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Sunday, 22 September 2019

Cain's Jawbone by Edward Powys Mathers

Six murders. One hundred pages. Millions of possible combinations... but only one is correct. Can you solve Torquemada's murder mystery? 
In 1934, the Observer's cryptic crossword compiler, Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), released a novel that was simultaneously a murder mystery and the most fiendishly difficult literary puzzle ever written.  
The pages have been printed in an entirely haphazard order, but it is possible - through logic and intelligent reading - to sort the pages into the only correct order, revealing six murder victims and their respective murderers.  
Only two puzzlers have ever solved the mystery of Cain's Jawbone: do you have what it takes to join their ranks? 
Please note: this puzzle is extremely difficult and not for the faint-hearted.

This beautiful limited edition box from Unbound has the 100 pages on individual cards and if you’re like me, you will spend hours finding links between pages. After a couple of weeks, I’ve now managed to get everything into some kind of order — but definitely not the right one — and some light is emerging.

It’s infuriating and wonderful. I don’t want to give anything away because I’m aware that there’s a competition attached to this and we're not allowed to share our insights, but you have to think laterally, as you would with a cryptic crossword.

On which note, Alan and I often mark ourselves out as possibly the only couple under 50 in the world who like to sit in cafés doing cryptic crosswords. But, as any Unbounder who sponsored this project will know, early twentieth century cryptic such as Torquemada's were significantly more cryptic than those we have today. It is, in many ways, a whole different language. Aargh!

Cain’s Jawbone is a hard one to review, because while there is a solution, I haven’t arrived there yet and, as far as I know, no one has. I have hope, though! It just needs a lot of time and dedication.

This is proper, old-school puzzling and I’d heartily recommend it to the dedicated player of mental games.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Mini reviews #30

My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018) by Oyinkan Braithwaite. This is truly a stand-out debut. A short and witty novel written as part of an undergraduate creative writing degree, it tells the story of Korede, who constantly finds herself cleaning up (literally and figuratively) after her beautiful, pampered serial killer sister, Ayoola.

Secret Obsession (2019), directed by Peter Sullivan. I hope SJ Watson is suing Netflix over this production. It’s like someone has seen Before I Go to Sleep, missed the point entirely, and decided to rewrite it.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective (2019) by Susannah Stapleton. An entertaining and illuminating look at the life and career of Maud West, who is probably well-known to geeks like me (and, let’s face it, you) but now unknown to most of the world. We get a glimpse here, not just of how  the detection business worked, and how a woman succeeded in a man’s world, but also at the fuzzy lines between criminality and respectability, between ethics and expediency. It’s an eye-opener and an etertaining read, interspersed with West’s florid accounts of her own cases. It’s also a beautiful book to behold.

Escape Room (2019), directed by Adam Robitel. There are a lot of films (and books) called Escape Room, and this is the only one I’ve experienced. It’s dumb as hell but oddly compelling and enjoyable. You can guess the premise. Apparent strangers are invited to experience the toughest escape room of them all, and they soon find out that the challenge has deadly implications… Will the real And Then There Were None please stand up?

The Turn of the Key (2019) by Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware is the writer I find myself recommending to other people more than anyone else. She really is the closest thing we have in print to a love child of Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier. And I don’t think she’s ever written a bad book. Her latest, as you can guess from the title, is a bit of a ghost story, but at its heart it’s a mystery thriller. And, in grand tradition, it’s epistolary. A nanny with a secret gets a suspiciously cushy job in Scotland, where she immediately gets charged with looking after three problem children for a week. And, possibly, a ghost. And, in the meantime, she tries to solve the mystery of why all the previous nannies have scarpered so soon after taking up their posts. It all takes her back to old myths and tragedies surrounding the property, a gothic building converted into a smart house, and the tension is palpable with every flying page.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

The Eleventh Little Indian by Jacquemard-Sénécal

This is a fascinating French novel from the 1970s and, although I read the first English translation, I’ve given it its slightly less offensive US title here.  The Eleventh Little Indian (1979) is currently out of print, but hopefully it will be picked up by one of the small presses with a suitable new title. The edition I have was published by Agatha Christie’s own literary home, the Collins Crime Club.

Yves Jacquemard and Jean-Michele Sénécal were established playwrights when they wrote the book as their debut in 19976 and submitted it as a candidate for the Prix du Quai des Orfèvres. The prize committee - or possibly the publishers - rejected the novel as ‘too daring’, possibly because of its offhand dealing with homosexuality (that’s purely a guess), and the authors dashed off another novel, by all accounts inferior, which won. Sadly, Jacquemard died in 1980 at the age of 37, cutting short an interesting partnership.

I’m currently rehearsing for an amateur production of Christie’s And Then There Were None, using the book’s ending as opposed to the play’s traditional one, so the premise for this was irresistible.

A French theatre company is performing a special new adaptation of And Then There Were None, using the book’s original ending. One evening, the actor playing the murderer turns up late to the dressing room and finds all ten fellow cast members dead. At his own dressing table is an eleventh victim — someone apparently unknown to everyone, wearing theatrical make-up.

What follows is an often witty and generally enjoyable investigation into a complicated backstory, as the central character, Paul Samson, and policeman Hector Parescot (note the initials) join forces to uncover the link between these apparently unconnected actors, the identity of the eleventh corpse, and the murderer’s name.

The solution — and the several red herrings and backstories — owe a lot to Agatha Christie, whose books weave in and out of the plot through indirect or direct nods.  I particularly enjoyed the character of the gay director/writer who has a cherished collection of Christie’s novels, because he reminded me of so many real Christie fans. This is the first time I’ve seen authors address Christie’s camp legacy so directly, and the fact that the book was published so soon after her death and — in English, at least — by her own publishers, is rather nice.

My only gripe was that the narrator does not play fair, and I don’t mean that in any artificially indignant Roger Ackroyd-y way. The narrator actually lies us, the readers, at a key moment. Perhaps that was an issue of translation. There’s only one thing to do … I must learn French and read the original!

As several characters promise throughout the course of the investigation, you will find the solution in the pages of Agatha Christie. But it won’t be one of the more famous ‘twists’ you’re being pushed towards at every turn. I put down this novel with a very specific feeling of ‘How could I not see that?’ that I haven’t had since reading Christie in my pre-teens. All in all, The Eleventh Little Indian is thoroughly recommended.

While there are several titles in French apparently by Jacquemard-Sénécal, all but one (which has also been translated, as The Body Vanishes) were written exclusively by Sénécal. It’s a shame, but perhaps this novel deserves to stand alone as a curiosity and a one-off.

(In cast anyone’s wondering, I’m playing Lombard.)


See above(!)

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Death in a Desert Land by Andrew Wilson

 Welcome to my one-hundredth post on A Sign of the Crimes

Andrew Wilson’s series of mysteries featuring Agatha Christie as a detective are hugely escapist and enjoyable. They stand not just as curiosities but as decent novels in their own right. While Agatha Christie has solved several crimes in print and on screen – especially in the last few years – Wilson’s series is set apart from the others by the skillful blend of three key components: historical research, literary research, and genuine affection for the author and her legacy. 

I count Andrew as a personal friend, and he’s been in my life longer than he knows: one of his first books, Voices from the Titanic, provided a hefty chunk of the backbone to my MA dissertation. So I am delighted to report that Death in a Desert Land (2019) lives up to its Golden Agey title and the beautiful dust-jacket artwork. I read it in one sitting, appropriately enough on what felt like the hottest night of all time and, perhaps less appropriately, to the backdrop of a thunder and lightning storm. 

This third instalment in the series sees Agatha Christie in 1928, encouraged by the Secret Service to travel to Ur in Iraq, investigating the death of Gertrude Bell (Bell, who helped found the modern state of Iraq, was, in real life, found dead of an overdose in 1926). At Ur, she meets an eccentric and international cast of characters, and discovers that no love was lost between Bell and the dig’s own ‘belle’, a certain Katharine Woolley. 

At this stage, the committed Christie enthusiast will squeal with recognition, because the real Mrs Woolley has made almost as much of an impact on us as she did on the real Agatha Christie. It is common knowledge – so common that no one bothers citing a source – that the first victim in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) was based on her.  If you are a die-hard Agatha Christie fan, you will spot the murderer a few chapters in, simply by whittling out the real people and identifying applying a bit of plot insight gleaned from Christie’s own work. This does not in any way spoil the clue-hunt, as knowing what you’re looking for is just as enjoyable as, if not more so than, going in blind. 

There is a subtle shift in scope between Wilson’s previous two novels and Death in a Desert Land. While A Talent For Murder and A Different Kind of Evil reminded me in many ways of Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey Mysteries – even having similarly titled first instalments (Upson kicked off in 2008 with An Expert in Murder) – this third entry harks back to the technique David Pirie applied in his Murder Rooms series. In Pirie’s books, and the television series, Arthur Conan Doyle solves various mysteries that bear striking similarities to the Sherlock Holmes stories he would go on to write. In Death in a Desert Land, Agatha Christie inhabits a mystery that bears more than a little resemblance to Murder in Mesopotamia and, surprisingly, to one or two of her later novels including A Caribbean Mystery (1965). 

In fact, I wondered if there was a bit of sailing close to the wind. When a water glass filled with hydrochloric acid turns up on the camp site – exactly as it does in Murder in Mesopotamia – ‘this’, Christie says, ‘is beyond anything even I could have dreamt up’, which might suggest that she couldn’t have thought it up; that her creative genius has to be rationalised with external influences. But the last thing Andrew Wilson or indeed Agatha Christie would want us to do is to take their work too seriously. 

It is, though, extremely fun and thoroughly satisfying to be in the company of Wilson’s Agatha Christie once again. She is a warm and human character, who gives a voice to those of us who shyly observe life from the sidelines. I am looking forward to the next instalment, Who Saw Him Die?, which has already been written for publication in 2020. In particular, I’m hoping that a certain Max Mallowan might crop up…

Meta Matters
The whole thing is a meta moment.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

High Seas (Netflix, 2019)

I have often wondered what an Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Agatha Christie would look like, and I think that we've got closest to an answer in the most unexpected thing: a Spanish Netflix miniseries. Netflix has released High Seas (or Alta Mar) worldwide with dubbing - but do yourself a favour and stick to subtitles. The English dubbing is so, so unbelievably bad that I was praying the traffic accident in the first 20 seconds would be the end of the story. However, once I'd switched to Spanish, I happily endured the remaining 9 hours of silliness.

It’s the late 1940s, and a bunch of rich pretty people with dark secrets board a majestic ship sailing from Spain to Brazil. On the way to the harbour, two yo
ung women, Caroline and Eva, almost run over a third, harassed and anxious young woman, who says they need to get her on board or she will die. A tricky enough proposition but ten times trickier when Caroline is engaged to marry the owner of the sealine (is sealine a word? I mean the maritime equivalent of an airline).

Of course, no sooner is the intruder safely stowed when she starts acting very suspiciously, and then disappears. There’s a scream, a splash, and a murder investigation. Then, despite the close quarters in which all action takes place – namely, a moving ship – we also manage to plough through more murder, manslaughter, arson, divorce, adultery, rape, fraud, dancing, identity theft, suicide, deformity, false imprisonment, corrupt police investigations, and, of course, lashings and lashings of Nazi gold, all culminating in an on-board wedding at which, somehow an elaborate antique wedding dress that had burnt to a cinder has been repaired below-deck in two days to look even more stunning than before. Do not take High Seas seriously. It is the very definition of escapism, and all the better for it.

There is absolutely no innovation in this story. All the women are young and beautiful. LGBTQIA people do not exist. The rich are kind and clever or corrupt and greasy and the poor are either simple-but-honest or resentful-and-destructive. It's set in the late 1940s, and in many ways feels as if it was made in that time, although there is a bit of standing up to abusive men. The main thing here is getting swept up in the pretty sets and costumes, the swinging melodrama (exhibit A is the bride's arrival at the wedding), and the many out-of-field plot twists.

In the final episode, about sixty per cent of loose ends have been tied up but we still have a lot of questions. And then, in the last two minutes, everything changes again and about a zillion new storylines are opened up. Spanish media reports that the second series of HIGH SEAS is currently being filmed, and the telenovela-style storytelling combined with Hitcockian suspense, silliness, and cinematography will ensure a loyal audience.


Eva is a writer.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Mini reviews #29

Murdering Mr Monti (1994) by Judith Viorst. Judith Viorst is best-known as a self-help author, which is also the profession of this novel’s narrator. The opening gives you a good idea of the tone of the book, and also its American-ness: ‘I am not the murdering kind, but I am planning to murder Mr Monti because he is doing harm to my family. I don’t look like the murdering kind, being a short, blond, rounded very married lady, with bifocals and a softness under the chin. On the other hand, I don’t look like the kind who, just a few weeks before her forty-sixth birthday, slept with three different men within twenty-four hours. And since I did indeed do that, I might indeed be able to murder Mr Monti.’ A fun opening, and I bought the book on the strength of it, but the whole thing progresses along those lines and never really gets any further.

Deal Breaker (1995) by Harlan Coben. Harlan Coben is a guilty pleasure for me, and I justify it by reading the novels through a Sedgwickian lens. That is to say, I follow the theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to read homosociality and what she called homosexual panic in masculine relationships. So, it is interesting that in Deal Breaker, two men — one preternaturally good looking — are allowed to bond intensely with shared memories of sleeping in a bunkbed at university, as long as a woman crops up on the next page and one of them talks about sex with her. There’s a lot of that sort of thing in Deal Breaker. It’s the first to feature Myles Bolitar, a sports agent whose client is horrified to discover his dead girlfriend apparently alive and advertising her services in a pornographic magazine. This is an easy read that you can whizz through in one sitting without thinking too deeply about it.

Hollow Crown (2002) by David Roberts. It’s 1936. Lord Edward Corinth (a pound shop Lord Peter Wimsey) is joined by left-wing journalist Verity Browne (a pound shop Harriet Vane) to investigate a murder, having originally been commissioned by Wallis Simpson, mistress to King Edward VIII, to recover some compromising letters.  This is a cosy, mindless mystery, peppered with references to the coming war. We know a character is stupid if they say stuff like ‘Hurrah for the blackshirts!’ and insisting, almost unprovoked, that there won’t be a war. They will of course always be challenged by a level-headed aristocrat who sees what we, with glorious hindsight, see: that war is coming and that it’s not necessarily a good thing. David Roberts has also developed a knack of getting in cliches by the back door. He simply ‘puts them in inverted commas’ and adds the words ‘as people say’, which somehow stops it from being bad writing. Not my cup of Ceylon, I’m afraid.

A Woman Unknown (2012) by Frances Brody. Kate Shackleton, Frances Brody’s northern interwar detective, is a delight. Here, she is roped into investigate the mysterious activities of a young wife and ends up looking into the murder of an American banker. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the focus on cameras and photography, which is not presented disingenuously as a new technology but showcased as a fashion. People collect cameras and boast about the comparative pros of their preferred models — which is how it must have been, of course — and the whole photography craze becomes important towards the end.

The Zig Zag Girl (2014) by Elly Griffiths. The first Stephens and Mephisto mystery showcases Elly Griffiths’ Golden Age influences, and proves that she is a rounded novelist who can master the detective genre from a range of angles. Set in Brighton in 1950, this novel is completely different in tone to the Ruth Galloway series. The opening line — ‘“Looks as if someone’s sliced her in three,’ said […] the police surgeon, chattily’ — introduces us to a narrative thats lightness of tone leaves the gives the understated darkness more power. The plot here takes us into the world of stage magic, with some absorbing, linger-in-the-mind characters, and a few caustic references to my home town, Great Yarmouth, which are always welcome.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Mini reviews #28

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (1959) by Georges Simenon. This entertaining short novel sees Maigret two years from retirement and pitted against a young proactive and self-important magistrate. The plot is not particularly interesting, but the sheer vitriol directed towards the magistrate and the generational shift he represents makes Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses well worth a read. There is also a nice insight into Maigret’s investigative techniques, as he persuades a very close-lipped family to talk simply by ‘bombarding them with questions’. My edition translated by Daphne Woodward.

City of Gold and Shadows (1973) by Ellis Peters. I really can’t get into Ellis Peters. I like some of her short stories, and after realising that the only novels of hers I’d tried to read were Cadfaels, I thought I’d have ago at a different one. City of Gold and Shadows has an irresistible set up, especially to a fan of Agatha Christie. Charlotte, whose archaeologist great-uncle has disappeared, sets out to an excavation site in Wales to find out what happened. When she stumbles upon a murder mystery with its roots in the Roman empire, she kind of gets out of the way so a male police inspector can magically turn up and investigate it. The mystery aspect is confident enough. The dialogue and thematic considerations are boring.

Dead Beat (1992) by Val McDermid. The first Kate Brannigan novel is an easy read and interesting mainly for showing how McDermid has evolved as a writer. Here, she wears her influences on her sleeve, and the book feels like an Agatha Christie story retold by a young Sara Paretsky. Brannigan goes looking for a missing song-writer and ends up in the seedier parts of both Leeds and the music industry. The format, though, is more conventional whodunit than gritty noir. It is an interesting midway point between the light and breezy (but morally assertive) Report for Murder, which I reviewed earlier this year, and McDermid’s contemporary thrillers, which are urgent and powerful but conservative enough to sit comfortably in the mainstream.

The Anarchists’ Club (2019) by Alex Reeve. Recently, I joined an online book club called Pigeonhole. It’s a really nice idea: you get new books in daily chunks (they call them ‘staves’, not entirely ‘getting’ why Dickens called instalments of A Christmas Carol the same thing) and can discuss them with other readers in comments on the margins. The first book I completed through Pigeonhole was The Anarchists’ Club. And I was very happy to be introduced to this novel, the detective Leo Stanhope, and the author Alex Reeve. The book is set in Victorian London and the really original aspect is that Leo, our hero, is transgender. It’s always shocked me that there aren’t any mainstream trans detectives and I was so happy to see the issue handled so sensitively, even if it is in a slightly glossed neo-Victorian setting. I didn’t enjoy this as much as I should have, because I was spoilt by reading an excellent novel on Pigeonhole at the same time, and I kept comparing them, which wasn’t constructive. I also hadn’t realised when I started that this was the second in a series, but all the key plot points from the first book were nicely explained, so that wasn’t really a barrier.  The real frustration for me — and sorry if this sounds awful — was the comments from other readers! People just can’t get their head round pronouns; it’s remarkable how much Leo’s struggles for basic life continue beyond the page. Leo is trying to keep a low profile and just get by, but he keeps stepping into the limelight by accident. This time, it’s because a woman is murdered and he is the only one who seems to care about looking after her fatherless children. The story is atmospheric and gripping, taking us from the low alleys of London to aristocratic country seats, via the music hall and a couple of meetings with Vesta Tilley. The topic of eugenics is dealt with intelligently and accessibly. I’m glad that Alex Reeve is writing.

The Language of Birds (2019) by Jill Dawson. Jill Dawson is one of the masters of literary genre fiction. She knows better than anyone else how to find an episode of history full of transcontextual human interest and to weave literary magic out of it. Her novel Wild Boy, about Victor of Aveyron, was the second novel I studied at university and every now and then I get fascinated in a subject — the Thompson-Bywaters case, Patricia Highsmith’s time in England — only to discover that Dawson has written an excellent novel about it. Her latest book is about the untold story of the nanny murdered by Lord Lucan, although the story uses fictional characters and settings to tell the tale. I wondered if this was because there are people — innocent, hurt people — who survived the scandal and are still living. According to the author’s afterword, which tells the true story explicitly, that is indeed the case. Nonetheless, the dialogue in the inquest scene is taken verbatim. The whole story is touching, expertly-written, and unsettling. In many ways, given that the Lord Lucan story is so well-known, reading it felt like re-reading a mystery novel: we already know the solution and how it ends, but we are spotting this we missed the first time. This is evident both in ‘clues’, for want of a better word: the nanny and the lady of the house look so similar, we keep getting told … But it’s also a masterful exercise in refocussing our attention onto a figure who is too often consigned in history to the rank of collateral damage.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Night By Night by Jack Jordan

Rose is an insomniac who has experienced more than her share of personal tragedy. One day, she comes across a journal, apparently written by a man who thinks he’s about to be murdered. When she takes it to the police, they don’t want to know. And before long, Rose has unravelled a dark, far-reaching conspiracy around the disappearances and deaths of several young gay men, including her own brother. The police, she realises, are not acting, partly because of institutionalised homophobia and partly because the case seems somehow close to home. Rose upturns her whole life pursuing the author of the journal and, when she fears the worst, pursuing justice.

Jack Jordan’s writing style is gripping. Night By Night (2019) is a page-turner. It’s also visceral and immersive. You feel what the characters are feeling, you see and hear what’s happening to them. You forgive the fact that somehow a man keeping a daily journal somehow knows what’s going to happen months in advance, and the author’s fondness for naff names. Because the story itself is so gripping. I read this with Pigeonhole, an online book club that gives you the book in ten (or ten-ish) daily chunks and facilitates group discussion via comments in the margins. It’s my first experience of Jack Jordan, and after reading I went on a Kindle spree to scoop up his back catalogue.

The novel is peppered with frequent references to a real serial killer. Stephen Port killed four gay men in London  in 2014, and the police did not do enough to stop him or to catch him. As one character says, ‘he continued to get away with it because the police failed to act in almost every way.’ Thereby, Jordan makes clear the social relevance of his novel.

There are ruthless, horrifying scenes of violence. And there are outright preachy bits. And there is a lot of misery and tragedy. But the moment that really stood out to me — that made me so emotional I had to stop reading for a bit — was a very simple, totally inexplicit one. Towards the end of the story, when the guilty party has been found out, Rose finds a diverse set of mobile phones, which belonged to the victims. They’ve all been gutted of sims and batteries and left, together, in a drawer. And something about that moment was incredibly haunting.

Several readers in the running comments pointed out that they weren’t enjoying the violence or, more often, the implausibility. The first case of this occurred when a male character meets an attractive man outside a coffee shop, gets chatting, and leaves with his number. ‘Who would accept a phone number from a stranger?!’ people quipped. Those people, I would guess, have little experience of gay culture, where merely being out to each other is a tremendous icebreaker. The narrator doesn’t always make rational choices — again, readers cried foul. But the narrator is an insomniac tortured by grief and guilt. Of course her choices aren’t going to be rational all the time. It would be implausible if they were. And there’s a scene with a psychiatrist who acts … well, very unprofessionally. ‘A psychiatrist would never do that!’ Again, I have a real-life story that says otherwise. So, when everyone started moaning about the implausibility of a character escaping from being buried alive — something I don’t have experience of — I wasn’t hugely inclined to listen to them. In fact, I think that the fact that so many people found so much in this novel hard to swallow helps the author make his point.


Rose visits a police station and is disorientated by the lack of a two-way mirror and the general inhospitality of the set-up. Her ideas of what the police would be like have been conditioned by glamorous crime dramas on TV, but the real world is much less polished, more human, and nastier.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Several years ago, I read Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument and found it highly entertaining for all the wrong reasons. It struck me as everything detractors claim the Golden Age was: snobbish, dashed off, poorly written and proofed (even in a twenty-first century reissue), and ephemeral. I identified the murderer on page 2, found the humour funny only insofar as it was alarmingly antiquated even at the time it was written, and laughed for about ten minutes at a statement along the lines of: ‘The deceased made no response, because he was dead.’

Several of you have told me to give Heyer another chance, and I do in fact own copies of four more of her crime novels. Of these, I selected Footsteps in the Dark (1932), purely because I have a recent edition and am happier giving away new books than old books after reading them. As you can imagine, then, I came to the book with low expectations. I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. I do keep a reading journal — notwithstanding a well-known writer recently published a scathing critique of all their friends’ habits, wherein the idea of journalling one’s reading habits was roundly dismissed with ableist language — and in that journal I ended up giving the book a rating of 4 out of 6 (the 1-6 rating is preprinted; I don’t understand it but it works).

The plot can be summarised as The Hound of the Baskervilles meets Scooby Doo. A group of bright young things moves into a converted priory, which all the simple (of course they’re simple) locals avoid like the plague because it is haunted by the ghost of a ‘mad Monk’. Upon arrival, the new inhabitants start to notice apparently poltergeist activity, unearth secret passages and priest holes, and even get assaulted with a flying human skeleton. They even see the monk! Eventually - although not until p. 208 - there is a murder. The tale concludes with a damsel-in-distress scenario in an underground lair, and with the ghost himself being literally unmasked.

Heyer’s comedy is 90% ‘haha, look at how stupid the working class people are’, 9% ‘haha, look at how stupid foreigners [or, as servants call them, “furrinors”] are’, and 1% situational/slapstick/good. There is an entertaining scene in which the clueless residents decide to conduct a seance of sorts, only to have it interrupted by a policeman; the sitters and the sergeant exchange dialogue t cross purposes to great comic effect. Unintentional comedy comes in what I now think of as typical Heyer style: ‘the two men were accosted by a gentleman in clerical attire, who was buying stamps. He introduced himself as the Vicar’.

One thing that Heyer does well is educate modern readers about the workings of the upper classes — unlike Sayers, she wasn’t writing aspirationally but reflecting her own reality — and especially the prejudices within them. The thing that really struck me here, though, was the presence of a vacuum cleaner salesman. I had no idea that electric vacuum cleaners were around before the Second World War! So, I ended up doing some Googling and found out that they’d been around since the late nineteenth century. As with any rabbit hole, there are some fascinating stories in the history of vacuum cleaners and a good place to start is the Wikipedia page.

In terms of mystery, my prejudice blinded me completely. After my experience with A Blunt Instrument, I was so convinced that Heyer was not up to crafting puzzles that I didn’t give it much attention at all beside spotting a red herring and fixing on one suspicious non-suspect with the arrogance of certainty (for reasons explained below). The actual murderer was a character I’d almost forgotten by the time they were unmasked. All in all, a much more interesting read than A Blunt Instrument. I will try Heyer again, and I will not be throwing Footsteps in the Dark away just yet.


The plot owes a great deal to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — even down to talk of ‘luminous paint’. This is why, when a slight, nervy butterfly-collector called Mr Titmarsh appeared on the scene, I was convinced that I’d solved the case. My belief was bolstered when his some-time companion issued a cryptic warning to one of our protagonists to ‘get out, as fast as you can’. But, as mentioned, I was wrong. Apologies, Mr Titmarsh.

The crime revolves around a printing press and a book in the British Library, which tells the ancient legends of the house and is being used to control present events. When a plucky pair of bright young things are captured in a secret lair, they pass the time by playing inconsequential games — very redolent for interwar readers of inferior detective fiction.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Report for Murder by Val McDermid

Report for Murder (1987) introduces the self-described ‘cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ Lindsay Gordon. This description occurs in the first paragraph, making her impossible to dislike. Val McDermid’s debut novel, published under the Paretsky-evoking name V.I. McDermid, is much more in the Agatha Christie tradition than the police procedural model that made its author famous. However, in some ways – not least the detective – it’s more sociologically interesting. The themes are much simpler and more traditional than in McDermid’s Hill and Jordan books: we’re looking here at the class system, lies, and relationships.

As a journalist, Lindsay is commissioned to write a puff piece on a charity fundraiser at an exclusive boarding school for girls. She turns up and walks into various rows between the staff, while trying to reconcile her socialist views with her interest in various posh women. The set-up certainly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons (I see the influence of this book much more than the influence of Nancy Spain’s Poison for Teacher), and the plot is more of a light, straightforward mystery than one might expect from this author.

I understand why McDermid moved away from writing conventional mysteries whose USP is the detective’s sexuality and into more contemporary, commercial – and, notably, straight – blockbuster novels. But I hope that subsequent entries to the Lindsay Gordon canon, which ran up to 2003, don’t lose the lightness of touch that makes Report for Murder a strong, diverting read.


Lindsay Gordon is an avid reader of detective fiction. We meet her reading a detective novel on a train. As soon as a body is discovered, Lindsay is encouraged to investigate when one character asks, ‘Don’t you ever read any Agatha Christie?’ and another christens the event ‘Murder in the Music Room’.  Later, investigating, and consistently using language like ‘red herring’, Lindsay regrets that ‘It always seems so easy for the Hercule Poirots and the Lord Peter Wimseys’. There are many other meta moments like this.

My favourite such moment occurs roughly midway through, when Lindsay's love interest says that, if Lindsay were Hercule Poirot, she would have solved it by now. The response? 'If I were Hercule Poirot, you wouldn't fancy me.'

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Mini reviews #27

A Ladder to the Sky (2018) by John Boyne. I feel awkward liking a novel by John Boyne, given that he’s the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. But A Ladder to the Sky is, quite simply, really, really good. It’s less a novel than a fable for our times. Given some of the hooh-hah in the press about plagiarism in crime fiction and romantic fiction at the moment, its publication in paperback is timely. A beautiful young man with no conscience uses his charms to get a former child-Nazi’s story, which he publishes. He struggles to write a decent second book, so ends up killing people (people who are, noticeably, not straight white men) and stealing their stories. Even after everything’s come out, he’s able to carry on exactly as before and becomes known as a great novelist.

The Chalk Man (2018) by C.J. Tudor. Tudor’s second novel is out now so I wanted to read her debut. It baffles and confuses me that the praise quote being used by publishers is from the Daily Mail, describing the author as ‘Britain’s female Stephen King’. The Chalk Man, narrated by a bloke, is in no way a gendered story and certainly not a ‘female’ one (any more than, in my opinion, Stephen King’s work is ‘male’ in tone). It just seems odd to mention the author’s sex at all. A much better piece of praise comes from King himself: ‘If you like my stuff, you’ll love this.’ Anyway, the novel itself is a great, escapist read. It’s not revolutionary and I don’t think it will change your life, but it’s a good, atmospheric, creepy read.

A Hidden Life (2019) by Mia Emilie. Mia Emilie’s debut is a great read for fans of historical mysteries, blending fact and fiction alongside science and superstition.  The story concerns the murder of Amy Dudley in 1560. Sam Banks, a former spy and death doctor, is asked to look into it. But he starts to suspect he’s been charged with covering something up, and that the web leads all the way to Queen Elizabeth.

The Silent Patient (2019) by Alex Michaelides. This debut has been massively hyped and has met with universal adulation. So, guess who didn’t think it was all that great… A psychotherapist sets out to find the truth from an artist who murdered her husband and will not speak. The whole book feels to me like a sixth former decided to rewrite Atwood’s Alias Grace, the first steps being to get rid of that pesky historical backdrop and to remedy the lack of a plot twist. It just doesn’t work. And the insights into psychoanalysis are inconsistent, outdated truisms. I’d bet good money that the author has no professional experience of that field. Sadly, I can’t recommend this book.

The Suspect (2019) by Fiona Barton. Fiona Barton is on top form in her third psychological thriller. The Suspect has it all. Kate Waters, investigative journalist, is back, and this time she has the first person ‘slot’ because she is the woman at the heart of the story (Barton, like Sophie Hannah, writes the investigation in the third person and the psychological heart in the first person). Kate’s son Jake is a major suspect in the deaths of two British tourists in Thailand. In this case, the plot is labyrinthine and sophisticated. Barton’s writing style has also evolved (no more ‘Bob said’ or ‘Kate said’ breaking up every piece of dialogue) and it’s nice to see Jean Taylor, the narrator of The Widow, make a reappearance.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Harriet Tyce’s debut, Blood Orange (2019) is a visceral, slow-burning stunner of domestic suspense.
Criminal defence barrister Alison is, like most people living a perfect life, barely holding it together. She has a drink problem and she’s having an affair — and she can’t believe her clients, even when they’re confessing to murder. She’s also receiving anonymous messages.

The characters in Blood Orange are not glamorous, or sugar-coated. They are, like the food they eat, oozing, deceptively-dressed-up messes. And they’re very true to life. In fact, and this is a tiny point but something that is very telling, this is the only contemporary London thriller I’ve read in which the central character smokes without it being a huge guilty secret. It’s a fact of life that so many writers ignore, that people in high-pressure environments, especially in cities, smoke.

That’s not to say it’s bleak; it’s not. The realism is tense, the twists compelling, and the characters’ believability makes the first person narrative all the more urgent. You have to read on, just as Alison has to keep making the wrong choices.

I know that Blood Orange has been optioned for a TV series, and I can see it doing really well in that format. As a debut, it’s remarkable and Harriet Tyce is certainly one to watch.


This is a new feature I’m going to include in every full review, because I’m starting to think that the one thing crime fiction has in common is intertextuality. In this section of all subsequent reviews, I will be highlighting key moments in which the text reflects its own fictional status, or refers to crime fiction in some way.

In happier times, Alison and her husband used to watch The Wire. They try to rekindle some love and trust watching a ‘Scandi Noir’ boxset.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Second Life by SJ Watson

SJ Watson is, as we all know, the author of Before I Go to Sleep, which is impossible to dislike. His third novel is taking a while to surface but, based on the absolutely gripping, page-turning rollercoaster that is Second Life (2015), I reckon it will be worth the wait. Regular readers of this blog (if they exist) will know that I think the demand for one book a year from genre writers is ridiculous, stifling, and bad for everyone except booksellers.

This novel is narrated by middle-aged Julia, a wife and mother whose younger sister, Kate, apparently committed suicide. Convinced there’s more to the story, Julia starts investigating and finds out that Kate was a regular on dating websites. Julia sets up a profile and starts chatting to the men in her sister’s life. Before long, she becomes obsessed by one of them. And, more damagingly, the stranger becomes obsessed with her.

There is no neat solution to this story, which is a masterstroke, making the whole thing immediate and real. Not being a woman, I can’t be sure, but my impression is that Watson does a superb job at writing from a range of women’s perspectives. There’s also a really intriguing subplot, which is totally unexplored. I am 100% certain, based on how the characters speak and behave, that Julia’s teenage son is gay. But it’s never discussed; indeed, the parents (including the narrator) frequently talk about his ‘girlfriend’ (who turns out not to be a girlfriend). I’d love to know the author’s perspective on all of this.

And my sole go-to irk: the novel is written in the present tense, but it’s clear to me that the author wants to be writing in the past tense, betrayed through the use of ‘had been’ instead of ‘was’, and so on. At least 50% of contemporary thriller writers do this, and it barely detracts from a masterful second novel.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Mini reviews #26

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s debut is a good place to start. A marvellous meta locked room mystery  featuring the eccentric academic sleuth Gervase Fen and revolving around the death of a promiscuous actress in an Oxford college.

The Mousetrap (1952) by Agatha Christie. There’s a reason Christie’s play is the longest-running in West End (and theatre) history: it’s bloody brilliant. I’m pretty much unique in thinking it is Christie’s best play, but I just think it’s perfect. And it features at least two LGBT characters, which is always a plus. A perfect balance of suspense, humour, familiarity, and fresh, contemporary horror, this story of a snowed-in post-war guest house visited by a murderer out for revenge remains relevant in most contexts. I must have seen at least a dozen productions (the West End cast changes each November) and it never gets old. The current incarnation is the best yet, so go and see it if you’re in London. If not, catch the UK tour or one of the regular amateur productions done in other countries. You won’t regret it.

Lord John and the Private Matter (2003) by Diana Gabaldon. Outlander, the TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s time travel romances, is one of my guilty pleasures (and pretty much confirms me as a middle-aged woman in a dashing young buck’s body). This historical spy novel takes one of the supporting character from the Outlander universe, the gay-or-possibly-bi Lord John Grey who is a spy. I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction but found this engaging, and the research not too overwhelming or besides the point. It’s a surprisingly fun novel, too. You probably need to care about the characters to enjoy it, though.

The Widow (2016) by Fiona Barton. A stunning debut psychological thriller. Barton seamlessly inhabits a range of different voices, with the most effective being that of the journalist, Kate Waters, determined to solve an old case.

The Child (2017) by Fiona Barton. A very good second novel. Barton’s writing style is as engaging as ever. However, there is a big twist which I saw coming from the midway point, and it became increasingly difficult to believe that none of the characters could see it coming or at least think of it. It was a disappointment to have this twist be the big reveal and the end of the book.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Mini reviews #25

Today’s mini-reviews, the twenty-fifth set brining the total number of this pithy summaries to 100, are all television productions!

Case Closed (YTV, 1996-present). Also known as Detective Conan and based on the manga series of the same name, this is a fun, long-running murder mystery anime with a ragged bunch of child detectives and plenty of allusions to Golden Age detective fiction. If you like anime or classic crime, if you’re a child or an adult, Case Closed is worth a watch.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, 2014-present). Overblown, preposterous, and compulsively watchable series about illogically sexy postgraduate law student and their intense relationships with barrister-cum-law professor Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davies, who singlehandedly elevates the programme from utter rubbish to must-see television).

You Get Me (Netflix, 2017). Frothy, silly teen psychological thriller from Netflix. You Get Me owes a great deal of its plot to Swimfan (2002) following a young couple whose relationship descends into bloodshed with the arrival of an obsessive Other Woman. Interestingly, I recently read an upcoming novel by a bestseller (not to be reviewed on this blog), which routinely rips off this rip-off TV film. Half the cast are Youtubers, which should tell you enough.

You (Netflix, 2018). Engrossing ten-part Netflix adaptation of the novel by Caroline Kepnes, charting a bookseller’s obsession with a young writer, as it descends through social media stalking into very dark places.

Agatha and the Truth of Murder (Channel 5, 2018). In my December post, I mentioned that I thought this drama was not terrible and some of my friends let me know that I was wrong. But I stand by what I said: while the budget is clearly not great, Tom Dalton’s script mishmashes real events in a bizarre way, and Ruth Bradley’s performance as Christie is underwhelming, I thought the whole thing was fine. Agatha Christie as detective — especially in those missing days in 1926 — has been done to death, and this Channel 5 drama doesn’t offer anything particularly new. But it’s relatively inoffensive, and the plot is structured along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel of the period. That is a first for one of these projects, and makes it worth watching. Bradley has indicated that she might reprise the role. With Andrew Wilson’s series along similar lines expecting a TV home soon, that would be interesting. 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Mini reviews #24

Northanger Abbey (1817) by Jane Austen. Arguably the first metatextual detective novel, Austen’s witty satire is ostensibly a romance story centred on the young, headstrong Catherine Morland, whose ‘unimproving’ appetite for gothic adventure novels (specifically Udolpho) leads her to view her suitor’s family with intense and amusing suspicion. Most of the ingredients of playful twentieth century crime fiction are pre-empted here, and I’d hold Northanger Abbey, rather than Emma, up as Austen’s work-of-greatest-influence on the mystery genre. Remarkably, it was also her first completed novel, although it was published after her death.

Grey Mask (1928) by Patricia Wentworth. A super-fun mystery introducing the elderly spinster PI Maud Silver, although she barely appears in this one. The plot is beautifully far-fetched and entertainingly told, centring around  troubled bright young things stumbling onto a conspiracy of masked men and women who are trying to manipulate inheritance law. Not for the last time, Wentworth manages to pre-empt Agatha Christie’s next plot (in this case, that of 1929’s The Seven Dials Mystery) remarkably.

Rough Justice (2016) by Adam Croft. This short novel is fast-paced with enough hooks and pithy cynicism to keep you hooked. It will appeal to fans of modern crime thrillers without alienating traditionalists who value engaging plots.

Shedunnit (2018-present) hosted by Caroline Crampton. This exciting feminist podcast focusses on key issues in Golden Age crime fiction. Every other week, Crampton is joined by experts to discuss such matters as the Thompson-Bywaters case, the role of food, and queer codes and characters. If you find yourself with half an hour to spare, check it out. If you don’t find yourself with half an hour to spare, try to make the time, because it’s very, very worth it.

The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama: Murderous Texts (2019) edited by Caroline Blythe and Alison Jack. I’m thrilled and humbled to have a chapter on Agatha Christie’s later fiction in this stunning volume from T&T Clark. Considering the little-discussed but widely-acknowledged links between crime fiction and the Bible, Blythe’s and Jack’s edited collection features a whole range of essays from across biblical and literary studies. An essential volume for anyone interested in the interplay between popular fiction and religion.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Double Snare by Rosemary Harris

Rosemary Harris, now in her nineties, is not a particularly well-known name any more but, once upon a time, she was a popular and prolific writer for children. In a reversal of the familiar pattern trod by Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and others, she earned her bread with children’s literature and also wrote crime novels. Specifically, she wrote a handful of psychological thrillers.

I came across The Double Snare (1974) on a charity book shelf in a high street shop and picked it up because it looked interesting. That night, I dipped in and stayed up until 6AM, when I’d turned the final page. That’s not to say that this is a particularly gripping novel; it probably says more about my current state of mind —  this is my version of late-night Netflix bingeing.

The novel is narrated by a twenty year-old woman with amnesia. Following a car crash, our heroine - named Maria by the nurses in her Italian hospital - wakes up with no memory of who or where she is. All she has is a showy handbag, a raggedy dress, and the memory of a single name: Robert. Before long, a wealthy Italian family claims her as their wayward daughter Guilia, and she is taken away to live with them. However, when Guilia’s secret boyfriend throws stones at her bedroom window, it becomes clear that she is not who they say she is.

A complex plot unfolds involving the theatre, free love, drugs, art theft and forgery, smuggling, and Shakespeare. Lots and lots of Shakespeare. Naming herself Silvia (‘Who is Silvia, what is she?’, geddit?), our heroine hitches around Italy until she runs into someone who recognises her, and then things get more complex and dangerous.

The Double Snare is told in the first person present tense, making it surprisingly contemporary and fresh-feeling. I don’t know why I spent the last pound in my pocket on this book, why I went on to devour it when my TBR pile is almost sky-high, or why I thought staying up til six would be a good idea when I had a 9AM appointment, but I don’t regret it. This is a diverting psychological thriller and it will stay with me in a low-level way.