Category: Book Review

Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

A version of this article was posted in 2011.

Twelve years after his second Father Brown book, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous titles, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being  superstitious are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his belief in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book is, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. All in all, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

The Incredulity of Father Brown entered the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2022 and is available on Project Gutenberg Australia

Book Review: The Shadow: The Chinese Disks and Malmordo

While TV, film, and comic adaptations generally reign over their radio counterparts, The Shadow is one character who is (pardon the pun) overshadowed by the radio interpretation of the character, even though his appearance in pulp magazines predated it. The book version of the Shadow was a Mastermind, perhaps the most powerful of the mystery men who dominated the pulps in the era before the coming of the superhero.

Nostalgia Ventures had reprint rights to the Shadow novels in the 2000s. Just as they did with Doc Savage, they reprinted two pulp novels in each volume. I acquired the second volume in a sale a few years back. This volume collects two Shadow stories twelve years apart: The Chinese Disks and Malmordo.

In The Chinese Disks, a gang under returning Shadow foe Diamond Jim Farwell is using disks with Chinese characters on them as identification for members of his gang, while he plans a large heist. In Malmordo, a giant, rat-like monster-man known as Malmordo arrives in New York City on a boat from post-War Europe.

Both of these short pulp novels showcase the pulp Shadow stories at their best. The Shadow is not a lone wolf in his pulp iteration. He’s the Master of Men, and as such, he’s accumulated a large number of operatives, whom he calls on to do his bidding. In The Chinese Disks, these operatives are being gathered, and in Malmordo, they’re used to full effect to investigate a terrifying foe. While the Shadow’s lieutenants lack the color of fellow Street and Smith pulp hero Doc Savage, the Shadow’s men are perfectly suited for the more grounded stories of crime and ultimate punishment by the Shadow.

Overall, both novels have a lot going for them, with a good amount of mystery, atmosphere, and suspense. While this reprint is no longer available for retail sale, it’s certainly a worthy read if you can find it used or in a library. This is a great illustration of how the Shadow was not just a mainstay of radio during its Golden Age but also of pulp magazines.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

What Makes Death on the Nile a Masterpiece

A version of this article appeared in 2017.

There are many good pieces of detective fiction out there. You read the book, you watch the movie, and it’s a good time.

Then there are stories that are a cut above. You read the book, and you want to watch the adaptations or vice versa. The story’s so enchanting, the characters so compelling, and the themes so powerful that you just can’t get enough of it.

One such story for me is Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I watched the two filmed adaptations, I listened to the audio drama by the BBC, and then I read the book.

Knowing the ending and who did it didn’t “spoil the novel,” it allowed me to read it in a different way. Rather than focusing on whodunit, I could look for the subtle hints in structure and plot that pointed to the murder, and enjoy the atmosphere and find the themes that really make the book a masterpiece by the mistress of the genre, Agatha Christie.

Fair warning: I will be discussing the ending, so if you don’t know how it ends, I would recommend not reading any further until you’ve experienced the story. If you don’t want to read the novel, I’d recommend checking out the BBC Radio 4 version for accuracy, or, for pure entertainment value, the 1978 film version with Peter Ustinov is a delight.

1) The mystery is brilliantly conceived and executed.

A detective novel can be more than a good mystery, but it also has to be a good mystery to be a good novel. Otherwise, it’s a bait-and-switch.

Death on Nile is definitely a brilliantly plotted story. There are plenty of clues, as well as red herrings. The actual solution is one that is easily missed because Poirot makes a statement that seems to rule out the actual solution. But both Poirot and the reader make a mistaken assumption of something we didn’t actually see.

The book can trick readers, but it still plays fair in doing so. The solution really only surprises the reader (and to a degree Poirot) because of an incorrect but understandable conclusion. It’s a wonderfully written chase.

2) Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is a complicated tragic character.

Every murder mystery requires a corpse. In some stories, that’s pretty much all the victim is. However, the main victim is Linnet Ridgeway Doyle – and later Doyle is far more than that.

One big advantage of reading the book over the adaptations of it is that you get a better sense of who Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is. It’s easy to define her as simply being a rich woman who could have married any man she wanted but instead stole the fiancé of her good friend Jacqueline De Bellefort.

Yet, if you read the book, you get a sense that while this was something Linnet did, it wasn’t the totality of who she was. She was diligent in business and responsible in the way she took care of and tried to help those who were dependent on her. Her friend describes her as a “beneficent tyrant.” She was very much like the best of the gentry of a prior era.

However, Linnet is fundamentally destroyed by her own pride, even before she makes the decision to snatch Simon Doyle away from her poorer friend Jacqueline. She’s wooed by the Lord Windlesham, who really is fond of her. However, she rejects his advances because they both have country places, his having been in the family for centuries and hers she built herself. She fears going from being the Queen to being the Queen Consort. She never alleges that Lord Windlesham doesn’t love her. Part of her attraction to Simon Doyle is not only his looks but the fact he is poor and that she can dominate the relationship easily.

Her decision to go specifically after her good friend’s beau despite knowing how little her friend has and how much he means to her is her truly selfish moment. Poirot condemns it, drawing the parallel between her decision and that of King David’s decision to sleep with Bathsheba in the biblical book of II Samuel, and the parable the prophet Nathan told to David in response, about a man with many sheep stealing the only sheep of a poor shepherd. Poirot refuses to work for her, but he does try to stop what’s coming by approaching Jacqueline De Bellefort.

As the book’s events unfold, Linnet pays the price for her actions. Her ex-friend stalks her and her husband, reminding her of her guilt, and on her final voyage, she finds herself “surrounded by enemies” as she puts it. As we learn later, while her husband Simon pretends to adore her, it’s all a ruse. He resents her and only marries her so he can murder her and take her money. In the end, she’s killed while she sleeps by the man who she thought loved her. At the end of her book, her murder is the talk of the town at the ship’s port of call, but then is subsumed in other news and gossip of the day as she’s quickly forgotten, along with her wealth, charm, and beauty.

3) Poirot tries to use his powers to prevent a murder.

This book raises a fair question for Poirot. If your powers of deduction and observation are so great, why do you only use them to catch murderers rather than prevent murders? The nature of Poirot’s adventures is that he’s usually already present when the murder occurs. Aren’t there warning signs?

Yes, there are, and Poirot spots them and tries to head off the murder before it happens. His plea to Jacqueline De Bellefort to turn back and not let evil enter her heart is truly a memorable moment where Poirot makes every effort to dissuade the young woman from the path he sees her on but to no avail.

The book shows that Poirot’s gift and experience may give him an inkling that something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make him a psychic who knows every detail of a person’s life and what’s already been planned. Nero Wolfe often said that there was no way he could prevent murder, and this book shows why he made that assertion. Poirot has no clue the degree to which the conspiracy had already been developed, nor how it would be carried out. He only sees the public face. He tries to intervene. He does all he can, but it isn’t enough.

4) The book explores the perils of love.

Romantic love is exalted throughout literature. It’s a virtue in and of itself. Hercule Poirot recognizes the danger in this valorization of romantic love. When he sees Simon and Jacqueline speaking to each other before Simon goes over to Linnet, he observes that Jacqueline cares too much for Simon and that such care is “not safe”.

At first, it appears that this danger lies in her obsessive following of Simon and Linnet around during their honeymoon. But at the end of the story, it’s revealed that when Linnet became interested in Simon,Simon was irritated by her efforts, but he thought of the idea of marrying Linnet, murdering her within the year, and then marrying Jacqueline and living off her money. Jacqueline goes along with the scheme because she knows Simon will get caught if he attempts the murder on his own, because he doesn’t have the brains for it.

This shows Jacqueline cares more for Simon than he does for her, because he comes up with and pursues such an unnatural scheme. It also shows Simon isn’t worth that level of devotion. I’m not sure whether Christie was going for this, but Simon becomes the male answer to the Femme Fatale: a good-looking guy who attracts the ladies and leads them to ruin.

It also shows the dangers of love when it overrides everything. When it’s freed from ethics, morals, and even self-respect, romantic love can become poisonous.

In Jacqueline’s case, she kills three people (including Simon, to save him from facing prosecution in a third world country) before killing herself.

Christie tries to balance the scales in a very unusual way on the whole issue of love. The most bizarre part of Death on the Nile is that two couples get together and get engaged. The Karnak, a ship that has three murders occur on board, becomes a love boat.

The romances, while not particularly realistic, serve as a counterbalance to the unhealthy main relationships, as they have a redemptive quality to them. Tim Allerton forsakes his thieving ways to marry Rosalie, whose alcoholic mother was the victim in one of the murders. The other romance is surprising. Ferguson has been trying to court Cornelia Robson, an honest and straightforward woman, in the most obnoxious way possible. He’s a self-styled communist and social radical, of whom her wealthy cousin, with whom she’s traveling, would not approve. Poirot discovers that Ferguson is actually a wealthy aristocrat, which would earn the cousin’s approval. With Ferguson’s true identity revealed, Cornelia agrees to marry Dr. Besner instead, because she likes him and finds his profession interesting. It’s such a wonderful twist that Cornelia remains true to her character as an honest and forthright person who pursues what she wants rather than falling for the wealthy guy who she thought was a low-born vulgar man just because he turned out to be a wealthy vulgar man.

Sadly, the screen adaptations have messed with these romances, including eliminating Cornelia’s character entirely from the 1978 film.

Overall, Death on the Nile can be enjoyed as just the great mystery novel it is, but there are also some great depths to the story for those who want to find them.

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Book Review: The Golden Box

In the Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane, Jean Holly returns to her small town to care for an ailing relative.The town matriarch dies, and then it appears that a servant has hanged herself, although some think foul play is involved. As it so happens, a detective friend named Pat Abbott comes down to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.

The book is officially listed as the second in the Pat and Jean Abbott mysteries, although that’s a bit of a misnomer, as they’re not married in this book. However, it’s the earliest available book featuring the two I could find.

The book has one glaring problem – for most of its length, it’s very boring. The characters and locale are mostly just there, functional, and nondistinct.The dialogue is much the same, and it makes for a monotonous and tiresome read. Even the relationship between Jean and Pat isn’t all that interesting, and there’s no real hint of a romantic spark between the future married couple. I found myself thinking I’d rather read another Larry Kent book than this. Yes, the book I reviewed was a bad book, but at least it was bad in an interesting way. This book could have been livened up an exposition leprechaun popping up out of nowhere to cut a few dozen pages from this book.

The book does have a few good points. The mystery is slow getting started but is actually fairly good. Jean does have a few moments where her personality shines through, such as when she complains about how unattractive men who do the dishes are (hey, it was the 1940s), and Jean as narrator shares her thoughts on the mystery and helps to stimulate the reader’s interest as well.

Still, The Golden Box is a bit of a slog to get through. That said, I’m not entirely writing off the possibility of reading another novel in the series. This one feels a bit atypical. Jean being at home with her own extended family puts her clearly on the inside with all of the murder suspects and supporting characters, knowing them and integrating back into that world.It’s an awkward position for a secondary character/narrator in a mystery novel. I’d be curious how the characters would play in a less pedestrian setting, and after they’re married.

The Pat and Jean Abbott Mystery series went on for more than 20 novels and while none are classics, it’s hard to believe they were all this dull.

Rating: 2.25 out of 5


Book Review: The Corpse Came Calling

In the opening chapter of The Corpse Came Calling, a private detective acquaintance of Michael Shayne stumbles into the office where he and his wife are bantering and collapses dead after calling ahead and saying he wanted to stay Shayne. Shayne collects $200 from the dead man’s wallet as well as taking a piece of cardboard off him before heading upstairs to his apartment and pretending that his wife Phyllis was in the office alone when the dead man arrived where he encounters a beautiful blonde with a simple request: ,murder her fugitive ex-con husband.

While Shayne is used to playing fast and loose with the law, he could pay a much bigger price as his wife Phyllis ends up in jeopardy and his antics are of even more concern when a man from the FBI comes around alleging the murdered PI was a traitor and tied up with the theft of defense secrets. This is a particularly sensitive time as America had just entered World War II.

I did spend quite a bit of this book doubting Shayne. Even his newspaperman buddy Tim Rourke turns on him at one point when he sees what Shayne appears to be doing. At the best of time, Shayne’s methods are dicey but will he really carry on in such a reckless fashion with his country at war? I also have to say there was one scene I absolutely hated where Mike and Phyllis were held in their apartment by thugs and Phyllis was the recipient of rapte threats that were uncomfortably direct, particularly for the era the book was written in.

Despite these moments, the book is a solid entry in Shayne’s adventures with a lot of big twists and surprises that really showcase the strength of this series. The book may try the reader’s patience in the early chapters but really does pay off nicely in the end.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5′

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Book Review: Crimson Lady/Sidewalk Empire

Larry Kent began his career in the I Hate Crime radio series, and a series of short pulpy tie-in novels were launched. The tie-in novels continued until the end of the radio show and were then resurrected with more than 400 being published through the 1960s and 70s into the early 1980s. Several of these novels have been reprinted in two-novel collections by Bold Venture Press. This reprint included Crimson Lady and Sidewalk Empire.

In Crimson Lady, Valerie Nash, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s, comes to him for help because men who are interested in her are winding up dead and she’s having premonitions about it because of her ESP. Larry runs into a few dead-ends but is encouraged to carry on by one of New York City’s most iconic homicide detectives, a man reverently known as “The Murder Man.”

There are some good aspects of the first novel. The opening scene and its misdirection add some interest to the story. Larry’s relationship with Valerie is a little less shallow than what would be heard on the radio program.

That said, my patience with this story was really tried in the slow early chapters. But Larry solves the case early, and then has to prove it, and protect Valerie Nash. This leads to some really tense and suspenseful moments.

The book is not good. It deals with ESP, incredibly improbable criminal pseudo-psychology and, of course (reflective of the era), mentally unstable Vietnam vets. But if you can overlook the nonsense, it’s a fair story.

In Sidewalk Empire, a beautiful ex-flame of Larry’s (notice a pattern here?), a soap opera producer, calls Larry in because someone is blackmailing her with photos of her wild drug and partying days. Larry is able to figure out that she’s being blackmailed along with other wealthy clients of an unlicensed hypnotherapist.

The first chapter sees Larry’s investigation going nowhere. In the second chapter, a leprechaun appears and gives Larry a subtle clue that renews his investigation. I made an attempt at a YouTube short. The leprechaun wasn’t the only problem with the book. The dialogue was bad, the plot was ludicrous, and the characters behaved in bizarre and foolish ways. Attempts to make Larry look like an amazing lady’s man have never been less effective or compelling than in Sidewalk Empire.

The main asset of this collection I can see is a sort of “so bad, it’s good” vibe. While The Crimson Lady isn’t nearly as bad, both stories are full of over-the-top and out-of-left-field, and poorly-executed moments that will leave many readers scratching their head. If someone decided to produce movies just for the purpose of being roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000, faithful adaptations of Larry Kent novels would work. MST3K alum Michael Nelson might be able to do something with this reprint on his book-roasting podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back.

Beyond that, it’s tough to recommend this reprint to anyone, unless you’re really a huge fan of the radio series and are curious about the novels. While there are some good moments and the short length prevents the stories from becoming too tedious, these are ultimately unsatisfying works that annoy far more than entertain.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Book Review: A Man Called Spade And Other Stories

The vintage Dell Paperback edition of A Man Called Spade begins with an introduction by Ellery Queen (pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee) praising Hammett as a mystery writer, and Spade as a character. The stage is set for five stories, three featuring Sam Spade, and two others included as these three weren’t long enough to make up a book.

The titular story, “A Man Called Spade,” sees Sam go to an apartment in response to a phone call asking for his help. Sam arrives to find his potential client murdered.

It’d be too much to expect this to be another Maltese Falcon, but “A Man Called Spade” is practically a second-rate mystery story. It’s nearly 50 pages long and finds Spade and Lieutenant Dundy walking around a single location questioning a bunch of unremarkable and forgettable characters about what they know.

Sam gets a few decent lines and the solution’s not half bad. But 90% of the story is spent on a very long questioning scene. It’s a dull story that’s practically lifeless.

“They Can Only Hang You Once” finds Spade arriving at a house to find his man murdered. In this case, Sam was at least out on a case when it happened and pretending to be someone else. Once again, he’s teamed up with Dundy in walking around the various suspects. This one is a much pacier story. At only 22 pages, while not an ideal Sam Spade vehicle, it’s better for not dragging on.

In “Too Many Have Lived,” Sam is hired to track down a failed poet who turns up dead and then has to solve his murder. This is a very good hard-boiled private detective story with a good mix of shady characters, red herrings, and an engaging case. Again, it’s no Maltese Falcon, but it’s a fun little read.

In “The Assistant Murderer,” the focus shifts to disgraced ex-cop turned private eye Alex Rush, who is ugly (as Hammett tells us multiple times) and he’s called in by a man who thinks a beautiful former employee is in trouble. Rush finds himself caught in a twisting, turning world of murder, corrupt characters, and unreliable stories left and right. This is a really engaging story. It would have been nice had Rush come closer to the truth on his own rather than having the character spill it to him, but there’s something to be said for being able to apply the right pressure to the guilty party.

“His Brother’s Keeper” follows a young naive boxer in the ring who’s in a very dark and dangerous situation without even knowing it. Hammett makes the boxer his first-person point of view character. This is a departure from most other stories that are told from the point of view of street-smart detectives. It’s a decent story and an interesting experiment in Hammett’s range.

Overall, most of these stories were actually quite good although the titular story bogs things down and takes up more than a quarter of the book. Still, I’m glad I read the collection. “Too Many Have Lived” and “The Assistant Murderer” were both superb stories and the other two were decent enough.

Rating 3.75 out of 5

This collection is out of print. But another collection containing these stories plus two others is available in Paperback and for the Kindle.(affiliate link)