The Inugami Curse (1951): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 2

I really enjoyed my introduction to Kosuke Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders, and was keen to read more of his adventures. Enter The Inugami Curse, the second novel in the series to be translated by Pushkin Vertigo, which like the earlier book blends a highly readable mystery with insights into traditional Japanese culture. As the novel opens, Kindaichi arrives in the lakeside town of Nasu, north of Tokyo, after receiving a worrying letter from the lawyer Wakabayashi. The powerful businessman Sahei Inugami has recently died, sending shockwaves through the local community, for whom he was a figurehead. Everyone is breathlessly waiting for his will to be read, to reveal how his fortune will be divided. Each of Sahei’s three daughters waits, hawk-like, with their husbands and children in tow. But Wakabayashi has seen the will and knows it will have the power to rip the family apart in blood and fury. Kindaichi initially believes Wakabayashi’s predictions to be overblown, but when the lawyer is poisoned moments before their meeting, he realises someone in the Inugami clan will stop at nothing to secure Sahei’s fortune. And this, alas, is only the first of the murders…

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The Colour of Murder (1957): Julian Symons

★★★

My next book in the British Library Crime Classics series takes an unusual approach to narrative. The first half is a first-person account, presented as a psychologist’s record of sessions held with the speaker, a young man named John Wilkins. About halfway through the book, we find out that there has been a murder – but it would be a spoiler to say, right now, who’s been killed, or who is the suspect. During the second half, we follow the action in court, watching prosecution and defence in action, we try to understand exactly what happened on the beach at Brighton that dark summer night, and whether the accused truly is guilty. As a murder mystery it isn’t entirely satisfying – there’s very little sense of catharsis to be had – but it’s fascinating as a social history. Reading it so soon after The Fortnight in September, I found myself drawing lots of parallels between the modest lives of the Stevens family in the 1930s and that of John Wilkins in the 1950s: a world of humble jobs, social striving, and frustration, which hasn’t changed as much in twenty years as you might expect. However, while the Stevens family ultimately find joy and hope in their lives, Wilkins feels consistently hard-done-by: a man whose search for self-fulfilment leads to a tragic outcome.

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Castle Skull (1931): John Dickson Carr

★★★

Henri Bencolin: Book 2

The British Library Crime Classics series doesn’t just embrace British writers. Castle Skull is positively international: the work of the American crime novelist John Dickson Carr, set in Germany, with the Parisian detective Bencolin as its protagonist. It’s one of Carr’s earlier works, published in 1931, and he seems to have thrown everything at it in an excess of exuberance. A mystery, but also a macabre piece of Grand Guignol, this story takes us deep into the dark gorges of the Rhineland, and to the eponymous Castle Skull, former home of the magician Maleger. This extravagant folly was left jointly in his will to his friends Jerome d’Aunay, the Belgian financier, and Myron Alison, the British actor. But now d’Aunay has come to Paris in search of Bencolin’s brilliant mind, for there has been a horrific death, and the castle has seen blood spilled upon its walls: ‘Alison has been murdered. His blazing body was seen running about the battlements of Castle Skull.’ It’s definitely one of the more ‘what the…?!’ opening gambits in detective fiction. A blazing body; a castle shaped like a skull; a whole treasure trove of dark secrets… Bencolin can’t resist and, along with his friend (and the book’s narrator) Jeff Marle, he heads for the Rhineland to discover the full sinister history of Castle Skull.

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Shadows in Bronze (1990): Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 2

Time to head back to Ancient Rome, for some political skulduggery in the company of our overworked and underpaid Roman sleuth, Falco. This book slots in between The Silver Pigs and Venus in Copper, and follows Falco as he embarks on yet another over-complicated mission for his patron Vespasian. Falco is always great fun to read about: like Cadfael, he’s a vivid and lively character, whose world is meticulously historically accurate, but evoked with a light touch. Unlike Cadfael, he’s prickly, full of himself, and still young enough to be trying to find his feet in the world. In Shadows in Bronze, Vespasian orders him to mop up the loose ends left by the aristocratic conspiracy we saw in The Silver Pigs but, as Falco heads down to the opulent Bay of Naples to round up a couple of recalcitrant senators, he starts to get the uneasy feeling that he hasn’t seen the last of the plotters. Although his trip to Naples is dressed up to look like a family holiday, he swiftly realises that danger is never far away. To make matters worse, his cut-above-the-rest love interest, Helena Justina, is also enjoying a break on the Bay of Naples, and Falco’s personal and professional lives look set to collide once again.

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The Honjin Murders (1948): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 1

Strange times. I can only hope that none of you or your loved ones have been directly affected by coronavirus, and I send virtual hugs out across the ether to all of you. I don’t intend to dwell on the present madness, though: I’m here, writing this, because I’d rather forget about it for a few minutes, and I hope you’re here for the same reason. Let’s go somewhere else together instead. Somewhere like provincial Japan in the late 1930s: a world still struggling to free itself from the legacies of feudal hierarchies, in which a shocking crime offers a brilliant young detective the chance to make his literary debut. I didn’t recognise Kosuke Kindaichi’s name, but he has a devoted following in Japan and appeared in a whole series of Yokomizo’s novels after this, his first appearance, in 1946. Unfortunately, The Honjin Murders (deftly translated by Louise Heal Kawai) is at present one of only two Kindaichi novels available in English; the other, The Inugami Curse, is also available from Pushkin Vertigo. Let’s hope that these two books are successful and encourage Pushkin to get the rest translated, because on the basis of The Honjin Murders they’re going to be mind-scrambling, very entertaining classic crime stories.

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The Murder of My Aunt (1934): Richard Hull

★★★½

Edward Powell is miffed. He’s fed up of the tiny Welsh town of Lwll, on whose outskirts he lives (‘How can any reasonably minded person live in a place whose name no Christian person can pronounce?’) and he’s bored of the tedious local company. Most of all, he’s on the verge of being driven to distraction by his Aunt Mildred, with whom he lives, and who seems to exist for the sole purpose of spoiling his life. Now, if only he could find a suitably artistic way to get rid of her! In this playful instalment in the British Library Crime Classics series, the conventional structure of a murder mystery is turned on its head. As we watch the ghastly Edward bumble his way through a series of clumsy attempts at murder, the question is not ‘whodunnit?’ but ‘will-he-do-it?’ Blessed with one of the most ghastly protagonists I’ve ever encountered, and peppered with throwaway comments so pretentious they’d put Anthony Blanche to shame, Richard Hull’s 1934 novel is also one of the most entertaining Golden Age crime novels I’ve read so far.

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Thirteen Guests (1936): J. Jefferson Farjeon

★★★

John Foss, a young man in a state of distraction, gets his foot caught while leaving the train at the country station of Flensham. Badly injured, he providentially finds himself sharing a platform with the beautiful Mrs Leveridge, who is on her way to a house party at the nearby Bragley Court. She takes John along with her, so that he can receive the attention of a doctor and rest in comfort, correctly judging that their host Lord Aveling won’t mind stretching his hospitality to another guest. But, as John is warmly greeted and installed on a couch, he realises that his presence means there will be thirteen guests at this weekend’s party. And, as the other guests trickle in, John finds himself watching to see who will be the thirteenth to pass through the doorway. He swiftly sees that all is not well at Bragley. Secrets and dislike ripple beneath the polite surface and there are strange alliances and tensions between unexpected groups of guests. And he is right to be uneasy, for by the end of the weekend three people will be dead…

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Bats in the Belfry (1937): E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

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The Stranger Diaries (2018): Elly Griffiths

★★★½

Clare Cassidy is au fait with Gothic drama. She’s an English teacher at Holland House school, formerly the home of the reclusive Victorian author R.M. Holland, whose eerie short story The Stranger is one of Clare’s favourite pieces. But Clare prefers the Gothic to remain within the pages of her books. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, it initially seems to be just that: a shocking, upsetting, horrifying crime. Yet there are disturbing elements to Ella’s death. A scribbled note is found beside her body: a line from The Stranger. Her murder bears some resemblance to one of the deaths in that story. And worse is to come. For Clare, a committed diarist, suddenly discovers that someone else has been leaving notes in her journal – someone who apparently has knowledge of the crime, and has been able to get access to her most personal possessions. Griffiths’s novel is a satisfying combination of old-school Gothic and thoroughly modern thriller – even if its final denouement is a bit limp.

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Murder at the British Museum (2019): Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

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