Golden Age, John Dickson Carr, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

ConstantSuicidesI am never entirely sure how best to approach dipping into the works of a classic author. I can certainly see the appeal of selecting their most famous or successful books at first but then what do you have waiting for you once you’re done?

After starting out with the wonderful The Problem of the Green Capsule, my next few experiences of Carr’s work were of books generally reckoned to be second or third tier works. Some, such as The Problem of the Wire Cage, exceeded expectations while The Witch of the Low Tide felt messy and left me disappointed and underwhelmed. It was time to go to a safer choice…

I am pleased to say that The Case of the Constant Suicides is the best work I have read so far from Carr. It manages to balance its humorous and mysterious elements perfectly to create a book that is as entertaining as it is perplexing.

The story begins with members of the Campbell family being summoned to Scotland following the death of Angus Campbell who seems to have jumped out of a window at the top of a tower and fallen to his death. It turns out that he has very little wealth to speak of but did take out several heavy life insurance policies whose combined payouts ought to add up to a very healthy sum for the inheritors.

The problem is that if Angus did commit suicide those contracts would be voided and the estate would be worthless. The family want to believe that he wouldn’t have committed suicide, knowing the financial pressures it would create for the family, but the alternative of murder seems inconceivable – the tower being too tall and the room being thoroughly locked – so what caused Angus to take the plunge?

It’s a cracking good start for a story and Carr does a superb job of constructing the rules of the locked room, stating the facts clearly. Since starting this blog I have learned that the concept of a mysterious string of identical historical deaths will always grab me and here is no exception.

I knew from early on that this was the book for me when we first see Alan and Kathryn encounter each other on the train. Carr gives the two characters a delightfully entertaining backstory and seems to relish throwing them together. They bicker and spar, make pointed comments and soon it becomes all too clear that they are attracted to each other.

It should be pointed out that these two characters, while related to most of the different suspects, are external characters. This is different from the approach Carr takes, for instance, with Brenda and Hugh in Wire Cage, where they become involved in the case and so need to present evidence and track down the real killer. Some may feel that this subplot is then tacked on, contributing little material evidence, and yet I found it immensely enjoyable and I think it works brilliantly as a device for the family to come together and to share pertinent information with our heroes.

The bulk of the sleuthing however is carried out by our old chum, Gideon Fell. As usual, he manages to see right through some of the noise of the case to find its key points. I think what interests me most about the character is how amoral he is shown to be. There is a moment where he tells the family that, should he find it was suicide, he will sit on the story and find a way to persuade the insurance companies.

Another aspect of the novel that I think bears closer scrutiny is Carr’s decision to write in dialect for his English readers. Should you have read my review of Lament for a Maker another Scottish mystery set in an old castle, you will be aware of just how much I can dislike authors doing this. Carr escapes that trap because it’s only used in short bursts and typically the meanings are easy to infer from their context.

Some may grumble at all the ‘we’re in Scotland’ tropes happening here but I found them to generally be quite charming and amusing. The jokes aren’t mean-spirited in tone which I do think helps keep things light and they are not so frequent that you can’t ignore them.

Towards the end of the novel Carr stacks several other murders on top of the first death, a move which I have found to be the undoing of some of his other works. I am happy to say though that this was something of an exception with one of the secondary crimes more interesting to me than the main case in terms of how it was executed. When the explanations are given for each death, I was suitably impressed by the ingenuity on display and on the way the remainder of the story holds up.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with this Carr read and I look forward to spending more time with Dr. Fell in some of his further adventures. Hopefully it won’t take me quite so long before I come across another top-notch read. As always, I’d be grateful for suggestions shared (I may not have reviewed them but I have experienced The Hollow Man and Til Death Do Us Part).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An academic (who)

 

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British Library Crime Classics, Short Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Serpents in Eden edited by Martin Edwards

SerpentsinEdenLife commitments have caused me to need to find something I can dip in and out of at pretty short notice so I have been picking up more of these British Library Crime Classics anthologies.

Serpents in Eden is a collection of crimes set in the countryside though the setting is more critical in some stories than others where it is merely background. As always Martin Edwards has selected a diverse collection of stories on his theme and provides superb introductions, both to the collection as a whole and then to the authors who wrote the individual entries featured.

It is a pretty interesting collection though a little less well balanced than others published as part of this range. I particularly recommend the very short Clue in the Mustard which is quite amusing at points and Murder by Proxy which has a clever solution.

If this volume’s theme appeals to you then I’d suggest picking it up as though there are always a few misfires, most of the volume is pretty entertaining and does a good job of preventing variations on a theme.

On to the stories…

The Black Doctor by Arthur Conan Doyle

Or perhaps more accurately: the Doctor of Indeterminate Swarthy Ethnicity. This is the story of a country doctor who has established a successful practice in Lancashire. After many years of bachelorhood he finally proposes to a local woman but abruptly calls off the wedding. The narrative is structured around the trial of a man believed to have killed him.

There is no detective or sleuth to follow – this is more in the line of an unusual story being related but it is quite enjoyable, if a little slight.

Murder by Proxy by M. McDonnell Bodkin

An entertaining read, even if some aspects of the crime are easy to deduce. The story concerns a man who is found dead in his study having been shot in the back of the head. Paul Beck is called in to investigate the case by the man’s son who has become the principal suspect.

Forget about who did it – the killer’s identity is clear enough – as the focus here is really on how the deed was done. The solution is quite clever though Beck never really proved his case, rather the guilty party confesses. Still, it is fun and I’d be interested to see out some other Beck adventures.

The Fad of the Fisherman by G. K. Chesterton

This didn’t capture my imagination at all and so did not make for the best first impression for Chesterton’s work. A murder takes place on a remote island near the country home of Sir Hook. While the mystery didn’t grab me, this is one of the stronger entries in the collection for incorporating countryside elements.

The Genuine Tabard by E. C. Bentley

I quite enjoyed this story in which a pair of American tourists show our sleuth a historic tabard they purchased at a vicarage while driving through the country though it is a little slow in the telling. The scheme is worked out well but the explanation is a little too detailed.

The Gylston Slander by Herbert Jenkins

A solid if unremarkable story about a vicar receiving anonymous letters laced with innuendo about his daughter and the curate.

The Long Barrow by H. C. Bailey

A woman reports that she is being followed by someone everywhere she goes. At first Reggie Fortune seems disinterested but when she adds that someone is littering the path with dead animals he agrees it seems suspicious.

An interesting concept and approach but in my opinion the ideas are not well realized.

The Naturalist at Law by R. Austin Freeman

You would think that given my love of inverted mysteries I would have got around to trying an R. Austin Freeman already. Well, this isn’t an inverted mystery but it does whet my appetite for when I do so.

The story involves an apparent suicide of a man in a ditch. The inquest cannot reach a conclusion but Dr. Thorndyke is certain it is murder and conducts his own investigation. The question is why does Dr. Thorndyke think it is murder and how will he prove it. The answers are clever.

A Proper Mystery by Margery Allingham

This is a very short story set in a public house several weeks after a vegetable show was ruined when the produce is trampled by cattle. Tensions are still high in the village as some of the contenders suspect each other for orchestrating the disaster. The resolution of the story is quite charming, if expected.

Direct Evidence by Anthony Berkeley

A simple and dragged out case in which a man is accused of the murder of the woman he is having an affair with. The solution to why the suspect would have murdered her in plain sight of the village is obvious from the start and so the only question is what precise evidence will Sheringham be able to assemble to prove it. A disappointment.

Inquest by Lenora Wodehouse

A very different story that strikes a decidedly interesting and provocative note at its end. The narrator is travelling by train when he encounters a familiar face he is unable to place at first. It turns out that they recognize each other from an inquest into the death of a man who seems to have been murdered by his nephew.

The plot of the story is interesting enough to make this worth recommending but the tone of the ending is very different and there are some aspects of the solution that feel quite original. A highlight in the collection, though the countryside elements are minimal.

The Scarecrow by Ethel Lina White

A young woman escapes assassination and her would-be killer is locked away. Several years later he emerges from prison, placing the woman in danger. How will she and her friends evade the killer’s notice.

While this is an interesting premise and I did like some of the turns of phrase and details in the novel, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped. That is a shame because there is some excellent writing here.

Clue in the Mustard by Leo Bruce

A short but amusing story that sees Sergeant Beef solve his first murder (though you wouldn’t really know that if it weren’t mentioned in the preface to the story). An elderly woman is found dead in her garden to some surprise as she had seemed in relatively good health. While it appears like natural causes were responsible, Beef is able to demonstrate it was murder and explain how it was managed.

The method used is quite ingenious (and I am pleased to say that I guessed most of it) but the best part is Beef’s unusual reasoning for how he works it all out.

Our Pageant by Gladys Mitchell

The final story is incredibly short but also one of my favorites in the collection. It involves a village performance of a morris dance which has created some tensions between several of the men of the village. When someone ends up dead we are left wondering who may have been responsible.

It’s a clever little tale with a great reveal that is all the more impressive for being told in just a few pages.

Modern Crime, Thriller

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Closer.jpgI really enjoyed reading Brad Parks’ previous novel, Say Nothing, which is a superb domestic thriller. One of Brad Parks’ strengths as an author is his uncanny ability to play on parents’ fears to deliver unsettling thrills that can hit close to home. Say Nothing was predicated on the idea of a child being kidnapped while Closer Than You Know begins with a new mother discovering that her infant son has been taken into custody by social services based on an accusation made against her.

The book alternates perspectives between the mother Melanie, the couple who foster her children during the case, and Amy, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against her. This allows us to see the case from both sides which means that we frequently have a better idea of what is taking place than the characters.

Melanie Barrick is quite a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. We learn early on that she was raped and impregnated by her attacker. Her boyfriend stuck by her and they decided to keep the child, getting married and moving into a starter home together. Her job, working as a dispatcher for a freight company, is not her dream career but the healthcare is excellent and life is at least comfortable. All that comfort is shattered when she arrives at her daycare to discover that her child was seized while she was at work.

The early chapters of the book are very effective at presenting Melanie’s panic at being separated from her child and her complete confusion about what is taking place. We have a little more knowledge about the accusations being made but we still have to piece together who has made this accusation and what their motives are. At times Melanie makes some bad choices but they are very credible given this situation and this worsens the hole that she finds herself in.

We also get to learn about Amy’s background as assistant district attorney and the forces pushing for a speedy resolution to Melanie’s trial. Her boss is relatively green but incredibly ambitious and hopes to use a successful conviction to springboard himself to become State’s attorney general and later seek higher office. Several months earlier he had success sending an African-American dealer to prison and he is keen to make sure that a comparatively tough sentence is handed down to this White suburban mom, preferably before his November reelection.

Amy has her own priorities however and one of these is trying to find and prosecute the serial rapist who has been preying on women in the county over the past decade. As the novel develops these two stories will begin to intersect though it will take a while for some of the characters to realize this.

Parks remains a strong storyteller and he manages to keep things moving briskly, delivering some moments of surprise and causing us to question just how well we know the people in our lives. Unfortunately however I found the combination of these two storylines to be a little too incredible and it leads to some very contrived moments in the final third of the novel.

A key moment will come at trial when a whopping great piece of evidence is volunteered, seemingly from nowhere, that will completely alter the trajectory of the story. It is an incredibly convenient development that feels much too clean and tidy, existing to allow the author to smoothly transition the story into its final phase.

That final phase is certainly exciting and once again it demonstrates Parks’ skill at building tension but I am not sure I bought a key character’s motivation or thinking heading into that encounter.

 

I do want to give some credit to Parks for managing to present the foster system and the individuals who work it with some perspective. While the protagonist, herself a former foster child, voices her fears about her son Alex ending up in the system, Parks acknowledges that the social workers  and legal authorities involved are acting in what they perceive the best interests of her child to be.

Parks attempts to create complex supporting characters that will challenge our perceptions of them. One of the successes is Melanie’s brother who has issues with drug addiction who clearly, in spite of his problems, loves his sister and appreciates what she has done for him. Sometimes the attempts to speak to the reader feel a little too blatant such as in the case of her neighbor, a man who is passionate about the second amendment and likes to refer to himself as one of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables. I didn’t object to the characterization but the awkward, on the nose exchange in which it occurs.

In spite of some of my grumbles, I do want to emphasize that I think the book is an exciting read and I did want to find out how things would be resolved. I cared about Melanie and her son and wanted them to find a happy ending. In these respects I do think the book is quite successful.

While I enjoyed it, the issues I have with some aspects of the plotting keep me from enthusiastically recommending it the way I would Say Nothing. If you haven’t read that book I’d encourage you to go check it out because it is a fantastic read. This has its moments too but it is let down by some contrived developments in its final third.

Locked Room International, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith

Paddington

Come to Paddington Fair is quite a curious novel and, as much as I was enjoying it, I spent a fair portion of the book waiting for something impossible to happen. It was being republished by Locked Room International after all.

The usual pattern of an impossible crime novel is that you are presented with an incredible crime and the detectives break it down to show how it could have been performed. Here the book opens with what seems to be a clear assassination committed by an easily identified suspect but our detectives will not accept that solution and soon find evidence confirming that view.

Before going further though let me step back and explain the circumstances of the murder, at least in a vague way.

Chief Inspector Castle receives two tickets to attend a play from an anonymous benefactor. At a key moment in the play the male lead is supposed to shoot the female lead using a gun filled with blanks. We learn that prior to the performance the male lead has been behaving erratically and routinely arriving on set inebriated and they have had a big fight, though we do not yet know what they are arguing about.

During the play at the moment at which the on-stage shooting should take place, a man in the audience produces a gun and appears to shoot the female lead before failing to make his escape. The man is arrested and recognized before being taken into custody on the suspicion of murder.

There are some fantastic ideas at play in this story and I did admire the careful construction of this plot, particularly in the ending which caught me wonderfully by surprise. The plot the killer has devised is simple which I tend to find makes for some of the most successful mysteries.

I particularly enjoyed the theatrical setting which I feel is well observed and filled with believable types of character. There is plenty of backstage rivalry as well as the usual resentments about others’ success and several characters are quick to acknowledge that someone else’s misfortune might be the start of their own success if they are promoted from understudy for a performance or two.

Another aspect of the book I responded strongly to was the way it provided the reader with a seemingly disconnected story strand in the opening chapters and trusted that we would wait for the linkages to become clear. At first this seems completely disconnected from the rest of the tale yet I felt that it stitched together rather well with the main narrative once the connection was understood.

Once the investigation gets well underway, I did find my interest was waning at moments. This is partly because it takes on a rather technical tone based upon opportunity rather than motivation and there are relatively few big revelations in the middle third of the novel. I also suspect it had something to do with my finding Lawrence and Castle a trifle dull as investigators.

Things change considerably in the final third of the novel however as an impossibility finally comes into focus and some characters’ motivations become clearer. I thought the ending was a cracker and I felt that the killer’s plans made a lot of sense. Finally, there is even a Challenge to the Reader page heading into the final chapters – something that always will make me smile.

So, where does that leave me on Come to Paddington Fair overall? I think that the ending significantly raised my enjoyment of the book yet I have to acknowledge that I found the middle of the investigation to be solid but uninspiring fare. This slower section becomes more understandable once you see the impossibility come into view in that final third and it is quite thrilling to see it dealt with as quickly as it is here – something that is only possible because of the facts established in the middle of the novel.

British Library Crime Classics, Freeman Wills Crofts, Henry Wade, Short Stories

The Long Arm of the Law edited by Martin Edwards

LongArmI have mentioned before that I am a bit of an unbeliever when it comes to short stories. I understand and respect the craft and I know that it can actually be far harder to write a really effective short story than a novel. I just have not found many that I could get all that excited about.

The Long Arm of the Law is one of the more recent short story collections published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Once again Martin Edwards has curated the collection, writing a general introduction explaining the themes of the book and individual shorter introductions for each story.

I would say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, though I think there are a number of stories here that feature policemen as a character rather than being about the police investigation. The good ones though are superb and well worth your time.

The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew

A fairly straightforward story in which Inspector Vane is approached by a butler who is worried his master is secretly poisoning his wife. Expect to see the twist coming though it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Silence of PC Hirley by Edgar Wallace

I couldn’t get into this somewhat open-ended story about a case of blackmail that escalates into murder. The most memorable thing about the story was one character referring to his wife as being ‘very seedy’ which apparently has a secondary meaning that I was unaware of.

The Mystery of a Midsummer Night by George R. Sims

A very thinly veiled fictionalized account of the Constance Kent case that you can find out more about in Kate Summerscale’s excellent The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. This is quite a readable story but given it draws such heavy inspiration from a real case, the revelation at the end makes little impact.

The Cleverest Clue by Laurence W. Meynell

Told in the form of a barroom reminiscence, this story involves an academic who is developing an anti-aircraft defense being caught up in some intrigue. I liked the background to this and thought the resolution was good, though I think it gets a little cute with the titular clue.

The Undoing of Mr Dawes by Gerald Verner

Cute and unlike the previous story the policeman plays an important part in this one. The story involves a jewelry heist and the policeman’s efforts to see the mastermind put away for the crime. The way it is managed is quite clever and it is a pleasure to read. I’d be interested in trying more Verner so if anyone has any recommendations, please share!

The Man Who Married Too Often by Roy Vickers

Given my love of inverted mysteries it will come as no surprise at all that Roy Vickers has been on my radar for a while. I have a volume of his Department of Dead Ends mysteries that has sat near the top of my To Read list since Christmas. If this tale is anything to go by I’ll have to push them higher.

The story concerns a woman working on the stage who contrives to marry a Marchioness through a Becky Sharp-style piece of manipulation. Later she gets a couple of cruel surprises that lead her to commit murder.

The development of her case features some entertaining twists and reveals while the resolution is superb. I might, if I were nitpicking, complain that I think the police get their solution without a strong base of evidence but I was entertained by the conclusion. One of the gems of this collection!

The Case of Jacob Heylyn by Leonard R. Gribble

The most noteworthy thing about this story for me was that one of its characters happens to rubbish a key element of the previous story. I was curious whether its respective placement was coincidence or intentional.

The mystery certainly isn’t bad but it lacks the distinctive characters or lively plotting of some of the other stories in this collection.

Fingerprints by Freeman Wills Crofts

Hooray! Just when I thought that I had exhausted all of Crofts’ inverted tales I stumble on this gem. It is an incredibly short tale that gives use the basic details of what leads Jim Crouch to give himself away when he murders his uncle. Inspector French turns up and in just a few paragraphs he is able to point out why this is not the suicide it appears to be. Clever and entertaining.

Remember to Ring Twice (1950) E. C. R. Lorac

One of the shorter tales in the collection, this concerns a policeman overhearing a conversation at the bar and then shortly afterwards being called to a crime scene that is linked to one of the participants in that conversation. I can’t say this gripped me but the mechanics of how the crime is committed and its inspiration are interesting enough.

Cotton Wool and Cutlets by Henry Wade

I have been on a bit of a Henry Wade kick lately and I must confess to having been drawn to read this by the inclusion of one of his short stories. Unsurprisingly I found this to be one of the stronger crime tales in the collection, both in terms of the depiction of the police and also in the case itself.

With regards the former, one of the things I think this gets right is it shows you some of the ego and competition involved in any workplace. In terms of the latter, the premise of the faked suicide is handled exceptionally well and is undone through some simple evidence. It is interesting to discover how the crime was worked and the motivation behind it.

After the Event by Christianna Brand

{Whoops – my comments on this story were missed when I first posted this review. Thanks to Kate for indirectly prompting me to realize this!}

This story made me realize how I hope that at some point there may be a theatrical mysteries collection. This story is recounted by the Great Detective many years after it took place and involves a strangling taking place after a performance of Othello.

It all hinges on a rather simple idea but it is brilliantly executed and I was caught completely by surprise. One of the highlights of the collection.

Sometimes the Blind by Nicholas Blake

This is one of the shortest stories in the collection but it packs a lot into just a few pages. The tale is recounted by a policeman who is using it to illustrate how there are many cases where the police know who was responsible for a crime but cannot prove it sufficiently for the criminal to ever be charged with it. The story explores the motivations of the killer convincingly and I thought the ending was superb.

And now I’m kicking myself for having yet to get around to reading any of the Blake novels I have on my Kindle…

The Chief Witness by John Creasey

A superb story that packs an emotional wallop and manages to pack a neat revelation in that genuinely caught me by surprise. The story concerns the death of Evelyn Pirro who is found strangled in her bed. The immediate assumption is that her husband, whom she had started arguing violently with, was responsible though no one can understand what caused a seemingly devoted and loving couple to turn on each other.

The story is exceptionally written and Creasey manages to create three dimensional characters in just a handful of pages. The use of the child is particularly effective, the character being written as innocent but still able to provide some important information.

Old Mr Martin by Michael Gilbert

A bit of an odd one, though I found it to be quite entertaining. The owner of a sweet shop is killed by a car in what seems to be a hit and run accident. The Police are called to look at his basement where they find something that shouldn’t be there and hints at a crime.

The story was highly unpredictable and handled very well. The ending is not unexpected but I think executed very effectively.

The Moorlanders by Gil North

I found the action in this story impossible to follow which surprised me as I had little problem following the Cluff novel I tried recently. It’s not a dialect thing or a lack of familiarity with the characters that’s to blame – it just doesn’t communicate its ideas. To illustrate: I had to reread the story to pick up that there had been a motorbike accident. Unfortunately it ends the collection on a somewhat disappointing note.

Historical Mysteries

A Necessary Evil by Abir Mukherjee

NecessaryEvilAbir Mukherjee’s first mystery novel, A Rising Man, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. Because I read it several months before starting this blog though I have never really shared my thoughts about it.

That novel is a superb historical mystery that is set in India in the years immediately following the First World War. There are many reasons to recommend it, not least the author’s ability to convey a strong sense of place and culture and the two remarkable main characters. It is a page-turning read and one I find myself regularly recommending on the staff picks rack at my place of work.

A Necessary Evil is a sequel to that book and I am surprised and happy to be able to say I found it an even stronger read than the first one, though I think readers would be best served by starting at the beginning. Before I explain why, I ought to tell you a little bit about its plot.

The book begins close to a year after the events of the previous novel. The heir to the throne of the wealthy kingdom of Sambalpore seeks out Captain Wyndham and Sergeant Banerjee (who, it turns out, is an old school friend) to consult them about some strange letters he has received that seem to suggest a threat to his life. As they discuss the matter his car is attacked in an ambush and he is killed.

While Wyndham is able to track down the assassin it is clear that further investigation is needed to understand why this has happened and how it was possible for an ambush to take place when the route they were travelling had not been prearranged. Though political considerations make it impossible to formally continue their investigation, Wyndham and Banerjee travel to Sambalpore in search of answers.

The novel contains an excellent mystery plot but it also reads like a thriller, particularly in the final chapters which have a page-turning, race against time quality. This is not a change of style but rather reflects how the circumstances of the novel manage to amplify the tension at key moments.

In each novel Wyndham is in a position where he is an outsider. In A Rising Man he is a stranger to India, learning to navigate Indian society while trying to solve a murder. Here he finds himself in a country where he has no legal authority and may be given the order to stop and to return home. He is isolated, has few resources he can call on and is treated with suspicion by almost everyone he encounters.

I also appreciated that Mukherjee reduces the amount of discussion of Wyndham’s opium addiction in this second book, though it remains an important part of his character and of the plotting. As a result the calmer, clearer Wyndham is able to show more of his detective skills as he works to understand the complex relationships within the palace and learn about the circumstances of the prince’s death.

His assistant Sergeant “Surrender-not” Banerjee, so named because none of his British colleagues can pronounce his actual name, remains a delight and gets a few moments to shine. I appreciate his steadiness as a secondary investigator and I like his relationship with Wyndham which is generally respectful and constructive.

A secondary character makes a return from the first book and she makes an important contribution to the investigation. Her involvement helps to reinforce one of the series’ most potent themes – that social status shifts and can be a matter of perspective.

That idea is crystallized in a wonderful exchange in the very first chapter of the book when the Prince points out to Wyndham that the question of precedence between the Indian prince, the British policeman representing the crown and his Indian sergeant from the priest caste is far from simple. Throughout the novel we see Wyndham confronting his own lack of status within Sambalpore as he is unable to gain access to people he wishes to speak with, impeding his investigation.

Speaking of that investigation, the mystery here is a good one and very well plotted. Mukherjee creates an intriguing cast of characters and while the identity of the villain didn’t surprise me, I felt the resolution was extremely powerful and effective.

The best historical mysteries do not simply entertain but they educate, inform and speak to aspects of our culture and society. A Necessary Evil does this, discussing aspects of British rule in India without becoming polemical and exploring fascinating themes such as of the nature of justice and the transience of social status. Its characters are compelling, as is the case they are investigating. If you haven’t tried the first one, I’d definitely recommend starting there (there are references made to events that take place at the end of the previous novel) and just know that you will be in for a treat when you get to the second. Highly recommended.

A copy of the novel was provided by the publishers through NetGalley for review though I have also purchased my own copy.

Golden Age, Herbert Adams

The Chief Witness by Herbert Adams

ChiefWitnessThe Chief Witness possesses a wonderful story hook. The novel begins with the death of two brothers, one a lawyer and one an accountant, who appear to have committed suicide at precisely the same time some miles apart. Immediate investigation reveals no notes and in each case a timepiece has been broken to record the time, something that seems suspicious.

Roger Bennion had been tagging along with Inspector Goff when he first examined the bodies and carried out some of his preliminary interviews. Later Margot, the daughter of one of the dead men, visits Bennion to plead with him to investigate the case and prove her boyfriend’s innocence as he has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Before I go any further though let me step back to discuss the initial setup for the story. The idea of the mirroring of these two apparent suicides intrigues because we have to begin by trying to figure out the relationship between the two deaths. Were both genuine suicides in some sort of pact, were there two murders or was one a murder carried out with knowledge that the suicide had taken place? Part of the challenge Bennion and Goff face is that it is hard to find a single suspect with motives for killing both men given they had very different lines of work but it seems impossible that two identical crimes could be committed at the same time by two different people without knowledge of each others’ activities.

Bennion’s initial approach to the case is from the perspective of trying to prove a man’s innocence and so much of his early effort is directed toward demonstrating that his excuse for being witnessed entering the house shortly before one of the deaths was genuine. That means tracking down a chocolate box that had been left in a taxi which could easily lead to some plodding detective work but instead it leads to a highly entertaining encounter with the novel’s most colorful character, an out of work performer who frustrates Bennion by her habit of making up nicknames and using cockney rhyming slang.

Though locating the chocolate box might cast some doubt on the Police’s arrest, Bennion is aware that he will need to provide them with a better suspect if he is to secure his release and this leads to him more directly investigating both deaths. Here unfortunately Adams is on somewhat less firm ground though I will say I found the investigations to be entertaining and interesting.

There are two aspects of the investigation that I found to be dissatisfying and I will hope to convey the sense of the problems without being specific about details to avoid spoiling the story.

The first issue I had is that there is a moment when a huge coincidence occurs that casts doubt on someone’s alibi. Bennion happens to be in exactly the right place at the right time to observe something and while I think his ability to interpret that information and apply it to the case shows his skill as a sleuth, the information does feel too easily come by.

The bigger issue I had is that Bennion eliminates someone as a suspect too soon based on some faulty logic. A large part of the problem, we are told, is that we have a situation where there is no one suspect who would benefit from both murders except that there is and Adams misses it. That mistake does not make the actual solution any less clever or satisfying but it does mean that the suspect ought to have come under more Police scrutiny than they do and Bennion needs a stronger reason for dismissing them from his inquiries than he has.

In spite of those complaints, I found The Chief Witness to be a very entertaining adventure. Towards the end of the book the novel feels almost like a thriller in its approach and I was satisfied with the solution, even though I doubt it will surprise many readers. This was my first experience of reading anything by Adams and I plan to try some other Bennion adventures. Does anyone have any recommendations?

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Timing of the Crime Is Crucial (When)