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

The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr

WireCageI am really looking forward to this Saturday.

A couple of months ago JJ announced that he and Ben would be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage for an in-depth, spoiler-filled discussion on their podcast. This weekend it should be going live and I am really interested to hear what each made of it.

The novel concerns a seemingly impossible murder taking place on a clay tennis court. Frank is a rather odious young man who seems destined to marry Brenda. Doing so will meet the terms of a will which would make the pair tremendously wealthy. Unfortunately young lawyer Hugh is in love with Brenda and is seeking to convince her to abandon talk of an engagement to be with him instead.

There is plenty more background but let’s skip ahead to the details of the impossibility. After a doubles game of tennis the players go their separate ways but Hugh returns later that night to find the court open and, on investigating, finds that Frank is dead, strangled by his own scarf, on the court while Brenda is nearby. Her footprints are the only ones other than the victim’s on the clay yet she insists that he was already dead when she ran to investigate his body. In other words, we have a dead body on a surface that would show footprints yet, if we believe Brenda, there are no signs that anyone else stepped foot on the court.

Much of what follows seems absolutely tailored to my taste, not because this is actually an inverted crime but because structurally it plays out similarly. If Brenda and Hugh did not have committed the crime, the natural evidence of the scene points squarely at their culpability and so they try to manage the evidence and stage the crime scene. While we will see the Police investigation at work and hear some of the deliberations, most of those moments take place from their perspective.

This sequence of the book is not only entertaining, I felt it was really very cleverly constructed. The pair works under considerable pressure to explain themselves, particularly once a character notices one of the things they are up to, and they find themselves needing to make decisions in the moment that they will then need to weave together into a convincing story. They do so incredibly well, casting evidence in a different light. When they realize that another person will be blamed for the murder based on the facts they have suggested they must conduct their own shadow investigation to confirm that those facts are accurate.

In short, what we have here is a case of two groups of characters responding to these events. The actions of the first group are to minimize their own involvement while seeking to find the real culprit (assuming it is not one of them). In doing so however they present the second group with a tampered field of evidence. This not only produces some wonderful tension and a few glorious comedic moments such as the tennis net testing sequence, the need to find a way to the real murderer that might fit with the tampered evidence is itself an intriguingly different take on the mystery story.

In addition to its strong structure, I also appreciated the characterization in these early chapters. There is no doubt that Frank is a pretty unpleasant guy and would make a poor match for Brenda. Given we share Hugh’s perspective as he comes across the body we can dismiss him from consideration yet I think Carr does a wonderful job of making Brenda someone we can believe and yet still harbor some doubts about. Not to mention the handful of other suspects we may consider. For what it’s worth, I settled on the wrong person far too early and was so certain that I was right I overlooked a little evidence that should have pushed me in a different direction.

The question of how the murder was carried out is even more important to the story than the identity of the killer. Here I think the ground becomes a little shakier because, as Puzzle Doctor points out, the method utilized requires us to accept an unusual level of stupidity on the part of the victim. While Carr attempts to convince us with a little harrumphing from Fell that we ought to consider the sequence of events credible because of the personalities of the people involved, I struggled a little with believing that although I did appreciate the mechanical cleverness of the solution.

On the other hand, things take an unfortunate turn in the final third of the novel with the introduction of a half-baked secondary murder that feels both insufficiently clued and explained. While I would agree with some who say that this part of the novel feels clumsily grafted on to the plot, the bigger problem to me is that the method by which the victim is despatched feels ludicrously unlikely and dramatic. I simply could not buy that the person who performed the killing would have conceived of or executed that plan, nor did I feel that the solution to it was fairly clued. In short, this whole sequence derails an otherwise tight, if extremely contrived, crime with little benefit beyond boosting the page count.

Finally I should mention the role, or rather the lack of one, provided for Dr. Fell. I have read some comments that the character really is treated as an afterthought here and that Hugh is intended to be the real sleuth. While I acknowledge that the character’s role is certainly limited, I strongly disagree with the inference. In my opinion, Fell is given a limited role because he is there to explain the impossibility and he gives instant credibility to that solution. I believe his limited role reflects that the impossibility, while serving as the hook for the novel, is not actually the author’s focus.

It seems to me that Carr’s interest here lies in playing with the manipulation of the crime scene and how those manipulations affect the police investigation. Fell cannot be the focus because we have to believe that he can see through Hugh and Brenda’s actions and so he falls into the background while the less rigorous Hadley takes the lead. In short, I think if Carr had made Fell a greater focus in the novel then it would have either made Hugh and Brenda’s initial successes unbelievable or been to the long-term detriment of the sleuth’s character.

So, where does that leave me overall?

I found The Problem of the Wire Cage to be a highly enjoyable read in spite of the flaws in its final third. There are some good ideas here but, more importantly for me, the characterization really sells the story and its structure. Carr provides us with some wonderful moments, some of them funny like Hugh’s conversation with his father, while there is a rather special surprise reveal at the end of Chapter Eleven that really came out of the blue for me.

Unfortunately I cannot judge the novel against Carr’s other works – I have read far too little, though I hope to rectify that in the next few months – but I think it is of interest in its own right and I look forward to reading what others made of it over the next few days.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by strangulation (How)

Agatha Christie, Golden Age

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

StylesI had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.

Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.

Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.

Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.

Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.

The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.

Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.

Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.

Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.

So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.

I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.

Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.

Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)

Ellery Queen, Golden Age

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

DutchAfter getting off to a rough start with The Roman Hat Mystery, I felt that I had turned the corner with the second Ellery Queen novel The French Powder Mystery. I had read good things about the third book in the series, including from some people who generally don’t care about the early Nationalities phase of the cousins’ writing. On top of that, this book was significantly shorter than the two efforts that preceded it. Surely this would be the book where Dannay and Lee would knock it out of the park and deliver the classic read I know they are capable of… Right?

Well, let’s start with the positives. The initial premise of the book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the first three novels. Ellery is attending a meeting at the Dutch Hospital and, at its conclusion, he is invited to watch an operation being carried out on a wealthy philanthropist who funds some of the hospital’s research.

When the time comes for the surgeon to operate however they discover that she has been garroted and at first it seems that the killer is none other than the surgeon himself. There are a few other possibilities however including – and here my pulse was truly quickening – a mobster who was under anaesthesia at the time.

The other element of the novel that particularly marks it out is that this story features a second murder at the midpoint of the novel. This is a particularly welcome development as it addresses one of the principle weaknesses of the first two books – that the second halves of those books drag, becoming chapter after chapter of interviews. By introducing a second corpse, Ellery not only has something to do but he also must now question whether he is investigating the actions of one murderer or a first murderer and a second copycat murderer.

So, why aren’t I feeling more enthused about this? Perhaps it’s an expectations game. Maybe I just thought that The French Powder Mystery was so certain to be terrible that I was pleasantly surprised whereas I came to this one feeling hopeful that I was on course for a thrilling read that I felt let down. I certainly think that is a part of it.

The more significant problem for me was that I didn’t find the mystery particularly mysterious, at least in comparison with the previous two stories. There are some clues that Ellery takes a long time to piece together (or at least to tell us that he has pieced together) whose significance seemed quite obvious to me and, once worked out, the identity of a key figure is pretty simple to piece together. So where the previous books kept my attention in their final section as Ellery explains it all in minute, excruciating detail, here I just wanted him to get on with it.

There are other issues of pacing. While the introduction of a second murder certainly gives the story a lift, the individual chapters often pass with very little progress being made. In fact, there is quite a large section of the book where Ellery just seems to wallow in his inability to piece the case together in spite of the apparent simplicity of the crime. While I think the first two books are far too long, there is at least the sense of constant progress, however incremental. Here however we are waiting for Ellery to make a mental connection between evidence he already has and it is tedious.

I also think the book suffers from not having any particularly standout, colorful characters. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, either to be found innocent or guilty, and with Ellery conducting the investigation on his own, I found myself missing the banter between Ellery and his father.

So, were there any bright spots? Well, I appreciated that Djuna is finally given something to do and sets up some future development, though I still find the core concept of that character problematic (he is a Romany orphan that Ellery’s father adopts and makes into a sort of housekeeper).

Also, while the individual pacing of the chapters is a problem, I do think that the second murder adds a welcome complexity to the investigation even if it has the unfortunate side effect of narrowing an already quite limited field of suspects.

But sadly I think that’s about it. While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

I will, of course, no doubt find myself reaching for the next book at some point soon. I’ve already paid for it and while Queen can be tedious, I can see the bright spots and the potential. But I will be much more careful about letting those expectations rise again.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a hospital/nursing home (Where)

Golden Age, Inverted, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

MedburyThe Medbury Fort Murder came as something of a surprise to me. While the blurb certainly highlights the locked room element of the story, the novel could also be described as an inverted mystery and a traditional detective novel. And what makes that truly bananas is that it attempts to be all of those things at the same time.

The novel was first published in 1929 by the Crime Club and was written by Lewis George Robinson under the pseudonym George Limnelius. If that name doesn’t ring any bells it is likely because he didn’t pen many mystery novels and this seems to be the best regarded of the bunch.

Robinson draws on some of his own experiences of serving as an army medic in West Africa in this novel, particularly in the opening chapters where we learn Major Preece’s history and begin to build an understanding of the forces that will inspire him to wish to murder a fellow officer.

In these chapters we also encounter the man who will become the murder victim, the odious Lepean, and we see how little he is liked by the other men stationed at the Medbury Fort. We learn why Preece decides he will kill him and some general ideas of his plan but we may be a little surprised when the next morning Lepean is discovered with his throat cut locked in his own bedroom.

From that point on we would be getting heavily into spoiler territory but I will say that the remaining chapters present the perspectives of both Preece and the investigator, allowing the reader to understand what each are thinking and how they are trying to steer the investigation. They also present us with a little twist that takes the novel in a different, more traditional direction.

Overall, I think the combination of these styles works surprisingly well. Certainly better than I would have expected from a description. There is plenty of tension as we try to piece together exactly what has happened and because the evidence at the crime scene seems to so clearly implicate Preece.

The weakest element of the story is the locked room to the extent that I really debated whether or not to put it in my locked room category. The solution to how it was done is a familiar one and so sadly there is not much innovation there. I would certainly not suggest seeking this one out for the locked room.

The inverted elements on the other hand are much more successful and combine very effectively with the traditional detective investigation part of the story. I particularly appreciated that while we know what Preece was looking to achieve, we can clearly see that he had not left the crime scene the way he had planned. With evidence suggesting him as one of the likeliest suspects, we see him attempt to locate a more appealing figure for the Police investigation.

The investigation itself is a little tougher to evaluate, in part because I do not think it really lends itself to be viewed as a traditional puzzler. Certainly the reader could utilize the information they are given and make some reasonable guesses to come to the correct conclusion but it rarely feels like ratiocination.

Not that the detective really does anyway.

My biggest problem with this book relates to the world view and criminological beliefs of the investigator, McMaster who asserts the no violent crime has ever been committed by an educated man. That view is essentially derived from the most classist of outlooks on life but even if you ignore the inherent class prejudice, it is far too sweeping a statement to use to justify ruling suspects out of a murder charge. It is also quite demonstrably incorrect such as with the case of serial killer H. H. Holmes. I not only groaned when I read McMaster saying it a second time, I also took him a lot less seriously as a sleuth.

On a more positive note, I really embraced the novel’s complex characterizations. I was very pleasantly surprised by how modern Limnelius’ characters can feel. A few days ago I read Henry Wade’s Too Soon to Die which was written a quarter century later yet dealt with infidelity awkwardly rather than in the more frank way Limnelius presents the issue. Limnelius’ characters may still speak quite breathlessly but they do sound passionate and conflicted.

For much of this book I was really expecting to come here and get to post a rave review. I was gripped throughout almost all of the novel and I felt that the novel was building towards a special ending. Unfortunately I just could not see past the McMaster class comments and felt underwhelmed by the solution given which did not convince me.

As much as I like the novel’s ambition and its approach to character-building, at least for its central figures, the story does not match up to its inventive framework. With a better solution I think this hybrid form of mystery storytelling could have worked but as it is, I cannot think of a good reason to recommend it.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An author you’ve never tried (Why)

Golden Age, Henry Wade, Inverted

Too Soon To Die by Henry Wade

TooSoonOne of the informal goals I have set myself for this year is that I would like to read a sizeable number of inverted mysteries with the ultimate aim of creating a top ten list as suggested by Ben from The Green Capsule in a comment on my Portrait of a Murderer review.

Henry Wade’s Too Soon To Die is unlikely to be near the top of that list although it is an interesting effort. One of the things I have been really pleased to discover reading within the subgenre is that there is so much variation and here we see a criminal planning a tax scam. No sign of a murder victim in sight! Well, not at first…

Colonel Jerrod belongs to a very old and utterly undistinguished family. While the family estates have been slowly diminished as lands are sold off and businesses become unprofitable, the Jerrods have always taken pride in their continued ownership of their ancestral home, Brackton Manor. For that reason we learn that in the final days of the war Colonel Jerrod had begun a process to shift ownership of the Manor to his son, Grant, to avoid the need to pay duties on the home upon his death. All he would have to do is live for five years after signing over the property, his son would be able to avoid paying any taxes on the transfer and the Jerrods would ensure that the property remained in family hands for another generation.

At the point where the novel begins however we discover that Colonel Jerrod has received some crushing news. He has a fatal form of cancer and cannot expect to live long enough to meet that deadline. Grant suggests that there may still be a way to avoid the taxes if his father is willing to engage in a little deception and the two plot a way of making it seem that Colonel Jerrod is still alive until enough time has passed that those pesky taxes can be avoided.

This is a strong starting point for a story and I certainly found the first part of the novel to be interesting as we watch the Colonel and his son move the various elements into place that they plan to use to pull off their scheme. Unlike many of these inverted crime novels, the author does not try to convince us that this is a flawless scheme and the attentive reader will notice a few obvious loose ends and questions that investigators might have if they are able to start asking the right questions.

At this point you may be wondering how and why this will justify being part of the Murder Room imprint. After all, the crime described above seems largely one of fraud. While I am always cautious to avoid spoiling a story, I will say that a murder does take place within the narrative although I actually missed it at first as it is inferred that it will happen rather than explicitly shown taking place. I realized that I had missed something a chapter or two later and tracked back to reread the critical paragraph and, in doing so, noticed the double meaning of a phrase but I think that moment is far from clear and so I found it lacked the impact it deserved.

The remaining two thirds of the book is devoted to the investigation, initially conducted by an Examiner from the Estate Duty Office of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue. While the inquest seems to put Grant in the clear, that Examiner is determined to make a name for himself and finds the timing somewhat suspicious. I found this initial phase of the investigation to be quite interesting and somewhat along the lines of an Inspector French case. We have a doggedly determined investigator reviewing evidence and noticing small inconsistencies and while his work is not flashy, I did think Wade does a good job of showing how he could begin to piece the events together and those procedural elements are very solid.

While the investigations are interesting enough, if a little dry, the problems I have with the book lie mainly in the sections told from the perspective of Grant Jerrod. The more I read inverted crime novels, the more I come to believe that they can only be as interesting as their criminals and Grant is not only unsympathetic but also tiresome and a little dull. There is no challenging moment for the reader where they may find themselves feeling a little sympathetic for his plight or hoping he may perhaps elude the investigator’s grasp but nor is he cunning enough to be the sort of villain you are aching to see brought to justice. He is just a rather unpleasant, sad figure whose unhappiness is entirely of his own making.

Making matters worse, some of those sections feature some very awkward attempts at writing sweeping, breathless, passionate dialogue that must have seemed old fashioned even when this was first published. These passages not only felt hokey and unconvincing, they significantly slow down an already quite leisurely paced investigation.

As I finished the book I was struck with a feeling that Wade got lost somewhere along the way. He had a striking starting point for his story but he did not seem to know how he was planning to end it. In the final few chapters Wade works to build towards some sense of a thematic conclusion but here, once again, the construction seems clumsy as though he is fighting where his narrative and the characterization of his villain is leading him.

His response is to try to introduce a sense of hope into those final chapters by presenting the reader with a significant development but it not only feels clumsy and forced, it also doesn’t feel quite true to the way Grant’s character has been established up until that point. I seriously question whether Wade had planned out that ending from the beginning as, if he had, I think there were better ways he could have foreshadowed and built towards it and I think with some further revision and clarification of theme the work might have been far stronger.

I think if I were to sum up my feelings about this book it would be that it is a missed opportunity. Wade has some clever and original ideas while the procedural elements are quite effective. The problems reside in the character of Grant and, unfortunately, I found the character neither interesting or convincing. I think there were some good ideas though and the novelty of the initial crime planned does at least making it an interesting read, even if it never quite satisfied.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Retired from or in the armed forces (Who)


Golden Age

Murder Has A Motive by Francis Duncan

HasAMotiveMurder Has A Motive features one of my favorite opening lines in a mystery to date: ‘Lydia Dare was dining with a murderer’. It certainly caught the attention, even if I quickly realized that we weren’t in inverted territory here and that Lydia and many of the other characters in this story were performing in a theatrical murder mystery.

Rather than staying with her dining companion, Lydia opts to return to her home as her friend is expecting her back but she never makes it home. Retired tobacconist Mordecai Tremaine’s friend Paul Russell is called in to inspect the body and encourages his friend, who has just arrived to stay with them, to put his detective skills to use and investigate what happened.

We soon realize that most of the suspects seem to be involved in that theatrical production and several seem to be harboring secrets. Mordecai’s efforts are helped when he finds that the detective assigned to the case is a friend from Scotland Yard that he has consulted with before and the two decide to work together, pooling their information.

Mordecai is a curious creation and I must confess that I was a little confused as to whether this was actually the first novel in the series. Based on the publication dates I see on Goodreads it does seem that this was the first book to feature the character yet the references to earlier adventures make me wonder and if this is the first time the character appeared you have to admire Duncan’s gumption in presenting us with one of the more unlikely amateur sleuths in Golden Age crime fiction without a clear explanation of why he is so trusted by Scotland Yard.

The choice of his profession seems curious in itself as the story does not capitalize on it in any way, though I imagine that there are only so many cases that can be solved by correct identification of a tobacco blend. I would have appreciated some explanation of where he first developed and tested the skills he will utilize as an investigator.

Some aspects of the character feel a little familiar from other characters from this period such as Mordecai’s habit of wearing pince-nez glasses but there are also some rather charming character traits such as his love of reading romantic and sentimental stories that do give him some definition. I rather agree with Kate that while I didn’t find him objectionable, I didn’t warm to him. I did appreciate the pairing with Inspector Boyne and that the book took the time to acknowledge a few of the practical problems an amateur sleuth would have in gaining access both to the crime scene and to interview suspects.

While I quite liked the characters and was interested in seeing where the murderer might strike next, I spent much of the book feeling a little underwhelmed by what seemed to be a rather straightforward story. One plotline in particular frustrated me as a character had a secret that seemed so obvious that I could hardly believe that no one seemed to be seeing it yet when the revelation is finally made I was thrilled to realize that Duncan had given it a clever twist, making something far more interesting and complex.

That in a way turns out to be the story of this book. It seems really quite typical and straightforward, playing with some familiar elements, yet I think it does present a few interesting tweaks on some tried and tested ideas. Unfortunately it just takes a little too long to get present those tweaks and I certainly was assuming that this was headed down a very expected path until the end was almost upon us.

Given the quantity of excellent reprints making their way into the market at the moment I think that the novel arguably takes too long to demonstrate the few ways in which it sets itself apart. It should be said though that it doesn’t really do anything wrong with those elements either and I certainly found it an entertaining and often quite enjoyable read.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An amateur detective (Who)

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

George Bellairs, Golden Age, Ipso Books

The Case of the Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

DementedI had my first taste of George Bellairs last month when I wrote about Death of a Busybody, a novel that I felt had plenty of character but that the mystery was too simple to solve. While I felt a little underwhelmed, I could see some elements I liked and was keen to dive right back in and give him a second go. There are a lot of different Bellairs titles available so I selected one at random and hoped for the best.

The Case of the Demented Spiv is another outing from Inspector Littlejohn published some seven years (and eleven books) after Busybody. While its title is certainly striking, I must say that it doesn’t really reflect the body of the work. There is a spiv in the story but he only appears in the opening scenes and he barely figures in the rest of the story. Still, it led to me taking a closer look at the book so as a title I suppose it did its job.

The novel begins with the titular spiv running into a pub to let people know that he has found a body at a textiles factory and he repeatedly professes his innocence. The body is that of the factory’s manager and is found wearing theatrical paint. The local police seize on him as the most likely suspect however but before the case is brought to trial he hangs himself in his cell. Stuck, the local police call Scotland Yard who assign Littlejohn to the case and after he arrives and the question of his lodgings are settled (this seemingly is an important part of any Littlejohn investigation), he sets to work, listening to village gossip to help him understand the relationships between the various characters he meets.

Bellairs understands rural communities well and captures the strange power an employer can have over their local population. From the beginning of the novel we are led to understand that the Fenning family’s status causes others to alter the way they perceive and interact with them. For instance, we learn that the initial investigation was somewhat half-hearted because of the policeman’s ties to the family. This material is interesting and I felt gave the book some rich themes to explore.

While I think the book never really pulls off any surprises in its situations or characterizations, it executes its plot and character development well. The Fenning family are comprised of some interesting figures and I felt that Bellairs managed the revelations about them very well, slowly building up a clear image of them over the course of the book.

As a sleuth, Littlejohn is very practically minded and methodical and there is a hint of the plodder about him yet I enjoy the way he interacts with the locals, sometimes manipulating them a little while following a lead. Those easy interactions with the locals  are one of the things that make him stand out most as a character.

This brings me to the case itself and here I have somewhat more mixed feelings. On the simplest level, I felt that this novel does not give itself away as badly as Death of a Busybody and I appreciated that the suspects are interesting. However, the nature of the crime feels a little more drab and commonplace while the origins of the most striking aspect of the death, the greasepaint makeup, are less interesting than you may assume. Still, the case builds at a good pace and does have some very satisfying moments in its conclusion though this is not the sort of puzzle mystery that a reader could figure out through ratiocination. Instead the reader should size the suspects up and deduce how the crime might have been achieved.

While The Case of the Demented Spiv is a flawed novel, I find it tidier and much more entertaining than my previous experience with Bellairs’ work and I find I am looking forward to trying other books in this series.