The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1954)

From the distant past of Death Comes as the End (the first historical murder mystery set significantly before the date of publication) we are flung forward in time to a futuristic murder mystery.

Asimov had already made massive contributions to the science-fiction genre with the original “Foundation” trilogy and his robot short stories, which saw the development of the Three Laws of Robotics and as they appear in this novel, they are worth quoting in full:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Within this framework Asimov was able to explore a number of different scenarios often when robots seemed to have gone wrong with potential fatal consequences, with characters such as the engineering team of Donovan and Powell or robopsychologist Susan Calvin having to figure out what had happened and how to rectify it.

Asimov believed that science fiction need not be just a genre of its own but could be applied to other genres and this book demonstrates the legitimacy of this idea.

The Caves of Steel is set in New York, a sprawling city housing 20 million inhabitants beneath its vast metal domes. Adjoining it is Spacetown, home to a small number of Spacers, some of the descendants of the original colonists of the Outer Worlds, who have now returned to Earth.

When murder is committed in Spacetown, Lije Baley, plain-clothesman level C-5, is assigned to the case and he is partnered up with the Spacer robot Daneel Olivaw and if there is one thing Baley hates more than Spacers it is robots.

If he succeeds then promotion and its attendant privileges would be his but failure could mean declassification and a return to the Barracks of his childhood. However as the case progresses it becomes clear that it is not just his own fate that is in the balance but that of humanity as a whole.

The futuristic society envisioned by Asimov is revealed naturally through the narrative and he succeeds in creating a mystery that is fair-play within its setting and yet retains elements of the Golden Age.

I would highly recommend Asimov’s works to anybody but this is a particularly appropriate starting point for fans of the classic mystery.

Asimov wrote three more books in this series which may make an appearance on the blog in the next few months. He also wrote the fantastic collection of short sci-fi mysteries “Asimov’s Mysteries” including the wonderful story “The Billiard Ball” and five collections of Black Widowers stories in which the members of a private dining club interrogate a guest who always has a mystery that needs solving. Different possibilities are proposed before Henry, the waiter, intervenes with the correct solution.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

I think that death by blaster definitely counts as “How – Unusual murder method”.

 

 

#43 – Death Comes as the End

The recently widowed Renisenb returns to her father’s home after eight years away and initially believes that everything will be as it was before.

However when Imhotep returns with his new young concubine Nofret the lives of the whole family change for the worse. It does not take long for previously feuding family members to unite in their hatred of Nofret and soon death visits the estate for the first,but definitely not the last, time.

In her introduction Christie says that “Both place and time are incidental to the story – any other place at any other time would have served as well” and this is definitely accurate. Although a lack of a police force and a strong belief in the supernatural are required, this would have been the prevailing case through much of history and would still apply in some places even today.

As I have read elsewhere, although set in the distance past, it is a classic country house mystery: an ageing father who still controls the purse-strings and by extention the lives of his children; two brothers of different temperaments who clash in how to run the business; their wives, one shrewish, the other wrapped up in her children; a spoiled younger brother from a second marriage who wants to make his mark in the world; a grandmother who takes her few pleasures where she can but can still make her grown son squirm; a handful of servants; and two incomers, poles apart, in the returning sister and the new wife who very much puts the cat amonst the pigeons.

Christie had never scared me before but on first reading this I can remember being genuinely frightened, especially of one particular death. I think this is also because there is no element of law and order here – Renisenb and her allies must rely on themselves alone to find the murderer.

An interesting story, mainly for its setting, but for me not an essential Christie. As I’m not particularly attached to it, I’m interested to see what the BBC will make of it in their forthcoming adaptation, especially as it hasn’t been televised before.

Signs of the Times

The story is set c.2000 BC so almost everything is a Sign of the Times so I won’t go into any of them.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – Set pre-1800”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#43 – Death Comes as the End – WITH SPOILERS

The recently widowed Renisenb returns to her father’s home after eight years away and initially believes that everything will be as it was before.

However when Imhotep returns with his new young concubine Nofret the lives of the whole family change for the worse. It does not take long for previously feuding family members to unite in their hatred of Nofret and soon death visits the estate for the first,but definitely not the last, time.

In her introduction Christie says that “Both place and time are incidental to the story – any other place at any other time would have served as well” and this is definitely accurate. Although a lack of a police force and a strong belief in the supernatural are required, this would have been the prevailing case through much of history and would still apply in some places even today.

As I have read elsewhere, although set in the distance past, it is a classic country house mystery: an ageing father who still controls the purse-strings and by extention the lives of his children; two brothers of different temperaments who clash in how to run the business; their wives, one shrewish, the other wrapped up in her children; a spoiled younger brother from a second marriage who wants to make his mark in the world; a grandmother who takes her few pleasures where she can but can still make her grown son squirm; a handful of servants; and two incomers, poles apart, in the returning sister and the new wife who very much puts the cat amonst the pigeons.

Christie had never scared me before but on first reading this I can remember being genuinely frightened, especially of one particular death. I think this is also because there is no element of law and order here – Renisenb and her allies must rely on themselves alone to find the murderer.

An interesting story, mainly for its setting, but for me not an essential Christie. As I’m not particularly attached to it, I’m interested to see what the BBC will make of it in their forthcoming adaptation, especially as it hasn’t been televised before.

Signs of the Times

The story is set c.2000 BC so almost everything is a Sign of the Times so I won’t go into any of them.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “When – Set pre-1800”.

SPOILERS

The characters belief in the supernatural is key to the mystery working – Satipy’s end is described as follows:

“And then, suddenly, Satipy stiffened in her tracks. She stood as though frozen, staring back along the path. Her arms went up as though at some dreadful sight or as though to ward off a blow. She cried out something, stumbled, swayed, and then, as Yahmose sprang towards her, she screamed, a scream of terror, and plunged forward off the edge, headlong to the rocks below…”

If Renisenb and Hori just believed the evidence of their eyes it would be clear that Yahmose was trying to kill Satipy and that she had fallen trying to evade him. However because they believe in “ghosts, spirits, and the devil” they give credence to Yahmose when he says:

“She looked past me – over my shoulder – as though she saw someone coming along the path – but there was no one – there was no one there.”

and that possible Satipy has been spooked by the shade of Nofret.

The clue from childhood is pure Christie when their mother tells Sobek that is dangerous to hit Yahmose. We believe this is because it is dangerous to Yahmose from being hit when actually it is danger to Sobek that is meant because of Yahmose’s possible reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#42 – Towards Zero

February sees someone planning murder. May and August see Mr Treves and Superintendent Battle are changing their holiday plans. September sees various parties converging on the sea…and all heading inexorably towards zero hour.

Nevile Strange would like his first and second wives to get on well and so makes sure that all three of them visit Lady Tressilian at the same time. This makes for a decidedly awkward houseparty which is not improved when their hostess is killed. It seems to be an open and shut case but once the visiting Superintendent Battle starts investigating it becomes clear that it is anything but.

This is possibly the only Christie novel that I haven’t read before (I’m hazy on They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown) but unfortunately I once caught the end of the Miss Marple TV adaptation (yes, clearly she isn’t the book but with only twelve novels what is a TV producer to do?) and so I didn’t get the full impact of this one. This means I find it quite hard to decide whether it is top drawer or not.

However it was definitely enjoyable and Christie set out to do something specific and I think she achieved her aim.

And now off to start watching the new BBC adaptation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”.

Recurring character development

Superintendent Battle

Has five children of which Sylvia, aged 16, is the youngest.

His wife is called Mary.

Has a nephew in the police, Inspector Leach.

Signs of the Times

The story is probably set in 1938 given 12th September is a Monday.

Having survived his suicide attempt, Angus MacWhirter faces the “prospect of being hauled up in front of a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life”. In England and Wales this was the case until 1961.

Thomas Royde had the childhood nickname of “True Thomas”. Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (c.1220-1298) also known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas was meant to have been incapable of lying and was supposed to have prophesied various events in Scottish history.

Nevile has a Burberry coat. Burberry was founded in 1856 and became known for its waterproof coats. Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and George Mallory all wore Burberry on their adventures.

References to previous works

A Lady Tressillian (two Ls) was Carla Lemarchant’s grandmother in Five Little Pigs, but for various reasons can’t be the same person as the victim in this book. It was clearly a favourite name of Christie’s as she also used it (with one L) for the butler in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

Battle refers to Hercule Poirot’s methods and mannerisms and something about the crime scene reminds him of him.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Number in the title”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#42 – Towards Zero – WITH SPOILERS

February sees someone planning murder. May and August see Mr Treves and Superintendent Battle are changing their holiday plans. September sees various parties converging on the sea…and all heading inexorably towards zero hour.

Nevile Strange would like his first and second wives to get on well and so makes sure that all three of them visit Lady Tressilian at the same time. This makes for a decidedly awkward houseparty which is not improved when their hostess is killed. It seems to be an open and shut case but once the visiting Superintendent Battle starts investigating it becomes clear that it is anything but.

This is possibly the only Christie novel that I haven’t read before (I’m hazy on They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown) but unfortunately I once caught the end of the Miss Marple TV adaptation (yes, clearly she isn’t the book but with only twelve novels what is a TV producer to do?) and so I didn’t get the full impact of this one. This means I find it quite hard to decide whether it is top drawer or not.

However it was definitely enjoyable and Christie set out to do something specific and I think she achieved her aim.

Recurring character development

Superintendent Battle

Has five children of which Sylvia, aged 16, is the youngest.

His wife is called Mary.

Has a nephew in the police, Inspector Leach.

Signs of the Times

The story is probably set in 1938 given 12th September is a Monday.

Having survived his suicide attempt, Angus MacWhirter faces the “prospect of being hauled up in front of a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life”. In England and Wales this was the case until 1961.

Thomas Royde had the childhood nickname of “True Thomas”. Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (c.1220-1298) also known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas was meant to have been incapable of lying and was supposed to have prophesied various events in Scottish history.

Nevile has a Burberry coat. Burberry was founded in 1856 and became known for its waterproof coats. Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, and George Mallory all wore Burberry on their adventures.

References to previous works

A Lady Tressillian (two Ls) was Carla Lemarchant’s grandmother in Five Little Pigs, but for various reasons can’t be the same person as the victim in this book. It was clearly a favourite name of Christie’s as she also used it (with one L) for the butler in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

Battle refers to Hercule Poirot’s methods and mannerisms and something about the crime scene reminds him of him.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “What – Number in the title”.

SPOILERS

A very meta beginning as Mr Treves is unwittingly the opening character that he describes as “the elderly gentleman sitting in front of the fire opening his letters.” His idea that the murder should come at the end should be a massive clue that Lady Tressilian’s death is not the primary murder and that it is yet to come.

We know that the crime has been plotted well in advance and I spotted that both Kay and Mary are self-confessed planners.

The idea of whether the handedness of a killer can be determined from how a blow has been struck is discussed. I can testify that this would be tricky – at least until the weapon had been found. If I was to hit someone with a short implement e.g. a rounders bat, I would appear to be right-handed, but if I used something longer e.g. a baseball bat, I would appear to be left-handed (not that I’m planning on dealing anyone such a mortal blow).

I love that MacWhirter deduces what has happened and makes up his testimony (a trick used by Poirot in one particular book) and that Battle realises that it is false but that the idea in it is true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter (1997)

A is for Adrian set alight (and Achilles Stock, narrator).

B is for Bellew shot with a bolt (and aesthete Burns, Owen).

C is for connoisseur’s collection of crazy crimes.

Someone is constructing a series of murders which relate to each of the seven ancient wonders of the world, warning the police beforehand each time with a freshly painted cryptic message. Is it someone who has taken a lady’s challenge to kill to prove their love for her to heart? Or is there another reason why this serial killer has embarked on this most singular spree of violence?

The main problem with this book is that the method behind each murder is kept for the end (although in some ways this is necessary) and it would have been good if this could have been spaced out à la The Big Four.

However I enjoyed each of the solutions, particularly that of the fourth murder, and I was most definitely satisfied overall. As with The Invisible Circle some suspension of disbelief is required, but you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. If as Brad commented  these are “two of the worst Paul Halter titles around” then I am definitely looking forward to getting to grips with his best.

What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently

Calamity Town by Ellery Queen – The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen! Very different from the pure puzzle oriented plots of the Nationality Object Mysteries that I have read so far, but that is no bad thing. Ellery has left the city and the Inspector to spend some time writing a novel in the small town of Wrightsville. He soon finds that a murder might be in the offing but try as he might he can’t prevent a tragedy from occurring. The identity of the murderer is no huge surprise but the reasons why the protagonists acted as they did is very illuminating. And there is a lovely final line that rounds the whole thing off deliciously.

#41 – The Moving Finger

Following a serious ‘plane accident, Jerry Burton is sent to the country to recuperate with his sister Joanna as company. They haven’t been in Lymstock long before they receive an anonymous letter that states their relationship is conjugal rather than sibling. Other villagers have already received similar missives but they aren’t taken that seriously until one of the messages hits too close for comfort and a lady commits suicide as a result.

As an outsider, Jerry is taken into the confidence of the police as they try to identify a letter writer who may now have to kill to keep their secret. However it is only when the vicar’s wife calls in an expert that the case can be closed.

There were a couple of quotes that caught my eye for very different reasons:

One character says “I loved Maths…it’s heavenly. I think there’s something heavenly about numbers, anyway, don’t you?”

And Jerry’s own thoughts on their landlady: “Emily Barton, I think, has a mental picture of men as interminably consuming whiskies and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman.”

Something else which particularly stuck out, which I commented on when reviewing Busman’s Honeymoon, is the poor lot of the servant. In this case, at least from Partridge’s perspective, not being able to use the telephone and not being able to entertain friends (even in the kitchen). Plus the fact that Agnes Woddell’s name initially is completely unknown to Jerry, even though he has been entertained by the Symmington’s – a whole class of non-people.

Not a top-tier Christie, but still much more than satisfactory.

Recurring character development

Miss Marple

Her current maid is called Edith.

Signs of the Times

Though first published in 1942, the story is set pre-war although the mention of brave young men who fly may mean that the clouds of war are gathering.

Miss Emily Barton has no ashtrays in her house but recognises that everyone smokes now.

Joanna is surprised that people leave calling cards.

Colonel Appleton is described as being “a Blimp type”. Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character created by David Low in 1934. He was a satire of reactionary British views and was the model of a stereotypical retired army officer.

At one point Owen Griffith greets Jerry but ignores Joanna. He says he didn’t see her and she says “After all I am life size” to which Jerry says “Merely kit-kat”. It appears that he is saying that she isn’t that tall as a kit-kat is a half-length portrait of one of the members of the 18th century Kit-Cat club.

Jerry shows Aimee Griffith a Chinese picture called “Old Man enjoying the Pleasures of Idleness”. Christie refers to this picture herself in the foreword to her autobiography.

The song that Jerry hums which begins to end with “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here” is taken from “Sailing beyond Seas” by Jean Ingelow (1820-97).

When Jerry talks about tinned food being shipped in from the far-flung limits of empire Joanna says “Life ivory, apes and peacocks?” which is a quote from the poem “Cargoes” by John Masefield (1878-1967) who was Poet Laureate at the time.

For a brief moment Jerry sees Elsie Holland as a Winged Victory. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a (now headless) sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike.

The Symmington boys played Animal Grab, which I envisioned as some form of horseplay but is actually a Snap type game where you make the noise of the animal paired rather than saying “snap”.

Mr Pye says “Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues” which is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part II”.

Mr Pye refers to the case of Lizzie Borden who was tried and acquitted of the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother.

Napoleon’s Book of Dreams was a great stand-by of Jerry’s old nurse. Napoleon’s Oraculum (or Dreambook or Book of Fate) was a translation made at Napoleon’s personal request of a manuscript found in an Egyptian tomb in 1801 during a French military expedition. He consulted it before making major decisions.

The Shakespeare sonnet quoted in a letter is number 75.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – At least two deaths with different means”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#41 – The Moving Finger – WITH SPOILERS

Following a serious ‘plane accident, Jerry Burton is sent to the country to recuperate with his sister Joanna as company. They haven’t been in Lymstock long before they receive an anonymous letter that states their relationship is conjugal rather than sibling. Other villagers have already received similar missives but they aren’t taken that seriously until one of the messages hits too close for comfort and a lady commits suicide as a result.

As an outsider, Jerry is taken into the confidence of the police as they try to identify a letter writer who may now have to kill to keep their secret. However it is only when the vicar’s wife calls in an expert that the case can be closed.

There were a couple of quotes that caught my eye for very different reasons:

One character says “I loved Maths…it’s heavenly. I think there’s something heavenly about numbers, anyway, don’t you?”

And Jerry’s own thoughts on their landlady: “Emily Barton, I think, has a mental picture of men as interminably consuming whiskies and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman.”

Something else which particularly stuck out, which I commented on when reviewing Busman’s Honeymoon, is the poor lot of the servant. In this case, at least from Partridge’s perspective, not being able to use the telephone and not being able to entertain friends (even in the kitchen). Plus the fact that Agnes Woddell’s name initially is completely unknown to Jerry, even though he has been entertained by the Symmington’s – a whole class of non-people.

Not a top-tier Christie, but still much more than satisfactory.

Recurring character development

Miss Marple

Her current maid is called Edith.

Signs of the Times

Though first published in 1942, the story is set pre-war although the mention of brave young men who fly may mean that the clouds of war are gathering.

Miss Emily Barton has no ashtrays in her house but recognises that everyone smokes now.

Joanna is surprised that people leave calling cards.

Colonel Appleton is described as being “a Blimp type”. Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character created by David Low in 1934. He was a satire of reactionary British views and was the model of a stereotypical retired army officer.

At one point Owen Griffith greets Jerry but ignores Joanna. He says he didn’t see her and she says “After all I am life size” to which Jerry says “Merely kit-kat”. It appears that he is saying that she isn’t that tall as a kit-kat is a half-length portrait of one of the members of the 18th century Kit-Cat club.

Jerry shows Aimee Griffith a Chinese picture called “Old Man enjoying the Pleasures of Idleness”. Christie refers to this picture herself in the foreword to her autobiography.

The song that Jerry hums which begins to end with “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here” is taken from “Sailing beyond Seas” by Jean Ingelow (1820-97).

When Jerry talks about tinned food being shipped in from the far-flung limits of empire Joanna says “Life ivory, apes and peacocks?” which is a quote from the poem “Cargoes” by John Masefield (1878-1967) who was Poet Laureate at the time.

For a brief moment Jerry sees Elsie Holland as a Winged Victory. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a (now headless) sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike.

The Symmington boys played Animal Grab, which I envisioned as some form of horseplay but is actually a Snap type game where you make the noise of the animal paired rather than saying “snap”.

Mr Pye says “Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues” which is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part II”.

Mr Pye refers to the case of Lizzie Borden who was tried and acquitted of the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother.

Napoleon’s Book of Dreams was a great stand-by of Jerry’s old nurse. Napoleon’s Oraculum (or Dreambook or Book of Fate) was a translation made at Napoleon’s personal request of a manuscript found in an Egyptian tomb in 1801 during a French military expedition. He consulted it before making major decisions.

The Shakespeare sonnet quoted in a letter is number 75.

Vintage Mystery Challenge

Fulfils “How – At least two deaths with different means”.

SPOILERS

In typical Christie fashion, this is a poison pen mystery which is nothing of the sort as Miss Marple says in her summing up:

“You just come down to the actual facts of what happened. And putting aside the letters, just one thing happened – Mrs Symmington died.”

Unlike in a previous mystery, the assumption of the writer’s gender here is much more persuasive, though we are also presented with a male (but deliberately unmanly) suspect in Mr Pye. However, as this is Christie  the reader should perhaps have been more suspicious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop (1930)

This has been on my radar for some time having popped up in Amazon recommended for me following many initial searches for “British Library Crime Classics” and “Martin Edwards” (who wrote the introduction). Having received a work award in the form of a US dollars VISA card the current price fitted in the range that would translate as near as possible with enough of a margin for exchange rate fluctuations (an accountant’s private life is an exciting one!).

A shot rings out in a pitch-black apartment and immediately the body of Dave Denny is discovered with a look of surprise on his face and bullet through the middle of his head. But how could he have seen his killer and how could they have seen him?

Further impossible shootings lead to more death – we are told this in the preface which is too detailed in my view – but it is only the solution to this first scenario that is of any great shakes. One murder method would have been much more quickly identified with more rigorous basic methods of detection and another is just nonsensical.

It is implied that this is in part a parody of S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels but having not yet read any of those I have no idea if that works or not.

In some respects the book’s genesis, described in a detailed Afterword as an act of artistic revenge, is the most interesting thing about it.

Overall I can’t recommend this book but it’s better than a corporate mug so I can’t really complain.

What Else I’ve Been Reading Recently

A Private View by Michael Innes – an intriguing start, with a saggy middle, before all is redeemed by an excellent final chapter that ties everything together.

 

 

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean- “The Cruel Sea” on steroids; first stop on my re-reading of most of MacLean’s output up to 1971.