book review

Pattern of Murder

John Russell Fearn’s Pattern of Murder is a fiendishly clever crime novel with a murder weapon and method so delightful that I forgive it for being inverted. It’s well-written in the sense that it moves. Fearn doesn’t care about painting a picture or demonstrating his vocabulary. He’s a got a singular world (the inner workings of the Cosy Cinema) and a labyrinthine plot that continues throwing curveballs well into the second act. And he has my new favorite murder weapon, one resulting in a magnificent impossible crime, if only…if only the damned thing wasn’t inverted. But where are my manners?

We begin at the racetrack where projectionist Terry is showing off his money to an usherette he doesn’t even like. Her name is Vera and she doesn’t like Terry much either. Vera only came because the bloke she really fancies (Sid) can’t share a day off with her. She’s settled on Terry. Vera settles a lot. Terry makes a foolish bet and loses 200 pounds. In a state of rage, he smacks Vera. He gets even angrier when he discovers someone has stolen his wallet.

The hole Terry digs for himself is instantly recognizable to fans of crime fiction. In order to pay off his bookie, he must steal and in order to cover up the theft, he must murder. (What? Don’t get mad at me for spoilers. I told you it was inverted.) I can report that Fearn does a fantastic job of presenting multiple viewpoints which, because we are privy to the amount of information each character has, creates suspenseful conversations. He also manages to surprise us with late developments involving aspects we had forgotten about much earlier. There’s a fantastic example of this when Sid visits Vera’s mother. She thinks Vera stole some money due to a consequence of an action I had disregarded.

A murder occurs and no one suspects a thing. As I mentioned, the murder is superb, an absolutely inspired method that uses the cinema as its basis. Is it as good as a cinematic trick in a John Dickson Carr novel which I may have once stolen/adapted? Probably not, but it’s a different kind of trick from Carr’s, so I don’t care. But now Fearn has a problem. The trick is so good, it would be hard to get a character to suspect it. Right?

On the contrary. The investigation and the clue reveals are superb. Dynamite stuff! Fearn’s able to come up with a (literal!) visual representation of the method that can be tested and reproduced. Because the method involves a scientific principle, the need for inversion is apparent. We follow the killer’s thoughts as he constructs his plan and, later, the hero’s thoughts as he deduces it. The heavy science is perfectly okay because we aren’t challenged to figure it out.

This brings up an interesting question. Would the novel still have worked if it hadn’t been inverted? I hate to say it, but I think it would have been better. Hell, I think it would have been one of my favorite books. This could have easily been changed into a murder mystery. We have plenty of romantic intrigue with the owner and the employees. Maybe then, the ending wouldn’t have been so predictable. Moreover, the great elements would have had even more impact.

There’s a part of the book when Sid first becomes suspicious. I won’t mention the clue that tips him off, but it’s awesome. As the questions form in his brain, we get the satisfaction of seeing him slowly get to a destination we’ve already reached. As great as the scene is, think of how much better it would be if we were similarly adrift. I love those moments when the “detective” is throwing out questions and we know it must be related to the mystery, even if only a part of it is important. Slowly, we see what he sees and we understand differently. I think that’s a lot more satisfying.

I sound negative. I don’t want to. This book is fantastic and inspirational and…and yeah. Read it.

5 thoughts on “Pattern of Murder”

  1. John Norris and I have been singing the praises of Pattern of Murder for years as we consider it to be Fearn’s masterpiece. So glad you enjoyed it! You’re right that it could have been even better, if the answers to some of the questions were left open. Like a semi-inverted mystery. You know whodunit and why, but not how it was done and that would have turned the patterns in the dust into an all-time classic clue. Fearn took this semi-inverted approach in Except for One Thing, which tells the reader who and why, but not how the murderer disposed of the body. That mystery has a solution as great as it horrifying.

    Fearn had intimate, first-hand knowledge of 1930s and ’40s cinema both as a patron and projectionist. So his two cinema set mysteries really benefit from their settings that feel authentic. One Remained Seated is the other one.

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    1. I just read your review and — yes, it would have been better if Terry had gotten away with it. I thought that’s where the story might be headed — especially when Sid visits Vera’s mom. As it stands, the ending is predictable (a lot of inverted mysteries are) and I could predict the use of the missing grate steps when it was first mentioned halfway through the book.

      It makes sense Fearn was a projectionist — the details of the world of the cinema (and this cinema in particular) is one of the novel’s great strengths.

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  2. I read the serviceable but forgettable The Five Matchboxes, followed by Black Maria – a book whose only trait I can remember is disliking the sleuth – before giving up on Fearn. Your review does trigger my curiosity and perhaps I’ll give him another chance.

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