Turning Japanese #15: Death on Gokumon Island (1948) by Seishi Yokomizo (translated by Louise Heal Kawai)

Chimata Kito was so happy to have survived the war and to be returning to Japan but tragically he sickened and died on the troopship on the way home. His final words revealed his belief that his sisters were in great danger and so Kosuke Kindaichi goes to Gokumon Island to break the sad news to the Kito family and to try to protect the three young women.

Based on the book’s title, the reader can guess that Kindaichi will fail in this task, but when a murder does occur, why on earth is the victim hung upside down from a branch of a plum tree?

He is initially as shocked as those around him, but then, quite revealingly:

“Kosuke finally came to his senses, and, simultaneously, his sense of professionalism kicked in. Or rather, his natural instinct to enquire and pry raised its head.”

He has assistance from his old friend Inspector Isokawa, whose first mention gives rise to this reflection:

“Between the Honjin murder case and this current one, there had been a war on a global scale, and many men had been posted overseas and never returned. A good number of people remaining in Japan had had their houses burned to the ground, and been scattered all over the country, and there was often no way to ascertain whether they had survived the war. And now, here on this remote island, an island that Kosuke himself barely had any connection to, he had suddenly heard news of an old friend. It was completely unexpected and moving, and now he was feeling sentimental.”

I found this a much better read than The Village of Eight Graves published earlier this year as it is a more traditional style murder mystery and we see much more of Kindaichi. One clue is reasoned out in a way reminiscent of Ellery Queen and there is a brilliant verbal clue, which I would love to see what the literal original meaning is and how the translator has worked out how to make it work in English. I really enjoyed the solution and the final little something that Yokomizo slips in at the very end.

Click here for more reviews of Japanese mystery fiction.

The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling (1979) by Lawrence Block

Although included as one of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives Bernie Rhodenbarr is very much an accidental sleuth as his primary occupation is that of lawbreaker.

At the beginning of this, the third book in the series, he has recently come out of prison and bought a second-hand bookstore and tells Ray Kirschmann, “the best cop money could buy, and money could buy him seven days a week”, that his life of crime is behind him, but by the end of chapter two, he has stolen a car to go and steal a rare book from a collector. The burglary itself goes smoothly but when he goes to hand it over to his client he is drugged and wakes up with a gun in his hand and a dead woman in front of him. With the police on his trail, he will have to catch the real killer before they catch him.

Bernie is an amusing character – chapter one where he bamboozles an incompetent shoplifter is brilliant – and the fact that he steals what he needs rather than pay for it just because he can, provides plenty of incident.

The book climaxes with an unexpectedly traditional gathering of the suspects, and whilst I was having too much fun to be bothered with a seeming lack of clues, at this point I realised that there were some good ones hidden away in amongst the various shenanigans. 

I’d definitely pick up another of Bernie’s burglarious adventures if I came across one second-hand.

A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick

June 1994 – the world is split between dopers – drug users – and straights. Many of the dopers use Substance D, the most addictive drug ever discovered.

Bob Arctor left his wife and children in search of a more exciting life and became an undercover narcotics agent trying to track down the supply of Substance D. To fit in with his target group he started to use drugs himself. This, combined with the fact that he is known to his agency only as Fred, where he reports in a scrambler suit to disguise his identity (as no one can be trusted to know who he really is) and therefore has to report on Bob, as well as the rest of his crowd, begins to give him serious problems.

The drug world is very murky as Arctor himself reflects:

“Several narcotics agents that he had known posed as dealers in their undercover work…this was a good cover, but it also brought the nark a gradually increasing profit over and above his official salary… Also, the agents got deeper and deeper into using their own stuff…they became rich dealer addicts as well as narks, and after a time some of them began to phase out their law-enforcement activities in favor of full-time dealing. But then, too, certain dealers, to burn their enemies or when expecting imminent busts, began narking and went that route, winding up as sort of unofficial undercover narks.”

As with a book of Dick’s short stories which I read last year, this book contains some very interesting ideas (here about addiction and the failure of the war on drugs) but I just don’t get on with his style of writing.

I’ve only seen the film and have no idea what the original short story is like but I like “Minority Report” a lot with its central premise of pre-cogs being able to see the future and thus prevent murders before they happen. That may have been a better choice for the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.

The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett

Reading the book for the first time after seeing the 1941 film (unbelievably the third big screen adaptation in ten years) a couple of times many years ago I was struck by how much the dialogue seemed familiar and re-watching the film this week has shown I was right. Hammett’s words have, in the main, been lifted and dropped into the mouths of the actors and the whole thing zings along both on page and screen.

An initial surprise though in the book is that Sam Spade is described as looking “rather pleasantly like a blond satan” which is at odds with Humphrey Bogart’s dark, ratty appearance. 

As for the story itself, Miss Wonderly visits the San Francisco office of a pair of private detectives with a problem which Spade summarises for his partner, Miles Archer, as:

“Miss Wonderly’s sister ran away from New York with a fellow named Floyd Thursby. They’re here. Miss Wonderly has seen Thursby and has a date with him tonight. Maybe he’ll bring the sister with him. The chances are he won’t. Miss Wonderly wants us to find the sister and get her away from him and back home.”

The stuff that dreams are                  made of

Archer volunteers to be the one to follow Thursby from the rendezvous to locate the missing sister but what should have been a simple case turns sour when he is shot dead and Spade finds himself mixed up with various criminals all trying to get their hands on the immensely valuable black Maltese Falcon statuette and he has to deal with them and keep on the right side of the law who aren’t convinced that he hasn’t committed at least one murder himself.

 

 

Spade is included within the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives although it his secretary who does the best piece of deduction in the book and I think he only gets in because of the iconic film. It would make more sense to include Hammett’s nameless Continental Op who appeared in many short stories and two novels and does more detecting: “Red Harvest” contains a fantastic verbal clue and “The Dain Curse” has more of a puzzle plot.

The book poses a few questions from the start which are never answered: why is Archer the junior partner though he is the older man (Spade quite ruthlessly has the “Spade and Archer” immediately removed from the door and replaced with “Samuel Spade”)? What led to the affair between Spade and Archer’s wife? These may (I’ve not read it) be answered by Joe Gores’ licensed 2009 prequel “Spade and Archer”. 

 

It’s the End…But the Moment has Been Prepared For

No, I haven’t fallen off a radio telescope after saving the world but the observant among you will have noticed that I have now completed the original purpose of this blog which was to review all eighty of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels and short story collections. So next month will feel a little strange as it will be the first in four and half years where I have no plans to read anything by the Queen of Crime.

But I will be continuing to work on my other projects. I have forty more Sherlock Holmes adventures to re-read, eighty-one more of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives to get (re-)acquainted with and more Japanese mystery fiction to enjoy as soon as someone can translate it.

I would like to take this opportunity to praise those who inspired me to blog.

My journey back to crime fiction began when I picked up two of the British Library Crime Classics short story collections in some sort of offer alongside “And Then There Were None” which I wanted to re-read following the 2015 BBC TV adaptation. In searching for a complete list of BLCC titles I found Martin Edwards’ excellent blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? where he covers a wide range of books from early to modern, easily obtainable to rare. Although he is now destined to be remembered more for his non-fiction work on the genre he continues to write a number of series of novels. Of the few that I have read I would most recommend “Yesterday’s Papers” which features his first series character, Harry Devlin.

From Martin’s blog I found my way to many others starting with, if I remember correctly, In Search of the Classic Mystery by the Puzzle Doctor. As well as being a prolific reviewer he has had great success in resurrecting lost author Brian Flynn. My favourite of the five I’ve tried so far is The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye.

 

 

The best thing about following other bloggers is that you find out about books and authors that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Were it not for Kate at Cross-Examining Crime I would have been very unlikely to try the work of Celia Fremlin nor ever have sought out a copy of the amazing The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardem. 

 

 

Similarly, associating the name Ira Levin primarily with “Rosemary’s Baby”, I would have missed out on the excellent A Kiss Before Dying if I hadn’t read Aidan’s review at Mysteries Ahoy!

 

 

 

Then there’s Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery! who has forgotten more about the works of Agatha Christie than the rest of us will ever know. His pieces which cover her works thematically are thought-provoking but it is his book report on The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa which has stuck most in my mind.

 

 

And if you’ve followed the previous link then that ties us nicely to JJ at The Invisible Event. A keen student of the impossible crime, it’s down to him that I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed the complete works of Rupert Penny, starting with The Talkative Policeman. He has recently taken his vast knowledge of the genre and used it to create the brilliant The Red Death Murders – if you have’t read it yet get yourself a copy and then buy more copies to give to all your family for Christmas.

Thanks for reading and here’s to the next five years’ of blogging!

 

 

#80 – While the Light Lasts

Published in 1997 in the UK only (eight of the stories having been published earlier in the year in the USA as “The Harlequin Tea Set”) this collection was the final Agatha Christie anthology of previously uncollected short stories. The contents are:

The House of Dreams – a man’s dreams have an uncanny predictive quality.

The Actress – a blackmailer gets put in his place.

The Edge – a moral dilemma with a personal element.

Christmas Adventure – this was expanded into “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”. There Poirot rewards a maid is with the vanity box that she asks for but here decides to give her “an excellent book upon le ménage, also the Lives of the Saints, and a work upon the economic position of women”!

The Lonely God – an unexpected meeting between two lonely people and what results from it. Christie later recycled the main theme from this 1926 tale into one of “The Labours of Hercules”.

Within a Wall – this is why couples really should have a joint bank account.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest – this was expanded into “The Mystery of the Spanish Chest” collected in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”.

While the Light Lasts – a post-war tragedy in Africa.

Manx Gold – to boost tourism to the Isle of Man, Christie was commissioned to write a story serialised in the Manchester Daily Dispatch which contained clues to enable holidaymakers to search for real treasure. If you get out a map of the island, you may be able to get some idea for yourself where the four chests were hidden. One was never found and had to be recovered by the mayor.

I’m fairly sure that I hadn’t read this collection before – The Actress is good fun and The Edge is quite edgy.

Champagne for One (1958) by Rex Stout

Weighing in at 272 lbs, Nero Wolfe is almost certainly the largest of the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. He lives to eat and to cultivate his prized orchids and cases are taken in order to pay for these two interests. He rarely leaves his brownstone house and this stay-at-home tendency means that someone else has to go into the world and gather evidence on his behalf: enter narrator Archie Goodwin, a wise-cracking private-eye type in Wolfe’s permanent employ. Thus we get an enjoyable mix of Chandleresque style and a real puzzle plot.

In this book, Archie takes the place of a friend who is faking a cold at an exclusive dinner party. One of the guests dies of cyanide poisoning and as she was known to carry a bottle with her at all times and had talked of ending it all, everyone is convinced that it is suicide. Everyone except Archie that is, who had been asked to keep an eye on her and swears blind that she couldn’t have added the stuff to her own glass. To protect Archie’s reputation, and by extension his own, Wolfe takes the case.

As often happens, Archie has to work with Wolfe’s other regular operatives (Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather) to surreptitiously get witnesses and suspects into the brownstone, where Wolfe bullies them into submission by insisting they will either talk to him or to the police. They normally decide to take their chances with him.

By reconstructing the crime in his office, Wolfe solves the problem of how the murderer could ensure that the poison got to the intended victim and then manipulates events to force a confession.

As many have written, it is the characters that are the main draw and I look forward to seeking out more of the delightful Bantam paperback editions as illustrated above.

 

Life of Brian (Flynn)

             Where is Brian Flynn?
    You sanctimonious critic!
   I have an order for his release!
            You stupid critic!
            Uh, I’m Brian Flynn.
                       What?
    Yeah, I – I – I’m Brian Flynn.
            Eh, I’m Brian Flynn.
                  I’m Brian Flynn!
               Look, I’m Brian Flynn!
           I’m Brian Flynn, and so’s my wife!
             I’m Brian Flynn!
     All right. Take him away and                             release him.  
             No, I’m only joking.                     I’m not really Brian Flynn.                  No, I’m not Brian Flynn.                 I was only – It was a joke.                I’m only pulling your leg.                         Put me back.                                  Ruddy Julian Symons!                          Can’t take a joke!

 

 

Ten Dead Comedians (2017) by Fred Van Lente

There is so much classic crime easily available that I haven’t read that I rarely read modern mysteries. Generally, I figure that if something’s really good people will still be talking about it in twenty years’ time and I’ll give it a go then. But I couldn’t resist an update of the island-based serial killer subgenre.

Nine comedians, at various stages of their careers are invited to take part in a new project by comedy legend Dustin Walker on his private Caribbean island. Upon arrival they find a three by three set of photos of them on the wall of a gallery – no prizes for guessing what’s going to happen to those as we go through the book – and they soon see a final video message from their host. A body is discovered but then immediately lost so there is a possibility that it could be a prank but then the murders start and don’t stop.

Interestingly, the murder methods have more in common with the recently re-published “The Invisible Host” than with And Then There Were None so maybe they’d have had more chance surviving if they’d made different choices. I was surprised by the final reveal, but there were two obvious clues which I missed. In fact if you read everything carefully, you should be able to determine another key part of the solution.

The problem for me was the comedy element, which I know is a very subjective area, but mainly because stand-up is meant to be seen and heard, not read from the page, and so the between chapter sections just didn’t really work for me.

As I bought it secondhand, I got my £2 worth from it, but couldn’t advise buying it new. And we won’t be talking about it in twenty years’ time.

BONUS MATHS LESSON

Whilst searching for a cover image, I found a description which said “And Then There Were None but with 100% more jokes than Agatha Christie”. Now I don’t remember any jokes in the original, but even if there had been one or two, then 100% more would only be an additional one or two. So either the writer of that quote is bad at maths or was being accurate and really didn’t find it funny!

 

 

#79 – Problem at Pollensa Bay

Published in 1991 in the UK only (as the contents had all previously been included in American anthologies) this collection was the first “new” Agatha Christie for thirteen years. The eight stories are:

Problem at Pollensa Bay – Parker Pyne is on the homeward leg of his trip abroad detailed in the second half of “Parker Pyne Investigates” where he operated more as a general problem solver rather than a provider of happiness but he returns to his day job here and in so doing illustrates why, although I enjoy his first six cases very much, there was a limit to the possibilities of that type of story as it is very obvious what is going on. Although his first initial is given as “J” in earlier stories, he has inexplicably signed the hotel register as “C. Parker Pyne”.

The Second Gong – Poirot arrives late for dinner to find his host already dead. This was expanded into “Dead Man’s Mirror” included in “Murder in the Mews”.

Yellow Iris – Poirot is summoned to a matter of life or death at the Jardin des Cygnes but when he arrives at the restaurant finds that no one will take responsibility for the telephone call. And then a young woman dies… The basic elements here were later used in “Sparkling Cyanide” but the murderer and method used are different.

The Harlequin Tea Set – this is set “a large number of years” after the stories collected in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”. According to Wikipedia no original publication date has been found although it was anthologised in “Winter’s Crimes 3” where all stories are described as “new” on the front cover. Based on the ages of characters mentioned, I think this has to be set post-WWII which would make Mr Satterthwaite as impossibly old as Hercule Poirot. The story itself is daft as the person with criminous intentions has already achieved their aim and what they then attempt to do is completely unnecessary.

The Regatta Mystery – a young man is unhappy as he is the only person who could have a stolen a diamond and so he consults Parker Pyne. This was originally a Poirot story but the sleuth was changed before being included in the US collection “The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories”.

The Love Detectives – Mr Satterthwaite with the assistance of Mr Quin has to save a pair of lovers from a cunning plot. Colonel Melrose is the Chief Constable so this story takes place in the same county as “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” and The Secret of Chimneys”. This was originally published in 1926 and was presumably not included in 1930’s “The Mysterious Mr Quin” as Christie was re-working the central ideas into a novel at the time.

Next to a Dog  – a non-mystery for dog lovers only.

Magnolia Blossom – a non-mystery in which a woman must choose between love and duty. 

Although fans would have been excited to have access to some “new” Parker Pyne and Mr Quin stories, I’m sure they’d have been a bit disappointed because none of these stories is memorable.