Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Keeper of the Keys (1932) by Earl Derr Biggers

I admit, I didn’t know what to expect with my first Charlie Chan. And that's the only image I could find of my copy!

Keeper of the Keys opens with Charlie Chan on his way to the estate of Dudley Ward, the first husband of opera star Ellen Landini. He has learned that Landini was pregnant when she left him, and wants Chan’s help in tracking down his son. To help with this, he’s also invited Landini’s other three ex-husbands, her current fiancé, and said fiancé's sister. And Landini herself. Three guesses who’s shot to death in their bedroom, and the first two don’t count.

Keeper is a well-written but flawed novel. Biggers isn’t as smooth as Agatha Christie, but he does a good job of differentiating his suspects and keeping the story moving. But the cluing doesn’t work. There’s one major error about a certain trait that the killer has (and is revealed early in the book), but I can accept that, since the book is at least consistent with that error. However, you only get one chance to see the killer’s slip-up, which I’m not fond of. There is another clue, but it’s used badly. It’s a clever, subtle clue that Chan draws your attention to more than once, and I felt really clever about spotting it and its implications…but the deduction Chan actually draws from it is nonsense. There’s also an incident that happens shortly after the murder, an incident that Chan highlights as meaningful, but we don’t get any cluing about it, and the final explanation is weak. I found it very frustrating.

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to talking about the Chan novels. Namely, race. I knew going into this book that the reputation the Chan series has regarding racism is at least a little exaggerated, and I can confirm this with Chan himself. He is treated with respect by most of the characters he meets, and the one racist character is called out as such. However, it’s harder to ignore Ah Sing, Ward’s servant. He fits the stereotype of the loyal Chinese servant, with that phonetic accent that all writers thought the Chinese sounded like. (In fairness to Biggers, he uses phonetic accents with multiple characters. Unfairly, they are bad.) This isn’t just a minor character either; Sing and his relationships with the other cast members are important parts of the book, and those relationships are often very paternalistic.  It’s very possible that if you just made him an English servant loyal to his boss, I’d find it less uncomfortable, but I feel it’s worth noting.

On the positive side, I thought Biggers’s portrayal of the victim was interesting. (ROT13: Gur ortvaavat bs gur obbx cerfragf ure nf n fgrerbglcvpny qenzn svther--ybhq, zna-rngvat, boabkvbhf--ohg ol gur raq, jr frr gung juvyr fur jnf bire-gur-gbc, ure uhfonaqf jrer nyy jbefr guna fur rire jnf, naq ober zber oynzr sbe gur eryngvbafuvcf snvyvat guna fur qvq.) It’s not a huge part of the book (although it is important), but I liked that aspect of the book.

For all my griping, I did enjoy this book well-enough. Like I said, Biggers is a good writer who knows how to keep his story moving. I can’t exactly recommend this, and definitely not as an introduction to the author, but if you’re looking for a breezy, entertaining mystery, you might well enjoy this.

Other Reviews: Classic Mysteries, MysteryFile.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

Reading Agatha Christie’s The Hollow right after The Murder on the Links was an experience. With over twenty years separating the two books, you’d expect The Hollow to not only be better, but different. After all, twenty years is plenty of time to not only refine one’s craft, but to try out different ideas that would have been difficult for a young writer. I am glad to report that The Hollow shows how far Christie had come.

Even though this is a Poirot novel, he takes a while to make an appearance. Instead, we focus on the people preparing to meet at the Hollow, a vacation home for the Angkatell family. Lucy Angkatell gathers family and friends for a weekend party. Three of the guests are Dr. John Christow, his wife Gerda, and Lucy’s distant relation (and John’s lover) the sculptor Henrietta. All seems well until the stable triangle is disrupted by the surprise appearance of Veronica Cray, an actress and a former flame of John’s who is vacationing nearby, who reminds him of a path he could have taken, who pushes him into maybe taking it again…

Poirot (who is also vacationing nearby) arrives at The Hollow to find “a joke, a set piece [...] a highly artificial murder scene”: John dying of a gunshot wound by the side of the pool. Gerda standing over him with a gun. Others stumbling on the scene. And his last word, “Henrietta--”

What makes this book special is the characters and their interplay. The central John-Gerda-Henrietta relationship is well-done. John is a jerk with little empathy, but we see his determination to cure Ridgeway’s Disease. Gerda is foolish, but we see how she uses her stupidity as a shield. Henrietta, meanwhile, is the most complex character in the book. She is deeply passionate about her art. She has an astonishing amount of compassion and is the only character in the book to treat Gerda with any respect. Yet she doesn’t blink about using Gerda as the model for an unflattering piece of art. The unusual relationship she has with John plays a key role in the book, and I thought Christie mostly did a good job with it. (There were some aspects that I didn’t quite buy.)

The other characters are good as well. The highlight for me was Lucy, a silly, scatterbrained but also deeply intelligent woman who also plays a key role in the plot. Like most of the other characters in the story, there’s more to her than meets the eye, and there’s a very chilling portion of the book where we see that her utter disregard for social niceties extends to more than just awkward arranging of party guests. The only one who doesn’t quite work is David Angkatell, who’s mostly there to be an Angry Young Person.

“But what about the mystery plot?” I hear you ask. Well…if A. this wasn’t a Christie novel and B. I hadn’t known the solution going in, there’s a chance I would have been disappointed. Christie was a master at taking simple scenarios and spinning complexity out of them, but the murder plan here might feel a little too simple for some. I liked it; it fits thematically with the rest of the book and is the solution this book needed. It’s not all great however. I may have been misled by spoilers, but it felt like some of the minor background details of the crime weren’t explained. There’s also one clue (the drawing of the tree by the pool and Poirot’s conclusions from it) that felt misused. I can buy the logic of “Once we know the solution, this clue has to mean this,” but I don’t always like that type of backwards reasoning. But that's secondary to the characters in this book. I still really enjoyed what Christie did here.

The only real rough spot in the novel is the portrayal of a Jewish shopkeeper, which is very distasteful.

On the whole, this is a real gem of a book. Newcomers and fans alike will really enjoy the strong characters and solid plotting that this book offers. Highly Recommended!

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Pretty Sinister Books, The Green Capsule, Dead Yesterday, A Crime is Afoot, Countdown John's Christie Journalahsweetmysteryblog (contains spoilers), Composed Almost Entirely of Books (contains spoilers)

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie

I’ve found that it’s easy to forget about an author’s early works. Often, they are seen as inferior 

compared to later, more polished works. In the case of authors like Agatha Christie, who shuffled genres and produced what is to my understanding some subpar works in her early career, it’s even easier to overlook their early stuff, especially if there isn’t an obvious hook for the reader. The Murder on the Links went under my radar for years, but after really enjoying The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I decided to give this a shot. Does it actually deserve to be forgotten?

The book opens with Hastings meeting a mysterious young woman who charms him instantly. Thankfully for those fearful of a romance plot, the romance is mostly handled well, and “Cinderella” (as she calls herself), is fun to watch in action. The meat of the story begins later, when Poirot receives a letter from millionaire Paul Renauld, claiming that his life is in danger. Intrigued, Poirot goes off to France…only to learn that his client was stabbed to death the night before, his body dumped in a shallow grave on his unfinished golf course. The victim’s wife tells a story straight out of a sensation novel: two masked men barged into her and her husband’s bedroom in the night, threatening him with a knife and demanding he give them “the secret” before escorting him off into the night. A broken watch that’s two hours fast, a piece of lead piping, and (the lack of) footprints in a flower bed are just some of the many clues that Poirot has to interpret.

Links is more focused on the puzzle than later Christie novels. Clues fly thick and fast, and only a very attentive reader will be able to piece together the truth. I'd say it's possible, but you do have to be paying close attention. Also, this time Poirot has competition in the form of Giraud, a French detective who elevates physical evidence above all. Of course, Poirot insists that the physical clues don’t matter nearly as much as the “true psychology of the case.” Frankly, I didn’t find the competition between the two very impressive because Giraud is so off-base from the start. Sure, I know that Poirot will win, but I’d like a little more back-and-forth.

As I said, the mystery is quite complex. This leads to more of a focus on that than on the characters. They’re all very generic. There’s the victim’s wife, his son (who made the murder weapon and quarreled with him the night of the murder), and the secretary. There’s also M. Daubreuil, “the girl with the anxious eyes” who is in love with the victim’s son, and her mother, a strange woman who Poirot cannot place, but he has the distinct impression that she was involved in a murder case…

I admit, I had to read this book twice. I did not read it the first time in the best mindset, and the book mostly didn’t stick well in my head, and what did stick I found disappointing. This is Christie showing her technical complexity. She gives a very well-worked out mystery, but it doesn’t stick well in the reader’s head. My second read-through went much better; the plot gelled together and felt more coherent. That being said, I do have a couple of major issues with it. (ROT13: Svefg, gurer’f ab jnl guvf cyna jbhyq unir sbbyrq jub vg jnf zrnag gb sbby. Lrf, Puevfgvr qbrf frg vg hc ol fnlvat gung “Zna vf na habevtvany navzny,” naq gung ur’yy pbcl jung ur'f nyernql qbar, ohg gurer’f n qvssrerapr orgjrra “Ercrngvat gur fnzr orngf sebz n cerivbhf, fhpprffshy pevzr,” naq “Ercrngvat nyzbfg gur fnzr cyna lbh pbbxrq hc jvgu na nppbzcyvpr naq rkcrpgvat vg gb sbby fnvq nppbzcyvpr.” Frpbaq, gur zheqre uvatrf ba gjb crbcyr qvfphffvat gurve snxr zheqre cynaf va gur bcra, arkg gb gurve arvtuobe’f lneq.)

Hastings is not on good form here. I admit, I like Hastings more than most; him rolling his eyes at Poirot’s latest boast makes the great detective much more tolerable. But this book justifies the complaints that people have against him; he makes mistake after mistake, seems to have forgotten every other case he’s seen Poirot solve (which, okay, aren't many at this point, but it should be clear to him that Poirot knows what he’s doing), and makes such a gaping error near the end that Poirot himself is dumbfounded.

Despite my complaints, I ended up enjoying this book in the end. It’s a breezy, fun, and complex murder mystery that might slip under the radar of Christie fans. I would still label this a B-tier Christie, but definitely upper B-tier. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Mysteries Ahoy! The Green Capsule, Countdown John's Christie JournalAhSweetMysteryBlog (contains spoilers), crossexaminingcrime (contains spoilers)

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa (translated by Ho-Ling Wong, edited by Taku Ashibe and Ho-Ling Wong)

Tetsuya Ayukawa was one of the leading lights of honkaku mystery fiction, and a man who could bedubbed “the Japanese mystery story” in the same way that Anthony Boucher dubbed Ellery Queen the American mystery story. However, his work has long remained unavailable to an English-speaking audience. I’m pleased to say that Locked Room International has provided us with a curated collection of Ayukawa’s mystery fiction, The Red Locked Room.

The collection alternates detectives: Ryuzo Hoshikage is “a caricature of the classic great detective,” who solves bizarre impossible crimes. Inspector Onitsura is a “rational and cool-headed police detective” who breaks impossible alibis with old-fashioned police work and a little bit of logic. Both of them have very good showings in this collection.

Hoshikage opens up with “The White Locked Room.” A student goes to visit the house of her professor, only to find a strange man in the house, an editor who moderated a debate between the professor and a psychic and a spirit medium, and the professor dead of a stab wound. And of course, the house was surrounded by snow, and the only footprints in it were the editor’s, who has no motive for the murder. I admit I didn’t find the explanation to be all that impressive; I’ve seen the solution before, and there are a bunch of weird complications. Hoshikage doesn’t appear to solve the crime by logic, but by going, “This is my guess about how the crime was done, now here are some random questions that prove my theory.” I’ll concede that, “There’s really only one way this could be done” is a perfectly fine deduction, but I’d like the story to make it clear that it’s doing that, instead of leaving me to (possibly incorrectly) infer it. However, there was one element that stood out as more clever to me when I reread it.

“Whose Body?” is a Freeman Wills Crofts-style story about an unidentified corpse. The story opens with an arresting incident: three artists receive packages, one containing a bottle of acid, one a rope, and one a fired revolver. At first, it seems like a macabre prank, but a week later, a headless corpse is discovered in the cellar of a burnt-down building, strangled, shot with the revolver from the package, and its hands burnt with acid! This is the longest story in the collection, and is mostly about trying to identify the corpse and his murderer with some solid police work. We also get snippets from a young woman investigating the crime as well. It’s a pretty well-done story once everything is worked out, with a neat bit of logic from Onitsura. The biggest issue with the story is that a very important plot point happens entirely off-screen. I’m not talking about a clue that Ayukawa couldn’t show without giving things away, I’m talking about a reveal that changes the investigation but that is never shown on the page and is only mentioned retrospectively. It threw me off the first time I read this.

Next up is “The Blue Locked Room.” The victim is an arrogant director/actor whose cruelty towards women has given everyone in his troupe a reason to kill him. The story even starts with one member trying to kill him for raping the man’s girlfriend! The fight is broken up and the victim is led back to his room, but come morning he’s unresponsive. The door to his room is locked, and while the window is open, there’s no disturbance in the flower bed outside. But somehow, he’s been strangled to death. (The title comes from the blue light the victim insisted on having in his room.) This story didn’t appeal to me. Part of it is because the solution is pretty simple, and not in the good way, like the later stories in the collection. The other part is that it does something that annoys me in locked room stories: (ROT13: V’yy nqzvg gung, “Qbvat K vf vzcbffvoyr, fb gur xvyyre zhfg unir qbar L,” vf n inyvq qrqhpgvba, ohg vg evatf ubyybj va ybpxrq ebbz fgbevrf jurer gur ragver cbvag vf gung rirelguvat nccrnef vzcbffvoyr. Gurer’f nabgure irel tbbq ybpxrq ebbz fgbel gung qbrf guvf fnzr guvat, naq vg’f ernyyl sehfgengvat. V qba’g zvaq vg jura gur qrgrpgvir svtherf bhg n jnl gung gur pevzr pbhyq unir orra pbzzvggrq, gevrf gb frr vs bgure jnlf ner cbffvoyr, gura pbapyhqrf gung gur svefg jnl vf ubj vg jnf qbar fvapr gur bguref qba’g jbex. Ubjrire, juvyr guvf fgbel pbzrf pybfr gb qbvat gung, vg’f rnfl gb ernq vg nf Ubfuvxntr whfg fnlvat gung K vf ubj gur pevzr jnf pbzzvggrq, bgure fbyhgvbaf arrq abg nccyl.)

“Death in Early Spring” opens with what to some is a warning: “To understand the full detail of what happened, it is unfortunately necessary to examine a dry series of railway timetables.” Thankfully, the story is far from boring. It opens with the discovery of a body in a construction yard, one of two men vying for a woman’s heart. Evidence points at his rival in love, but when a letter the victim wrote on a train surfaces, it creates a baffling problem for the police. It seems to put their victim and killer in two different places, giving the killer a perfect alibi! In spite of the story’s warning, the solution is quite “simple,” but in a good way. It’s the type of solution that makes you smack your head and go, “Oh, of course!” It’s something I’d expect to see in the Ace Attorney series, which is one of the highest compliments I can give. While there is one bit of the story that could be described as “unfair,” it’s not something that you’re expected to deduce before Onitsura does, and I think that some readers might suspect the truth before that. Even those of you who don’t like detailed timetables will enjoy this one.

Hoshikage returns in “The Clown in the Tunnel.” A reporter and his photographer go to interview a jazz band, where they overhear an argument between the bandmaster and the band’s singer. It seems like minor drama, but when the two try and get a group photo of the band, the singer is absent…because someone stabbed her to death. The investigation is quickly complicated when the maid is found tied up in the kitchen, telling a horrifying story of a person dressed in a clown costume tying her up and trying to wash blood off before making an escape down a tunnel between two buildings. It seems like the killer escaped down the tunnel, until the investigators learn that there was a car accident on the other side of the tunnel, and that its exit was constantly watched. And the witnesses saw no one! L. Stump has this on a top ten favorite mysteries list, and I can see why. While I really didn’t like the solution at first, I quickly realized that it was, once again, brilliantly simple. There are two aspects that keep this from being top tier for me: One: The summation is too long. Compare it to a Hoch story, where the detective is able to quickly and succinctly tie all the clues together. Here, the summation keeps going and makes the solution seem more complicated than it actually is. This is an issue throughout this collection, especially in the next story. Two: (ROT13: V qba’g yvxr zlfgrevrf jurer nyzbfg rirel, vs abg rirel fhfcrpg, vf vaibyirq va gur pevzr. Cnegyl orpnhfr V arire guvax bs vg naq nyjnlf srry bhgfznegrq, ohg nyfb orpnhfr vg pna znxr gur fgbel srry purnc jura qbar jebat. Gubhtu guvf fgbel zbfgyl nibvqf gung.) But other than those two issues, this story is excellent.

Onitsura stars in “The Five Clocks,” another masterpiece. An embezzler is found strangled to death in his apartment, and a young man is arrested for the crime. His fiancée insists on his innocence, and indeed, there is a better suspect, an accomplice to the embezzlement scheme. But the man has a seemingly perfect alibi! He spent the night with a friend who confirms that the killer was with him the entire time, barring a brief window where the killer went to pay back a loan, also confirmed by another witness. The friend also recalls listening to a concert on the radio at a certain time, and the killer’s wife ordered food for the friend and the killer, and the shop also confirms the time. All in all, the killer has an alibi formed from an impenetrable wall of clocks! (The killer’s clock at home, the friend’s wristwatch, the radio concert, the debtor’s clock, and the soba shop’s clock.)

This is another perfectly simplistic story. In some ways, the trick behind this isn’t all that grand, but it’s magnified by the way everything links together. If Ayukawa only used one aspect of the alibi for a story, most would probably see through it and the story would be disappointing. But by combining all those aspects, the true nature of the trick is concealed from even the knowledgeable mystery fan. (ROT13: Vf vg grpuavpnyyl gur fnzr gevpx sebz gur ynfg fgbel? Lrf, ohg Nlhxnjn ryringrf vg jvgu ubj ur qvfthvfrf vg haqre gur gvpxvat bs gur pybpxf.) But like the last story, the summation is too long. Ayukawa spends way too much time elaborating on the simplest part of the scheme.

The collection ends with “The Red Locked Room.” The titular room is a dissection room securely locked behind a door with a bolt and a combination lock, both of which can only be opened by one person. When two medical students enter the room, they’re horrified to discover the dismembered body of another student, the evidence pointing to the killer being interrupted mid-dissection and fleeing. But the only other exit is an air vent too small to escape through! I liked this more than the other two locked rooms; I even came close to figuring it out, but didn’t think it through enough. The solution is very well-done.

While I was nervous after I found “The White Locked Room” and “The Blue Locked Room” to be weak, this collection redeemed itself with some excellent locked rooms and unbreakable alibis. Highly Recommended.

Other Reviews: The Invisible Event, Solving the Mystery of MurderCountdown John's Christie Journal, Beneath the Stains of Time, Mysteries Ahoy! The Grandest Game in the World, Criminal Musings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Helm of Hades (2019) by Paul Halter (translated by John Pugmire)

After taking a slight break from short stories (beyond a couple of collections that I won’t be reviewing),
I decided to get back into them via Paul Halter’s The Helm of Hades. For some time now, I’ve held that Halter’s The Night of the Wolf, a short story collection, was his best work, as the short story played to his strengths while downplaying his weaknesses. As a result, I’ve eagerly awaited the next collection of his short work. But can it match up to (my memories of) The Night of the Wolf?

We open with an honestly quite lovely preface from Ronald Lacourbe before the first story, which provides us with Halter’s take on Carr’s The Judas Window: “The Gong of Doom.” Philip is a young man looking to marry Rose Strange, but her uncle/guardian opposes it. Philip goes to have words with him in his study, and Rose and her uncle’s manservant hear a vicious argument from within, which is interrupted by “a booming, resonant sound.” And the colonel has in his office a gong that is said to ring without being struck, and that foreshadows “someone’s imminent death” when it does…and indeed, when a terrified Philip opens the locked study door, the colonel is found dead on the floor with an arrow in his neck. And while the window is open, it leads out to “an unbroken brick wall without a single nook or cranny,” and to a street covered with unmarked snow…While there is one aspect of this solution that I don’t like, after letting the story settle for a bit, I’ve come to like it more on the whole. The solution is good, although this story demanded a map; I’m always terrible at solving mysteries that hinge on visualizing a scene, especially when there’s no map.

I’ve already reviewed “Jacob’s Ladder,” so let’s move on to “The Man with the Face of Clay,” the first Owen Burns story of the collection. Determined to knock Burns down a peg, Achilles Stock invites a young woman, the maid of archeologist Sir Jeremy Canvendish, to tell Burns about the man’s inexplicable murder. After a controversial expedition that ended in a fire, the deaths of two native workers, and a curse put on Sir Cavendish, multiple attempts were made on his life. One night, these efforts reach a climax. The maid lets in a man who wishes to meet with Sir Cavendish, a man whose face looks like it’s been made of brown clay. He leaves and Sir Cavenfish seems unharmed, but the next morning, the household is roused by “the sound of an explosion,” and Sir Cavendish is found shot to death in his study. The door is locked, and the open window leads out on to carefully raked flower beds that were turned to mud by a rainstorm. In other words, “If Sir Jeremy was murdered, it could only have been by someone or something with wings!” Of course, there’s a natural explanation for this, but I wasn’t overly satisfied with it. There’s enough of a twist to it so that it isn’t disappointing (although I would have liked there to be more to it), but it’s still not my favorite solution.

I’d read “The Scarecrow’s Revenge” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before, but I reread it for this collection. Antoine Dupuis was a jealous rake who treated his wife so terribly that she has nightmares about him even after his death. The day after one visceral nightmare, where Dupuis appears in the form of the scarecrow outside and stabs her father with a pitchfork, her father is found dead in front of it, no footprints besides his own and that of the man who discovered the body in the mud, straw scattered around as if the two fought. And yes, he’s been stabbed with a pitchfork! This one is slightly more whodunit focused than some of Halter’s other works, since you have a good handful of suspects to pick through. On the whole, it’s a good story with a good solution, although there is one aspect that seems off to me, though I might have missed something. (ROT13: Fubhyqa’g gurer unir orra sbbgcevagf yrnqvat gb gur jryy, be jnf gung fheebhaqrq ol fbyvq tebhaq?)

“The Fires of Hell” is another reread. A colonel tells Dr. Twist the tale of Charles-Alexandre Villemore, a taciturn man who claimed to be a clairvoyant, specifically one who predicted multiple fires. The fires he predicted continued to come to pass, even though Villemore had a perfect alibi for some of the fires and the locations he predicted were carefully guarded. I didn’t care much for this story, mostly because the problems are too vague. We’re told that the locations were under guard, but we get so little detail about those precautions that we really don’t have a good grasp on what solutions are and are not possible. I suspect that most will hit on the “how” of this story.

Burns recounts to Stock the tale of “The Wolf of Fenrir,” which occurred during a stay at the home of a friend, Marcellus Blanchard, a jockey. One of the guests at the lodge is Frida Prince, a beautiful woman who boasts of having tamed a local beast, a half-breed wolf. During the first night, she goes out to her cabin…and is found dead the next morning, her hand mangled as if it had been bitten, and only her footprints and those of the wolf in the snow. The explanation of what happened is quite clever, with some good cluing. I was a little unclear (ROT13: ba jung gur ivpgvz qvq qvssreragyl gung avtug, fvapr fur srq gur ornfg erthyneyl. Oheaf fnlf fur cebibxrq vg, ohg V’z abg fher ubj.) I also felt that (ROT13: gur rknpg zrgubq bs zheqre yrsg n ybg gb punapr.) Finally, I didn’t care for how Frida’s husband’s pain gets dismissed because he’s ugly and a bit of a snob. Still, it’s a very good impossible crime.

“Nausicaa’s Ball” is a Christe-style tale, complete with tropical setting and love triangle. Dr. Twist is staying at a hotel on the beautiful island of Corfu, but “the beauty of the landscape and the purity of the blue sky” give the place an eerie vibe, belaying the “gathering storm.” Soon, a crime takes place at the side of the “Blue Lagoon,” a cove with a diving board at the end of a slippery path. Needless to say, the husband of a famous actress is found dead on the rocks, apparently having slipped…but it turns out that he was bludgeoned to death. This is technically an impossible crime; as the time and circumstances of the crime are tightened, it seems impossible that anyone beyond the main suspect could have done it, although Halter doesn’t exactly play it as one. This is another story that needed a map, as where things are play a role in the crime.

Ever since I read Patrick Ohl’s review of “The Robber’s Grave,” it’s been one of my most anticipated Halter stories. Dr. Twist is staying in a village inn and inquires about a gravestone surrounded by an empty plot. About a hundred years ago, a man was hanged for robbery and murder, protesting his innocence, and cried out to God to prove it by “never allowing a blade of grass to grow over his grave.” He was buried outside of the village…and “the grass first turned yellow and then disappeared. And it has never grown there since!” A few years ago, a property developer bought the land to build a golf course and resort hotel, and saw the dead land as a challenge…a challenge he could not overcome, as grass refused to grow in spite of him replacing the dirt multiple times over several months and surrounding the gravesite with a wall, dogs, and guards. I admit that I found the solution to be slightly disappointing on my first readthrough. I skimmed over the solution for this review and understood it a little better; it’s just slightly over-long and (ROT13: onfrq ba na bowrpg V xarj abguvat nobhg jura ernqvat guvf fgbel.) So on the whole, a good story that was improved on the reread.

Next is “The Yellow Book,” which is stuffed to the brim with mysterious events. A séance that predicts a man’s death! A man stabbed to death in a bolted house surrounded by unbroken snow! The murder is committed with a dagger that was elsewhere mere minutes ago! The King in Yellow is found on the floor! I wasn’t very fond of this on the first-go-round, but I warmed up to it after thinking about it. Like most of Halter’s short stories, this is mainly an account told to Dr. Twist, so the suspects don’t stand out too much. And one of the answers to those dramatic statements above is a bit disappointing. But the solution is good; I was disappointed at first, but came around to it.

We wrap up with the titular story, an account to Owen Burns about the bizarre murder of Conrad Berry, an archeologist who claimed to have found the Helm of Hades, rumored to turn its wearer invisible. He promises a demonstration to show off the helm’s power, but an unknown party hijacks it. Four witnesses sit in the salon outside of Berry’s study, when one notices a curtain leading to the salon move, and footsteps are heard in the corridor. Soon after, the door to Berry’s office opens, and ten minutes later, a tremendous crash is heard. More footsteps follow, and a vase in the salon is knocked over…and the intruder is never seen! When the witnesses go inside the office, they find Berry bludgeoned to death, and they soon find themselves targeted by the helm’s wielder. This is another story that I wasn’t too keen on at first, but I suspect that I just read it too quickly. The later attacks after the murder are a bit perfunctory, but the central crime itself is well-done, although one part (ROT13: gur infr orvat gbccyrq bire) felt a bit simple.

I admit, when I sat down to write this review, I thought I’d be giving a pretty low score to it. But, as I’ve chewed on the stories, I find that I enjoyed them more than I thought I did. They show Halter’s ability to come up with unique impossible crimes, and while I didn’t like all the solutions, and noticed more keenly how little Halter characterizes his suspects, I did enjoy them. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Beneath the Stains of Time (interestingly, it looks like our views on Halter's short fiction underwent the same transformation), The Invisible Event (not a review of the full collection, but if you scroll to the bottom, you'll see links to individual reviews of the stories)

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

A Meditation on Murder (2015) by Robert Thorogood

For over a decade now, the British TV show Death in Paradise has provided mystery fans with plenty
of entertainment. The show started by taking DI Richard Poole, a stuffy inspector who insists on wearing suits in the Caribbean, and placing him on the island of Saint Marie. The show has gone through quite a few cast changes, even replacing Poole, but the general formula of a British inspector in the Caribbean has remained intact, even though they’ve usually been more receptive to its charms than Poole was. (Although the most recent protagonist as of this writing is back to the Poole-style fish out of water.) I’ve only seen a handful of episodes by series creator Robert Thorogood, but I really enjoyed them. So I decided to give one of the tie-in novels by Thorogood, A Meditation on Murder, a shot.

Aslan Kennedy is one of the owners of The Resort, a hotel-cum-health spa. Aslan wakes up one day for the “Sunrise Healing,” a procedure where guests will meditate in the “Meditation Space,” a Japanese tea house-style building on the grounds. Aslan goes and greets his guests. They enter the Meditation Space, which is made entirely of paper on wooden columns, barring a Yale lock on the door to prevent disturbances. They gather, drink tea, put on eye masks and headphones…and ten-to-fifteen minutes later, the screaming starts

Julia Higgins is found standing over Aslan’s body holding the knife. She confesses to killing him, but Poole isn’t convinced. She says she has no issue with the victim, no idea how the knife got into the Meditation Space, and has no memory of the crime.

Not to mention the annoying (to Poole) issue of the drawing pin found on the floor of the Meditation Space…

The book plays out like a long episode from the show. You have a handful of suspects, the whiteboard to summarize information, etc. I found the whole book to flow very well. I have read some complaints about the writing, mostly concerning too much recapping or it being stodgy. I’m sympathetic to some of these claims, more than once I felt that Thorogood could have made his point more concisely by cutting the last sentence, but I didn’t feel that it was too recap heavy. It flowed quite well for me.

The mystery itself is quite clever, with suspicion freely passed around between suspects with well-developed motives. I felt that Thorogood did a good job with misdirection, although I felt that some aspects were a bit obvious. Still, come the summation, I wasn’t 100% sure that Thorogood was going that direction, so I’d say he played the game well. I only have two real issues with the plot. One is that (ROT13 gur cyna uvatrf ba gur ivpgvz abg pnevat gung svir gbgnyyl qvssrerag crbcyr unir wbvarq uvf zrqvgngvba frffvba. Gur obbx qbrf whfgvsl guvf jvgu uvf trareny nggvghqr naq uvf oryvrs gung “Creuncf guvf jnf ab zber guna xnezn ernyvtavat vgfrys?” ohg V qvqa’g ohl vg jura V ernq vg. Guvf vf zber ba zr guna gur obbx gubhtu.)

My other issue is that the non-Poole main characters don’t get a lot of attention. If you aren’t familiar with the show, then you just have to look at their pictures on the back of the book to tell who’s who. While I understand Poole getting most of the character development--and it is good character development-- the other cast members could have used some more time in the spotlight.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It really does read like an episode of the show, I’ll definitely be looking at more of Thorogood’s fiction in the future. Recommended.

Friday, November 18, 2022

The Word is Murder (2018) by Anthony Horowitz

No matter what, I can’t seem to get away from detectives named Hawthorne.

A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders after seeing positive comments about it from other bloggers. I ended up enjoying it so much that I grabbed his next mystery novel, The Word is Murder, almost sight unseen. But would it prove to be another solid example of the modern mystery novel?

The book opens with Diana Cowper planning her own funeral; not an uncommon occurrence for those who want to make things easier for their families. But six hours later, she’s been strangled to death in her home, a bizarre and baffling crime that demands examination by an expert. Enter Daniel Hawthorne, a former police officer who was “kicked out for reasons that weren’t made clear” and who now serves as a sometimes consultant for the police when they’re dealing with an “unusual” case. Hawthorne is called in to investigate, and Anthony Horowitz is following him and writing it all down.

Horowitz (who I will refer to as “Tony” to distinguish him from the author Anthony Horowitz) is fresh off writing Foyle’s War and The House of Silk, and is looking for new ideas. Hawthorne approaches him with a proposal: Tony follows him around and details his case, and they split the profits fifty-fifty. Tony is reluctant, but after being accused of not writing about “real people” at a literary festival, he takes Hawthorne up on his offer.

This book has plenty of meta moments in it, and honestly it was slightly hard for me to keep track at first: for example, Chapter 3 is titled “Chapter One” and revolves around Hawthorne’s reaction to the actual Chapter 1 of the book, and the inaccuracies Tony put in there. That are still in the current Chapter 1. And then Tony follows up by going, “Fine, ignore everything that he mentioned, but the rest is true, including the clue to the killer’s identity.” There’s another chapter where Tony meets with who I assume was Horowitz’s agent at the time, and she says that she doesn’t want to be named in the chapter titled “Lunch with Hilda.” In fairness, my confusion was more due to me trying to read too much into the meta, and the mystery doesn’t hinge on you being able to navigate it. Horowitz uses it all well, and I found his discretions on his different works and writing in general to be very interesting.

Of course, the partnership isn’t smooth sailing: Tony finds Hawthorne frustrating and evasive about his life, and gets a taste of the man’s more unpleasant opinions during the case. I admit though that Hawthorne didn’t come off nearly as offensive as intended. I may have had incorrect expectations based on what I’d read about the book, but Tony came off as the prickly, insulting one to me. Perhaps this is because Hawthorne’s more repulsive moments (like his homophobia) either don’t play a major role or don’t get a lot of development (like the sting in the tail at the end). For most of the book, he comes off as an intense but awkward guy who (based on my reading) does value Tony’s companionship more than he shows. Of course, I also have the expectation that Holmes-Watson style relationships will end with the Watson realizing that the Holmes is indeed a genius who has all the right answers, so that influenced me as well.

I mentioned how Tony teases you with a clue to the killer’s identity in Chapter 1. This is partly true. The clue is there, but you won’t realize its significance until late in the book. I would say that this is a fair mystery on the whole; you can piece the killer’s identity together before the reveal, but the full motive behind the crime won’t become apparent until near the end. It’s more like the “modern-day” narrative of Magpie Murders, more a procedural than a more traditional mystery. The killer is well-hidden, and as I said, you can figure out who they are with a bit of thought.

All in all, I quite liked this book. The meta aspects were fun, the mystery was well-constructed, and it was a joy to read. Highly Recommended.

Other Reviews: ahsweetmysteryblog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, crossexaminingcrime, The Invisible Event.