The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake

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The Beast Must Die
Nicholas Blake
Originally Published 1938
Nigel Strangeways #4
Preceded by There’s Trouble Brewing
Followed by The Smiler with the Knife

I should probably start out this review with a bit of an apology. What you are about to read will likely be a little more disjointed than my usual sort of review. I have spent the best part of two days working on this one but I am not truly satisfied with my efforts.

Part of the reason that I have found this novel so hard to write about is that it is difficult to avoid spoiling the novel’s twists. The Beast Must Die doesn’t even really become a Nigel Strangeways mystery until just before the halfway point so even discussing his role and purpose in the book risks taking me heavily into spoiler territory.

Having tried this multiple ways now I find I am incapable of discussing the book without at least giving away the nature of that first twist. If you want to come to this completely unspoiled here is my potted review: The Beast Must Die is an entertaining and interesting novel. I found the scenario quite compelling and felt Blake’s portrayal of Cairnes’ grief at the loss of his son to be credible and powerful. You don’t need to have read any of the previous Strangeways novels – this stands on its own – and I think it deserves its place on the CWA’s Top 100 list.

Mild spoilers follow (though nothing more than in many of the book’s blurbs). You have been warned!

In its earliest chapters The Beast Must Die appears to be an inverted mystery novel. I say appears to be because this novel can be classified as a pseudo-inverted story. What I mean by this is that Blake adopts many of the common elements, themes and stylistic choices of the form but when a murder does take place it is not done in the way we were anticipating and the would-be killer swears his innocence.

That would-be killer is Frank Cairnes, a successful mystery novelist whose life was destroyed when his young son is killed in a hit and run. Devastated at his loss, Cairnes vows he will discover who was responsible and kill them himself. In these early chapters which are styled as part of a diary he is keeping we follow his efforts to track down information and find the guilty party.

He comes to believe that the man responsible was George Rattery and sets about trying to get close enough to him to find evidence supporting his suspicions before he acts. In doing so he comes into close contact with members of Rattery’s family including Rattery’s own son Phil. Eventually he becomes certain that George was responsible and the diary portion of the novel concludes with a description of his plan to eliminate him.

At this point in the novel Blake switches perspective, moving from that first person diary-style account to third person narration. This switch is necessary because from this point in the story onwards we are no longer reading an inverted mystery but a more conventional form of detective novel in which we will be hunting for a killer. Basic facts of the crime need to be clearly established.

The second phase of the novel picks up at the point at which Cairnes attempts to implement his murder scheme and things unravel around him. Before long Rattery is found dead by a completely different method but Cairnes is aware that he will soon come under suspicion. He reaches out to Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help in handling this situation and in the hope that he might prove his innocence.

A little while ago I encountered another mystery novel that adopted a similar structure – George Limnelius’ The Medbury Fort Murder. In that instance I felt that the transition between the two styles was awkward and counterproductive while the time spent on the inverted section of the story seemed to lead nowhere.

Blake’s treatment of the same basic idea is far more successful here and I think it comes down to two reasons. The first is that the two phases of the novel each feel more clearly defined, providing a more natural transition between the two styles. The other reason that it works is that the discovery that Cairnes’ plot failed does not render the events of those early chapters redundant. Cairnes’ actions expose him to police scrutiny, causing him to contact Strangeways for assistance, while these chapters also pack a truly powerful punch on an emotional level.

These chapters are also interesting in that they present us with a situation that is fairly unusual for an inverted tale in having Cairnes become close to his victim’s family and friends. This sometimes presents complications such as when he wonders about the extent to which he is using another character and in others it helps stiffen his resolve. This not only adds to the interest in these early chapters, it also presents some interesting complications later in the story when Cairnes’ identity becomes known.

The detective phase of the novel is also handled extremely well and here, once again, Blake’s careful development of the novel’s structure pays off. Nigel’s introduction into the story is handled smoothly and feels at least reasonably credible. Because he already knows Cairnes and we have already become familiar with the other suspects we are able to get quickly stuck into the case.

The investigation is perhaps not the most dynamic or surprising I have read. Characters’ motivations are clear from the outset and there are few really surprising moments. The interest lies in exploring characters’ psychology and relationships, both of which Blake does extremely well.

This is not my first encounter with Nigel Strangeways – I have previous read short stories in the British Library anthologies Murder at the Manor and The Long Arm of the Law – but as both stories were extremely short I had little conception of the character. I will say that he has some attributes I often find frustrating such as his being another instance of the overly literate detective, but I think that is balanced well with other elements of his character. I also appreciated his relationship with his practical wife who joins him on this trip and makes her own contributions to this case.

This brings me to the even more tricky topic of the novel’s ending and the revelation of the killer’s identity. I think Blake achieves a memorable conclusion to his novel and I appreciated how Strangeways decides to handle their unmasking. It felt that it fit the tone of the overall piece and I think it is fair.

I do however have some problems with some aspects of how the killer conducted themselves, finding one choice particularly reckless. It didn’t necessarily damage the credibility of the solution and I think it makes sense based on their characterization but it did make me wonder why anyone would take on that degree of risk.

While I question that choice on a character level, I think it was the right choice for the novel. It certainly contributes to the ending, helping to make it a memorable and powerful conclusion to what is quite a remarkable and inventive read. Highly recommended.

Other Views

This novel has unsurprisingly been reviewed and written about extensively including by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime, Margot’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Past Offences, Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery and Tipping My Fedora.

JJ has a review of the book planned for tomorrow at his blog The Invisible Event so be sure to check it out and see whether we agree!

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Includes letter/s or diary extracts (or similar items) (What)

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

inthefog
In the Fog
Richard Harding Davis
Originally Published 1901

In the Fog introduces us to The Grill, an incredibly exclusive club in London that has existed since the restoration. Four members who have never met each other before are sat around the dinner table making conversation while a fifth member, Sir Andrew, sits in an armchair absorbed in a mystery novel.

One of the diners points out Sir Andrew and notes that an important vote will be taking place in Parliament that day on the Navy Increase Bill. Sir Andrew’s support is thought to be critical in swaying other members and if he were to make it to the House it would almost certainly result in it passing. Keen to prevent this from happening the diner begins to recount the story of a mysterious event that took place in the thick London fog in the hope of attracting Sir Andrew’s attention long enough for him to miss that vote.

Richard Harding Davis structures his story by splitting it into three sections, each narrated by a different character. When the first narrator finishes his tale, another of the diners steps in to take his place by telling other tales that supposedly relate to that first one. Each time Sir Andrew’s curiosity gets the better of him as he wants to find out the truth about what happened.

This novella is driven by its plot, reading more like an adventure story or thriller than a detective tale, particularly in the second tale. Each of the narrators’ accounts are rich on incident and I did enjoy the way that they each fold back in on the others. Part of the fun is in anticipating how the story might be spun out by someone else and there are a few points in the third tale that are a little unexpected.

The book also contains some wonderfully evocative descriptions of what walking the streets of London in thick fog felt like. That helped me understand better what life was like a hundred years ago and how people could cope with just inches of visibility.

Davis’ characterization on the other hand feels quite slight with little time spent on developing the back stories of any character other than Sir Andrew (who is himself not the most complex of characters). By the time we reach the end of the book we understand a little about characters’ plans and goals in life but we get little sense about their interests beyond their desire to get in his cab. This struck me as a little disappointing and I found that I was wishing that the book were a little longer to give these characters a little more room to shine in that narrative.

In the Fog is often very entertaining and I really enjoyed its sense of wacky energy but looking at it as a mystery story it does have a problem derived from its tone and premise. From the start of the novella we are aware that the three narrators are playing a game and that their stories are fictional. This in no way damages the work as a comedy – in fact, it probably heightens it and elevates an element of the ending – but it means that the mystery element of the book feels a bit anticlimactic.

When viewed primarily as a comic work, In the Fog is quite charming and creative. It moves quickly and I enjoyed each of the three tales though the first is probably the richest and most intriguing. If you like stories in this style then I would certainly recommend taking a look at this – it is a really quick and entertaining story – but just be prepared that there is no puzzle here to solve.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a capital city (Where)

January 2019 in Review

monthly review_ january 2019

This past few weeks has been so busy for me both professionally and at home that it slipped my notice that today is the end of the month. Whoops. That means is that this monthly roundup is going to be a bit more brief than usual. Hopefully I’ll get back to normal soon!

The absolute highlight of this month for me was the reception my Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries post received. It is not just that people read it but the comments here, by email and on Twitter have been really wonderful. Thanks to everyone who engaged with it, shared it and retweeted it. Reading those responses brightened my day and helped me feel a little better after getting sick towards the end of last week so thanks to everyone.

Let’s get to the contenders for Book of the Month:

Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request by Members of the Detection Club
The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis
A Meditation on Murder by Robert Thorogood
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Death in High Provence by George Bellairs
Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Book of the Crime by Elizabeth Daly
The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes
Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen edited by Frederic Dannay
The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh
Sydney Noir edited by John Dale
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Some decent selections on offer here although there were a few disappointments too. The Detection Club collaborations were both pretty underwhelming reads while I was a little disappointed to find that I agreed with many of the more negative comments I had read about Murder Underground and A Man Lay Dead.

There were some really bright spots too though. James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was definitely worth reading and lived up to its reputation while Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer met my high expectations based on all the hype.

My selection for Book of the Month though goes to a book by an author I thought I would never read again, let alone find myself enjoying their work. I have written quite a lot about this book lately – it featured on that Five to Try list – so I won’t repeat myself too much here…

soniawaywardYes, The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes is my pick for Book of the Month.

It is very funny, cleverly plotted and builds to a really entertaining and memorable finish. The characters are fun and the premise is handled well.

I was delighted and surprised by my experiences with this book and while I don’t expect I will be listing Innes as a favorite author any time soon, I am very happy to say that this is one of the good ones.

As for the month ahead, expect to see reviews of books by Nicholas Blake, Freeman Wills Crofts, Julian Symons and Friedrich Dürrenmatt among others. See you in February!

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

double
Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)

Sydney Noir edited by John Dale

sydney
Sydney Noir
John Dale (ed)
Originally Published 2019

Sydney Noir is the fourth collection of short stories I have read from Akashic Books having previously reviewed collections set in Prague, Moscow and Marrakech. While I have found that the stories in these collections are darker than I usually enjoy, I love the window these offer into other cultures and their own crime literature scenes.

This collection is based on the city of Sydney in Australia and some themes quickly establish themselves: almost all of the stories here touch on either sexuality or drugs. It is probably the most graphic of the four collections and readers should be prepared that many of the stories touch on some subject matter that some will find pretty heavy and upsetting.

In spite of that though I felt that the standard of the stories was generally very high and only a couple missed the mark for me. The strongest section is the third which is titled Criminal Justice with stories focused on exploring the lives of criminals. These stories were the ones that most clearly evoked a sense of place for me.

Slow Burn is probably my favorite story in the whole collection and I found it to be the most mysterious. It opens by introducing us to a retired police officer who is fishing next to a man he has spent twenty years planning to destroy. In the course of the story we learn what he did to warrant this and follow as he executes his plan. A really solid, character driven tale that is effective without the need for dramatic twists or revelations.

The first section, Family Matters, is a little less even though it does contain some really interesting stories. The Birthday Present packs the punchiest ending in the collection while In the Dunes is a deeply emotional story that I really connected with. I was a little less impressed with Good Boy, Bad Girl by John Dale who also edited this collection as I felt it had few unexpected moments while I found In the Court of the Lion King hard to enjoy though, in fairness, I am never much of a fan of prison noir.

Which leaves the second section, Sex and the City. As you might guess from the title, this is the most explicit section of the collection though it is also one of the most diverse. The standout story is Leigh Redhead’s The Transmutation of Sex, which is likely the only crime story I’ll ever read based around a work by Napoleon Hill. Not comfortable reading but it has that compelling “is it going there” factor that made it hard to put down and I felt Redhead had a very clear image of who her characters are. Others apparently loved The Patternmaker but I found it a pretty seedy and predictable read.

This collection is not going to be for everyone but I think it is one of the most consistent I have read from Akashic so far. That consistency in quality though is matched by a consistency of theme so this may work better as a collection you dip into rather than the sort you devour in a single sitting.

Continue reading “Sydney Noir edited by John Dale”

Five to Try: Inverted Mysteries

inverted mysteries (2)

Those of you who have been around this blog for a while will know that I am a bit of a fan of the inverted mystery. While I make a point to read a pretty wide variety of crime and mystery fiction, I review inverted mysteries more frequently than any other type and I have no intention on slowing down on that front.

One of the things that excites me most about the inverted mystery and crime sub-genres (and yes, I think they are slightly different – the former is akin to a detective novel whereas the latter is more psychological) is the sheer diversity of approaches that writers take with these forms.

For some writers the use of an inverted form is a chance to experiment with the structure of a mystery story and show that you can still craft a viable puzzle even if you know the killer’s identity. Others like to use the form to explore the psychology of killers or their perspective on the cat-and-mouse game of detection. Sometimes these books are light-hearted and comedic with the killer’s plans either coming to nothing or being turned back on the killer themselves. Others are dark, gritty and drenched in noir-style.

The list I have compiled today is not an attempt to pick the five best inverted mysteries. While I have read quite a number of these over the past few years I know that there are many I have yet to try including a few classics of the sub-genre. What I was aiming to do instead was illustrate some of the different ways writers have interpreted this simple idea.

One of my paramount concerns was that the titles I picked should be available and affordable. I also wanted my picks to represent the different styles of inverted mysteries out there so I tried to select a mix of story types. This means that I had to leave out some favorite authors and titles such as Crofts’ The Affair at Little Wokeham (the best of his four inverted novels). For this reason I have included further reading suggestions after each of my selections to give you other options if a particular type of inverted story appeals to you.

One title that did not make the list is Malice Aforethought. I gave considerable thought to its inclusion but ended up opting against it because it is so clearly the dominant title in the sub-genre. It so obviously would merit inclusion for its importance to the development of the form that I think highlighting it would add very little. While I think it tends to be a little overrated, I do suggest you seek it out if you haven’t read it already.

On with the list…

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts

AntidoteThis is an example of the Howcatchem structure. In this type of story the reader learns the killer’s identity, their plan and their motivation early in the novel. Their job is to work out how the detective will unpick the information they can see to get at the truth and bring the killer to justice. This is the most common form of inversion and certainly the best known – TV’s Columbo is structured this way.

Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom is a great example of this format because it is essentially split into two sections. The first builds our understanding of how the killer comes to be murdering someone at all, explaining their motivation, choice of victim and plan. The second follows Inspector French as he tries to unpick the evidence.

This proves particularly tricky because the person carrying out the killer does not a personal motive to carry out the murder. The scheme Crofts devises is really quite technically ingenious and memorable and while I found French’s investigation a little too slow and detail-oriented, I love the story’s backdrop of a midsized metropolitan zoo and the characterization of the killer, George.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith operates with a similar premise in which the person who performs the killing does not have a direct motive for carrying out the murder.

Crofts wrote three other inverted stories each of which takes a slightly different structural approach. My favorite is the one that is hardest to find The Affair at Little Wokeham (also called Double Tragedy) and it’s well worth a look if you can find an affordable copy.

Finally I strongly recommend Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade. It is one of my favorite inverted mysteries in part thanks to a clever premise and its really effective ending.

The New Sonia Wayward by Michael Innes

soniawaywardThis is an example of a comedic approach to the inverted mystery novel. Typically these sorts of stories present us with a bumbling, incompetent would-be murderer (or person perpetrating some other form of crime) who may or may not succeed. Often they don’t and their plan will end up backfiring on them in some fashion, possibly leading to their own death or humiliation.

The New Sonia Wayward is a great example of this type of story because the protagonist, Colonel Petticate, does not actually kill his dead wife. Instead he is trying to cover up a natural death but does it so badly that he finds himself in a compromising situation.

This is a wild ride of a story packed with unpredictable and comedic twists and turns. I enjoy the digs and jokes at the publishing industry’s expense and found it a charming and engaging read.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is probably the best-known of this sort of inverted story and it is certainly enjoyable though I am a little reluctant to label it an inverted mystery novel at all. I think it’s a great read though and I think it puts an interesting if predictable twist on the subgenre.

Leo Bruce’s Case for Sergeant Beef is also a great choice with a quirky would-be killer with an interesting plan. It is frequently very funny and can be enjoyed independently of Bruce’s other Sergeant Beef stories.

Finally Anthony Roll’s Family Matters (yet to be reviewed on this blog) presents an interesting situation in which we know the identity of two people who are seeking to kill the book’s victim but end up inadvertently spoiling each others’ plans.

A Demon in My View by Ruth Rendell

RendellI don’t often review books featuring serial killers on this blog but one of the strongest currents of inverted fiction deals with psychopathic killers.

Sometimes these sorts of stories can try to realistically explore the psychology of a psychopath, others will take a more stylised approach or use it to tell a more conventional thriller.

Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View presents us with a serial killer who has found a way of suppressing his instincts. He has set up a mannequin in an outbuilding in the block of flats in which he lives which he uses to play out his fantasies.

Unfortunately for him he finds his life is turned upside down when someone with a very similar name moves in to the same building, sparking a dangerous and destructive obsession in him.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

I have fewer examples here because it’s not my favorite type of fiction. One I can recommend though is Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. It is an extremely dark, perverse and often amusing look into the mind of a killer.

Hugh Holton’s Windy City explores a married couple who kill for the enjoyment of it. I was entertained by it but it is hard to believe that these killers could succeed for as long as they do.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

TheyShootHorsesDontTheyThis is an example of a justification narrative or whydunnit. The reader begins the novel with the knowledge of who the killer killed and how it was done but their motive is unclear.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a punchy, brutal and bleak tale set against the backdrop of a gruelling dance marathon contest. Couples compete, dancing for an hour and a half before getting a ten minute break and starting all over again.

The protagonist, Robert, is an aspiring film director who agrees to dance with Gloria, an actress who is hoping to catch a film producer’s attention during the contest. We know that by the end of the contest several weeks later he will be arrested and put on trial for her murder and over the course of the book we learn what led him to take her life.

McCoy’s story works because it is a blistering, uncomfortable and provocative reading experience packed with salty prose and a decidedly noir outlook on humanity.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

The whydunnit seems to be the least used inversion of the typical mystery formula but there are a few examples out there. The Collini Case is presented as a legal thriller but it does ask the reader to figure out why a man has committed a murder.

Another interesting example is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner though it is not usually categorized as a genre work. Written in the early nineteenth century, Hogg presents us with two accounts of a murder and leaves it open to the reader which interpretation they favor. It can be a bit of a dense read and the supernatural elements will not be for everyone but its focus on the killer’s psychology makes it feel a surprisingly modern work in other respects.

Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax

blueprintOne of the most interesting aspects of the inverted crime novel is the way it can allow writers to explore the social causes of crime. Blueprint for Murder was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and it explores the idea that war is so dehumanizing that it may have eroded any sense of social responsibility or ethics.

I like to think of these as kitchen sink inverted crime stories as the emphasis here is on trying to channel a sense of gritty realism though they can still contain some fantastic developments. While I have only encountered a few such stories so far they are mostly from that early postwar period of 1945-1960.

Often these sorts of stories contain elements of noir style and portray the killer not as a deviant who stands apart from society but its logical product. This can sometimes make for grim reading, particularly as society is usually shown to be fairly impotent in dealing with these sorts of threats, but I do find books in this style to be an interesting bridge between the inverted mystery and the sorts of psychological crime and serial killer fiction of later decades.

Read my full review of this title here.

If You Like This, Try

Too Soon to Die and Diplomat’s Folly by Henry Wade both feature protagonists who believe that the rules should not apply to them. The latter, much like Blueprint, features a soldier who has returned from the war.

Roger Bax’s Disposing of Henry similarly presents us with another disaffected soldier – this time an injured airman who is invalided out of the war and plots with a woman to murder her husband.

Bonus Selection

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

KissA hybrid inverted mystery story that blends elements of the howcatchem and the whodunnit to great effect.

This is invariably my choice whenever I am asked to pick my favorite inverted mystery novel because it manages to really showcase what you can do with the form within the familiar structure of a traditional detective story. Levin does this brilliantly by splitting his narrative into three sections, each told in a different style.

The first of those sections is delivered from the perspective of the killer and establishes plenty of information about them. We learn their relationship to the victim, their motivation and exactly how they did it. Crucially however we never learn their name or get a clear sense of their appearance so when the victim’s sister appears in the second section the reader has no idea which of the characters was responsible.

I consider it the best crime novel I have read, period, and I would definitely recommend it if you haven’t. It is a cracking read, full of tension and bold, memorable characterizations. The split into three sections helps Levin keep the material feeling fresh and I found it gripping right to the last page.

Read my full review of this title here

The image in the banner is taken from the cover on a PAN edition of Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles.

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

manlay
A Man Lay Dead
Ngaio Marsh
Originally Published 1934
Inspector Alleyn #1
Followed by Enter A Murderer

A Man Lay Dead is the first mystery novel written by Ngaio Marsh, a woman usually identified as one of the four Queens of Crime. It introduces her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, though he is not the central character – that would be Nigel Bathgate, a gossip columnist.

Nigel has received an invitation to attend a weekend house party at the country estate of Sir Hubert Handesley. We learn that at each of his parties he devises some new game to amuse and delight his guests and that this time the game played will be murders.

Being a Golden Age crime novel we know that this will turn out to be a pretty disastrous choice…

The way the game is intended to work is that Sir Hubert’s butler will select a guest to be the murderer and discretely inform them of it. Then at some point in the evening the murderer must tell someone else that they are dead then go into the hall where they should strike the gong and turn out the lights to the house. Two minutes later the lights will be turned on again and a trial will commence.

During the evening the gong does sound but when the lights come back up the guests are astonished to discover a real body. The victim is Charles Rankin, one of the guests. He is found stabbed through the heart with a Russian knife that he had brought to show off to Sir Hubert and which is identified as a ceremonial piece belonging to a Russian secret society.

The most logical place to begin any discussion of a murder mystery is with the plot and its mechanics but I cannot say that I found these particularly effective here. A large part of the problem with this comes down to the question of a motive for the killing as, in my opinion, these are pretty thin on the ground. Certainly there are several members of the party who might have reasons to want to harm Rankin but most of those motives feel pretty flimsy.

The idea of how it is done is more interesting but here, yet again, we encounter a problem. This crime is an opportunistic one and yet at the point at which the murderer embarks on their plan they can have no guarantee that their plan is remotely workable and their course of action exposes them to enormous risk of discovery. This is, of course, hardly unique to this particular novel – there are lots of Golden Age crime novels that feature unlikely murders – but I think it is stretched far beyond credibility here. Judged purely as a puzzle, while I think Marsh plays fair with us I just don’t think it really works.

Now, all that being said – I found this a very enjoyable read.

Marsh writes her story with a light, comical touch that makes it clear that we are not supposed to take Inspector Alleyn particularly seriously. There are no attempts to ground this character in procedure but as he seems to breeze and engage in light banter through the case, occasionally sounding quite flippant in his questioning. Whether it is declaring that his is a ‘lucky boy’ because he has been handed a murder or trying to coax testimony from a sullen child witness with the promise of sweets and coins, I found him entertaining company.

Similarly there are some rather silly moments in the plot that I think we are also supposed to take as pastiche or parody rather than as part of a serious mystery plot though it is hard to know for sure. For instance there is a particularly lengthy subplot relating to the murder weapon that I presume we are meant to see as a play on other secret society plots in mystery novels. It goes on a bit too long but I think it can make for pretty entertaining reading.

Bathgate is a pretty charming central character but I am not entirely sure what his role here is meant to be or why Marsh thought she needed him. Perhaps she thought that Alleyn needed a Hastings-style figure and yet he doesn’t really fulfil that role as he doesn’t hold Alleyn’s confidences (though he can at least quickly dismiss him from suspicion thanks to a servant’s testimony allowing Marsh a rare moment of social commentary as she reflects on the aristocracy’s inability to take note of those they consider beneath them).

Which is about all I have to say about it. This is a work that feels light, amusing but rather insubstantial. I liked Alleyn but don’t feel that I really know who he is and certainly was not left with a burning desire to rush off and read the other thirty-two titles in this series.

At the same time, I suspect this is not really reminiscent of those other stories and so it is perhaps unfair to judge them off the back of this one. From what I gather Alleyn plays a much more central role in those other stories and I would at least be a little curious to see how he would fare as a protagonist and to get a better sense of why some people rate Marsh so highly.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Read by another challenger (Why) – My Reader’s Block