International Crime, Japanese Crime, Locked Room International

The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa

MoaiThree students from a university mystery club travel to an island where a cache of diamonds had been hidden several years before. Wooden moai statues were placed around the island, seemingly at random, and may be linked in some way to the location of the loot.

Alice intends to set his mind to solving this puzzle but before he and his friends can get to work a terrible storm strikes the island. After the storm passes, two bodies are found in a locked room and the group soon realizes that someone in their number is a killer.

The Moai Island Puzzle is a novel that I have been eagerly anticipating reading since it was published in translation last year by Locked Room International. The Moai statue element of the story appealed to my imagination and I will admit to being a sucker for stories where groups of people are stranded on an island together, slowly being picked off. Throw in a locked room and this really seemed to be my deal.

No doubt the word ‘seemed’ will have tipped you off that the novel did not quite match my sky high hopes for it, although I still had a very good time with it. Before I tackle the meat of the story I will say that I felt that the locked room element really was less of a factor in the story than it is built up to be by the blurb on the back cover. Those expecting Carrian ingenuity are more likely to be struck with incredulity about some aspects of the proposed solution and I certainly would not suggest reading the novel just for the locked room.

Nor was the Moai statue puzzle, or at least the part of it that the reader is capable of solving, so challenging that you could imagine it stumping these characters for as long as it does. It is certainly fun to work through though and I felt the section of the book dealing with solving the puzzle made for an enjoyable interlude from the murder mystery parts of the story.

These murders are in fact the meat of the story and here the book is on much more solid ground. Arisugawa crafts an intriguing adventure in which there does not seem to be anything approaching a solid motive for the killings and where our suspects all lack alibis and all had the capability of acquiring the means.

Towards the end of the story in Ellery Queen style, the author issues a challenge to the reader informing them that they have all of the information they need to deduce the killer. I was stumped and, upon reading the solution, really quite impressed by the meticulous reasoning of the sleuth and how neatly everything fit together. I felt it played fair and although I had to reread a couple of points to make sure I was grasping the reasoning, I thought it made excellent sense.

So, if I was entertained by the Moai puzzle and thought the solution to the murders was quite good, why was I also a little underwhelmed?

I think a large part of the answer to that lies in the question of style and here I will fully acknowledge that what may not have worked for me could be entirely your cup of tea! While I found the mystery itself interesting, the manner in which we go through characters’ movements and try to pin down the details of each crime felt dry and became quite tedious to work through. As the crimes mount up, this process seems to become more and more repetitive.

The other significant issue is that Alice is just not a particularly dynamic protagonist. The part of his story that I was most interested in, his relationship with Maria, is barely broached except to be met by immediate denials.

Though not perfect, I think if you are able to look past its sometimes dull protagonist and investigative procedure, there is some excellent material here. While I was not wowed by this book the way I was when I finally put down the excellent Decagon House Murder, I did find this quite enjoyable in parts.

Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen

RomanOne of the aims of this blogging project of mine was to broaden my reading horizons and to educate myself on the history of the genre. While I count myself pretty familiar with the works of Christie and Sayers, I had never read anything by Ellery Queen – one of the more significant figures from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

When I made the choice to begin with The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen’s first novel, I had little knowledge of what lay in store for me. Perhaps if I had read the less than glowing posts from JJ and The Green Capsule about the book, I might have been a little better prepared for seemed at times to be an epic test of my endurance.

Monte Fields, a lawyer, is discovered dead in his seat at the Roman Theatre during the second act of a show called Gunplay. Strangely, for a hit show, the seats on either side of him were empty and no one was observed coming up to him during the performance. Our detectives, Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery, immediately focus on the absence of the victim’s top hat – a discovery that will launch a very detailed and repetitive series of searches to try to find it and determine its significance to the murder.

While it is a little strange to hear the characters hone in so quickly on the question of the headwear as if it was the only significant oddity in a case that possesses several, I did find the questions of how and why the hat had disappeared to be intriguing. To my disappointment the answers, particularly with regards to how the hat was removed, proved far less interesting than the scenario seemed to promise.

Part of the problem is the way the authors walk us through nearly every step of the investigation, listing off the various places considered and examined along the way. These sections of the book feel exhausting and offer little interest or sense of discovery, slowing the novel down considerably.

When not considering the question of the hat, Richard and Ellery Queen spend considerable periods interviewing the various witnesses. Although ‘witnesses’ may be a little inaccurate, given that no one seems to have seen anything take place. These sections were a little more enjoyable for me, though once again the pacing is slow and the conversations are at times a little repetitive.

The two detectives are not particularly striking in terms of their personalities, though I did appreciate their father and son dynamic and enjoyed their warm sense of affection for one another. Both characters seem to be primarily characterized by their indulgences – Ellery for rare books and Richard for taking snuff – rather than their emotions or and peculiarities in their personalities. Both are quite normal, though Richard was for me easily the more sympathetic character.

Before I go on to sum up my overall feelings about the book, I do want to directly address two points I have seen made in other reviews of this novel. Firstly, that the novel does not play fair with the reader and, secondly, the story advances some outdated racial views.

Let me tackle the second point first. The Roman Hat Mystery certainly does have moments that feature or hint at outdated racial ideas. When one of those ideas is mentioned in the plot it is clear that we are not meant to be sharing in or celebrating those views. Modern readers may struggle with these aspects of the novel.

The issue of whether the novel plays fair is much harder to judge. Certainly I can understand some readers feeling frustrated that there was some information given near the end of the novel that was not clearly provided prior to the Challenge to the Reader. I do not believe that any information is imparted after that Challenge that we need to figure out what happened in general terms and while it is a little frustrating in a puzzle mystery to have some developments not shared with the reader, I did not feel cheated by that.

Overall, I found the novel to be quite uneven and poorly paced with lengthy blocks of dialogue and a dull array of suspects. While there are some strong and entertaining parts of the story, I did feel that all-in-all this was a miss for me. Still, I liked the concept of the story and I still plan on digging through the Ellery Queen novels in order.

On the back of this however I think it may be wise to spread them out a little.

 

Agatha Christie, Golden Age

Ordeal By Innocence by Agatha Christie

OrdealbyInnocenceWhen I first began blogging about crime fiction I had a number of goals in mind. One of the biggest reasons I started this blog was to broaden my literary horizons. Part of that goal meant finding brand new writers and trying books from crime fiction sub-genres I would otherwise never have tried, but the other part of my thinking was that I wanted to learn more about some of the seminal figures in the genre through exploring their work.

I was, of course, already quite familiar with the works of Agatha Christie long before I began blogging. I grew up watching the ITV adaptations of the Poirot stories and I loved to listen to the June Whitfield radio versions of the Marple stories as a teen and was inspired to explore the novels themselves. Yet though I have read most of Dame Agatha’s novels featuring her two greatest creations, Miss Marple and Poirot, I have to confess that I have not dipped into much of her other work beyond And Then There Were None.

I plan to rectify that.

Ordeal by Innocence is the first book I have selected as part of that quest to educate myself about her other works. My goal is to read every one of her detective and mystery novels, beginning with the standalone works and then tackling Inspector Battle as well as Tommy and Tuppence.

Why did I select this book to be my first? The honest answer is that I know it is one of Christie’s two personal favorite works and so I hoped that I’d be starting off on a high note.

The novel begins with a man, Arthur Calgary, taking a journey to deliver a piece of information to the family of Jacko Argyle. Jacko had died in prison after being found guilty of killing his adoptive mother. He had protested his innocence, saying that he had an alibi as he was being given a lift by a stranger but no one had ever come forward to confirm Jacko’s story.

Arthur had been the man that gave Jacko that lift but, after getting hit in an accident, he was badly injured and only recently recovered his memory of what had happened when he learned of Jacko’s fate. Blaming himself, he hoped to provide comfort to the Argyle family by proving his innocence but his news has the unintended consequence of alerting the family that the real murderer must be one of them. Realizing he has only added to their troubles, Arthur determines he will protect the innocent by finding the real killer.

This is an interesting starting point for the novel and it allows Christie to define her theme of discussing the nature of innocence and justice early and clearly. It is chiefly concerned with the question of whose innocence is more important: Jacko’s or the remaining family members who were not guilty of committing the murder. I felt that this was an interesting question and that the most successful parts of the novel were those exploring the complicated reactions of the family to Arthur’s news and the ways that information alters how family members interact with one another.

By presenting her story from the various perspectives of each of the family members, Christie enables us to feel closer to her characters, to hear their worries and to understand their decision making. This is very helpful in terms of addressing her central theme and in conveying the paranoia that Arthur’s revelation brings but it also brings a problem with it. We know that at least one of the family must be the killer yet we are also privy to their thoughts. It is hard to believe that the guilty party would not be constantly worrying about their own safety as the case reopens which would present problems if we are hearing their thoughts. Christie attempts to avoid this by having that character be absorbed in a situation whenever we have to hear from them.

This compromise is a little inelegant but it exists to make sure that the novel still works as a traditional whodunit mystery building to an identification of the killer at the conclusion. I think this approach essentially works but some will find it draws attention to the killer’s identity. I do wonder if, freed from the structure of the traditional whodunit and perhaps presented in an inverted form, the novel might have been able to develop its themes even more effectively.

Christie’s decision to retain aspects of the traditional whodunit also impacts the development of the character of Arthur who assumes the mantle of detective but does not assert himself much within the narrative until the ending. Once again this feels like an awkward compromise designed to have events explained to an outsider for the reader’s benefit but, because Christie wants us to hear the family members’ thoughts first hand he is largely absent from much of what follows and so feels ill-defined and like he doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative. There is an attempt, near the end, to tie him more directly to the fates of one of the characters but in a novel that seeks to explore human psychology, this feels like a highly artificial development.

The Argyle family generally fares better and Christie spends considerable time exploring how this family was constructed and why each of the family members had come to resent Rachel Argyle in spite, and perhaps because, of her financial generosity with them. Some, such as the characters of Micky and Leo are particularly well drawn and possess interesting contradictions that Christie takes time to develop and illustrate.

There is one family member that didn’t sit particularly well with me and that was Tina. While the novel explores the other adoptive children’s struggles in adjusting to life in the Argyle family, Tina is more typically just defined by her mixed racial status. Where the other children’s complex feelings about their mother are explored, Tina is ‘docile’ and this is attributed to her mixed parentage. Generally I think that books have to be judged within the social context of the time they were written but it is frustrating that while her adoptive siblings’ complex feelings are explored in detail, Tina is not afforded the same depth of characterization within the novel.

While I had some issues with characterization and the development of the mystery itself, I have to say that I still found the book to be quite enjoyable and appreciated that it feels different from much of her other work. I would not agree with Christie’s own assessment that it is one of her very best works but I did find its central theme interesting and provocative.

 

Cozies

Death on Tap by Ellie Alexander

DeathonTapDeath on Tap is the first in a new series of cozy mysteries set in the Bavarian-styled, beer-brewing village of Leavenworth, Washington. The protagonist, Sloan Krause, is a talented brewer who works with her husband’s family at their brewhaus but her world comes crashing apart when she walks in to discover her husband cheating on her with a barmaid.

Kicking Mac out of their house, she has to start again and manages to secure a job working for a start-up nanobrewery. She is the only employee and has a lot of work to do pulling things together in time for their big launch. Just as it seems that things are going well she discovers a body in one of the fermenting tanks and, worse still, it seems her husband is in the frame for murder.

I should probably confess at this point that I am not much of a drinker so words like nanobrewery mean little to me. What attracted me to this novel was the fact I had never seen a cozy mystery set in that particular world and the way it grabbed me with its first sentence. It was a lunchtime gamble forced on me when I contrived to leave all of my books and my Kindle at home and had to find something off the new releases shelf at work and the fact that I finished it the same day speaks to how much I enjoyed it.

I found Sloan Krause a likable protagonist, although her backstory is not particularly detailed. We do learn that she was a foster kid and that is part of the reason she feels so close to Mac’s family and resents the idea of losing them. She is charming, hard-working and devoted to the people she cares about. I would also say she possesses an often very-entertaining narrative voice which does keep things lively.

The mystery itself is entertaining though I don’t think a reader could reach the conclusion through evidence but simply through character intuition. I suspect that may reflect that the book has to balance establishing its characters, setting and interpersonal relationships with its mystery and perhaps that results in a slightly simpler mystery narrative. While I think the book doesn’t quite strike the perfect balance between these aspects, I still enjoyed learning more about these characters and discovering their secrets.

Alexander creates an interesting blend of characters, many of whom make strong impressions in just a few pages. They all have strong, lively personalities that help make them instantly memorable and helps to develop a cast of characters that readers will hope to encounter in sequels (and at least one they’ll love to hate).

I think it is also quite clear that Alexander knows a fair amount about the world of brewing, but there are a few points in the story where I think she is guilty of letting her research show. I certainly recognize that I am not the target audience for those moments but to me they got in the way of the story and felt a little unnatural. By all means explain something to add a bit of color or if it is necessary but details about the proper temperature to refrigerate experimental hops are extraneous.

On the other hand, I suspect that beer enthusiasts will probably savor the lengthy descriptions of beer-paired foods such as chocolate stout brownies as well as the various beverages imbibed throughout the book. Death on Tap conjures up plenty of small town charm and has a wonderful coda that sets up a second book that I am looking forward to reading.

Historical Mysteries

The Bookseller’s Tale by Ann Swinfen

BooksellersTaleNicholas Elyot is the official bookseller to the University in the city of Oxford. He is riding along the Cherwell when he discovers a body floating in the water and pulls it to the shore. He is shocked to discover that it belongs to William, a promising student who he had employed several years before for a short period.

While many assume that William had committed suicide, Nicholas comes to believe that the boy was murdered and sets out to prove this. In this task he has the help of his friend Jordain, a scholar, though it is initially hard for them to understand why someone would seek to kill him.

The reason for this killing that Swinfen comes up with makes a lot of sense and is exceptionally well clued. Explanations are clear and easy to follow and I am happy to say that this is absolutely a fair play mystery.

Because the novel’s logic is so sound however, I suspect that many readers will spend much of the book well ahead of the sleuths as they bungle around trying to piece together what is happening. There really is not much in the way of misdirection given in the story and so once you get the gist of what has happened it is easy to work much of the rest out from that core of ideas.

While the mystery elements are not wholly successful, there is still much to enjoy in this novel however. The most interesting parts of the book for me were not the mystery itself but rather the details of Nicholas’ life and, particularly, his profession. It was interesting to hear about the way stories were collected, books were devised and physically bound and I enjoyed his professional frustrations in dealing with college bursars who were slow to pay their invoices.

I also really appreciated Swinfen’s characterizations, both of her leads and supporting players. I liked Nicholas a lot and found him easy to empathize with, even when I think he is making bad or reckless choices. I particularly appreciated that Swinfen finds a really solid reason for him to risk himself and become involved in the first place. He not only feels a sense of affection for the young man he knows but there is the very real risk that if he cannot disprove that it was suicide then William will not be allowed to be buried in consecrated ground.

I also enjoyed the group of characters Swinfen surrounds her hero with, particularly his very practical sister, his friend Jordain and his two journeymen scriveners. There were some strong personalities among that group and I hope that the stories that follow explore them further.

While I think that The Bookseller’s Tale does not quite succeed in mystifying its readers, I still had a very enjoyable time reading it and do plan on following on with the next installment at some point soon.

Japanese Crime, Pushkin Vertigo, Thriller

The Master Key by Masako Togawa

TheMasterKeyThe Master Key is a fascinating read that defies easy categorization. The cover of this Pushkin Vertigo reissue features a quote from a review in The Times that describes it as an ‘atmospheric Japanese Thriller’ yet while it has suspenseful moments, I think that gives a slightly inaccurate impression of what the book will be like.

Instead I think the book is best described as a series of puzzles and revelations that the reader slowly pieces together to form a clear impression of what has happened. Events are told out of order and often seem to be unconnected yet Togawa works them together in the most extraordinary way in the closing chapter and epilogue to make sense of them all.

The book is also somewhat unsettling, dealing as it does with the secret burial of a child and the sense of intrusion into our private spaces both physical and emotional. While there are few instances of violence explicitly shown, the reader is at times experiencing intrusions from the perspective of the person whose space is being violated and at others from the perspective of the voyeur. And, as we read, we come to see that the boundaries between those situations are less clear than they initially seem.

Togawa’s story is set in an apartment building inhabited exclusively by single women. At the start of the novel we are told that the building is about to be relocated a small distance to enable the road to be widened. The residents have been told that this can be achieved without their even needing to leave the building and that if they were to place a glass of water on a shelf during the move it would not spill.

As residents retreat into their rooms preparing to carry out this experiment at least one person within the building is aware that a secret will be unearthed when the foundations are exposed. We also learn that there is a nervous energy building among the residents as a master key that can unlock every door in the building had been stolen several months before, leading residents to feel uneasy in their own homes and that, at any moment, their secrets may be revealed. This is a truly unsettling idea that plays off our wish to believe that a locked door is a permanent barrier and it is incredibly effective.

From this starting point Togawa weaves a complex and often unsettling web of stories that overlap and inform each other. We learn a lot about the various inhabitants and the ways they have been disappointed in life as well as some of the cruelties and crimes they have committed. We are left to question, at points, who has taken the master key, what secret they are trying to reveal and why. Sometimes the answers to these questions are less clear than they seem.

Her characters are each well constructed and given the number we meet I was very impressed by how complex they were. Although the novel is quite short, I was surprised at just how developed they each were. Learning these women’s stories and seeing how they will all fit together was really satisfying.

I found this a really remarkable work and devoured it quickly. This was the first novel I have read by Masako Togawa and I was really impressed both by the depth of characterization as well as the sense of unease she builds in this world. At times I was left curious how some elements could be fully resolved, making the ending all the more striking and powerful. I hope more of Togawa’s work becomes available in translation soon.

Review copy provided through NetGalley. The Master Key is available in the UK by Pushkin Vertigo and will be released in the United States on March 27, 2018.

Readers' Advisory

Suggested Reads: Murder on the Orient Express

I am unlikely to have time to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend due to a busy work and childcare schedule but I couldn’t resist posting something that might tie in with its release. An added bonus would be that this will be my first post about Dame Agatha – it’s fairly amazing that I managed to go fifteen posts without so much as mentioning her name!

I initially toyed with doing a top five listing of my favorite Christie stories but it has been such a long time since I read many of them that I am not sure my memory would be entirely reliable. Another option was to write something about Christie’s legacy but that wouldn’t be particularly personal.

Instead I decided to do some suggestions of other Christie stories that I would recommend to those who loved this movie and want to investigate some of her other works. Below are a number of reasons you may have liked the movie with a suggestion or two to match. I am confident that if you do try them you will find a great read!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of The Exotic Setting

DeathontheNileChristie’s work doesn’t always feature settings as magnificent or appealing to the imagination as the Orient Express but when Poirot or Marple do travel they often do so in style.

Death On the Nile is a great example of this. Here Poirot is approached by a beautiful woman while traveling in Cairo who has recently married but now finds that she is being stalked by her husband’s lover. While Poirot initially declines to assist believing there to be no crime, events take a murderous turn.

While much of the novel is spent aboard a steam ship on the great river itself, we get a sense both of the country and of the experience of travelling before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Also consider Murder in Mesopotamia, another Poirot story which is set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Ingenious Solution

ABC MurdersChristie’s plotting is one of her greatest strengths and she pulled off some wonderful surprises throughout her career. Some are famous such as the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I’d rather focus on two stories that don’t get quite the same press but which I think are quite brilliant.

The ABC Murders is, to my mind, Christie’s best book that people just don’t know about. Perhaps that reflects its title or the lack of a major modern movie adaptation. In short, Poirot is challenged by a serial killer to anticipate his moves and stop him before he kills again. The serial killer is working alphabetically and leaves an ABC Railway guide near the body as a calling card. The solution is wonderfully simple and just as cunning and memorable as that of MOTOE.

A Murder Is Announced is a Miss Marple novel which has a wonderful hook: someone has placed an advert letting people know when and where a murder will take place. Inevitably the whole village seems to gather at the indicated date and time expecting a game and are shocked when a murder really is committed. Once again, the genius of this story lies in its cunning simplicity.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Trains

DeathintheCloudsWell, once again Dame Agatha provides and if trains are your thing, consider The Mystery of the Blue Train or The 4:50 From Paddington.

I’d prefer to switch gears though and suggest Death in the Clouds. Sure, the murder takes place in the skies instead of on tracks but some of the elements of this story are quite memorable and the solution to how a murder is conducted mid-flight is really quite clever.

If you are planning to watch rather than read my suggestions, I seem to remember that the David Suchet adaptation is not one of the better ones though so you may want to chase it down with a viewing of the quite wonderful (and not particularly faithful) adaptation of The 4:50 From Paddington, Murder She Said!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Star-Studded Cast

NoneWell, books aren’t really star-studded so let’s shift formats and switch to films. The good news is that there were a heap of film adaptations made in the seventies and eighties featuring some really big name stars. The Albert Finney Murder On The Orient Express is a great example – it features Sean Connery and the wonderful Ingrid Bergman among its cast.

Though I think some parts of the adaptation stretch a little too far from Christie’s original (especially the bacchanal sequence), the recent 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is quite chilling and features a superb cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens. It also comes closer than most adaptations to using the actual ending of the novel.

So, there are some of my suggestions for some literary (and movie) chasers to wash down your viewing of Murder on the Orient Express with. Hopefully you loved the movie and I hope it won’t be too long before I get to go see it myself. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please do share – I’d love to read them.