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review 2018-05-13 17:12
It's no Ripley, but it's all right
Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith

I'm going to surmise that this is one of those rare occasions where the movie actually exceeds the book. 

 

Patricia Highsmith was amazing, of that there is no doubt. However, this book was extremely frustrating to read because there are so many terrible decisions being made by the main character, Guy Haines, whose encounter with a psychotic murderer is a terrible turning point in his life.

 

The plot is quite different from what I thought I understood it to be - and perhaps the movie aligns more with my misunderstanding. I went into it thinking it was more of an inverted mystery, and was interested to see where the mistake was made for the investigators to figure it out. I wasn't expecting one half of the plot to be a reluctant participant, and nearly as much of a victim as the murder victims.

 

I think that the biggest problem with this book is that it felt about 100 pages too long, and took fairly close to forever to get to the point. While Highsmith excels at building suspense, the pacing was way off in this one. In addition, the end was sort of anticlimactic. 

 

I'm still a card-carrying member of the Patricia Highsmith fan club, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

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review 2018-05-05 20:58
Four Solid Winners in the Miss Silver Series
Latter End - Patricia Wentworth
Latter End - Patricia Wentworth,Diana Bishop
Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth
Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth,Diana Bishop
Miss Silver Comes to Stay - Patricia Wentworth
Miss Silver Intervenes (Miss Silver Mystery) - Patricia Wentworth
Miss Silver Intervenes - Diana Bishop,Patricia Wentworth

... lined up in order of preference.

 

I admittedly have so far only read two other Miss Silver books besides these four -- Grey Mask and The Chinese Shawl, respectively --, but based on the books listed above, my appreciation of the series is certainly increasing.  Like Georgette Heyer's mysteries (and to a lesser extent, Ngaio Marsh's), all the Miss Silver books seem to come with a side order of romance, which is probably not surprising, given that this is where Patricia Wentworth started out.  But once she had gotten the standard mystery and romance tropes out of her system that bogged down the first book of the series, Grey Mask, and are also still way too prevalent for my liking the fifth book (The Chinese Shawl -- what most annoyed me there was the predominant "youthful damsel in distress" theme), it seems that she found her stride somewhere between that book and the next one (Miss Silver Intervenes).  There are still common elements to all the novels; e.g., in addition to the invariably-included romance, like Marsh and Heyer Wentworth seems to be playing favorites: Once a character has been introduced as genuinely likeable, it is extremely unlikely that (s)he will turn out to be the murderer -- and if a superficially likeable character turns out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the end, there will be subtle hints all along the way that there might be more to them that meets the eye.  And of the four listed above, I think Miss Silver Intervenes is still the weakest.  But it's clear that Wentworth's apprentice phase as a mystery writer was over and done with.

 

In Miss Silver Intervenes, the detective (or "private enquiry agent," as she prefers to style herself) is called in to untangle a web of deceit, blackmail and murder in a London apartment building, against the background of WWII food shortage and other restrictions of daily life (and I confess I can't think of any other Golden Age mystery where one of the "good guys" is ultimately revealed to be

a sausage king.)

(spoiler show)

Though both of the book's main female characters have a whiff of snowflake / damsel in distress (and their beaux are consequently suffering from a mild form of white knight syndrome) -- and there is perhaps a bit too convenient a use of the amnesia trope (which I don't particularly care for, anyway) -- what I really like about this book is the way in which Wentworth brings the effect of WWII to life, chiefly in one particular character, but ultimately in all of them.  The mystery isn't quite on the level of Agatha Christie, nor does it in fact reach the cleverness of that presented in the previous Miss Silver book, The Chinese Shawl, but the characters -- especially some of the supporting characters, as well as the two policemen (CDI Lamb and Sergeant / later DI Abbott) -- here begin to come alive and take on three dimensions once and for all (though I will say that Miss Silver herself had reached that point by book 5 already).

 

I've yet to catch up with the Miss Silver novels between books 6 and 11, but by the time she got to Latter End (book 11), Wentworth had definitely also weaned herself of the need to have "damsel in distress" heroines.  There still are two such ladies as supporting characters, but the heroine is a young woman who can -- and does -- take care of herself extremely well, and is loved because (not in spite) of that by the hero ... and both she and the hero repeatedly refer to the two ladies in need of rescue as "doormats" (albeit in a spirit of genuine worry about these ladies' inability to put up a fight in their own behalf). -- In terms of plot, again this is perhaps not exactly Christie-level clever; also, the setting is, facially, an exponent of the "toxic family relations explode at country manor" Golden Age staple ... but it's all done with such incredible panache that the characters downright burst off the page; and the murder victim of the piece is in the best Golden Age tradition of a thoroughly despicable human being without whose presence and continuous bullying and intrigues everybody is decidedly better off. -- As in Miss Silver Intervenes, the policemen "formally" in charge of the case are DCI Lamb and Sergeant Abbot.

 

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (book 16) is an example of another Golden Age staple setting, the village mystery with sinister goings-on both in the village and at the nearby manor; and here we get to meet the third policeman that Miss Silver more or less routinely associates with, DI Randal Marsh, who is an old pupil of hers (Miss Silver was a teacher / governess and actually looking at a rather drab and modest sort of retirement before, by mere chance, she stumbled into becoming a "private enquiry agent"). --

Randal Marsh, in turn, also meets his future wife in this book.

(spoiler show)

This was the first book by Wentworth that I ever read, and I liked it well enough to continue my exploration.

 

Poison in the Pen (book 29), finally, is one of Wentworth's last Miss Silver Books -- there are 32 in all.  Again we're on Randal Marsh's turf, of which he has become Assistant Commissioner in the interim -- but the driving force behind Miss Silver's involvement in the case is DI Frank Abbot, who thinks "Maudie", as he privately calls her, is the ideal person to gently worm her way into the social circles of a village beset by poison pen letters.  This is, noticeably, also Miss Marple territory of course, and kudos to Wentworth, whose foray into this area I for once even prefer to Christie's ... albeit as always, not on the grounds of plot or intricacy of the mystery but chiefly on the grounds of the characters involved.

 

Based on these four books, I'm definitely going to continue my journey into Miss Silver's world ... and can I just say as a final note that I prefer my editions' covers of Miss Silver Intervenes and Miss Silver Comes to Stay -- both created by Terry Hand -- to those listed on BookLikes for the same ISBNs?

 

 

(Same ISBN as the covers listed on BL, so no legit grounds to change them, and I can't be bothered to create extra entries for the alternative covers.  But the new ones are stock images which -- probably not entirely coincidentally -- are also used for Georgette Heyer's mysteries, e.g., see the cover of Detection Unlimited, to the left ... where, incidentally, it fits decidedly less well than with Wentworth's Latter End; but then, a disjoint between cover image and contents of the book is common ailment of most of the recent editions of Heyer's mysteries.)

 

 

The audio editions of the Miss Silver books are, incidentally, read by Diana Bishop, whose narrations I've thoroughly come to enjoy.

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review 2018-04-29 16:58
THE Locked Room Mystery to End All Locked Room Mysteries
The Hollow Man - John Dickson Carr

Seriously, this is the book where John Dickson Carr, the master of locked room mysteries, pulls out all the stops.  And he tells us as much right from the start:

"To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic tems could be applied -- with reason.  Those of Dr Fell's friends who like impossible situations will not find in his casebook any puzzle more baffling or more terrifying.  Thus: two murders were committed, in such a fashion that the murderer must not only have been invisible, but lighter than air.  According to the evidence, this person killed his first victim and literally disappeared.  Again according to the evidence, he killed his second victim in the middle of an empty sreet, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and  no footprint appeared in the snow."

The Hollow Man is a masterpiece in the art of the authorial sleight of hand -- the solution rests on an extremely audacious scheme, and I dare any reader to best JDC's series protagonist, Dr. Gideon Fell, in unraveling every element of the plot; never mind that the relevant clues actually are dropped throughout the novel.

 

Along the way, Dr. Fell also delivers his author's now-famous lecture on the various types of locked room mysteries, either name-checking or alluding to pretty much every mystery master of the age who had contributed to this particular sub-genre in a meaningful way by the time this book was published; and to anybody who criticizes the sub-genre for resting on "improbable" solutions, he has this answer:

When the cry of 'This-sort-of-thing-wouldn't-happen!' goes up, when you complain about half-faced fiends and hooded phantoms, and blond hypnotic sirens, you are merely saying, 'I don't like this sorrt of story.'  That's fair enough.  If you  do not like it, you are howlingly right to say so.  But when you twist this matter of taste into a rule for judging the merit or even the probablility of the story, you are merely saying, 'This series of events couldn't happen, because I shouldn't enjoy it if it did.' [...]

 

You see, the effect is so magical that we somehow expect the cause to be magical also.  When we see that it isn't wizardry, we call it tomfoolery.   Which is hardly fair play.  The last thing we should complain about with regard to the murderer is his erratic conduct.  The whole test is, can the thing be done?  If so, the question of whether it would be done does not enter into it.  A man escapes from a locked room -- well?  Since apparently he has violated the laws of nature for our entertainment, then heaven knows he is entitled to violate the laws of Probable Behaviour!  If a man offers to stand on his head, we can hardly make the stipulation that he must keep his feet on the ground while he does it.  Bear that in mind, gents, when you judge.  Call the result uninteresting, if you like, or anything else that is a matter of personal taste.  But be very careful about making the nonsensical statement that it is improbable or farfetched."

I happen to like locked room mysteries, yet I would argue that some crime writers' solutions do rest on overly improbable sequences of events on occasion, to the detriment of my enjoyment in almost every instance.  I very much do agree with his larger point, however: Don't mistake personal taste (an entirely subjective criterion) for "merit" or "quality" (a criterion aspiring, with however much or little justification, to objectivity).  This is not only lazy; it's also been the very thing that has kept genre fiction on the sidelines of literary recognition practically ever since its emergence -- the notion that it is somehow innately "inferior", literarily speaking, to what is known today as "literary fiction," or to the classics (which, dare one even mention it, were frequently belittled as "populist writing" themselves when first published, as Jane Austen powerfully reminds us in Northanger Abbey).

 

(Oh, and by the way, I also got a chuckle out of the fact that John Dickson Carr has absolutely no qualms about breaking the fourth wall, not only alluding to the reader at the very beginning of the book -- "in this case the reader must be told at the outset, to avoid useless confusion, on whose evidence he can absolutely rely" -- but even more so at the beginning of Dr. Fell's above-mentioned lecture on locked room mysteries:

"'But, if you're going to analyze impossible situations,' interrupted Pettis, 'why discuss detective fiction?'

 

'Because,' said the doctor, frankly, 'we're in a detective story, and we don't fool the reader by pretending we're not. Let's not invent elaborate excuses to drag in a discussion of detective stories.  Let's candidly glory in the noblest pursuits possible to characters in a book.'"

If that isn't audacity, I don't know what is.)

 

That all being said, if I'm not all the way "five-star" wowed by this book, it's because its focus rests almost entirely on the unraveling of the two fiendishly clever puzzles surrounding the murders committed, with comparatively little focus on the people involved in those murders, e.g., Dr. Grimaud's household.  It's not that we don't meet them or that their characterization necessarily lacks depth, but we only ever see them from the perspective of the investigators, with whom the narrative point of view rests all the time, and I'm finding more and more that this is a narrative technique that doesn't work optimally for me, or at least not unless the narrative perspective is that of the Great Detective's sidekick (and even Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, the progenitors of that particular technique, abandoned it every so often; ACD to tell the odd story from Holmes's perspective, or as a narrative within the narrative told from a client's or a witness's -- or the murderer's -- point of view; Christie by ultimately sending Captain Hastings to "the Argentine," so as to compel Poirot to strike out on his own henceforth and allow for a different, more widely spread narrative perspective; and even in a "Poirot and Hastings" novel, The A.B.C. Murders, she expressly included chapters told from another person's perspective, such as later obtained by Captain Hastings).

 

Moreover, there is rather a sinister and thrilling backstory to the events in The Hollow Man, which is however merely treated as precisely this -- a backstory.  I suppose John Dickson Carr didn't want to be accused of crossing too far into the territory of the occult and the supernatural (though he arguably does in novels such as The Burning Court and The Plague Court Murders), but even with the facts given as they are, I would have loved to see the backstory played out in more detail ... or at least, been given greater room in the exploration of the crime.

 

In short, John Dickson Carr's writing here, while technically brilliant, lacks the emotional dimension (or emotional appeal) that would take it for me to be truly drawn in.  This surely won't remain the last book by him that I have read, however.

 

In terms of the Detection Club bingo, this would obviously qualify for the Miraculous Murders square / chapter, which I've already covered -- but I'll definitely be counting it as an additional read for that square.

 

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text 2018-04-23 16:16
Reading progress update: I've read 60%.
Strangers on a Train - Patricia Highsmith

After reading more than half of this one, and all of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith has overtaken Shirley Jackson as the American woman writing the most terrifying characters in literature. 

 

Moral of the story: do not talk to anyone, anywhere, ever. Do not make eye contact. In fact, pretend to be dead. Yeah, do that.

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review 2018-04-23 13:00
Murder Off Miami: Updated -- Case Notes and Final Comments
Murder Off Miami - Dennis Wheatley

Sooo ... turns out I correctly guessed the solution.  Though as MbD said in her review, it pretty much turns on one particular item of conjecture presented fairly early on, so I toyed with some more elaborate options for a while because initially I couldn't believe it really should be that easy. -- That said, like MbD I missed a few of the minor clues (and didn't entirely think through, or put a slightly different construction on some of those that I had seen); but ultimately none of that really mattered.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Case Notes, as posted on April 22, 2018, 00:05 AM CEST:

 

OK, I've finished it and formed my theory, but since MbD had pity on me last night (her time) and didn't exploit her world clock-generated advantage, I'll put all of my case notes (except for the corresponding headlines) in spoiler tags just to be on the safe side.  Though I do have a feeling we're on the same track as far as the solution is concerned.  But anyway!

 

Bolitho Blane and Nicholas Stodart

 

Who are they really, anyway??? 

 

* No verifiable third-hand information from any indisputable source (Scotland Yard, British armed forces, British colonial administration, etc.) on either. 

 

* Stodart's personal background especially re: the war years (WWI) is sourced only through S. himself. The British authorities don't even know him (i.e., he doesn't even have a birth certificate at Somerset House??)

 

* Ditto essentially Blane, who styles himself as a recluse and conducts even his business affairs chiefly "at the remote" -- by telephone and cable / correspondence.

 

* Both Blane and Stodart surfaced in Britain suddenly, at some point after the end of WWI, with a vague background of having come from "the colonies" (Australia / India / South Africa).

 

* Nobody, not even Rocksavage and the yacht's captain saw Blane / Stodart come on board (as per Rocksavage's testimony, you can't see the gangway from the bridge).

 

* Nobody saw Blane immediately after boarding; even the steward was kept out of his suite.

 

* Only one person on board knows what Blane looks like -- the Bishop, who wasn't in the lounge with the other passengers (minus Blane) before dinner on the fateful night and promptly has a fainting fit when Stodart enters the room where he is being interrogated.

 

* Similarly, nobody knows what Blane's handwriting looks like (or Stodart's for that matter).  The alleged suicide note is produced by Stodart.

 

* In fact, the entire suicide theory originates with Stodart.  (BUT: If you're staging a suicide, then why also stage a murder (tracks on the carpet, blood stains)?)

 

* Blane not only owns Argus Suds but (as per Jocelyn, who ought to know) also Redmeyer Synd shares, which at least before Blane's "exit" seem to have been faring considerably better than Argus Suds -- and better than Rocksavage Con, even if not as well as the other stocks associated with Rocksavage (Denton Bros, Grandol Soaps, and Sen Toilet Preps).

 

* Why the sudden need for a secretary / assistant on Blane's part, shortly before this trip?!  Explanation given isn't convincing.

 

* What is the meaning of Stodart's toothache / ill-fitting dentures?  Something to do with blood?

(spoiler show)

 

New York (Blane & Stodart's Travel to and Stay There)

 

* Blane's luggage has tags for the Ritz, Stodart's doesn't (at least not visibly).

 

* Stodart's luggage has "Cunard Line" tag, Blane's doesn't (at least not visibly).  (NB: As per internet research, the R.M.S. Berengaria really was a Cunard ship in the 1930s.)

 

* Letter to the Bishop written on Adlon Claridge paper.  That seems to have been the Bishop's hotel in N.Y.:  The Adlon Claridge match found later suggests that the letter wasn't sent to the Bishop as part of the mail delivered on board, but already conveyed to him in N.Y. in some fashion.

 

* Interpretation that letter to Bishop contains a veiled threat and is intended to hush him up is probably correct.

 

* Blane's luggage contains dirty / used clothing for 2 days.  So was there a laundry on the R.M.S. Berengaria?  (N.B.: Blue riband winners in the mid-1930s clocked in at roughly 4 days' travel time.  So the voyage from England would easily have taken that long, if not a day or two longer.)  But wouldn't the Ritz have offered laundry services, too?

 

* Stodart's luggage not inventoried.  (Presumably because police consider him a witness?)

 

* By letter to Bishop, we know that Blane / Stoddart were (was?!) in New York on March 5.

 

* Then [t]he[y] found an excuse not to travel to Florida with the rest of the passengers, and only board the yacht there at the very last minute on March 8.

(spoiler show)

 

Crime Scene

 

* If Blane was shot, where is the bullet?  Why wasn't it recovered (near one of the blood stains or anywhere else)?

 

* Crime scene photos at the very least don't suggest bullet has entered the wall.

 

* No odd number of bullets found in Blane's possession (25 bullets sounds like a number that B. could have counted off and brought with him from home).

 

* What caused that blood stain's black rim -- possibly black ink?

 

* "Suicide note" written in blue ink.  Comment on the back of the stock price listing written in black ink, like the stock price listing itself.

 

* Writing set on the desk seems to be missing one (the middle) pen.

 

* What color is the ink found in Blane's personal possessions -- black or blue?  The inventory doesn't say.

 

* Where did whoever wrote the suicide note (if it was written on board) sit while doing so?  There is no chair anywhere near the desk.

 

* Additional notes on ink / paper:

(a) Both of Hayashi's notes are written in blue ink as well.  As per his and the steward's testimony, immediately after boarding no foolscap / writing paper and no ink available in his cabin (only after the main on-board store had been reopened and cabins could be reprovisioned from there).  Lacking writing materials in his own cabin, Hayashi had to resort to materials provided in the ship's writing room.

(b) No odd number of sheets of yellow writing paper on the block contained in Blane's possessions.  25 sheets sounds like this could be the complete block brought by Blane from home.

(c) 68 pages of foolscap suggests use of some of the foolscap paper, though.  But for what purpose?

 

* In Blane's room, no change of daytime or evening clothes seems to have been unpacked / laid ready for dinner (only his pyjama and dressing gown). -- Stodart, OTOH, has had a change of shoes and socks at the very least.

 

* What is the black spot at the far end of the bathtub in Blane's suite?

 

* If the steward was in the adjacent room to Blane's suite, why didn't he hear anything?  (The shot may have been silenced, but literally nothing -- no commotion, not Blane's / Stodart's voice(s), no sounds of something falling (the body?!)?  May be the fault of the nearby carpenter's work, though.

(spoiler show)

 

Time of the Murder

 

* See above: Why can't the murder (if such a thing occurred at all) have been committed right after boarding?  We only have Stodart's word for the assertion that Blane was alive then in the first place -- and Stodart, by his own testimony, was alone in the room with him until 7:30 pm.

 

* At and after 7:00 pm (even more so, between 7:30 and 8:30 / 8:45 pm) it would have been dark outside, so presumably nobody would have seen what, if anything, was tossed out of the porthole of Blane's suite at that time.

 

* But: According to the page torn from Stodart's calendar, full moon at 4:15 am.  (Where exactly does that get us?  What, if anything, was planned for that time?)

 

* Stodart is the only person who was always in somebody's view and therefore has a perfect alibi during the entire time when Detective Kettering believes the murder was committed (i.e., after 7:30 or even after 7:45 pm). -- As Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey have all said on many a similar occasion: "There is nothing I distrust so much as a seemingly unbreakable alibi."

(spoiler show)

 

Relationship Blane / Hayashi

 

* Is Hayashi's note really about Blane's supposed intent to come to an agreement with Rocksavage?  I don't think so -- rather, the wording suggests a specific action being contemplated by Blane, and of which he has given Hayashi advance notice; maybe in order to sway H. in his (Blane's) own favor.

 

* We know from Slick, aka the Count, that Blane had exposed Slick's card-sharping on a previous occasion, much to Slick's detriment.  Could Blane not have told Hayashi that if H. didn't grant the Japanese monopoly to him (Blane), he'd expose the bribery scheme to which Rocksavage had more or less already agreed?

 

(spoiler show)

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

This particular volume qualifies for square / chapter 4 of the Detection Club bingo, for which I've already read Freeman Wills Crofts's Hog's Back Mystery, but I'm happy to say that I have since found affordable copies of two more books by Dennis Wheatley, as well as Q. Patrick's File on Fenton and Farr online, which I take both from MbD's reviews of Murder Off Miami and File on Fenton and Farr is more intricately  plotted, and which will qualify for the "Across the Atlantic" square.  Anyway, this was great fun -- and I'm very much looking forward to my next "crime files" adventure!

 

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