Five to Try: Aidan’s Picks

Aidan's Picks: Five to Try

A few months ago I happened to mention on Twitter that I was thinking about what I should post to mark the occasion of my four hundred and fiftieth book review. One of the suggestions that I received was from the mystery writer James Scott Byrnside who replied that I ought to do a list of my best reads up until that point. It was a good idea. Too good in fact to waste on review four hundred and fifty and so I made a note of it, putting it away until I reached my five hundredth book review – a milestone I will pass with my next review!

One thing I was keen to avoid was simply trying to pick the five best books. While I know all too well the appeal of a ranked list, I doubt the results would be particularly interesting or surprising. Particularly given I mention quite frequently that my favorite crime novel is Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying. A top five list where you already know the winner would surely be rather anticlimactic.

Instead my aim here is to surprise you (in other words, not all five are inverted mysteries) and throw a spotlight on some more obscure titles I have reviewed rather than pick something that needs no further introduction. For that reason there will be no Christie, Crofts or Carr on this list and when a notable name does crop up, rest assured it is for one of their less famous efforts.

With all that said, here’s my list…

A Shock to the System by Simon Brett

Penned in the eighties, this book is an inverted mystery in the best Ilesian tradition featuring a protagonist trapped in the middle of the corporate ladder. When he is passed over for a promotion in favor of a ruthless colleague something inside him snaps and he accidentally murders a panhandler, dumping his body into the Thames.

After the initial shock of what he has done passes, he comes to think of murder as a solution to the other parts of his life he is dissatisfied with.

It’s a superb, darkly amusing read that offers some interesting reflections on the social changes and corporate culture that was developing in Britain during the eighties. For those who have only experienced Brett’s lightly comic works, this is an interesting change of pace that showcases some of his range as a writer.

Read my review here

The File on Lester by Andrew Garve

Since starting this blog I have read and enjoyed a number of books by Paul Winterton who wrote as Andrew Garve, Roger Bax and Paul Somers including a couple of excellent inverted crime stories. The File on Lester stands out though for its unusual structural approach and concept.

The novel is structured as a dossier of documents and press clippings all concerning a political scandal. Lester is a charismatic young politician who leads the Progressive Party who seem to be on the eve of a landslide election victory. Then suddenly a young woman turns up at a press event and asks a photographer to pass on a personal message to him, prompting huge press interest.

The author structures the story very well and does a fantastic job of teasing the reader so that they may find their assumptions shift at several points over the course of the novel. Moreover, it is a convincing depiction of a political scandal with well observed characters while the relative short page count feels just about right, making this an interesting, quick read.

Read my review here

The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

What I love about The Man Who Didn’t Fly is that it is a traditional puzzle mystery but one in which we are not asked whodunnit but tasked with trying to work out a character’s identity.

The story concerns a group of four men who were supposed to catch a flight together to Ireland. On the day however only three of the four men turn up at the airport to catch the flight which crashes, leaving the police unsure who the three men were that died and who is still living.

It’s a highly novel concept that Bennett works through brilliantly. The book is entertaining and often quite funny while the writer plays fair with the reader, providing heaps of clues that can be pieced together logically to find the answer.

Read my review here

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

Payment Deferred predates Iles’ celebrated inverted mystery Malice Aforethought by several years and is, in my opinion, the stronger read. Certainly it is a book that ought to deserve to be more widely celebrated.

Mr. Marble has exhausted the goodwill of everyone he could think of and is now sure to be financially ruined when he receives a surprise visit from a young, rich relative. Their visitor is without a family and newly arrived in England – what’s more, he has come with a wallet full of cash. Marble sends his family to bed then sets about killing the young man and taking that money.

The book is a study in what follows as Marble finds himself rich but also discovers that simply having money cannot fix all of your problems. Instead guilt over the crime and fear of discovery also seem to loom over him.

It’s not a light read but it is a brilliantly written book and I think deserving of recognization as one of the great inverted mysteries.

Read my review here

The End of Andrew Harrison by Freeman Wills Crofts

Generally speaking when I do these Five to Try lists I try to select books where it is easy to find affordable copies. Currently that is not the case with my final selection but the good news is that a reprint of this one is just around the corner!

The novel is a bit of a curiosity – one of just two books Crofts wrote that can be described as a ‘locked room mystery’. It should be said that this problem is only a relatively small component of the novel – playing out over just a chapter – but it is done so well that it left me wishing that Crofts had done more of them.

The book concerns the disappearance of a wealthy man following a trip to France. After a short outcry followed with a bit of a financial panic, the man reappears and hosts a lavish party on his boat. When his body is found in his locked and sealed cabin the next morning it is assumed he must have committed suicide but Inspector French soon comes to suspect foul play.

It’s a very cleverly plotted story and I remember loving the solution to the locked room problem. Honestly, I’m just thrilled that finally others will be able to read this without breaking the bank and I can’t wait to read more people’s thoughts about it.

Read my review here

So, there you have my five to try from my first 499 reviews. Next up will be my thoughts on Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders. Thanks to you all for being with me for my reading adventures. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on many, many more vintage mysteries with you all in the years to come!

Blogiversary: 4 Years Old

Today I can’t help but be a little self-indulgent as it marks the fourth anniversary of my starting this blog. A lot has changed over the years – my average post length has nearly doubled for one thing – but one thing that has stayed the same is my love of mysteries. If anything it has deepened as I have read more widely and discovered new authors and sub-genres of mystery and crime fiction that I never knew existed.

Thanks to all who share their thoughts, book recommendations and to those who have shared and linked to my posts. That has truly been the most rewarding part of book blogging and it’s what always pulls me back when I hit a reading slump or when real life responsibilities have had to take precedence. I appreciate your friendship and support and, as always, thank you for making this hobby so special to me.

Now that I’ve got the sentimental stuff out of the way, let’s move on to the other aspects of the blogiversary post. Each year I have made promises to myself about the things I have hoped to do in the year to come.

Last year I noted that I had just done a big redesign and so didn’t expect to make any further structural changes (that prediction failed – I did a redesign a month or so ago when I accidentally selected a different theme while experimenting in the WordPress customizer). Accordingly, I aimed to make smaller, achievable commitments.

Let’s see how I did:

Create more author guide pages – We’re not getting off to a great start here. This hasn’t happened at all (I may possibly have done Carr since then but that’s about it). The one thing in my defense is that I did revamp the ones I have done a little both in terms of creating new headers to match the revamped design and also getting away from the grid system to provide more detail and quotes from my reviews.

So a bit of a miss here but I have a pretty clear idea these days on what I want those pages to look like. Perhaps one for a year or two down the line when I’ll have read enough to properly realize some of those big ideas!

Write more Five To Try posts – I didn’t do brilliantly with this one either, though I created a bunch of header images and have a document where I list different books I would select for each. I am happy with the ones I did do though (Theatrical Mysteries, Hotel Mysteries and Poisoning Mysteries) and I will certainly hope to do more with this in the months to come!

More impossible crimes – Unlike the two previous goals, I did pretty amazingly with this one. This past year has seen me do more impossible crimes than anything else on my blog. This was helped by a spell of three months where I reviewed a different impossible crime novel each Monday (and often added a second one midweek). I enjoyed that ‘season’ of reviews and plan to repeat it again at some point in the New Year.

So, overall not a great year for meeting my goals but while I may have whiffed at several of these promises to myself, I feel pretty happy with the overall direction that the blog has taken.

A little over a month ago I posted my 450th book review and it seems quite possible that I will reach 500 around the New Year. I already have some ideas in mind for what I will want that book to be and am looking forward to blogging about mystery fiction for many more years to come…

As I always like to note when I make these Five to Try lists, I am not suggesting that the five titles I pick are the five best books I have read but rather than they are five titles that I think are deserving of some additional attention. I wanted to select the five titles I have read this past year that have really stood out for me as doing something unusual or unexpected.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun

The Disaster Tourist concerns a woman whose career with a tour company that specializes in trips to areas that have experienced natural disasters seems to have deteriorated. After raising a complaint about harassment at work, she goes on a working holiday to evaluate one of their least profitable trips and prepare a proposal for an overhaul. She soon discovers though that the locals have their own plan to restore their profitability…

The book sits on the very edge of the genre as a blend of thriller and satire but I found it to be a really memorable read thanks to the fascinating and provocative questions it poses about the nature of eco-tourism and its dark portrayal of corporate culture.

Such Bright Disguises by Brian Flynn

Such Bright Disguises is an inverted mystery in which a young woman and her lover concoct a plan to murder her husband to allow them to be together.

The structure of the novel is interesting as the first part follows their reaching that decision and carrying out the deed. The second then follows what happens next as we see how their relationship is affected by their actions before a final, quite short part sees our series investigator – Anthony Bathurst – piece everything together.

There is some great character exploration and development but I think what I love most about this story is the conclusion which is fantastic. Easily my favorite Flynn to date (expect more reviews to come in Year Five).

Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo

A woman approaches a writer of detective fiction, explaining that she has been harassed by a former lover who is sending threatening letters to her, tracking her movements through the family home. He visits her home and makes some unsettling discoveries but concocts a plan to protect her. Things take a turn however when her husband is found dead and the pair worry that she might be next.

Beast in Shadows is a wonderfully creepy and unsettling read. Rampo manages to balance moments of unsettling, chilling horror with telling a carefully constructed story of perverse obsession, cleverly layering some elements of fair play detection beneath those horrific elements. It is a highly successful blend of those styles with each complementing the other, combining to build a cohesive and interesting work.

One bonus is that it is currently available in a double-bill with the pulpy The Black Lizard which is a really entertaining adventure tale.

How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

How to Kidnap the Rich is an absolute blast to read. The novel, which blends social satire and a great con game and kidnapping yarn, is an absolutely wild ride that left me drawing comparisons with the work of Jim Thompson. It’s a really sharp and smart read that kept surprising me with each new development.

The characters are superbly drawn and I loved Ramesh, the protagonist, who has a really interesting and cynical narrative voice. I never really wanted him to succeed so much as I wanted to see all the other, terrible people lose and I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about those antagonists and seeing what happened to them.

Best of all, rather than fizzling out it builds to a really compelling conclusion that I think fit the tone and the themes of the novel perfectly.

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

One of my favorite tropes in inverted mysteries is the murderer who is haunted by his crime. C. S. Forester’s Payment Deferred is a sublime example of that idea as Mr. Marble commits murder, makes a fortune and then finds himself unable to enjoy it as he lives in permanent fear of discovery.

The characterization here is superb and I loved the way the novel explores how Marbles’ new-found wealth affects not only him but the other members of his family. It is all handled extremely thoughtfully and while I felt profoundly sorry for some of those other characters, I think its ending is powerfully and highly effective.

A superb read that I consider one of the best in the inverted mysteries sub-genre.

Looking Ahead To Year Five

Here is the bit of the post where I foolishly set a number of criteria that I will fail to have met in a year’s time. While that may seem like an exercise in frustration, I do think that the process has value in terms of showing where I would like to head in the future.

More Public Domain Mysteries – one of the most-visited pages on this website is the one where I highlight works I have read that are in the public domain in the United States and so can be read for free by many readers. I had created this resource during the early days of the pandemic in a period where buying books might be logistically or financially impossible and while I continue to occasionally add to it, I haven’t read much work lately that would qualify.

While I don’t plan on making a commitment to a weekly read I do want to be mindful about doing at least one a month. I am even toying with the idea of flagging the book I am planning to read in case anyone wants to play along (though that would require me to actually stick to a posting schedule so perhaps not, eh?).

More Themed Mondays – I mentioned above that the Mondays are Impossible feature that I did throughout the Summer was enormously satisfying for me. So was my previous set of Monday posts focused on Japanese mysteries. While I want to be careful to avoid becoming too structured, I did enjoy the idea of doing a series of linked posts and being purposeful about seeking out new writers and authors who would help me achieve that goal. Twitter pals can expect more polls asking for help selecting new reads and themes in the months to come!

Replacing Jonathan Creek – Perhaps the biggest challenge in the months ahead will be figuring out what on earth I will be doing with my Saturday posts. For the past year or so I have been pretty focused on working through the Jonathan Creek series but now that I’ve done them all I find myself left with a void to fill.

Will it be more TV? Perhaps a day to share more long-form writing or a return to Columbo? Or will it perhaps be something else entirely? As of yet I have no firm plans…

So, that’s it for Year Four. Thank you once again for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts and opinions with me. I hope to see you again in Year Five (and beyond)!

Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester

Originally published in 1926.

In Payment Deferred set in 1926, William Marble, a bank clerk living in south London with his wife Annie and their two children, is desperately worried about money and is in grave danger of losing his house and job. An unexpected visit by a young relative with an inheritance tempts William to commit a heinous crime.

The story begins with Mr. Marble facing imminent financial ruin. He has become badly overextended, borrowing heavily against future earnings but he has reached the point where payments are coming due that he knows he cannot meet. Then unexpectedly a possible source of salvation seems to present itself. 

The Marble family receives a visit from their Australian nephew who has just arrived in London. When he happens to pull out his wallet Mr. Marble notices that said nephew’s wallet is bulging as he had cashed a security upon arriving in the city. At first he hopes he might be able to convince his guest to stand him a loan or gift but when he offers resistance and happens to mention that they are the only people who know him in the country, Marble decides to commit murder and buries his victim in his garden.

The action I have described takes place in just a handful of pages at the start of the novel. The remainder of the book explores the aftermath of that crime as we learn what Marble does after his murder and experience the growing sense of dread he feels that he will be caught and hanged for his crime. This near-mania is captured really well, depicting the obsession and dread in such a way that we feel how relentless it is without having to endure that ourselves.

One way we can look at this novel is as a character study of a murderer, exploring how the criminal act appears to have changed him as a man. Certainly there is a sense that this action sets him on a dark path to destruction, an idea that is not uncommon in inverted crime stories (for a later take on the same idea you might see Crofts’ Antidote to Venom or Simon Brett’s A Shock to the System). I think though that what makes Forester’s novel interesting beyond its relatively early publication date is the chilling idea that murder has not changed Mr. Marble as significantly as we might expect.

Although we only know Marble for a few pages prior to the murder we do get signs as to his degeneracy. His relationship with his wife is hardly warm while his manufacturing of complaints to allow him to punish his children and send them to bed so he can start drinking is not the action of a caring father. These tendencies certainly become more pronounced, often as a consequence of his feelings of fear and desperation, but those aspects of his character were already there.

Often characters of this type are portrayed as somewhat emasculated or domineered within their home. We might think of Dr. Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought, published just a few years after this, for an example of that sort of portrayal. In contrast it seems quite unusual to find that our murderous head of the family here, while often ineffective, is genuinely loved and respected by his wife. She is not portrayed as a particularly strong individual and modern readers may feel frustrated that she seems to submit to her ill-treatment but I found the portrayal credible, particularly in her conflicted reactions to some of the developments later in the story.

The characters of the children, while clearly playing secondary roles, each get moments that explore how they react to the changes that take place in their household. This was, for me, some of the most interesting material in the novel because I feel it is here that the work is at its least predictable. Given that this novel, while possessing a short page count, takes place over a spread of several years we do get to see some significant growth in each character and I feel that they are used very thoughtfully in exploring Marble’s own story.

The Marble family’s circumstances undergo a considerable transformation throughout this novel and this allows Forester some room for social commentary, particularly in relation to matters of class. Some of these observations are quite familiar such as the idea that the nouveau riche may prize an item for its perceived status regardless of how tasteful it is but there are also some sharp comments about financial companies, middle managers and nosy neighbors.

While the book offers some satirical notes, I should emphasize that there is very little lightness or levity. It is not simply that Marble is an unpleasant man but that it becomes increasingly clear as you read that you are not heading for anything approaching a happy ending. While it may not be obvious how doom will come, it is clear that punishment of a sort will come. I think it would be fair to say that the book does deliver in that regard with Forester delivering a really punchy and effective conclusion that I think will satisfy fans of Francis Iles and other writers of his ilk.

The only other negative I might offer is that there is a financial action Marble takes at an early point in the novel that is quite technical and which Forester explains in more depth than some readers might wish. I understand why he felt the need to do so but the presentation feels quite dry and does little to provide clarity for those who would not already understand the basic idea. Still, this plays out over just a handful of pages and once explained is essentially not referred to again.

Overall I was really glad that I gave this book a try. While the tone is never light and there is a pervading sense of doom, Forester writes in an engaging way and I appreciated that there were several developments that I simply could not have anticipated at the start. As an example of an inverted crime story I found it even more interesting, particularly given it predates Malice Aforethought, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the sub-genre.

The Verdict: A bleak but powerful story of how a crime looms over the life of the man who committed it.