Monday, 21 March 2022

Review: The Couple at the Table by Sophie Hannah

I love Sophie Hannah's writing, and recently undertook a big reread-in-order of all her Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse books, and very enjoyable it was too - I'd forgotten quite how good they are and how much I love Hannah's style of writing and these characters. When I requested The Couple at the Table, I hadn't initially realised it was a Charlie and Simon book - it's quite a while since there's been a new one - so it was an excellent surprise to have the opportunity to catch up with them and the rest - Liv, Gibbs, Sellers (who has an unexpected new girlfriend), etc.

TCatT has a definite Agatha Christie vibe about it - the whole country-house-murder-limited-pool-of-suspects thing, though the "country house" here is actually an expensive resort, where Charlie and Simon spend a few days (Charlie's idea, obv.) which inevitably coincide with a murder; in this instance, of the awful Jane. There's even a Poirot-esque denouement where all the suspects are gathered together by Simon to reveal whodunnit.

Fantastic read, as always, which I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.

Anyway, I can't end this review without mentioning the following utterly delightful description of DI Proust, which made me cackle loudly: "an older, bald man with chalky-pale skin and a piercing stare who looks like a malicious frozen lollipop in human form". Kudos, Sophie Hannah. There can be no more perfect description of the man.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Review: The Interview by Gill Perdue


When a fourteen year old girl, Jenny, is found at the side of the road covered in blood and clearly having been assaulted, Specialist Victim Interviewers Laura and Niamh are called in to gently find out what's happened to her.

But Jenny is angry, and traumatised, and she's not talking. Or not in ways that make  much sense. And when further information comes to light - her mother and little brother have suffered critical injuries, and her stepfather is missing - it becomes even more urgent to somehow piece together the truth.

Laura, though, has her own issues - exacerbated since the birth of her young daughter - to deal with, and it's not getting any easier.

The Interview was an engrossing read if not always a comfortable one - inside Jenny's head, and indeed Laura's, are not easy places to be. Jenny tells dark fairy tales to allude to what's happened to her; Laura experiences horrific thoughts and fears and can't push them away. 

(Laura's mental health struggles and experiences with OCD and intrusive thoughts were very well done, I thought - my partner has similar issues, and I appreciated the careful, realistic way this was addressed.)
It was interesting, and believable, that due to bed shortages Jenny has been placed temporarily on an adult psychiatric ward, mainly, it seems, among elderly women with dementia. Jenny's interactions with the nurses and her fellow patients add a further dimension to the story.

The Interview is an excellent if disturbing read which considers the effects of trauma, both long and short term. Abuse - sexual, emotional and physical - is a major theme and readers should be aware of this, as it's very distressing and hard to read at times, but sensitively and responsibly addressed. 

 A superb first novel by Gill Perdue which I can highly recommend. Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy.

Review: Hidden Depths by Araminta Hall

April 10, 1912: Lily, pregnant and desperately unhappy in her marriage, boards the Titanic with her aristocratic husband Henry and maid Becky, pinning her hopes on a promised reunion with her family in America.

Fellow passenger Lawrence cannot conceive of a future at all after the death of his beloved wife Cissy, despite his young son back in Britain.

As the voyage progresses, can Lawrence, sunk in misery, find the strength and motivation to help a woman desperately in need, as his wife would have insisted he do? Can Lily, indeed, find a way to help herself? And what in fact is really going on between the newly distant Becky, Henry, and the very unpleasant Dr Henderson?

The story is deeply rooted in a righteous anger at the constrictions of women's lives and the abuse that those social conditions could render invisible and allow to flourish. Lily feels and indeed is horrifyingly trapped, her experience contrasting with that of Lawrence's late wife, a warrior for women's rights. 

Of course, as we all know, the Titanic will never reach New York. But the disaster - as well and accurately written here as it is - takes up relatively little of the story as a whole, indeed I briefly forgot at times which ship the characters were aboard. When it does come, it is movingly written and believable. 

I absolutely loved this book, which will stay in my mind for a long time. And the author's note at the end, in which she discusses her inspiration for the story, blew my mind. Do not omit to read!

Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy.

Review: Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall


I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Looking for Jane, which explores the history of women's reproductive rights in Canada through the experiences of various women: Evelyn, who is sent to a home for unmarried mothers in the 1960s; Nancy, who becomes involved in a network providing access to safe abortion when it was still illegal; and in the present day, Angela, struggling to conceive a baby with her wife, who by chance becomes connected to the other women.

These women are fictional, but many of the events described are real. The book unflinchingly portrays the consequences of society where women are denied the right to control their own bodies and lives: the harsh, in fact abusive regime of the maternity home where young women were forced into giving up their babies without choice or compassion, the brutal realities of backstreet abortion, the very real danger of arrest and imprisonment for those who worked to provide safe abortions for women who needed them. The underground "Jane Network" was a real thing, starting in Chicago in the late '60s, and the author has used this both as a theme and as a starting point for more personal stories.

Heather Marshall's first novel is a hugely engaging and powerful read about motherhood, pregnancies wanted and unwanted, and the crucial importance of choice.

One minor issue for me was that - at least in my copy - very few dates are given, which I did find a little confusing as to when things were actually taking place. We know from a letter that Evelyn's story begins in 1961, and can work out more or less when the later events happen, but it's rarely stated.

An excellent, eye-opening read.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Review: The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

In the near future - 2025 - a lethal virus, killing only men, is first identified in a Glasgow hospital, though no-one initially wants to listen to A&E consultant Amanda Maclean. Before long, though, it becomes impossible to ignore that something very bad is happening.

As the crisis deepens, governments panic and flounder. There are riots, shootings, a civil war in China. And husbands, sons, fathers and brothers are dying all over the world in unimaginable numbers.

It's really hard to believe that this book was written before the start of the current pandemic, because although there are - thankfully - significant differences (the virus affects only men, though women can be carriers, and is far more lethal, killing almost all sufferers within a few days of infection), there is also a lot that feels eerily similar, for instance: "I go out to get food, briefly and carefully as late as possible in the quiet of night time, touching no one, standing near no one." Sound familiar? A foreword by the author comments on how the prophetic aspects of the story resulted in her being dubbed "Cassandra" by some.

We see the progression of the pandemic over a considerable period of time via various people's stories - some followed throughout, like Amanda, the doctor who first identified the virus, and who is determined to track it back to its source; Catherine, an anthropologist; scientists working on a vaccine - and some whose experiences we only glimpse briefly - a woman working as a maid in Singapore, another whose remote Scottish farm becomes home to evacuated teenage boys, a man trapped on a cruise liner off the Icelandic coast. There's a lot of tragedy, inevitably, and devastating social and economic changes and upheavals as men become a small minority of the population. Meanwhile, US journalist Maria Ferreira charts the progress of the pandemic through a series of articles.

There are some very acute observations; for instance, intimidating a male intruder into fleeing by using the threat of infection, one woman comments: "This must be what men used to feel like. My mere physical presence is enough to terrify someone into running. No wonder they used to get drunk on it."

Inevitably there are huge swathes of stories left untold - we see the UK and Scotland (by 2025 an independent republic), the US and Canada, along with snippets from China, Singapore and New Zealand, but the effects of the "Plague" on Africa, for instance, are unknown.

There were several times when I doubted the wisdom of my decision to read this book during a real life pandemic, especially early on. There's so much loss for almost all of the characters and it's heartbreaking at times (although strangely I only had tears in my eyes once, and that was at a moment of hope rather than despair).

A fascinating read and a very impressive debut novel, but only if you're feeling strong enough to take it...

Monday, 12 October 2020

Agatha Christie in publication order #7: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

First published: 1926. Christie's seventh book, sixth novel, and fourth (including the short story collection Poirot Investigates) to feature the little egg-shaped-headed one. 

Title: Another does-what-it-says-on-the-tin. There's a bloke called Roger Ackroyd and he does indeed get murdered. 

Probably the first of the “big name” books - the ones most people have heard of, and the first to really mess with the established rules of the murder mystery. It also represents a setting which many people associate with Christie: no international jewel thieves or shadowy world-taker-overers here, just a murder or two in a country village - King's Abbot - where the inhabitants' "hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word: gossip". And it features the already-popular Poirot, though no Hastings to provide dim-witted sidekickery, the Hastings/Watson role here being taken by local GP Dr Sheppard, who narrates the story.

Plot: Poirot has retired to King’s Abbot, supposedly, in order to grow vegetable marrows (we know that's not going to last) and Hastings has got married and popped off to "the Argentine". Poirot's keeping quiet about his former profession and is generally presumed locally to have been a hairdresser named Mr Porrott. Unfortunately for his retirement plans, two deaths in rapid succession, of which the second - Ackroyd's - is most definitely murder, require him to dust off the little grey cells, leave the vegetable marrows to their own devices and annoy the local police (including the "weaselly" Inspector Raglan) by getting stuck into the investigation. 

I love Christie's character descriptions. They may lack a certain depth, but they really give you a lasting impression of the person. Ackroyd's housekeeper, Miss Russell, is

"a tall woman, handsome but forbidding in appearance. She has a stern eye, and lips that shut tightly, and I feel that if I were an under housemaid or a kitchenmaid I should run for my life whenever I heard her coming."


Sheppard's sister Caroline is one of those very Christie-esque spinsters who knows nearly everything about everyone without needing to leave the house, a type later to resurface more famously, and with more finely honed detection skills, as Miss Marple.

"The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is 'Go and find out'. If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home."

Caroline also gets some great lines. 

'"Never worry about what you say to a man," [said Caroline]. "They're so conceited that they never believe you mean it if it's unflattering."'

 I mean, she's not completely wrong.

Poirot himself is introduced as follows, after hurling a vegetable marrow over the wall into his neighbour's garden:

"An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense moustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes. It was our mysterious neighbour, Mr Porrott."


Acceptable in the 20s? A passing reference to "Semitic" moneylenders and a big-game hunter's mention of natives and their tom-toms, but I think that's about it. 


Roger Ackroyd was once voted the best crime novel ever by the Crime Writers' Association - quite an accolade. It certainly has a claim to be one of the most influential. When you read the story with knowledge of the solution, the clues and red herrings seem obvious, but it's so beautifully done that I doubt many first-time readers would spot it, and while the major twist has certainly been done since, it was undoubtedly ground-breaking at the time and was apparently greeted with quite an outcry. Complaints of Christie not playing fair with the reader are, however, unjustified. She doesn't so much break as reinvent the rules, and there's nothing wrong with that.

A classic Christie concoction of murder, blackmail, secrets and lies, a houseful of suspects and more red herrings than you can shake a stick at. Beautifully constructed and essential reading for Christie aficionados and casual fans alike.

Next up: The Big Four. Can't say I'm overly enthused about this one, but I'm keeping an open mind.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig: Review

I've read two of Amanda Craig's books before - both a long time ago, and both still on my bookshelves. I liked them very much, but for some reason have never read any others till now. (There are so many books in the world.)

I didn't know anything about The Golden Rule when I started, and that's probably the best way. Many reviewers - and Amanda herself, in her afterword - have noted how the story draws on both Strangers on a Train and Beauty and the Beast. It really does have the feel of a modern fairytale… and if you have to suspend disbelief at times, that's fine in a fairytale.

At its core is the harm people can do to each other - often, though not always, men to women. Hannah at the beginning, having married young and become a mother to Maisy, is the definition of trapped. The love her husband Jake once felt for her has turned to open loathing and contempt - he verbally and physically assaults her and after leaving to be with his lover, uses money (of which he has plenty and she none) as a weapon. He's about as hateful, and as hate-full, as it's possible to imagine, and I wanted nothing more than to see him get his comeuppance. Craig writes brilliantly about the reality of poverty and the inability of those who've never experienced it to see or conceive of it. (One character - a relative of the privileged Jake - when asked what the minimum wage is, thinks it's £80,000 a year.) 

Nevertheless, as trapped as Hannah is and as little reason as she has to think well of men (her previous experience as a graduate trainee in an advertising agency is a catalogue of vile sexism, alarmingly based on the author's own experiences), it's hard to swallow that she accepts the "strangers on a train" pact to kill each other's husbands. But you just have to go with it. Hannah's travelling home to Cornwall by train to see her dying mother when she meets Jinni, and the two women share their experiences of abusive marriages. But of course, not all is as it seems, and Hannah's experiences in Cornwall - and a house called Endpoint - will turn many things around. (The writing about Cornwall, where I've never been, is marvellous.)

Reading and the love of books is another major theme, recognised here as the addiction it is for some of us. "When she found a book she liked, she sank into it as if into another world. Voices, music, pneumatic drills all became inaudible; she was the kind of child who would go off in break times not to play or talk but to read." (Relatable.) I also loved: "In her imagination she was a sister to Elizabeth Bennet, Dorothea Brooke and Jane Eyre, and this is only a small step to falling in love with the most arrogant man who happens to be around." 

There's also, however, some interesting and thought-provoking stuff about video gaming as an art form.

There are some great lines here. Jake and his friends are described as being born with silver spoons "not so much in their mouths as up their noses." Hannah's life is described thus: "Ever since Maisy had been born, Hannah had felt herself become two people: the good mother who organised everything, and the woman silently screaming and raking her nails down the walls." And the line: "'You can do this,' she said, and kissed him, because she thought he was about to die" is pure fairytale.

A sweeping, satisfying read with a powerful message.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

He Started It by Samantha Downing: Review

Beth, her siblings Eddie and Portia, along with the spouses of two of them, set off on a road trip across the USA to scatter their grandfather’s ashes in the desert according to the terms of his will. There’s a big payout at the end, if they follow the rules.

This isn’t the first time they’ve made this trip, though. Twenty years earlier their grandfather took the children (the youngest, Portia, then just six) on the same journey, and safe to say, it wasn’t necessarily filled with happy memories. As the siblings retrace their steps, visiting a series of weird tourist attractions along the way (all of which really exist), it becomes apparent that this is far from a normal situation and far from a normal family. (Whatever one of those may be.)

Beth is the narrator, and she’s not necessarily unreliable, but she certainly doesn’t tell you everything. And what she does tell you is frequently slightly weird and disturbing. It’s clear that none of the siblings are especially nice people, and nor was their grandpa, though the fully bizarre nature of their family background takes time to emerge.

I liked the road trip aspect - Thelma and Louise is namechecked - and it’s a bit of a geeky thing to say but I’d actually have liked a map of their route - remember how books used to have that sort of thing? Maybe at the end, though, to avoid spoilers...

Samantha Downing excels at portraying twisted and unpleasant people in a strangely matter-of-fact way - readers of My Lovely Wife will know what I mean. It’s one of those books, though, which it’s definitely best not knowing too much about before you start, because there are a lot of surprises which are best savoured unspoiled. Loved it.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Agatha Christie in publication order #6: The Secret of Chimneys

First published: 1925.

Good title? Meh.

Another “standalone” book lacking any of the usual sleuths. It does introduce the recurring character of Superintendent Battle. (Agatha seems to like dynamic-sounding nouns for the names of these characters - Race, Battle) but he’s hardly inspiring:

"a squarely built middle aged man with a face so singularly devoid of expression as to be quite remarkable."

Anyway, the story opens with a massive information dump about the history of “Herzoslovakia”, a fictional Balkan country, courtesy of two repulsive young men. (I wasn’t sure at the time if we were meant to find Jimmy and Anthony repulsive or not, but repulsive - and smug, and annoying - they most definitely were.) 

The racism in these first few pages was hard to get past, with derogatory references to “dagos” and “Hebraic financiers”.  There’s definitely a sense that only the Brits - the English, actually - are worth bothering about. Everyone else deserves contempt to a greater or lesser degree, indeed are rather less than human. It’s hard to know what to say about all this - it leaves a really nasty taste in the mouth. 

We then meet Virginia Revel, an alluring young widow who everyone’s in love with. Virginia has a nice name and I think she’s meant to be an appealing character, clever and witty and brave. She’s kind to a servant, offering to pay for a holiday for his wife to recover from an illness, but then “[cuts] short the man’s thanks with an impatient nod of the head”.  Servants in general, rather like foreigners, are patronised and disregarded. ("Hurry up Elise, there's a good girl" - Virginia to her maid.)

The plot is really a lot of nonsense about missing papers, a murder at the Chimneys country house  (nobody’s too upset, as the victim is a foreigner), the restoration of the monarchy in Herzoslovakia (democracy? who needs it?) and so on.

The tone is light hearted - it’s clearly in the genre of comedy thriller - and there are a few good lines, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it. I just couldn’t interest myself in the story or the characters. I can't even remember what the story was about. (It does improve a bit at the end, with - in the current parlance - a “jaw dropping twist I didn’t see coming”.) Some reviewers have referred to a comparison with P G Wodehouse, who I love, but I didn't get that at all - yes, there are a couple of funny lines and a lot of toffs, but the Wodehouse wit and charm is lacking.

While Christie was always on the conservative side (and would probably have been a Leave voter had she been alive today), we know from later work that she was capable of much greater complexity of thought than is shown here, where prejudices and assumptions go unchallenged.

I don’t think I’ve read this before (if I have, I’ve sensibly wiped it from my memory) and to be honest I kind of wish I hadn’t read it now. There’s a level of racism and snobbery on show here that far exceeds her previous books or any others I remember. Also, it's too long. Had it not been for the challenge I’ve set myself, I’m not sure I’d have finished it. I slogged through it in the interests of the challenge, and in faith of better books to come

Acceptable in the 20s?  See above.

Americans With Silly Names Watch: Hiram P. Fish, a collector of first editions.

Next up: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now we're cooking with gas!

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Agatha Christie in Publication Order #5: The Man in the Brown Suit

First published  1924 - Christie’s fifth book, fourth novel, and the first “standalone” story not featuring any series characters (though it does introduce the occasional character of Colonel Race). People at the time were disappointed at the lack of Poirot, already a popular figure.

Good title?

Well, it initially had me visualising David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, which is obviously not what Christie had in mind, unless she herself had a time machine. It’s ok, as a title. Who is the man, one wonders? What has he done to deserve to be in the title? Why is his suit brown? Etc.


Young Anne Beddingfeld’s life with her academic father - "one of England's greatest living authorities on Primitive Man" - has been less than thrilling so far, but she longs for adventure:

"I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility."

Indeed, Anne is a remarkably free spirit (she's not like other girls), thriving on passion and danger, both of which are in short supply in Little Hampsley. Her father's death allows Anne the opportunity to be let loose on the world, and a chance encounter on a station platform, potentially linked to a murder, soon see her aboard the Kilmorden Castle ship heading for Cape Town.

As Agatha herself had travelled to South Africa on the similarly named Kildonan Castle, we may suppose that she knows what she’s talking about here, though her journey was probably less eventful than Anne’s. The larger than life character of Sir Eustace Pedler, whose journals make up part of the narrative, is based, according to Laura Thompson's biography, on a Major Belcher, a bit of a nightmare for whom Agatha nevertheless had a sneaking fondness.

There’s some business about stolen diamonds, and a shadowy Mr Big (another one) but the details of the plot are probably less riveting than the general adventure and romance of it all, though the identity of Mr Big (confusingly codenamed "the Colonel", as there's another Colonel in the story though nobody ever really thinks it's him) may surprise you - it did me.

Speaking of which, Colonel Race ("a tall, soldierly-looking man with dark hair and a bronzed face... I put him down as one of the strong, silent men of Rhodesia") is probably the dullest of Christie’s recurring characters; indeed, of all the characters in the book, he's probably the one about whom I can least imagine a reader thinking "ooh, I hope we see him again!". Characters like Sir Eustace Pedler, Suzanne Blair and Anne herself would all be more worthy of a reappearance.

Arriving in South Africa, Anne finally feels her craving for travel and adventure is being fulfilled:

"I don't suppose that as long as I live I shall forget my first sight of Table Mountain.... It made me catch my breath and have that curious hungry pain inside that seizes one sometimes when one comes across something that's extra beautiful. I'm not very good at expressing these things, but I knew well enough that I had found, if only for a fleeting  moment, the thing that I had been looking for ever since I left Little Hampsley. Something new, something hitherto undreamed of, something that satisfied my aching hunger for romance."

"This is South Africa," I kept saying to myself industriously.... "You are seeing the world. This is the world. You are seeing it. Think of it, Anne Beddingfeld, you pudding-head. You're seeing the world." 

It's an emotion we can imagine the young Agatha herself experiencing.  

Anne Beddingfeld is an engaging character, if a little too addicted to danger (the story is a rollercoaster of kidnappings and boppings on the head and mysterious packages dropped through portholes in the middle of the night), and there's plenty of humour both in her narrative and that of Sir Eustace, who is an MP suffering from a plague of secretaries (he has three at various points).

Acceptable in the 20s?

South Africa is a remarkably white sounding place - Anne interacts little with anyone who isn't white and their existence barely registers in the story bar a few references to "natives”, who lack names or personalities. I think the only one dignified with a name is Batani, who helps look after Anne when she is incapacitated, and is referred to thus:

"Batani hovered about, counting no more than a dog might have done."

So that's nice.

A murdered woman is described as

 "the kind of woman who deserved to die. Men do all sorts of questionable things in order to get rich, but women shouldn't pretend to be in love when they aren't for ulterior motives."

I don't think they deserve to actually die for it, though, Anne. Double standards much?

Leaving aside these deeply jarring moments, it's a good yarn, firmly in the adventure-romance category - while many of Christie's books have an element of romance, it's perhaps most pronounced here and is fairly strong stuff at times:

"Damn your French frocks." [says Anne's love interest] "Do you think I want to put frocks on you? I'm a damned sight more likely to want to tear them off you."

Fruity stuff for 1924!

Next up: The Secret of Chimneys. No idea what that's about.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Agatha Christie in publication order #4: Poirot Investigates


First published

1924, a year after The Murder on the Links, but not necessarily set chronologically after it, since there's no mention of Hastings being in love or getting married or going to South America. All the stories had previously appeared in the magazine The Sketch, a society magazine which also included short stories and printed many by Christie.

Good title?

Does what it says on the tin

The plot(s) Eleven short stories in which Poirot, as advertised, investigates cases from a jewel robbery to an abducted Prime Minister (and most mysteriously of all, a suspiciously cheap London flat) and Hastings bumbles along in his wake, misunderstanding things and barking up the wrong tree.

The little Belgian has by now acquired a degree of celebrity in London:

"Oui, my friend, it is true - I am become the mode, the dernier cri! One says to another: 'Comment? You have lost your gold pencil-case? You must go to the little Belgian. He is too marvellous! Everyone goes!"

Not only has Poirot become a "pet society detective", his renown is such that even the British government calls him in to investigate when the Prime Minister is kidnapped. Hard to imagine that happening today. (I mean, who'd want Boris?) 

All the familiar elements are here; the gentle ridicule directed at Hastings brain power or the lack of it:

"Poirot," I said. "Am I quite demented?"

          "No, mon ami, but you are, as always, in a mental fog."

and the mystery-solving brilliance of Poirot's little grey cells. Indeed, in The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge, Poirot solves the whole thing from his sickbed, having dispatched Hastings to the scene to gather information. Other stories, though, take him further afield.

The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb allows Agatha an early opportunity to exercise her interest in Egyptology, and also offers the enchanting spectacle of Poirot on a camel:

'He started by groans and lamentations and ended by shrieks, gesticulations and invocations to the Virgin Mary and every saint in the calendar. In the end, he descended ignominiously and finished the journey on a diminutive donkey.'

Interestingly, in a story called The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim, Christie once again foreshadows her own much-talked about "disappearance" a couple of years hence in 1926, with Poirot listing three types of disappearance, of which the second is "the much abused 'loss of memory' case - rare, but occasionally genuine". A couple of books earlier, The Secret Adversary also included such a case.

Acceptable in the 20s? Dodgy references to “Chinamen" in the first story (complete with pigtails and embroidered gowns), reference to superstitious "natives" in the Egypt one.

Verdict  Poirot Investigates is Christie's fourth published book, the third to feature Poirot and Hastings, and the first short story collection. I generally prefer her full length novels - the short story form doesn't really give space for the development of plot and character, presenting instead a puzzle to be solved. (Some people view all Christie's work like that, but those people are wrong.) 

That said, I liked the final story, The Case of the Missing Will, although it certainly fits into this "pure puzzle" category and although the story is slight and the title uninspired. In this story a young woman of intelligence and independence (Hastings, naturally, remarks that "I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself") employs Poirot to solve a conundrum regarding her uncle's will.

Worth a read, nevertheless, and I'll end with a favourite, quintessentially Poirot quote which I really need to find a way to work into my daily life.

"Strange." [Poirot murmured.] "We all have the little grey cells. And so few of us know how to use them."

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Agatha Christie in publication order #3: The Murder on the Links

First published 

1923, Agatha's third novel and the second to feature Poirot and Hastings.

Good title?

Is it Murder on the Links or The Murder on the Links? Nobody seems to know. Some editions have it one way, some the other. The latter seems more prevalent, though, so I'll stick with that. A reasonable workmanlike title anyway, in the great tradition of Murder on the This, Death on the That, etc, though I'm pretty sure I didn't know what "links" were when I first read it. Heck, I hardly knew what golf was. I was young. And, in fact, the title notwithstanding, golf plays no part in this story, so if you're looking for a golf-themed mystery you are, I'm afraid, doomed to disappointment. 

Anyway, after first being unleashed on the world in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot's back! (And Hastings. Him too.) And they're living together! (Not like that.) When Poirot is summoned to the French home of a millionaire, Paul Renauld, for reasons to be explained when they get there, he and Hastings arrive to find their correspondent (drum roll)… already dead! Poirot soon locks horns with the arrogant (probably insecure) Giraud of the Sûreté, who regards him as distinctly past it and has a good line in sneers. 

‘“I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” he said. You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.”

“Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.’

 Needless to say, Poirot has the last laugh.

The plot is fast-paced, complicated and probably unguessable, with clues, suspects, daggers and dead bodies strewn around all over the place. It's all very French, with a different feel about it from Styles (and even more French phrases liberally sprinkled about than usual.) This is also the one where Hastings falls in love (and where his first name, Arthur, is finally mentioned... on the very last page). We are also treated to his views on women:

“Now I am old-fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!”

He’s later challenged on it, though:

“Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric.”

You definitely get the impression "Cinderella" isn't going to put up with any of his nonsense.

Americans With Silly Names Watch: Hiram P. Trapp, although he’s only mentioned and never actually appears. Extremely wealthy, naturally. 

Poirot is, as always, very much himself - I've been struck already by how consistently he is characterised from the very beginning. Here, he is described by one character as:

“A small gentleman, well dressed, very neat, very spotless, the moustache very stiff, the head of a peculiar shape, and the eyes green.”

 And as far as his philosophy on detection goes, it's expounded here as clearly as anywhere:

‘“I do not run to and fro, making journeys, and agitating myself. My work is done from within - here -” he tapped his forehead significantly.’

I don't think many people would consider The Murder on the Links to be Christie's best work - the plot is a bit too complex - but there's lots of fun to be had nevertheless. 



Thursday, 10 September 2020

Agatha Christie in publication order #2: The Secret Adversary

The Secret Adversary (a snappy title, thankfully not called The Mysterious Affair of the Missing Treaty or similar) is Agatha Christie's second published novel (in 1922) and the first to feature those bright young adventurers Tommy and Tuppence. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know. They are swiftly introduced, both stony broke in the aftermath of the First World War - ex-V.A.D. Tuppence (aka Miss Prudence Cowley), the fifth daughter of an Archdeacon, desperate to avoid returning home to a world of "housework and mothers' meetings"; Tommy, a former soldier, now lacking both work and family after the death of his mother. I'm sure I must have read this before at some point, but I didn't remember it at all.

    "'Money, money, money!" [Tuppence bursts out, foreshadowing ABBA] "I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it's mercenary of me, but there it is!"

    "Same here," agreed Tommy with feeling.'

Relatable, for anyone who's ever experienced financial struggles.

In pursuit of the much needed cash, T&T decide to set themselves up as adventurers for hire, “no unreasonable offer refused”, possibly not a path down which most of us would choose to go, but I daresay it seemed like a good idea at the time. Sure enough, they’re soon mixed up in a frenetic plot involving secret government papers handed over for safekeeping to a mysterious American girl (Jane Finn, a name which everyone seems to regard as most peculiar, which is especially inexplicable given that one of the characters calls herself "Tuppence") during the sinking of the Lusitania.

Agatha's natural conservatism filters through, with some nonsense about "Bolshevists" fomenting red revolution in Britain ("Bolshevist gold pouring into the country" to this end, no less) and behind it all - behind literally everything in the world - a shadowy Mr Big, a mysterious master criminal of astounding power but unknown motive. The looming threats of a general strike and a Labour government hover darkly in the background as T&T set out in pursuit of the secret papers and the vanished Jane Finn.

All "good reactionary fun, if you're in the mood for that kind of thing", as Robert Barnard describes it in his book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive. 

Christie Xenophobia Watch: There are quite a few dodgy foreigners - a man described as a "Russian or a Pole" is unattractive, "fair, with a weak, unpleasant face" (and is amusingly called Boris). Germans get a poor press too, although that’s probably not surprising given the immediately post-war era. Americans, of course - the men, anyway - are rich and brash and called things like Julius P. Hersheimmer.

Curiously, given the unlikely explanation which would be offered a few years later for Agatha’s famous disappearance in 1926, a plot point here is that one character apparently suffers from amnesia...

Anyway, the plot is obviously preposterous and definitely intended as a fun romp of a thriller rather than the brilliantly plotted mysteries for which she became best known. (Agatha would return periodically to this type of story throughout her career.) That said, she keeps her secrets and misleads her readers well, and when the identity of “Mr Brown” is finally disclosed, out of all the possible suspects it wasn’t the one I’d expected. A talent to deceive, indeed - she led me right up the garden path.

T&T are widely regarded as being irritating, but I found their light-hearted, sparky dialogue fun, although as they’re apart for much of the story - both getting into separate lots of trouble - there’s less of it than there might be. And although allegedly just friends (from childhood), it will surprise no readers that they're engaged by the end of the story, set to embark on a married life which both confidently expect to be "a damned good sport!".

A story which is inevitably of its era -  a hundred years ago! - in many ways, betraying several of the attitudes one might expect. Nevertheless, Tuppence is definitely a modern young woman who brooks no nonsense, so I'll end by just leaving this here:

    '"I'll look after her, sir," said Tommy.

    "And I'll look after you," retorted Tuppence, resenting the manly assertion.'

Next up: #3 The Murder on the Links. Back to Poirot!