Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story, by Anne Meredith


Poisoned Pen Press, 2018
originally published 1933
243 pp


Warning: cute and cozy this book is definitely not.  While it begins at a family gathering at Christmas, nobody's going a-wassailing, nor is there even the slightest hint of sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting tingling too -- this is the story of an unpremeditated but cold-blooded murder, the person responsible, and the aftermath.  

The usual Christmas tradition at the Gray house is for the Gray children to come to the family home. Out of six, there are two already living at Kings Poplars; the remaining four had long ago left to make their way in the world.  Yuletide is not necessarily a happy time for this family, because, as we are told early on, patriarch Adrian Gray is, "on good terms with none of his children."  We learn why this is over the first forty-something pages, and we also learn why it is that, as the back-cover blurb notes,

"None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead."

Christmas morning rolls around, and Adrian has failed to join the family for breakfast or for the usual Christmas task of reading the lessons.  When he is found dead in his library, it was thought at first he'd suffered a stroke but when the police arrive, it doesn't take long to figure out that Adrian's demise was anything but natural.   The killer, however, is ready for them, having arranged things so that the accusing finger points elsewhere.     I won't reveal any details, but this setup makes for very tense reading right up to the end as an innocent person is arrested, tried, and sentenced.   Will justice be served or will a murderer remain free to walk the streets?  

Portrait of a Murderer is a product of the interwar period, a time of great social change, and the author uses the decline in class as well as the perceived decline in morality in examining her players. It's done very well -- as Martin Edwards quotes Dorothy Sayers in his introduction, this story focuses  "less emphasis on clues and more on character. "  It's not long after the first pages are turned before this point becomes crystal clear, as Meredith weaves her way through the lives of the Grays, laying a foundation for the rest of the story.  She obviously had a keen understanding of human nature that allowed her to grasp the inner selves of these people and to portray their psychologies at work both individually and vis-a-vis  other family members. Readers who must have likeable characters, or characters with whom they can identify likely won't find that in this novel, as the author reveals that with an exception or two, the Grays are a pretty despicable lot.

  I feel like my hands are tied here, since giving away any more about this book than I've already done would be doing a disservice to potential readers. I will say that although the forty-plus pages in part one are mettle-testing to even the most patient of readers, do not give up -- the information gleaned from there will serve you greatly in the long run.   This is the sort of crime novel I love reading, answering the question of why rather than focusing on the who.  As Carolyn Wells is quoted as saying in the introduction, it is indeed a most "Human Document." 

I couldn't put it down once I'd started.  

Friday, December 25, 2020

Where's the warning label? Rules for Perfect Murders, aka Eight Perfect Murders, by Peter Swanson

File under:  WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?????   I don't know what was going through this author's head, but what he's done here is absolutely unforgivable.  Luckily I picked up the cheap paperback edition, because this book got tossed more than once across the room, something I do when I am so utterly frustrated with what I'm reading and don't want to scream. 

Since I don't read much in the way of modern crime fiction these days, trust me, the premise has to be out there enough to capture my attention, and that is what drew me to this book.  I reprint here the back-cover blurb:

"Years ago Malcolm Kershaw wrote a list of his 'Eight Favorite Murders' for his Old Devils mystery bookshop blog. Among others, it included those from Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Now, just before Christmas, Malcolm finds himself at the heart of an investigation -- as an FBI agent believes someone may be re-enacting each of the murders on his list."

Oh, I thought, this sounds really good, and with the mention of the older crime novels I was hooked.  Then I started reading and nearly choked.  Some seventeen pages in, Malcolm's old blog post was offered in its entirety, with each of the eight books not only summarized (which is okay), but the plot reveals given away (which is not okay).  To make matters worse, as we get more into this story, the author decides to go further,  giving away all of the show on each of the eight "perfect murders,"  and he's not quite done.  He goes on to spoil other classics, including (and this is truly an act of anathema),  Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  

Go ahead, feel free to argue, saying that the author in his own way is paying homage to these older books. Now  I'm no stranger to homage -- the last crime novel I read, Yukito Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders, was clearly a tribute to Christie's And Then There Were None (which, by the way, Swanson spoils in this book as well) -- but giving everything away is not the way to do it. 

Then there's the story itself, which to me was dull, lacking enough suspense to take me to the level of being fully engaged.  It's like this: since the back-cover blurb already reveals that "someone may be re-enacting the murders," we already know what's coming.  We're also reminded of the exact book each murder is based on, including those that happened in the past.   Not only that, but it was so easy to put my finger on who exactly is behind all the killing, since the author practically gives it away close to the start.   And just one more thing:  there could have been so much paring done here to make it sleeker, more taut, and to heighten the suspense; in short, some judicious editing would have certainly helped. 

Just so you know, the eight books that the author totally wrecks for potential readers are 

The Red House Mystery, by AA Milne
Malice Aforethought, by Anthony Berkeley Cox
The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
The Drowner, by John D. MacDonald*
Deathtrap, by Ira Levin 
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I asterisked The Drowner because it's the only one of the books (like the narrator of this story reminds his readers, Deathtrap is a play) I haven't read, and now I guess I don't need to since I know exactly what's going to happen and how.  Too bad -- that one looked like fun. 

I'm looking at reader reviews and people are absolutely loving this novel, which, you know, to each his/her own.   I am afraid that I am once again swimming against the tide here.

I have to be honest and say that for some time now,  I've been much happier with crime novels from yesteryear -- for the most part they're well and often uniquely plotted, characters seem to be more well defined, and even in the worst ones there's usually a modicum of suspense to be had, none of which is the case here.  

Feel free to throw tomatoes. I don't care. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Decagon House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji


Pushkin Vertigo, 2020
originally published as Jukkakukan no Satsujin  (十角館の殺人),  1987
translated by Ho-Ling Wong
284 pp


"We're just the poor insects that flew into the trap called the Decagon House"

Had I been eating something when the big reveal of this story came along, I probably would have choked because of the huge gasp that involuntarily came out of me.  As soon as that cleared, the first words out of my mouth were "holy sh*t."  I don't have that reaction very often;  even though there have been many times I've been truly surprised at the unmasking of the who, this one absolutely takes the cake.  

It began as a "little adventure" for seven members of their university's Mystery Club, who'd decided to make the island of Tsunojima the destination of their club trip.   They'd gone there looking forward to 
"Freedom on an uninhabited island. A cold case to pick over. A bit of a thrill."
They had arrived on the island on March 26th, having been taken there via fishing boat.  Tsunojima, located about five kilometers off the coast of Kyushu's Oita Prefecture, had been the site of a still-unsolved "mysterious quadruple murder" six months earlier, resulting in the deaths of Nakamura Seiji (last name first), his wife Kazue, and the "servant couple who worked for them.  Nakamura's gardener was thought to have been the killer, but it was never proven since he'd disappeared and never been seen again.  The murder culminated in a fire which had completely destroyed the main house, the Blue Mansion; the "annex building" known as the Decagon House was left intact.  Decagon House was to be their home away from home for the next few days; together, each of the seven members -- Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van (short for Van Dine),  Agatha and Orczy -- comprised "the core writing group" of the club.  For the upcomng April club magazine, they were each asked  while on the island to write one story based on the magazine's title, Dead Island the name of the "first Japanese translation of Dame Agatha's masterpiece" known to everyone today as And Then There Were None. 

from Goodreads

Oh no, I thought, I don't want to spend my reading time going through a Christie ripoff, and as luck would have it,  aside from a few nods in homage to And Then There Were None, it turned out to be anything but.  

The novel moves back and forth between what's happening on the island and what's going on back on the mainland, where a former member of the University Mystery Club, Kawaminami Taka'aka, receives a mysterious letter containing only one sentence:
"My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you."

Kawaminami is floored when he realizes the letter is from none other than Nakamura Seiji -- and that he's received an  "accusation made by a dead man."  What's more, he discovers right away that at least one other member of the club, now on the island,  has received the same correspondence.  Along with two other acquaintances,  he begins to delve into the matter of the strange letter, which leads them to also investigate the case of the quadruple murders of the previous September on Tsunojima.  In the meantime, the weirdness begins back at the island with the discovery of seven "milky white plates," on which red characters had been printed, 

quickly followed by the mysterious death of one of the seven and the first of the plates having been tacked to the dead person's door.  With no possibility of leaving the island, and as more deaths follow, as the back cover blurb notes, "the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other." 

As I've always said about this genre that really stands on its own within the genre of crime/mystery fiction,  these stories are less character oriented and more about how the deed was done.   It's no surprise to me on reading several reader reviews  of this book that noted the lack of character development, because that's pretty standard with this sort of thing, something I've come to expect after reading so many of them.  Taking that aspect away, focusing on the who and the how, The Decagon House Murders becomes an intense puzzle, the solution of which I would never have guessed.  I will say that I'm a bit frustrated at not being able to share my experience with the identity of the who, but to do so would be giving away the show.  I do think I would like to take a look at the original though, because I'm not sure I would have translated some things in this book the same way, for example, in having one character refer to the group as "y'all."  I mean, come on. Seriously? 

I had great fun with this novel, and I certainly would recommend it to regular fans of this sort of puzzler, or to fans of Japanese crime fiction in general.  The ending alone was well worth the price I paid for the book.