Detective Fiction, Fiction, Original Fiction

The Missing Wife: A Murder Mystery

“Well, Arthur, what do you have for us this evening?” Ruth smiled toothily at the retired detective who sat at the head of the table.

Ruth Agu, MP for Chipping Barnett, had the imposing appearance and personality of a Nigerian queen. She was dressed in an ornate gold headwrap, nude lipstick, a luxurious gold necklace and wide gold bangles. Her gown was similarly shiny and extravagant.

“Ah yes, I forgot I was to sing for my supper,” said Arthur Allen, who suddenly looked like a mournful Airedale terrier. “This cake is excellent, by the way. What is it?”

Charlotte aux fraises, but don’t dodge the issue,” Ruth replied crisply. “I promised my guests you’d have a juicy one for them over coffee. They’ll be very disappointed otherwise.”

The guests aforementioned were Claire Cooper, a shovel-faced Oxford professor specializing in medieval British manuscripts, and Rashid Sharif, a plump dandy known for his wine expertise. They smiled apologetically at Arthur.

Arthur cleared his throat and patted the corners of his mouth with a gaudy napkin. Then he bowed to his hostess.

“When Beauty sounds the clarion, Age must heed her call” he said gallantly. “Let’s see now,” he said as he saw Ruth’s manicured fingers start tapping impatiently. “In honour of this excellent French cake, I will relate one of the most perplexing cases of my career, which happened in France, in the town of Chamonix.”

“Ah,” Rashid smacked his lips, “Home of the Altesse grape and the Rousette de Savoie. A sensory foray into the mountains, an immersion in the fragrance of rock-warmed herbs, honey and hazelnut.”

“It was,” Arthur continued, “The summer of 1994. The first week of June. We had a call from the Gendarmerie Chamonix-Mont Blanc, Superintendent Arnand Favre, who told me that Sarah Mills had disappeared. At that time, you see, I was head of homicide in Redbridge, where Sarah and Gerard Mills lived.”

“Why were they in Chamonix?” asked Claire Cooper, frowning.

“Let me begin again. Gerard and Sarah Mills were a newly married couple from Redbridge who had decided to have a holiday in Europe that summer. They’d set off on June 1st, crossed France with no incident until the night of June 12, which is when Sarah was last seen alive.”

“So the husband did it,” Claire said, pushing her spectacles back up the nose down which they’d slid.

“Well,” Arthur nodded, “It does tend to be the way. Nine times out of ten the culprit is the husband or romantic partner, certainly. It was our working assumption when we got the news. And, indeed, Gerard Mills confessed.”

“So far this isn’t much of a mystery, Arthur,” Ruth frowned, swirling her glass dangerously.

“Pardon me,” he said, “I seem to be having trouble getting started. Perhaps I had better tell you the timeline as Arnand Favre told it to me. It will become clearer...”


Sarah Mills disappeared on June 12. On June 13, according to her husband’s statement, he spent the day looking for her without success. On the afternoon of Jun 14, he reported her missing. According to Superintendent Favre, Mr. Mills was visibly distraught—unshaven, rumpled, shadows under his eyes, barely coherent.”

“Murderers often make good actors,” Claire Cooper said. In addition to being one of Britain’s leading authorities on the Lindisfarne Gospels, was also a True Crime aficionado.

Arthur nodded. “My colleague was not unduly moved by the show of grief. He immediately obtained a statement from Mr. Mills as to his activities on the previous two days and later shared this statement with me.

“Mr. Mills’ account was as follows: On the afternoon of June 11, he and Sarah had arrived at a campground on the outskirts of Chamonix. They’d spent the evening settling in, showering, settling the camping fee. They’d gone into town, shared a meal and a bottle of wine at a restaurant, then returned to the campground at around 10.30 at night. These times were later confirmed by a waiter and their neighboring campers, a Dutch couple. Incidentally, the couple heard the Mills have a noisy argument that night. In fact, the next morning they asked to move to a new site.

“The following day, the Mills slept late. Sarah said she’d do some laundry and Gerard went into the town to do some grocery shopping. Before visiting the grocery store, he obtained a shovel at the local hardware store.

“Ooooh,” Rashid said, “Not good.”

“That clinches it,” Claire agreed.

When Gerard returned to the campground at three o’clock, he says that Sarah was lying on the bed reading. She told Gerard that she’d broken a ceramic bowl and that they needed a new one for their breakfast cereal. Gerard said he was tired and didn’t feel like going back to town, but she was insistent. So, for the sake of keeping the peace, he went back.

When he returned to the campground, Sarah was gone. When she didn’t appear for several hours, he thought that she was angry with him after their argument about the bowl (he didn’t mention the big fight they’d had the previous night). Full of remorse, he spent a sleepless night and early in the morning he went about looking for her. Thinking she’d spent the night in a hotel, he checked all the establishments in town, showing receptionists a photograph of her. He asked the campers and one of them said he’d seen her the previous afternoon, at about four o’clock, walking along a trail near the campground. She was wearing a knapsack. His impression was that she was going for a short hike. Another woman based in the campground said she’d seen Sarah coming out of the bushes on the edge of the campground at around three o’clock. She’d noticed her because she looked a bit furtive, and she’d thought it was odd.

Gerard worried that she’d had an accident while hiking and spent the rest of the day roaming about the trails, stopping other hikers to ask if they’d seen her. Invariably the answer was ‘No.’

The next day, after another sleepless night, Gerard went to the police.”

“By which time more than 24 hours had passed since the last time she was seen.”

“Yes, assuming the witness who saw her on the trail was reliable, it was 41 hours after that.”

“Plenty of time to tidy up,” Claire said wryly.

“When asked if anything was missing from the campervan, he said that the clothes she was wearing, her purse, the shovel and a map of the area. She’d also taken her usual hiking knapsack, which contained a bottle of water, a red rainjacket, a headlamp and a couple of chocolate bars.”

“He actually mentioned the shovel?” Rashid cried in disbelief.

“Well,” Claire said, “The local shopkeeper had mentioned him buying it, of course.”

“Superintendent Favre immediately organized search parties. There was some concern that she might have gone to climb Mont Blanc, so an emergency helicopter scoured the slopes. Members of the community lent a hand. And eventually, a little way off the trail where the woman had last seen Sarah Mills, they recovered her purse, whose contents were scattered on the ground, and the clothes which she had been wearing. There was some blood on her T-shirt, which was torn. Then the shovel was found in the brush near the campground. It had dirt on the blade—it had clearly been used—but there was no evidence of disturbed earth in the form of a grave anywhere nearby, only a small cut in the ground.

“What about in the area where they found her clothes?” Claire asked.

Arthur shook his head.

Nothing. By this time, of course, it had been reported in the newspapers and public suspicion fell on Gerard Mills. The police took him into custody, largely for his own safety. It was at that point that Superintendent Favre called me, since he suspected even then that there would need to be some international cooperation to solve the case. He told me what had happened, much as I have just told you, and he added some interesting pieces of information in addition—things that helped put a new light on the situation.

He told me that staying at the campground at the same time as the Mills was a man who attracted some attention—quite tall, with dark hair, thick bushy eyebrows, very muscular. He was alone, very unfriendly, and he spent most of the day in his tent drinking beer. He had a silver Renault, fairly expensive looking. On the occasions when he did emerge, he drew some attention to himself by staring at other campers…particularly Sarah Mills. And he happened to check out of the campground at three o’clock on July 12, the same day that she went missing. He’d registered in the camp’s log book with the name of Mirko Joviḉ.

“Serbian?” Ruth asked, frowning. “

“Yes. The Gendarmerie drew up a likeness according to the campers’ description and it was posted all across Chamonix and, indeed, Savoie. Seeing the image, an old lady living in the center of Chamonix, an insomniac who spent hours looking out of her window, saw a car stop and the passenger get out to use an ATM at around midnight early on June 13. The car was a silver Renault answering to the description of the one belonging to Mirko. From what the old woman could see, the driver looked like the man in the poster. The passenger was much smaller, though. He was wearing a baseball cap and had a dark beard. According to the old lady, he saw her staring at him and stared straight back at her, as if in challenge. She says it annoyed her at the time. She got the feeling he was trying to frighten her and she’d survived World War Two. But afterwards, hearing what had happened to Sarah Mills, the memory made her blood run cold. As it turned out, at 12.15am on June 13 Sarah Mills’ credit card had been used at that very spot. The old lady had been looking straight into the eyes of a murderer!”

“So what did the superintendent want you to do?” Ruth asked.

He wanted me to find out whether Gerard Mills had a criminal history and he also wanted to know more about Sarah Mills, particularly her former boyfriends or whether she’d ever reported being stalked. So we searched the Mills house and interviewed their friends and family to find out about any marital strife. Thanks to this search, we got a fuller sense of Gerard Mills. He’d been arrested three times as an adolescent, twice of engaging in a fray outside a club—typical teen stuff—and once on a charge of domestic violence.

“Aha!” Claire said and took a gulp of wine.

But the charge was almost immediately dropped. We interviewed the lady in question, who admitted she’d called the police because Gerard, having had a few too many Bacardis, would not stop playing his new Ace of Bass CD at top volume. When she’d complained to him, he’d told her she could go ahead and call the cops if she didn’t like it. So she did. In fact, she narrowly avoided getting ticketed for wasting police time.

It seems that once Gerard met Sarah, he cleaned up his act. He stopped drinking Bacardis, stopped fighting, started up a garage for luxury cars together with a friend of his named Billy Ragg—a very successful enterprise. So successful, in fact, that he was able to indulge a new passion for collecting art. At the Mills’s home we saw an original Clara Porter...

“Gosh!” Rashid exclaimed. “One of hers went for a couple of mill at the last Christie’s auction!”

“Somehow I wouldn’t have picked them for art lovers,” Claire said

Everyone we talked to said the same thing—he was a devoted husband. He and Sarah were planning to have a family. They’d been saving for a house and had been house hunting in the months before going on holiday. Gerard’s mother said the trip had been Sarah’s idea—she’d wanted one last adventure together—just the two of them before they started their family. Gerard had been against it at first but, as usual, he quickly fell in with her wishes.”

“A bit of mother-in-law friction there, it sounds like,” said Ruth.

“Yes,” Arthur said, “There was no love lost between Mrs Mills senior and her daughter in law. She called her all sorts of names, the upshot being that she had Gerard wound around her little finger.

“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Sarah’s version of events was completely at variance with what Sarah Mills’ colleague Alice told us. The two worked together at a beauty salon and had not been particularly close, which is why Alice was rather surprised when Sarah confided in her, about a week before she and Gerard left for their European holiday.

“She told Alice that she didn’t want to go but that Gerard insisted. Alice scoffed and said, ‘Why not let him go on his own then?’. Sarah shook her head and whispered that she was scared of him. She then rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and showed Alice a lurid bruise. She then carefully rolled the sleeve down again. Alice was shocked. She said that Gerard had always seemed to her the Prince of Mildness and wouldn’t have believed him capable of that sort of brutality.

“Oh, you can never tell though,” said Claire, “The charming, sympathetic types are often the most vicious.”

Alice urged Sarah to go to a women’s shelter to call the cops but Sarah shook her head. She said, rather cryptically, ‘It’s too late. I’m in too deep. But if I don’t come back from the holiday…remember what I told you.’

Alice replied that she’d have a hard time forgetting and that she’d much rather sort it out now and put the bastard behind bards. At that point, Sarah became very agitated and even swore at Alice and threatened her with a pair of scissors so that she’d put down her cellphone. At that point, Alice decided that if Sarah Mills wanted to be a punching bag, who was Alice to stand in her way? Frankly, she suspected that Sarah was being a bit overly dramatic. Of course, now that she’d been murdered, Alice felt remorseful.”

“So what it seems to come down to,” Rashid mused, “Is that one party was lying—Gerard or Sarah.”

“What about the search of the house?” Ruth asked. “Find anything?”

Arthur sipped his sherry and nodded.

“We found something quite damning on Sarah Mills’ dresser drawers. This was a letter written by Sarah. I have a copy with me, as I knew our gracious hostess wanted me to tell the story.”

Ceremoniously, he reached into his inner breast pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and started to read:

To Whom it May Concern,

If you are reading this, it means that I did not return from holiday. I have probably been murdered by my husband Gerard P. Mills. Do not be fooled by his meek face he is a monster. Goodbye cruel world.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Mills

“Meanwhile, back in Chamonix, the Gendarmerie had alerted all of Europe to be on the lookout for two men in a silver Renault. A week later, they found a licence plate dumped by the side of the road near Marseille. The car, with different plates, was found parked at the port.”

“So they left by ferry?” Rashid asked.

“So it would seem,” said Arthur, “Though nothing was proved. Back in Chamonix, Superintendent Favre was becoming increasingly perplexed. ‘Arthur,’ he said to me one day, ‘It is too strange. There is no body. There is no motive. This husband, he tells me all of a sudden he wants to confess. We are happy. We ask him too many questions:  How did you kill your wife? Where is her body Why did you do it? To all this, he say nothing. ‘It doesn’t matter, this,’ he insists, ‘I tell you, I am guilty.’ We reply that of course it matters very much. The parents of Sarah, for example, think of her mamán. The last rites, how cruel to deprive her parents of this last comfort. And so on .That day, he tries to—how you say?—suicide himself. The guard saves him. The next day, he comes to us and says, ‘Now I am ready. I tell you everything.’ Eh bien! ‘Wonderful!’ I say, ‘I am all the ears.'” Arthur paused and produced another paper from his pocket.

“This is a transcript of Gerard Mills’ statement, which Superintendent Favre faxed to me that day:

On the night of June 11, Sarah and I had a big argument. I was very angry with her and shouted at her. In fact I was so angry that I decided to kill her. I left in the morning and thought about how to do it. I bought a shovel so I could dig her grave. My previous statement, that she’d asked me to buy it, was a lie. Then I went to the grocery store and returned to the campground at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I pretended I was sorry for yelling at her the previous evening. She did not accept my apology. I pretended to leave for the shop but in fact I parked the car a short way from the campground to watch her and wait for my chance. Just as I suspected, she decided to go for a hike. I followed her and killed her.”

“At about this point, Superintendent Arnand Favre interrupted. ‘How did you kill her?’

‘I strangled her,’ the widower replied.

‘How long did it take?’

‘I wasn’t timing it.’

‘Approximately, let’s say.’

‘Ten minutes.’

‘Did she struggle?’

‘No. I surprised her. She didn’t have a chance.’

‘Where did it happen? Can you show me on the map?’

[Mr. Mills points to a point on a walking trail leading to Mer de Glace]

‘OK, you strangled your wife. And then?’

‘What do you mean?’

Sacre bleu! The body, monsieur. What did you do with her body?’

‘I took it back to the car.’

‘It was parked near the campground, non?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘Bien, and when you brought her to your car, what did you do?’

‘I covered her with a blanket and drove her to Lake Gaillands. Then I waited until midnight and dropped her in the lake.’

‘And what time did you do this?’

‘It was about eight o’clock at night.’

Superintendent Favre later told me that at this point, he carefully put his pen down on his desk, folded his arms and stared at Gerard Mills for several seconds.

‘Monsieur,’ he said quietly, ‘Might I ask why you are wasting my time?’

‘What do you mean?’ said Mr. Mills.

‘I mean, your wife has disappeared and you are telling me this rooster-and-cow story that a child of seven would not believe.’

‘I’m telling you the truth!’ Gerard yelled. ‘I murdered Sarah!’

‘Pardon, but that is not the truth. Do you suppose every Frenchman is such an idiot that he will believe the moon is constructed of cheese? You think I will nod and believe you are a magician so that you can appear in two places at one time? Between two o’clock and eight o’clock you claim you were hiking in the forest and strangling your wife and disposing of her body. I have no witnesses to support this extraordinary claim, but I have at least three witnesses who say you were elsewhere. You were in the supermarket purchasing a dinner plate—I have video evidence, there is no use shaking the head—and after that you consumed wine at a tabaccheria.’ He held up a finger to anticipate Gerard’s interruption.

‘But, mon ami, that is not the most insulting part of this cockadoodle story. You expect me to believe you followed your wife here,’ he jabbed at the map where Gerard had claimed to have killed Sarah, ‘Which is an hour of hiking and that she did not notice your presence—you are a true Mohican, eh? And then you strangle her for ten minutes as she is calm as a feather and does not kick, does not bite, does not fight for her life. And then, when she is kaput, you, as you put it ‘take her to your car’, presumably carrying a tall woman in your arms down a popular hiking trail that is rather steep. You do not mention any difficulty in this extraordinary feat. And I do not ask because it is clear to me that it is something you did not do.’

‘I carried her. I’m used to lifting weights,’ Gerard insisted.

‘I do not doubt it. That is possible of course. Yes, perhaps you carry your substantial wife down the hill for an hour in your arms like the Bridegroom of Death. But me, I do not consider you so eccentric or (excuse me) bold that you would carry her naked, in broad daylight, down a trail where many people travel.’

‘I didn’t use the trail,’ Gerard retorted, but feebly.

“In your statement, you did not explain why you removed her clothes. You did not explain removing her credit card. You did not explain why you bought the shovel if you did not use it. You explain nothing.’

Gerard stared furiously at the table in the interrogation room. Favre patted his head kindly.

‘This is some cauchemar for you, non? Your beloved wife disappears. You are accused of the crime. What would I do in your place? I would be angry, enraged. It would be my passion to find the true murderer and to put him in the jail. To exact revenge, to teach him a lesson. This you do not do. I ask myself why. I think and think and finally, it comes to me: you wish to protect the criminal, is it not?

Gerard directed his gaze in front of him, expressionless. Favre continued.

‘Monsieur, consider for a moment. This criminal did not wish to protect you, after all. Au contraire, she carefully laid a trap for you. This is worse than mere disregard, it is a diabolical malevolence. There is no longer any obligation for you to protect this monster, your wife.’

Gerard let his head fall into his hands and wept.

Favre waited patiently until Gerard was quiet except for whimpering noises.

‘Now, time to pour the beans, mon ami. I think you know everything. Why don’t you tell me?’

Gerard nodded and sighed.

‘It was that police sketch that made me realize,’ he said.

‘The sketch of Mirko Joviḉ, the Serb?’

Gerard snorted scornfully.

‘Serb my foot! It was Billy Ragg from Enfield.’

Favre nodded.

‘A man you know well, I believe you were friends?’

‘Couldn’t stand the git,’ Gerard spat.

‘And yet, he was a frequent visitor at your home, was he not?’

‘How did you know that?’ Gerard asked.

‘My colleagues in Britain, they asked about your friends and your business. Do you care to explain why it was that you so often entertained a man you disliked at your home?’

Gerard pursed his lips. The superintendent continued.

‘Was it perhaps a business relationship? I do not speak of the garage you were partners in, but of the smuggling operation you ran. Guns, drugs, sometimes people.’

Gerard shot him a look of deep dislike.

‘Perhaps, for example, this Billy Ragg was arranging a large shipment. Something that would pay the conspirators well, so well that you would be able to afford a lovely new house, education for your future children, multi-million-pound artworks…?’ Favre looked at Gerard.

Reflection (Self-Portrait), 1985 by Lucian Freud Oil on canvas. Private collection, on loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Image ©The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘Ah, we are like the clam now? Well, no matter. Let us continue with this imagining. What if Billy Ragg was using this promise to lure his partner into a trap? What if Billy Ragg was jealous of his partner’s wife and wanted to destroy him once and for all?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Gerard.

‘Come, come There is no shame in being taken for a fool. After all, the racket had been lucrative in the past. This is how you bought your nice car, your house, your expensive artwork…This was just the same, but a much bigger prize. And, as had happened in the past, Ragg required some kind of deposit from you, to pay for expenses. A much bigger deposit.’

Gerard was turning purple. He yawned but according to Favre it looked more like a silent, angry scream.

‘So this Billy Ragg is clever. He extracts money from his mark and at the same time seduces the wife. He charms her with visions of fabulous riches, a new life somewhere sunny. He tells her he has connections in high places, people who will help create new identities for them both. And this is true. She is charmed by this trickster and by the prospect of a great exciting future. There is only one thing standing in her way—this husband. But they have a plan to deal with him. Such a clever but simple plan. They laugh about it together. They’ll frame him for her murder and then vanish.’

Gerard uttered an animal cry, leapt up and went to attack Favre, who sidestepped him easily. Two other gendarmes burst in to restrain the suspect.

‘Monsieur,’ said Favre ,’I tell you you are right to be angry. This is nature. What is not nature is to do suicide, to lie down for these heartless beasts. Strike back! That is the idea. And with my help, monsieur, you can strike back most well.’

‘How?’ Gerard gritted his teeth.

‘Billy Ragg is clever, yes, but he is not so anonymous as he hopes. Scotland Yard were close to arresting him for human trafficking some men who died in the back of a truck last year. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the case went to trial. One of the reasons, indeed, that Mr. Ragg wanted to make a new life for himself  What I propose, Mister Mills, is a species of exchange. The police are willing to overlook any…indiscretions on your part, for example receiving stolen art works and conspiring in smuggling. In return, you will tell a jury what you know of the criminal acts of Mr. Ragg, who is looking at perhaps twenty years in a prison.’

Gerard Mills looked at his hands, clenched his fists, then looked superintendent Favre in the eyes.

‘It will be a pleasure,’ he said.

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Reviews

The Most Preposterous Mystery Novel Ever? Yes.

Writing a mystery novel is a complicated proposition. There is much to consider. The sleuth should be human but not too human; the death(s) should not upset the reader unduly; the suspects all need to be neatly numbered and accounted for. You have to calibrate the pace, ramp up the nervous tension and supply a satisfying solution. And, this is crucial, the plot must be startling but not ludicrous.

Perfection is for the gods, of course, and there are plenty of successful ‘imperfect’ murder mysteries. If a story is entertaining enough and roughly adheres to the accepted template, readers in search of diversion will overlook the usual pitfalls of Golden Age Detective Stories (overwriting, small plot holes, jingoism, raging misogyny and offensive stereotypes). As long as there is (a) a crime and (b) a solution to the crime, many of us feel we got what we came for.

But a line needs to be drawn somewhere and there are authors who take liberties. They treat their readers like saps. They spin a tale that wouldn’t stand up to the slightest puff of wind and are proud of themselves. There is one book in particular whose plot is so cuckoo that it left me gasping for air and wondering how any self-respecting publisher would go along with it.

I speak of Seven Dead, by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. One of Mystery’s old pros, J.J. Farjeon (1883-1955) wrote more than 100 novels, most of them crime stories. Some of them are good. Thirteen Guests (1936), for example, is a diverting tale along the lines of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie. His play Number Seventeen was made into a successful film by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s clear that Farjeon could do a decent job when he wanted to. But when he sat down to write Seven Dead, something diabolical happened to his brain. “What,” I imagine he said, “if I wrote something so outlandish it made Alice in Wonderland look like investigative journalism?”

He liked numbers in his titles

The reason this book upsets me so much is that it starts out so well—a standard whodunnit, nicely written, good characters, snappy dialogue, a romance angle. One feels that one is in good hands, not gripped in the paws of a fiction-mangling maniac. If there had been any sign of authorial misconduct before chapter 25 then I would have gently laid the book aside tut-tutting. As it was, I read 80% of the thing before realizing it was pure hogwash. That makes me mad.

In case you think I’m exaggerating, I will now describe the plot to you. If you plan to read the book (the more fool you) and want to do so without prejudice, then don’t read any more of this.

The culprit Farjeon

The book opens with a cockney spoon-thief breaking into a country house and discovering seven grimy corpses in a drawing room. The shutters have been nailed down and cloth stuffed up the chimney. In the center of the mantelpiece is a vase supporting an ancient cricket ball. A rolled up piece of paper in the hand of one of the victims has writing on it. On one side, written in ink:




On the other side, in red pencil:

Particulars at address 59.16s 6.6e.G

The side written in pencil was probably written in the victim’s last moments because in his other hand he holds the stub of a red pencil.

Detective Inspector Kendall and journalist Hazeldean get on the case. They figure out that the Fenners have gone across the English Channel to Boulogne. Hazeldean (having fallen in love with a portrait of Dora), decides to sail over there on his yacht. Meanwhile, Kendall figures out that the seven victims had arrived by sailing up the river in a decrepit boat, that someone had let them into the house, locked them in the room and gassed them using a rubber tube fitted into the keyhole. The murderer had then cycled to a big flat field where an aeroplane had picked him up and taken him to France.

We go to Boulogne. Hazeldean finds Dora and arranges to join Dora and her uncle at the pension where they’re staying. Fenner is having an affair with Paula the woman who owns the pension. Paula’s creepy husband Dr. Jones has been coming on to Dora and her uncle has not been discouraging him. Dora is unhappy. She does not know about the seven dead people in her house back in England.

While Hazeldean is about to tell Dora the bad news, Fenner arrives to tell everyone that Dr. Jones died in a plane crash. Hazeldean tells him, in turn, about the seven dead people in his house. Fenner says he’s off to contact the police—right away!

Bologne sur mer chateau musee

By the time Kendall gets to Boulogne, Fenner has stolen Hazeldean’s yacht. It’s clear that he murdered the seven people with a new form of gas. He also killed Dr. Jones (who did not die in a crash, though Fenner tried to make it look as if he had).

But why did he murder them?


The code on the piece of paper (59.16s 6.6e) is a geographical coordinate for a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group. Detective Inspector Kendall, Hazeldean, Dora and Hazeldean’s hired sailors head off in a new yacht for a tiny island in the South Atlantic. When they get there, they discover an abandoned campsite, a homemade cricket bat and a notebook in a cave wall. This notebook conveniently gives us all the back story we need.

Ten years earlier in South Africa a man named Cauldwell was wanted for murder but escaped the country on board a boat called Good Friday. He helped arrange a mutiny, wanting to ensure the boat wouldn’t reach its original destination as that would result in his arrest. Unfortunately, the ship was so badly damaged in the mutiny that when a storm came along, it sank. Eight people managed to scramble into a lifeboat and they all ended up on a tiny island in the Tristan da Cunha group in the South Atlantic.

For months the eight of them stayed there building a boat from driftwood, eating penguins and playing cricket to pass the time. In all that time, in spite of having a newspaper containing a photograph that identified Cauldwell as a fugitive murderer, no one noticed.

The group slept in caves and Cauldwell shared his cave with a man named John Fenner who was going to England to take care of his niece. While sleep-talking, Fenner divulged that he had figured out half of the formula of a new kind of poison gas that was sure to prove very lucrative. Cauldwell asked him all about it and suddenly became very friendly with him.

On the day that the boat was finally finished, everyone decided to have one final game of cricket, for old time’s sake. Cauldwell (who had already stolen John Fenner’s secret-gas formula and papers), pretended to chase the cricket ball and before anyone knew what was happening, he waded into the water, stole the boat and set off out for freedom.

cricket ball of evil

He drifted along for some time and was finally rescued, claiming to be John Fenner, the sole survivor of the Good Friday. As the ship’s surgeon (Dr. Jones) helped nurse him back to health, he learned some of the true story. Realizing that his patient would probably get rich from the new gas, Dr. Jones made a deal with him that amounted to blackmail. If Cauldwell helped him with money, Dr. Jones would stay quiet about his true identity.

Cauldwell subsequently goes to Dora’s place to impersonate her uncle, with occasional trips to Boulogne where Dr. Jones lives with his French floozy. Somehow, in spite of having gone in for murder more than chemistry back in South Africa, Cauldwell successfully manages to figure out the rest of Fenner’s formula and to produce the new kind of lethal gas.  

Meanwhile, back on the cold rock in the South Atlantic, the others were just as mad as seven wet hens. They carve out the Latin words FIAT JUSTICIA RUAT CAELUM (let vengeance fall from the sky) on a homemade sign, probably deciding it was no use saving wood to make another boat. Everyone lays hands on it and vows vengeance.

Then after a while an empty boat comes along.

It’s a shame that Farjeon decided to omit the most amazing and interesting part of this, i.e. the fact that seven shipwreck survivors manage to sail, in a wreck, from the Tristan da Cunha group all the way up to Benwick. And they make the trip without attracting so much as a raised eyebrow. This is a journey of about 6,000 miles as the crow flies through some of the most treacherous waters on earth. The crew (surprisingly strong considering their subsistence diet of penguin and sea elephant) manage to avoid freak waves, hard winds, men overboard, lightning strikes and collisions with other boats (or sleeping whales or floating containers).  That trip, we are to suppose, was a doddle.

And after years of privation, they don’t stop to shower or eat or phone their nearest and dearest or anything. Instead, they go straight to Cauldwell’s place for a showdown. They all politely file into a room that’s completely shut up and make no kind of effort to break the door down. They just sit there and wait to be gassed, not forgetting to first write down the coordinates of a godforsaken island in the South Atlantic. If it were me, I might have written something a bit more to the point, e.g. ‘get Fenner’ or ‘Fenner is Cauldwell, we were shipwrecked.’ Anything, really, to help the case along.

But it works. Kendall has a hunch that Cauldwell will pop along back to the island so he, Hazeldean and friends go there and hang around for a week. Sure enough, Cauldwell does show up. At this point even the villain has started to doubt the author’s competence:

“Why—am I—here?” he wondered.

He must know his reason! He’d had a reason! He would remember it in a moment. It was only that last storm that had disturbed his mind, making him forget things. That tumble down the hatchway, you know. Naturally, a bump like that…

“Ah! The diary!”

That was it! The diary! Of course.

Of course. The diary. Hidden in a tiny crack in a cave on one of the world’s remotest islands. Makes perfect sense.

Inspector Kendall and Hazeldean leave a revolver beside the vengenace sign and hide to see what Cauldwell does. Cauldwell, who has never shown a milligram of conscience in his life, is suddenly beset by ghosts playing cricket. When he sees the sign and the revolver, he decides he’s had enough of life and shoots himself. Kendall and Hazeldean bury him there and everything is wrapped up nicely.

Not quite the straight bat, Farjeon.

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Reviews, Romantic Fiction

The [Real] Soundtrack for The Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for: cashing in on the Bible (Jesus Christ, Superstar), writing an entire musical about Thomas the Tank Engine (Starlight Express), forcing us all to think about T.S. Eliot’s senescent ditties (Cats)…the list goes on. But possibly the worst thing he has done is to superimpose a bunch of pop tunes over Le Fantôme de l’Opera. The novel was already a musical, a much better one.

Le Fantôme de l’Opera (first published as a serial 1909-1910) is not only a gothic horror story but also a paean to and a parody of grand opéra, the spectacle that was an important part of Parisian society for much of the nineteenth century. Before Gaston Leroux turned to writing fiction full time, he was a lawyer, an international correspondent and…a theater critic. He loved music and his brother Joseph (to whom Le Fantôme de l’Opera is dedicated), who was a singer. Leroux’s novel is full of references to the operas, singers, rumors, lore, technical details and customs associated with the Paris Opera of the nineteenth century. The novel is crammed with allusions to particular dances, operas and arias that echo or foreshadow the novel’s own events, and the melodramatic plot is itself worthy of Eugène Scribe, the librettist behind some of the best known operas of the age. Jann Matlock, in (2011) introduction to the Penguin Classics English translation by Mireille Ribière, observes his recreation of the grand opera scene:

“Leroux’s novel reproduces in astonishing ways exactly that ‘heure historique’ of the opera house of the Third Republic (1870-1940)…It is an extraordinary evocation of the fantasies that surrounded that space and that population of thousands of spectators, performers and workers who came together every day in central Paris to fabricate jointly a dream world of spectacle.”

Grand Opera was extremely popular in Europe and America in the Victorian era. It was an extravagant experience, each production divided into four or five acts and requiring huge casts, elaborate stage sets, beautiful costumes and at least one ballet interlude and a vast supporting staff. Many of the most famous works of grand opera are no longer staged today because of their staggering scale, length and expense.  By the 1880s, when Le Fantôme de l’Opera is set, the form was yielding to verismo, a genre whose plots deal with ordinary people rather than gods and kings. Even so, a new generation of French composers continued to produce works on the old grand scale: works like Jules Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Gounod’s Polyeucte (1878) and Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd (1884), all of which are mentioned in Le Fantôme.

Degas’ Ballet of the Nuns (1876), which depicts a performance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, one of the earliest sensations of Grand Opera.

The novel’s primary setting is the fabulously ornate Palais Garnier—seat of the Paris Opera from 1875. As in a cut-away drawing, the book provides a glimpse of the theater at every level, particularly the people and machinery working behind the scenes: the directors, the men who carried props, the female concierges, the little dancers, costumiers, rat-catchers, even the man who kept horses reserved for tricks on stage.  Although Gaston Leroux invented some sections of the building, most of the descriptions are recognizable today. In the novel, for example, there is a lake under the opera house, in reality this is an enormous concrete cistern. When the Phantom drops a chandelier on the crowd during a performance, it would have reminded the novel’s original readers of the time in 1896 when a heavy counterweight fell during a performance of the opera Hellé, killing a concierge.  When the heroine Christine and her lover Raoul have a rooftop assignation, the scene would be recognizable to every Parisian:

The shadow that had followed them still clung to their heels, lying low on the roof, reaching with its black wings over the metal crossroads, stealing by the tanks, skirting silently round the domes; but the trusting young lovers suspected nothing when at last they sat down under the mighty protection of Apollo thrusting his monumental lyre against the crimson sky with bronze grandeur.”

A big part of grand opera was ballet. The very first chapter “The Ghost!” begins with a scene that could be a Degas painting:

Suddenly, the dressing-room of Sorelli, one of the ballerinas, was invaded by half-a-dozen young ladies of the corps de ballet, just back from dancing Polyeucte. They burst into the room in a state of great agitation, some of them laughing excessively and unnaturally, others uttering cries of terror.”

Dance Class (1874) by Edgar Degas

Leroux gives a description of the lavish and erotic paintings on the wall of the Foyer de la Dance, the hall where wealthy subscribers gathered to meet the young dancers and arrange sexual favors in return for money and protection. The dancers, nicknamed in the novel and in life ‘les petits rats’, were generally girls from impoverished backgrounds who danced as a way to earn a small living and to attract the attention of rich patrons, probably with an eye to rising in the social scale either through marriage or as courtesans. Degas, another artist obsessed with capturing all aspects of the opera, captured les petits rats and their predators in hundreds of paintings—you can watch an introduction to the exhibition Degas at the Opera here.

…the Count was, as usual, in the Ballet Room with Sorelli. She often asked him to stay with her until she went on stage, sometimes even handing him the little gaiters that she wore while descending the stairs to protect her shiny satin dancing shoes and her immaculate flesh-colored tights. We must indulge Sorelli for she had lost her mother.

Le foyer de la Danse

Likewise, Leroux mentions several singers of the day. One of these was the popular soprano Madame Marie Miolan-Carvalho (1827-1895), whom Phil Riley, in his book about the 1929 silent film adaptation, , suggests Miolan-Carvalho was probably the model for La Carlotta—Christine Daaé’s arch-rival. Our heroine Christine Daaé actually shares the stage with beloved baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914), the great singer-actor Marie-Gabrielle Krauss (1842-1906) and Denise Bloch, probably referring to Rosine Bloch (1844-1891) who was a beautiful woman with a warm contralto but without much stage presence. Leroux’s own heroine Christine Daaé is modelled on one of the most famous sopranos of the era, Christine Nilsson (1843-1921). Like Nilsson, his heroine is Swedish and comes from a humble background, getting her musical start by playing the fiddle and singing at country fairs. Nilsson was especially famous for playing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.    

Christine Nilsson

Faust is a thematically significant reference throughout the novel. The premise of Gounod’s opera (based on Michel Carré’s dramatization of Goethe’s poem) is that Mephistopheles grants old Dr. Faustus a second youth on the condition that Faust will later join him in Hell. The rejuvenated Faust then falls in love with a girl named Marguerite who is already being courted by young Siébel. Marguerite is seduced by Faust but his love brings her nothing but pain, leading her to kill their illegitimate child and so to be condemned to death for infanticide. Faust then tries to rescue her from prison but she rejects his tainted help, preferring to be ‘saved’ in the larger sense by dying and going to Heaven.  In Le Fantôme de L’Opera, Christine longs to play the star role of Marguerite but the lead soprano Carlotta is too jealous to let her try. It is only when the Phantom arranges for the lead soprano to suffer a spooky mishap that Christine is able to perform—to great acclaim: Christine’s audience is particularly impressed by her rendition of the dramatic finale , when Marguerite refuses to be rescued by Faust and Mephistopheles. Christine’s own life seems to mirror Marguerite’s: she has become the love object of a deathly, magical figure and his obsessive love threatens to doom her. And she has the equivalent of Siébel in Raoul, a sincere young lover in whose efforts to extricate are ineffectual against his rival’s diabolical power.

Poster for the first performance in Italy of ‘Faust’, opera in five acts with music by Charles Gounod on French-language libretto (booklet) by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the play ‘Faust and Marguerite’ by Michel Carré, in turn adapted from ‘Faust’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Italy, Milan, November 11, 1862. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).

The Phantom Playlist

Given that so many pieces are referred to in Le Fantôme de l’Opera, I thought I would put together a list of some of them and why they are relevant to the plot. Happy listening!

  1. Danse macabre (‘Dance of Death’)  by Camille Saint-Saëns  This is a tone poem that began as setting for a poem by Henri Cazalis that alluded to the artistic allegory of the Late Middle Ages in which the figure of Death summons people from all walks of life to the ‘dance’ of death. Death is central to Leroux’s Gothic plot. The Phantom himself, though living, has a deformity that makes him seem dead. Christine and Raoul meet in a graveyard and seem to hear Christine’s dead father pay the fiddle there.

“The air of this wintry corner of Brittany was filled with the fragrance of the flowers, glorious red roses that seemed to have blossomed that very morning in the snow, bringing a breath of life to the dead. For death was all around and had even spilled out above ground. Skeletons and skulls by the hundred were piled up against the wall of the church and held there by flimsy wire netting, which left the macabre edifice entirely exposed.”

2) “Rien! En vain j’interroge” In the opening lines of Faust by Charles Gounod, Dr. Faust laments that he has  spent his life uselessly. Faust is an analogue to Erik the Phantom.

3) The final trio from Faust by Charles Gounod. Marguerite, condemned to death for the murder of her illegitimate child, ignores Faust’s entreaties and rejects Mephistopheles offers of escape from prison and execution.

Yet nothing compared to the unearthly power of her singing in the prison scene and final trio of Faust that she performed in place of Carlotta, who was indisposed that night. Nothing quite like this had ever been heard or seen before! Daaé revealed a new Marguerite, a Marguerite of a splendour and radiance hitherto unimagined. Moved beyond words, the whole house cheered and clapped ecstatically, while Christine sobbed, fainting in the arms of her fellow performers.

4) Carnaval from the Suite for Orchestra No. 1 by Ernest Guiraud [The Carnaval is at 23.32 in the video below] prefigures the masked ball where the Phantom appears as Christine and Raoul meet. Carnival or Shrovetide is often celebrated by masked balls and a period of dancing and feasting. Giraud himself was a native of New Orleans, where Carnival is still celebrated in style.

Illustration by Andre Castaigne of the Phantom dressed up as the Red Death for Carnivale

5) Valse lente: L’Escarpolette (Slow Waltz: The Swing) from Sylvia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet that was first performed at the Palais Garnier in 1876, the chaste huntress nymph Sylvia falls in love with a shepherd boy named Aminta but is abducted by the evil Orion who carries her off to his cave (she’s eventually saved and reunited with her lover). Notice Orion lurking in the forest at 3:57 in the video below. In Le Fantôme de L’opéra  the chaste Christine is abducted by the Phantom and eventually saved by and reunited with her young lover Raoul.

6) Coppélia by Léo Delibes. In this ballet, Franz casts aside his love for Swanhilde for a beautiful doll until Swanhilde shows him his mistake. As Ribière says in her notes to the translation, “Erik’s feats as a maker of automata in Istanbul and the whole make-believe world of opera are evoked by Delibes’s Coppélia .”

7) “Je vieux vivre” from Romeo et Juliette (1867) by Charles Gounod is an aria in which Juliette glories in her first love. This reflects Christine’s happiness in the pure love she feels for Raoul, as opposed to the dread she feels at the Phantom.

8) “Amour, ranime mon courage”  from Act IV of Romeo et Juliette, in which Juliette decides, to avoid marrying Paris, to drink the potion that will make her seem dead. Like Juliette, Christine must choose between rival lovers with potentially fatal consequences; just as Juliette is must steel herself to take the potion, Christine determines to marry the Phantom in order to prevent mass murder.

“Ah! How we must pity those who did not have the good fortune to hear Christine Daaé as Juliette, admire her graceful candour, be touched to the quick by her seraphic voice and feel their spirits soar with her own above the tombs of the Verona lovers in the final ‘O Lord! Lord! Lord! Forgive us!’  

8) Scene de la Crau from Mireille by Gounod — Mireille wanders through the desert determined to reach Saintes-Marie where her lover Vincent has been wounded. In the last part of the novel, Raoul must wander through an artificial desert to get to Christine, who is in danger.

9) “De moi je veux bannir” from La Roi de Lahore. In Act IV., Sîta Princess of Indra mourns the death of her husband Alim, King of Lahore. This opera premiered at the Palais Garnier in 1877. It features in the novel when the chief machinist is found hanging “between a flat and scene from Le Roi de Lahore”–in a storeroom where old scenery is kept.

10) Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung (Lazarus, or The Feast of the Resurrection) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), an incomplete piece (lacking the third act) published posthumously 1865. In Leroux’s novel it is a piece associated with Christine’s dead father, who was a fiddler. In the quote below they are in a graveyard and seem to hear him playing it once more.


  “I scarcely knew what to think of the unforgettable sound we heard and which—were it not coming down from the heavens—revealed nothing of its earthly origins. No instrument nor hand holding the bow was anywhere to be seen. Oh! I will never forget that sublime melody. It was Lazarus, which the old fiddler used to play for us at times of sadness and pious contemplation. Had Christine’s Angel existed, he could not have played better on her father’s fiddle, that night. We were so entranced by Jesus’ Invocation that I almost expected to see his grave open. The idea also came to me that the old man had been buried with his violin and, in all truth, I cannot say how far, during those doleful, yet glorious moments in this small, remote provincial graveyard, standing beside those skulls grinning with their motionless jaws…no, I cannot say how far my imagination wandered and where it stopped.”

11) “Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück” from The Magic Flute by Mozart. In this scene, a magic flute helps Tamino and Pamina pass unscathed through chambers of fire and water. Leroux’s chapter “The Magic Fiddle” is a reference to this, though in this case the magic is rather black.

12) ‘Ballade d’Adamastor’ is from L’Africaine by Giacomo Meyerbeer, first performed by the Paris Opera company on 28 April 1865. Adamastor was a mythical giant in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads representing the dangers that Vasco da Gama had to overcome when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope (1497). In the novel the two opera directors Moncharmin and Richard find themselves harassed by the Phantom’s monstrous machinations.  

“The dust-covers thrown over the surrounding seats suggested an angry sea whose dull, grey-green waves had been suddenly stilled by secret order of the Phantom of the Sea—or Adamastor, as we all know. Moncharmin and Richard were as if shipwrecked amid the motionless turbulence of a cloth sea. Like sailors who have abandoned ship desperately trying to swim ashore, they made for the boxes on the left.”

13) “Il Reverie du soir, a Blidah” from Suite algérienne by Camille Saint-Saëns. This piece foreshadows the exotic oriental backstory in which Erik gets up to no good in Persia.  

14) The overture to Sigurd by Ernest Reyer. At the gala performance where Christine makes her debut, the audience hears “the beautiful overture to Sigurd”.  This popular French opera, like Wagner’s Ring Trilogy, is based on the Nibelungenlied and Eddas. It also reflects the novel’s Scandinavian influence. Christine Daaé, for example, is Swedish and Erik is a name derived from Old Norse meaning ‘Eternal Ruler of All’.

15) Marche funèbre d’une marionette by Charles Gounod.  The cute storyline behind the music is that a marionette dies in a duel, a funeral march commences, mourners get refreshments and then everyone goes home.  It was used as the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also for a horror radio program called The Witch’s Tale. Here it possibly indicates the whole artifice of opera and the Phantom’s formidable abilities as puppet master.

16) “Selva opaca” from William Tell (1829) by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). In Act II scene II Matilda sings, “Dark forest, sad and wild wilderness,/ I prefer you to the splendours of the palace” as she hangs around waiting for her lover Arnold, who is Swiss and therefore should hate her as she is of the occupying Austrian race. This aria reflects the secret, dangerous love of Christine and Raoul, as their relationship rouse the Phantom’s envious fury.

In short, the said instrument was wide-ranging, powerful and perfectly tuned. But no one could have said to Carlotta what Rossini told Krauss after she had sung ‘Selva opaca’ in German for him: ‘You sing with your soul, my child, and your soul is beautiful!’”

17) “Il va venir!” from La Juive by Jacques Halévy. The Jewess was one of the most popular grand operas of all and tells the story of forbidden love between a Jewish woman and a Christian man. In this aria, from the beginning of Act II, Rachel is at a Passover celebration awaiting the arrival of ‘Samuel’, with whom she is in love, little knowing his real name is Léopold and that he is a Christian.

Daaé was invited to temporarily fill the vacancy and she sang La Juive to rapturous applause.”

18) The bolero from Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855)  by Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) a bolero sung by a soon-to-be-married heroine, unconscious that her wedding bells will signal the bloody massacre of French occupiers and her own father-in-law. Gabrielle Krauss sings this on gala night, foreshadowing the end of Le Fantôme, where Christine’s decision to marry could potentially end in murder and mayhem.

19) “Il segreto per essere felici” (a brindisi or drinking song) from Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. This aria, sung by a woman playing a ‘breeches role’ (man’s part), ironically ends with the whole party being poisoned by Lucrezia. In the novel, Denise Bloch sings this ‘seize the day’ aria at the gala where Christine shines, thus foreshadowing tragedy at Christine’s own wedding.

Anne Howells

20) “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto” from Don Giovanni by Mozart. This aria is the thrilling finale of one of the greatest operas ever, ending as the conscienceless rake Don Giovanni cries out in pain and terror as he is dragged down to Hell. The Phantom of Leroux’s novel is clearly associated with this hero/villain. He is composing a masterpiece called Don Juan triumphant. But when Christine disobeys the Phantom’s injunction never to look at his disfigured face, his identification becomes much more explicit. He reacts with fury:

Well, are you satisfied? Quite a handsome fellow, eh? When a woman has seen me, as you have, she is mine. She loves me forever. Rather like Don Juan, you see!” He drew himself up to his full height with his hand on his hip, shaking the hideous thing that was his head, and roared, ‘Look at me! I am Don Juan triumphant!'”

The original cover of the book published in 1910

Detective Fiction, Fiction, Translated fiction

Fictional Detectives in International Flavors

Why are detective stories so appealing? I asked myself. John, from his position on the couch, suggested that it is the promise of a payoff. On reflection, this seems feasible. First of all there is intellectual satisfaction: the book begins with a question and—after several suspenseful pages of mulled-over possibilities—it ends with an answer. Simultaneous symmetry and solution! Then there is the emotional payoff: the initial outrage is assuaged or satisfied by the pursuit, if not always the punishment, of justice.

Whatever the secret of their appeal, mystery stories have been popular for centuries in many different cultures. Here is a sample of detectives, historic and contemporary, from around the world.

  1. The Arabian Nights
“It was the butler in the library with a scimitar, wasn’t it.”

The 1001 Nights contains a very old crime story now known as “The Three Apples.”  The original source of the tales in The 1001 Nights is a mystery in itself. The Galland Manuscript, the earliest known source of many of the stories, dates from about the fifteenth century and is of Syrian provenance. That said, many of the stories seem to come from much older folk tales, with echoes of Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Turkish and Jewish folklore. The story of the three apples, for example, portrays real historical figures of the 8th century CE: the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (al-Rashid means “The Just”) and his vizier Ja’far Ibn Yahya. “The Three Apples” relates how a fisherman hauls a locked chest out of the River Tigris. He then sells it to the Harun Al-Rashid, who opens it up only to find the dismembered body of a young woman.  Al-Rashid tasks Ja’far Ibn Yahya with finding the culprit, and so begins an investigation full of twists, turns and unlikely coincidences. You can read Richard Burton’s translation here.

2. China’s Gong’an Fiction: 公案小说

As usual, China was there early. Gong’an ‘crime-case’ fiction was a popular entertainment of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Often performed orally or as puppet shows, they described government magistrates solving crimes in the course of their official duties. The stories often include supernatural elements and martial arts. In 1940, an 18th-century collection of gong’an stories Di Gong’An was discovered in a second-hand bookstore in Tokyo. It followed the adventures of Di Renjie (630-700), who was a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court.  This was translated into English by the Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (1949). Subsequently, Van Gulik wrote and published many fictional stories with Judge Dee as the protagonist.  

3. Denmark and The Rector of Veilbye

A century and a half before scandi-noir was really a thing, Steen Steenson Blicher published The Rector of Veilbye (1829), a novella based on a true murder case from 1626, gleaned partly from a book about Church history and partly from oral histories. The story is told through a series of diary entries by Erik Sørensen, the judge and sheriff of the community of Vejlby, who investigates the short-tempered village rector Søren Qvist accused of murdering his servant. The story is complicated by the fact that Erik Sørensen wants to marry Qvist’s daughter Mette.

4. Parisian Turpitude with Jules Maigret

Between 1931 and 1972, Georges Simenon  wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Jules Amedée François Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle, a bear-like man distinguished by a thick overcoat, pipe and bowler hat. He solves cases less through ratiocination than through intuition, he often says, “I never think.” As he lurches inevitably and reluctantly to collaring his criminal, we get a view of Paris or (if he’s on holiday) the French countryside.

Jean Gabin was probably best known for his cinematic portrayal of Maigret

5. Death in a White Tie with Roderick Alleyn

There are, obviously, lots of British crime writers. One of the Queens of Crime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Golden Age of English crime fiction, was New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). The protagonist of all 32 of her detective novels is Roderick Alleyn, Detective Chief-Inspector in the CID at Scotland Yard and younger brother to a baron. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Sir Peter Whimsey, Alleyn is a ‘gentleman detective’ both in the sense that he is a member of the British gentry and also in that he is characterized by good and courteous conduct.

6. Hard-boiled Spade

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) only wrote five novels in a short space of time but they remain some of the classics of the genre and continue to have a huge influence on books and movies. Employed as a Pinkerton operative, he drew on his own experience and claimed that all his characters were based on people he knew. Probably his most famous detective is Sam Spade, the hero of The Maltese Falcon, who was later played on screen by Humphrey Bogart. Hammett wrote of Spade in his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon:

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

7. Carvalho, the Spanish Gourmet

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) wrote 13 novels featuring Pepe Carvalho, a 50-year-old ex-Communist detective who is also a passionate and expert gourmet cook (several of the novels even include succulent recipes). Carvalho was born in Galicia but subsequently moved to Barcelona. He has a lot of love affairs but can never to commit to one relationship. For some reason it is difficult to find e-books of translations in English.

8. Montalbano and Malfeasance in Sicily

In The Shape of Water (La forma dell’acqua 1994), Andrea Camillieri (1925-2019) introduced the world to Inspector Salvo Montalbano, named in honor of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Montalbano bridges cultures; he negotiates a complex web of relationships characteristic of Sicilian society, and deals efficiently with outsiders from the mainland, who have their own way of doing things. Montalbano is the protagonist of 28 novels and nine collections of short stories. The TV series adapted from the books is very popular in Italy and in 2003 Camillieri’s home town Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional town featured in the Montalbano novels. The decision was revoked in 2009, though, which somehow seems perfectly Sicilian.

9. Nefarious Africa

Former lawyer, High Court Judge and women’s rights activist Unity Dow has also managed to write four brilliant novels dealing with contemporary social issues in Botswana. Which makes me wonder if she sleeps at all. In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl appears to have been eaten by a lion but a police investigation uncovers some alarming goings on that unfortunately seem to be based on actual practices.

10. Officer Lituma and his Peruvian Puzzles

Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936) is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and among the many genres he has aced is whodunnits. In 1986 he published ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), which begins with the discovery of the brutally murdered body of a young recruit in northern Peru. Officer Lituma and his partner Lieutenant Silva defy their higher-ups to solve the case. Lituma appears again in Death in the Andes (1993), in the tiny Andean community of Naccos where he has been sent as punishment for disobedience. During his stint there he must investigate the sudden disappearance of three men. It may be that Shining Path is behind it, or it may be something even more sinister.