Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Book Details

Originally published 2016

The Blurb

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life: married to a respected judge, mother of a beloved son, living in the beautiful house where she was raised. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. And when Lydia’s son, Laurence, discovers its secret, wheels are set in motion that lead to an increasingly claustrophobic and devastatingly dark climax.

The Verdict

A very solid example of a whydunnit with several interesting and sympathetic characters. Its greatest strength is in its conclusion which made for compelling reading.


My Thoughts

Lying in Wait was an impulse purchase based on nothing more than its first line, helpfully quoted at the start of the blurb. Clearly this would be an inverted crime story and, as we all know, those are my sort of thing…

The story concerns the death of a young woman at the hands of Andrew, a judge. The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the murder and so we witness how Andrew and his wife respond to the incident but it is some time before we learn exactly how and why it happened. Those initial chapters focus heavily on the cover-up and exploring the ways that murder alters the relationships within the Fitzsimmons and Doyle families. It is only once we delve deeper into characters’ histories that we get a clearer sense of how and why this crime took place.

Liz Nugent tells her story from the perspectives of three different characters involved in this tragic set of events. The first is Lydia, the woman who identifies her husband as the murderer in that first sentence and who witnessed that murder. The second is Karen, the sister of the dead girl. She provides us with the backstory of the victim’s earlier life but later in the novel she falls into an investigative sort of role, trying to find out what happened to Annie. Finally we have Laurence, Lydia’s only son who begins the story as a rather sullen teenager.

Nugent alternates between the various perspectives, often ending a chapter at one point in time, then jumping back a little way to show you the same events (or part of them) from a different perspective. I found this to be an effective technique as it clearly distinguishes what one set of characters know from another, allowing for some moments of dramatic irony as we are aware of information that is unknown to the narrating character and can predict future areas of conflict or problems that may arise for the characters.

The novel is also split into several time periods with the first part of the book set in 1980, the bulk in 1985 while the final few chapters take place in 2016. I think that this allows us to see how this murder has a powerful and lasting impact on the fates of everyone involved. This is most pronounced in the case of the victim’s family but Laurence is a particularly interesting figure as he only has a partial knowledge of what happened for a substantial part of the novel.

I was impressed with Nugent’s implementation of the multiple narrators technique. Each of the three characters have distinct and identifiable personalities and narrative voices. This is particularly clear in the judgments they make of each other and while Karen and Lydia only have limited interactions for much of the story, it is interesting to read how they respond to each other and the judgments they make when they do.

I also respect the depth of characterization that is present, not only in these three characters but also in the others that flesh out their different worlds. I had little difficulty imagining them, particularly the more colorful characters like Laurence’s first girlfriend, Helen and I enjoyed moments where we got to read a different character’s interpretation of that same person. Several of these characters seem to change over the course of the novel, often in response to the murder plot itself, which only makes the time jump more effective.

While I enjoyed each of the three narrative voices, I have a clear favorite: I think the character of Laurence is the most interesting, in part because we have an advantage on him in knowing what he does not. Over the course of the book we not only see Laurence struggle to get out from under the control of his domineering mother but also coming to the realization that his father may have been involved in Annie Doyle’s murder. His responses are interesting, often borne out of a desire to protect his family, and I could understand his decision making, even when some of those choices seemed certain to harm him.

Lydia however is arguably a more familiar and perhaps less nuanced character, although I think she does have an interesting personal history that gets pulled out in later chapters of the novel. Those chapters are well written and contain some of the novel’s most exciting moments, particularly in the last third of the novel, but they also hit some of the more familiar notes and themes, especially in relation to her feelings about her son. Still, those ideas are done well and feel appropriate to the overall development of the story.

In terms of the overall plot, I should probably emphasize that this is more of a crime story than a detective story. While several characters do conduct an investigation that is important to the novel’s plot and the reader can work out how it is likely to end, there are not really many opportunities to play armchair detective. This is much more interested in those character relationships and in figuring out how the central tensions between the three narrators will work out.

It is this aspect of Nugent’s novel that I find most worthy of attention. The story is structured brilliantly and the author brings the different strands together well in the end to deliver a powerful conclusion. I was not really shocked by any aspect of that ending – Nugent establishes the key points very clearly – but there is something quite electrifying in seeing how those ideas come together and witnessing the fallout at the end of the novel.

While there are a few surprising moments, I would suggest that what this novel does best is solidly executing its key dramatic beats to enable the story to change direction, often altering key power dynamics between the characters. I was keen to see how those tensions would resolve and while I felt pretty sure I knew how the book might end, I felt the execution of that ending was quite excellent.

Lying in Wait was my first experience of Liz Nugent’s work but I have to say that I was impressed and plan to investigate more of her stories – I would gladly take any recommendations if people have them. I found her writing style to be engaging and enjoyed the attention she gave to putting her characters in interesting situations and resolving those areas of conflict. It is, in my opinion, a very solid example of a whydunnit and while those answers come fairly early in the text, Nugent does a fine job of exploring the impact of those revelations throughout the rest of the novel.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

Columbo: Greenhouse Jungle (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast October 15, 1972

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Étude in Black
Followed by The Most Crucial Game

Written by Jonathan Latimer
Directed by Boris Segal

Key Guest Cast

Ray Milland won Best Actor for 1945’s The Lost Weekend. Thriller fans may be most familiar with him from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Trekkies might recognize Arlene Martel and Sandra Smith from episodes of Star Trek. Martel had a particularly memorable role as T’Pring, Spock’s fiancée in the story Amok Time.

The Verdict

Certainly entertaining, even if it is close to impossible to imagine Jarvis’ actually being convicted on the limited evidence Columbo finds.


My Thoughts

Spendthrift playboy Tony Goodman lives off payments from a trust fund but is unable to touch the capital. Frustrated and hoping to use the money to pay his wife’s young lover to skip town, he concocts a plan with his Uncle Jarvis to fake a kidnapping and use his trust fund to pay his own ransom.

The first act of this episode is unusual in that Columbo is on the case prior to an actual crime being committed. Tony’s car has been found in a ditch with signs of a gun having been fired at it leaving a bullet embedded in the driver’s seat. We will be almost halfway into the episode before Columbo begins to investigate a murder.

There are shades of Ransom for a Dead Man here but I think there are more problems with the concept here. Essentially the viewer has to believe that Tony is an absolute idiot. Now, this has been established pretty well by things his wife and uncle have told us but even then it is hard to believe that someone could be so naive and trusting as he is here. Jarvis exudes contempt for him and clearly has no sense of duty so why does Tony trust him so easily?

What’s more I think the idea that they are colluding raises awkward questions about just how that came about. Clearly this plan is Jarvis’ idea in the details and yet the situation that brings it about seems more Tony’s doing. Jarvis doesn’t seem pressed for cash, even if collecting orchids is an expensive hobby as Columbo points out, so he is putting himself at a lot of risk – particularly as he clearly has no faith in his nephew’s abilities.

Let’s talk a little about Jarvis because he’s a character that I have somewhat mixed feelings about. Like Eddie Albert in Dead Weight, Jarvis is often quite entertaining – particularly as he gives out some stinging remarks (Columbophile actually dubs him “the king of Columbo put-downs”). However the difference between the characters is that he doesn’t have a second level or personality to contrast that with, making the character feel a little one-note.

While Tony may be an idiot, Jarvis’ plan is relatively sound but the flaws are in his delivery. He makes a conscious choice to engage with the police prior to the murder taking place which exposes him and leads to Columbo being on his tail right from the start. He does a good job of staying calm under pressure but does enough to let Columbo know that he is on the right track – particularly based on his conduct immediately after the money drop.

I alluded to how Jarvis really has no clear motive for the crime and I think that represents a problem. Is it a disgust at Tony’s weakness or his feelings for his wife, anger at being passed over or some cash flow issues that aren’t obvious? We lack an understanding of why he would do this which I think the character probably needed to give Ray Milland’s performance a little more focus. For what it’s worth, my best guess is that he simply hates Tony but if I am left searching for a motive at the end of a story then it really hasn’t been communicated well enough.

Happily even if the foundations of the case are a little weak, the episode is frequently very entertaining. There probably aren’t enough scenes where Milland and Falk play directly opposite each other but what we get is fun. Columbo has the measure of him from pretty much the start and while it isn’t spelled out why at first, I think the reasons he has to feel suspicious make a lot of sense.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this episode for me was that Columbo is assigned a young officer to assist him. This officer, Sergeant Wilson, is extremely enthusiastic about the latest methods and technologies which produces a fun, indirect competition between the pair as Wilson seeks to show off those new methods.

While Jarvis ought to be the focus of this story, I think it is this rivalry with Wilson is the aspect of the story I enjoyed most. I found myself wishing that the character would have come back for further stories as I think that tension helps to really bring Columbo’s own approach into focus.

I love that Columbo isn’t openly antagonistic but rather gives Wilson space to demonstrate and use those ideas, confident that his tried and tested techniques will get him results. I also appreciate that Wilson isn’t presented as an idiot but a thorough and diligent officer. For an example of that, look at the way he handles the search for a firearm late in the story. His only disadvantage is that he lacks the sense of people gained through experience that Columbo has and takes them largely on face value.

Judged purely on the merits of the case, I think this falls short. The situation seems too contrived – I simply could not imagine how the plan comes about and Jarvis’ lack of a clear motive feels messy. It is the business around the case – the discussion of orchid care, the tension with Wilson and the bizarre detail that Trust Fund Tony gives all the women in his life signed headshots of himself as gifts – that make this story entertaining.

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer

Book Details

Originally published in 1951
Shaffer originally published this under the name Peter Anthony.

Mr Verity #1
Followed by How Doth The Little Crocodile

The Blurb

The little Sussex town of Amnestie had not known a death so bloody since the fifteenth century. And certainly none more baffling— to all except Mr Verity. From the moment he appears this bearded giant— ruthless inquirer, devastating wit and enthusiastic collector of the best sculpture— has matters firmly (if fantastically) under control. Things are certainly complicated, but this is hardly enough to deter Mr Verity. As he himself observes: “when the number of suspects is continually increasing, and the number of corpses remains constant, you get a sort of inflation. The value of your individual suspect becomes hopelessly depreciated. That, for the real detective, is a state of paradise.”

The Verdict

More amusing than raucously funny, but the mystery is solid enough to please puzzle fans.


My Thoughts

It is always exciting when a new British Library Publishing catalog arrives and I get to look through to see what new releases are coming up. I love to look through and pick out the upcoming titles I am most excited about. Sometimes it is because the author is an old favorite but sometimes it is because there is a title you didn’t expect to see at all. That was the case with The Woman in the Wardrobe by playwright Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer is perhaps best remembered for his plays Equus and Amadeus but he also penned several mystery novels under the pseudonym Peter Anthony, sharing writing duties on later volumes with his brother Anthony Shaffer. This first volume however was apparently written by Peter Shaffer alone. These books have been out of print for a long time so it is exciting that the first has been made available again, complete with Nicolas Clerihew Bentley’s lovely illustrations.

The story begins with Mr. Verity observing a man climb into a bedroom window at the Charter Hotel. Thinking this odd, Verity decides to go inside the Hotel to alert the staff to the unusual behavior. Investigating, they discover the door to the room is locked. Once inside, they find a man shot dead, a woman tied up in the wardrobe and the window locked from the inside.

Mr. Verity, who is apparently already a seasoned amateur sleuth, is drafted in to help Inspector Jackson with his investigation. In practice however he quickly seems to take charge, identifying several suspects and leading the questioning. It is not hard to find people who wanted the victim dead – the problem though is understanding how they were able to lock the door and the window from the inside.

Before I get into talking about the plot itself, I should probably mention that this novel strikes a decidedly comedic tone. In his introduction, Martin Edwards describes how Verity is a ‘jokey version of the Great Detective’ type. I would agree that the character does call back to many of the amateur sleuths of the Golden Age but it is more pastiche than parody. Certainly we should take Verity more seriously than, say, Melville’s Inspector Minto.

Shaffer primarily uses two types of humor in this novel. Much of it is situational, such as the farcical movements of characters back and forth through the supposedly locked room. In his excellent review, Puzzle Doctor rightly suggests that there is something of the West End farce in those scenes and I would agree, although I found it more amusing than raucous.

Incidentally, I was struck when reading this just how well it would probably translate to being adapted into a theatrical production. Much of the action takes place in just a few spaces and most of the important points about the plot are conveyed in conversation rather than description. I never had any difficulty visualizing characters’ movements or actions which is invaluable in any locked room story.

The other strand of humor is more consciously zany, with an attempt to create a sense of the ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is a rather colorful suspect who speaks at length about his obsession with Verity and Jackson – I won’t say exactly what the subject of that obsession is but the passages in which they interact are the most overtly comedic in the novel. I found these pretty funny but I am conscious that they do feel somewhat tangential to the overall plot, particularly given how short the book is.

In addition to being a comical mystery story, The Woman in the Wardrobe is also a locked room mystery. Bob Adey is quoted in the introduction as describing this as ‘the best postwar locked-room mystery… [with] a brilliant new solution’. At this point let me say I agree with the second half of that statement – the solution is very clever indeed – but I disagree with the former.

My issues are largely presentational. Shaffer establishes from a very early point in the novel that while the victim’s room key is locked inside the room, there is a hotel master key unaccounted for. That key would enable anyone to lock the room from the outside, basically undermining the idea that the door is a barrier at all. While I trusted that this would not be the explanation because of Adey’s comment, that master key becomes a bit of a distraction.

My other issue with the locked room is impossible to describe in any details without giving a significant spoiler. The best I can offer is that there is a possible (and fairly obvious) explanation for how the locked door and window could have happened that is dismissed on logical grounds that are, I think, flawed and certainly I found them much less persuasive than Verity or Jackson did.

On the other hand, I do agree with Adey that the actual solution is brilliant (and I will trust him that it was new). Every aspect of that solution is carefully clued and Verity’s explanation given makes perfect sense of each part of the crime scene, overcoming my frustrations about each of the above points. While I do not think that Verity fully disproves the issues I mention above, I think his explanation of his own solution is clever and convincing that ends the novel on a very high note.

The Woman in the Window is a short but entertaining read. I was amused by the comedic elements of the investigation and appreciated the solution which felt clever and imaginative. I enjoyed this enough to hope that the other two Verity stories will follow in the future.

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1945

The Blurb

A deranged killer sends a doctor on a quest for the truth—deep into the recesses of his own mind.

After the death of Inis St. Erme, Dr. Henry Riddle retraces the man’s final moments, searching for the moment of his fatal mis-step. Was it when he and his bride-to-be first set out to elope in Vermont? Or did his deadly error occur later—perhaps when they picked up the terrifying sharp-toothed hitch-hiker, or when the three stopped at “Dead Bridegroom’s Pond” for a picnic?

As he searches for answers, Riddle discovers a series of bizarre coincidences that leave him questioning his sanity and his innocence. After all, he too walked those wild, deserted roads the night of the murder, stranded and struggling to get home to New York City. The more he reflects, his own memories become increasingly uncertain, arresting him with nightmarish intensity and veering into the irrational territory of pure terror—that is until an utterly satisfying solution emerges from the depths, logical enough to send the reader back through the narrative to see the clues they missed.

The Verdict

A suspenseful, atmospheric and unsettling read. The mystery plays fair and has a really clever resolution. Highly recommended.


My Thoughts

In his excellent introduction to the American Mystery Classics reprint, Joe. R. Lansdale recommends that readers attempt to consume this in a single sitting. The reason is that this is written as one long manuscript without any chapter breaks, almost as a stream of consciousness, and by doing so you allow the narrative to slowly build upon your senses of apprehension and dread.

I opted to follow Lansdale’s advice and I would strongly recommend that you do as well. This book is one of the trippiest and most disconcerting I have read in a while and I agree that it rewards a reader’s undivided attention.

The book is told from the perspective of Dr. Henry Riddle, a young surgeon who is attempting to make sense of a bizarre series of events. These concern Elinor and Inis – a couple who were travelling through Vermont from out-of-state in a plan to elope together and the hitchhiker with a torn ear, sharp teeth and a strange corkscrew walking style that joined them on their journey.

The particular part of Vermont they are in happens to be very remote and Riddle himself is a visitor, having been called into the area to provide care to a gravely ill man. The party decides to stop at the nearby Dead Bridesgroom’s Pond for a picnic but the meal has a violent end as the hitchhiker apparently kills Inis and attempts to murder his fiancée before speeding away in a car containing the corpse.

Dr. Riddle tries to understand is why he did not pass that car when it was seen heading along the road he was stranded on and given there was no turning before it should have passed him. It is a perplexing situation that becomes even stranger when he learns that the man he witnessed walk past him in the forest had been killed a short time earlier when he was struck by the fleeing car.

Rogers writes in a seemingly unfocused style, jumping forwards and backwards in the order of events. This represents his stream of consciousness and also his sense of confusion as he works around different points in the series of events, trying to make some sense of those experiences. The experience is as disorienting for the reader as it is for Riddle and the more we learn, the more confusing those events appear.

This unorthodox storytelling style is one of the most memorable aspects of the book because it is no mere gimmick. The apparent disorder of Riddle’s thoughts helps establish the mood and tone of the piece while also reflecting a key theme of the novel – that our observations may be unreliable as things are not always as they appear.

That idea can be applied to the novel itself as much as its plot. On the surface this appears to be a psychological suspense story with countryside noir elements. Those aspects of the novel are certainly there but beneath them Rogers has crafted an exceptional example of a fair play mystery with clever, logical clues and an audacious solution that you have a reasonable chance of reaching for yourself. It is a remarkable achievement that makes me wish Rogers had been more prolific in the genre.

The plot, themes and tone would be reason enough to read this but they are not the novel’s only strengths. I was struck by Rogers’ depiction of the rural setting and the feeling of being really isolated. This is not only important to the plot, it feeds into the book’s strange sense of atmosphere as we are reminded that you could travel for miles without seeing anyone and that if a killer does still lurk nearby, the characters have little hope of getting help.

This atmosphere seems to thicken the more you read and a slow, inexorable sense of dread grows as the tale nears its conclusion. That ending is as thrilling as it is clever, the tension building right up to the end.

There is plenty more I could say about this book but unfortunately doing so would spoil the book’s surprises. Instead let me sum up by saying that I found this book to be a truly gripping and unpredictable read. I appreciated the clever blend of psychological suspense and fair play mystery with several apparent impossibilities and that wonderful sense of atmosphere Rogers creates.

Strongly recommended.

A copy of the new American Mystery Classics edition was provided by the publisher for review.
The American Mystery Classics edition will be released on July 7th (print) and 9th (digital).

Columbo: Étude in Black (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast September 17, 1972

Preceded by Blueprint for Murder
Followed by The Greenhouse Jungle

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Steven Bochco

Key Guest Cast

The obvious person to highlight is John Cassavetes who plays our murderer. He was not only a prominent actor but also a screenwriter and director. He had directed and performed in Faces with Peter Falk just a couple of years before making this episode.

Myrna Loy plays his mother-in-law. Loy had been a star in the 1930s and may be most familiar to mystery fans for her portrayals of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.

Also, keep an eye open for Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) in a small part credited as house boy and future Lt. Brock (in the 80s and 90s Perry Mason TV films) James McEachin.

The Verdict

This feels noticeably slower than the episodes around it – reflecting its expanded running time. Though I enjoy the Falk and Cassavetes interplay, it is far too clear how Columbo will triumph.


My Thoughts

And… we’re off.

Welcome back for a second run of Columbo episode discussions. Expect weekly posts each Saturday for about the next two months. Do feel free to play along – I love to read what others make of these stories!

Étude in Black introduces us to Alex Benedict – the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We follow his movements as he prepares for a big, televised concert and also to commit a murder, though the victim is only revealed right before that murder takes place. A murder which intends to mask as a suicide.

The problem is that Columbo who has been assigned to the case cannot square the idea of suicide with the woman he sees in her photo albums. Now, I have some issue with the idea that people who appear happy externally would never commit suicide and I think Columbo’s assessment of her feels pretty superficial – the phrase “bedroom eyes” crops up for instance. It does however prompt a rather wonderful Peter Falk speech that I think is a great expression of his character’s outlook and values.

John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk, plays Alex Benedict as somewhat aloof and pompous. While many of the earliest Columbo villains seemed to find some point in common with the detective and even enjoy the game, Benedict is irritable and frustrated. Think of him as more Ross Martin (Suitable for Framing) than Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book). He is the sort of killer you really want to see brought to justice!

I enjoyed the pairing of the two actors though and, in particular, the way Columbo manages to get so far under his skin. This is often a favorite part of an episode for me but this episode gives us several great moments along those lines. Perhaps my favorite of those is a moment in which we see Columbo playing the piano badly, just to grab his attention, although his interactions with Benedict’s car are pretty fun too.

I also really enjoyed this story’s sense of scale. This episode seemed to have more locations than most including the famous Hollywood Bowl and the gorgeous house used for the Benedicts’ home. You definitely get a feel for the sort of lifestyle Benedict is enjoying, helping us to understand the character even better.

There is even a secondary plot strand of sorts with a peripheral character being dragged into the case. This only happens in one or two of the stories from the first season so it made for a welcome change to the usual story structure, even though it doesn’t last for long. Once again though, this is a useful reminder that while Columbo tends to focus in on the killer from the start, he will be looking at other leads “off screen”.

Finally this episode introduces us to Columbo’s faithful hound and there is a fun subplot in which he tries to work out what he will call the dog. Unfortunately that didn’t end in quite the punch I had hoped for but it is a nice bit of business and leads to a couple of funny lines.

Having mentioned several of the episode’s most successful elements, I do need to take a minute to acknowledge a few of its weaknesses. These begin with the pacing of the story which feels much slower than any of the Columbo episodes that precede it.

The issues with pacing arise out of the expanded running time of the episode as this works out about fifteen minutes longer than the standard running time. Unfortunately this expansion does not seem to have been a reflection of the complexities of the plot but rather the episode was expanded to fill a timeslot. There is plenty of padding – some of it enjoyable, some dull – but the investigation seemed to drag for me as a result.

One of the reasons for that is that the answer to how Columbo will catch the killer strikes me as really very clear from the moment the murder is committed. If you happened to miss the clear visual indicator of that or an earlier verbal clue, the director – Nicholas Colasanto who is best known as Coach from the earliest seasons of Cheers – highlights the pertinent clue all over again in a later sequence, spoiling any sense of mystery in the plot. It is really clunky and criminally undercuts one of the episode’s most entertaining moments in which another promising clue fails to come to fruition.

I have to say that the direction in general struck me as pretty underwhelming given the fantastic locations they had to work with. Shots are routinely long and a little shaky and every development seems to be telegraphed to the viewer. Even a sequence that mimics one of the most memorable from an earlier episode disappoints, not only because it feels somewhat derivative but because it feels so limiting, signalling so clearly where this story is headed.

Which brings us back to the end. In one sense I don’t think the end is all that bad. Certainly it is pleasingly visual and gives me exactly what I want with this type of killer – a moment where we see their inflated ego pop. Had it not been so clearly flagged over and over again it might even have made for a fun surprise.

There is little tension in that scene because there is no question of what will happen, what Columbo will point out or how Benedict will respond. Instead of making Columbo look really smart, I think it makes him look somewhat hapless – particularly when he tells us that the existence of a piece of evidence had never occurred to him (made all the worst by the bizarre and rather forced circumstances given for bringing it to his attention).

I have to say that of the various Columbo stories I have watched so far this is easily the most frustrating. There is a good idea here and had this been trimmed to be about twenty minutes shorter it could have been easily one of the strongest stories, even with some heavy-handed hints. Instead it just dragged for me, leaving me feeling all too ready for those end titles.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie

Book Details

Originally published in 1981 as 占星術殺人事件
English translation first published in 2004

Kiyoshi Mitarai #1

The Blurb

Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must solve a macabre murder mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years—in just one week. With the help of his freelance illustrator friend, Kiyoshi sets out to answer the questions that have haunted the country ever since: Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, ‘the perfect woman’?

With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion—pieced together like a great stage tragedy—challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain falls.

The Verdict

The locked room elements of the plot are oversold and the least interesting part of an otherwise fascinating case.


My Thoughts

Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is one of those books frequently cited as a later classic in the locked room sub-genre. As the cover of the Pushkin Vertigo reprint points out, this was selected by The Guardian as one of the top ten locked room mysteries of all time which was certainly enough to get my attention and get me to take a closer look.

This book has been on my to be read pile for some time. In what I can only describe as a comedy of errors on my part, I succeeded in purchasing three copies of the book over the past four months. At the same time, I also had a copy on loan from the library AND I own an ebook copy. An expensive mistake, though I did make sure I read at least a few pages from each of the copies!

The novel opens with an excerpt from a fictional document written in 1936 that is a blend of will and confession. In it the painter Heikichi Umezawa describes how he has come to believe he is possessed and that he must murder all of his daughters (biological and adoptive) except Kazue Kanemoto who is excluded because she is not a virgin and remove body parts according to their zodiac signs to create a body to a perfect woman, Azoth, to be brought into this world. The remains of his daughters will be buried at sites across Japan, also in accordance with their zodiac signs. This, he believes, will enable Imperial Japan to find prosperity.

The novel then jumps forward to 1979 and introduces us to our narrator, mystery fan Kazumi Ishioka, and astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai. We learn that a series of murders like those described by Heikichi took place over forty years earlier and that they remain unsolved in spite of the existence of the document. The reason for this is that Heikichi was murdered in his locked studio before the murders of his children and so could not have committed the murders himself.

Kazumi is providing Kiyoshi with details concerning each of the murders which, we are told, can be sorted into three groups. The first is the murder of Heikichi in his studio which was locked and bolted from the inside. The second is the murder of Kazue whose head is smashed in an apparent robbery. Finally we have the disappearance of the six daughters, step-daughters and nieces after travelling to Mt. Yahiko to lay Heikichi’s spirit to rest. It takes some time to find the mutilated bodies but they are found buried near mines across Japan, each missing the body parts as described in the initial document. Azoth, the creation presumed to have been made using them, is never found.

If my description above sounds dense and confusing, it reflects that this is a very complicated plot with a number of different elements at play. A consequence of this is that the earliest chapters often feel very dense and dry as the two friends describe and walk through the events and some of the theories that people have proposed to explain them. Shimada throws a lot of information at the reader which means that progress in the first section of the book can be a little slow, particularly if you are seriously trying to solve the case yourself.

The story opens up however once we are presented with a second document and the reasons for the protagonists’ interest in the case become clearer. This information, and a subsequent challenge from the authorities, leads the pair to undertake a journey to try and solve a case that baffled Japan for over forty years in under a week.

If the previous section of the novel felt stagnant and slow, these chapters inject some energy and excitement into the process. There is a real sense of discovery as the pair travel across Japan to talk with witnesses and the questions we are posed and try to answer are reworked and refined.

Shimada chooses to style his novel as a fair play mystery, providing not just one but two challenges to the reader. I found this to be quite charming, particularly given that while they are clearly related they place emphasis on different aspects of the crime.

The explanation for what had happened and why feels quite wonderfully audacious and I felt it was explained clearly. Compared with those earlier, dense chapters, these feel easy to follow and boast some very clever ideas.

The one aspect of the solution that I felt underwhelmed by was, strangely enough, the locked room itself. The mechanics of how this were worked do little to appeal to the imagination while I also found it hard to imagine the details of the crime scene, particularly the descriptions of the bed. I only really able to imagine the evidence properly towards the end of the book once the significant details had been explained.

I felt that, on the whole, Shimada played fair with the readers. Now, I will say that I would be surprised if readers picked up on every aspect of the solution by themselves, in part because Shimada’s handling of his evidence is so clever and precise. I came closer than I expected to, noticing several important clues, but I struggled to weave them together effectively into a cohesive whole. For me the solution is truly memorable and I enjoyed following our sleuths as they reached it.

The sleuths were the least interesting aspect of the book for me although I appreciated their method and some of the testy exchanges they share, particularly over the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Kiyoshi’s disdain for Sherlock Holmes is quite entertaining, particularly as he reaches for negative descriptions of the character. While he is not alone in wondering if the great detective is as brilliant as he is usually supposed – some of the criticisms made will be familiar to fans of the stories – I enjoyed them in large part because Kiyoshi seems oblivious to his own similarities with the character. For instance, both are reluctant to have their story retold, both are prone to lethargy followed by sudden bursts of energy and action and so on.

Beyond Kiyoshi and the first victim, Kazumi, however do not expect particularly rich characterizations. Much of the story is told in conversation between the two friends and so there are relatively few opportunities for interaction with other figures in the story. Also, given the high body count there simply are not many characters from that earlier period still around to talk to, meaning that several interviews feel a little peripheral to the main case.

Overall, I feel that The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is an interesting although sometimes challenging read. It has some inventive ideas but the early chapters contain so much information that they sometimes feel hard-going. For those who persevere through that heavy first section, the final destination is clever, original and explained very clearly with lots of diagrams making for a worthwhile read.


Second Opinion

For a second opinion from someone with much deeper knowledge of the impossible crime story check out JJ’s review at The Invisible Event.

Your Turn, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand

Book Details

Originally Published in 1935 as No Hero (US) and Mr. Moto Takes A Hand (UK)

Mr. Moto #1
Followed by Thank You, Mr. Moto

The Blurb

During World War I, Casey Lee was one of the best pilots around. Known for his boldness and bravery, he was heralded as a hero. But now the war’s over, the Depression is on, and Americans no longer have time for public heroes, leaving Lee washed up and desperate for work. When a tobacco company suggests he fly from Japan to North America, a feat which has never been accomplished, Lee jumps at the opportunity. Unfortunately, the idea is abandoned soon after he arrives in Tokyo, and he receives the news in the midst of one of the daily drinking binges with which he now passes the time.

Stranded in a foreign land with wavering loyalty to his home country, Lee has few friends, but his situation changes suddenly when he meets the intriguing Mr. Moto, a Japanese man who takes a particular interest in the down-and-out pilot. By the time he meets Sonya, Moto’s beautiful Russian colleague, Casey has unknowingly entered into a life-threatening plot of international espionage at the service of Japan’s imperial interests ― but will he realize the severity of his situation before it’s too late?

The Verdict

The thriller elements move quickly while the setting is treated much more sympathetically than I expected from a work of this era. While it is perhaps not an essential read, it is certainly an entertaining one.


My Thoughts

American aviator Casey Lee has travelled to Japan under the belief that he will be undertaking a commercial project to fly tobacco across the Pacific. If he could pull it off it would be the first time a pilot had accomplished the feat. Unfortunately he soon learns that the project has fallen through and is preparing to return to America when he is approached by Mr. Moto who asks if he would be prepared to undertake the same project in a Japanese plane.

Soon Lee finds himself travelling by boat rather than air and is surprised to find he is not alone on the ship. Several strange incidents occur during the trip but the most shocking comes when a body is found in his cabin. Finding himself in danger and unsure who to trust, Lee soon realizes that he is caught up in some political games and has to figure out what he ought to do.

While there is a dead body in this novel, I ought to stress that this is really not a conventional detective story or mystery. Rather it has much more in common with the sorts of adventure thrillers you might find from Agatha Christie in this period with an emphasis on incident rather than psychology or even careful clueing.

Casey Lee belongs to that category of thriller protagonists who are sympathetic largely because we are aware that they are caught up in events they cannot control. Still, I think he takes an interesting journey, starting the book as a washed up drunkard and ending it a little more aware of what exactly he wants. He can, at times, be frustrating but I did find myself invested in his fate and hoping he could avoid becoming collateral damage in these political games.

One of the most surprising aspects of the novel for me was how little Mr. Moto actually features in it. While his presence is certainly felt throughout the novel and he is responsible for bringing the protagonist into the adventure, he spends much of the book observing what was happening and takes little in the way of direct action. This reflects that Moto is not a detective – at least not here. He may ask questions and he is seeking an answer but he plays the role of spymaster, recruiting others to do that work for him.

The presentation of the character is generally quite sympathetic with Moto shown to be courteous, mannered and possessing a great deal of humanity. He is a man who is somewhat at odds with the nature of the role he finds himself playing and Marquand does a good job of indicating how he is sometimes uncomfortable with the work he is doing.

In terms of the structure of the story however at times he finds himself acting almost as an antagonist, creating dangers and problems for our protagonist. It is an interesting and often quite ambiguous characterization that is much more richly layered than you may initially assume.

Prior to reading the book I had been concerned whether the characterization of Moto or the Japanese setting might not have aged well. After all, I have read several books from this decade and the ones that followed it that, while seemingly well-intentioned, made some uncomfortable descriptions or uses of language.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that while Japan may at times be presented as mysterious and exotic, Marquand treats the Japanese with a great deal of understanding. Japan is shown to be a country keen to modernize and attain respect and power on the international scene. At the same time, Marquand places that within the context of other nations’ efforts to expand their influence in east Asia, making for a more thoughtful presentation of those issues and Japanese society than you might expect.

Similarly the portrayal of the American characters is not particularly positive and readers will likely understand why Lee is feel disaffected. Even when he starts to feel some patriotic sentiment later in the novel, he remains aware that the American officials he is interacting with are far from helpful and possess their own agenda. Lee’s best interests are a secondary concern for most of the people he interacts with.

All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. The final few chapters of the novel do a pretty good job of increasing the scope of the adventure and applying some additional pressures to the protagonist. This is not so much a case of adding more action elements but rather creating a situation where Lee is caught up in a race against time. This works pretty well and contributed to create a conclusion that I found to be pretty satisfying.

Overall, I was pretty pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. I would repeat my warning that this is really an adventure or thriller rather than a detective story and I think readers should be prepared to be frustrated with Lee’s decision making at points. Still, the adventure is well-told with a few striking moments and I had no difficulty staying engaged.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Book Details

Originally published in 2018

The Blurb

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

The Verdict

Played in the key of James M. Cain, Sunburn is a powerful and clever work in its own right with striking characterizations and a great premise.


My Thoughts

There is a pivotal sequence quite early in Sunburn in which one of the main characters cooks the perfect grilled cheese sandwich for the other. It is striking because it marks the moment at which the two characters really begin to actively engage with each other and also because it does not involve exotic or expensive ingredients – it is a sandwich that uses familiar ingredients but it is elevated by the choices that chef makes in how each familiar ingredient is incorporated.

Lippman similarly draws on some very familiar ingredients in constructing Sunburn. The couple with secret agendas meeting in a diner after drifting into each others’ paths is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook, something Lippman clearly acknowledges at several points. Lippman’s originality and genius comes in the form of refining each of those familiar elements, respecting Cain’s achievements but then delivering something that feels even richer and deeper, particularly with regards the exploration of the mindset of her female protagonist Polly.

Polly, who also goes by the name Pauline, has arrived in the sleepy town of Belleville, Delaware after leaving her husband and young child during a short break at the beach. This is not an impulsive act but rather a carefully thought-out plan. Upon arriving she talks a local restaurant owner into taking her on as a waitress and she starts to befriend another new arrival in town, Adam.

We soon learn that Adam is not all he seems and that he knows more about Polly than she realizes. The chapters in the first half of the book alternate between these two characters’ perspectives, exploring the events that brought them to Belleville and the connection the pair form. Both have agendas and recognize that they are keeping secrets from each other but there is a powerful attraction between the two that causes each character to give up some of their control and brings them closer and closer to each other.

The brilliance in the situation Lippman creates is that she establishes a relationship between the two built upon a foundation of lies and using one another but the characters are themselves aware of this to at least some extent. This means that both characters will second guess each other, never being entirely sure if they are being played themselves. This generates enormous tension at points, particularly in the later half of the novel in which an apparently accidental death is being investigated. At the same time, the attraction between the pair feels quite evident, making it seem all the more compelling. The only question is to what extent each is being sincere in pursuing that relationship.

As compelling as this situation is however, the novel would not work were it not for the thoughtful and at times ambiguous characterizations of Adam and Polly. Although we are privy to many of their thoughts, we are not told everything about their backgrounds and previous decisions. As such we are only able to perceive events with the lens of what we know in that moment and the reader may well find their attitudes and judgments towards Polly in particular shift throughout the book as we gain more information and build up a broader picture of that character and their life.

Prior to reading this book I had heard about it from some people I know who read it for a book club and several expressed the opinion that Polly is an unlikeable character. While I do not share that experience, I can understand why some will find Polly a difficult character to love or like. For one thing, the choice she makes at the start of the novel to abandon her young daughter seems to go against most people’s understanding of maternal feelings ought to be and so may read as somewhat abhorrent behavior. And yet when you follow her actions it soon becomes clear that she cares deeply about what happens to that child and that the decision is not as simple and selfish as it initially appears. But just when you feel warmer, a new element is introduced that prompts you to doubt your reading of Polly all over again.

Personally I found this characterization to be both thoughtful and realistic, often reflecting the deep and troubling complexities of human behavior, and I was soon rooting for her to fix her life and find some semblance of happiness with Adam (even if, given this is written in a noir style, that seemed impossible).

Adam is also quite a complex character, though in his case the complexities come in the form of some moral compromises and dishonesty in the way he has approached Polly. There are times at which I felt he was exercising careful and thoughtful judgment and yet I could not escape the idea that he may sometimes be seeing what he wanted to see to justify the choices he was making.

Lippman’s depiction of life in a small and quiet town is done well and I think her story acknowledges some of the challenges involved with drifting into the type of place where everyone knows each other and their business. While there is not a huge cast of supporting characters, the ones that are provided seem distinct and dimensional, adding to the sense of place and also time (the book is, after all, a period piece set in the mid-90s). The one exception would be a character who appears in flashback sequences but while that characterization is entirely presented solely from one perspective, I think that was probably necessary to clearly establish their role in the story and to clarify how the reader should feel about them and their actions.

While the first half sets up the circumstances that bring these two characters together and into each other’s arms, the second deals with the fallout from a death. It is this second half, rather than the story trappings themselves, that most remind me of Cain’s work. In particular, I found myself reflecting on an idea he often returns to in his work, that a crime can threaten to undo a relationship by introducing suspicion and mistrust of each other, particularly when they are forced to rely upon one another. That brewing mistrust is one of my favorite parts of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and Lippman proves just as good at credibly creating, sustaining and exploring those tensions. Adam and Polly are easily a match for, say, Frank and Cora.

If there is a disappointment, it comes for me in the final couple of chapters of the book. Now, I think thematically the story is wrapped up pretty perfectly and I liked that there is a moment of tension in that conclusion. Unfortunately I do not love that a key moment is not shown directly to us. While I could understand why the decision was reached to try and build up that sense of tension, it does mean that a key aspect of the story feels somewhat unresolved. Then again, other aspects of that conclusion feel thoughtful and powerful, seeming entirely earned and the final few pages in particular feel pretty gripping.

The Detection Club by Jean Harambat

Book Details

Originally published in 2020 in two volumes.
This review covers the works as a totality.

The Blurb

In 1930s England, the best mystery writers of the era come together to form the Detection Club. G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and others gather to eat, drink, and challenge one another. They are in for a bigger test, however, when eccentric billionaire Roderick Ghyll invites them all to his mansion on a private island off the coast of Cornwall, promising to enchant them with his latest creation: a robot that can predict the culprit in their novels. But when someone ends up murdered, who will lead the investigation? 

The Verdict

A simple but colorful mystery comic with a memorable setup and entertaining characters.


My Thoughts

Most of the time I find browsing my Amazon Kindle recommendations to be an exercise in futility. Having read several Gladys Mitchell books and a handful of Perry Masons, my recommendations are always pages of the same two or three authors.

Except this week. Suddenly The Detection Club Volume 2 turned up – the question of why not Volume 1 is a bit of a mystery in itself – and after a quick look at the sample pages I decided to give it a go.

As its title indicates, this tells a story involving members of the Detection Club, the famous society of mystery authors that included many of the leading figures of the Golden Age. The story takes place shortly after John Dickson Carr has been admitted to the group.

During a dinner a letter arrives inviting the members of the Detection Club to visit an island off the coast of Cornwall. The invitation comes from Roderick Ghyll, a billionaire who wants them to come and see Eric, a robot designed to predict the culprit in detective novels.

After giving the group a dinner, everyone heads to bed. During the night there are sounds of a struggle and cries for help from within Ghyll’s room. The door is locked but when it is broken down they find the window smashed and signs of a dressing gown submerged in the waters at the foot of the cliff. Realizing that they have a real mystery in front of them, the writers try to work out exactly what happened to Ghyll in their own distinctive fashions.

Perhaps the first thing I need to make clear is that Harambat is rather selective in the members he chooses to include. Unfortunately that means there is no Rhode, Berkeley or Crofts. Instead we are given Carr, Christie, Knox, Mason, Orczy, Sayers and, of course, G. K. Chesterton.

From left to right: Chesterton, Christie, Mason, Knox, Orczy and Sayers

The decision to trim the numbers does make sense – a bigger group would have been unwieldy – though it would have been nice to take a moment to reflect its broader membership. Of those used, several are obvious selections and while Orczy and Mason will be less familiar names to some readers, they do represent different personality types ensuring that each member of the party feels quite distinct from everyone else.

Smartly Harambat chooses to give some additional focus to Christie and Chesterton, establishing them as a sort of double-act. The pair trade witticisms and tease each other, providing much of the book’s sense of warmth.

Of the other characters, Knox and Carr fare pretty well. While they are primarily treated comedically, they both show off their styles and sensibilities well and each has some entertaining comedic moments that plays off their respective styles and reputations. The remaining members are treated mostly as comic relief and they often seem least engaged with the broader plot.

This brings me to one of the principle problems that the two volumes face and struggle to resolve. Who is the intended audience for this – Golden Age mystery fans or comics readers with a casual interest in mystery fiction? The book tries to be accessible to those with no knowledge of the genre but the humor is so based in a knowledge of these personalities that I do not think it works without that.

On the other hand, I think more seasoned fans of the genre may well wish that the various characters demonstrated their own approaches and their personalities in further detail. Sayers fares particularly poorly, being reduced to a running gag where she fires a handgun into the air and the other members dismiss her work.

I also enjoyed some of the extra elements that get thrown into the mix. At one point I found myself researching Eric the Robot and was delighted to find that it was a real thing and that the look here is pretty much spot-on. The styling of the piece seemed successful and established Ghyll’s character and personality well.

The mystery itself is, happily, pretty well crafted although my enjoyment suffered a little from my thinking up a solution that I believe would have been more satisfying than the one given. The solution basically works though and while the case is not particularly complex, it fits the length of these two books pretty well.

This brings me to my other complaint – the decision to split this into two volumes. The reason for doing this obviously makes business sense, pitching this at a lower price point to grab shoppers’ attention but the delivery is unsatisfying. The second volume feels incredibly short in comparison to the first and some aspects of the solution feel rushed or insufficiently clued.

Still, while it may not have been everything I hoped for from a Detection Club comic, I did find it to be lively, colorful and enjoyable. The books are fast, entertaining reads and I was left with a deep interest to go off and find out more about Mason’s Inspector Hanaud – a character I haven’t read before. If nothing else, I chalk that up as a success.