Monday, January 10, 2022

Act of Darkness, by Francis King


Valancourt Books, 2021
originally published 1983
305 pp


I'm actually on the fence about labeling this book as crime fiction, because really, there's so much more to it.  I mean,  there is a crime (quite a heinous one in fact), there is a bit of an investigation and a number of possible suspects who might have been responsible.  At the same time, it ventures well into the literary zone, as the author delves into and  unravels human souls, exposing people for who they really are, and it works on a metaphorical level as well.   The bottom line, however, is that it's quite good, very dark, highly atmospheric and well, anything but typical.  

Just very briefly and excruciatingly barebones so as not to spoil things for anyone who may want to read this novel, Act of Darkness is structured in five parts, and it is in the first of these, the appropriately-entitled "Omens,"  that we meet the Thompson family.   Set in India in the 1930s, they are at home  in the hill-station villa where they've gone to escape the hot summer weather of the plains.   Toby Thompson is the head of this family, although business and other matters interest him far more than his home life.  He is married to second wife Isabel, now pregnant, and they have a young six-year old son named Peter who can often be annoying and definitely curious.  Toby's daughter from his first marriage, Helen, a sort of cold young woman who feels out of place and somewhat resentful,  has recently returned from boarding school in England, and  also living in the home is Clare, Peter's governess, who likes things simple, unmessy and uncomplicated. These characters are introduced from his or her own perspective; by doing it this way King allows the reader to glean an understanding of the complexities and the tensions within their interactions with each other, and most importantly, careful readers will be able to pick out the "omens" of what's to come. 

The central "Act" of this novel is a horrific murder that happens in the middle of one night, but it's the aftereffects that are at the heart of this story.  As the author writes,
"A slow, expected death has a way of irresistibly sucking the members of a family together down its dark funnel. This death, as violent and unexpected as the explosion following the detonation of a bomb, had the opposite effect of blowing the members of the Thompson family in separate directions, however much they struggled to cling to each other." 

The murder also lays bare some of  the pent-up frustrations, jealousies and suspicions that have been simmering and chipped away at under the surface within this household.  The author absolutely excels here as he traces the effects of this crime on those left behind over the years that follow,  offering more than one or two surprising twists as he comes down to its solution.

I loved this book -- King has created an atmosphere seething with dark, sometimes violent  undercurrents running below the surface both within this family and also in India under British rule; that tension, once picked up on in the reading, just doesn't go away.  I will say that not too far after the murder, I had this sense that I already knew this story, and rifling through my brain it hit me where I'd previously experienced it.  I won't give away any hints as to what it reminded me of  (just in case), except that it was a particular and sensational crime that had occurred in England during the Victorian era.   Once it dawned on me, I was a bit upset,  thinking "well, I already know how this turns out," but as it happens, I wasn't at all prepared once the truth was revealed.  I can certainly and highly recommend this book, especially to readers who are more into the why behind  things rather than just the who.  It is a memorable story that I still see flashes of in my head  even though I finished reading it a few days ago; it's also a book that I absolutely could not put down.  

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizo

 I'm looking at the date I was last here -- September!  Yikes!   I have to say that we had an extremely rough 2021 which is actually putting it mildly, but now, thankfully, we've turned that corner and things are much better and slowly getting back to normal going into 2022.   I'll be picking up where I left off with the septimo circulo list shortly as well as with a stack of books I've sadly neglected.    Truth be told, I'm just glad to be back.  

originally published 1950
translated by Bryan Karetnyk
349 pp


Village of Eight Graves will be the third book I've read that features the somewhat shaggy-looking detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whose creator Seishi Yokomizo wrote him into a grand total of 77 novels.  Pushkin Vertigo has also published translations of his The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Clan (my favorite of the bunch so far), and there will be another one, Gokumon Island  later this year.   I've already preordered the last one, and I bought a dvd of that film as well.  I tried to find a copy of Village of Eight Graves on dvd, but I'm not all that sure I really want to pay the $60 the one I actually found goes for.   I did however, content myself with the trailer on YouTube (note: if you to and take a look at it you should know ahead of time that there are no English subtitles, but you'll get the drift).  

The story in Village of Eight Graves is set in postwar Japan, but before arriving in that time period, Yokomizo takes his readers back in time to the sixteenth century to explain how the village got its strange name.  Legend has it that eight samurai fled when their daimyo surrendered to another, taking along with them some 3,000 tael of gold.  They ended up in the village, where the people were hospitable to them until they learned that the samurai were being sought;  at that point they killed all eight, offering their heads in exchange for a promised reward.   With his dying breath, however, the leader of these warriors put a curse on the village, "vowing to visit his vengeance upon it for seven generations to come."  The villagers never did find the gold,  and six months later, the "ringleader of the attack on the warriors," a certain Shozaemon Tajimi,  went more than a bit beserk and not only killed members of his family but "every villager he came across."  Seven died, and Shozaemon killed himself, bringing the total to eight.  Believing that this attack was some sort of "retribution from those eight warriors who had been murdered in cold blood," the villagers decided to give them proper burials, "erecting eight graves where they were venerated as divinities."  

Flash forward first to the 1920s and then on to the postwar era,  as a young man named Tatsuya Terada recounts the story of  how he "embarked on an adventure of dazzling mystery and stepped into a world of blood-chilling terror."   It all begins with  the appearance of an attorney who comes looking for Tatsuya on behalf on someone who has been looking for him.  Identity satisfied, all the lawyer will tell him is that the person seeking him out is "extremely wealthy" and wants to "adopt and provide" for him.  But before he gets any further news, he receives a letter telling him  to "never set foot in Eight Graves again,"  and that if he does, "there will be blood!"  It was the first Tatsuya had heard of Eight Graves, but in another visit to his lawyer, he meets his maternal grandfather, whom the lawyer reveals is actually not the person looking for him.  However, he offers Tatsuya his true identity as the son of Yozo Tajimi, reveals that he has two unmarried half-siblings, and that neither one will ever have children. To prevent the Tajimi line from dying out, it seems that his great aunts have decided to name Tatsuya as the Tajimi heir.  But before Tatsuya even travels to the village, he is there when his grandfather dies, not a natural death, but one determined to be from poison.  This is the first of a number of strange deaths; the remainder will wait  for Tatsuya's return to Eight Graves Village, where it doesn't take long for the villagers to believe they are all done by Tatsuya's hand.  If I say much more there won't be a need to read the book, and people will likely be upset that I've spoiled things.  However,  it's when Tatsuya is taken to Eight Graves Village that not only do the deaths continue, but also that there are a number of strange, seemingly inexplicable occurrences that will test Tatsuya's mettle to the limit.  And while Kindaichi is on the scene here and there, his role remains sort of behind the scenes until the very end, leaving a 300-page plus mystery for the armchair detective reader to try and solve.  I never did but I had great fun getting to the big reveal.    

from Amazon Canada.  Kosuke Kindaichi action figure.  I want one of these!. 

One thing brought out very quickly which is extremely well done here is the effects of fear and superstition on the villagers, all stemming back to the  sixteenth-century and the ongoing belief of these people that history tends to repeat itself,  leading to exactly what some people are capable of when overcome by fear for their own lives.   The mystery (and its solution) is beyond satisfying, and there are a number of suspects from which to choose to up the whodunit game.  Like any good mystery writer, Yokomizo lays down any number of red herrings that tend to take readers down certain paths before realizing they've been had.  Unexpected twists and turns abound right up until the very end, adding to the fun and continuing to add more to the mystery itself  as well as ratcheting up the tension level for the reader.  Two things: first, my advice would be to copy the cast of characters offered at the front of the book -- I ended up doing this not too long into the novel because I found myself  constantly flipping back and forth.  Second, the story takes a bit of a turn into the realm of adventure tale having to do with the samurai gold, which was a bit off-putting until I just let myself go with it, figuring we'd get to the solution at some point -- a good decision.    And while it's not great literature, who cares? It's an incredibly fun book that will test any mystery reader's solving ability.  Definitely recommended.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A James Ellroy Double Feature: Brown's Requiem and Clandestine


Vintage, 2021
originally published 1981
321 pp

(read earlier)

I hadn't really intended to read more of Ellroy at the moment, but back around mid-August I read his My Dark Places and there he was, back in my head and under my skin again. The only way to exorcise his presence was to read more Ellroy, and I decided to start with his earliest work.  Brown's Requiem is his first novel, followed by Clandestine, and I read both.   

 In the introduction to this edition of Brown's Requiem, Ellroy notes from the outset that he was "determined to write an autobiographical epic second to none," but he also realized that his life was "essentially an inward journey that would not lend itself all that well to fiction," which, based on his life as described in My Dark Places,  is probably true.  His response:

 "I then ladled a big load of violent intrigue into my already simmering, tres personal plot -- and the result is the novel you are about to read."

This book is much more a PI novel than anything else he wrote (at least of the books I've read), a fact he makes known in his introduction where he says that this book is "heavily beholden" to  Raymond Chandler.  He also notes that he owes Chandler a "two-fold debt" -- for getting him going and showing him "that imitating him was a dead-end street on GenreHack Boulevard." The Chandler influence shows.   Fritz Brown is an ex-cop, now private investigator whose main source of income as the novel opens is repossessing cars.  The PI business is slow; before making money from the "repo racket" he'd handled "a few cases," but now his office is more like his reading room; the business much more a tax front than an active concern.   Enter Freddy "Fat Dog" Baker, a caddy with a pocket full of bills, who comes to Brown with concerns about his sister.  It seems that 28 year-old Jane has been staying with an older "rich guy," who evidently wants Jane to have nothing to do with her brother.  There's "no sex stuff" going on -- "it ain't like that," but Fat Dog feels that the man is "not right somehow," and that he is "using my sister for something."  He wants Brown to tail the guy, to see what he's into because "he's fucking her around somehow," and Fat Dog wants to know what's going on.  Brown likes the idea of a "surveillance job," one he can work around the repo schedule, so he agrees.   On his first sight of the older man, Sol Kupferman, Brown recognizes him, and his mind goes back to the Club Utopia,"a sleazy neighborhood cocktail lounge"  that had been firebombed in 1968, causing the deaths of six people.  Three culprits were caught, owned up to what they'd done, but had named a "fourth man" as the mastermind, a story that  the cops never believed.  While on the force, Brown hadn't been involved with that case (he was a rookie at the time), but he had been to the Club Utopia with his patrol buddies before it had gone up in flames, and had seen Sol Kupferman there at the time.  As the face of his investigation begins to change,  his finds his own past becoming inextricably intertwined with the case at hand.  

While my description doesn't do this novel the justice it deserves (and of course, there are plots, subplots and characters that I haven't gone into because of time), it's easy to see the first inklings of what to expect in Ellroy's future writings, especially Ellroy's penchant for writing novels that are dark with a capital D.    In Brown's Requiem the prose is more tame, less zippy than in his LA Quartet, but given that it's his first novel, you can see still detect faint strains of the originality of yet to come.  It's interesting to go back and reread Ellroy from the start, especially knowing that  the first book of his excellent LA Quartet  would be published only six years later.    Recommended for those so inclined, mainly people who've enjoyed Ellroy's books and know what to expect. 

Avon, 1999
originally published 1982
paperback, 328 pp

With  Clandestine Ellroy gets more personal, more autobiographical than in Brown's Requiem, tackling his mother's 1958 murder, albeit in fictional form.  It's so very easy to spot, of course, having read this novel after reading Ellroy's My Dark Places, but he also admits to it in a 1996 interview with Laura Miller at Salon where he says that Clandestine was a "chronologically-altered, greatly fictionalized account" of her murder.  Unlike real life though, in Clandestine he also "solved the case."  My Dark Places also allowed for recognizing a fictional young James Ellroy in this book who under a different name, makes an appearance here as well.  

In 1951 Fred Underhill is a young policeman working Wilshire Patrol. When not on the job, he "played a lot of golf and sought out the company of lonely women for one-night stands."   On the job, after roll call one morning, he and his partner were out warning the owner of a small butcher shop/market about a two-man stickup team hitting small markets and a liquor store, and while there they was called to the horrific scene of Underhill's  first murder, a woman identified as Leona Jensen.  Not too much after that, his partner is killed, and later Underhill was sent to the "tragic sinkhole" of the Seventy-seventh Street Division, Watts.   News of a second murder reaches him, that of Maggie Cadwallader, a woman with whom he'd once had a one-night stand after meeting her in a bar called The Silver Star.  It strikes him as more than coincidence that he'd found a matchbook from the Silver Star at the scene of Leona Jensen's death; as he noted, "it was slight, but enough."  Eventually he tracks down the man he believes might be the perpetrator, and thinking about his case, his suspect, his revenge, his collar, his "glory and gravy train," reports his findings to his Captain, only to be slapped down as a "supremely arrogant young man," for whom justice is certainly not a motivation.  Rather than being suspended from duty, however, the Captain sets up a meeting with a certain Lieutenant Dudley Smith, who will be in charge of deciding "the course of this investigation."   And here is where the story actually begins, in my opinion, as Underhill's ambition gets the better of him, making decisions for which the outcome will bring serious repercussions both personally and professionally.    It isn't until he sees the story of the "dead nurse" that he realizes he may have a shot at justice for the dead, as well as for his own personal redemption.

In Clandestine, Ellroy introduces a number of characters (and themes as well) that will reappear in later work, most notably Dudley Smith, a truly bad guy even here, with more than enough hints of what will happen to anyone who crosses him.  This certainly book is more future Ellroy than its predecessor, reading very much like a prequel to the LA Quartet; it would be a great place to start for anyone who's considering Ellroy's work.  Beware: it's good, but it  ain't pretty.  

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Corpse in the Waxworks, by John Dickson Carr

"The purpose, the illusion, the spirit of a waxworks. It is an atmosphere of death."


British Library, 2021
originally published 1932
256 pp

(read earlier) 

A quotation from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" serves as one of two epigraphs for this book and as it turns out, it is beyond appropriate.  Words like "grotesque," "phantasm," "delirious fancies," leap out immediately, but it's more Poe's conjuring of 
"much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust" 

that truly fits the atmosphere, the setting, and the overall action in The Corpse in the Waxworks.   

More often than not I tend to forget that John Dickson Carr was an American author since he wrote so many novels set in the UK. He did spend a good twenty years there before returning back to the US, and according to most biographies, was one of only a very few American writers to be admitted into the Detection Club.    The Corpse in the Waxworks throws yet another curveball: it's set in France, and features M. Henri Bencolin, who is described in the book just prior to this one, The Lost Gallows (Poisoned Pen Press, 2021),   as "a tall and lazy Mephisto," as well as  "juge d'instruction of the Seine, the head of the Paris Police  and the most dangerous man in Europe" (4).   In the present book, he is  also noticed as a "man-hunting dandy," with an associate by the name of Jeff Marle who also serves as narrator.   

The "official" blurb for this British Library edition can be found here at the British Library's website; however, the one on the back of my old Collier paperback (1969) edition of this book is much more fun, with a teaser on the front that reads
"A Dead Girl in a Satyr's Arms -- A Club Devoted to Nocturnal Orgies"

 and then on the back the salacious detail of a "notorious club ... whose masked members revel in carefully planned orgies," as well as mentioning "nocturnal debauches."   

Seriously, who could resist?  

The action in this novel begins with the body of a young woman who had been stabbed and then found floating in the Seine.   Mademoiselle Odette Duchêne had last been seen alive going into the Musée Augustin, a wax museum complete with a "Gallery of Horrors."  Her fiancé, a certain Captain Chaumont, had spoken to her the day she went to the museum, when she phoned to cancel a date for tea with him and a friend "giving no reason."  Curious, he went to her home just in time to see her drive away in  a taxi, so he followed until she was let out in front of the museum.  With only half an hour until closing time, he waited, "and she did not come out."  Now she is dead, and he wants answers.  At the museum, Marle makes his way to the Gallery of Horrors, where he comes across the waxwork of a satyr.  After looking at it for a while, he makes his way back to the others who see that he's a bit unnerved, and when asked what's wrong, he tells them that the satyr figure  was "damned good, the whole expression of the satyr, and the woman in his arms."  There's just one problem, as M. Augustin informs him,  "There is no woman in the satyr's arms."  Well, as Bencolin notes, there is one now, "a real woman. And she is dead."  

But what about that club where they go for "carefully planned orgies" and "nocturnal debauches" you might ask, and all I will say is that as the investigation into the body found in the arms of the satyr gets rolling, the connections between the two will make themselves known.  The case begins in earnest with this second death, and the sleuthing begins. In typical Carr fashion, witnesses are discovered, spoken to, bits of information are given out carefully, and there's even a clever prime suspect.  The thing is though that Carr does a bit of sleight of hand here -- just when you believe he's given away the show much too early because there are still several chapters left in the book,  well, trust me, there are still a number of surprises waiting.  

The Corpse in the Waxworks is notable not just for the mystery at hand, but also for the atmosphere that Carr establishes from the beginning.  Marle's initial impressions of his first trip into the Gallery of Horrors are absolutely stunning, including the staircase that suggested "walls pressing in with the terrors so that you might not be able to escape,"  the exhibits imbued with a "pallor on each" face, the soundless terror caught on the faces of a particular group of wax figures,  the ghastliness of the  "shadowy people" who did not move, and the "choking stuffiness of wax and wigs" that left him needing "light and the knowledge of human presence."  But what really sets this book apart is the second half of the story, where pretty much everything that happens is completely unexpected.  And oh, that ending! Whoa! 

Don't miss Martin Edwards' fine introduction, and the added bonus of a short story (also featuring Bencolin), "The Murder in Number Four."  And my many thanks to the British Library for reprinting this novel, since my little Collier paperback is pretty much on its last legs.  Needless to say, I had a great time with this book, and it's one I can definitely recommend. 

Puzzle for Players, by Patrick Quentin


Mysterious Press/Open Road, 2018
originally published 1938
kindle version

294 pp

Moving on to book #17 on the Séptimo Círculo list,  I actually thought I would die of old age before getting through this one.  It is the rare book that tries my patience, but that's exactly what happened here.  The saving grace for me was that not only did I never guess the who, but when all was made known, it was someone I never would have suspected in a million years.  

Puzzle for Players is book number two in Quentin's series featuring Peter Duluth, but it is the first time I've read anything by this author.  The story begins as Duluth is hoping to make a bit of a comeback after having been "tabbed" as the "youngest has-been producer on record."  Re-entering the theatrical arena after having been "tentatively cured" of  a daily "two quarts of rye" drinking problem during his time in a sanitarium,  Duluth is now ready for his "big come-back," after having read the script of a new play called Troubled Waters.  A lot rides on Duluth's success, including regaining his "solvency" and  "lost self-respect," and the fact that the play is to make its appearance in a theater with a reputation of being "jinxed" means nothing to him.  It does, however, seem to make some of the cast of Troubled Waters nervous -- as part of its creepy past, for example, in 1902 a young woman had been discovered "hanging dead" in an actor's wardrobe, very likely a suicide.   But Duluth, while sympathetic, is convinced that this play will restore his reputation, and he's got a fine cast to help make that happen.  

It isn't long until the first of the weird incidents begin, but really, these are the least of Peter's problems. First,  some pretty shady people arrive on the scene, each with an agenda and all adding to Peter's woes.  Events begin taking their toll on the cast and especially on Peter himself, but above all, the show must go on.  However, after two strange deaths, he's not so sure that will be possible.

I have to say that I was quite taken with the haunted theater idea, and while the author it ran with it for a while, creepy atmosphere and all,  it just sort of fizzled.   A shame, really, because to me, there was much more he could have done with it and didn't.   The focus is very much the characters in this novel, many of whom are harboring secrets and some of whom are actively doing what they can to cause chaos while the cast is gearing up for opening night.  And while all of the mayhem is certainly engaging, the story tends to be weighed down by the psychological aspects brought in by Peter's doctor, various romance moments, and the sheer volume of red herrings that are added to the story so that by the time the end came, I was ready to be done.   Personally, I think that some careful editing might have given this story more teeth, which is what it needed, in my humble mystery-reader opinion. 

I will be encountering another Peter Duluth mystery shortly, A Puzzle for Fools from 1936, so I'm sort of wary at the moment.  I know there are any number of readers who enjoyed Puzzle for Players, but I can't really count myself among them.   I will say that the final revelation was completely unexpected, which is what saved this novel for me, but the reality is that a good solution does not necessarily a good mystery make. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Midsummer Murder, by Clifford Witting

 #16 on the Séptimo Círculo list, Clifford Witting's Midsummer Murder  brings me back to crime reading once again , although I had hoped to have read much more of that list by now. I've fallen so behind in everything that I'll likely spend the rest of the year catching up.  Oh well. 

Hodder and Stoughton, 1953
originally published 1937
184 pp


I went looking for older, contemporary reviews of this novel after finishing it, and in  googling "Midsummer Murder Witting" without the quotation marks, got thousands of results for Midsomer Murders.  I was a bit annoyed at first but then laughed because even though this book has nothing to do with Tom Barnaby and the gang from Causton CID, there is a character in this story who reminded me of Mrs. Rainbird from The Killings At Badger's Drift (which I recently read with a group on goodreads).  Not unlike that creepy lady who spied on everyone in her village in Caroline Graham's book,  there is a woman in this story who keeps a card file on everyone in her village.  I guess the Mrs. Busybody must be a reality in some villages; on the other hand, both Barnaby and the Inspector in this book, Harry Charlton, came to a point where information gleaned from these  respective sources became invaluable.  

Midsummer Murder is book number two in Witting's Harry Charlton series, which begins with Murder in Blue (1937).  I had to really go digging online for a copy of the edition of Midsummer Murder I have, but luckily, it seems that I won't have to work as hard to pick up the series opener, since the people at Galileo Publishers have seen fit to put that one back into circulation, to be released (at least here in the US) next month.  Pre-ordered, for sure, along with his Measure For Murder (1941, book #5).  His Catt Out of the Bag, book #4 from 1939 is already available for purchase, so I bought that one as well.  As all of this buying might reveal, I liked the lead character, Inspector Charlton.  I didn't particularly love the book itself, but the man intrigued me to the point where I would like to read more of his adventures in crime solving.  As for the novel, I was more than mildly annoyed with the underlying motive that connected all of the crimes (yes, there are more than one), which to me was tenuous, at best.   As an aside, anyone in 1953 who wasn't quite sure of the definition of that word could have easily turned to their Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary advertised on the back cover:

The story begins with a shooting in the Paulsfield Village square on market day, the first Tuesday of the Month.  Set between the wars in 1936, it was close to noon "and the tumult of the fortnighly gathering was at its zenith," including  all manner of livestock which "bleated, grunted and lowed," salesmen calling out their wares, a Punch-and-Judy show going on with a barrel organ for competition and construction complete with pneumatic drills.   It's a bustling, chaotic scene, and in its midst a bull escapes, and at that moment someone decides to let go with a gun and kill Thomas Earnshaw, the man cleaning the statue mid-square. 

frontispiece, the Square (oh! the map!!)

Inspector Charlton is called in to investigate, but finds an appalling lack of clues other than the bullet, a determination of the angle at which it had been fired into the victim, and sightings of a mysterious van that may or may not have something to do with the case.  All he can do at present is to talk to everyone around the square to see who might have a gun matching the murder weapon.  Progress on the case is little to none, and when a second person falls victim to the same fate, he reasons that  
"the murderer either had his intended victim playing right into his hands, or ... was waiting there like a watchful, blood-lusting spider for some innocent sacrifice to come along."

 Even worse, there is a third victim, and yet no one knows if these people had been randomly chosen or if there was some sort of link between the three in a "larger prearranged plan."  The killings have caused people to remain in their homes causing havoc for the shopkeepers, and while the police are starting to make connections, the question of who is responsible remains a mystery and leaves  the Paulsfield Sniper to remain at large.  

As this is my first experience with Clifford Witting's mystery novels, I have no idea whether or not he does this in all of his books, but here he leads the reader on quite a merry chase through the police investigation before we realize at the very end that we've been had in a nice bout of misdirection.   And I was fine up until that point, enjoying the mystery, putting the clues together in my head and even taking notes while reading.  Normally the author's sort of "gotcha" moment is a good one, meaning that he or she has put together a story whose solution I never would have guessed because I was following the trail of red herrings.  And while that happened here, when the killer was disclosed it was so out of left field that I had to go back and reread certain chapters just to try to figure it out.  Still, it was fun up to that point so I can't complain too much, but somehow that final moment  just didn't seem fair.  Be warned that this book ends so abruptly that I was looking for evidence that some of the pages had been torn out of my copy.  

Not great, but not bad, sort of middle of the road with an interesting lead character.  In my mind, not quite as nicely done as the previous  Séptimo Círculo books, but still a good read.  

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz


Harper Perennial, 2018
495 pp


I hadn't intended on reading this book just yet, but after my post about The Shooting Party  one of my goodreads friends commented on the fact that people were wowing the use of the book-within-a-book format  in this novel while technically, as he pointed out in his review of Magpie Murders,  it had already been done by Chekhov over a century earlier.  His remarks, along with all of the high ratings for this book, did the trick and my copy came off the shelf.  

The aforementioned book-within-a-book is called Magpie Murders,  the newest and final installment of  author's Alan Conway's mystery series featuring his German detective Atticus Pünd.  Editor Susan Ryeland begins her tale by giving her readers a warning: "This book changed my life."  The changes she notes are not minor ones -- she  loses her job, "a great many friends," and she no longer lives in her "quiet and comfortable" flat.  She also states that "it was all down to that bastard Alan Conway," whose books she had "always loved," but not the man himself.   But before she can explain the why behind that statement, we are immediately plunged into the small, quiet village of Saxby-on-Avon, 23 July 1955, where a funeral is being planned for Mary Blakiston, who had fallen down the stairs at Pye Hall where she had worked as a housekeeper.  

Two weeks later, a young woman by the name of Joy Sanderling has come to meet with the great detective himself, asking him to come to Saxby-on-Avon to help clear her fiancé's name.  Robert Blakiston, Mary's son, has been getting the evil eye from many of the villagers after his mother's death,  and she is convinced that "they all think he did it."  She would like Pünd to "look into it" and to reassure everyone that Mary's death was indeed an accident, and "that there was nothing sinister going on."  Pünd turns her down, but later changes his mind when he reads an article in The Times about the death of Sir Magnus Pye.  As he says, "Coincidences do occur," but it's not likely that there would be "two unexpected deaths in the same house," so it's off to the village he goes, where he joins the Detective Inspector to investigate both cases.    

I have to say right here that I was intensely following this case, and then just as Pünd says that he has "everything I need to know" about the case and I turned the page, the story comes to an abrupt end and we're back in the now with Susan Ryeland.  "Oh no!  "I yelled out loud at this juncture, when I realized, along with Susan, that the last chapter is missing.  I hadn't figured it out at all, and by golly, I wanted to know who killed Magnus Pye.  But then things changed, as Susan discovers that Alan Conway was dead and that it looks like he'd left a suicide note behind.  Her boss, Charles, tells Susan that his copy was incomplete as well, and that there were no missing pages to be found anywhere.  Susan needs to find those pages -- the publishing house had not been doing so well and they "needed" Conway's book to "make a hit."   As she begins searching for the ending of Magpie Murders, she also decides that it might be worthwhile to do a bit of sleuthing herself, to see if indeed Conway's death had been a suicide.

While I had some minor grumbles about the writing here, including some of Susan's detecting skills and choices that seemed rather hollow and Horowitz's ego writ large on the page (mentioning probably every TV show he's written the screenplays for) that caused more than a few eyerolls, I still couldn't put this book down. But then the author does something unforgivable that made me take issue:  while Susan says that as an editor she doesn't care for "coincidences in novels" (and quite frankly, neither do I as a reader), that is precisely where Horowitz goes with this book.  Honestly, it felt like he'd written himself into a corner and had to do something to get her on trajectory to finish this story. 

I know that this novel gets sterling reader reviews, so it's probably just me being picky again.  On the plus side, this book kept me entertained for hours, and  I loved the 1955 story.  It's the modern one with which I have issues:   it's not nearly as well done, and ultimately ended in a kind of letdown for me mainly because of the author's choice here to depend on coincidence.  Not a good move in my mind, and I felt cheated. I also have to say that once the reasoning behind Conway's death was revealed, it didn't seem at all like a big deal and certainly not murder-motive worthy.  I will still recommend it, but as Susan Ryeland says at the beginning of the book, "Unlike me, you have been warned."