Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Geometry of Murder

A group of people is stuck on an island, with no way off. Stuck on the island with them is a mad, cunning killer, determined to pick off the group members one by one. It’s a race against time, a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. No, I’m not talking about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Rather, I’m talking about a recently-published translation of a Japanese detective story: The Decagon House Murders.

The titular Decagon House is, of course, shaped like a decagon, and the island upon which it sits was recently the site of a gruesome series of murders. Naturally, a university’s mystery club (modelled on such a club at Kyoto University) decides the island is a great place for a club excursion. Thus the members meet up, each of them known by a pseudonym taken from one of the great Western Golden Age writers: Agatha, Orczy, Van Dine, Leroux, Ellery, Carr, and Poe. It doesn’t take long for murder to occur, and as the body count rises, the list of suspects gets shorter and shorter…

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Clash of Clans

In 1940s Japan, just after the end of the Second World War, the wealthy entrepreneur Sahei Inugami dies at his villa. Don’t get your hopes up – his death was a natural one. The “Silk King of Japan”, the late Mr. Inugami lived a long and prosperous life, and his will is to be read aloud when the entire family is gathered together. The only missing member is Kiyo Inugami, a soldier and the son of Sahei’s eldest daughter, and thus the reading of the will is postponed for a few months until Kiyo returns home.

Just before the will is to be read, the famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi is summoned to the Nasu region by Toyoichiro Wakabayashi, an employee at the Furudate Law Office which drafted the late Inugami patriarch’s will. Wakabayashi’s summons is ominous—according to him, the Inugami clan will be faced with “a grave situation … events soaked in blood.” Unfortunately, before Kindaichi can get the man to elucidate just what he means by this, he drops dead from a poisoned cigarette.

Kindaichi discovers that a central figure in the Inugami household, Tamayo Nonomiya, has been the target of multiple attempts on her life. The late Sahei Inugami always favoured Tamayo because he owed a debt of gratitude to her grandfather, who rescued him from poverty. Unfortunately, his warmth towards her was never reciprocated by the rest of the Inugami clan. Tensions reach a boiling point when the will is read aloud, and it is discovered that it hinges on Tamayo and her choice of a husband. And then, the murders start in earnest…

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Poison, running through my veins...

The case of Freeman Wills Crofts on this blog is a strange one. A few years ago, I read the short story collection Murderers Make Mistakes. The stories in that collection began as a series of radio plays, and Crofts turned them into short stories. I enjoyed the book, especially the first half, which effectively showcased Inspector French’s strengths as a detective. And yet, for whatever reason, I never returned to Crofts since reviewing that book. His name popped up prominently when I reviewed Curt Evans’ Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, but apart from that, it was all quiet on the Crofts front.

So in August of last year, I decided to remedy the situation by picking up Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, a book which landed on my radar when John over at Pretty Sinister Books reviewed it (and directed me to a website where I found a cheap copy of the book – thanks once again, John!). But tragedy struck, and as I packed my bags to move to the seminary, I managed to lose my copy of Antidote to Venom, having read about halfway through. Then, a few weeks ago, when I was visiting home, a stroke of luck occurred – I found the book, with the bookmark still in place! And so I eagerly picked up the book and after briefly refreshing my memory on what had occurred, I read on.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A, B, C, D, E, F, G...

Ten years have elapsed since the events chronicled in The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y. Drury Lane has gotten much older, and is frail and sickly these days. As for Inspector Thumm, he has retired and opened a detective agency, which is doing rather well. More surprisingly than that, we discover that Inspector Thumm has a daughter, Patience, who is the narrator of our story.

It all begins innocuously enough. Elihu Clay, an honest businessman (keep your smart-aleck comments to yourself), comes to ex-Inspector Thumm’s door for help. It seems his business is doing very well… indeed, almost too well. He has a silent partner, Dr. Ira Fawcett, brother of Senator Joe Fawcett, and he suspects the doctor is using his business to pull some financial hanky-panky on behalf of the Fawcett clan. Inspector Thumm accepts the case, but with little hope of success – although it’s widely known that Senator Fawcett is crooked, no one has been able to prove so in a court of law.

Thumm’s daughter Patience comes along for the ride, because even though she has no role in the investigation she’s a Liberated Woman. She hits it off with Drury Lane, making a couple of clever deductions about how the detective is spending his spare time. So when murder comes a-knocking and Senator Fawcett is bumped off, with the police eagerly seizing on the most obvious suspect, Patience consults the Great Detective and brings him onboard to solve The Tragedy of Z.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Twist of Time

When Detective-Superintendent John Cheviot got into the twentieth-century taxi, nothing was amiss. “Scotland Yard,” he told the driver – meaning, of course, New Scotland Yard. He had no frisson of premonition, no encounter with a mysterious stranger… in short there was absolutely nothing to indicate anything unusual was about to occur. But when Cheviot got out of the taxi, he found himself at Old Scotland Yard… in the year 1829.

Cheviot finds himself part of Scotland Yard at its inception. The police are not seen as society’s protectors, but rather as a group of thugs with which high society needn’t bother. Apparently, everyone accepts Cheviot’s presence in 1829—perhaps he is re-enacting the historical role of an ancestor of his?—and it turns out that the original Cheviot was trying to join the newly-formed Scotland Yard.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Talking About the Detection Club

It is often said that the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” took place in between the two World Wars. For my money, such a characterisation is far too simplified and gives rise to a popular narrative Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder sets out, which treats Golden Age fiction like some freak of nature which popped up between the two world wars because [insert pet sociological theory here]. I cringe whenever this view of the genre’s history is brought up, all too often by authors eagerly assuring you that their stuff transcends all that silly puzzle nonsense and Asks Really Deep Questions [translation: There Is No Plot].

The truth is, the Golden Age was a time of great variety and experimentation within the genre, and The Detection Club was formed in the late 20s in England. The exclusive club gave authors a chance to socialize, and since membership was attained only by secret ballot, it was also a way to ensure the quality of the genre remained high. Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder looks at the men and women who were members of The Detection Club during the Golden Age. It’s an enormous project, one which might overwhelm a lesser man.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

"Gone Girl" Meets "Columbo"


In his last post, Patrick discussed the new movie Gone Girl.  A lot of people have a problem with the ending, partly because there is no satisfying sense of justice at the ending.  By “satisfying,” it seems that many viewers are hoping for Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction, where “the good end happily, the bad end unhappily.”  Personally, I thought that Flynn was being shrewd by ending it where she did in order to set up a sequel in a couple of years.  

My main issue with the ending is that it has to be earned.  At the end, Nick Dunn, his lawyer, his sister, and the detective were all thinking that there was nothing they could do to reveal the truth, but that wasn't so.  I kept thinking that this would be a perfect set-up for a Columbo episode.  Think about it.  We've seen the murder happen, and it's set amongst prominent people.  I know it could never happen, but I was wishing that Peter Falk could shuffle into the house and say, "Excuse me, Mrs. Dunn.  I'm very sorry to bother you, but I just havta ask ya a coupla questions..."  Because there are a few points that, as Columbo would say, "just don't add up."

The first point I noticed is the garage full of stuff that was used to paint Nick as a spendthrift.  The point is that most of the stuff in there was brand new.  I can get that a guy who ran through money like water would buy a robot dog and be tired of it in fifteen minutes.  But would the golf clubs be totally unused?  When a man buys a giant television set, he doesn't keep it in the box in the garage.  He has to watch it.  But even so, I thought of the Columbo episode "Framed for Murder" (Spoilers about the solution if you haven't seen it.  Not the killer's identity– you know that right away.  How Columbo proves it.)  Fingerprints.  If Nick shoved everything into the garage, wouldn't his fingerprints be on everything?  Of course, the absence of his fingerprints wouldn't be proof.  Fingerprints disappear over time, but if Amy's fingerprints, or a hair, could be found on some of the items, that would be indicative– how could she have touched them if Nick had bought them and hid them?

Also, remember that Amy racked up a ton of online gambling debts to frame Nick, but she's shown doing that during the day, often when Nick was probably at work or helping his sister at the bar, so he could conceivably have an alibi for some of the gambling.  Onine gambling should leave a digital timestamp.

And the diary... even after it was burned a bit, you could probably test the ink to see if some entries were written five years ago or five days.  Another problem.   

Next, there's the hair.  Remember that Amy cut and dyed her hair when she first disappeared, and then cut it some more and dyed it back to the original color at Neil Patrick Harris's character's house.  What happened to the hair?  It would probably be in one of the garbage cans at the house.  If she cut it before she dyed it again, there'd be evidence that it was dyed to "gerbil" shade, and if she dyed it before cutting, there'd be evidence of the double-dying.  And there's the length issue.  With most of Amy's hair cut off in the gas station restroom, where's the rest of the hair?  According to Amy's story, it can't have just disappeared.  If her hair clippings are at Harris’s character’s house, they’d be too short to explain the cutting.  If her old boyfriend took it with him for some weird reason, why wouldn't it be found at any of his other residences?

Next, there’s the blood.  Amy drew a large quantity of blood over time, spread it on the floor, and then cleaned it up, though purposely not very well.  The police have evidence that a lot of Amy’s blood was spilled on the floor– at least a few pints.  If she’d been hit hard enough to leave that kind of blood, where is her wound?  Such a gash would probably have needed stitches, and she doesn’t have that sort of injury or scar.  All that blood couldn’t have come from a nosebleed...

And finally, there's the couple that robbed Amy at the camp site.  It's not clear if Amy told Nick about them, so he might not know to look for them, but think about it.  Do you think that the pair of thieves would pass at the opportunity to blackmail Amy?  They'd see her on TV.  They'd see the opportunity to make a few bucks.  More than a few. 

Of course, Flynn might've thought about all of these points, and is planning on incorporating them into the sequel...

Bottom line, Amy’s story just doesn’t add up, and there are enough inconsistencies to raise some eyebrows.  Couldn't you imagine Columbo coming across all of these points to expose what really happened?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gone Baby Gone

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. On the day of their anniversary, Amy suddenly goes missing. Nick returns home to find evidence of a struggle, and immediately calls the police. Foul play is suspected, and before long, the media decides to publicly crucify Nick on the charge of murder, lack of a corpse notwithstanding. Is Nick truly a sociopath as the media declares, or is he simply handling the situation awkwardly, as best as he can?

This is the plot of the movie Gone Girl, based on the smash-hit novel by Gillian Flynn. Though the plot may seem rather conventional, the story is very cleverly structured, combining the main plot with excerpts from Amy’s diary. The picture the diary paints is one of a marriage which starts as a fairy-tale romance, but with financial troubles come hard times, and before long the relationship is strained almost to a breaking-point. Yet the story that Nick tells is a very different one. This forms something of a he-said-she-said plot which is easily one of the most interesting things about Gone Girl.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Miniseries

2014 brought two critically acclaimed crime miniseries, True Detective and Fargo.  Both developed a strong fanbase, both were nominated for scads of Emmys, and both are expected to return for follow-up seasons with totally different casts.  Yet while one of the miniseries delighted me, the other left me cold.  Ironically, the one that left me cold wasn’t the one set in snowy Minnesota, but in the humid Deep South.

I don’t think that True Detective is a bad production at all, but while it features strong acting and an excellent atmosphere, it doesn’t live up to all the hype that declared that it was the Best. Crime. Show. Ever.  The two leads were both really good, when they weren’t being boorish or spouting pseudo-deep philosophy that eventually bordered on self-parody.  The final half-hour of the series in particular was terrific.  Perhaps the most stunning, original aspect of True Detective was the fact that every episode seemed permeated in foreboding and a growing sense of evil and dread.

And for all that, True Detective never really came alive for me.  The identity of the main villain is not designed to be deduced, so the viewer doesn’t get to play detective.  One character couldn’t possibly be telegraphed as a bad guy any more in his brief introductory scene unless the Darth Vader theme played upon his entrance.  The ending has too many loose threads and unanswered questions.  The show is always well-made, but it’s never truly great or enjoyable.  Without Harrelson and McConaughey to anchor the drama, I wouldn’t have been able to stick with it.  If “camp” is “so bad it’s good,” True Detective is trying so hard for greatness that it often fails to achieve goodness.

Fargo, in contrast, comes across as a love letter to the original source material that draws heavily from the original source material while creating something that stands on its own.  The dark humor is there, and every episode is peppered with Easter eggs to the Coen brothers.  It’s a labor of love, and the obvious affection for the Coens’ legacy makes it clear that this isn’t just a cheap attempt to profit off a classic movie, it’s a desire to expand upon the fictional world without becoming derivative.  In this spirit, it’s in many ways an American answer to Sherlock.

True Detective was written with a “transcend the genre” attitude.  It was produced with the full expectation that it would get the double-barreled HBO press treatment and become an awards darling.  Fargo, in contrast, was clearly made with a lot of people thinking that, “this could be a very bad idea.”  True Detective really played things safe.  It produced a dark, gritty, crime story; peppered it with a little lecturing about moral nihilism, painted Christianity in a sinister light, and set the story around two profoundly flawed and damaged men.  It’s critic and awards bait.  Perhaps Fargo triumphed because it was a terrible risk.  Many scenes and plotlines are a whisker away from being a cheap knock-off, or a lazy homage, but then they take on a life of their own.

While True Detective features men in a downward spiral, Fargo features men on Chesterton’s moral “road [that] goes down and down.”  Thornton and Freeman are equally brilliant as men on the road to hell that turns out to be paved with bad intentions.  Their iniquity is offset by Tolman, Hanks (who completely redeems himself for the sixth season of Dexter), and Carradine, the decent, salt-of-the-earth types that you want as your friends.  I liked these characters so much I could have spent a whole episode watching them run commentary to a Deal or No Deal episode (perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, I was always compelled). 

True Detective was trying so hard to peer into the darkness that men can do that it wound up missing the point of the human condition entirely.  Fargo showed the world at its best and its worst, and against all odds it created something brilliant.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth

Harry Vaughan just got a sad piece of news – his uncle has died. But then he finds out that his uncle has left him a massive inheritance! Excitedly, he runs outside… and from there, his memory becomes fuzzy. He doesn’t really remember anything that happened. He was discovered about twenty minutes later by students en route to class. He must have slipped on the icy pavement and knocked himself very solidly on the head. Nobody saw the accident, though…

It all makes sense, of course. That’s why he has that gap in his memory. But something makes Harry very uneasy. Only time will be able to tell whether he’ll ever be able to remember what happened. But in the meantime, he decides to resign from his job and to go back to his roots in Clearwater, a quiet little village just outside of Washington. But no sooner does he arrive, strange things begin to happen. There’s a prowler on the loose, terrorizing the village, and someone seems very displeased that Harry has come back to town…