Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Inspector Stoddard is on the case: The Man With the Dark Beard and The Crime at Tattenham Corner, by Annie Haynes

Back in April I read the first of the series by Annie Haynes featuring as her detective a certain Inspector Stoddart of the Yard.  The Man With the Dark Beard was published in 1928; the three remaining books in this series were published in 1929 and in 1930.   Book number three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? (1929) was published posthumously, while the fourth, The Crystal Beads Murder, was completed by someone else before it was published in 1930, although Haynes had already been working on it prior to her death.  For the complete story you can read Lizzie Hayes' post about Annie Haynes on her informative blog, Promoting Crime Fiction





9781910570746
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1928
185 pp

paperback

This is is tricky book to post about,  because any minor hints past the basic murder plot and subsequent investigation will absolutely give away the show here.  As it was, I had it pretty much sussed  before page 60,  but I do believe that's because it leans way more toward Victorian sensation fiction than a typical golden age mystery, and as I am a huge fan of sensation fiction, the plot was easy to figure out.  On the other hand, it is definitely a murder mystery, one which introduces Inspector Stoddart of the Yard, who will find himself investigating two murders before all is said and done.

It seems that Dr. John Bastow has something rather heavy on his mind when he asks his friend Sir Felix Skrine the following question:
"Suppose that in the course of a man's professional career he found a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?"
 He goes on to up the curiousity ante by asking what if the "hypothetical man" had "kept silence -- at the time," leaving the criminal to go on to having "made good." What then?  Skrine answers that Bastow ought to know his "duty to the community," when they are interrupted by the ringing of Bastow's surgery bell, and they agree to meet later to talk more about Bastow's dilemma.  Unfortunately, the ringing of the bell is not the only interruption that Skrine will have to contend with, because before the two can continue their chat, Bastow is found dead in his locked office, having been shot in the head.  Enter Inspector William Stoddart from the Yard.  There are very few clues onsite, except for the fact that Bastow had been writing a letter to Skrine about their prior conversation, in which he revealed that the "proofs" were in his Chinese box, which seems to have gone missing.  Also near the corpse is a scrap of paper which reads "It was the man with the dark beard."  What is also known is that Dr. Bastow disapproved of his twenty year-old daughter Hilary's plans to marry young Basil Wilton, Bastow's assistant, who just happens to have been the last person known to have seen Bastow alive, and who just happens to have been dismissed from the doctor's service shortly before the discovery of the body.

The concerned Skrine, who is "one of the greatest -- some said the greatest -- criminal lawyers of his day," also stands in loco parentis to Hilary until she comes of age, and to her disabled brother Fee as well. He offers them a cottage near his country house, taking them both away from the city.  As their father's executor, he also means to continue Dr. Bastow's wishes against Hilary marrying Basil, and eventually makes Hilary an offer that she will struggle against yet find it's one she really can't refuse.  In the meantime, Basil has his own issues, not the least of them the fact that he's found himself a suspect in yet another murder.  As Stoddart moves into the investigation of this second unnatural death, he has no clue that time is actually running out and that it's not only Basil's fate he holds in his hands.

 While I have to be honest here and say that The Man The Dark Beard was not as good as it could have been, because of too much focus on the sensation-fiction plot.  However, giving credit to the author, she obviously spent a lot of time in plotting what  turns out to be a truly nefarious crime, as that part of the novel came face to face with the detection in the case.   I had to look at the book from that particular vantage point, otherwise what's left is an all too-easy-to-solve mystery that offers very little challenge to the reader.

That is not at all the case in the next book, The Crime at Tattenham Corner, which I did not want to stop reading once I'd started it.  Again, some nice plotting from Haynes here, but this time the



9781910570760
Dean Street Press, 2015
originally published 1929
236 pp
paperback


actual mystery carries a lot more heft than her first Stoddart novel.  Stoddart and his "most trusted subordinate," Alfred Harbord, are called to Hughlin's Wood, "not a great many miles from Epsom," where a body has been discovered, face down in a foot of water in a ditch.  All that is known is that it is "a man of middle age" and  "evidently of the better class." It seems that the man has been shot in the head, and that a card in his pocket bears the name of a "man high in the financial world." Based on the name on the card, the monogram on the man's watch and a letter in his pocket, it seems that their dead man may be Sir John Burslem of Porthwick Square.  Burslem's valet is sent for, and on arrival, instantly makes the corrorborating identification.   The police immediately begin to wonder if perhaps his death on Derby Day has any significance, since his horse, Peep O'Day, was set to run and was odds-on the favorite for the win.  As it turns out, "an owner's death renders void all his horses' nominations and entries," leaving Peep O'Day's rival, Perlyon, set up to take the prize.  The owner of Perlyon is a Sir Charles Stanyard, who by some weird twist here, was once engaged to Burslem's widow Sophie, his second wife.   Stanyard takes the lead on the suspect list, but there is quite possibly another motive aside from the Derby.  It seems that on the night before his death, Sir John had inexplicably and quite hurriedly changed his will so that Sophie would inherit all, leaving out Sir John's daughter Pamela, "the apple of his eye," completely, followed by the strange disappearance of Ellerby, Sir John's valet, who was witness to the new will.   Before it's over, Stoddart and Harbord will find themselves deep in a convoluted web of mysteries that they must solve before they can solve the bigger mystery of Sir John's murder.

The Crime at Tattenham Corner is truly ingenious, allaying all of my fears about continuing the series after reading the previous book, and it is genuinely satisfying as well.   This time around I was almost finished before I cottoned to the author's scheme, but only a small part of it; the clever twists (and there are more than one) in the plot did not make it at all easy.  Haynes has quite a few tricks up her sleeve this time around, offering a mystery that will keep armchair detectives both  guessing and entertained.  Around the murder investigation there are strange happenings including a séance or two, hosted at her home by the very strange Mrs. Jimmy Burslem, Sir John's sister-in-law, whose husband is known to be trapising around Tibet looking at old ruins, while widow Sophie who never had a head for business, makes plans to run her husband's financial empire.  The main attraction, though, is most certainly Stoddart and his investigation.  He truly is a policeman who never gives up, no matter what it takes.  Wink wink.

So bottom line: The Man With the Dark Beard is okay, but for readers who have familiarity with the often-convoluted plots found in Victorian sensation novels, may be a bit on the easy side to figure out, while The Crime at Tattenham Corner is a definite yes, making me eager to get on to book three, Who Killed Charmian Karslake? asap.

Don't miss the excellent introduction in each book by Curtis Evans, whose crime fiction knowledge knows absolutely no bounds.




Monday, May 4, 2020

The Hex Murder, by Alexander Williams

 9781616464080
Coachwhip Publications, 2017
originally published 1935
177 pp

paperback

Just last week I was once again suffering from a hefty case of insomnia, so at about 2 a.m. I came downstairs hoping to find something to watch on TV.   I was  just sort of scrolling through what's out there and I found a documentary I hadn't seen before called Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania, released in 2015.  The actual murder took place in 1928, with the killer believing that he had been cursed by the victim.  At the heart of that story is the practice of Braucherei or "powwow," something I'd never heard of before, but which I found utterly fascinating.  After I'd watched this documentary, it hit me that sometime last year I'd bought a book with a hex sign on the cover, so off I went up to the American crime shelves and there it was.

In his introduction to this book, Curtis Evans cites the Rehmeyer murder from the documentary, noting that afterwards "crime journalists, knowing ghoulish copy when they saw it," would go on to report about  any death "even vaguely connected to a powwower -- or rumored to have a connection" as  a"hex murder," which was "most unfair" to these people.  As it turns out though, in 1934 a  real "hex murder" actually occurred when a woman in Pottsville was murdered because of her killer's belief that she had "hexed him."   The author of three other detective novels (The Jinx Theatre Murder, 1933; Death Over Newark, 1933; Murder in the W.P.A., 1937),  Williams, as Evans notes,   had a "large reservoir of life experience"  from which he could draw for material for his books; the Hex Murders reflected "his own background in journalism and the publicity business," as the author "tapped into years of newspaper stoked notoriety about ethnic German folkways in the Pennsylvania Dutch country."   And indeed, while the crime itself takes place in New York City, the investigation will lead the main character into, as the back-cover blurb states, "the backwoods of Pennsylvania." 

At 477 Banks Street, an apartment building not unknown to the beat cops, a patrolman encounters a man wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers, darting this way and that while frantically waving at him, "as though a jumping-jack had gone mad and was indulging himself in an incoherent Caucasian saraband."  Following him into a fourth-floor apartment, he discovers the body of a dead woman, viciously murdered by having had her throat slit to the point of having her head nearly severed.  The police decide that the man who had alerted them to the crime, Robert Crocker, was the culprit after a bloodstained razor was found in his apartment by an eager young reporter, Peter Adams.  His pajamas were also bloody, and rather than phoning an ambulance or the police on the gruesome discovery of his girlfriend Marguerite Scholl,  he had gone out into the streets to hunt down a cop.  Things go from bad to worse when he realizes that he can't account for his time after leaving a party  in Marguerite's apartment, telling police that he'd drawn a "blank" because he was so intoxicated.  The police and the District Attorney are more than convinced of Crocker's guilt, but Adams  isn't so sure.  Worried that they're about to put an innocent man in the chair, Adams takes a leave of absence to try to find anything that might help Crocker.  He begins in Marguerite's apartment, where he discovers letters from Marguerite's mother in Erwinna, Pennsylvania.  On each letter appears this strange sign,



my photo, from page 67


which is duplicated "repeatedly" in color in the arch of the apartment's fireplace.  With the strange letters and added evidence from the beat patrolman, Adams realizes that he needs to begin his investigation in rural Pennsylvania, bringing along with him a friend of Crocker's, a young woman by the name of Houston King, who also believes that Crocker is completely innocent.  It is in Pennsylvania where this story begins to really gather steam; it is also here that Adams will find himself in the midst of the most bizarre strangeness he's probably ever encountered.

Given that the book isn't very long, it is a huge credit to Williams that he managed to not only tell a suspenseful and quickly-moving story, but he also provided the reader with a vivid cast of characters (some of them utterly unforgettable), and enough of a creepy atmosphere that makes the book difficult to put down.  I did find myself tensing up in reading how the police  treated not only the crime scene but also their suspect, not to mention the fact that circumstantial evidence alone was enough to send the poor guy to the chair; I had to keep telling myself that this is the 30s.   I started this novel last night at around 10:30 and stayed with it until the wee hours of the morning, and not simply because I wanted to know who killed Marguerite Scholl. It's more that this book took me completely into the zone and I didn't want to leave -- it's that good.   I'm seriously paying for it today but it was well worth my current zombified state of being -- this is not your average Golden Age detective story by any stretch.

So very highly recommended, especially for people who enjoy vintage crime but also for mystery readers who are always on the lookout for something completely outside the norm.  "Shuddery" indeed!!





Saturday, April 11, 2020

another fine Stark House novel: Two Names for Death, by E.P. Fenwick

Boston is the location for this whodunit written in 1945 by yet another author I'd never heard of.  According to stopyourekillingme,  Elizabeth Fenwick Way (about whom you can read more here or here) wrote her first three mystery novels under the name E.P. Fenwick;  the rest of her crime/mystery fiction she wrote under the name Elizabeth Fenwick.   In 1963 she won the Edgar Award for The Make-Believe Man which I just bought used; it looks like most of her work is out of print but luckily there are used copies out there to find.  I say luckily because if Two Names for Death is any indicator, I will have to read them all, especially the two Fenwick wrote before this one.




9781951473013
Stark House Press, 2020
originally published 1945
189 pp
paperback

Although he'd parked his cab in the shade, and although it's only 11:00 in the morning, Barney Chance finds himself sweltering in the relentless summer heat.  After a long wait a man and woman appear outside the Clyde Hotel; the man stays behind while the woman asks to be taken to an address on Waterford Street.  The next day, Barney is startled to discover that this same woman was now dead, and he realizes that he just might have information being sought by the police.  The woman was Mrs. Lenore Bellane; although initially Lt. Eggart of the Homicide Squad believed she'd committed suicide in her room at the Hotel Clyde, the ME reveals that she had not died by her own hand, but had indeed been murdered.  What is even more strange is that while Barney did not know the woman, he had recognized the address where she'd asked to be taken since that particular house, owned by the Schaftt family, is where he rents a room.  As the police investigation moves ahead, Barney will find himself in the middle of things, as will his boss Edward Bottman (Bott) who also rooms there, and the rest of the Shaftt family living on Waterford Street.  Things heat up for everyone concerned when yet another death occurs and Eggart finds himself under pressure by the higher-ups to get these cases solved.  And here, the less said about the plot the better so I'm keeping shtum. 


As in many of the best mystery/crime novels from this time period, the skills shown by the author here are first rate, especially since Two Names for Death is only Fenwick's third novel.  There is nothing superfluous that detracts from the plot, the solution to the two deaths is most cleverly crafted, and the police action here seems logical and realistic.  But it's the complicated web of family relationships that the author has constructed that takes center stage here;  given all of the possible suspects along with a variety of motives, it's certainly not an easy task trying to discover the who.  I didn't, right up until the very last.

By the way, if you ever want to know what this book might look like after going through a wash cycle, here it is:




The very cool people at Stark House had sent me an advance reader copy, and I had made it to the midpoint of the novel when I lost the book.  I tore my house apart and looked everywhere except in the sheets from my bed that I'd thrown into the wash.  Imagine my surprise on finding my now very clean but unreadable copy; imagine the embarrassment of having to go to the publisher to explain what had happened and meekly asking for an e-copy so I could finish the book.  I'm sure they had a good laugh, and I thank them.  I later bought a real copy of the novel to add to my Black Gat Books shelf.

Definitely recommendable, Two Names For Death  is perfect for readers of old crime/mystery novels, for people who enjoy old police procedurals before they really became known by that name, and perfect for readers who are into discovering forgotten women writers of the past.  It's also perfect for readers who are looking for just good, solid mystery reading with no clutter getting in the way of the story, so hard to find these days.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Woman on the Roof, by Helen Nielsen


97819444520137
Black Gat Books/Stark House Press, 2016
originally published 1954
194 pp

paperback



A couple of months ago the lovely people at Stark House Press sent me an advanced reading copy of a novel
in their Black Gat line of books, Two Names for Death, by EP Fenwick, which comes out mid-April so I'll defer talking about it for the time being (although I will say that it's really, really good and that vintage mystery/crime readers definitely have something to look forward to).  After I'd finished that one, I started looking at the catalogue of other Black Gat Books, especially those written by women and bought this one, The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen, and two other titles as well. 

According to Fantastic Fiction, Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) authored nineteen novels; she also wrote for television, including the old series Alfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, and Tales of the Unexpected.  

The titular "woman on the roof" is Wilma Rathjen, whose brother Curtis has set her up in a garage apartment that looks down onto the six-unit apartment complex below.   We discover right away that Wilma has spent time in a sanitarium; she also has a job at a local bakery.   It is actually a muddle with a certain birthday cake ordered by one of the apartment dwellers that not only has her in a bit of a tizzy as the novel opens, but also leads to the discovery of the same woman in a bathtub in one of the apartments that Wilma can see into from her vantage point.  Because her previous trouble that had landed her in the sanitarium had to do with "tall tales" told to the police, and had upset her reputation-fearful, wealthy-businessman brother and made him threaten to send her back if it happened again, she keeps quiet about it, believing that someone else will eventually find the dead Jeri Lynn.   When the body is discovered, the police at first view her death as an accident, until circumstances and a little more digging reveal that her death is actually a case of murder.   Unfortunately for Wilma, she finds herself smack in the middle of it all, and the killer sets out to take advantage of her troubled past while believing that she knows more than she actually does. 



from Goodreads

If you are thinking that perhaps you've read this plot before, you probably haven't.  The author set up this novel so that it moves between two points of view beginning with that of Wilma before moving to  that of the lead detective on the case, John Osgood.  It is cleverly done; we know from the start that Wilma has some issues and that people consider her to be unbalanced.  I have to give serious credit to Nielsen here -- at one point she references a road-company production of The Snake Pit, but she never takes her readers down that road.  What she focuses on instead are Wilma's underlying worries and insecurities about what her brother will think and her fear of being sent back to the sanitarium now that her life is on somewhat of an even keel.  For his part, Osgood (who has his own demons to contend with) has the good sense to realize that
"Even a crazy woman should have a chance to speak for herself. How else could anyone tell the sane from the insane?"
He just knows that somewhere in what others perceive as her chaotic ramblings, she has something important and worthwhile to say and that perhaps she isn't "crazy" at all -- maybe she just has a different way of seeing and expressing things.  It is this slow realization, along with the fact that he must somehow try to impress on others to see things his way  and the slowly-growing trust between Wilma and Osgood  that allows for The Woman on the Roof to become more than just your average crime novel. 

 The list of suspects in this novel is a lengthy one, motives abound, and I never guessed the who.  But my reading focus is always on the people in crime novels, so for me it is a win-win, and a vintage mystery I can highly recommend.  The fact that Helen Nielsen was heretofore unknown to me but  is now on my reading radar is also a plus, and my many and sincere thanks to Stark House for putting her there. 

I'll be back in a couple of weeks with the previously-mentioned Two Names for Death that like this one spotlights another woman crime writer I've never heard of, and after that another, and then the two I recently bought ...  my Stark House reading future looks more than promising. 


Friday, March 6, 2020

The Aosawa Murders, by Riku Onda


"I'll tell you the truth, as I know it."


Generally I don't reread crime/mystery novels because I can only be surprised once,  but this is no ordinary crime/mystery novel, and it affected me much more the second time through. After the original read I knew I had something great in my hands but things were still a bit murky; rereading brought clarity and I was flat out chilled.  



781912242245
Bitter Lemon Press, 2020
originally published 2005
translated by Alison Watts
304 pp
paperback

It was a summer day and a special one: there were two "auspicious" birthdays at the Aosawa home: those of Dr. Aosawa, now sixty, and the grandmother who was eighty-eight.  There was another birthday as well, that of a grandson, and it was a day for celebration.  A neighbor child, Junji, had gone home to get his brother Sei-ichi and sister Makiko to come back to the Aosawa house to join the festivities, and the three arrived back just in time to witness a "scene from hell."  Seventeen people lay either dead or dying from drinks laced with poison, six of them children.  Two people survive: Kimi, the housekeeper who had only had a small taste of her drink, and Hisako Aosawa, the young daughter of the doctor who had none.   Kimi was out as a suspect because although she survived she was hospitalized right away, severely ill,  leaving only Hisako.  The thing is though that she is blind, and had no way to identify any possible suspects; nor is there any possibility that she could have laced the bottles of sake and soft drinks containing the poison.  The detective investigating the case is sure it's her, but there is no evidence linking her directly to the crime.  The case stalls, but another line of inquiry opens centering on the man who delivered the drinks to the party that day.  It's not until his suicide that, as the back-cover blurb notes, "his actions seem to seal his guilt," but the question is why? No connections could ever be discovered linking him to the Aosawas.  And then there are those people who aren't convinced he's guilty, still holding on to the idea that it was Hisako who was responsible. 

Years later,  Makiko Saiga publishes a book about that day called The Forgotten Festival, which she claims was "ultimately fiction" although it was "based on facts and research."  Nonfiction, she says, "is an illusion," since "All that can exist is fiction visible to the eye. And what is visible can also lie."  Later her assistant will reference her work as a "grey area."  She had written Forgotten Festival after countless hours of interviews with people somehow connected to the crime;  and once published it caused quite a stir.   Now, thirty years after the murders, a friend of Makiko's younger brother feels compelled to start looking into the truth of things, going back to many of the same people who were  involved with the case or who had once been interviewed for The Forgotten Festival, including the detective on the case, Makiko Saiga and of course, Hisako Aosawa herself.

The Aosawa Murders is not simply about discovering the who and the why.  Among other issues, the author so disturbingly reveals throughout this story that although the murders happened thirty years earlier,  that day took its toll and  had a lasting, often devastating impact on several people, and continues to do so in the present.  She also asks the question of how to get to the real truth behind events, especially when it comes from so many different perspectives; there's also the ultimate question of responsibility. 

The author should be commended on how she put this book together, ultimately leaving it to the reader to go through several perspectives using personal recollections, newspaper articles, diaries, pieces of Saiga's Forgotten Festival etc. to pick up a number of clues before arriving at the chilling truth of what actually happened that day and why.    I discovered that there is nothing wasted here, that everything that everyone says is important, and the trick is in putting together things that may not at first seem to matter or to be connected.  We are handed that clue at the outset by Makiko Saiga, who as she is walking around the city talks about a "synaptic experience...all connected but separate."

If you must have a linear, easy-to-follow plot, or you're not one to really sit and think about what you've just read, this book is likely not for you.  This novel is brilliant; it is very different and quite cleverly constructed so as to provide a challenge to even the most seasoned of crime or mystery fiction readers.  It zeroes in on human nature which moves it well into the literary zone, which is where I most enjoy being.

For me, this book is not just Japanese crime fiction at its best; it is crime fiction at its very best.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James

9780440000174
Berkley, 2020
327 pp

hardcover


One of the authors blurbed on the back cover of this book says that The Sun Down Motel is "Deliciously creepy. A chilling blend of mystery and ghost story that will thrill fans of both." That would soooo be me:  I love both a good mystery and a good ghost story, so I picked up a copy in eager anticipation. 

The story is told from two different points of view and from two different timelines; the common ground between both is the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York.   In 2017 Carly Kirk has made her way here to find out anything she can about her missing aunt Vivian, who had just vanished back in 1982.  Carly never knew her, but she'd been "obsessed" with what had happened to her as long as she could remember.  Aunt Vivian was never spoken of at home; there were no photos of her anywhere, and the only thing her mother ever said about Vivian was that "Vivian is dead."  For Carly it was unfair that her aunt had been
"forgotten, reduced to a few pieces of newsprint and nothing else. It wasn't fair that Mom had died and taken her memories and her grief with her. It wasn't fair that Viv didn't matter to anyone but me."
Vivian had arrived in Fell in 1982. She hadn't planned on landing there, but  once she'd arrived she picked up a job as night clerk as the Sun Down Motel.  It wasn't long until she started having strange experiences including the strong smell of someone smoking (with no one else there but her), weird phone calls, footsteps and a presence she felt, lights going off and on, doors opening, and a woman who "wasn't real."   In  2017, when  Carly arrived in Fell, the same night clerk job at the Sun Down Motel was coincidentally (ahem)  available, and she took it.   While she investigates what may have happened to  her missing aunt, she comes across a series of past unsolved murders that occurred prior to her aunt's disappearance; she also begins to experience the same strange phenomena at the Sun Down.  What she didn't know was that Vivian had also become interested in these unsolved crimes.  The novel follows both Vivian and Carly as they explore these crimes in their own way across time.    Much has changed in the meantime, including the advent of the Internet, "murderinos" who share an obsession with and information about crimes past and present, cell phones, etc.,  but two things remain the same: the potential for danger as each woman gets closer to answers in her search, and the weird, inexplicable happenings at the Sun Down Motel.


The Sun Down Motel begins with a number of questions that will eventually be answered when all is said and done, and its first chapter drew me in quickly setting up the strangeness to come, especially at the end when Viv writes the following in her notebook:
"The ghosts are awake tonight. They're restless. I think this will be over soon."
I'm thinking at this point that this was going to be good.   And then something happened: right at about page 102  somehow I figured it out.  I knew who was behind it all and I knew how this novel was going to end including the twisty bit towards the end.   I wrote down the name on an index card as well as a prediction, stuck it in the book and went on to finish reading it, hoping I'd be wrong. I wasn't -- on either count.  Oh, what a disappointment!  Obviously there were plot points that I couldn't know by page 102, but somehow I'd pegged it nonetheless in terms of the weirdness at the Sun Down, the solution to the crimes, and a big part of the twisty ending; for me the suspense just wasn't there.   What was said (referring to the back-cover blurb again) to be  a novel that "takes danger and fear to a new level" came off like a beach read.  So there goes the promise of being  "thrilled."    What about  "deliciously creepy?" one might ask.   Well, that didn't quite pan out as well as hoped either.  Ghostly/supernatural stories from across the world and across time happen to be a large portion of my reading bread and butter, and the one in this book I found sort of lackluster and  not really very frightening at all, landing more on the side of  supernatural effects that you might find on tv or in a film.  To be fair, I will say that for the most part some of these scenes were written so vividly that I could actually see some of them in my head as they were happening, but the hackles on the neck just weren't there -- another disappointment. 







The truth is that  most readers loved this book and have given it stellar ratings as well as an abundance of uber-enthusiastic reviews,  so once again,  I find myself swimming against the tide of popular opinion; once again I am the little red fish going the other way.  Sometimes I'm just not the right audience for certain books; this one falls into that category.  It happens to everyone.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Maigret (and Simenon) again: The Night at the Crossroads

read in January



9780141393483
Penguin, 2014
originally published as La nuit du carrefour, 1931
translated by Linda Coverdale
151 pp

paperback

"The whole thing's a scream, don't you think?"

Yes indeed it is, and woe be to anyone who decides that the 151 pages comprising this book can just be breezed through in no time, because this is a clear case of brevity disguising complexity.  On the other hand, it's a novel that packs more of a punch when read in one sitting, which is how I did it -- as in the case of A Man's Head, I didn't want to stop reading once I started it.  It is a hell of twisty story, with Maigret at the helm once again to decipher just what's going on here.

The Three Widows Crossroads is situated along the main road from Paris to Étampes, just three kilometers from the town of Arpajon.   It is home to Carl Andersen and his sister Else, insurance agent Monsieur Émile Michonnet and his wife, and Monsieur Oscar, the owner of the garage/repair shop/gas station there.    It is also the site of a murder.  It seems that M. Michonnet's brand new car had gone missing, with Andersen's old "rattletrap"  car left in its place.  Michonnet called the police, who search Andersen's garage and discover Michonnet's car there.  They also find the body of a man who'd been shot in the chest in the driver's seat.  His papers identify him as Isaac Goldberg, a diamond merchant from Antwerp; Andersen and his sister  have fled on foot to Arpajon to catch the first train for Paris where they are picked up by the police.  As the novel begins, Maigret and his colleagues have been taking turns interrogating Andersen, who claims to know absolutely nothing about, his story never waivering throughout the entire seventeen-hour ordeal.  It is a case where the inhabitants at the Crossroads neither saw nor knew anything, let alone have an alibi.  Making his way to the Crossroads after Andersen's release, he speaks to Else Andersen and learns nothing.  He is expecting the arrival of Goldberg's widow, and she gets there while Maigret and his colleague repeatedly make their way "up and down from the crossroads" several times.  As she begins to get out of the car, a shot rings out in the dark hitting and killing Madame Goldberg, bringing the murder toll to two.  As one might guess, finding the culprit isn't going to be easy, especially with the suspects at hand. 

As Night at the Crossroads begins, a mist is hovering over the Seine, turning to fog in the wee hours of the morning as dawn makes its appearance.   Usually when a story begins in this manner, it tends to signal the reader that things are going to be hazy or unclear.  Combined with the darkness that enfolds much of the action at the Three Widows Crossroads, that is definitely the case here. I don't want to say anything else about the plot or how it unfolds, except that like most of the Maigret novels I've read so far, the plot is secondary while the psyche takes center stage. 

Once again, a number of readers found the reading to be slow or boring, which is sad for me to see because it's neither.  Perhaps the temptation to buzz through the novel without thinking overtakes people or maybe it's that there is very little in the way of physical clues to follow  as in a normal police procedural novel, where you follow along as the lead detective finds and makes known his or her dazzling discoveries.  This is not that, nor was it intended to be. Reading Simenon requires a measure of patience and some thought;  he doesn't hand it all to you on a plate.   Personally, I had great fun trying to put all of the pieces together in this strange puzzle where nothing is as it seems, and discovered more than one surprise while doing so.



from imdb


Off to watch the film.