May 2018 in Review

Given how disappointed I felt in many of April’s reads, I was delighted to see my reading fortunes bounce back in a big way this month. For a while I had started to believe that anything I picked up would be worth reading and I found myself getting back into a groove of a book almost every day. I did finally hit some more mediocre fare towards the end of the month but even those each had some rewarding aspect or idea that kept me motivated. In short, picking this month’s Book of the Month is something of a daunting prospect.

But when it comes to Book of the Month, as in Highlander, there can only be one…

The books I read were:

Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode
Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles
The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu
The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull
Prague Noir edited by Pavel Mandys
The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts
The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko
Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey
The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi
The Three Taps by Ronald Knox
Toll the Bell for Murder by George Bellairs
Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards
Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr
The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

As I look back over that list it strikes me that there are at least a handful of titles there that I think may well be in contention when it comes time to make my list of favorite titles from my first year of blogging.

There are obviously a number of ways I could go with this. If you are looking for the best puzzle, I think The 8 Mansion Murders is a really strong read and while I stumbled on the solution to the first murder early, I think the second one is particularly clever. The most influential read would be Malice Aforethought, a title that inspired the funniest read of the month, the hilarious The Murder of My Aunt (though actually Bertie and the Tin Man has its moments too on that score).

The Frangipani Tree Mystery had one of my favorite settings of the month and I am excited to check out the second book soon while The Case of the Velvet Claws was one of the most entertaining, page-turning reads I came across. None of these books take home this month’s prize however.

In the end the book I picked is perhaps not the strongest mystery on offer (it’s really more of a suspense story), though I was certainly stumped by its solution, but it was the one that I found most interesting and rewarding. I found it to be quite an intriguing work and enjoyed discussing some of its themes in my review. It reminded me why I love to read international crime fiction because it gives a window into a place and time that I think proves really interesting to explore.

TheInformerSo while I think you can’t really go wrong picking up almost any of the books I read this month, the one that will stick with me most is Akimitsu Takagi’s The Informer if for no other reason than it prompted me to sign up for some Japanese lessons in the hope that I might someday in the very distant future be capable of reading his vast back catalog, next to none of which is available in English.

Acquisitions

Keep It Quiet by Richard Hull, Murder Isn’t Easy by Richard Hull, Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco, Murder in Stained Glass by Margaret Armstrong, The Egyptian Cross Mystery by Ellery Queen, Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin, Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo, A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto, Ill Met By Moonlight by Leslie Ford, The Gathering Murders by Keith Moray, From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell and The Plumley Inheritance by Christopher Bush.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

Sittaford
The Sittaford Mystery
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1931

My quest to read and review all of the non-series mystery and thriller novels by Agatha Christie continues this month with a look at The Sittaford Mystery. The only experience I had with this book prior to this read was seeing a very loose television adaptation for Marple! so much of this was new to me.

Bad weather is about to set in on Dartmoor as a group gathers in Sittaford House to chat and engage in a little seance. While the game starts off as entertaining, soon it takes a turn for the unsavory as the spirit spells out that Captain Trevelyan, the owner of the House, has been murdered.

Visibly distressed, Trevelyan’s friend Major Burnaby announces that he will walk to the home Trevelyan is staying in to check on him. When the house is locked on his arrival he is concerned and summons the Police. When they gain entry into the home they find him lying dead and, as Major Burnaby points out, the likely time of death would be around the time the game was taking place.

As with many of the non-series Christies I have read, while there is a detective they are a supporting character in this story. Instead we follow the exploits of a young woman whose fiance becomes the prime suspect in the case and the journalist she manipulates into helping them. This is certainly not a bad thing as both characters are quite charming and make for pleasant company but I am not convinced that the male was really necessary for this plot to work.

The centerpiece of the novel is the seance scene which occurs early and, while only loosely described, does convey a striking sense of dread as we wait for the name to be spelled out. Christie pitches this perfectly, playing with a slightly gothic playbook but never going overboard with those elements.

I also think this makes for a great starting point for the story as our pool of suspects can all give each other alibis for the time of death. We know that the situation cannot have occurred as described, therefore there is a (deliberate) error somewhere in the scenario. Unfortunately while the introduction to the crime is interesting, it turns out to be dressing for a much more pedestrian murder case.

There are a few aspects of the plot that I feel limit its overall effectiveness. The first is that the murder itself lacks any flair or appeal to the imagination. Indeed I would go so far as to label it the least interesting death I can think of in the Christie canon in terms of either the method and the circumstances in which the body is discovered.

The other problem I have with it relates to the table turning at the beginning of the novel and the role it plays in causing Trevelyan’s body to be discovered. The problem is that the murderer seems to rely on that event taking place to spur on the events that followed but they could not have anticipated or prompted the game taking place at the necessary time to suit their purpose.

On a more positive note, I do think Christie finds some clever ways to casually drop  important information into her plot and a few of those clues are quite well designed, sitting in the background until they are needed to explain the solution.

In short, while I didn’t love The Sittaford Mystery I do think that it possesses a few points of interest and I did enjoy reading it. It’s not Christie’s best but I also gather it’s not her worst.

Next month’s selection will be The Pale Horse which will be completely new to me. In the meantime chums, can I ask your opinion on a Christie question? Do you consider the Superintendent Battle stories to belong to a series or not? I won’t be including the Tommy and Tuppence series in this reading challenge but I’m a little stumped as to whether Battle should be regarded as a series or just a recurring character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Weather Event (When)

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClaws
The Case of the Velvet Claws
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1933
Perry Mason #1
Followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl

Prior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr

DeadlyHall
Deadly Hall
John Dickson Carr
Originally Published 1971

Deadly Hall was one of John Dickson Carr’s historical novels, published towards the very end of his career. I would say that it seems to have a fairly poor reputation but that would imply that it is a topic of conversation. In fact remarkably few blogs I read have reviewed it and when it is mentioned it is usually in passing or as part of a list.

My expectations therefore were fairly low but there were a few parts of the scenario that gave me hope of a good read. Firstly, the New Orleans setting can be a rich source of gothic tension and dread which we all know Carr can do so well. And secondly the mention of a treasure hunt seemed quite promising and offered a different sort of mystery than my previous experiences of the author have provided.

The novel is set in 1927 which, though historical at the time of writing, was well within the author’s own lifetime. Jeff Caldwell, an author who has emigrated to France, receives a letter from a childhood friend asking him to visit the home that friend has inherited in Louisiana. He does so and we learn about a treasure of some gold that is supposedly hidden on the property that no one has been able to find. We also hear that some years earlier a man died in the middle of the night apparently falling to his death while walking up the staircase with a metal tray.

Another death will take place but since it happens exactly at the halfway point in the novel I do not intend to provide any details of that event except that it takes place in a locked room. This is rather a late point for a first death to occur in a novel and I do think it reflects that the novel suffers from some awkward pacing and structural issues. More on that in a moment.

There are two problems that the reader is tasked with solving. Firstly, is there a treasure, what is it and where is it hidden? Second, who or what is responsible for the deaths?

The first question was, for me, the more entertaining of the two though because I had been treating that element of the novel as being something of an afterthought or a bit of narrative color it came as a surprise to me. It is in this aspect of the story that I feel the author pulls off a rather wonderful trick that is simple but imaginative and had this been a short story focused on that part of the plot I would be full of praise.

Unfortunately the second question suffers because of the pacing of the novel. While Carr primes the pump by giving us some background on the historical death, the characters are existing in a rather aimless state. Even with the promise of a treasure hunt, they mill around talking about the fate of the house but there is little movement or action. Until the death happens, this strand of the narrative offers little to excite the reader.

Things improve once the body shows up but even then the investigation feels a little dry and long-winded. Accusations are made and we get some further background on the family but the crime lacks the genius or appeal to the imagination of Carr at his best. This is a shame because when the time comes to explaining how the thing was managed, Carr presents us with a pretty clever solution. Had the setup and execution of the investigation been a little tighter it is easy to see how this story might have had more impact.

Beyond the problems with the scenario itself, I feel the quality of the characterizations is also disappointing at times. While Jeff and Penny shared some amusing interactions and back story, the other characters often seemed a little flat. Being set in the South, the book also features some inelegant and misguided attempts to write African-American dialect for the servant characters that will grate on some readers.

The book works a little better as a historical, though it is far more self-conscious about making its references to events and aspects of the time than my previous experience of a Carr historical novel. There is a tendency for characters to predict historical developments that would take place within a few years and while those comments certainly help to place the action within a timeframe, they also have the unfortunate effect of making everyone seem very prescient. On a more positive note, I thought that the journey down the Mississippi by paddle steamer was very evocative and did a fabulous job of setting the mood, as did the references to prohibition.

Deadly Hall is not a great Carr by any means but I don’t want to suggest that it is without merit. There are some good ideas here which is remarkable given the author had been active for about forty years by this point and I think with a little reorganization and change of emphasis the story could have been tightened and improved.

While it may be a little lacking as a murder mystery, I do think the way Carr resolves the mystery of the hidden treasure very cleverly and for that trick alone I give him props. It shouldn’t be anyone’s first Carr read. I wouldn’t even suggest getting to it as early as I have done in your exploration of his work but it shouldn’t be discounted too quickly either. Even a lesser Carr work is still quite readable!

Blood on the Tracks edited by Martin Edwards

bloodonthetracks
Blood on the Tracks
Martin Edwards (ed)
Originally Published 2018

The latest British Library Crime Classics anthology is a collection of railway mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction. As always editor Martin Edwards has managed to find a mix of different styles and approaches from adventure-type stories to inverted crimes.

Most of the stories in the collection feel like good matches for the railway theme though the links in a couple of cases are somewhat tenuous. For instance The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face is one of the strongest stories in the collection based purely on entertainment value but probably does the least with the train theme.

Among the highlights of the collection for me were The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. The other stories are generally of a high standard and most are paced pretty well with just a few falling short of the mark.

The Man with the Watches by Arthur Conan Doyle

A curious tale that features a seemingly impossible crime where the body of a passenger who hadn’t been seen on the train turns up in a compartment while the train is in motion while passengers who were there seemed to have vanished. I didn’t find it the most engagingly written story I have ever read by Doyle though it does have an interesting premise and I appreciated the construction of its solution.

The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

In this story the detective is being consulted about a seemingly inexplicable death that has taken place in the early hours of the morning at a section of railway. The night watchman is found dead near the tracks with a severe blow to the back of his head. Suspicion has fallen on a young man with whom he was feuding yet the man recounting the tale does not believe he would be responsible though he cannot think of another explanation.

Arguably the story could have been a little more concisely told but the concept is quite clever and logical.

How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

This Dora Myrl adventure sees her consulted about the matter of a theft of several hundred pounds that was being transported from one bank office to another. The clerk responsible was supposedly travelling in the compartment alone but we are let in on the secret of how the robbery was managed. What remains a mystery however is how the thief managed to get off the moving train.

It’s quite an entertaining read and I did find Dora quite a likeable, lively heroine so I would be interested in reading some of her other adventures. The story though is not really fair play in that some of the details necessary are not fully described while the surprise identity of the villain will shock absolutely no one.

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway by Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner tells Miss Polly Burton about a murder that had been committed on the Underground some time before where the Police were certain that they had identified the killer yet were unable to prove their case. He explains how the murder was actually carried out and why the Police came to their incorrect conclusion about the guilty party.

As with each of the previous stories in this collection, this is a tale recounted but the difference is that all of the action has taken part in the past, meaning that there is no movement or action in the story. To me that led to it dragging a little which is a shame as I thought the way the crime was executed was quite smart.

The Affair of the Corridor Express by Victor L. Whitechurch

A clever little tale that unfolds at a good clip. Mr. Hazell is approached by a school master who had been tasked with escorting a student by train after he was summoned by telegram. During the journey the student steps into the corridor and disappears. The master investigates and conducts a thorough search of the train but the child has vanished in spite of the train not having slowed down or stopped at all since the disappearance.

Whitechurch lays out the information very clearly and it is a pleasure to piece together what has happened. The explanation is quite simple and I appreciated the tightness of the resolution.

The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman

Arguably the first inverted mystery written in English, The Case of Oscar Brodski is a story told in two parts of unequal length. The short opening identifies the murderer and explains the choices that he makes that lead to him taking a life and we see him staging the scene to try to mask his guilt. At the end of this section we are, in effect, challenged to imagine how he might possibly get caught.

The second part reveals that Dr. Thorndyke happened to be travelling on the railway line on the evening of the murder and became aware of the investigation into the death. While he does not have his full laboratory with him, he does have a small green case packed with smaller versions of many of his instruments and his systematically analyses the evidence to build up a picture of just what happened.

The investigation is compelling because the evidence is convincing and easy to follow. Thorndyke may not be the most dynamic investigator but it is interesting to see just how he works and his acknowledgement that his success was down in part to fortunate timing as had he been later on the scene much of the evidence would have not been there.

The Eighth Lamp by Roy Vickers

In this story a signalman agrees to take on the duties of performing final clean up on the platform of a circle line station at the end of each evening. As he extinguishes the last light however he sees a train running through the station without any lights and slowly a dread grows within him about fulfilling those duties.

The story feels tightly written, building a very effective sense of tension and drama. The reader may well guess where the story is headed but I think it is very well paced and packs a strong conclusion.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A Max Carrados story in which the detective is consulted by his friend Mr. Carlyle about a case he is working on to try to determine who was responsible for a catastrophic train collision. The driver swears that he was following a signal while the signalman says that the driver ignored him.

Aspects of the solution are rather clever and the concept and themes of the story feels far more modern than you might expect given it was written in 1914. That being said, I did find the way the story was told a little dry.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face by Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter is travelling on a train when he hears about a strange case of a man found strangled on an isolated beach wearing just his bathing costume with nothing to identify him. There are just one set of footprints leading to the body though lest you think this an impossible crime story, Lord Peter solves that within a few paragraphs (it’s a good explanation too).

The story is quite cleverly constructed and has a fairly unconventional ending. Based on entertainment value it is one of the strongest stories in the collection though I might grumble and point out that the train setting is quite incidental and used in just a fraction of the story.

The Railway Carriage by F. Tennyson Jesse

Jesse’s final story to feature occult sleuth Solange Fontaine is really more of a rumination on themes of crime, redemption and capital punishment than it is a traditional detective story. I am not particularly fond of supernatural elements in my crime fiction so this one was perhaps not for me though I think the revelation at the end is quite chilling.

Mystery of the Slip-Coach by Sapper

A story in which a gambler and moneylender is found shot dead within a train carriage with a broken egg near them. This story can boast a devilishly clever solution but you may well wonder whether it could actually work in practice and why on earth anyone would conceive of such a ludicrous way of killing someone.

The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts

Having believed myself done with Freeman Wills Crofts’ inverted stories, I continue to be delighted by finding new short stories in these collections. This one is a good one, focusing on an accountancy clerk who is intending to kill a man on the railroad tracks.

The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage by Ronald Knox

A very acceptable Sherlockian pastiche which sees the detective consulted by the servant who voices her concerns that her master intends to commit suicide. Holmes travels down by train only to find that during the journey he disappears. What I do think it captures well is Doyle’s ability to set up a seemingly complicated scenario and then to have Holmes reduce it to something quite simple and understandable but while it entertains, there is nothing special to set it apart from the countless other Holmes pastiches.

Murder on the 7.16 by Michael Innes

Forget trying to solve this one yourself – its brevity means it is a little lacking in clues – but the story is a clever one, even if Appleby could never prove it with his evidence. The director of a film is found dead inside a reproduction train cabin on set.

The Coulman Handicap by Michael Gilbert

Detectives attempt to track a woman who they believe is involved in fencing stolen goods but manage to keep losing her. Unfortunately I found the premise less than thrilling and it struck me as one of the weaker entries in the collection.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. Blood on the Tracks is already available in the UK and will be published in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press on July 3, 2018.

Toll the Bell for Murder by George Bellairs

TolltheBell
Toll the Bell for Murder
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1959
Inspector Littlejohn #32
Preceded by Bones in the Wilderness
Followed by Death in Despair

If you are a seasoned reader of this blog I know what you’re wondering: why is Aidan trying another Bellairs when he’s read four of them already and has yet to be blown away by any of them? It’s a fair question but the reason is that, even in the weakest of his efforts, I find aspects of the writing enjoyable and I feel sure that there must be one of his novels where everything I like comes together to deliver a perfect mystery.

Well, if there is a perfect Bellairs out there it turns out that I will have to look a little more to find it but Toll the Bell for Murder is the closest thing yet, albeit with some reservations. Like my previous favorite, Corpse at the Carnival, Littlejohn is on the Isle of Man at his friend Archdeacon Kinrade’s request to unofficially look into a curious murder that seems to have been committed by a priest on the island.

The novel opens with a group of villagers preparing for a jumble sale by pricing donated items. Among those items is a shotgun and a box of ammunition which the vicar diligently sets to making sure is in working condition and pricing. In the early hours of the morning there is a loud shot in the vicinity of the church and a few minutes later the vicar begins violently ringing the church bell. When the villagers stumble up to the church they discover Reverend Lee praying over a body shot in the head. That shotgun lies next to him and he refuses to say anything in his defence. While no one really believes Lee would resort to murder, his unwillingness to cooperate means the investigation has hit a dead-end.

The victim, it turns out, is Sir Martin Skollick who is widely regarded as a bit of a scoundrel. An arrival from England, he has not only entered into land disputes with many of the locals but also seduced several of the young women in the neighborhood. Littlejohn soon realizes that there were plenty who would want him dead but first he will have to find a way to prove Lee’s innocence and discover what really happened that night.

Littlejohn sets about speaking with the locals to get a sense of the people involved and to learn more about the victim. These interviews are often somewhat rambling making progress in that investigation slow but they help establish the sense of place which I think is Bellairs’ greatest strength as a writer. Each of his characters feels distinctive, both in their personalities and in the way they talk, and I had no difficulty imagining any of them.

Similarly Bellairs pays a lot of attention to describing the landscape of the Manx curraghs and the isolation of some of the communities there. This style can occasionally feel a little travelogue-y, as TomCat said in the comments of a previous post, so if you’ve tried previous stories by the author and didn’t care for the focus drifting away from the crime narrative then this is probably not the book for you.

I don’t want to give the suggestion however that the murder is in any way an afterthought. Bellairs does take a lot of time to build up several suspects, crafting credible motivations for each of them. Unlike in some of the previous Littlejohn stories I have read, the suspect pool remains pretty much intact until the end.

Unfortunately the process of getting to the point where Littlejohn Explains It All is a little less satisfactory. Here we risk getting into spoiler territory in a big way so, being as general as I can be, I think there are two basic issues that impinged on my enjoyment of the ending. The first is that a typical beat of the normal detective novel resolution does not occur in its usual fashion. Now, I am the first to appreciate attempts to innovate or play with expectations but unfortunately I think it makes the conclusion feel a little less satisfying.

The second issue relates to the evidence Littlejohn gathers and uses when explaining everything at the end. While I certainly understand how he is able to use the things he learns to back up his reading of what happened, I am not sure that he really proves his case through the evidence. That may not bother everyone but coupled with the first issue it does mean that the ending feels a little anticlimactic.

Toll the Bell for Murder will not be for everyone. It is quite leisurely paced and some will be frustrated by the focus drifting away from the investigation. That said, I found it to be a more interesting book than any of the previous Bellairs titles I have read and it renews my hope that there will be a book where he knocks it out of the park. I just potentially will have to dig through another 56 books to find it…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: On an Island (Where)

The Three Taps by Ronald Knox

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The Three Taps
Ronald Knox
Originally Published 1927
Miles Bredon #1
Followed by The Footsteps at the Lock

Back in March I wrote about the first crime novel by Ronald Knox, The Viaduct Murder, which I found quite entertaining though I felt its final third was quite disappointing. The Three Taps was Knox’s second novel and the first to feature his series sleuth, Miles Bredon.

The novel opens with a length and very amusing description of the Indescribable Company, an insurance agency with considerable resources. We are following one of their clients, Mr. Mottram, who holds an Euthanasia Policy with them.

According to the terms of that policy, if he dies before his sixty-fifth birthday his beneficiaries would receive half a million pounds. Should he survive beyond that age then he is entitled to an annuity. Should he commit suicide however he would not be entitled to a penny.

The reason for his visit to the company is that he is looking to cash out of his policy early, against the terms and company practice. He explains that he has recently received a diagnosis that he will die within the next two years but rather than his heirs receiving a half million pounds upon his death, he is proposing that they terminate the policy and refund half of his premium payments instead so he can enjoy his final few months. This offer is politely refused and, after he has gone, the Company sends Miles to look into matters. Miles and his wife follow him to a hotel in the country where they discover he has died as a result of poisoning by gas in circumstances that are far from clear.

The problem is that there are features of the crime scene that are suggestive of both suicide and murder. For one thing the body is found in a room that has been locked from the inside. However it is noted that the gas taps are actually switched off in the room and the window is open while some of his actions the evening before do not seem to tally with those of a man who expects to kill himself. It’s an intriguing scenario that only becomes more confusing as we learn more about the circumstances of the death.

Knox’s sleuth, Miles Bredon, makes his first appearance here and it is clear that he is cut from a rather different mold than many of his contemporaries. While he is smart and perceptive, his attention will drift and he is described as being somewhat lethargic. This case does catch his interest however, in part because he lays a small (but soon to increase) bet on the outcome with the police officer investigating the death. The two of them will investigate this case together, sharing their findings while Miles’ wife also plays an important role in conducting some of the interviews and making suggestions.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Miles and Angela which are breezy and comedic in tone. Angela plays a significant part in this investigation and shows some strong detective skills of her own, working to extract information from sources, and keeps her husband on task. It’s a fun relationship and I think Knox uses them superbly, balancing the comedic interactions with serious, thoughtful detection.

Returning to the case itself, one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was that the author does not follow the usual template for novels that feature a death which looks like suicide. Typically in such stories the author takes pains to get past any such uncertainty and quickly establish that it is a case of murder before presenting us with a gallery of suspects.

Knox does not follow that game plan here at all, keeping the questions about the nature of the death open until very close to the end. That he manages to do so while keeping his plot fair play is laudable and he manages to do this by focusing less on the question of whodunit than pondering howdunit and whydunit.

The genius of the circumstances Knox outlines are that there is a tension within the evidence that seems impossible to resolve. If you accept that it was a case of suicide then how do you explain the evidence that suggests someone had been in the room after his death. If it is murder then why did someone go to the trouble of making it look like a suicide when that would remove the financial incentive for murder in the first place?

The solution that Knox gives us is really quite clever, both in terms of the mechanical way it was worked but also in its psychological aspects. I didn’t come close to figuring it out myself and while I think the technical explanation does become a little dry in those parts, I thought it presented some novel features that make it quite distinct.

As enjoyable as the book is however, it is not without a few problems. One of these relates to the ending where though I feel that while a piece of information is fairly clued, I am not sure that it was as well conveyed in the setup as it is in the final explanation. I somewhat suspect that this is one of those cases where contemporary audiences may have reacted differently to that piece of information.

The other is harder to explain without getting into spoilery territory which I’d like to avoid as much as possible. What I will say is that I think some aspects of the ending may run contrary to the reader’s expectations of what this sort of book is supposed to do. Those who like to focus on spotting the suspects may feel a little disappointed at how few options Knox gives us. That is not to say that those elements aren’t there, just that they are not as prominent as usual.

Overall I was far more impressed with The Three Taps than I had been with my previous foray into Knox’s work. There are some really solid ideas here and I thought the crime scene was enjoyably devious. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked Miles and Angela and will hope to be able to get back to them again soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of Murder in the Title (What)

The Informer by Akimitsu Takagi, translated by Sadako Mizuguchi

TheInformer
The Informer
Akimitsu Takagi
Originally Published 1971

Shigeo Segawa had been a successful stock trader for several years before disgracing himself when he was caught trading with company money. After trying to strike out on business on his own and failing we find him at the novel’s start working for his family business making a tenth of his former salary.

By chance he runs into an old acquaintance who tells him about a job opportunity that she had heard about. She sets up an appointment with what seems to be a fledgling company selling massage machines to executives. His meeting goes well and he receives a job offer with far more lucrative terms than he would expect and accepts, albeit with some reservations. Soon he learns that his position will not just be selling those machines but that he has been hired to carry out an act of industrial espionage.

This is my first experience reading anything by Akimitsu Takagi, a fairly prolific Japanese author of the post-war period and I came to it with relatively little knowledge of the type of story I would be reading.

The tone and storytelling in the opening chapters seems to indicate that we will be experiencing an inverted or psychological crime story as the reader anticipates everything going wrong. One review I read compared the themes and style of the first third of the novel to Mamet’s work which is an observation I wish I could claim was my own. At the point that everything goes wrong our point of perspective shifts to that of Prosecutor Saburo Kirishima, one of Takagi’s series characters, who is tasked with investigating a murder and we realize that while what we have read will help us identify the killer, it is probably not going to be Shigeo.

Rather than trying to categorize the story by its storytelling style, I think this is better addressed in terms of its thematic discussion. The Informer is a story that addresses the changing nature of Japanese business and the values associated with that in the post-war period. In this sense it reminds me a lot of some of Kurosawa’s more cynical, modern dramas that would portray figures you would expect to be respectable as verging on degeneracy such as his Drunken Angel.

This is reflected in the cast of characters Takagi creates who might be described as varying dark shades of gray. There are numerous instances of what would have been regarded as sexual immorality and adultery, financial malpractice as well as manipulation and coercion. There are several instances in the novel where characters voice a lack of respect for the older generation which implies a broader cultural degeneracy infiltrating the workplace. Even the victim is hard to sympathize with if we can believe some of the information his wife’s sister shares with Shigeo.

The novel also evokes a strong sense of place and time, giving Takagi’s view of the business world of this time. Industrial espionage is rife with companies seeking any advantage they can find in a difficult economy. There are still hints of an older, highly paternalistic culture however that comes through in the way an employer seeks to protect the interests of one of his employees suggesting that this is Japan in transition. If you enjoy social history or reading about other cultures then you may well find these aspects of the book to be quite compelling.

Turning back to the mystery plot itself, I spent a good portion of the book absolutely certain of who must be responsible only to feel quite ridiculous when the final reveal comes. This reflects that the plot makes a certain amount of sense, though be prepared for the discussion of what happened to feel a little abrupt. Also, the fate of a key character is left unresolved so be prepared if you must have total closure! This may not be for you.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this work though is the writer’s ability to evoke psychology and put the reader in the head of his key characters as they process the situations they find themselves in and react. While this is a third person narrative, we get to share in Shigeo’s understanding of what is happening to him and follow his emotional reactions and reasoning as he makes his decisions. We are never left wondering why he responds the way he does, even when it causes more trouble for him, and I was anxious to know whether Saburo would catch the killer and how it would all be resolved for Shigeo.

The result is a novel that I felt made for fascinating reading although it is more of a suspense novel than a detective story. The setting is striking and the book conveyed a strong sense of time, place and culture. The circumstances of the crime are intriguing though I will say that the question of mechanics is not considered at all by either detective or writer. It made for a striking first impression of Akimitsu Takagi’s work, though I am disappointed to discover that only two of his other books were ever translated into English so unless someone goes ahead and starts commissioning some more I’ll never be able to read them myself.

Bertie and the Tin Man by Peter Lovesey

BertieandtheTinman
Bertie and the Tinman
Peter Lovesey
Originally Published 1987
Bertie Prince of Wales #1
Followed by Bertie and the Seven Bodies

I am typically a little wary of historical mystery novels that feature historical figures or events prominently. There are certainly some very good stories that have used them thoughtfully but all too often I feel that it becomes an excuse to indulge in historical celebrity-spotting. While Bertie and the Tinman features a number of real life figures I am happy to say that they are generally used in a very thoughtful and restrained way.

The premise of this short series from Peter Lovesey was that Bertie, the Prince of Wales, fancied himself an amateur detective and had several adventures that he recorded in book form and had sealed away for a hundred years to avoid causing any disgrace. This period now being at an end, we are reading what purports to be a historical account complete with a charming editor’s note at the end that suggests that there are reasons to doubt its authenticity (not least that we should doubt that Bertie possessed the drive to complete a manuscript himself) and outlines the fates of the various characters following the end of this adventure.

The incident that this story revolves around is actually drawn from the history books, the apparent suicide of famed jockey Fred Archer as a result of delirium brought on by illness. Lovesey weaves his narrative around those historical details very skillfully to create a rich and believable story. The question is why a man who was regarded as the most skilled rider of his era would suddenly commit suicide when he seemed to be recovering from a bout of illness. While I do not share Lovesey’s love of sporting history, I think this initial premise is intriguing and certainly it provides a cast of colorful characters for us to encounter.

Bertie, the Prince of Wales, is on the face of it rather an unlikely detective and I did worry that I would find it hard to take him seriously in that role or that there would be some alterations to his character to make it work. Instead Lovesey makes a virtue of those deficiencies, presenting us with a slightly different model of investigator. He is not a great thinker, though he is certainly intelligent, nor does he possess much drive or application in conducting his investigations as at several points he hands off work to others to perform on his behalf.

He does possess the advantage of access and status however that will prove a boon to him in his investigations. In addition, he is genuinely intrigued by the circumstances of this mystery and concerned for Archer’s reputation in death. The combination of those traits made him credible to me and I appreciated that Lovesey does not gloss over his flaws.

In fact it is those flaws within Bertie that make him the most compelling aspect of this story as he has one of those wonderful narrative voices that drips with personality. This is a man who feels frustrated in his position, keen to acquire a purpose and meaningful duties yet often acting quite irresponsibly. He can be quite self-aware and charming yet he can also be an incorrigible ass, particularly in the way he treats his wife. The result is a hero, of sorts, that we can laugh with and at but whose investigation is serious and credible.

There are some memorable moments along the way, not least when his mother makes an appearance as well as some of his bedroom antics (which are written to tread the line perfectly, being more bawdy than explicit). The biographical details of Bertie’s life are well researched and the novel touches on many aspects of Victorian life and culture including the music hall scene and spiritualism.

As entertaining as Lovesey’s prose and dialog can be, I think that judged purely on the mystery elements the book would be found wanting. Perhaps because Bertie possesses more limited powers of deduction than the likes of Cribb, the solution to the mystery is unlikely to dazzle or shock the reader. Alternatively, perhaps Lovesey’s care to ensure that the solution fits the historical facts is responsible. Either way, the final third of the book lacks much of the spark and excitements of the earlier sections though I was charmed by his use of a challenge to the reader presented in the form of a bathtub realization.

Ultimately it is the charm of the novel that carries the day and makes it easy to overlook some of the weaknesses of the mystery at its heart. Bertie is instantly recognizable, credible and amusing so it is never a chore to spend time in his company while Lovesey’s attention to the details of the historical setting and character is superb. A very entertaining effort.

The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru Abiko, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

MansionMurders
The 8 Mansion Murders
Takemaru Abiko
Originally Published 1989

It is the early hours of the morning and Yukie Hachisuka and her sign language teacher are talking when they hear the sound of someone walking and decide to open the curtains to look. When they do they observe Yukie’s father, businessman Kikuichirō Hachisuka, being shot through the heart with a crossbow.

When the two women instinctively leave their room to run down to him they are struck from behind, waking up several hours later. They discover that he is dead but there are signs that the body had been moved. Even more strangely, when the Police investigate they find that the room the murderer used belongs to Yūsaku Yano, the son of the family’s servants, who swears that he was fast asleep and that his door was locked from the inside.

The Police quickly settle on Yano as the only possible suspect they can see and they plan to arrest him but Kyōzō Hayami, an inspector of the Metropolitan Police Department, is persuaded by Yukie to try to find an alternative suspect. The Chief suggests that he might want to take a few days leave to investigate the matter and he and his colleague Kinoshita start to look into events.

The puzzle is a solid one though I was somewhat surprised that I worked out exactly how it was accomplished about two fifths of the way into the book. This is rather baffling to me as it is quite unlike me to have the first clue about solving an impossible crime, let alone getting it done so early in the text. When this sort of thing happens I usually caution that I may just have been lucky but I do think there are several significant details mentioned that may prove suggestive to seasoned readers of the genre.

While I may not have been amazed by the mechanics of how the crime was achieved, I am very happy to say that reaching that solution early did not diminish my enjoyment of the story for several reasons. For one, I could not be entirely certain of the identity of the killer. For another, there are some other aspects of the case that take a little longer to come into clear focus. But perhaps most importantly, I found Takemaru Abiko’s style to be highly entertaining and engaging.

Part of the way Abiko draws the reader in is by presenting us with a very likeable central character in the form of Kyōzō. He is not necessarily the sharpest investigator, nor the most brilliant mind but he possesses a simple charm. One of the things that really sticks out is when we first learn that he is attracted to Yukie and he reflects on how he feels lucky that he would have a successful relationship with her because she is the fiftieth woman he has fallen in love with but there are plenty of other fun details and thoughts within the text.

The other aspect of Abiko’s approach that I think sticks out is the restrained use of humor throughout the story. Combining comedy and crime can be a tricky business and there is always a risk that the jokes will overpower the narrative. Abiko avoids that by picking specific aspects of his story to provide humor while allowing the crime to be taken seriously.

One particularly rich source of humor is Kyōzō’s ability to compel Kinoshita to perform reckless or foolish acts. By the end of the book the reader will be anticipating the punch lines to these interactions but the pleasure comes in seeing just how Kinoshita will find himself injured again. Similarly I appreciated his frustrating interactions with his brother and sister who are both mystery fans and who each take on significant roles in the case, at one point giving their own version of Dr. Fell’s famous locked room lecture.

Though its puzzle may not be quite as ingeniously constructed as either The Moai Island Puzzle or The Decagon House Mystery, other shin honkaku titles published by Locked Room International, I think it is most accessible of the three and it might make a good first step for readers beginning to explore this style of Japanese crime writing. I am excited to see these works being made available in translation and hope that there may be further titles in the offing. Recommended.