Freeman Wills Crofts, Golden Age, Inverted

Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

MysteryonSouthamptonAs regular readers of this blog will know, I have something of a fixation with the inverted mystery and have been actively seeking out examples of the form. Recently I came across a list of Freeman Wills Crofts’ four inverted mysteries and, having already reviewed Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, I have made completing the set a priority.

Actually getting my hands on a copy Mystery on Southampton Water proved to be quite a challenge until I learned that it had been released in America under the name Crime On the Solent. Quite why Dodd, Mead & Company felt that would be more attention-grabbing with American audiences I am not sure. Incidentally, on the topic of the publisher, I would love an explanation of what the eight-point test Dodd and Mead gave to all mystery manuscripts they received was if anyone knows!

So, what is Mystery on Southampton Water all about?

While the story certainly can be described as an inverted mystery, that would only describe a portion of the text. Crofts structures his story in four distinct phases that alternate the focus between the criminals and French. In the first we see the criminals plan and execute an industrial espionage scheme that backfires, resulting in a body that has to be covered up. The second section features Chief Inspector French looking into the matter but being unable to connect everything together. The third returns the focus to the criminals who find themselves put under a new form of pressure while the fourth sees French investigating a related mystery and resolving the original case.

Structurally this is quite complicated but I felt it worked well. Essentially Crofts gets to have his cake and eat it to by providing us with both an inverted crime and a genuine whodunnit in the same book. As an added bonus, those who are not necessarily big fans of French as a character will appreciate the regular breaks this gives readers from his exhaustive brand of detection while, for those that are, there is a little bit of timetabling and mathematical reasoning to enjoy in that final section.

A distinction between this book and the two other Crofts inverted mysteries that I have read is that the novel features multiple would-be criminals working together. This does not mean that they are equally culpable in the decisions that get made but it is interesting to see how these characters manage to communicate and discover whether they will ultimately support each others’ stories. This cooperation which extends to support for each others’ alibis will also prove an intriguing complication for French to deal with as he attempts to piece the story together.

It was the relationships between these criminals that most interested me in the book and motivated me to power though the novel in a single sitting to see how this would resolve. Unlike many criminals, these characters seem to fundamentally quite like and respect each other and, without wishing to spoil the novel, I appreciated that their path to murder was not thought out and carefully planned which meant that some of the characters managed to remain quite likeable and easy to empathize with until the very end of the novel.

Each of the characters has a decidedly different personality and temperament in the way they respond to both events around them and, more specifically, to the investigation. This not only provides some conflict among the group as they get caught up in events and fall under suspicion from the Police, it also keeps the narrative from getting stale or becoming repetitive.

French himself is as diligent and hardworking as  ever, delivering a typically thorough and meticulous investigation. I was intrigued that Crofts takes the time here to reference some past events, if only fleetingly (don’t worry – there are no spoilers here), and we learn that he has recently been promoted to Chief Inspector but misses being able to immerse himself in a single case. French even has a little moment of character development as we learn that as a child French had a great interest in learning the distinguishing features of different types of boat. This passion remains with the adult French as we are told:

He was interested in shipping, and the presence of four of the world’s greatest liners grouped in one small area thrilled him.

Sounds about right.

While Crofts’ structure is complex, the case French is initially investigating seems relatively simple. There are no great revelations in that second portion of the book, just some pretty logical sleuthing although there are a few occasions where French dismisses alternate readings of the scene a little too quickly based on the ambiguity of some of the evidence.

The story really comes to life in the lively third section which not only introduces an additional but related crime for French to solve, it also introduces a more traditional mystery into the mix as we do not directly witness the events described. Sadly a few aspects of that case are quite straightforward and the solution to how the thing was achieved will likely stick out to regular GAD readers but I did appreciate that there was an additional element to the case that I had missed.

Overall I rather liked this story, although I do think it is the weakest of Crofts’ inverted stories that I have read so far. The use of multiple criminals was quite successful and I felt that the motivations were generally solid and believable. And while the mystery side of the story was relatively straightforward, fans of solid, logical policing will likely enjoy the way it is proved. It is definitely a second-tier work however for Crofts which likely explains why it has yet to be picked for a reissue.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book published under more than one title (What)

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Book of the Month, Golden Age, Henry Wade, Inverted

Heir Presumptive by Henry Wade

HeirPresumptiveWhile I have intended to only write about an author once a month, it turns out that this is destined to be one of those rules that I will be routinely breaking. Heir Presumptive is the second Henry Wade novel I read this month following his later novel Too Soon to Die and I am happy to report that this was a far more pleasurably experience for me.

This book is, of course, yet another example of my beloved inverted mystery form although it is presented with a bit of a twist. As I alluded to in a Twitter post this weekend, I have struggled to think of a way to address that twist without revealing exactly what it is. Rather than risk spoiling the ride, I will simply say that while I saw it coming early in the book I felt it was beautifully executed and left me feeling extremely satisfied with the tone and balance of the book as a whole.

The novel begins by introducing us to Eustace Hendel, a man who had trained as a Doctor but was given an inheritance by a wealthy older woman he romanced that allowed him to give up his profession and pursue a playboy lifestyle. We learn that times have become hard for him and he is increasingly feeling the pinch as moneylenders are refusing further loans and he is having to make further economies in his lifestyle. Things are seeming hopeless for poor Eustace.

Then he receives an unexpected piece of news. Two of his cousins die unexpectedly in a swimming accident off the coast of Cornwall and suddenly Eustace finds himself just a few steps away from inheriting a title and a sizeable fortune. The only people ahead of his are his cousin, Captain David Hendel, and his terminally ill son, Desmond. If he can just find a way to eliminate David he is sure that he will comfortably outlive Desmond and his money problems will be over.

This novel can really be divided into three distinct phases. The first involves Eustace’s efforts to kill his cousin. This section is arguably the slowest of the three featuring a lengthy section in which Eustace goes deer-stalking yet it is also very suspenseful as we wonder how he will manage to pull this off without drawing attention to himself. The method used is perhaps not ingenious but it is gutsy and I felt the murder and its immediate aftermath was really quite chilling both for Eustace and for us.

The second phase of the novel sees Eustace initially feeling quite confident but soon he begins to realize that his inheritance may not go quite so smoothly as he had hoped and that he may need to take some further action. This phase does not go entirely as the reader may expect and sets up the novel’s really strong third and final phase.

Eustace is an intriguing creation because, unlike many murderers in inverted mysteries he is hardly a great criminal mind. For one thing, it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t really understand some of the intricacies of inheritance law and the entail of the family estates. Nor is he particularly charming or witty. Yet, as in many of the best inverted mysteries, the author does manage to make him a character you might feel a tiny amount of empathy for.

It is clear that though Eustace does do a terrible, vicious thing, he is not a natural killer. Nor is his life particularly enviable. While he perceives himself to have a positive, loving relationship it is clear to the reader that he is viewed only in terms of the material possessions he can provide for that girlfriend he is so desperate to keep. Kate compares her to Lady Macbeth and I think that comparison is really apt. Like Macbeth, by the end of the story we might almost wonder if Eustace is more victim than a villain…

As the novel goes on the reader will increasingly notice that Eustace does not have the level of control over his situation that he presumes. This manifests itself in several forms, not least the responses of other characters to Eustace. Here I feel Wade is particularly effective as his style of narration, a sympathetic third person, means that the reader will be drawing inferences from things that are taking place that Eustace is not aware of. They will know that his position is far more precarious than he realizes.

This all builds up to a smashing conclusion that works whether it comes as a surprise to you or if you have been expecting it for a while. I absolutely loved it and felt that it tied things together perfectly. Well, almost everything. There is one aspect of the story that I felt was left strangely unresolved given how often it is referred to in the course of the novel. I must say I am glad that Wade didn’t make use of that story point in the way I had feared and while it may be a little untidy, I won’t complain too much.

Finally, I must confess that the image I have used for this review does not match my edition which was the modern e-book reissue. Those Murder Room covers are so simple graphically that I couldn’t get excited about featuring one and then when I found the gorgeous one used here I couldn’t resist switching. If I am ever in a position to collect a printed copy of this, that is the cover I’d be aiming to possess…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a trip/vacation/cruise, etc. (When)

Inverted, Italian Crime, Pre-Golden Age

The Priest’s Hat (Il Cappello del Prete) by Emilio De Marchi

ThePriestsHatThis post will be my the fiftieth review for Mysteries Ahoy! and, to mark the occasion, I knew that I wanted to find something a little bit special.

Being on something of an inverted mystery kick, I have been doing lots of research into the various novels available that belong to that sub-genre. As I read articles, encyclopedia entries and guides, I have been writing down titles that catch my eye but none struck me quite so much as The Priest’s Hat and the moment I found out about it I was quite determined that I would track a copy down for the blog.

The novel was apparently one of the earliest examples of the Italian giallo form which combines elements of horror, mystery and suspense. It was written in 1887 and published in installments before being collected into a volume for publication in 1888.

The story was inspired by the then-recent news stories concerning the Count Faella d’Imola who had killed a priest for his money, been arrested and died in prison. While De Marchi’s characters have different names and some of the circumstances of the crime differ, it is clear that this work certainly uses the details of that case as a starting point to explore the psychology of the criminal leading up to and following a murder.

The murderer in this story is the Baron Carlo Coriolano di Santafusca who, we are told in the first sentence, did not believe in God or the Devil. We discover that he is a libertine who is in dire financial straits, having mortgaged his property and borrowed from his tenants to pay for his gambling habits. At the start of the novel he is seeking to sell his family property in order to service his creditors although he expects that this will still leave him destitute.

The man he seeks to sell the house to is a priest, Cirillo, who has amassed a small fortune. Unfortunately he has also gained a reputation as someone who possesses mystical powers after he advises a group of brigands who have kidnapped him to pick numbers in the lottery that end up being drawn. As this story becomes more widely known, Cirillo finds himself being hounded and is looking to escape his congregation. He also happens to know that the Baron’s home will make a particularly good investment.

The events of the novel depict the process by which the Baron decides that rather than selling his property he will kill Cirillo and steal the money he will be bringing with him for the sale. The actual murder itself is quite brief and takes place early in the novel. Much of what follows shows the Baron, after an initial run of exceptionally good luck, slowly beginning to mentally disintegrate as an investigation begins and the guilt and fear of discovery builds within him.

Unlike many of the other inverted mystery stories I have read, we see very little of the investigation that will take place. Nor are there really a lot of developments in the case, yet we do see how even a small piece of evidence can end up being used as the basis for a much broader case against someone.

That piece of evidence is the titular priest’s hat – an expensive, brand new hat that Cirillo is wearing for his visit to meet with the Baron and conclude the purchase of the house. In one of the Italian language blog entries I read about this novel, the author describes the hat as a sort of tell-tale heart which I think is a particularly appropriate parallel. The idea of the hat becomes an obsession for the Baron who begins to worry that it is the one piece of evidence he has not accounted for.

The way that fear impacts his decision making is interesting and because the case is quite simple, it is easy to see the role the hat plays in the development of the story. While it seemed clear to me how the novel might conclude, I enjoyed the journey to that point and was interested in precisely what decisions the Baron would make.

While the novel’s cast of supporting characters is kept quite small, several are quite striking characters. I found Cirillo’s backstory to be quite entertaining and I enjoyed and appreciated the sections in which we see the local priest puzzling over the dilemma of what to do about an object he has inadvertently stolen.

Arguably the novel does stretch its material a little during the Baron’s later stages of mental anguish (beginning with the chapter The Orgy, which is far less prurient than its title may suggest), feeling a little heavy-handed, but because the time is taken to emphasize the instability of his life prior to his becoming a murderer I felt that erratic behavior seemed to fit his nature.

While I am not sure that the ending was entirely satisfying from the point of view of concluding the investigation, I felt it pulled the work together thematically in its discussion of how the act of murder would affect the guilty party.

Given my recent run of dud reads, I was pleased that the fiftieth review would be of a title that I found to be both interesting and enjoyable. While the book’s age may make it a curiosity for fans of the inverted mystery, I think it is an enjoyable example of the form in its own right.

Sadly the novel is not easily available in print in English though the highly readable Frederick A. Y. Brown translation has been digitized and made available online by the Bodleian. That translation was written in 1935 and so is still presumably in copyright. My hope is that, with the various small crime-specialist presses digging up more and more lost classics of the genre, someday this might be republished and find its way back into wider circulation in English.

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)

 

Inverted

Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce

CaseforSergeantBeefWellington Chickle is a retired clockmaker who decides that he wants to be remembered by committing a great murder. He thinks he has hit upon the perfect scheme: if he commits a murder at random then he will not be connected to it by a motive. He moves to a small village in the countryside where no one knows him, works to craft a public image that will lead no one to suspect him and waits for his opportunity.

The best laid plans, of course, inevitably have hitches and while he may have planned his murder to look like a suicide, the deceased’s sister is adamant that the death is suspicious. She hires Sergeant Beef, a former police officer turned private investigator whose exploits are chronicled, in his belief very poorly, by his associate Townsend.

It was JJ who first set me on the trail of this novel when he suggested that, given my love of the inverted mystery sub-genre, I might find it to be an interesting take on that form. Initially I wondered what JJ might be referring to as the novel is, on the face of it, quite a traditional inverted mystery though by its end I quite agreed with him and I was very glad that I had read it.

One of the things that sometimes puzzles friends of mine who know I like the inverted mystery form is that knowing the identity of a murderer from the outset seems to limit the sense of puzzlement for the reader. My answer is usually that when the author takes away the question of the identity of the murderer they normally provide another puzzle for the reader to solve such as detecting the method they have used or what will give them away. There is a reason that the form has been nicknamed the howcatchem after all.

Case for Sergeant Beef however does not really do either of those things. Much of the first quarter of the novel is made up of Wellington Chickle’s journal in which we read about his motivations and plans telling us the why and the how. We know how he will kill his random victim, that he has already procured the means and how he intends to evade detection. We also might deduce from those chapters how he might give himself away. After all, while he may possess an ingenious instinct for committing the perfect crime, his plan is hardly foolproof and there will be good reason for the police to suspect him. On the face of things, Bruce’s mystery is hardly mysterious.

The appeal of this story lies in two things. Firstly, Bruce writes extremely wittily and provides some very entertaining comments on the detective novel as an art form. There are a number of funny remarks made by characters and I particularly enjoyed the very meta moment where we learn that Chickle is actually reading one of the earlier Beef novels while he plans how to commit his own crime. Secondly, there is a development later in the book which means that the reader will actually have a crime to deduce the answer to.

For those two reasons, I would describe Case for Sergeant Beef as a strong choice for a tentative toe-dip into the inverted mystery form for those who really don’t think they’d like hearing the killer’s thoughts. Chickle is a striking character in the Alexander Bonaparte Cust-mold and so those chapters read more as quirky than dark. While elements of the story’s resolution were not unexpected, I felt Bruce delivered those small moments well. This is helped by the novel’s snappy pacing that keeps the action moving throughout.

Sergeant Beef himself is an entertaining character. The novel does not take a lot of time to introduce him but does so quite effectively and I enjoyed his repeated complaints to Townsend about the lack of literary impact the release of books about his adventures have had which he blames on Townsend’s lacklustre writing style.

Sadly I cannot say much else about the novel without significantly spoiling it and given its brevity, I do want to make sure to preserve its surprises. I can say though that I enjoyed Case for Sergeant Beef a lot and I am excited to read other books by Bruce. Hopefully I will be able to track a few down soon.

 

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…