the Police to alert them to his disappearance and they send Lt. Columbo to investigate.

I have been really struck by the sheer variety of cases on offer in this first season of Columbo and Blueprint for Murder similarly presents us with a fresh variation on the murder mystery. In this case we have a murder without a corpse. Now, we have seen something along these lines in Dead Weight as Columbo begins that case before a body has surfaced but even there we had a witness to a crime, even if their account appeared hazy and didn’t give him much to go on. Here he has even less to go on.

That is not to say that there aren’t signs that things are wrong. In fact, one of the problems I have with this case is that some loose ends are left bafflingly open by our killer. Take for instance the various employees who witnessed the fight – all of whom quite willingly share those stories with Columbo. He may not be able to prove murder but he can certainly show that Markham isn’t telling the truth about how that confrontation ended, even if some of that information is very easily come by.

Still, I do appreciate that it is once again a little detail about the one piece of physical evidence he has – the abandoned car – that sets Columbo on the track to finding out that something is wrong. The observation that gets made proves absolutely nothing and yet seems so suggestive, particularly in the context of those things Columbo learns and observes at Markham’s office and the construction site.

Patrick O’Neal plays Markham as steely cool while showing an dismissive, elitist mindset. For instance, during the argument with Williamson he refers to him as a philistine for not wanting to invest in his project. Pretty standard for your Columbo villain but here it is used to contrast not only with the detective’s personality but also plays an important role in the plot.

I cannot say that I found the performance to be particularly memorable however. He gets no great witticism or moment where he might try to dominate Columbo, nor does he have a particularly interesting personality. While I may not have loved McDowall’s character in the previous story, he was at least entertaining. O’Neal is perfectly fine – just bland in a story that already felt a little lacking in personality.

Perhaps the one aspect of this episode that does feel bold is the characterization of Bo Williamson, portrayed by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. I think it would be fair to call this a performance as large as his almost comically wide hat and it certainly is not particularly subtle. I would also say that it provides us with another instance of May-December relationship in Columbo although perhaps the answer to what attracted Jennifer to multi-millionaire Bo Williamson is a little easier to answer than some others.

I would also add that while it is only a small part, Janis Paige does a good job portraying Goldie – Bo’s first wife. Her most memorable moment comes when Columbo first interviews her, finding her in a state of undress which predictably flusters him.

Perhaps the final thing to reflect on is that this story was directed by star Peter Falk. I will say that I am always curious when I see an actor step behind the camera to see how they handle that job. If I were to summarize his effort here, I would call it solid and workmanlike.

The sound design on the sequence in which we see the murder happen and the coverup orchestrated is perhaps the most impressive part of the episode. In terms of the camera, shots are relatively simple but tell the story effectively enough, making it easy to follow the action.

Falk’s focus falls more on the performers, leaving the camera on them to give them the time and space to act without any flashy camera tricks or establishing shots. I do think though that this feels more like an episode of television than any of the preceding episodes, each of which felt more like films – albeit ones created on a restricted budget.

Like every other aspect of this episode, it is solid enough to do the job but lacks anything truly special to make it stand out. It is not the worst episode of this first season of Columbo but where those sometimes failed in colorful ways, this story’s blandness makes it one I can’t imagine revisiting any time soon.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Book Details

Originally published 2017.

The Blurb

This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction—from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age—in an accessible, informative and engaging style.

Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar—as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.

The Verdict

An entertaining thematic overview of crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. Just be aware that you will probably come away from this with a long list of obscure (and sometimes expensive) books to track down!


My Thoughts

Last week Jim at The Invisible Event released the third installment in his In GAD We Trust podcast. In that installment he interviewed Martin Edwards, touching upon his work with the British Library Crime Classics range and his two nonfiction titles – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

That conversation reminded me that I wanted to purchase my own physical copy of the latter. This is one of my (many) peculiarities as a reader – I am equally happy to read physical or ebook fiction titles but I find non-fiction, particularly reference books, much easier to navigate and absorb in hard copy.

In his introduction to the book, Edwards describes how he wrote the book to serve as a companion piece to the British Library Crime Classics range. That is not to say that it is about the books they have published – only a fraction of the titles highlighted are from that collection – but rather it provides a context for those releases and suggests further reading.

He also stresses in that introduction that the book has neither been developed to serve as an encyclopedia, nor is it an attempt to pick the 100 greatest works. There are certainly several works discussed that you might expect with multiple entries for Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox, but the titles chosen are selected for how well they correspond to the theme Edwards is discussing in that chapter.

Edwards begins each chapter with an introductory essay that introduces a theme. Some are more developmental – focusing on aspects of plot construction – but most relate to an aspect of setting, style or theme. An example of this would be the sixth chapter, Serpents in Eden, which discusses examples of rural or village mysteries. Incidentally this and several other chapters share the names of short story collections that Edwards edited for the range, making these ideal reference points for readers curious how novelists approached those same themes and ideas.

The introductory essay discusses those themes in quite general terms, name-dropping plenty of authors and titles beyond the highlighted ones for curious readers to explore. This is followed by a number of shorter pieces – each of which is typically two to three pages long – that describe a particular work and how it addresses that theme.

Some of the titles Edwards selects will be familiar to many while others merit the label he applies to them of being ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’. In a few cases I was surprised at one title by an author being selected ahead of another work I view as superior but I typically understood why by the end of the piece (an example would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but my assumption is that was avoided in favor of The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it is so hard to discuss without spoiling it).

The best thing about the book for me though was the number of titles Edwards mentions that I have yet to read and, in several cases, that I knew nothing about. For every The Hollow Man, there is a Death at Broadcasting House – particularly in the later, more thematic chapters.

I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that the chapter on inverted mysteries opens with the Coles’ End of an Ancient Mariner – a book I am now really excited to go read. And which I now bought… As I did Anthony Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments along with four or five other books.

It is possible that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books may be the most expensive book I have ever bought. This is not because it is outrageously priced – it is a standard softcover – but in the way it entices you to chase after books that are often long out-of-print. For those keen to delve a little deeper into the world of classic crime, this can be an entertaining and enlightening starting point, showcasing the diversity of the genre and in guiding you to some lesser-known or obscure works.