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!

The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

Originally published in 1955

Four men had arranged to fly to Dublin. When their aeroplane descended as a fireball into the Irish Sea, only three of them were on board. With the identities of the passengers lost beneath the waves, a tense and perplexing investigation begins to determine the living from the dead, with scarce evidence to follow beyond a few snippets of overheard conversation and one family’s patchy account of the three days prior to the flight.

Who was the man who didn’t fly? What did he have to gain? And would he commit such an explosive murder to get it? First published in 1955, Bennett’s ingenious mystery remains an innovative and thoroughly entertaining inversion of the classic whodunit.

The premise of the story is a rather unusual one, though still firmly within traditional puzzle mystery territory. An aeroplane flying to Ireland is destroyed and the wreckage cannot be found. The authorities know the identities of the four men who were to be on that flight but the evidence shows that only three actually boarded that flight. With no bodies to identify, the authorities conduct an investigation to try to work out who the three men were who died on board that flight by speaking with the men’s friends and family.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the book is that the investigation is not into anything we might consider a crime. There is no suggestion that the aeroplane met its fate deliberately. Yet in spite of that, it is clear that there is something distinctly odd going on within that group of four acquaintances both in terms of their strained interpersonal relationships and also in the secrets some were clearly harboring. By the end of the novel we will have a clear understanding of how they relate to one another as well as some more traditional crime elements to consider.

The characters are boldly drawn and, I felt, very well observed though some may struggle to find someone they like and are rooting for. One of my favorites was Harry, the charming young poet who is reckless with money and seems to rub everyone up the wrong way leading almost all his acquaintances to try to warn his girlfriend, Hester, that she ought to stay clear of him. Advice that only seems to make her dig in. I enjoyed his flippancy and felt that Bennett did a good job of walking the line between roguishness and villainy. I suspect most readers will feel Harry is not a good man and yet there is something inherently entertaining in seeing him work little cons to avail himself of a cigarette or extra round of drinks at someone else’s expense.

Perhaps my favorite of the characters was Hester’s father, Mr. Wade, who reminded me a little of some of Austen’s eccentric fathers (I thought of Mr. Wodehouse – though Wade’s malady is pecuniary rather than health, Kate from CrossExaminingCrime thought Sir Walter from Persuasion). I felt that Bennett managed to make him comic without being too ridiculous which is often a difficult line to walk and while the treatment is often designed to be humorous, his befuddlement does play an important part in the overall development of the plot.

The only bland characters in the book are the policemen who seem competent but largely anonymous. This reflects that though they play an important part in piecing together what had happened, much of the events of the novel are recounted to them, leaving them little opportunity for interaction or to steer what was happening.

While other elements, including some more overtly criminous ones, are introduced later in the novel, our focus remains almost entirely on the question of who was on board that flight. While that may seem like a somewhat suspect premise for a mystery, I found it provided a surprising amount for the reader to consider. Perhaps the most striking of these is the matter, not of who was on board, but where the person who missed the flight vanished to and why.

I was quite delighted when I recognized toward the end of the novel that Bennett had constructed several logic puzzles for the reader to solve that will identify them. A character suggests at one point that they think they could have worked out the solution if only they had a pencil and paper and they’re right – the puzzles are clear and the logic is simple. The challenge lies in recognizing the information you need to work with in the first place.

The explanation for what happened is delivered to the reader in stages, each new reveal painting a more detailed picture. Most of those reveals feel worthwhile and there were a few early surprises to enjoy. One final revelation, concerning what happened to the fourth passenger, struck me as pretty effective, even if it only confirmed something I had suspected from very early in the novel.

It makes for a great read, rich in its characters and boasting a rather unusual premise. I found the novel enormously enjoyable and was surprised at just how often I was chuckling over some remark or situation the author concocted. The effective marriage of moments of humor with the mystery elements work very well and I felt the final resolution was largely satisfying – aside from a rather unconvincing romantic beat. I was very impressed and hope to read more from this author in the future.

The Verdict: A splendid, if rather unconventionally structured, mystery where the problem is identifying the victims.