Inspector French and The Cheyne Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

Inspector French and The Cheyne Mystery
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1926
Inspector French #2
Preceded by Inspector French’s Greatest Case
Followed by The Starvel Hollow Tragedy

I hadn’t planned on returning to Freeman Wills Crofts quite so quickly but I am having to adjust to a new schedule at the moment which has left me with little time to read, let alone write reviews. I had read The Cheyne Mystery a week or so ago with the intention of banking a review for next month and so rather than go a week without content I figured it would be better to have something than nothing.

The Cheyne Mystery was the second Inspector French novel written by Freeman Wills Crofts. While it is certainly a mystery story, it does draw heavily on elements of the adventure genre. This is particularly apparent in the first half of the novel.

The protagonist of the book is Maxwell Cheyne, a young man who is an aspiring novelist and lives with his mother and sister in Devonshire. His writing career has met with very limited success but as he does need the income to support himself this is more of a disappointment than a source of concern.

The book begins with him making a trip to Plymouth where he unexpectedly encounters a man in a hotel who knows of his ambitions and wishes to make a proposal to him. He agrees to join him for a splendid lunch followed by coffee, all of which the men share. As he listens to the man’s proposals he begins to feel drowsy and is found some time later by the manager who informs him that a doctor had been called who suspected that he had been drugged but no traces of a drug were found on the dishes. His first thought is that he had been robbed but nothing appears to have been removed from his wallet or pockets.

That incident is just the beginning of a series of odd events and adventures for the Cheyne family and it certainly gets things off to a promising start. The circumstances of the drugging appear to be impossible and it is entertaining to work through how the thing might have been managed. It takes a while for the answer to be given and I will say that the explanation, while interesting, is not one that the reader could produce for themselves though they could work out the most likely point at which it would have occurred.

The events that follow in this first half are all quite entertaining and certainly add to the sense of mystery about just what has been going on. Many of the strange occurrences seem to happen for no purpose so, given there is no body on hand, the reader’s energies will be devoted to formulating a possible reason for them. The eventual answer is quite clever, if more far-fetched than in many of Croft’s later works.

Before going on to discuss the second half of the book in which French makes his appearance, I do have to pass comment on one aspect of the plotting: Maxwell Cheyne is an idiot. Certainly he can be a charming, entertaining idiot but regardless he makes some really poor decisions and seems to learn nothing from each situation he finds himself in. As a hero for an adventure story he is relatively inoffensive but as the protagonist in a detective story he can be infuriating.

I won’t say that this soured me on the first half of the book as a reading experience – the plotting is entertaining and fairly imaginative – but it is an experience equivalent to watching the scared teenagers in a horror film make the decision to split up and each investigate separate wings of an abandoned mansion.

Happily a more rational and orderly approach is introduced when Inspector French makes his welcome appearance at the halfway point and takes over the case. He sets about working through the clues and piecing together the information he has to get a clearer idea of what the criminals are attempting to do and why. While this is not one of French’s more dynamic investigations, there is plenty of strong detective work to be found here and there are some particularly inventive moments. For instance, I really enjoyed a sequence in which French attempts to interpret a rather unusual document. I would be surprised if the explanation occurs to anyone but I thought it was cleverly set up and worked through.

A more guessable but equally clever sequence prompts an entertaining trip to the continent. This phase of the novel threatens to venture into travel writing – never one of Crofts’ strengths – but I also appreciated that it focuses on some of the practical challenges that an unofficial overseas investigation would entail.

While I was entertained and interested in the explanation of what was going on, I did feel that the story’s resolution was underwhelming. Much of the reason for this is that much of the denouement occurs “off screen” and is related to a character after the fact. This feels somewhat anticlimactic and a little rushed after so much patient build up.

That leaves me in a bit of a quandary about how to judge it overall. For much of my time reading it I found it to be a surprisingly colorful and entertaining read, full of unpredictable (if far-fetched) developments. It is let down by its weak ending but it held my attention far better than the better-plotted, if rather dull, The Starvel Hollow Tragedy. I think on balance it is best to describe it as a lesser effort but a thoroughly readable one. For those keen to try out Crofts for the first time however superior options are available!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A journalist/writer (Who)

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event enjoyed this one a lot, appreciating the rich, fast-paced yet detailed writing style and moments of ratiocination.

Nick @ The Grandest Game In The World was less enthused, finding it to strike an overly moralistic tone towards the end .

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good
Helene Tursten
Originally Published 2018

Eighty-eight year old Maud is not the sort of person you would look at and think they were dangerous, let alone a killer! She is physically quite frail, tries to keep herself to herself and seems to live quite a comfortable lifestyle.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good collects five stories that feature the octogenarian committing murders. Given that we know who, the mystery lies in understanding why she wants someone dead or how she will accomplish the task.

The murders themselves range in credibility from some which take quite mundane approaches to extinguishing life to the outrageous one featured in the first story in the collection. Heads being pierced or crushed is a recurring theme so those who are sensitive to such things, be warned!

As usual with short story collections I provide thoughts on each individual story after the break below but there are some general points I’d like to make about the book.

Firstly, I found the collection to be about the right length. As much as I enjoyed the character and the premise, I think that it would stretch credibility to have her commit many more murders at her age.

Maud is an interesting creation and I enjoyed the little glimpses we get into her past. While some of those character moments are interesting, I do feel that the bigger mystery of how she evolved into the killer we encounter in these stories ought to be told and I do think this feels like its biggest omission.

All in all, I think the collection is a strong one. Its darker elements may not appeal to everyone but I admire its creativity and think it does a surprisingly good job of selling the idea that this elderly lady could commit these murders.

Continue reading “An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten, translated by Marlaine Delargy”

The Murderer’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

The Murderer’s Tale
Margaret Frazer
Originally Published 1996
Dame Frevisse #6
Preceded by The Boy’s Tale
Followed by The Prioress’ Tale

It is pretty rare for me to start a series anywhere other than with the first book. When I do it is usually because the series has long been out-of-print or, more usually, I just didn’t realize that the book was part of a series.

When I picked up The Murderer’s Tale I was aware that it was not the first Dame Frevisse mystery and I did have easy access to those earlier titles in the series. The reason I chose to skip over them though will be an entirely predictable one to those who have followed this blog and taken a moment to consider the title of the book.

Yes, the reason is that The Murderer’s Tale is an inverted mystery (for those who are new to this blog, this is my favorite type of mystery). I am nothing if not predictable.

The novel begins by introducing us to the members of the Knyvet household who are travelling on pilgrimage. The group are led by the wealthy and jovial Lionel Knyvet who enjoys sharing riddles with his fellow travellers. We soon learn that this is just one of many pilgrimages that Lionel has made, hoping to find a cure for what he understands to be a demon (but readers will recognize as epilepsy).

Joining him on this journey is his cousin Giles who possesses a far more sour disposition and clearly resents his cousin’s wealth and being dragged across the country on what he sees as a futile endeavor. He is the heir to the estate and given that Lionel has vowed not to marry because of his condition, he expects to inherit.

Meanwhile Dame Frevisse, a nun at St. Frideswide nunnery agrees to undertake a pilgrimage with Sister Claire. The pair agree to take some papers to the lord at Minster Lovell that relate to a land dispute on behalf of the nunnery and on their journey they meet up with the Knyvet party, travelling with them until they reach the hall.

Okay, so it will come as little surprise that things will turn murderous or that Giles will turn out to be that killer. We share enough of his thoughts from the start of the book to recognize that he is a thoroughly unpleasant man who treats his servants viciously and has little respect for the women around him. He certainly is not treated as a sympathetic killer, particularly given the details of the murder he has planned, and while I did not find the passages from his perspective to be as disturbing to read as, for example, those by Jim Thompson in his inverted story, Pop. 1280, or Roger Bax in Blueprint for Murder, he certainly is not a character you would ever want to meet or interact with.

Though Giles does some interesting things at points in this story, I do not think he is a particularly deep or interesting character. Frazer makes little attempt to explore his deeper motivations or the events in his life that have shaped him into a killer. Instead he arrives already formed with a plan in mind (though we are not party to it) and there is little introspection after the murder. This strikes me as a little disappointing, particularly as there clearly was room in the narrative to feature some developmental moments or reflections.

Given that we already know the killer’s identity, I do not want to share details of what his plan is or how he sets about carrying it out – figuring that out and later how he will be caught is really the mystery here. I can say though that it is quite simple, which is appropriate for the setting, and is not particularly memorable either in its details or in the way it is executed.

While Giles tries to contrive a crime scene that tells a story, Dame Frevisse is unconvinced by some elements and starts asking questions. At this point the reader’s focus shifts to trying to see what aspects of the crime or the killer’s behavior she will spot and be able to use to prove what happened.

Here once again I have to say I was a little disappointed. Dame Frevisse certainly observes several issues with the crime scene and she is able to explain why those inconsistencies matter but because the crime itself is quite simple, the investigation feels similarly shallow. This is not helped by several clues being quite visual in nature and while I could guess how the information might be used, I could not know what exactly could be determined from it.

There are some bright spots however, particularly those in which Dame Frevisse interacts with other characters to discuss Lionel’s condition. It is this aspect of the story that struck me as the most interesting, both in its discussions of how epilepsy was understood in this period and also the way the laws of this period took mental health into account. An author’s note at the end of the recent ebook edition provides a little more information about this.

Similarly, though I found Giles to be a fairly underwhelming creation, I was pretty pleased with Frazer’s characterizations of her other supporting characters. While this book does not boast a big cast of supporting characters, I think they are fairly distinctive figures. For instance, I enjoyed Lionel’s coarse joking and Sister Claire’s worrying about her friend’s meddling. Similarly I like Frevisse herself who is a little quick to speak and I do think Frazer does a good job of conveying her personality and values.

While I did enjoy quite a few elements of this story and would certainly try others in this series, unfortunately I did not find it to be a particularly memorable inverted tale. While the villain of the piece certainly makes an impression as a figure to hate and want to see brought to justice, I longed for a little more depth and background to flesh him out or to allow him a moment where he does something unexpected.

As it is, The Murderer’s Tale is a competent historical story. Those who enjoy exploring a historical period may appreciate its discussions of people’s perceptions of health conditions at that time and the workings of an estate in the lord’s absence but I found the mystery element fairly shallow while the villain sadly underwhelms.

Further Reading

The author shared some notes about this book on her website here. This was the novel that split up a writing partnership and according to this account the process of writing from the murderer’s perspective played a large part in this.

The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter, Translated by John Pugmire

The Tiger’s Head
Paul Halter
Originally Published 1991
Dr Twist #5
Preceded by The Madman’s Room
Followed by The Seventh Hypothesis

It has been a surprising amount of time since I last read and wrote about a Paul Halter novel though I have had several up near the top of my TBR list. The Tiger’s Head was my selection mostly because I was tantalized by its premise of a murder committed in a locked room by a genie. As it happens though this is just one of three mysteries within the novel.

Each of those three mysteries is presented as a separate case and yet have considerable overlap as they involve the same community and cast of characters. The first is the murder and dismemberment of several young women, the second is the murder of a retired major in a locked room and the final one is the ongoing series of thefts of seemingly random items of limited value around the small village of Leadenham.

Let’s start with the least of these – the thefts. Though it is introduced almost as a background storyline, Halter does not treat it as such. While it may not be the case that brings Dr. Twist to Leadenham, it has plenty of points of interest (not least that everyone in the village has an alibi for one or more of the crimes) and could easily have made for an entertaining short story in its own right. I certainly enjoyed the resolution and discovering how it played into the other story threads.

The second story thread, the murder of the Major, is the one that the novel is named for and it presents us with our most traditional locked room elements. There is, ostensibly, a supernatural element at play: the Major had told a story about how he had won the Tiger’s Head cane from a fakir while in India and that it contains a genie that can kill. The Major had challenged a friend to stay with him in a room where every door and window is locked from the inside and wait for the genie to appear. When their friends get worried they break into the room to find the Major dead and the doubter lying unconscious from head injuries, claiming that he saw and was attacked by the genie.

Now, I will say that I do not love the conceit of a room with the locked doors under observation by individuals – it is too obvious how this sort of a puzzle can be broken. Happily Halter gets on with it, almost immediately acknowledging that not everyone’s story can be true and getting on with trying to unpick people’s alibis.

This puzzle is, in my opinion, the cleverest of the three mechanically (while it plays fair, I would be astounded if anyone was able to deduce exactly how it was achieved) and if the book has a fault it may be that it chooses to present the solution to this three-quarters of the way through rather than at the close. Structurally there are some good reasons for this because of the ways the three stories connect but it does mean that the most intriguing and complex aspects of the narrative are already done as the book enters its endgame.

Twist and Hurst’s original reason for being in Leadenham is to hunt the ‘Suitcase Killer’, who has dismembered young women and put their limbs into suitcases which have been left at train stations. The premise is usually gruesome for Halter but I think he sets up the situation quite brilliantly, reminding me in some aspects of one of my favorite Golden Age mysteries. Unfortunately it is one of those cases where I can’t really reveal which story it is without giving away some of the parallel plot points. I can say though that there are some really satisfying moments, not least one that comes at the end of one of the early chapters that actually had me gasping in surprise.

Readers may feel that this story thread does slide into the background a little too easily at points in the narrative given that we are talking about the actions of a serial killer who we should expect would strike again. I think though that Halter does present a credible reason why Twist and Hurst get distracted from this case and focus in on the other mysterious events taking place in Leadenham.

The explanation given for what happened and why is clever, particularly in how it relates to the other storylines. There is some very clever plotting and narrative sleight of hand at play here and while I think it plays its strongest surprise a little too early (and is mechanically fairly straightforward), I found the solution to be significantly more satisfying than I expected though I share Brad’s dissatisfaction with an aspect of the ending that does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.

In spite of this however I have little difficulty in pronouncing this a triumph and one of the most satisfying experiences I have had with Halter to date. The quality of the run of books Halter produced between The Madman’s Room and The Demon of Dartmoor is truly impressive and while I think The Seventh Hypothesis is a more satisfying read overall, I think this is a close runner up winning points for its creativity and imagination.

Further Reading

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not written a review of this on his blog but he did discuss it on an episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast. He also includes it on his Five to Try: Starting Paul Halter post. Finally, it places highly on his Top 15 LRI publications list.

The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel also recommended the book, albeit with some reservations. These include feeling that one of the locked room resolutions is ‘utter rubbish’ and thinking a motive is over the top. I do agree with his general sentiment that Halter’s problem is often that he throws too many elements in, not giving them the room to be properly developed.

Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog is not always Halter’s biggest fan but he says that he was pleasantly surprised for the first three quarters of the novel and loved one of the explanations for a locked room. Unfortunately his experience was spoiled by a final scene reveal and by Halter not really trying to hide whodunnit.

Ben @ The Green Capsule was responsible for pushing this book higher up my TBR when he reviewed it toward the end of last year. He comments on how no individual solution is brilliant but the way they are brought together is ‘misdirection at its finest’.

Speak of the Devil by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Speak of the Devil
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1941

Speak of the Devil is the third novella I have read by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and, I am happy to say, it did not disappoint. In fact I am increasingly struck by the idea that Holding may be becoming one of my favorite writers. Certainly I think her work deserves far more recognition than it seems to get.

This story is narrated by a Miss Peterson, a young woman who is travelled aboard a ship to Cuba to start a new life in the Caribbean. While on board she meets the charming Mr. Fernandez who persuades her that she should travel with him to the island of Riquezas to be the hostess at a new hotel he is opening. She is hesitant but he tells her that he will grant her the job on a trial basis and if she is unhappy with it (or his conduct toward her) she can leave with no questions asked.

Shortly after she arrives at the hotel Cecily, a woman with her own mysterious past who was her predecessor as hostess, comes to her to say that she killed a man in self-defense. While Miss Peterson does not believe Cecily’s story, she is puzzled by Mr. Fernandez’s unwillingness to contact the Police but things become even more confusing when the body is found.

And then there is the locals’ talk that the Devil himself was seen roaming the halls of the hotel…

One of the things I have come to appreciate most in Holding’s work is her ability to create a sense of uncertainty both in her characters and for her readers. Both of the stories I previously reviewed featured narrators who seem at odds with the world around them, appearing increasingly unhinged as they become more certain of a danger that only they see.

Speak of the Devil also features a protagonist who is experiencing events somewhat differently than those around them but it reverses that dynamic. Miss Peterson is clear-headed, calm and rational in the face of what seems to be chaos or possibly even supernatural events. There is still a tension between her and the characters around her as she seems to be the only person who cares about the idea of discovering the truth. The difference is that the reader can have more faith in Miss Peterson’s accounts of events as she is clearly identified as the voice of sanity and reason from the start of the story.

While those other stories I have read featured mundane settings in which a character claims extraordinary things are happening, here Holding presents us with a rich, exotic locale that feels atmospheric and full of danger.

Sometimes atmosphere can be a substitute for depth of theme or an interesting crime but I think this story really springs out of the unsettling feelings that Holding is able to create. The hotel may not be a small building but it becomes claustrophobic and threatening at times, in part because so much of it remains unoccupied. I may not have taken the idea of a supernatural explanation seriously (and I do not think we are really meant to) but I could certainly imagine someone malevolent roaming the halls.

Holding creates some really striking imagery, particularly in relation to the Devil of the title. This idea manifests itself in several ways in the novella and, at times, quite unexpectedly. For instance there is a moment in which the Devil is described by the locals that plays contrary to more familiar American or European ideas. Those moments never feel obvious and I think that they really help enrich this story and build tension at some key points in the narrative.

While the short page count does mean that the narrative is quite compressed, Holding’s supporting characters feel surprisingly well-developed though some information must be inferred rather than directly stated. Mr. Fernandez is probably the most vibrant creation, speaking with a precision and formality that says an enormous amount about his character. I think however that the smaller characters such as Cecily and Mrs Fish are even more interesting because of how much of their characters and histories are initially hidden, being teased out over the course of the story.

The exploration of these characters and their stories is fascinating and I felt Holding constructs a really engaging story around them. Though her work tends to be described as suspense fiction, there is a mystery for the reader to solve, though I failed to reach deduce it myself. I found the explanation, when given, to be satisfying and inventive and I was thrilled by the final chapters which feel full of tension.

Is it perfect? Not quite – Holding’s prose is often very accomplished but I find her occasional slides between third and first person narration to be a little awkward. I feel like I am quibbling though because this is not unique to this book and in fact this happens far more rarely than in her other works I have read so far.

The only other negative I can offer is that this is a less challenging work than some of the others I have previously read by Holding. In some ways though I think that may have been to this story’s benefit as it also feels more cohesive with a more intricate plot and clearer development of narrative themes. For that reason, while I would say that Lady Killer is a more exciting and inventive read, Speak of the Devil may be a more accessible starting point for readers who are new to her work. Both, however, are thoroughly recommended.

Further Reading

As with many of Holding’s works, I was only able to find a couple of reviews online. One is part of a discussion of a double-header publication featuring this and The Obstinate Murderer on Tipping My Fedora.

The other is John Grant’s Goodreads review. While John notes that he wrote his review in haste, he makes an excellent point about the characterization of Miss Peterson (and Holding’s choice not to give us all of the details) that I absolutely agree with.

Golden Ashes by Freeman Wills Crofts

Golden Ashes
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1940
Inspector French #20
Preceded by Fatal Venture
Followed by James Tarrant, Adventurer

I have generally had good luck with Freeman Wills Crofts’ mysteries. While I have sometimes grumbled about Inspector French being a little dull as a character, I have never found the plotting to be dull. You can hear the “until now” coming, can’t you?

Golden Ashes begins by introducing us to Betty Stanton, a woman who has had the misfortune to face financial calamity twice as the result of the profligate men in her life. The first time was when her father died leaving little but debts. She found temporary happiness when she was married but discovered that history had repeated itself when her husband died. After much searching a friend puts her on to a position as a housekeeper at Forde Manor.

The homeowner is Sir Geoffrey Buller who unexpectedly inherited his title when several people ahead of him died. He has recently arrived in England after living in Chicago and hopes to integrate himself in English high society. He is quickly disappointed, having little taste for the home, and within six months he is looking to sell the estate and move to the continent. The house is emptied except for its galleries of valuable paintings which Sir Geoffrey had recently had cleaned on advice from an artist friend.

While Betty is disappointed, she is pleased when he arranges for her to stay on the grounds to show around potential buyers. One evening she discovers that the building is on fire and tries to rescue the paintings though only a fraction of the collection is saved. Before long an insurance company representative is on the scene to investigate and then Inspector French arrives to ask Betty some questions about the disappearance of an art director friend of hers that had looked at the restoration work only a short time before the fire. Recognizing their common interests, French and the insurance rep pool their efforts to try and make sense of what happened at Forde Manor.

It is possible that a solution to what has happened may have already occurred to you. It certainly did to me. This is not the first time I have immediately guessed at a solution but it is unusual to find so little effort on the part of the author to make me at least doubt myself or consider an alternative. While a few details are introduced after the investigation begins, most just help flesh out the mechanics of how the crime was committed and all stand out pretty much instantly as important on being introduced. You just are left waiting for French to figure out the question to which that element will be the solution.

While this may sound as if it at least promises some technical, thoughtful investigation on French’s part the reader will likely feel underwhelmed on that point too. There is little of the technical detail, careful testing of hypotheses or considered speculation that I have found in most other French stories. Here he just makes several journeys to France and back to check on details and conduct interviews. It makes for decidedly dull reading and feels quite rushed.

This is all the more unfortunate because there are some aspects of the story I thought showed some promise and that may well have held my interest if they had been introduced differently. The art angle, for instance, is at least quite clever even if the reader’s attention is drawn to it far too early in the text.

While French’s methods were not particularly interesting, the sleuth himself was in fairly good form. One of the brightest spots in the book is the warm relationship he forms with the insurance investigator who he previously knew, though I had wished that their investigations had placed them into some sort of conflict with one another either personally or in terms of their aims. The most we get is a little complaining that French could achieve more if he was willing to bend the rules a little.

The biggest problem with the book for me is that it feels too neat and tidy. The best French stories seem to feature the detective working chaos into order but from the beginning the interpretations feel fairly clear – it is just a matter of working through them to be able to prove the conclusion. That may be an accurate representation of police procedure but it is far from gripping reading.

Throw in that Crofts spoils a major aspect of his earlier (and far superior) The 12:30 From Croydon for no good reason and you have what strikes me as easily the most disappointing reading experiences I have had from this author. It is not that it is badly written – but rather that it is really dull. He was capable of much, much better than this.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)

Malice by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Malice
Keigo Higashino
Originally Published 1996
Detective Kaga #4
Preceded by どちらかが彼女を殺した
Followed by 私が彼を殺した
(Neither title has been released yet in English)

In any mystery novel that seeks to actively engage the reader there is a question that they have to solve. The most common of these is the question of who carried out the crime but there are, of course, other questions a writer may focus on instead.

Impossible crime novels, for instance, shift the focus from who onto the question of how a crime was committed. And then there are inverted mystery novels.

As I noted in my recent Five to Try post, the most common structure for these sorts of stories is the howcatchem. In those stories the reader knows the killer’s identity but has to work out how their seemingly perfect plan will be picked apart by the detective. There is also another form that is used far less frequently – the whydunnit – in which readers learn the killer’s identity but must try to learn the reasons for an apparently senseless or counterproductive crime. Malice is an example of this latter, somewhat unusual style of mystery.

I suspect that the reason that I have not encountered many whydunnits is simply that it is a hard form to sustain for a whole novel. If you are inside the killer’s head then it is near-impossible for the writer to find a way to naturally withhold that information from the reader. Also, let’s face it, motivations for crimes are often rather repetitive. When this type of crime novel is done well however it can be an electrifying experience.

Malice is a whydunnit done well.

The novel is almost entirely told from two perspectives. One is the children’s novelist Osamu Nonoguchi and the other is Kyoichiro Kaga, the police detective investigating the murder that takes place.

Initially it seems that Osamu has been chosen as a narrator because he discovered the body of his friend, the popular novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. The first chapter certainly gives the impression that we will be in familiar whodunnit territory as it describes the events of the evening of Hidaka’s death.

The crime takes place in a locked study within a locked house to which only two people (the victim and his wife) possess keys. I suppose that could qualify the novel as being a locked room puzzle but I do not want to oversell that aspect of the book. It really isn’t anything like the focus of the book and that aspect of the solution is probably its least interesting or creative part.

Instead we soon learn information that will make the killer’s identity clear to the reader (assuming they haven’t read the book’s blurb which also gives it away). We even discover how they carried out their plan, in effect removing the questions of who and how from the reader’s consideration. The biggest question that remains for both the detective and the reader is why they have decided to do this, particularly on the eve of the victim’s relocation from Japan to Canada.

This question might initially appear to be quite simple but I found it to be surprisingly satisfying. Part of the reason for this is that the killer refuses to assist the investigation in learning about their motives yet they are willing to confess to the crime itself. This builds on to the sense of mystery the author has cultivated up to that point as we wonder what they may be trying to hide and also what their goal is in not fighting the charge itself.

The other reason that I think the questions of motivation are interesting is that it affects whether we are looking at an instance of murder or manslaughter. These two crimes obviously carry significantly different penalties but they may also affect the way we look at the crime and the killer.

In most respects I think the plot works pretty well as a puzzle though I will throw in the typical caveat that I am not sure that the reader can work out the entire solution for themselves. Rather it is a plot where everything makes sense once it is explained and I did find some aspects of the solution to be both surprising and satisfying.

While I had little difficulty following the puzzle, Detective Kaga made less of an impression on me than I had hoped. I do wonder to what extent that reflects that this was a later story in the series, even though this was the first to be translated into English. Certainly I think we get little sense of who he is away from his job which is a shame, though I did respond to his cautious, methodical approach to solving the murder and thought he showed some ingenuity at times (there is a part of the explanation for how it was worked that is really very clever).

It is in terms of its thematic discussion that I think the book really stands out. What Higashino does particularly well is explore questions of what it means to be creative and the nature of the publishing industry while telling an interesting, character-driven mystery.

His characters are interesting, credible and fully formed, particularly the two writers. I can only echo John Grant’s opinion (linked to below and stated far more eloquently than I could manage) that Higashino is particularly effective when exploring their personalities and temperaments.

Overall, I found this to be a quick but really engaging read. I would certainly be willing to revisit the author and his lead detective again in the future.

Further Reading

John Grant posted his thoughts on this book on Goodreads which he says he enjoyed even more than The Devotion of Suspect X. He particularly responded to the elements of the story that draw on writer’s preoccupations and passions which was one of the aspects I enjoyed most too.

Ella Jauffret offers up a recipe for udon noodles inspired by the book and for a coffee jelly as part of her FictionFood series.