The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

As always, spoilers ahead.





2. And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None.jpg


In one of the best thrillers of all time, ten people are lured to an island by the mysterious ‘U.N.Owen’. All of them have something to hide. And then they begin to die…one by one. Eventually they realise that U.N.Owen is one of the ten – and he or she intends to kill them all.

The island is a mile out to sea. Thanks to a storm, they can’t signal for help or swim back to the mainland. All they can do is wait for the inevitable…

…damn convenient storm, isn’t it?



The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

Obviously, spoilers ahead.





3. Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia

As a novel, Murder in Mesopotamia is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s one of the few Christie’s to use first-person narration: the Hasting novels have it, back when Christie was more consciously mimicking Conan Doyle. As does The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the first-person narration is rather crucial to the plot.

Murder in Mesopotamia would be the same book if it were not narrated. Amy Leatheran, a gentle and practical middle-aged nurse, is no Hastings: we know that she is not staying around for more than one book, nor do we learn anything more about Poirot from her eyes. There really seems no reason for an observer to narrate, other than that it gives a slightly more personal feel to the book than the other, paint-by-numbers Poirots.

Amy Leatheran is asked to join a dig in Mesopotamia by archaeologist Dr Leidner, who is worried about his wife and wants her to be observed by a trained nurse. This is a cue for a lovely array of background details about life on a dig in Mesopotamia: something Christie was familiar with through her second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan. It’s all very realistic and moderately interesting. In the background, we find out about Mrs Leidner’s first husband, a German spy. A week after Amy Leatheran arrives, Mrs Leidner is found dead. Whodunnit?

Her first husband, long thought dead. It then turns out that he was at the dig, in disguise, and Mrs Leidner didn’t recognise him. It stretches belief, but is just about plausible.

And then we find out that his alter-ego was….drumroll…Dr Leidner. Mrs Leidner’s first husband was in disguise as her second and she didn’t recognise him.



An Appreciation of ‘An Appreciation’; or Criticising Christie


A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie

Robert Barnard

Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980

Literary criticism, in theory at least, is not concerned with criticism, but rather shedding new light on a subject. Crime writer Robert Barnard takes this idea and runs with it. He acknowledges Christie’s flaws, then sets out in the next 30, 000 words why Agatha Christie is great. Robert Barnard likes Agatha Christie, and all he wants is to tell us about it. It is all incredibly refreshing.

But, for all this, we still learn things. The art of criticism is pointing out the obvious things that the average reader might forget, and it is in this that Barnard excels. We are reminded that, in Christie’s heyday, detective fiction was as popular as Coronation Street. A reference which ages the book a bit but, oh, for those days!

We also forget, in an age where no-one but the super-rich have servants, that Agatha Christie was a member of the middle-middle class who wrote almost exclusively about other members of the middle-middle class. And yet, despite this, her stories are universal. Her characters are sketches, and always secondary to the plot, yet Barnard reminds us that this is what makes Christie work: Miss Marple is equally evocative for an Italian grandmother or a Norwegian teenager, but in different ways. Each itineration of Marple is different, whether on stage, screen or in our minds, but because of Christie’s universality we fill in the gaps ourselves and they are all, somehow, Marple.

Christie herself isn’t studied in detail, her background – her marriages, disappearance, and Little England political views – are sketched in only to aid understanding of her novels. Because Barnard treats Christie the way Christies treats character: as secondary to the plots because Christie, in Barnard’s eyes, is all about the puzzle.

This does lead to some contentious points; the copy of An Appreciation held by Five Minute Mysteries has been extensively annotated by a previous owner who liked Christie but disliked Barnard and repeatedly made their views known. Which goes to prove that, within any genre, opinions diverge. In Barnard’s case, like many ‘cold mystery’ fans, he doesn’t like Sayers and takes the opportunity to say so at length. And this is a pity. Barnard defends Christie by pointing out that the common criticisms of her – fill-in-the-blank characters, dull writing, cardboard detectives – may be true but they don’t detract from enjoyment of the novels. He then goes on to needlessly reiterate the criticisms of Sayers that we’ve all heard before – that she’s pretentious, that she over-writes, that she was probably in love with her main character – as if they are the last word on the subject. That Sayers ‘flings around quotations like ping-pong balls’ is undoubtedly true but, like Christie’s attitude to character, this is something that adds to the charm of the novels, and pitting the two doyennes of detective fiction against each other does seem needlessly cheap when, as Barnard tells us, it was Sayers who publicly defended Christie when the public cried ‘foul!’ over the end of Ackroyd.

But it is when speaking of Christie’s writing that Barnard comes to his strengths, acknowledging criticisms and turning them into eloquent compliments. He understands that Poirot, for example, is a pretty cardboard character, but turns this into a larger point about how all Christie’s detectives are observers. With no loves or family or friends themselves, they provide a far better window onto other characters than detectives who get involved do, and it is this that raised Poirot and Marple to the level of Holmes. Christie was, first and foremost, a puzzler and entertainer, and Barnard argues persuasively that writers who try to combine a good detective story with good writing are likely to fail at both:

One might cite an analogous case from another art. The opera singer who is hailed as a “great actress” would probably be tittered off the stage at a provincial rep.”

In short, criticising Christie for not being a good writer is missing the point as she isn’t trying to be. In Barnard’s words, Roger Ackroyd is not a failed Middlemarch. Much as, in Christie, a certain sidekick is not an inferior Poirot, but instead the supreme Hastings!

But Barnard doesn’t only believe that the strength of Christie’s fiction is murder-as-puzzle, he believes murder is only the puzzle. And he can take this too far. It is true that ‘Poirot and Hastings’ as a double act is an inferior version of ‘Holmes and Watson’. It is definitely true that Hastings isn’t a very good character. But what is undeniable is that first-person narration Christie has a verve to it that many of the other stories lack, and that there’s a human side to a detective with friends that we miss when it goes. But then Barnard is probably right to say that writing and character have never been the ultimate point of Christie. Does this make her better or worse?


It’s difficult to say, but one thing is certain. Fifty years down the line, we still care.


Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

Even Tommy and Tuppence have their defenders.

Review: He Wouldn’t Kill Patience


He Wouldn’t Kill Patience

John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dixon)

Heinemann, 1944

As motivational speakers are so fond of saying, we each have our own special talent. For John Dickson Carr, it was the ability to think up a series of increasingly unlikely ways people could be murdered alone in a room sealed from the inside. He’s the undisputed master of this, and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience doesn’t disappoint. The curator of a zoo is found dead in a locked room, sealed with paper from the inside: possibly murder, possibly suicide. Except that also found dead is one of his new specimens: and whatever he might have done to himself, the curator would never have hurt Patience the snake.

As a police officer in an Agatha Christie novels wisely said, most murders are dull:  domestic stabbings, shootings, poisonings, “accidents”, with a cast of two or three suspects at most. This makes detective fiction an improbable genre from the start, and howdunnits even more so. Locked room mysteries consequently have a tendency towards the slightly (very) bizarre from the get-go, and then we factor in the second greatest thing about John Dickson Carr: his genuine love of the eccentric and the arcane.  Writers such as Sayers or Innes sprinkle obscure quotations around like confetti and expect us to be impressed, but never once have they put a murder in a reptile house, with the Young Lovers investigating (a Carr staple, they begin at loggerheads despite never having met and end up a couple by the end) as the only descendants from rival warring families of magicians, the Quints and the Pallisers. Neither of these, naturally, are in any way vital to the plot.

He Wouldn’t Kill Patience wouldn’t know ‘gritty realism’ if it hit it over the head in a dark alley. Despite being set in the Blitz, the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as normal, even though there’s mention of longer-term effects. But neither of those things matter.  Because it’s killingly funny and one of those books that, while wearing its learning lightly (Crispin, take note), has a genuine intelligence and love of knowledge that shines through every page. It’s only a couple of paragraphs into the first chapter, paragraphs that centre entirely on the zoo doorkeeper’s complete loathing for humanity, that you realise that you’re reading a murder mystery written in the style of P G Wodehouse. Carr’s title as ‘Master of the Locked Room Mystery’ is well-deserved, but it causes us to forget that he can also do to other things if he chooses: character, and comedy. Sadly, his comedy is based on absurdism and so never mixes with character, while his character is based on cynicism and so never mixes with comedy. But it means, as the Young Lovers get into an argument on their first meeting and inadvertently set a poisonous snake loose in the reptile house, we get confrontations like this between Merrivale and the grumpy doorkeeper:

‘Don’t incite him sir! Don’t run from him! Stand still, I tell you! Just stand still and he’ll be all right!’

‘I ain’t got the least doubt of it,’ roared the travelling voice of the stout gentleman. ‘Given the proper amount of exercise, he ought to be absolutely O.K. The point is, what happens to me?’

Wodehouse-esque. Especially in that a) the brilliant dialogue is for the page, and this scene would be unworkable acted and b) that line is supposedly spoken as the obese Sir Henry is running for his life away from a venomous snake. Sir Henry Merrivale himself can sometimes fall prey to the disease of many Golden Age detectives: he’s a collection of eccentric characteristics, but never quite works as a character. I gave a copy to my dad as a birthday present [Five Minute Mysteries believes the adage ‘give as you wish to receive’, so its friends and relatives have grown used to being given a nice book each Christmas and birthday], and his one observation was that Merrivale’s background, in this novel at least, just doesn’t fit: a Sir who refers to women as ‘wenches’ and drops his haitches. It may well be that this is explained in other novels – I think The Judas Window mentions it – but it’s still jarring. And despite the brilliance of the opening scene, which works brilliantly by introducing the detective as a potential passer-by / antagonist, Merrivale always has the upper hand, and there’s never really a sense of peril. He’s Sherlock Holmes, but with a sense of humour. Which, in a way, fits, as Carr in essence has the humour or Crispin and the plotting of Conan Doyle, with the addition of lines like:

‘Death was flowing out of the windows, flowing away; but it left a corpse like a straw doll.’

But I say ‘as good as Conan Doyle’ advisedly. A writer such as Agatha Christie will lay out the clues in a way that the intelligent reader should be able to guess. Since no reader is ever going to be as intelligent as Agatha Christie, that rarely happens, but by the end of one of her novels you’ve suspected all the characters but you’re still surprised. Then, when you read it again, the solution seems obvious. With Conan Doyle or Carr, you’re surprised and you never see the solution coming, but that’s because it’s a conjuror’s trick, like a rabbit out of thin air. As with many Carr stories, there aren’t really any characters and the motive is spurious but then the solution itself is so utterly, brilliantly ingenious that it doesn’t matter, and it’s an entertaining read in its own right. Nowadays Carr is essentially out-of-print in mainstream bookshops, which is quite a shame. Because while he’s utterly, utterly esoteric, he’s also completely brilliant.



Whilst anyone who calls J D Carr a misogynist is demonstrably an idiot, in approximately half of his books there’s a moment that makes you go ‘um…’, even though it’s almost always a sign of either villainy or simply a character taking the piss. Here, it’s in Merrivale’s romantic advice to Carey, one half of the story’s resident Young Lovers:

 “If she starts raggin’ you, son, you just wallop her one. That’s the way to treat wenches when they get out of hand”.

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

Review: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab



The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume

Kemp and Boyce, 1886

A drunk gets into a hansom cab and leaves dead, killed by chloroform. A newcomer to town, nobody had reason to mourn him, especially his rival in love. However, his death proves to have more motives behind it than first seem possible.

The first thing that grabs you is the blurb which, like many back covers, promises a ‘mystery that will hold you, the reader, from page one right through to the end’.  And, as part detective story, part murder-procedural with revelations continuing right up to the final chapter, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab certainly delivers. The pity is that the sentence before this asks ‘How could a person travelling on his own in the back of a cab been chloroformed to death?’, which promises an intriguing locked-room mystery.

A locked-room mystery that holds you, the reader, right up until…the second page, where it is revealed that somebody got into the cab with him. Just to make things that little bit clearer, he does this with the full knowledge and agreement of the cab’s driver (who later reports the murder). Twenty-eight pages later, (in a two-hundred and thirty-nine page novel!), we find out that this man did not only know the victim, but was the victim’s arch rival. John Dickson Carr, this ain’t.

The faults of the back cover aside, this is actually a very good murder-procedural, even if it does seem to shift genres throughout. For the first couple of pages, this seems a detective story: we have the (not-so) mysterious murder in the back of a moving hansom cab at the dead of night then we meet our detective, but this is done in a refreshingly novel way. For information about the crime, we cut from newspaper report to the inquest to the newspaper again, by which time Hume has neatly imparted all initial clues / alibis etc, then switch pace completely, cutting to detective Mr Gorby.

‘Hang it,’ he said, thoughtfully stropping his razor, ‘a thing with an end must have a start, and if I don’t get the start how am I to get to the end?’

In every detail in his introduction, he’s the typical Golden Age detective: initiative and eccentricity. When we initially meet him, he’s expositioning happily about the case. Since he’s a conscientious and honest policeman, however, he’s doing so to his only trusted confidante: his shaving mirror. Within three pages, he’s off discovering unusual pockets in dress waistcoats, finding landladies and, like everyone else in 19th to early 20th century detective novels, perusing the personal columns in the local newspaper.

However, the role of Main Character quickly shifts away from charming Mr Gorby to the accused, Brian Moreland and his amore, beautiful debutante Madge Frettlby. The story shifts from the crime itself to the crime’s effects, especially on Young Love: it’s rather as if Poirot had appeared at the beginning of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, then retired meekly to the background to let everyone else sort out their domestic affairs on the main stage.  But the murder-procedural format has its charms and, as always in good Golden Age novels, the little vignettes of humanity seen in bit-part characters are enjoyable. Unlike other novels set in the world of millionaires and debutantes, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is not afraid to dip its toes into the murky waters of the Melbourne underclass. The passages set among the alcoholic, syphilitic victims of this glittering world are among the best in the book, and the two worlds intertwine nicely in a way that Christie would balk at. Even if one of the characters bears the slightly improbably self-critical name of ‘Mother Guttersnipe’.

The revelations keep coming, right up until the end, though the story has the same problem that The Moving Toyshop suffered from: when the crime is sold as a ‘how?’ question, then the ‘how’ question is solved very quickly, the reader becomes less interested in the who and the why. But this isn’t a detective novel but a novel about crime, and it’s almost worth buying for the glimpses into turn-of-the-century Melbourne society. Think Law And Order set in 19th century Australia. It’s a study in crime, and the way it affects the characters associated with it. The main characters pale a bit towards the end, but it keeps you reading and, for the most part, interested. Well worth a look.


Post scriptum

One of the 100 best crime stories of all time’  The Sunday Times

‘Fergus Hume…went on to write a further 140 novels, but none of them achieved any real success at all.’  The back cover

The one thing, sadly, that immediately grabs you about this book is the wordlessly depressing fate of its author (and the best possible counter-argument to the idea previously expounded here). We are told (by Professor Barrie Haynes of Toronto, recounted in the introduction by H. R. F. Keating) that about twenty of these are eminently readable, which somehow makes the pathos worse. (Neither Haynes nor Keating mention which twenty).  The Mystery of a Hansom Cab remains a curiosity today for this reason: the author who struck lucky once, but never again.

(Out)Dating the Golden Age

‘Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?’

Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Everyone knows what to think of when they think of the Golden Age. The Country House mystery, where beautiful socialites drop poison in cocktail glasses then play a round of croquet, and as a body is found in a locked room all are baffled until the arrival of a learned, middle aged man quoting Shakespeare and dressed in the latest of Savile Row fashions. And everyone knows that the Golden Age is long gone, outdated even at the time, and anyone sensible should lay down their copy of Poirot and pick up something gritty, preferably set in Glasgow, instead.

The first thing to notice is that the Golden Age is mythical. The Golden Age is firmly set after World War One, from which Poirot and Wimsey and England all bear the scars, but it is very rare to find any kind of reference to the Second World War, the one that completely and utterly destroyed the essence of the golden age lifestyle. The great houses were requisitioned, the socialites became farm girls. Yet so many of the novels set in the stereotypical Golden Age transpire, when you study the publication dates, to have been both written and distributed after World War Two. A contradiction?

And it is now that we have to define the Golden Age, and in doing so you realise quite how few of its supposed examples actually follow the pattern set above. We all know, deep down, that that is what the Golden Age is, just as we know that Sherlock Holmes wears a deerstalker and cries ‘Come, Watson, the game is afoot!’. But of course he doesn’t, just as almost all of the Golden Age stories don’t fit the pattern stated above: because the setting of the Golden Age is nothing more than a means to an end.

The Golden Age, like the England it represents, is not a place or a time but a belief. In superficialities, it’s a world of butlers and maids and Cockneys, not because it’s inherently class-driven but because it’s easier when the characters can devote their lives to murder, love and intrigue without having to worry about the cooking or cleaning – note that, even the detectives we think of as the epitome of upper class, Wimsey and Poirot, are not averse to dipping their toes into the world of the lower or middle classes. The Golden Age is monochrome and everyone is white: not because the authors are racist (and anyone who thinks so should note the way bit-part characters are treated in A Caribbean Mystery and Unnatural Death) but because the Golden Age is a world where social troubles and the problems of race relations don’t exist. The Golden Age is interested in problems, interested in the way people relate to each other and these are timeless. The Golden Age is not interested in ephemeral politics because it has no reason to be, and there is no sense of time or place because the characters and stories it depicts are eternal.

This is why the ‘golden age’ novels take place in mythical times in mythical places: because they tell timeless stories of timeless characters, and it’s precisely because the setting of the Golden Age can’t intrude on this that the Golden Age setting was chosen. You could drop any of the characters in Christie (or, for that matter, Jeeves and Wooster) into any setting, anywhere, and their stories would still work: the country house is used because it provides few distractions.

And this is why, ultimately, any attempts to ‘modernise’ the Golden Age or ‘make it more relevant’ are doomed, and why those who claim that the Golden Age is outdated and/or implicitly classist / racist / sexist are missing the point entirely. The great thing about the Golden Age is that it preaches the ultimate democracy: that all people deep down are the same.

Review: Two-Thirds of a Ghost


Two Thirds of a Ghost

Helen McCloy

Penguin Crime, 1957

Amos Cottle, critically acclaimed and world famous author, dies at a dinner party. Present are his publisher, agent, friendly critic, unfriendly critic, ex-wife, mistress and a variety of unwelcome guests. One of these people became a murderer that night, but in discovering who and why psychologist-cum-detective Basil Willing finds that the case is far more complicated than it seems…

Like the best of the Golden Age detectives Basil Willing, “psychologist-cum-detective”, is completely and utterly dull, characterless, and anodyne. Which, since he comes in a first-class Golden Age novel, is all to the good, as the plot and characters that unfurl around him are more than enough on their own.

One of the best features of Helen McCloy is that she recognises the old adage: everyone is interesting, only some are more interesting than others. Our first introduction is to the charming housewife Meg Vesey who, in the hands of lesser authors, would have been a perfectly agreeable companion to guide us gently throughout the rest of the novel. Because McCloy is not a ‘lesser author’, she is quickly dropped in favour of a series of some of the most unpleasant (and gloriously familiar) archetypes imaginable: the supremely bitchy, out-of-work ex-wife of Amos; the bitter, frustrated and unfaithful current wife of Amos’ publisher, the gauche dinner party guest and her pretentious son. Either these are archetypes we recognise from fiction and believe exist or, even better, have something that we recognise in others or ourselves, the essence of good character writing.

In fiction, the nasty are always far more interesting than the nice, but McCloy pulls off the impressive balancing act of ensuring that our sympathies always lie with the good while, at the same time, the reader both understands and pities the bad. We dislike but, because McCloy gives us a look into the heads of even the most unpleasant characters, we never hate. The eventual culprit is unmasked: it’s one of the sub-par solutions where the murderer seems to have been chosen at random from a group of likely suspects, but the journey there was so bizarre and enjoyable that somehow this didn’t matter.

It’s a novel that’s funny on first look and even better on re-reading, with perhaps the most hilarious scene leading up to a death in all fiction. This is not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. Like many Golden Age novels, it spends a long time setting up for a short period of excitement, which is followed by a lot of meandering and then a couple of explanatory speeches. But, unlike many Golden Age novels, the characters are a genuine delight to spend time with and, unlike many authors everywhere, here McCloy has something both interesting and witty to say on the state of the publishing industry, and it’s an unalloyed pleasure to read her bitching.

It would be a mistake to read Two Thirds of a Ghost just as a detective story when so much of it is a satire on publishing that, sadly, is as cutting today as it presumably was in 1957. Yes, the satire is heavy-handed at times –

“‘What is it?’
‘Short story. Hard-hitting, well written, fascinating background material, vivid characters.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
Gus groaned aloud. ‘It has a plot’”

– but then it’s just so enjoyable that somehow this doesn’t seem to matter. This may not be to everyone’s taste and if it isn’t the book is a diatribe and the plot absurd. A mystery that satisfyingly unfurls, and some of the greatest quotes on publishing known to mankind. Buy it for the characters, the plot, the humour, the lines, the depiction of 1950s book publishing and academia, or for the way the novel questions how much we forgive for genius, how much we make valuations according to convention and how much we prize power and assets in love, though none of these in the way you’d expect. Two Thirds of a Ghost is a matter of taste, but it’s a deeply satisfying cynicism.

Review: The Soft Talkers



The Soft Talkers

Margaret Millar

Penguin Crime, 1957

Detective novels where the detective element only appears in the last chapter have a tendency to be both bad and irritating, and The Soft Talkers is no exception. The reader is left with the impression that the author really wished to write a character study, and the result would undoubtedly be a fine (if a little dull) piece of modern literature, and the pseudo-literary title reflects this (the original American edition was The Air That Kills, which makes even less sense). But detective fiction sold whilst novel-length character studies languished unpublished, and thus we get messes like this. (See also Julian Symon’s The Kentish Manor Murders which manages to be a decent-ish thriller instead; and Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde, to which I won’t give the privilege of a review.) There’s nothing quite like reading a book, knowing everything there is to know about a select group of characters, but by the end just thinking…why?

This is made baffling by the fact that the author was once President of the Mystery Writers of America and, according to the back-cover blurb, “is generally regarded as the heiress-apparent to Agatha Christie”. But then even Dame Agatha inflicted the world with Endless Night and, at the warning “praise” of ‘the final chapter packs a knock-out punch’ (Daily Telegraph, and was that really the best quote they could find?) it would perhaps have been best to have put the book down and moved on to something else. Perhaps the purpose is to prove that the writer can write, and maybe it sometimes succeeds in doing so. But better authors can do both a solid plot and auteur writing at the same time, and when an author thinks only one is possible it’s simply disrespectful to the reader. And if a reader doesn’t have the author’s respect, the author doesn’t deserve the reader. It’s a brilliant work of something, but it’s not a detective novel.

And it’s the attempt to be both that makes The Soft Talkers not only a failure, but a baffling one. The plot is entirely character driven – no messing around with alibis, evidence or fingerprints – and written differently might have been an entirely character-driven success in the manner of Cards on The Table. And it’s a pity, because both the characters and the writing are so sharp they hurt. By the end of the first page we get the line

‘Esther knew where he was going, but she was the kind of woman who liked to ask questions to which she already knew the answers. It gave her a sense of security.’

and we know that this is a book where character counts. The portrayals of the middle-aged central suspects are so pathetic (in the traditional sense) that they’re almost painful. The vignettes of those involved in the murder: the Mennonite schoolgirl who wants to be an explorer, the widowed mother and her brash daughter, the spinster provincial teacher secretly eyeing up the investigating officer, the ex-wife who lives on bitterness and hypochondria, the parody of the investigative reporter who cons his way into a character’s house pretending to sell water softeners…only to be caught out when she asks to buy one. The detective figure, academic Ralph Turee, is enjoyable bland though his happy family life is significantly odd in a story where every other character is unremittingly nasty, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or both. The book would have made an extremely good murder-procedural. But unfortunately it tacks a mystery onto the end.

Some people may read it and think that it’s a work of brilliance, but for all its skill The Soft Talkers never quite plays fair. You can read it as a description of run-of-the-mill people coping with life and death and it’s reasonable. But it’s an imperfect detective novel because we only know it’s a detective novel because of the green cover of Penguin Crime, and when we don’t know the genre the reader can’t play along with the writer’s game. It’s a very imperfect character study because the ending completely invalidates everything that has gone before – it’d be a better novel if it had skipped out the last chapter, a better detective story if it were a good ninety pages thinner around the middle. For a good story, get the scissors.