Golden Age, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Thriller

Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe

MurderontheWayMurder On the Way! is one of two novels by Theodore Roscoe that were republished earlier this year by Bold Venture Press. Both books were edited and boast introductions written by our very own JJ so when I read his tweet and blog post about these books I became rather excited, immediately buying both and placing them on the top of my To Read list.

After purchasing my copies of each came the dilemma of which of the books to read first. In the end I opted to start with this title because I thought that the Haitian setting could be interesting. I was also curious to see how a supernatural element such as zombies could coexist with the structure of a mystery story.

The answer is complex and potentially spoilery. Let me begin by assuring those who might be turned off by the mention of zombies that while the book does have a macabre flavor and features some horrific moments, this is very much a mystery story. Haitian superstitions certainly do play a very important role in this narrative but each of the killings, no matter how bizarre or seemingly impossible, will have an entirely rational explanation by the end.

The novel begins with the narrator’s girlfriend, Pete, being summoned to Haiti to hear the terms of a will in which she has been named. After some reluctance she, and her artist boyfriend, decide to attend. On arriving they encounter the other people named in the will who are a strange collection of highly unsavory types. When the will is read they learn that each of the people named has been placed in an ordered list. Whoever the highest remaining person on that list is twenty-four hours after the deceased’s body is buried will inherit his entire estate, provided they have not left the grounds. Pete, it turns out, is the last name on the list.

If you are thinking ‘that sounds like a recipe for a bloodbath’ then you’d be quite correct.  One-by-one these potential heirs are picked off, often in seemingly impossible ways including a locked room murder. That this takes place in spite of the presence of the Haitian police, who arrive to take charge of the crime scene early in the novel, makes these murders seem all the more remarkable.

Roscoe packs his story with a number of seemingly inexplicable moments or situations to a point where I was seriously beginning to worry that he might need to resort to a supernatural explanation to pull everything together. The variety on offer is seriously impressive and it is striking to think that many of those little mysteries could easily have formed the basis for whole novels. Of these moments, my favorite involves a chase in which a character disappears in a corridor but there are plenty of other good ones to pick from.

I was a little less impressed with the cast of characters that Roscoe creates. Certainly this gallery of undesirables are each presented quite distinctively and represent a variety of backgrounds and types but some of these characterizations have not aged particularly well and feel distinctly of their period. It should be said though that this book, unlike a much more famous title in which a group of people are slowly killed one-by-one in an isolated house, has been presented as originally written and I would argue that in the context of its contemporaries the portrayals of characters from non-white ethnic backgrounds is fairly typical and in some ways is more nuanced than in works like Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die – a novel that was published some twenty years later.

Roscoe’s novel can be said to defy easy categorization and it is notable how the middle section of the book represents a significant shift in tone and style. In the opening Roscoe pitches his story as though he is laying the groundwork for the investigation of an impossible crime yet by this stage the novel feels like a thriller in the way Roscoe builds and manages tension.

This pace encourages the reader to keep going, building momentum as they know another murder will be just a few pages away and if the reader chooses to enjoy the book as a thriller they will be satisfied. The book contains some really great surprises and builds to a rather striking crescendo that cultivates a sense of dread while placing the narrator in significant danger.

Yet, should the reader prefer to take their time and reflect, the novel works equally well as a more conventional detective story. Roscoe takes the time to make sure his book is fairly clued. The solution to what is happening can be reasoned even without a thorough search for clues or comprehensive interviews with each of the suspects. In doing so, this satisfies both as a thriller and also as a more traditional mystery.

Murder on the Way! is a rich and interesting read packed with striking imagery and boasting an intriguing mystery. I enjoyed discovering just what had happened in this house and found the ending to be very satisfying. While I plan on spacing it out, I am looking forward to reading I’ll Grind Their Bones soon and seeing how it compares.

 

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Book of the Month, Japanese Crime, Pushkin Vertigo, Thriller

The Master Key by Masako Togawa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: I selected The Master Key as my Book of the Month for November 2017.

Modern Crime, Thriller

Say Nothing by Brad Parks

say-nothingThere are many ways that becoming a parent three years ago changed my life but the one I could never have predicted is that I, being the sort of man who regularly gets described as stony and unemotional, would get verklempt at the mere sight of an old pair of baby shoes or stay up half the night with worry when the kid has a particularly bad case of the sniffles. It’s a cliche but like most good cliches it comes from a truthful place; the moment you become responsible for another person’s life that changes you.

Say Nothing absolutely preys on that parental emotional with a premise that would strike fear into any father or mother’s heart. Federal Judge Scott Sampson receives a text message from his wife telling him that he doesn’t need to pick the children up from school and is astonished later that evening when his wife arrives home without the children. Moments later the kidnappers get in touch, making it clear that in exchange for their children’s safety Sampson will need to act according to their instructions in his rulings on a case but if they tell anyone there will be severe consequences.

Parks focuses on the psychological impact that the kidnapping has on the parents and explores the way it affects their relationships with each other and their family and colleagues. Knowing that they cannot contact the FBI, Scott and Alison try to figure out who might be responsible but paranoia drives some of their actions and accusations and their seemingly perfect marriage threatens to crumble around them.

The decision to have most of the story told from Scott’s perspective is a solid one and it certainly allows the reader to feel that sense of paranoia build within him and to share in the choices he makes. The remaining chapters are told from the perspective of the kidnappers which I feel was a less successful choice as this gives away a lot of what is going on and at times only serves to remove some of the mystery about what is going on.

To Parks’ credit, he does sustain the premise and builds a sense of tension throughout his novel which is quite long for a thriller at close to 440 pages long. The chapters are relatively short, helping add to the suspense and keep the pages turning.

I appreciated the way Parks builds up the characters of Scott and Alison and introduces elements of their backstory as a family. I had a strong sense of empathy for both characters at points in the novel and when I was frustrated by them I could at least understand what led them to act the way they did.

Unfortunately I was less convinced by the depiction of the two children who seem unnaturally mature in the way they speak at points in the novel. As they play a relatively small role in the story I was able to overlook this and while it may not have been realistic, I do think that the choice did contribute to the clarity of the story.

As you might expect from a thriller there are several significant twists and revelations that help to keep things moving though there are remarkably few action sequences. Instead Parks builds a sense of mystery as Scott and Alison try to figure out just who may be responsible and what their ultimate aim is. While I am not sure if the fair play thriller is really a thing, I can say that the book gives the reader all you need to deduce this information and I felt that the conclusion was strong, if not spectacular.

While I am not sure that I would have felt quite so emotionally engaged in the story prior to becoming a father, I must admit that this story hit those parental trigger points very effectively and kept me turning the pages. I was pleasantly surprised by the development of the mystery which felt well-clued and engaged to the end. It worked for me and I will certainly consider trying some of Parks’ other work in the future.

German Crime, Legal Thriller

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

ColliniThe Collini Case opens with a moment of brutality as Fabrizio Collini walks into a hotel room where Hans Meyer, a man in his eighties, is staying and viciously kills him. He then reports himself to the Police and waits calmly in the lobby to be taken into custody. He freely admits that he was responsible and offers no explanation for why he has committed the crime.

His court-appointed lawyer, Casper Leinen, has only been qualified for two months and has never defended a case before. He is already stumped about how he will mount a defense when he learns that he has a personal connection to the case that causes him to doubt whether he should have taken the case in the first place.

While I have described The Collini Case as a legal thriller for the purposes of categorization on this blog, it is perhaps better described as having two clear themes that it develops. The first is the question of the role the public defender must play and their responsibility to a client, even if they do not like them. This is best summed up in an early conversation between Leinen and his adversary and mentor, the prosecution lawyer Professor Richard Mattinger, which is recalled at several points throughout the work.

The second theme concerns the nature of justice and its relationship to the law. My determination not to provide spoilers in my reviews prevents me from being more explicit about how that manifests in this case but as this book draws on aspects of the author’s own life that he referred to in interviews around the time this was released in the English-speaking market, a quick Google search should give you a little more context on what precisely is being discussed here.

Not that this will be much of a mystery for many readers. While these questions suggest that this book might be a mystery, the context of the crime makes motivation quite easy to infer within the first few chapters and so our focus remains fairly tightly on these two themes.

That tight thematic focus is reinforced by the structure of the book which only presents us with the steps in the trial that most clearly relate to the novel’s themes. The actual trial itself is confined to just a couple of chapters at the end of the novel and focuses almost entirely on a single cross examination of a witness. This is not ineffective but it may lead some to question whether it can really be called a mystery or a legal thriller at all.

As I finished reading the novel I was struck by a comparison to a work by John Grisham, The Confession. In that novel Grisham seems to be primarily writing to make a political point about the death penalty and aspects of the plot are developed in service of that theme. The Collini Case takes a similarly campaigning approach to its storytelling, especially in some of the comments made during that long cross examination sequence but its brevity and the tone of the ending keep this from feeling manipulative.

The downside of that brevity is that it does not allow space for supporting characters to develop. Arguably the key character of Johanna never quite makes her stamp on the narrative, being seemingly portrayed more as a representation of what Leinen is giving up for the sake of the case rather than a fully fleshed out character in her own right. This is particularly frustrating because her perspective on the case ought to be so interesting based on her own involvement and because her first interaction with Leinen after he accepts the case is one of the most powerful moments in the book.

In spite of some weak characterization, I did appreciate how well this book devotes itself to its themes and I did appreciate the spartan prose style the writer adopts. While the mystery content is lacking, it will interest readers with an interest in criminal justice systems and its themes lend themselves well to discussion. Though this didn’t entirely hit the spot for me,  I would certainly be curious to try another of von Schirach’s works in the future.