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)

 

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French Crime, Locked Room International, Modern Crime

The Madman’s Room by Paul Halter

MadmansAfter trying and enjoying my first Paul Halter novel, Death Invites You, last year I received some wonderful suggestions for which book I should pick next. I honestly did make note of all of those suggestions and I intended to utilize them. I really did. But then I actually came across a copy of The Madman’s Room and all those plans went out the window… Whoops!

Halter seems to represent something of a literary fault line among the bloggers I read regularly. That was the reason I was initially so hesitant to try him. His plots are constructed with a lot of elements that often seem to be pulling in opposite directions. This not only seems messy, it may lead some readers to wonder if he’s just throwing these crazy, imaginative ideas out there and forcing them into the shape of a novel.

The Madman’s Room is a much more complex narrative than Death Invites You, incorporating significantly more elements and questions for the reader to consider and yet I felt that these hung together exceptionally well to create a much richer, more rewarding story. It still can feel a little messy and unwieldy and at times I wondered just how these elements could be brought together but, when the explanation is given, everything seemed to align perfectly.

A very basic outline of the core points of the story is that the wealthy businessman Harris Thorne moves his wife’s family to live with him in his ancestral home. They learn the story of his great-Uncle Hector who appeared to be able to see the future, predicting the deaths of family members in a fire years after he himself had died. His room was sealed upon his death but Harris decides that he will reopen that room against his brother’s objections to turn it into his study. He dies soon afterwards with some aspects of the case seeming to mirror the circumstances in which Hector had died.

For another writer that alone may be enough material for a novel but Halter weaves a number of smaller mysteries around the bigger question of who killed Harris Thorne. Did Harris really did commit suicide or if he was murdered? What is the significance of a patch of water that appeared in front of the fire both when Hector and Harris died? What do people see in a doorway that terrifies them? Is everyone that we believe to be dead actually dead? Can Harris’ brother Brian really see the future? And just what are the short lecture about possible outcomes of an exhumation (a la Dr. Fell) and the brief romantic scene at the beginning of the novel there for?

It’s a lot to unpack and to do so would violate my intentions to keep my reviews as spoiler free as possible. What I can say is that I think Halter’s explanations of the ways these elements interconnect is really quite masterful and I respected the simplicity and common sense of many of those solutions. Solutions to some puzzles are easier to predict than others but I found all to be quite satisfying and appreciated the variations Halter gives us. Even the issue that Sergio felt stretched credulity struck me as a discrete nod to a similarly stretched moment in a very early Poirot novel.

While the artificiality of a moment like that can be a negative for some readers, I personally find it quite charming. Certainly I think there are very few people who would talk or act like characters in a Paul Halter novel but I think that’s okay as he is clearly playing with classic mystery fiction types and placing all other elements of the novel as secondary to his chief concern of developing the puzzle. His prose is never pretty, nor is it particularly atmospheric yet it conveys precisely the amount of information the author intends to very well and, like JJ, I find it to be very effective.

And though Halter’s characters here may read a little stiffly, I found them to be a much more interesting group than in Death Invites You. This is partly because Halter’s story plays out over a much longer period, allowing those characters time to change in reaction to the events they are experiencing. I found some of those changes in character to be very effective and I appreciated the psychological angles to the solution to this story.

On the subject of the conclusion however, I must take note of Brad’s criticism that the novel is undermined by its confusing and unnecessary final page twist. While I enjoyed the novel enormously, I would agree that this moment detracts from the otherwise clean, refined nature of the ending. Sadly this concludes an otherwise stellar work on a slightly cheap note.

In spite of that misstep, I think The Madman’s Room is a really striking and effective work. At the midpoint of the novel I had no idea how Halter was going to pull all of these elements together so I was really impressed by just how clean and tidy the explanations were. Unlike many seemingly inexplicable crime stories, the explanations given for how and why the strange events occur are very persuasive because of their simplicity while I felt that the supernatural elements in the story were used very effectively not only to build atmosphere but contribute to the key themes and ideas of the novel.

In short, I loved this and am looking forward to reading more Halter. And next time I promise I will actually utilize some of your suggestions!

Golden Age

Murder Has A Motive by Francis Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An amateur detective (Who)

Review copy provided by NetGalley.

Danish Crime, Historical Mysteries

Oathbreaker by Martin Jensen

OathbreakerI had been keen to read Oathbreaker since enjoying the first novel in Martin Jensen’s Halfdan and Winston series,  The King’s Hounds, back in November. While it was not a perfect read, I loved the vivid historical setting, striking characterization and the little historical details Jensen incorporates throughout the novel that bring the past to life.

The King’s Hounds seemed to be driven with the external pressures on the two sleuths to solve the crime quickly and tidily. Here we see them given more time to solve a mystery but also placed in a situation where they are not able to use the threat of the King’s displeasure to force compliance from unwilling witnesses. This case requires them to utilize a different skill set and the story has a slightly different texture and tone as a result.

The book incorporates an interesting mix of elements, some of which feel quite fresh while others will be more familiar to readers of early medieval mysteries. We have a monastic setting, a bitter dispute between two groups of priests and a monk who appears to be hiding from a bloody past. What elevates these familiar period elements for me is the way they are used as a starting point to explore the political and religious conflicts of this period.

A somewhat insolent monk who has been sent to the church to reflect on his conduct is discovered dead in the middle of the night. His body has been arranged into the shape of the cross and his right hand has been severed from his body. When a representative of the Thane recognizes Winston and Halfdan from the events of the previous book, he requests their assistance in investigating the matter. In doing so the pair must navigate that bitter rivalry between the two monasteries, discover the dead priest’s true identity and work out how these events relate to the threat of a possible insurgency in Mercia.

While this case may appear to offer lower stakes for our sleuths than their previous one, I appreciated the interesting mix of suspects and I enjoyed learning about the historical background for the crime. For those interested in the events, Jensen includes several pages of historical notes citing his sources and giving more detail.

I was a little disappointed that the most interesting and entertaining character from the first book, King Cnut himself, does not feature directly in this novel though this was probably necessary to give our two sleuths space to establish themselves independently of him. Still, though we do not see him though we are still aware of his presence and I continue to find him an intriguing, ruthless and complex figure even from a distance.

One of the aspects of the first book that I didn’t care much for was Halfdan’s aggressive sexuality and I was pleased that this second book tones that down quite considerably. He remains a letch and we still have to read his assessments of female characters primarily through their looks but the second half of the book gives one of its female characters more to do than any of the women in the first title.

On a related note, Halfdan feels a much richer character here independent of Winston. We see him exercising more initiative in his investigations, coming up with some critical deductions at a key moment in the story drawing upon his own knowledge and background, and he clearly has a stronger sense of purpose than in the first novel. It is clear that he is more than just a Watson to Winston’s Holmes – he is a competent investigator in his own right. I did miss their interactions a little though.

Winston does not participate quite so visibly in the key moments of this investigation but he does have an entertaining if slight character arc of his own in the second half of the novel. There is one development in particular later in the novel that I felt promised an interesting change for the character and I am curious to see how that may affect him in the next novel in the series.

Overall I was more than satisfied with this second installment of the series and felt that the tweaks made to characterization and the shift of emphasis generally worked to the material’s benefit. Where the previous book was arguably a stronger historical novel than mystery, Oathkeeper is the more satisfying mystery.  I continue to find this setting fascinating and look forward to seeing what may be in store for Halfdan and Winston in the next volume at some point soon.

Month in Review

December in Review

As 2017 draws to a close it seems a natural time to reflect on the year that has been and look ahead to the one to come. I only started this blog back in October but I am proud that I already have close to fifty reviews under my belt. If all goes to plan I should hit that fiftieth review mark very early next month and I am giving thought to which book I should select to mark the occasion.

Turning to the year ahead, I am keen to take part in at least one reading challenge. Every year I set myself the goal to read a hundred books on Goodreads but I’d like to add one more specific mystery challenge. As the vast majority of my reviews here are of vintage mysteries, I have decided to do the Vintage Mysteries challenge from My Reader’s Block.

I am undertaking to complete Golden Age reads at the Chief Constable level meaning I aim to find one book for each category. I have created a page on my navigation bar where you can track my progress and I will do my best to remember to update the links there on a regular basis. If you are interested in participating yourself it is easy to take part and you can sign up at any point up through November 2018.

Finally, I wanted to say how much I appreciate the various comments, tweets and suggestions people have shared with me over the past few months. I have found some fantastic books already through these and I am very grateful for this guidance, particularly as I get more deeply into my main obsession at the moment – the inverted mystery. I am keeping a big list of all of your suggestions and I have already tracked down a number of them with the hopes of reading them early next year. Thanks again!

Books Read in December

This month I read nineteen books, each by different authors. That industry was partly fuelled by my desire to do a week of reviews based on crime stories set during the Yuletide period though it helped that I was at home for a couple of days in the run up to the holidays. I suspect that I will slow down a little in the New Year.

The titles I read were as follows (all titles are hyperlinked):

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey
The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey
The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
Hard Cheese by Ulf  Durling
Quick Curtain by Alan Melville
Sitting Murder by A. J. Wright
Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe
The Ginza Ghost by Keikichi Osaka
Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith
Crimson Snow, ed. by Martin Edwards
There Came Both Mist and Snow by Michael Innes
The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle
Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon
The Strangled Witness by Leslie Ford
Case for Sergeant Beef by Leo Bruce
The Case of the Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

The Ginza Ghost was my most-read review of the month which I found a little surprising. Sadly I didn’t love the book as much as I had hoped making my review a bit of an outlier though there were a few stories I liked in the collection.

Of the other books I read, I have particularly soft spots for Case for Sergeant Beef and Hard Cheese, both of which are quirky, entertaining reads and I would also encourage people to check out Murder on the Way! which is one of the most inventive books I read this month.

PortraitMy selection for Book of the Month this time is one published as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. Sadly it won’t be published in print Stateside until mid-2018 though the audiobook is available already through Soundings. I would commend it both as a fantastic, dark example of the inverted mystery form and for its wonderful, rich characterization and clever structuring. That book is Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith.

The Month Ahead

Next month I plan on getting to grips with Inspector French and the Sea Mystery which was recommended to me by JJ, continuing to read non-series Christie with The Man in the Brown Suit and I will take Nick Fuller’s advice in an attempt to finally find a short story collection I like by giving some of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown short stories a try.

And, of course, I will be reading The Problem of the Wire Cage by John Dickson Carr so I can follow along with JJ and Ben’s spoiler-filled conversations about it. See you all in 2018!

George Bellairs, Golden Age, Ipso Books

The Case of the Demented Spiv by George Bellairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.