The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

CrimeatNoahsArk
The Crime at the Noah’s Ark
Molly Thynne
Originally Published 1931
Dr Constantine #1
Followed by Death in the Dentist’s Chair

My fourth selection for my week of Christmassy crimes is Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which was republished last year by Dean Street Press.

Travelling for the holidays can be a daunting prospect, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse.  Novelist Angus Stuart, having finally found success with a bestseller, is keen to avoid the now-loving embrace of his family for the holidays and decides to spend Christmas at a resort for the well-to-do while he works on his next book. When an accumulation of thick snow makes his route impassable, he and several other travellers are forced to stay at a nearby country inn, The Noah’s Ark, until the roads can be cleared.

Almost all of the guests at the inn had not intended to stay there and while most attempt to make the best of the situation, their first evening together does not get off to a good start. One of their number, Major Carew, gets steadily more drunk as the evening goes on and he begins to harass the female guests. Getting fed up of his behavior, the party takes him to his room and locks him inside.

Later that night one of the female guests reports seeing a masked man prowling the corridors though Stuart sees no signs of him when he goes in search of him. A few hours later the chess champion, Dr. Constantine, alerts Stuart to a rope dangling from the Major’s window. They worry that he may have climbed out in an attempt to escape his room but they are surprised to find the key to his room has vanished.

While they are searching for the key, an American guest declares that her emerald girdle has been stolen from her room. Believing the Major may have been behind this crime the group decides to break into the room but when they do so he is found dead, murdered with a blunt instrument. The sleuths will have to figure out how these two crimes might be linked and locate the stolen girdle.

The reason I have gone into far more detail about the way this story is set up than with most mysteries I have described is that a large part of the mystery in this book relates to the question of how the various events of that evening and those that follow are interconnected and why they are happening. As Kate says in her review on CrossExaminingCrime, the logistics of the crimes are complex but the motivations are quite simple.

At this point I should probably say that I do not think that the identities of the criminals or the hiding place for the jewels are really possible to deduce from the information provided. The explanations, when given, do make sense but I would be very surprised if any reader could prove their case against the characters involved. They might however be able to logically deduce that all-important sequence of events and the relationship between the crimes.

Thynne’s story is written in the third person and while we follow Stuart’s activities more closely than the other characters he is not the only sleuth investigating this case. Two other hotel guests are also working on trying to figure things out, forming an informal alliance. One of these is a commercial traveller, Soames, who is the only guest staying at the hotel who had intended to stay there. The other is a renowned chess champion, Dr. Constantine, who tries to approach the case quite methodically and refuses to share his thoughts until he is ready, much to Stuart’s frustration.

Each of these characters has a distinct personality and approach to solving the two crimes and there are points where they disagree strongly about who to suspect and why. In fact there are moments where it is clear that they may even suspect each other. I did enjoy those sometimes fractious exchanges although I think it is clear early on which of the three amateur sleuths is the one whose thoughts we should be paying the most attention to.

I liked the concept of that sleuth here a lot, even if Thynne hides his thought process from us a little more than I’d like and occasionally has him dismiss a suspect when you might think they deserve closer scrutiny. I am excited to know that they appear in two further stories as I can certainly see their promise.

Thynne creates an interesting mix of guests for our sleuths to suspect and I did enjoy how quickly they came to suspect each other and voice their suspicions of each others’ guilt. There is a surprisingly large cast of characters and she does well to make each distinct enough that I never had any difficulty keeping their identities straight in my mind and I appreciated that a few characters were more complex than they initially seemed.

The story unfolds as a steady stream of action and we are constantly reminded that the killer must still be present in the hotel, causing some panic amongst some of the guests. This is an effective source of tension throughout the novel although I was probably more intrigued by the question of how nobody could find the missing girdle in spite of repeated thorough searches and I enjoyed the way Thynne pulled everything together tidily at the end. I do agree with Kate though that the question of how the identity of the killer is proved is a little weak.

The result is a book that I found to be interesting and entertaining. Some readers may feel that the questions of the criminals’ identities is a little disappointing in how they are clued but I think, if viewed as an adventure or if you consider the mystery to be in understanding the connections between events, the story is very engaging and possesses considerable charm.

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

ThereCameBothSnow
There Came Both Mist and Snow
Michael Innes
Originally Published 1940
Inspector Appleby #6
Preceded by The Secret Vanguard
Followed by Appleby on Ararat

Last month I had my first taste of Michael Innes’ work when I read Lament for a Maker, a novel that I found a thoroughly frustrating read because of Innes’ decision to write a third of it in Scots dialect. In spite of that though I thought the murder mystery plot was quite clever and so I resolved to give Innes another chance.

There Came Both Mist and Snow is a story set at Christmas in which a family gathers to celebrate the season together. We soon learn that members of the family harbor resentments towards each other and that nearly every member of the party have become fanatics about shooting revolvers on a range that has been constructed on the grounds.

I suspect you can guess what happens next.

A member of the party is found shot at a desk. Fortunately Inspector Appleby happens to arrive on the scene as a guest and is available to lend a hand in looking into the incident. Quickly he decides to recruit the narrator as a sort of reluctant Watson figure to his Holmes and they begin their investigation, soon realizing that the details of the crime may not be as straightforward as they first appeared.

While There Came Both Mist and Snow may not have been written in dialect, I found it to be similarly frustrating to read. The first ten chapters are particularly rough going and show signs of an author determined to let the reader know that they are Very Smart. Having now read a fair number of Golden Age novels, I am always prepared to hit the dictionary to lookup a word that may have fallen into disuse or check on one of those obscure classical allusions that every child would have picked up on in the 1920 and 30s but there are some words used here that would have been archaic or pretentious even then. Examples include valetudinarian, cicerone, hypnogogic and badinage.

Other examples of random, frustrating literariness include an extended scene in which characters take turns giving Shakespearian quotations relating to bells in a sort of impromptu contest which even the characters find tiresome. While I know there are readers who love this sort of dense, literary material, it really detracted from the experience for me.

What makes these sorts of things so frustrating is that Innes, when he forgets about being literary, is often quite an entertaining writer and comes up with some lovely, witty remarks or memorable turns of phrase. For instance, using ‘he had the mental habits of an industrious but unimaginative squirrel’ to describe a character. And once the shooting takes place the book does gain a much-needed sense of focus and direction.

The crime itself did at least hold some interest for me, in part because the victim is not killed by the gunshot which is something of a novelty in crime fiction and also because the circumstances of the shooting are not clear. Appleby’s job investigating this crime is complicated because it is not clear that the person shot was the intended victim and this does lead to some interesting theorizing and discussion about the different possible explanations there could be for what had happened.

This could have been the recipe for a memorable crime story but the elements just didn’t click for me. I think that may reflect that I simply didn’t find the cast of characters interesting or memorable. It often felt to me that the author was more interested in providing witty commentaries on their artistic inclinations and pretensions than in establishing them as credible killers. Appleby’s investigation seems to meander and the ending, with features several different theories being offered, dragged and disappointed.

Having now given Sir John Appleby and his creator two chances to impress me, I feel I can say with some confidence that these stories are simply not for me and I am unlikely to try any others. If you enjoy denser, more literary reads this may be of interest and worth investigation.

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Crimson Snow, ed. Martin Edwards

Crimson
Crimson Snow
Edited by Martin Edwards
Collected 2016

Having mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.

This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.

There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.

Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?

Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.

The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.

S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.

Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.

Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.

Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.

Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.

That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.

The Santa Claus Club by Julian Symons is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.

The final story in the collection, Josephine Bell’s The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.

As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

Portrait
Portrait of a Murderer
Anne Meredith
Originally Published 1934

The festive season is upon us and so I plan to mark the occasion in my own way by reading five books which feature people being murdered against snowy, picturesque backdrops.

I am kicking off the week of reviews with a book that was published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. This will not be the only book I will be selecting from that series this week!

This novel is credited to Anne Meredith which, it turns out, was a pseudonym used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson of Anthony Gilbert fame. In a strange coincidence, I posted a response to a fellow blogger’s review last week while I was already reading this novel saying that I needed to try something by Anthony Gilbert and asking for suggestions. In my defense, I tend to skip over the introductions until after I have read the main text for fear of being spoiled.

I first learned about this book from reading a review on crossexaminingcrime. There were lots of reasons I was excited to read this book but chief among them was that Portrait of a Murderer is an inverted mystery. Those who have been following this blog for a while may have noticed that I am having something of a love affair with this form of crime fiction and so this was a particular attraction for me as I was curious to see how a different author would approach writing this type of story.

Typically the inverted crime novel gives the reader knowledge of the killer’s identity and presents the crime and the events that follow from their perspective. While we may know the killer’s identity, the mystery comes from the reader wondering how they will either be caught or evade justice.

In Portrait of a Murderer the author makes some slight tweaks to that formula to create a story that I think combines the best of both worlds by shifting perspectives throughout. She does this by dividing her novel into three distinct sections.

The first and shortest is a series of chapters, written in the third person, that introduce each of the potential killers who will arrive at Kings Poplars to speak with Adrian Gray in the hope of extracting money from him. Throughout this stage we have little idea who will be responsible for killing Gray and so the question is who will kill him and what will have occurred that pushed them over the edge.

The second section brings a shift into a first person narration style as we hear that character recount the events that led them to murder Gray and how they plan on escaping from the situation. The decision to shift to the first person is a smart one, allowing the reader to understand the rationale behind the decisions they are making to dress the crime scene in the hopes of making their escape. This section concludes at about the halfway point of the novel.

The final section switches back to the third person and begins shortly before the discovery of the body. The author presents us with several different characters who are trying to piece together what has happened and so, in addition to wondering if and how the murderer will be caught and how the lives of the other family members will be affected. We may also wonder who will manage to work out what had happened.

I absolutely loved this book and I think its success begins with this unusual structure. By shifting our point of perspective throughout the novel, the author provides variety within their narrative. This helps keep the material from becoming stale or repetitive, as can sometimes happen with a character who is continually worrying about being caught, and it allows us to experience multiple perspectives on the crime.

For instance, in the chapters that follow the murder we get to see how the various characters are responding to the crime that had been committed and how they are feeling about each other. This gives those characters added depth and also allows us to see their different perspectives of what a positive outcome to the investigation would be as well as the different ways that it affects their lives which is often quite unexpected.

Meredith’s characterization is as impressive as her structure and I was fascinated by the cast of family members that she creates. Each of them feel quite distinctive and have complex feelings towards Adrian Gray and each other. They have different goals that create division, in one instance between a married couple, and we learn how the possible suspects have each fallen into quite separate, dire financial circumstances that threaten to destroy them. These stories are all quite compelling and I thought the novel was unusually reflective about the different ways in which the murder will affect their lives going forward while the ending strikes a curious note that I wish I could discuss in more detail but fear I can’t without spoiling. I can say though that I found it to be quite effective.

These elements all combine to make one of the most interesting books I have read in the British Library Crime Classics series to date. With striking characters, moments of social commentary and a compelling plot, I found myself gripped throughout and thoroughly enjoyed its conclusion. I will clearly need to seek out some Anthony Gilbert books soon…

The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories by Keikichi Osaka, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The-Ginza-Ghost
The Ginza Ghost and Other Stories
Keikichi Osaka
Originally Published 2017

The Ginza Ghost is a collection of short crime and detective stories by the writer Keikichi Osaka who, we learn in the introduction, died young and worked primarily in the period in which the puzzle mystery had largely fallen out of fashion in Japan.

This collection contains a mix of styles and subject matters including a few locked rooms but most can be characterized as strange and perplexing crimes.

One of the best examples of this is the story The Mourning Locomotive in which we hear about a heavy locomotive train which is killing pigs on a regular basis, always at the same section of the tracks. It is a strange problem but the answer is really quite logical and can be deduced by the reader. Not that I did.

Another strong example is The Hangman of the Department Store which is a seemingly impossible crime as it takes place on the roof of a fully locked store. And then there is the strange question of the timing of the killing which makes the events seem even more bizarre.

The final story I would highlight is The Guardian of the Lighthouse in which the characters attempt to locate a missing son who seemed to vanish during a shift several days earlier. I felt that story combined a logical mystery with a solid emotional component to strong effect.

While most of the stories feature a striking or ingenious solution, I did find a few of them to be quite dry in the way they were told. Stories such as The Phantasm of the Stone Wall and The Phantom Wife held little interest for me and I never managed to engage with them while others featured ideas that seemed too intricate to be communicated in so few pages.

It may just be that I am not really drawn to short form crime stories. With the exception of an occasional individual story I have never found a collection I have loved and been truly satisfied with. Knowing the importance of the short story to crime fiction, I feel it is important for me to keep trying.

The Ginza Ghost does at least feature a few stories that I feel will stick with me for a while and I could appreciate Osaka’s skill at inventing interesting puzzles to challenge his readers. Unfortunately I found the weaker stories to be a bit of a chore to work through and so I cannot recommend the collection.

Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe

MurderontheWay
Murder on the Way!
Theodore Roscoe
Originally Published 1935

Murder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.

After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.

The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.

The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.

If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct.  One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.

Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.

I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.

Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.

This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.

Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.

Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.

Sitting Murder by A. J. Wright

SittingMurder.png
Sitting Murder
A. J. Wright
Originally Published 2017
Lancashire Detective #4
Preceded by Elementary Murder

This is the fourth title in A. J. Wright’s series of Victorian mysteries set in the industrial town of Wigan in the north of England. I have not read any of the previous titles as the series had somehow escaped my notice, but I was excited to see a Victorian-era story set outside of the well-trod streets of the City of London.

The setting is not simply a veneer for the story as Wright draws on the distinctive demographic makeup of a northern town such as Wigan to populate his cast of characters. Previous entries in the series have situated the action in more distinctly northern settings such as in a colliery but even a story whose setting is primarily domestic like this still possesses plenty of atmospheric touches and details.

Having picked up the series partway through, I did feel that the characters of the two detectives, DS Brennan and Constable Jaggery, seemed to lack a sense of a life beyond their actions in uniform though a rather wonderful moment in the epilogue left me feeling that the author may have built up these characters’ personal lives in previous volumes. While I may have missed out a little by jumping in with the fourth book, my lack of knowledge did not prevent me from following and enjoying the action.

Wright’s use of spiritualism as a key element of his story is interesting in what he choses not to do as much as what is in the book. Those expecting table tapping and elaborate theatrics may be surprised as the simplicity of Alice’s sittings which is at least partially a reflection of the setting. Instead the readings are plain and short but what attracts people is that rather than speaking in generalities, Alice seems to be able to specifically identify some things that she ought to have no knowledge of. She claims that these abilities manifested after the death of her husband in an industrial accident but DS Brennan is skeptical.

Following a series of successful sittings, Alice receives an anonymous message that seems to be threatening in its tone. Soon threats turn to murder and DS Brennan has to figure out who amongst Alice’s clients may have turned killer and why.

The novel spends quite a significant portion of its opening chapters establishing the characters and it is a surprisingly long time before the body shows up. The mechanics of how the crime was committed are very simple and so the investigation focuses exclusively on identifying the killer and their motive.

The assortment of suspects that Wright provides us with are nicely varied in background and personality although some feel more fully developed than others. Though I identified the killer early in the novel, I still enjoyed reading the interviews as they contain some interesting character moments as well as some small revelations that enhanced the themes of the book. In any case, I rather suspect that my figuring it out was more a result of happening on the right question to consider by chance than a reflection of any great weakness in the novel’s plot and I felt the solution hung together fairly well once all of the pieces were revealed.

On finishing the novel, I was not entirely sure what to make of it. I thought that the book had a potentially interesting premise but the mystery was a little slighter than I had hoped. I never wholly warmed to the two sleuths which kept me from really investing in those characters yet I found the supporting cast of characters to be an interesting mix. I was conflicted.

I suspect that I may have been more enthused by this novel had I checked out some of the earlier titles in this series first. Some of these sound quite interesting, particularly Elementary Murder which, according to its blurb, features a locked room component.

While my To Read list is currently bulging, I hope to give this series another try at some point. I enjoyed the fresh setting and felt Wright did a good job of incorporating historical elements and details while building an interesting mix of supporting characters.

Review copy provided through NetGalley.

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

QuickCurtain
Quick Curtain
Alan Melville
Originally Published 1934

Death of Anton was one of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog and I gave it a glowing review. I was excited at the news that Quick Curtain would be released this month and the moment my copy arrived I set all my other books aside in favor of it.

The book begins at the opening night of a lavishly produced musical spectacular that a Scotland Yard detective and his journalist son happen to be attending. The play seems to be going well until a pivotal scene in which a character is supposed to be shot. The stage death turns out to be all too real and the play must be halted. Before he can be questioned the actor who fired the shot is discovered dead in his dressing room, apparently from suicide.

The initial assumption is that J. Hillary Foster shot Brandon Baker either deliberately or unwittingly, and then in a fit of remorse took his own life. Inspector Wilson takes a different view, suspecting foul play, and works with his son Derek to try to solve the case.

The first thing to say is that, to an even greater extent than with Death of AntonQuick Curtain is written as an out-and-out comedy. Though it may adhere to the general structure of a detective story, the author’s primary purpose and source of amusement is in its satirical commentary on the theatrical and show business communities rather than constructing a clever crime and challenging the reader to solve it.

So, is it funny?

Obviously taste in comedy is very subjective and so I will dodge the question a little by saying that this is exactly the sort of material that will delight some readers while infuriating others. I personally fall into the earlier category, being rather partial to theatrical satire and there are certainly plenty of jabs made at producers, actors, landladies at theatrical digs and reviewers. Fans of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris will likely be in heaven as will anyone who enjoys irreverent banter in an interwar style.

The most successful material seems to fall in the first half of the book as Melville often throws in amusing character details and commentary in the process of introducing characters. I particularly enjoyed the outline he gives us of the career of the show’s producer, Mr. Douglas B. Douglas who is something of a master publicist and the introduction of the reviewer who pens his reviews before actually seeing the production.

As entertaining as some of the comedic commentary can be though, there were times where I found myself wishing that the jokes were being made in service of the mystery itself. Often these asides seem to interrupt the story, a problem that becomes more frustrating as the story develops.

The lack of focus on developing the mystery and the investigation means that the case feels bland and underdeveloped. I felt that this was a deliberate choice on Melville’s part, especially in light of its ending, but I did not find it a particularly satisfying one. Some key developments seem to happen in spite of the actions of the main characters rather than resulting from their efforts and there is frustratingly little in the way of actual detection taking place.

The father and son detective pairing are irreverent, continually riffing comically on the situations in which they find themselves. This dialogue can be amusing and clever but it causes issues of balance within the novel because it seems to minimize the importance of the investigation. Two years later in Death of Anton, Melville found a stronger approach by having his hero, Mr. Minto, take his investigation seriously in spite of some farcical events taking place around him. That provided a welcome contrast between comedy and mystery elements – here the former absolutely subsumes the latter.

The reader’s satisfaction therefore is likely going to come down to the manner in which they approach the novel. Those who come at it expecting something lighthearted and diverting are more likely to put it down satisfied than those hoping for a good puzzle mystery. Though the observations on aspects of theatrical life will leave some cold, I personally found them to be very enjoyable and felt that these observations and the quality of the theatrical satire was of a very high standard.

Unfortunately I cannot issue an enthusiastic recommendation in the manner I did for Death of Anton but nonetheless I did find the book to be an entertaining read and think it is worth a look for fans of comedic adventure stories. I am still looking forward to when Weekend at Thrackley, another Melville story, gets released as part of the British Library Crime Classics range next year and I hope that I will be more impressed with that effort.

Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk

HardCheese
Hard Cheese
Ulf Durling
Originally Published in 1971

A man is found dead with injuries to the back of his head in a locked room in a low-grade hotel. The owner of the hotel is adamant that no one could have entered the building during the night without his knowledge and the other residents seem to have been otherwise occupied yet there were three glasses set out in the man’s bedroom.

The book is broken into three unequal sections, each narrated by a different character. The first, narrated by Johan Lundgren who is a member of a crime fiction reading group is the most joyous. He tells us how the three members of the group go about taking the small amount of information they are given about the crime and start spinning fanciful theories about how it was done, all the while making little judgements and comments about the tropes of mystery fiction that will delight long-term readers of the genre.

I particularly enjoyed getting to know the three characters who made up the detective fiction club and seeing the ways they would interact with each other. These characters felt familiar to me and their excitement at encountering a puzzle like the ones they had read about in their own lives was rather infectious.

The second comes from the perspective of Gunnar, the policeman assigned to the case, and is pitched more in the PI mold. Where Johan span a solution in the Golden Age style, Gunnar seems set on a much simpler explanation and his investigation takes a different tack. Though less intellectual than that of the club members, he does uncover some interesting elements of the case and I enjoyed reading his thoughts about the three members of the club and their interference.

The final, shorter section comes from a third person and draws on elements of the other two investigations to present a solution. It is hard to go into much detail here, firstly because I want to avoid spoiling how the mystery is solved but also because this section is far more straightforward and less characterful than the two which preceded it. I did find it satisfying however and appreciated how well the solution is communicated.

This multiple narrative approach does mean that the book does feel a little disjointed though I enjoyed each part and saw the presentation to be an opportunity to comment on and pastiche two different forms of crime fiction, finding a middle ground with the last narrative. The book builds to a clever resolution of the mystery that struck me as being quite original.

But does it play fair? I have been struck in reading reviews of this how split reviewers are on this question. It is of course hard to answer without spoiling but in my opinion it meets the criteria of being fair because it does provide all of the information needed to successfully identify how the murder was achieved, even though it may require the reader to step away from the novel to piece everything together. I can see why some readers feel frustrated but I appreciated the tidiness and ingenuity of the method.

I think there might be more of a case to say that the novel isn’t playing fair with guessing the identity of the murderer and there I am less decided. All I can say is that I didn’t feel it was unfair when the revelation came although I was surprised by their identity.

I was a little less satisfied with the locked room aspect of the mystery and the relative simplicity of its solution. It did occur to me upon finishing the book that while I have really enjoyed several of the books I have read from Locked Room International, I have yet to actually find a book where the Locked Room aspect was really satisfying. If anyone has any recommendations I would be happy to entertain them!

Where Hard Cheese succeeded most for me was in its characters and its appealing structure. I found it to be frequently very funny and I thought Durling had some creative and interesting ideas. Unfortunately while Durling seems to have written quite a few mysteries following this, Hard Cheese is the only one currently available in English translation. Were more to appear though I would certainly want to give them a try.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

SparklingCyanide
Sparkling Cyanide
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1944

Last month I took my first steps in a grand undertaking to read all of the crime stories by Agatha Christie other than those containing Poirot or Miss Marple by reading Ordeal By Innocence. This month I selected Sparkling Cyanide. Technically it is not entirely new to me as I had listened to a radio production a few years ago but it transpired I didn’t remember a thing about it…

Rosemary Barton died from cyanide poisoning at her birthday dinner in a restaurant surrounded by six friends and family. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide but a year later her husband, George, receives anonymous notes that suggest she was actually murdered leading him to suspect that the murderer must have been one of their party.

The novel is divided into three distinct phases. The first introduces each of the suspects and their possible motive for being the killer. The second describes how those six characters end up at a dinner recreating Rosemary’s death. The third and final section features Colonel Race taking up the investigation and solving the mystery.

I really enjoyed the way Christie introduces us to the cast of characters while also outlining the facts of the case. They are an interesting assortment of likely killers and these chapters which vary considerably in length provide memorable introductions for each.

While all of the characters are strong, I was particularly struck by the character of Stephen Farraday, a rising politician. Christie presents him as an opportunist whose tendencies would suggest that he is a Liberal except that he can see no future with them because they have no chance of attaining power. Instead he makes overtures to the Labour party before deciding that his best chances for advancement would lie with the Conservative party. I encountered several Farradays in my time working as a political professional so this character rang particularly true to me.

The other characters are similarly strong however and I think that the quality of that characterization plays a big part in the success of this novel. Given that the formal murder investigation will not begin until two-thirds of the way into the novel, our attention is held because these characters are psychologically interesting and very well drawn. Christie balances the time she gives to the various suspects and utilizes the multiple perspectives approach well, taking care to

Discussion of the mystery itself is a little challenging because there are some key developments that take place late in the novel that I would hate to spoil. What I can say is that Christie devised a puzzle that is very neat and tidy in spite of its seeming impossibility. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that no one had the opportunity to tamper with the glasses of champagne while the party were away dancing and yet the poison was administered.

While I felt I knew who had done it and why, I could not understand how the murder was achieved. When the explanation is given it turns out to be quite devastatingly simple and very satisfying. In my opinion it ranks among Christie’s very best because it does not require elaborate plot explanations to work and it is very easily explained.

The man tasked with providing that explanation is Colonel Race, a name that may be familiar from a couple of Poirot novels. According to Goodreads I am supposed to consider Sparkling Cyanide the fourth book in the Colonel Race series but that feels like a bit of a stretch as in every other respect the book stands alone. Race is certainly a thoughtful and diligent sleuth and I think his plainness makes him an interesting contrast to Poirot in particular but his presence here neither requires or benefits from any prior knowledge. As it happens I had selected the earlier Colonel Race novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, to be my next non-series Christie selection for January so I will soon have another opportunity to reacquaint myself with him.

He is not a particularly flashy detective and his personality is rather dull. On several occasions he is presented in description as being something of a relic of British Imperialism. He does possess a keen mind however and I appreciated that Christie keeps her suspect interviews from dragging on, preferring to keep the narrative moving.

Overall, I think Sparkling Cyanide is a really entertaining Christie story. It is beautifully paced and the characterization is very strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, devouring it in a single sitting and would strongly recommend it to anyone curious to try Christie for the first time.