Golden Age, Leslie Ford

The Strangled Witness by Leslie Ford

StrangledLeslie Ford was a pseudonym used by Zenith Brown, a prolific American author who worked from the early 1930s until the early 1960s. In addition to her Ford persona, she also wrote under the names Brenda Conrad and David Frome. Though apparently quite popular in her day, Ford has faded into relative obscurity. For those interested in something of an overview of Ford’s career there is an excellent article available on Girl Detective, Diana Killian’s website.

Ford’s series sleuth was a character called Colonel Primrose who had retired from the service and assists the police in their investigations on a consultancy basis. He is aided by an army chum, Sergeant Buck, who is an imposing presence having been an army heavyweight champion when in the service but remains highly deferential to and protective of Primrose.

The Strangled Witness seems to be the character’s first appearance although there is a reference to an earlier adventure that may either just exist as backstory or that may have appeared in a magazine or journal. GA Detection suggests that The Clock Strives Twelve appeared first. There are few reviews online and the book, like all of Ford’s, is long out of print. Whether it is his first appearance or not, Ford does a strong job of introducing her leads and establishing their relationship.

So, what is The Strangled Witness about?

The book is set during the early days of the New Deal, a period in which the American federal government massively expanded its role in the economy and spent heavily on infrastructure projects. This novel concerns one such project and the congressional fight about whether a private utilities company will be able to own and operate a site or if it will become a state concern. When the book begins a key vote is about to take place and an influential Senator is about to make a speech laying out his position on what should happen.

The politics of that decision is a little hard to boil down for an introduction but the key points are as follows. The Senator is being lobbied hard by each camp and seems to be wavering about what to do although he has previously indicated that he is in favor of private enterprise. He is secretly dating the daughter of the former Senator he defeated for his seat who is a firm vote in favor of a public-owned option and the two men are engaged in a legal dispute about whether there was vote tampering in their election. The daughter’s ex-boyfriend is a crusading journalist who devotes his weekly column to attacking the Senator.

On the night of his big radio address where he will announce his decision on the vote, the Senator is discovered shot dead in his own home. What makes this particularly strange is that he was heard delivering his radio address after he had died. Because of the sensitive nature of the case, Primrose is called in to assist in the investigation and sets about trying to understand the timeline of the events that evening.

The opening to the novel reads a little dryly and evokes less suspense and interest than I think the author intended but things brighten up considerably once the investigation begins. Ford clearly felt very comfortable with this political world and I think her treatment of lobbying is unexpectedly strong as she avoids the trap of taking sides or simply portraying the process as negative and instead treats the lobbyists and political aides as people.

The circumstances of the murder are not especially complex other than the issue of timing and here I must say that the reader will struggle to stay far ahead of the sleuth. Primrose is one of the smarter detectives out there and it never takes him long to spot the significance of a detail or clue. For instance, there is a watch at the scene of the crime that seems to indicate a time of death, yet three pages later we read Primrose dismiss this as an obvious plant. If only all detective novels understood that some tricks are simply too well known.

Primrose’s approach is quite straightforward and sensible, though it is frequently intuitive rather than deductive. In particular, he likes to ask questions to see the reaction rather than to hear the answer and seems to read a lot into those physical responses. His thinking is shared with us however and while I would not stretch to calling this a puzzle mystery, there are some nice, simple deductions made along the way.

The supporting characters vary in interest and development. Both female characters, the widowed lobbyist and the former Senator’s daughter, are shown to be firm and controlling in their dealings with others which is a little refreshing. At the other end of the spectrum, I can understand some commentators’ views that the characters from non-white backgrounds come off as stereotyped and overly simplistic.

Perhaps the biggest question I had as I read related to the book’s title. I kept waiting in expectation that the body would show up yet for the first two thirds of the novel we are just investigating the one novel. When the strangled victim finally does show up we are so close to the end that the discovery of that body and the interviews that follow feel rushed. In a way I wish that Ford had picked some other title for her book as that moment may have had more of an impact had it come as a surprise for the reader.

The ending itself feels particularly rushed and the book suffers a little from a character simply giving up the moment they are accused apparently because of their feeling of guilt. It almost feels a little too easy after all that has come before it. Still, the path to getting there was engaging and I did think the solution to the murder was quite satisfying.

 

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British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age

Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

MysteryinWhiteI thought that I would draw my week of Christmassy reads to a close today with a look at one of the most popular reissued Golden Age works in recent years, Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon. While I own several Farjeon books, they just sat in my to read pile so this was not only my first experience of reading this book but also with this author.

The story begins with a train stuck on the line during a thick snow storm. One of the passengers runs off the train with a shout, another makes the decision to leave and then a short while later the rest of the group go in search of that passenger. They end up getting disoriented during the storm and, when one of their number gets injured and passes out, they decide to take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house.

While it seems to be deserted, there is tea boiling on the stove and provisions laid out. And when they explore the house they find a locked upstairs room where they seem to hear someone yet when they return a short while later the door is open and the room is empty. And then there is the matter of the knife left on the floor…

The chapters in which we first encounter and explore the house were by far the most successful ones for me. While the house seems quite normal, lacking blood on the walls or the sounds of screams coming from some secret chamber, it is nonetheless a little unsettling because Farjeon establishes the oddness of this setting so well. We know that there has been a thick snow storm making it unlikely that whoever prepared the tea might choose to leave and yet they are not there.

The matter of the locked room is similarly extremely effective and mysterious, only adding to the house’s intrigue. I wondered what may have been behind that door and who could have opened it when the key was on the inside and no one was seen inside the house. When we did receive an explanation I thought it was clever, simple and highly effective and only added to the story’s intrigue.

And yet…

I had loved the opening and found it to be mysterious and intriguing yet I found myself disengaging from the text in the material that followed the feverish dream sequence. I tried taking a break from the book, returning to it later and I still couldn’t really get into it although I did summon enough energy and enthusiasm to finish it.

I think there are a few reasons that I struggled with the book beyond the most obvious one that any book that my expectations may have been too high coming into it. The first thing that struck me is that Farjeon makes heavy use of dialogue here, often having group conversations take place with multiple participants. He does not always attribute speech clearly and seems to be assuming that his characters are sufficiently well-defined to make it easy for the reader to follow. Sadly, I did not find that to be the case and at times I felt it pulled me out of the story.

The second is that I didn’t care much for the character of Mr. Maltby who falls into the role of the sleuth by the end of the story. He got off to a bad start with me when he stated that he could commune with spirits but whatever goodwill I had towards him evaporated with his early displays of pedantic thoroughness in his interactions with the other passengers. I was also a little frustrated that it seems he solves this case more through intuition, instantly recognizing the importance of a seemingly mundane item.

Finally, I felt that it was hard to invest in the idea of solving the murders that take place when we really have so little sense of who these victims are for much of the book. This didn’t bother me for the first half of the story because there Farjeon devotes his energies to establishing the strange, Marie Celeste-like qualities of the house but once we are trying to understand murder I think the novel needed to become more focused.

In spite of those complaints, there were some parts of the novel that I did respond to. Of all of the books I have read this week I felt that this made the most use of the season both in terms of the hostile weather conditions and also in its awareness of the holidays. I also found the setting to be very effective and while I may not have liked Maltby much, I did appreciate that Farjeon has the other passengers (except Smith) engage in the investigation.

While I was disappointed with Mystery in White, I did wonder if I just picked up this book at the wrong moment. Certainly some people whose views I often agree with have read and enjoyed this which is enough to give me pause and make me feel like the odd one out. Perhaps some day I will revisit this to see if I like it more on a second try but, for now, I cannot personally recommend this and would steer people looking for an entertaining Golden Age mystery set at Christmas to gift to friends, family or just themselves to look at either Portrait of a Murderer or The Crime at the Noah’s Ark instead. Do be sure to get a second opinion of this one before you pass on it though because I believe I am out of step with the general consensus on this story.

Movie Time, Short Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresoftheBlueCarbuncleThe Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is about as Christmassy a Christmas mystery story as you are likely to find. It is so popular that the story can be purchased individually should you so wish and a few years ago Audible gave away an Alan Cumming-narrated audiobook to their subscribers as a Christmas gift.

At some point I will probably sit down and do a post about the collection of short stories this comes from, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but it will do no harm to get an early start on that by writing both about this story and also three notable adaptations that may be of interest for those searching for some detective-related viewing today.

The Short Story

The story begins with Holmes explaining the history of a battered old hat to Watson and making deductions about the wearer. It turns out that the hat and a Christmas goose were dropped in the street by a man who got into a fight with some ruffians. Holmes was asked for his assistance in locating the owner but was unable to do so and, rather than waste the bird, the man who brought it to him took it home to consume with his family.

Shortly afterwards that man, Peterson, returns to tell Holmes that they found a blue gem in the bird’s throat and Holmes recognizes it from a description in the newspaper.

While this story features a detective, like many of the Holmes stories it is really more of an adventure. The reader could not realistically deduce much of what has happened based on the facts they are given although the solution to how Holmes will track down the rightful owner is very logically.

The story is tremendous fun however and certainly appeals to the imagination. It doesn’t hurt that it draws on the image of the Victorian Christmas with its plump goose, only adding to the story’s appeal.

There have been several televised versions of this story made over the years but time will restrict me to discussing just three of them.

BrettCarbuncleThe Jeremy Brett Version

Let’s kick things off with the version that most people have probably seen – the Granada television version made with Jeremy Brett in the role of Holmes. This is not just because it is the most widely available of the different versions but it also is a reflection of the popularity of Brett’s performance which many Sherlockians feel comes closest to capturing Doyle’s Holmes.

The production looks beautiful, especially in the recent high definition versions which show the costumes and set to their best advantage, and the script is just about the right length.

In terms of the way the material is presented, the Brett production is fairly accurate to the short story although it makes a few tweaks. The biggest one is that the crime is solved before Christmas Day but it makes little difference to the way the events continue to unfold.

While I wish I could shock you by saying that some other version is the best made of this story, I have to be boring and say that if you only watch one Blue Carbuncle, this is the one to watch!

CushingHolmesThe Peter Cushing Version

The other live-action version made in English starred Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes and Nigel Stock in the role of Dr Watson.

This version takes the opportunity to show us some of the events that are only referred to in the original story such as the events leading up to the theft of the jewel and the attack on the man carrying the goose in the street. It also takes the opportunity to add a little festive cheer with a charming scene in which Watson brings Holmes a present which Holmes, of course, neglected to provide for Watson.

Cushing’s Holmes is somewhat more aloof than Brett’s and has an almost patrician-like aspect to his personality. I like it though and I think he and Stock play the scene where they discuss the hat absolutely perfectly.

Dad’s Army fans may get a kick out of seeing James Beck play a role in this (it took me far too long to recognize him out of uniform) while others may be interested to know that this production is connected to the later Brett one by a shared piece of casting. Both productions feature the veteran actor Frank Middlemass, albeit in different roles.

MollyThe Sherlock Hound Version

The final adaptation I have chosen was completely new to me and comes from an Italian-Japanese animated television series made in the 1980s featuring anthropomorphized dogs in all of the key roles. As a fan of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds and Around the World With Willy Fog I quite approve of retellings of classic stories with animal protagonists.

The story opens with a mechanized pterodactyl attacking the streets of Victorian London, masking the criminal activities of the infamous Moriarty who, it turns out, was responsible for the theft of the jewel. Because, why not? He runs into a pickpocket while making his escape from the scene of the crime, losing the jewel. Realizing who must have it, he tries to hunt the kid down, catching the attention of Sherlock Hound.

This short animation is quite enjoyable, even if it is not particularly accurate to the source material. Of the various elements of the story it really only retains the idea of the theft of a jewel and of how it might be hidden (although it is not in a goose this time). The action takes place on a regular sunny day rather than in the Christmas period and it gives a lot of time to its two chase sequences, which are quite elaborate involving coal-powered cars and the return of the mechanized pterodactyl aircraft which harass Holmes and Watson as they try to catch up to Moriarty.

Dean Street Press, Golden Age

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

CrimeatNoahsArkMy fourth selection for my week of Christmassy crimes is Molly Thynne’s The Crime at the Noah’s Ark which was republished last year by Dean Street Press.

Travelling for the holidays can be a daunting prospect, particularly if the weather takes a turn for the worse.  Novelist Angus Stuart, having finally found success with a bestseller, is keen to avoid the now-loving embrace of his family for the holidays and decides to spend Christmas at a resort for the well-to-do while he works on his next book. When an accumulation of thick snow makes his route impassable, he and several other travellers are forced to stay at a nearby country inn, The Noah’s Ark, until the roads can be cleared.

Almost all of the guests at the inn had not intended to stay there and while most attempt to make the best of the situation, their first evening together does not get off to a good start. One of their number, Major Carew, gets steadily more drunk as the evening goes on and he begins to harass the female guests. Getting fed up of his behavior, the party takes him to his room and locks him inside.

Later that night one of the female guests reports seeing a masked man prowling the corridors though Stuart sees no signs of him when he goes in search of him. A few hours later the chess champion, Dr. Constantine, alerts Stuart to a rope dangling from the Major’s window. They worry that he may have climbed out in an attempt to escape his room but they are surprised to find the key to his room has vanished.

While they are searching for the key, an American guest declares that her emerald girdle has been stolen from her room. Believing the Major may have been behind this crime the group decides to break into the room but when they do so he is found dead, murdered with a blunt instrument. The sleuths will have to figure out how these two crimes might be linked and locate the stolen girdle.

The reason I have gone into far more detail about the way this story is set up than with most mysteries I have described is that a large part of the mystery in this book relates to the question of how the various events of that evening and those that follow are interconnected and why they are happening. As Kate says in her review on CrossExaminingCrime, the logistics of the crimes are complex but the motivations are quite simple.

At this point I should probably say that I do not think that the identities of the criminals or the hiding place for the jewels are really possible to deduce from the information provided. The explanations, when given, do make sense but I would be very surprised if any reader could prove their case against the characters involved. They might however be able to logically deduce that all-important sequence of events and the relationship between the crimes.

Thynne’s story is written in the third person and while we follow Stuart’s activities more closely than the other characters he is not the only sleuth investigating this case. Two other hotel guests are also working on trying to figure things out, forming an informal alliance. One of these is a commercial traveller, Soames, who is the only guest staying at the hotel who had intended to stay there. The other is a renowned chess champion, Dr. Constantine, who tries to approach the case quite methodically and refuses to share his thoughts until he is ready, much to Stuart’s frustration.

Each of these characters has a distinct personality and approach to solving the two crimes and there are points where they disagree strongly about who to suspect and why. In fact there are moments where it is clear that they may even suspect each other. I did enjoy those sometimes fractious exchanges although I think it is clear early on which of the three amateur sleuths is the one whose thoughts we should be paying the most attention to.

I liked the concept of that sleuth here a lot, even if Thynne hides his thought process from us a little more than I’d like and occasionally has him dismiss a suspect when you might think they deserve closer scrutiny. I am excited to know that they appear in two further stories as I can certainly see their promise.

Thynne creates an interesting mix of guests for our sleuths to suspect and I did enjoy how quickly they came to suspect each other and voice their suspicions of each others’ guilt. There is a surprisingly large cast of characters and she does well to make each distinct enough that I never had any difficulty keeping their identities straight in my mind and I appreciated that a few characters were more complex than they initially seemed.

The story unfolds as a steady stream of action and we are constantly reminded that the killer must still be present in the hotel, causing some panic amongst some of the guests. This is an effective source of tension throughout the novel although I was probably more intrigued by the question of how nobody could find the missing girdle in spite of repeated thorough searches and I enjoyed the way Thynne pulled everything together tidily at the end. I do agree with Kate though that the question of how the identity of the killer is proved is a little weak.

The result is a book that I found to be interesting and entertaining. Some readers may feel that the questions of the criminals’ identities is a little disappointing in how they are clued but I think, if viewed as an adventure or if you consider the mystery to be in understanding the connections between events, the story is very engaging and possesses considerable charm.

Golden Age, Ipso Books

There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes

ThereCameBothSnowLast month I had my first taste of Michael Innes’ work when I read Lament for a Maker, a novel that I found a thoroughly frustrating read because of Innes’ decision to write a third of it in Scots dialect. In spite of that though I thought the murder mystery plot was quite clever and so I resolved to give Innes another chance.

There Came Both Mist and Snow is a story set at Christmas in which a family gathers to celebrate the season together. We soon learn that members of the family harbor resentments towards each other and that nearly every member of the party have become fanatics about shooting revolvers on a range that has been constructed on the grounds.

I suspect you can guess what happens next.

A member of the party is found shot at a desk. Fortunately Inspector Appleby happens to arrive on the scene as a guest and is available to lend a hand in looking into the incident. Quickly he decides to recruit the narrator as a sort of reluctant Watson figure to his Holmes and they begin their investigation, soon realizing that the details of the crime may not be as straightforward as they first appeared.

While There Came Both Mist and Snow may not have been written in dialect, I found it to be similarly frustrating to read. The first ten chapters are particularly rough going and show signs of an author determined to let the reader know that they are Very Smart. Having now read a fair number of Golden Age novels, I am always prepared to hit the dictionary to lookup a word that may have fallen into disuse or check on one of those obscure classical allusions that every child would have picked up on in the 1920 and 30s but there are some words used here that would have been archaic or pretentious even then. Examples include valetudinarian, cicerone, hypnogogic and badinage.

Other examples of random, frustrating literariness include an extended scene in which characters take turns giving Shakespearian quotations relating to bells in a sort of impromptu contest which even the characters find tiresome. While I know there are readers who love this sort of dense, literary material, it really detracted from the experience for me.

What makes these sorts of things so frustrating is that Innes, when he forgets about being literary, is often quite an entertaining writer and comes up with some lovely, witty remarks or memorable turns of phrase. For instance, using ‘he had the mental habits of an industrious but unimaginative squirrel’ to describe a character. And once the shooting takes place the book does gain a much-needed sense of focus and direction.

The crime itself did at least hold some interest for me, in part because the victim is not killed by the gunshot which is something of a novelty in crime fiction and also because the circumstances of the shooting are not clear. Appleby’s job investigating this crime is complicated because it is not clear that the person shot was the intended victim and this does lead to some interesting theorizing and discussion about the different possible explanations there could be for what had happened.

This could have been the recipe for a memorable crime story but the elements just didn’t click for me. I think that may reflect that I simply didn’t find the cast of characters interesting or memorable. It often felt to me that the author was more interested in providing witty commentaries on their artistic inclinations and pretensions than in establishing them as credible killers. Appleby’s investigation seems to meander and the ending, with features several different theories being offered, dragged and disappointed.

Having now given Sir John Appleby and his creator two chances to impress me, I feel I can say with some confidence that these stories are simply not for me and I am unlikely to try any others. If you enjoy denser, more literary reads this may be of interest and worth investigation.

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, Short Stories

Crimson Snow, ed. Martin Edwards

CrimsonHaving mentioned last week that I can struggle to enjoy short mystery fiction, was I asking for trouble by picking up one of the British Library Crime Classics compilations? Perhaps, though given one of the most iconic Christmas mystery stories is barely twenty pages long I think this is exactly the sort of thing I need to be reading.

This collection is edited by Martin Edwards and comprises eleven stories. One of those stories, Mr. Cork’s Secret, is split within the book to mirror how it was originally published – with the mystery published inviting readers to send in solutions and the answer following some time later.

There is a short introductory essay and then each story is prefaced with a brief biographical note about the writer placing that work in context. This is not only useful background for the work, it also gave me a few suggestions for other books that may be of interest by some of the contributing authors.

Overall, I felt that the standard of story in this collection was very high and it begins on a high note with Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch. This is an entertaining story which is narrated by a Doctor who has been invited to a country home to stay for Christmas. The owner of the house has also invited his Australian cousin to visit and regales them with the story of how the Blue Room became haunted and how those who stay there and wake up marked with a red touch die shortly afterwards. The reader will naturally wonder if events will repeat themselves?

Admittedly the solution to Hume’s story will be fairly obvious but I felt that this was a great example of how a simple idea, told well can be very effective.

The second story, Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair, was my least favorite of the collection. It involves a blackmailer being discovered dead in a car next to a car thief. Fortunately it is followed by Margery Allingham’s The Man with the Sack which sees Mr. Campion interrupting a rather unusual crime during a Christmas party. It all makes for a fun adventure.

S. C. Roberts’ Christmas Eve immediately stands out as it is formatted as a stage play. The piece is a rather fun Holmes pastiche in which a woman comes to see Holmes to assist in the recovery of her employer’s stolen necklace. While the crime is not the most ingenious, I enjoyed it and felt it was quite entertaining.

Victor Gunn’s Death in December was one of the two stories I enjoyed most in this collection. Once again we have a story that echoes the traditional Christmas ghost story when a young man locks himself in a supposedly haunted room and sees a dead body that vanishes when the other guests at the house come to see what has terrified him.

Gunn packs a lot of incident into his story, making this feel like one of the more substantial stories in the collection. Once again, the solution to what is going on may not surprise but I enjoyed the two investigators, particularly the gruff Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell.

Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas investigates the murder of a financial swindler in a small village. The story doesn’t overstay its welcome which I appreciated but I wasn’t wowed by the solution. I might suggest though that this reflects that it simply isn’t as good as the stories around it, rather than actually being disappointing.

Off the Tiles by Ianthe Jerrold features a suspicious death when a woman falls while walking along the guttering between houses. We are told that this is perfectly safe in normal circumstances and the victim’s sister insists that this is no accident. I wasn’t enormously drawn in by the premise for this one but I liked its resolution quite a bit.

Mr. Cork’s Secret by MacDonald Hastings was my other favorite story in this collection. As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this story was intentionally split in two to accommodate a competition that its publisher ran with a cash prize being offered to a lucky reader who could guess the answer to a question at the end.

That answer is not all that difficult to come by as the reader can stay ahead of the character in the sleuth role. I felt the story was appealing though with some entertaining characters, particularly the hotel manager and Mr. Cork himself.

The Santa Claus Club is a very short story featuring a murder taking place at a charity dinner party. The victim had been warned to expect an attack but initially it is far from clear how they could have been killed. While it embraces the Christmas theme more effectively than some of the other stories in the collection, the mystery is one of those ones where the reader has little they can deduce while the action isn’t exciting enough to make for an effective adventure.

Michael Gilbert’s Deep and Crisp and Even felt more successful although it arguably feels a little pointless. The story, which once again feels very short, involves a group of carollers arriving at a house and realizing after they left that there was something strange about their visit. That realization is really pretty good but the story doesn’t follow through at all, making you wonder why you bothered.

The final story in the collection, The Carol Singers, is a very depressing and, for me, upsetting story about an elderly woman who is alone for the holidays being assaulted and killed in her home during Christmas. That sequence is all rather brutal but quite effective. The foray into social realism turns out to be quite brief however as an aspect of the solution to what took place, while logical, struck me as both ridiculous and out of keeping with what had come before it. Overall I’d file this one away as intriguing but flawed.

As a collection I felt this was really quite entertaining and I appreciated the good mix of stories. While not all of them could be called completely successful, almost all are at least interesting and I found a few authors whose work I am keen to explore further.

Book of the Month, British Library Crime Classics, Golden Age, Inverted

Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith

PortraitThe festive season is upon us and so I plan to mark the occasion in my own way by reading five books which feature people being murdered against snowy, picturesque backdrops.

I am kicking off the week of reviews with a book that was published as part of the British Library Crime Classics collection. This will not be the only book I will be selecting from that series this week!

This novel is credited to Anne Meredith which, it turns out, was a pseudonym used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson of Anthony Gilbert fame. In a strange coincidence, I posted a response to a fellow blogger’s review last week while I was already reading this novel saying that I needed to try something by Anthony Gilbert and asking for suggestions. In my defense, I tend to skip over the introductions until after I have read the main text for fear of being spoiled.

I first learned about this book from reading a review on crossexaminingcrime. There were lots of reasons I was excited to read this book but chief among them was that Portrait of a Murderer is an inverted mystery. Those who have been following this blog for a while may have noticed that I am having something of a love affair with this form of crime fiction and so this was a particular attraction for me as I was curious to see how a different author would approach writing this type of story.

Typically the inverted crime novel gives the reader knowledge of the killer’s identity and presents the crime and the events that follow from their perspective. While we may know the killer’s identity, the mystery comes from the reader wondering how they will either be caught or evade justice.

In Portrait of a Murderer the author makes some slight tweaks to that formula to create a story that I think combines the best of both worlds by shifting perspectives throughout. She does this by dividing her novel into three distinct sections.

The first and shortest is a series of chapters, written in the third person, that introduce each of the potential killers who will arrive at Kings Poplars to speak with Adrian Gray in the hope of extracting money from him. Throughout this stage we have little idea who will be responsible for killing Gray and so the question is who will kill him and what will have occurred that pushed them over the edge.

The second section brings a shift into a first person narration style as we hear that character recount the events that led them to murder Gray and how they plan on escaping from the situation. The decision to shift to the first person is a smart one, allowing the reader to understand the rationale behind the decisions they are making to dress the crime scene in the hopes of making their escape. This section concludes at about the halfway point of the novel.

The final section switches back to the third person and begins shortly before the discovery of the body. The author presents us with several different characters who are trying to piece together what has happened and so, in addition to wondering if and how the murderer will be caught and how the lives of the other family members will be affected. We may also wonder who will manage to work out what had happened.

I absolutely loved this book and I think its success begins with this unusual structure. By shifting our point of perspective throughout the novel, the author provides variety within their narrative. This helps keep the material from becoming stale or repetitive, as can sometimes happen with a character who is continually worrying about being caught, and it allows us to experience multiple perspectives on the crime.

For instance, in the chapters that follow the murder we get to see how the various characters are responding to the crime that had been committed and how they are feeling about each other. This gives those characters added depth and also allows us to see their different perspectives of what a positive outcome to the investigation would be as well as the different ways that it affects their lives which is often quite unexpected.

Meredith’s characterization is as impressive as her structure and I was fascinated by the cast of family members that she creates. Each of them feel quite distinctive and have complex feelings towards Adrian Gray and each other. They have different goals that create division, in one instance between a married couple, and we learn how the possible suspects have each fallen into quite separate, dire financial circumstances that threaten to destroy them. These stories are all quite compelling and I thought the novel was unusually reflective about the different ways in which the murder will affect their lives going forward while the ending strikes a curious note that I wish I could discuss in more detail but fear I can’t without spoiling. I can say though that I found it to be quite effective.

These elements all combine to make one of the most interesting books I have read in the British Library Crime Classics series to date. With striking characters, moments of social commentary and a compelling plot, I found myself gripped throughout and thoroughly enjoyed its conclusion. I will clearly need to seek out some Anthony Gilbert books soon…