Review: Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table (Hercule Poirot #15), Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011 (originally published 1936).

Summary: Mr. Shaitana, who throws great parties, but seems to be feared by many, throws a party for the entertainment of Poirot, with four guests who he claims have gotten away with murder, and ends up murdered himself, but with no clue as to who the murderer was.

Mr. Shaitana was an enticing host of great dinner parties. Yet people feared him. “Mephistophelian” is a word that describes him,  after the elegant demon who deceived Faust. A seemingly chance meeting with Hercule Poirot leads to a boast of knowing murderers who had gotten away with their crimes and what proves an unwise idea of hosting a party at which Poirot, Scotland Yard Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist are invited to join four guests presumably guilty of murder. The four other guests are Dr. Roberts, daring in bridge and perhaps in life, Mrs. Lorrimer, an intelligent and proper widow, Major Despard, an adventurer, and young and seemingly vulnerable Anne Meredith.

After dinner the four guests adjourn to play bridge. The four sleuths play in one room. The four “murderers” play in the other. Shaitana joins them by the fire. At the conclusion of play Shaitana appears asleep, but has been stabbed in the heart with a sharp implement from his collection. No one but the four bridge players, the four who had gotten away with murderer had been in the room. None says they saw anything amiss.

And so begins the sleuthing. Interviews with each of the guests. An investigation to learn if they could have committed a previous murder they would cover up. Battle, shrewd but stolid pursue conventional police methods. Race pursues inquiries on Major Despard. Mrs. Oliver focuses on young Anne and her roommate Rhoda Dawes. Poirot focuses on the bridge scores and what each remembers of the play, and the details of the room. Each has been connected with a murder. Things get more exciting yet with one more murder and another murder attempt. When we think the murderer of Shaitana is arrested, there is one more twist before the real murderer is exposed. In the end, the scores and play at bridge yield the critical clue.

Many consider this among Christie’s best novels. She pokes fun at herself in the character of novelist Ariadne Oliver.

” ‘I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve written only thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then, I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ “

It is enjoyable to see the character and interactions of the sleuths, the subtlety of the clues, and the surprise at the end when we think we have the murderer, caught in the act of attempted murder. This is a great summer read, or for any time one needs an engaging diversion.

Review: Robicheaux

Robicheaux

Robicheaux (Dave Robicheaux #21), James Lee Burke. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Robicheaux tries to navigate his way through grief from the tragic death of his wife, his friend’s debt issues, a mobster wanting to make a movie, a demagogic politician and a serial murderer, while trying to clear himself of suspicion in the death of the man who killed his wife.

This has all the elements of a James Lee Burke mystery. A complicated plot, lush descriptions of Louisiana, Confederate soldiers in the mists, Robicheaux under a cloud of suspicion, a grown up Alafair, and a new raccoon to replace Tripod. What’s not to like?

Robicheaux finds himself caught between his loyalty to his old friend Clete Purcell, deep in debt with mobsters holding the markers. The mobster, Tony Nemo wants to make a Civil War movie with novelist Levon Broussard. Alafair, now a screenwriter, ends up writing the adaptation of Broussard’s novel, against Robicheaux’s advice. Demagogue politician Jimmy Nightingale with senatorial ambitions (or more) also wants to meet him and capture some of his lustre. Instead he ends up being charged with raping Broussard’s wife Rowena. But the evidence is shaky, and the only questionable relationship in his life is his relation with Emmeline Nightingale, somehow related to him, and deeply invested in his success.

All through this, Robicheaux struggles with the grief of losing his wife Molly, who died in a tragic car accident. In a downward spiral, he has a conversation that could be construed as threatening with the man whose truck killed her, Dartez. He goes off the wagon, gets drunk, blacks out, and learns that Dartez is dead under suspicious circumstances. Some of the clues, including fingerprints on the truck window glass, connect Robicheaux to the scene and a shady detective in his department, Spade LaBiche.

Sheriff Helen Soileau sticks with him, though she is tempted to desk him. He pursues these different investigation, and then a series of murders by an Elmer Fudd-like character, Smiley, who likes children, kills those who abuse them or cross him, as well as an index card list that someone has supplied to him, via a variety of means from expert marksmanship to up-close and gruesome murders. It all leads up to a political rally with Nightingale, who increasingly is associated with white supremacists where Robicheaux, Clete and Clete’s former girlfriend Detective Sherri Picard converge to stop Smiley before he can do more harm.

The plot and all its subplots can be challenging to follow and one wonders if Burke makes it more bewildering than it need be. Also, the graphic descriptions of violence may not be to the taste of some. Yet the mounting suspense keeps one turning the pages. Robicheaux is deeply flawed and wounded, and yet gropes his way to doing the right thing, even if it means he is guilty of murder.

Burke’s character, Jimmy Nightingale, is an exploration of the particular form of charisma that sways even such a hard-bitten character as Robicheaux. One wonders at the seductive powers of various demagogues through history, and the dark underside of wealth and power that accompanies the personal magnetism. Burke doesn’t attempt to account for such people, but this character is a warning: Beware, they are out there.

This is only the second Robicheaux novel I’ve read, and the most recent. The multi-dimensional character of Robicheaux and the challenging plots have me ready to go back and begin reading the early ones.

Review: Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide, Agatha Christie. New York: Harper Collins, 2002 (first published 1944).

Summary: Six table guests meet a year after the apparent suicide death of Rosemary Barton, and when her husband dies by the same means, it is apparent there is a murderer in their midst.

“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago…”

So begins the mystery. The six will be gathered at the same table at the Luxembourg where nearly a year ago Rosemary Barton, recently ill from the flu and possibly depressed, died of cyanide in her champagne, apparently from her own hand, from the evidence found in her purse.

The six are introduced one by one.

Iris Marle is the younger sister of Rosemary. The poor younger sister, since Rosemary had received a great inheritance from her Uncle Paul, which Iris would only receive if Rosemary died childless.

Ruth Lessing is the super-efficient secretary of Rosemary’s husband George, who secretly harbors an unreciprocated love for him, and hatred for Rosemary. He relies on her to handle tough situations in work and personal life, including dispatching the devious Victor Drake, whose singular accomplishment is wheedling money from his mother Lucilla, Iris’s aunt and chaperone. She apparently succeeds, but not before Victor insinuates himself into her thoughts and arouses her hatred for Rosemary.

Anthony Browne is an American of whom little is known. He tries and strikes out in having an affair with Rosemary, and then surreptitiously wins the heart of Iris who he wants to secret away to marry, flouting her guardian, George Barton.

Stephen Farraday is an ambitious young Member of Parliament who has married into the powerful Kidderminster clan through Sandra, the shyest, but also perhaps the most politically savvy or even ruthless of the sisters. Stephen, despite his love for and appreciation of his partner, has an affair with Rosemary, realizes there is little of substance to her, and much to his wife, and painfully breaks it off, against the wishes of Rosemary who has threatened to make the affair public.

Sandra Farraday genuinely loves her husband, perhaps more than he does her, at first. He thinks she doesn’t know about the affair, but in fact she does, and despises Rosemary, reconciles with Stephen and makes common cause with him.

Finally there is George Barton. He believes the account of Rosemary’s suicide until he receives letters intimating it was murder, which leads him to move close to the Farradays, and to devise a dinner at the same table of the same restaurant nearly a year later, to expose the murderer. They arrive to find an extra place, supposedly for his friend, Colonel Race, an ex-Army Colonel and MI-5 agent who tried to warn him off this dangerous game. The empty place is set with a spray of rosemary.

After the uneasy party returns from dancing, George proposes a toast to Rosemary, and promptly collapses, also poisoned by cyanide in his champagne. It is clear this is no suicide, and that Rosemary’s death was not either. There is a murderer in their midst. But there are troubling questions. Who sent the letters? And who poisoned the champagne, when none of those at the table had an opportunity. These are the questions that stymie Race, and Chief Inspector Kemp, until an unlikely ally helps them figure it out, and thwarts a third murder in the nick of time.

The story is developed with economy and it is intriguing to see how many motives Christie contrives to make each of the parties a plausible suspect. Not unlike other Christies, it pays to attend to details, and to question your assumptions. And enjoy!

Review: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.

Review: Basil

Basil

Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.

 

 

Review: The Gods of Gotham

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.

Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.

Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.

Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.

Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.

Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.

The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.

The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!

Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.

Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.

Review: The Bookman’s Tale

The Bookman's Tale

The Bookman’s TaleCharlie Lovett. New York: Viking, 2013.

Summary: Peter Byerly, a recently bereaved bookseller living in a small English village, comes across a hundred year old watercolor that is a striking image of his deceased wife, a find that sets him on a trail leading to what could be a major literary discovery,  but also to danger and murder.

It seems of late that I have discovered that there is a whole genre of mysteries set around the book trade. Most, including this work, on not destined to be literary classics. What this book does is combine descriptions of the world of antiquarian bookselling and restoration, with a riveting crime mystery, and with a tragic love story thrown in.

Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. The only indication of the painter’s identity is an inscription that says “BB/EH.”

He teams up with an art expert who can shed no further light on the mystery. Meanwhile, the Aldersons of Everlode Manor invite him to help them sell some of their books. Julia, the sister reveals a box of documents in a box labeled “never to be sold.” They all appear of value, but none more than what Peter finds at the bottom–a slim volume that appears to be a first edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, on which Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was based. Valuable as the edition may be, the real find are the marginal notes that appear to be written in Shakespeare’s hand–the Holy Grail of literary finds. There was something else: a list of owners where once again the initials BB/EH appear. This launches a quest to determine the book’s genuineness, provenance, and particularly the identity of BB/EH and how the book and painting are connected.

There is much more at stake than simply a great literary find. An art scholar who is working on a book that may shed light on the identity winds up dead with Peter framed for the murder. He and Liz are faced with the challenge of finding the true murderer before Peter is arrested, which brings them into greater danger yet.

This narrative is broken up with two others. One is the narrative of the Pandosto’s history, passing from one owner or bookseller to the next. The other is the growth of Peter’s two loves: for antiquarian bookselling and restoration under Francis Leland, the curator of Ridgefield Library’s Amanda Devereaux rare book collection, and for another Amanda, Amanda Ridgefield, the granddaughter of Amanda Devereaux, and whose family gave the school its name.

The three narratives alternate, tracing the book to BB/EH, Peter and Amanda’s relationship until her death, and the exciting denouement of the story. Apart from the many late night lovemaking episodes on the carpet under the portrait of Amanda Devereaux in the library, which seemed a bit creepy, the alternating narratives worked, both sustaining and relieving the plot tension. As I noted earlier, the reader gains a glimpse into the meticulous cared of book preservation, restoration, and binding, and something of the world of antiquarian bookselling and the authentication of rare and valuable works. Combine this with a murder mystery, and you have a delightful diversion for  bibliophile.

 

Review: Sun and Shadow

sun-and-shadow

Sun and Shadow, Åke Edwardson, translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Summary: DCI Erik Winter, newly bereaved of his father, is confronted with a gruesome double-homicide of two sexual “swingers”, the possibility of involvement within his own ranks, and a pattern of clues that suggests that his partner, pregnant with their first child, may be at risk.

I am a fan of Penguin mysteries. I will often buy one even if I’m not familiar with the author, because I’ve found them to be consistently well-written and well-crafted as mysteries. I came across this one in a second hand store, by Swedish crime writer Åke Edwardson. I was not disappointed but it took reading the first hundred pages to fully engage my attention. After that, I was riveted.

In the first hundred pages, we are introduced to the characters, especially Detective Chief Inspector Erik Winter, impeccably dressed, a lover of jazz, and engaged in a serious relationship with Angela, a doctor who is bearing their first child. Much of the first part of the book is taken up with his final visit with his dying father in Spain, interrupted by a bloody double murder involving sexual “swingers” back in Gothenburg. We are introduced to Patrik, a newspaper carrier who in fact saw the murderer and first suspects something is not right in the flat where the murder occurred, his girlfriend, Maria, the building caretaker who reports the murder (and is also caretaker in Winters’ building), and the police who work with Winter. As it turns out, all this scene-setting and character development is important as we follow Winter into the investigation.

Winter’s investigation centers around clues left by the murderer. A cassette of “black metal” music with its lyrics. The word “Wall” written in blood with the “W” circled. The beheaded heads of the victims swapped on their bodies. Then there are the calls to his flat when only Angela is there. The presence of someone in the caretaker’s basement cubbyhole in his building. A second murder of another “swinging” couple. A crime psychiatrist thinks the clues point toward someone who wants to be stopped. By Winter. Evidence points to a policeman or someone dressing as one. Can the people around Winter be trusted? Is Angela and their baby in danger?

One finds oneself more and more drawn into the suspense as the killer and Winter get closer to each other. Skillful misdirection has us suspecting several different individuals even as we approach the book’s climax. The plot is dark, yet we have decent people wrestling with the profound realities of life against the gruesome backdrop. I was delighted to discover at the Penguin Random House website that there are at least four other Erik Winter mysteries available. Winter is a well-drawn character, and Edwardson a fine writer whose work I want to come back to. I think you will as well.

Review: From London Far

From London FarMichael Innes is the pseudonym of J.I.M Stewart who served as a lecturer at Queens College in Belfast and eventually as a professor at Oxford until retirement in 1973. Under his pseudonym, he wrote nearly 50 crime mysteries between 1936 and 1986. His most famous character is Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. All my encounters with Innes’ work up until now were works in which Appleby appeared.

From London Far is not one of these. The plot centers around Richard Meredith, an Oxford don comfortable in the study of Martial and Juvenal, who wanders into a tobacconist shop and in a scholarly reverie mutters, “London, a poem”. This sounds close enough to a secret password gaining him admission into an underworld of art thieves, which he quickly realizes as he comes across stolen works of Titian and Giotto. He discovers he is being mistaken for a German conspirator, Vogelsang, and that a woman being held, Jean Halliwell, has also gotten mixed up in this plot. Through quick thinking, he succeeds in pretending to be Vogelsang, kills the real Vogelsang when he turns up, and leads Jean in a hair-raising escape through chutes and across rooftops.

As they compare notes, they decide not to do the sensible thing and go to the police, but to take off to an island off the coast of Scotland to confront the apparent mastermind of these art thefts, Sir Properjohn, who ends up being the front man for the real mastermind, Don Perez. Along the way, they encounter a pair of eccentric sisters living in a rundown castle on the island, learn of the abduction of Higbed, a distinguished psychiatrist, and end up captured only to be abandoned on a sinking sub.

In Bond-like style, they manage to escape, which leads to the third part of this story, their encounter with the eccentric millionaire industrialist, Otis K. Neff and his crazy conveyor-belt mansion. It turns out that he is the buyer of all the stolen works. I will leave the denouement, and the role Higbed plays in all this, for you to discover if you wish.

J.I.M Stewart (a.k.a Michael Innes

J.I.M Stewart (a.k.a Michael Innes)

It all seemed to stretch plausibility a bit, but probably not more than a James Bond novel or movie, and likewise with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. I wondered if this was Innes’ way of poking fun at this genre of books (although this novel antedates Fleming’s first Bond novel by six years). This is also another in the genre of detective fiction that revolves around Oxford settings and characters, including some of the works of Dorothy L. Sayers and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books and the Lewis  spinoff. If you like these kinds of stories, From London Far and other Innes’ works might give you a new vein to explore.

I have to say I am one who does enjoy such stories, but I still found this one a bit far-fetched, though not unenjoyable. I want to return to the Sir John Appleby stories that I have not read (a good number). For literary style, and storytelling Innes is right up there with P.D. James, Sayers, and others of his period, and worth discovering if you have not read his work.