The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler

SkulloftheWaltzingFor want of a better phrase, this stuff is bananas.

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown is a hard book to summarize because its plot takes a while to emerge and to point out its central theme will spoil several moments along the way. In short, the description I am about to offer really only scratches the surface of what this novel is about but it is probably the best I can do.

George Stannard, a shirt salesman, is returning from a business trip to Hawaii via the city of Chicago to answer a summons from his estranged uncle. He had only seen the said uncle once in his life as a five-year old as a falling out between uncle and father resulted in those ties being severed. His father, we learn, died recently and the uncle is looking to get George to do something for him. Precisely what that is will take most of the novel to uncover.

Much of The Skull of the Waltzing Clown unfolds in the form of a lengthy conversation between the two men in the course of a few hours. Once that conversation begins there are no third parties to distract or get in the way and the pair start to trade stories, asides and the occasional barb or pointed comment.

This lends the book something of a rambling and seemingly unfocused aspect that may be off-putting to some. If the reader hasn’t read a summary of the story they are likely to spend much of the novel wondering how these elements will connect and what the point of it all is. Then, in the ending, you should see how these apparent digressions still have a purpose and how there was unity of theme and concept all along.

Now, given that this is a mystery fiction blog, I do have to say that the mystery element here is similarly unfocused. There is no crime to investigate or murder to look into in spite of a strange challenge to the reader issued just before the halfway mark. Instead the reader’s task is to make sense of the conversations and work out what the point of the story is and how these ideas will fit together. I found this to be quite a fascinating process and loved the different elements that Keeler is able to explore such as the collection of old safes that the elder Stannard has bought and keeps in his basement or the strange drug Pau-Ho which knocks people out for over a month before acting as a truth serum for several days.

Those looking for a more conventional mystery may appreciate the short impossible crime story The Verdict which features in the narrative around two third of the way through. This comes about when George is asked to select a story to print in his Uncle’s pulp magazine off the slush pile and while this feels quite random and contrived at the time, I did appreciate the way that Keeler makes it relevant later in the text.

As an impossible crime story it is quite solid and entertaining in its own right. A man is found dead in a locked apartment, the only exit to which is a window with a ten story drop. The weapon, a Chinese knife, only has one set of fingerprints on – those of the person who packed the knife up to be shipped to the victim. The explanation of how it is done is quite wacky and not particularly convincing but I enjoyed reading the story anyway and felt it fit well with the overall tone of the whole novel.

While I did enjoy the way this story was plotted and, in particular, its unorthodox structure there were some elements, there were some aspects of the novel that were less successful or pleasing. The most prominent of these issues for me was the abundance of racist sentiments not only from a character who we are supposed to dislike for holding those views but also from George who is supposed to be a more sympathetic figure. Keeler also has him mimic Chinese dialect patterns for ‘humorous’ effect. These instances jarred with me, particularly in the earliest chapters of the novel where they feature most often.

A lesser frustration for me was the odd way that everyone seems to have in this story of writing letters as though they were being spoken out loud as they were being composed. There are little stumbles and errors that are left in for the reader and while that may make sense with some of the characters, in other cases the informality seems quite out-of-place. It’s a small thing but it did pull me out of things a bit at times.

My final issue with the novel is that there is an encounter which the book seems to trail and set up for the reader to anticipate that never happens. This seems odd because all of the other loose ends are tied up very efficiently and it is admittedly a very minor thing but I was waiting for some sort of payoff that never came.

Though the nature of this novel and some of the issues I had with the novel keep me from writing a broad recommendation, I did find this a fascinating and compelling read and admired how tightly it was constructed. Keeler’s story, characters and themes are powerful and while I had no idea where this was all headed until the last handful of pages, I enjoyed the experience of finding out how it was all connected. I am certainly curious to try some of his other work should any cross my path.

June 2018 in Review

Are we really halfway through 2018 already? It seems hard to believe but here we are. The good news from my perspective is that I have already marked 35 of the 48 categories off my Vintage Mysteries Challenge scorecard but I am finding that it is getting harder to just stumble onto titles that will qualify. No doubt I am going to have to do a little more planning if I am to check off some of these.

June turned out to be another solid month in terms of my reading. I had worried that the World Cup might get in the way of my finding the time to sit down with a book and I will admit that my reviews became a little more erratically timed but somehow it all worked out.

The books I read in June were:

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto
Once Off Guard by J. H. Wallis
From Doon With Death by Ruth Rendell
The Lake House by John Rhode
Santa Fe Mourning by Amanda Allen
Moscow Noir edited by Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen
Calamity at Harwood by George Bellairs
The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill
Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin
Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville
To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr
Athenian Blues by Pol Koutsakis

One of the first things I notice looking at that list is that I read more hard-boiled and noir material this month than usual. With the exception of the short story collection, Moscow Noir, I was pleasantly surprised just how much I enjoyed these works and while I had some discomfort with the presentation of domestic abuse in The Gravedigger’s Bread, I did fine plenty to admire in the construction of that story. Meanwhile I was very impressed with Pol Koutsakis’ nods to classic noir style in Athenian Blues which also features some great character work and discussion of modern Greece.

Death in the House of Rain is a very impressive work from Locked Room International that showcases the author’s inventive plotting while I was very pleased to find that I enjoyed To Wake the Dead more than I had expected based on the reviews I had read. And then there was the really interesting novel A Quiet Place which lacks a great puzzle but makes up for it in fascinating social and cultural observation and with its striking ending.

CoronersLunchAll of those would be strong picks but the one that grabbed me most and immediately sent me off scurrying away to acquire a copy of a sequel was The Coroner’s Lunch, a novel set in Laos after its revolution in the seventies. The mystery contains some unorthodox elements, not least the detective’s ability to see the dead, but does it in a way that feels appropriate to the culture while avoiding those visions revealing anything the coroner couldn’t have logically worked out with the information he has.

The characters are rich and splendid while the setting stands out for being so completely different from anything else I have read so far. So it will be my choice this month for Book of the Month and I hope to get tucked into the second volume very soon to find out what will happen to our hero next.

Incidentally, American Amazon Prime and Audible members may be interested to know that an audiobook recording of The Coroner’s Lunch is available to stream for free through Audible Channels at the moment.

Acquisitions: The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley, Death-Watch by John Dickson Carr, Most Secret by John Dickson Carr and The Double Alibi by Noel Vindry.

Athenian Blues by Pol Koutsakis

AthenianBluesAthenian Blues is the first novel in Pol Koutsakis’ series about ‘caretaker’ Stratos Gazis set in modern-day Athens. Stratos is not a good guy – he kills people for money – but he is successful enough to be able to pick and choose his clients which helps him assuage his guilt.

Stratos has been approached by Aliki Stylianou, a model who has turned television star. She is looking to have her husband, a famous lawyer and philanthropist killed. She claims that not only has he been abusing her but that he has made two attempts on her life. He tells her that he will look into her situation before deciding if he will take the job.

Shortly after their meeting, Stratos learns that her car has been found with a woman shot to death inside it. When he gets close to the victim however he realizes that while the woman resembles Aliki, it is someone else.

Before long he finds himself speaking with the husband, Vassilis, at gunpoint. He has a proposal of his own, telling Stratos that he wants to keep his wife safe and offers to pay whatever price he sets to find who is responsible. Stratos will have to decide who he can trust as he tries to get to the bottom of just what is the truth about that marriage and why someone is targeting Aliki.

 

Athenian Blues is a story that draws heavily on its classic hard-boiled and film noir influences but which also feels a decidedly modern work. Part of that reflects the references to Greece’s recent economic and political turmoil which places this very firmly in our own time. There is even a bit of a #metoo angle with a seedy film producer character that Stratos interviews. But I think what also stands out as modern and different is the way Koutsakis handles and develops the relationships between Stratos and his circle of friends. I found those relationships to be just as interesting and rewarding as the case itself.

Stratos intrigues as a protagonist because this is a hardened character who is not a loner but rather retains strong connections to that circle of childhood friends, each of whom knows what he does. His friend Drag is a homicide cop who keeps his distance when necessary but who is also around to be backup for him when he is in danger or to help clean up any messes he gets into. Both men are in love with Maria and each has had a relationship with her but she has got married, creating a slight awkward dynamic between the three. And then there’s Teri, a transgender prostitute who helps him line up jobs and who has developed her own awkward dynamic with Drag since her surgery.

The relationships between the four characters are rich, complex and rewarding and it is clear that there is immense scope for Koutsakis to explore them further in later novels. This background also humanizes Stratos, immediately giving us a sense of who he is and what he values, and in the brief story of his first meeting Drag we get to see what created that bond between them and that he had his code long before he was a seasoned professional killer.

Turning back to this story, Koutsakis creates a vibrant and colorful cast of characters for Stratos to investigate though morally they are mostly composed of shades of gray. As with most of the film noir stories that are referenced throughout the novel, we are reminded that there are no easy heroes nor clear villains to be found here. Instead we must read the situations Stratos finds himself in and try to reconcile the varying accounts we get of Aliki and her husband.

Tonally, the piece is more a psychological investigation than puzzle mystery though there are a few clues and red herrings to throw the reader off. Readers of hard-boiled crime fiction may anticipate some of the story beats but I think the execution is strong and I enjoyed seeing how Stratos would make some of the connections or get his way with an elusive witness or source.

Admittedly the case itself does feel a little thin and readers may feel that one twist near the end wasn’t built up enough beforehand to achieve its full impact. I also think the confrontation at the end becomes a little exposition-heavy with an awkwardly stretched conversation taking place. This has the unfortunate effect of making it feel a bit like one of those Bond pastiches where the villain explains everything in enormous detail while giving him more time to hatch an escape. Still, given the comparative brevity of the novel I can forgive this slightly clumsy device.

Though the idea of a killer sleuth has been done before, it is the dynamics between Stratos and his friends that really set this book apart for me and had me take notice of it. If you like character-driven stories or are a fan of a hard-boiled style of detective fiction, you may well want to check this series out. I will be looking forward to seeing how future titles in this series develop this collection of characters.

To Wake The Dead by John Dickson Carr

WakeTheDeadChristopher Kent, after getting somewhat merry and having an argument with a friend, makes a wager that he cannot make his way from South Africa to London by a certain date without using any of his own money or his family name. He has achieved this with some time to spare and with remarkably little incident but, having burned through the money he earned on his journey, he stands outside his friend’s hotel feeling tired and hungry.

A card flutters down from the sky with a room number written on it and that gives Kent an idea. He goes to the dining room, declaring that he is the occupant of Room 707 and is delighted when the staff begin to serve him breakfast. That delight turns to horror however when he is asked by the manager to return to his room to search for a bracelet left by a guest the previous day. On going into the room he discovers a woman lying dead, strangled, on the floor and no sign of the bracelet. Worried that he will be blamed for this death, he slips through a side door and goes to see Dr. Fell with whom he has had a lengthy correspondence and who he hopes will be able to get him out of this mess.

My approach to reading John Dickson Carr has been a little chaotic, picking titles based on their availability to me rather than based on order of publication or their reputations. I knew coming to this one that it regarded as being a fairly average Dr. Fell story, with it placing as eighth best in JJ’s rankings of the first ten Fell novels and getting a fairly mixed review from Puzzle Doctor. It is however available to purchase as an e-book making it one of the few that it is easy to get your hands on without visiting secondhand book stores or relying on a library sending you their copy.

Coming to this with expectations of a middling title, I was rather delighted to find that I really enjoyed the opening to this novel. While there is admittedly not an impossible crime or locked room to be found here, I loved how tightly controlled the crime scene becomes and the strange little details that point to something odd going on.

For instance, Kent is absolutely certain that when he checked the room that the bracelet that he was sent in there to find was not in the dresser. A few minutes later however the staff enter the room themselves and, in searching that same dresser, find it easily in one of the drawers. Similarly, the various staircases and elevators were under observation throughout the night and the hotel staff were accounted for so who was the man observed in uniform in the corridor around midnight and how did he gain access to the floor?

The other thing I noticed early on in the novel was just how fast the action moves. Once Fell arrives at the crime scene, little time is given over to reflection or to discussing what they have already learned and instead we seem to be learning some new detail every few pages. There is even a rather remarkable interview that takes place at the halfway point of the novel that unexpectedly addresses many of the problems with the case,  suddenly making sense of them, but even that creates further difficulties for our investigators to resolve. Until the murderer is caught and Dr. Fell explains what had happened it really never lets up.

The explanation for what had taken place is, as is typical with Carr, ingeniously plotted and I loved that one aspect of the solution is sitting in plain sight for the reader and yet is easily overlooked. That revelation was, for me, the most satisfying moment of the novel and one that really appealed to my imagination.

I think the killer’s plan is really rather cleverly worked out, even if there is one aspect of it that I found a little less than satisfactory. As always, I am keen to avoid spoilers but I think I can say that it is a case of an aspect of the story that is fairly clued and yet feels like it is a lazy and convenient way to work around an obstacle. I did not personally consider it to be cheating on Carr’s part because I do think it was hinted at beforehand but I know there are plenty of readers who do. I would agree though that it is the least satisfying aspect of the resolution.

Like JJ, I did find however that there is one aspect of the initial setup for the crime that I expected to have greater significance than it actually turned out to do. As in, actually being meaningful at all. And yet because the whole story sort of starts from that small but ultimately quite unimportant plot detail, it is a little hard to just write off as a coincidence as we are later told to do. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story – it just is a rare little untidy and out-of-place thread in an otherwise extremely tight work.

I really enjoyed my experience reading this and tore through the book in a single sitting which is always a sign that I was engrossed. I think it boasts a fantastic story hook and while it may disappoint by not being an impossible crime, it is really cleverly plotted and structured in spite of a little clunkiness in one aspect of its solution. Like Nick, I consider this to be underrated and while The Case of the Constant Suicides remains my favorite Carr so far, I enjoyed this about as much as I did the similarly audacious The Problem of the Green Capsule.

This excites me because if I found a book that many think is middling in quality to be this entertaining, I can’t wait to discover some of the books they think of as great.

Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville

ThrackleyI always look forward to getting my hands on titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but this one was particularly exciting for me. You see, Death of Anton from the same author was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year and remains one of my go-to suggestions when someone asks for a recommendation from the range.

Weekend at Thrackley was the author’s first work and represents a different style of storytelling more reminiscent of some of the early Agatha Christie thrillers. It is unmistakably from the same author however being told in a very witty style that often draws comparisons with Wodehouse. Not all the jokes land quite as well as they probably did in 1934 but even when a joke falls flat, the humorous approach gives the book a light and breezy quality that makes it a pleasure to read.

The hero of our story is Jim, an unemployed young man who unexpectedly receives an invitation to a country house party from a man he doesn’t know. That man, Carson, claims to have known his father and while he is perplexed by this supposed connection, he is not one to pass up a weekend of fine dining so agrees to go. It turns out that one of his friends has also been invited down and the pair motor down together, making an agreement to have a coded message arrive should they wish to make an early escape.

When they arrive they encounter a fairly strange mix of guests, none of whom know Carson personally either and they have little in common with each other. We will soon learn the reasons why they have been invited however and, knowing those intentions, we then watch to see how those plans will play out.

The characters comprising the house party are rendered in varying degrees of detail with some remaining only loosely sketched. Freddie Usher, Jim’s friend, was a favorite as while he is quite affable he is not a great thinker. Kate in her excellent review suggests that he ends up acting as a sort of ‘not hugely bright sounding board for Jim’ which I think is pretty accurate.

There are three other characters who stand out: a shapely dancer named Raoul who is in a popular West End show, a socialite who enjoys supporting a diverse mix of causes and Carson’s daughter. Much like those early Christie thrillers, there is a light romantic subplot here that adds some appeal to the story. Happily though this character is more than just someone for Jim to hold at the end as she will play an important role in some key points of the resolution making her feel much deeper than the romantic interests often do in these stories.

Given we already know the villain’s identity and plans, there are really only two questions that the reader will be invited to solve: why was Jim invited to this party and how will Carson be stopped? While I found the twists and turns of Melville’s story to offer little in the way of shock or surprise, I did think it was very neatly executed and easy to follow.

While I think Weekend at Thrackley does what it sets out to do quite well, unless you are specifically a fan of lightly comical thrillers I would not suggest it as your first encounter with this author. The book certainly charms and entertains but it reveals so much so soon that it is not particularly mysterious while, if you are looking for a comic read, those elements become less prominent in the story in its action-dominated final third.

Melville’s Death of Anton feels like a more substantial and complete work, reflecting his development as a writer and a growing comfort in subverting some of the traditional beats of a mystery story. Alternatively, while I think Quick Curtain disappoints as a mystery it does at least maintain its humorous approach throughout the whole novel, building it into its resolution.

If you have read and enjoyed those other titles however, I do think there is plenty here to appeal. While it may have been his first novel, Melville had clearly already developed his voice as an author by this point and he writes an entertaining, charming piece of fiction. I really hope that the British Library will release his other remaining crime fiction works as I gather he played around with some of the other crime fiction subgenres and his work, even when not perfect, is always sparklingly witty and charming.

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 7 by Poisoned Pen Press.

Death in the House of Rain by Szu-Yen Lin

HouseofRainThe titular House of Rain is a striking three-story building in the shape of the Chinese character for Rain constructed on a mountain in Taiwan. It was designed for a wealthy car dealer who intended to retire there with his wife, daughter and father. The father died soon after they moved in however and some time later the others were murdered in horrific fashion.

Death in the House of Rain takes place around the time of the first anniversary of those tragic events. The house has now passed into the possession of that entrepreneur’s brother, an academic, who lives there with his daughter. The daughter invites her college friends to come and stay for the weekend while the professor asks Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy and amateur detective, to help him work out the truth behind his brother’s murder.

Isolated when falling rocks block off the road, the residents of the house soon find that they are being picked off one by one as members of the party turn up dead in locked rooms. Ruoping Lin will not only need to solve that historical crime, he must also figure out how and why people are being murdered to prevent more deaths from occurring.

Death in the House of Rain is a very fast-paced read, managing to pack multiple locked room murders into a relatively brief page count while making each death seem quite striking and distinct. Several of these deaths feature some pretty macabre elements and a sense of doom seems to hang over the house, building anticipation of what is to come and that no one is truly safe.

It is those macabre touches that really stood out to me and give the novel much of its personality. The first death that happens in the present day was particularly effective as Lin does not show us the moment of death but rather the build up to it and then subsequently the bloody aftermath. I found this to be quite chilling and was happy that when an explanation for what happened is finally given that it didn’t diminish those feelings but rather that it lived up to this strange and grotesque scene.

Our primary sleuth, Ruoping Lin, does not make a particularly big impression either positively or negatively for much of the story. He is certainly not a showy figure, nor is he too closely involved with the events that take place. When the moment comes for him to explain what has happened he offers a very credible and ingenious account of what has happened and so I felt he fulfilled his role well. I will add that I loved the way he uses a landmark impossible crime text to support his reasoning.

We are given a pretty wide assortment of characters and it is not clear who are suspects and who are victims. Lin establishes the idea that any one of these characters might die early in the story and develops some interesting back stories for some of them that make them more than a stock set of types.

Perhaps the most striking character however is the house itself. I am growing more accustomed to the idea of peculiar architecture coinciding with impossible crimes but the house here is easily the most curious and foreboding of the ones I have encountered in impossible crime novels so far. Not only is the shape of the house genuinely eccentric, the building feels wonderfully detailed. There are multiple pages of plans (if you are reading the Kindle version be aware that these come before the table of contents so your device may skip over them) and I was struck by just how important the physical space was to establishing the tone and the events of the story.

While I was impressed by the book as a whole, I do have to note that there is an element of coincidence in several of the deaths. Any one of these deaths on their own would be unlikely but some may feel that it stretches credibility to have several such deaths all occurring in a short space of time. I appreciated that the author anticipates this complaint however and builds a rationale for his plot into his story that struck me as cleverly reasoned and sufficiently convincing for me to overlook it.

I was particularly pleased however by the coda to the book in which Lin takes us back to the initial murders from a year earlier and provides an explanation for what took place there. I felt that this made for a particularly satisfying and punchy ending that wrapped things up very tidily and provided a strong sense of closure.

Having read rave reviews of this novel when it first came out, I can only be sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading it for myself. This was my first experience of Szu-Yen Lin’s work and I can only hope that some other novels may eventually make it into English-language translation in the future as I found it to be a very exciting and compelling read.

 

The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

CoronersLunchThe Coroner’s Lunch was one of the first books I purchased after starting my blog last year. I was immediately drawn to its striking cover and unusual setting and while it has taken me longer to get around to reading it than I had planned, I was excited to give it a try.

The novel is the first in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series that is set in Laos in the immediate aftermath of their Communist revolution. The main character is a seventy-two year old medical doctor who unexpectedly (and somewhat unwillingly) finds himself appointed as Laos’ only coroner after the revolution as all the other doctors have fled. He had no experience of the work prior to his appointment and is still learning on the job throughout this investigation.

I say investigation, but The Coroner’s Lunch is actually made up of several cases that are somewhat connected. The first concerns the suspicious death of the wife of a senior government figure. Siri is only part way through the autopsy when he is told to abandon his work and to accept a diagnosis made by a family doctor.

The second concerns the discovery of three bodies in a reservoir, bound and tied to the casings of inactive Chinese bombs. Their tattoos seem to suggest that they may have originated in Vietnam, prompting tensions between the two socialist countries to rise and giving Siri’s work international significance.

Finally there is a third case that takes place in the middle of the novel and which feels quite distinctive both in topic and style from those other two. One of the aspects that makes this case stand out is that it features strong spiritualistic or supernatural elements. Those elements are most strongly featured in this story thread but play a very important part in the story as a whole.

When he sleeps Siri dreams of being visited by the spirits of the corpses he has interacted with that day. At times those spirits simply share his space but at others they reenact aspects of how they were killed, giving him a clearer idea of what may have happened to them. It is a plot device that ought not to work, seeing as how it seems at odds with anything approaching ratiocination, though if you wish I suppose you can imagine that Siri’s dreams are manifesting things he has already seen and worked out on a subconscious level.  Either way it seems to fit and makes some sense within the context of this setting which was what was important to me.

Because Siri is investigating three quite different cases with little apparent overlap there are times where the narrative may seem to be lacking a clear direction or set of unifying themes or ideas. In time though I came to appreciate that Dr. Siri himself is the unifying force of the novel as we grow to know and understand the character, discover a little more about his past and see some of the contradictions within his character.

I have read some reviews that compare the character of Dr. Siri to Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While I think there are some differences between the two series, not least in terms of tone, both use humor well to balance moments of darkness, develop a cast of appealing characters for the sleuth to rely on and place them in a situation where they are having to work out how to do a job without any training.

What strikes me most about the character of Siri however is the way that Cotterill is able to present us with a portrait of what it may have felt like to live through a political revolution. He is cynical about many aspects of the revolution and the way his society is developing but he does not perceive himself to be living in an extraordinary time but instead it is simply part of his reality. At the same time, Cotterill makes it quite clear that there are dangers with the threat of re-education and that the Police no longer have a list of rights to read those they arrest present in the back of the reader’s mind.

While the characters and the settings are the primary draws here for me, I do want to stress that I did find the cases to be interesting if not imaginative. Cotterill creates a few interesting images and ideas but I found the way Siri is affected by his investigations to be more intriguing than their premises. I was impressed by the way he is able to pull these seemingly very disparate threads together in the final chapters of the book and felt that the ending was particularly satisfying.

I enjoyed The Coroner’s Lunch a lot though I would note that it features a few elements that may frustrate some readers. In particular those who have aversions to detectives who solve things by hunch or supernatural phenomena may be frustrated by the way Siri’s dreams are used at key points in this story. If you like stories that focus on building the character of the detective and exploring a society or period of history then I think there is a lot to enjoy here and would certainly recommend it.