The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie (1922)

Last year I took part in the Agatha Christie Challenge- twelve books in twelve months which put this most famous of British crime writers up to number 2 in my most read authors list (just behind Christopher Fowler).  I haven’t read anything by her up to this point in 2022 so I’ve put that right with an early title which is celebrating its centenary this year.

Two years after she introduced Hercule Poirot she began what became a five novel series featuring Tommy and Tuppence.  My only experience of these two to date had been a copy of “N or M?” which I had out from my secondary school library for months and months, just renewing it without reading it.  (I think this must have been because we were expected to have a book from the library whereas by this time I was reading more salacious fare- “Jaws”, “The Godfather” and James Herbert- none of which would have had a place on the school bookshelves).

Tommy and Tuppence are old chums who meet again towards the end of World War I, when Tommy has injuries and Tuppence is working in the hospital.   By the early 1920s they are both somewhat rootless and a chance meeting has them agreeing to set up “The Young Adventurers” to recapture some of the excitement of their pasts and to earn some money.  They are recruited by a shadowy government figure to discover what has happened to some shadowy documents which seem important to British security (although this is somewhat vague) which had disappeared following the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

Thrilled by a salary and expense account which leads them to booking rooms at The Ritz, Tommy and Tuppence begin investigating.  I like these two, especially Tuppence who is a vibrant creation and the will-they-won’t- they aspect of their relationship feels more modern than I was expecting.  For some reason I always associate Christie with being rather backward-looking but this would have felt contemporary on publication.  The political aspects seem a tad ludicrous and why these two inexperienced adventurers are trusted with matters of national security feels questionable but characterisation is stronger than in many later novels.

I don’t know why I’ve never read her Tommy and Tuppence novels before.  It was seven years (by which time Poirot had really taken off) before the author gave them their second outing in “Partners In Crime.”

 “The Secret Adversary” was first published in 1922.  I read it in the “Agatha Christie 1920’s Omnibus” published by Harper Collins in 2006 and which also includes “The Man In The Brown Suit”, “The Secret Of Chimneys” and “The Seven Dials Mystery” (that’s the first Colonel Race and the first two Superintendent Battle novels).

Darkness Falls – Robert Bryndza (2021)

This is the third book in Robert Bryndza’s Kate Marshall series.  Last time round I praised what I saw developing into a high-quality crime series.  This standard has been maintained.

I do feel, however, that there is a distinct change of tone in this book.  First in the series, “Nine Elms” was (too?) grisly and I felt the author’s reining in on this a little for “Shadow Sands” made it stronger than the debut.  Third book in and we have a fairly standard mainstream crime work with little of what made the first two so unsettling.  Perhaps the author feels he has put Kate Marshall through the wringer enough and here places the focus on a well-structured highly readable whodunnit.

At the end of “Shadow Sands” Kate and colleague Tristan were contemplating starting a private detective agency.  This has come to pass but with jobs few and far between they are also running a camp site in their Devon location, assisted by Kate’s teenage son Jake.  A missing female journalist cold case could be their saviour and help her distraught mother get some closure.  It soon becomes clear that the journalist was working on a story which might have caused her demise and this may be linked to a serial killer preying on young gay men.

As in the previous novels the relationship between Kate and Tristan is very strong and the author is right to bring the young gay male research assistant into clearer focus in this.  There were a couple of questionable motives here which grated just slightly but the pace builds nicely for an exciting last third.

I liked the change of tone in this book, it makes both the author and the series unpredictable – we soon tire of series which become formulaic.  Maybe some who found the first novel too dark to get through might like to revisit this series at this point.  I don’t mind whether the author goes back along the darker routes of the predecessors for the 4th novel.  I just know I will be wanting to read it.

Darkness Falls was published in December 2021 by Sphere and will be published in paperback on 29th December 2022.  The next in the series “Devils Way” is due to be published in hardback/ebook editions on 12th January 2023.

Slow Horses-Mick Herron (2010)

It’s been quite a while since I started an established series.  Mick Herron’s “Slough House” spy novels now total 8 full length titles and four novellas, the latest, a Christmas themed short story “Standing By The Wall” was published this month.  With each full- length publication Herron’s reputation seems to grow and he is a regular on end of year best books lists.

Spy novels are not a genre I read often, a couple of Graham Greene’s in my teenage years, no John Le Carre’s.  I loved Helen Dunmore’s “Exposure” (2016) which dabbled with that world.  I always enjoyed BBC TV’s “Spooks” and this is what Herron’s series is often compared to.

Slough House is the nondescript looking workplace for the “Slow Horses”, ex MI5 staff who have somehow been found lacking and redeployed to less urgent duties.  Central to the novel is 29 year old River Cartwright who makes a serious mistake in a tube station bomb situation.  Head of this group of misfits is the unappealing Jackson Lamb who runs down his team to anyone who will listen but whose actions suggest he might think otherwise.  

We are introduced to the rest of the Slough House team and instantly the reader can tell there’s a lot of mileage in this series.  I was also surprised by the depth of this novel.  The characters, their motives, the language they use is so well-rounded and feels authentic but you cannot rush through this book.  It’s a slow, steady read which may frustrate those crime fans who want to get through their books quickly.

Plot-wise, a seemingly random youth is kidnapped and is being held hostage with an online video stream proclaiming he will have his head chopped off.  The Slough House team’s role is to remain in the background but circumstances change this dynamic.  I did enjoy this and recognise it as a strong start to a series which I will hopefully be reading more of soon.

Slow Horses was originally published by Constable in 2010.  I read a 2017 paperback edition published by John Murray.

Fire Island – Jack Parlett (2022)

In the nineteenth century it provided poetic inspiration for Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde reputedly visited.  In the 1930s it became the summer home for a trio of artists who some describe as “The Fire Island School Of Painting.”  Literary and artistic giants saw it as an escape to write or to party- Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward stayed here.  American poet Frank O’Hara was killed on the beach here.  Patricia Highsmith got drunk here.  David Hockney looked pale here, Derek Jarman made a short film, James Baldwin came to write (and felt out of place).  Perhaps the first example of gay pornography to filter into the mainstream was filmed here in 1971.  It developed into a symbol of hedonism where the landscape and fantastic views felt slightly at odds with the loud disco music from tea dances and cruising.  The Village People sang about it offering us a “funky weekend” as long as we “don’t go in the bushes.” Edmund White and Andrew Holleran used it as a setting to enrich their fiction.  AIDS decimated it, for a while it became a ghostly memorial with ashes of those taken sprinkled into the sea.  It became a film location in that first-wave of AIDS related films like “Parting Glances” (1986) and “Longtime Companion”(1989)- important movies which proved so difficult to watch.  It became once again part of the well-heeled gay circuit with accusations of elitism and poor inclusiveness and it has recently been the location in the available on Disney+ in the UK bright and brash gay rom-com “Fire Island” (2022).  I’ve always been fascinated by the contradictions of this place – Utopia for some, Hell for others.

This thin strip of land some 32 miles in length off the Long Island coast is perhaps the second most recognised gay location after The Stonewall Inn.  Its cultural and literary significance has lasted for decades and alongside the thousands that adored it there are detractors with very valid objections as well as confusingly detractors who also adored it- this is the enigma of Fire Island.

And the person who has decided to record this cultural and literary history in this new publication from Granta is a 30 year old British man.  This is a good idea, it gives a fresh perspective on an area bogged down in its own history and inconsistencies.  Jack Parlett visited first whilst researching the poet Frank O’ Hara who wrote, partied and died here.  Parlett experienced the same feelings of alienation and belonging which has affected so many of its visitors over the years and in this work subtitled “Love, loss and liberation in an American Paradise” he incorporates memoir to explain why.

From the relaxed development of Cherry Grove with its communal mix of renters including families and lesbians and gay men to the growth of the more hedonistic, wealthy white gay male dominated area of The Pines (together with its cruising area The Meat Rack) Parlett effectively tracks developments and their significance in gay history and sensibilities.  There’s a potent mix of the literary and academic, the political and the positives and contradictions of this location.  It’s imbued with a nostalgia for past times – I found myself thinking I would have liked to have visited at that point in time, oh and at that point in time….which makes it an intoxicating subject for a historical examination.

I loved the idea of this book, I loved the British perspective which added another layer and Jack Parlett has handled his material well.  I might have liked visual representations for some of his references but a few seconds on Google will find things and no doubt saved the publishers from forking out for reproduction rights.

Fire Island was published in 2022 by Granta in the UK.

Miss Hargreaves- Frank Baker (1939)

Another author I hadn’t heard of introduced to me via Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  He became a little less forgotten when Bloomsbury republished his most celebrated novel as part of a Bloomsbury Group Series of 6 titles including works by Wolf Mankowitz, Ada Leverson, D E Stevenson, Rachel Ferguson and Joyce Dennys.

The whimsical novel is something I can often take or leave but I loved this.  I can’t see why it isn’t celebrated as one of the great twentieth century comic novels.  It made me laugh (and, this is where the comic/whimsical can fall flat) it sustained my interest for the duration.  A film version was planned but check the publication date and you’ll see why that fell by the wayside but there was a successful stage version in the early 1950s starring a beautifully cast Margaret Rutherford.

And maybe that where part of the appeal lies for me imagining the marvellous Ms. Rutherford in the title role.  Two young men on a trip to Ireland invent a woman whilst sightseeing in a church – pretending to a guide that she was a friend of an old vicar there.  They elaborate about her more and more, getting carried away with their invention in subsequent days so much that they write her a letter at a hotel they imagined she would stay at.  They get a reply and then the formidable Miss Hargreaves arrives embodying everything they’d made up.  You have to go with it- no explanation is given but there’s a lot here on individuality and the motto that runs through the novel is “Creative thought creates.”  In this case, it’s a living, breathing person and in a style reminiscent of EF Benson’s Lucia novels (which I also love) she begins to take over the community in which her inventors live.  P G Wodehouse also springs to mind but I enjoyed this more than any Jeeves novels I’ve read to date. The baffled Norman Huntley gives a first-person narrative and there’s some more splendid characterisation in his musician/bookshop owning father.

There’s great energy and vigour but it can also hover on the edge of a darker side as explanations for Miss Hargreaves are explored.  The only time pace slackens is in the details of cathedral services and organ-playing (Norman is a church organist as was the author) but there’s still charm here amongst the flue work, pedal bombards and diapasons. 

Frank Baker added a postscript in 1965, obviously for a republished edition and reproduced a few of Miss Hargreaves’ poems in full (in truth they work better as odd lines in the narrative which demonstrate her unique talents as a poet).  The author lived 1908-82 and was also an actor and musician who worked as a pianist in the celebrated Player’s Theatre in Charing Cross.

I’m finding much joy in British novels of 1930s, 40s and 50s with EF Benson, Norman Collins, Barbara Pym etc.  I can add Frank Baker to this for this delightfully quirky work. 

Miss Hargreaves was first published in 1939.  I read the Bloomsbury Publishing edition from 2009.

All The Lies They Did Not Tell- Pablo Trincia (2022)

Amazon had this as one of their monthly free Prime Reads choices back in July 2022.  Its subtitle “The True Story Of Satanic Panic In An Italian Community” had me interested and remembering my desire to read more true crime I went for it.

This investigative work focuses on what became known as the Devils Of The Bassa Modenese Case which I had not heard of but which caused a huge furore in the late 1990s and led to 16 children being removed from families, convictions and acquittals and a number of deaths of adults associated with the case.

Pablo Trincia’s research into this led to a podcast with investigative journalist Alessia Rafanelli and evolved into this book which has been translated from the Italian by Elettra Pauletto.  Structurally, it does resemble a podcast eschewing a strictly chronological approach to focus on those involved and their stories with the interweaving and retreading of material that this structure involves.  Initially, I found it a little confusing to separate the families but this soon falls into place.

The events are extraordinary.  It is hard to imagine what happened here and the snowballing of such panics but similar things were happening in other countries and can be attributed to the way children were questioned by authorities.  Concerns about a family of vulnerable children led to tales of horrific satanic abuse involving almost everyone these children knew of.  Sexual abuse, torture, rituals, decapitations of cats and children killing other children in buildings and cemeteries horrified authorities who began widescale arrests, family separations and trials.

How much was true and how it came about became the author’s obsession.  He says;

“The story was like a black hole.  The more I looked into it, the more it seemed to bend social and behavioural norms and alter the relationship between cause and effect- things I’d always taken for granted.  It seemed like a parallel universe where everything was deformed.”

The author got lucky as he got hold of much information from a couple of people who had been totally driven by the cases and had lots of documentation and who had both died since the trials and from that he began to piece together what had actually happened.  Was this a case of false memory and how could that have affected so many children or was Satanism thriving in this small part of Catholic Italy in the 1990s?  It’s a sobering, involving account.  It is hard to believe that something like this could ever happen again, it reflects a terrifying moment in the history of abuse investigations where circumstances proved ripe for these life-destroying accusations.

All The Lies They Did Not Tell was published by Amazon Crossing in 2022.

The Haunting Season – Bridget Collins, Laura Purcell, Elizabeth Macneal, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jess Kidd, Natasha Pulley, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Andrew Michael Hurley (2021)

This creepy collection of eight short stories by the above listed authors first appeared in hardback in 2021 and has just been published in paperback in time for Halloween.  In fact, it is equally well suited to the winter months with a number of stories being set around Christmas with quite a bit of snow on the ground in the mainly Victorian settings.

I decided to read this because of this selection of authors.  I have only read books by two of them but the other six have certainly been on my radar and this proved a good way to try their writing out.  Both of the two I have read, Imogen Hermes Gowar and Jess Kidd have produced five star novels as far as I am concerned.

The time settings are explicitly Victorian apart from Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale which is modern.  They all have a Gothic/Classic Ghost Story feel.  I don’t think any of them would keep you awake at night, the creepiness is more atmospheric than horror.

Although I loved the idea of this book I can be sniffy regarding the short story format.  I’ve never really got to grips as to why this is but I rarely feel totally satisfied.  I suspect it is because what I like about reading fiction- the development of characters over time, multiple plot strands and the feeling of being on a journey with the author cannot be fully realised in the short story format.

These authors are ideal for such a collection as their writing style is not entirely dissimilar to one another.  All of them gave me some level of enjoyment and it is the story-telling and the actual plots that illuminated the strongest.  Best of the bunch, probably, not that surprisingly as it is the author I have read the most books by, is Jess Kidd with “Lily Wilt”, a tale of a Victorian photographer who falls in love with a corpse.  The author keeps it snappy (see what I did here…? Although the process of nineteenth century photography was hardly snappy) in short sections and writes with a relish and verve which is evident in her novels.  Runner-up could very well be Elizabeth Macneal’s dark Lyme-Regis set account of fossil-hunting where characterisation is strong and a wicked tale is spun.  Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ “Confinement” explores post-partum psychosis in a tale with echoes of the true crimes of baby killer Amelia Dyer very efficiently.  Andrew Michael Hurley’s tale is modern but reflects ancient traditions which reminded me I must get round to reading his breakthrough novel “The Loney”.  Natasha Pulley brings back her characters from “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” which would please existing fans and has urged me once again that I should read that novel.  New tenants in creepy houses forms the backbone of Bridget Collins and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s contributions and Laura Purcell uses supernatural elements in a satisfactory whodunnit in “The Chillingham Chair”.

This was a highly enjoyable read, even if it sometimes took me a while to get into each new tale but that’s more a reflection of me as a short-story reader than the writing.  I’m already excited that for 2023 we are being promised further stories with a Christmas theme from these eight contributors together with Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Susan Stokes-Chapman, Stuart Turton and Catriona Ward which could very well be a late 2023 highlight and gives me a chance until then to discover more of all these authors’ longer works.

The Haunting Season was published by Sphere in hardback in 2021.  I read the 2022 paperback edition.

Hide – Matthew Griffin (2016)

This wasn’t really what I was expecting.  From the cover and from what I’d heard about this book I was anticipating a love story between two American men with a historical element which caused them to keep their love hidden within a tenderly written, possibly understated debut novel.

There wasn’t much of a historical element as this was old age breaking down the long-lasting relationship of Wendell and Frank in rural Virginia, two men who had rarely left the house they shared together in case people worked out their relationship.  When a health emergency hits Frank, Wendell claims he is his brother.

This is the tale of the deterioration of Frank’s health told in a first-person narrative by Wendell.  I can recognise the poignancy of these men and their hidden lives but I did have issues with the novel.  Firstly, it is without humour which, when the going is good made it a little dry and when things took a turn for the worse I was desperate for the author to introduce some lightness.  This is the second time I’ve thought this  recently, Andrew Holleran’s 2022 comeback novel “The Kingdom Of Sand” also featured the old age of gay men with the same relentlessly downbeat viewpoint.  Secondly, I felt their past needed more attention, we particularly learn very little about Wendell. I can understand this to a point as the title suggests, secrecy is paramount but it holds these characters at arm’s length.  Thirdly, Wendell is a taxidermist and we have some detailed accounts of his work which was really difficult reading for me, there was one section I had to scan rather than read and this is something I so rarely do. 

I toyed with a disappointed two star rating but then technically it works so well.  It is a well-crafted novel.  Matthew Griffin is a University Professor and graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and that proficiency shows.  There were quite a few moments when the present day was informed by the back story of the relationship explaining why they were reacting thus but I feel there was more opportunity to open up and give us more of these lives.  I’m sure this then would not have been the novel the author wanted to write but I personally think some more back-story on both individuals and their time together would have resonated with a wider audience and might have given a bit more balance to the air of despondency Griffin creates.

Hide was published by Bloomsbury in the UK in 2016.  I read the paperback edition from 2017.

Children Of The Archbishop – Norman Collins (1951)

I’m still very much on a mission to get people back reading the novels of British author Norman Collins (1907-82).  It does seem as if there is a growing buzz for “London Belongs To Me” (1945) as I’ve seen a few recommendations for it over the last couple of years and that is the one title that is available as a Penguin Modern Classic but three more titles in for me and I can safely say there’s a lot of wonderful story-telling, writing and characterisation to be rediscovered in his other 15 novels.

I managed to source this out-of-print title from the reserve stacks of Bristol Library – the particular copy I read has been on library duty since 1962.  I’m so glad there are people out there holding onto these books.  Like “London Belongs To Me” and “Bond Street Story” it is located in the capital city and that feels to me as if we are on safer ground with books of this vintage rather than the potential minefield of others of his works set in the former colonies, such as “The Governor’s Lady” (which was still a five star read).  In “London Belongs To Me” we had a lodging house as focus, “Bond Street Story” had a department store and “Children Of The Archbishop” an orphanage.  The Archbishop Bodkin Orphan Hospital is situated in Putney and this novel is concerned with those who help run it, work in and are resident there in the inter-war years (spanning approx 1920-38).

The opening section wonderfully explores the passengers of the No 14 Bus with writing which once again evokes a mid-twentieth century Dickens.  Collins flits from passenger to passenger, driver to conductor until we follow a young woman who gets off the bus and leaves a bundle on the orphanage doorstep.  This bundle “Sweetie” becomes one of the main characters who we follow for pretty much the first two decades of her life.

Orphanages can equal sentimentality and I wondered if Collins was going to go overboard on this but he doesn’t, particularly in the first half of the book where we are more concerned with the running and the Warden’s distinctly unsentimental approach which shows the orphanage as wrapped up in politics, disputes, personal prejudices and cost-cutting as any institution.  The actual “Children of the Archbishop” are pretty much represented by two of the 500 juveniles, Sweetie and Ginger, who are of similar ages and who defy the strict gender segregation to forge a friendship.  Some staff members favour these two in a way which feels slightly disturbing and as they are given greater focus in the second half of the book that sentimentality does creep in.

The whole notion of orphanges run in this manner will seem alien to the modern reader especially when compared to the locations of the other London-set books by Collins I have read which feel more readily accessible.  Collins, at the time, as with “Bond Street Story” which has a more or less contemporary time setting as this novel, was writing of the distant past, a historical novel set a generation before, I don’t know how different an early 1950’s institution such as this would be from his focus here.  For the first time in a Collins novel I sensed that I was reading a book which might not be deemed relevant enough to be in print, but having said that, I really enjoyed it.  There were twists I’m kicking myself for not seeing coming and I think that was because the author had drawn me in so much I was unable to step back and see the mechanics of the bigger picture and that represents great story-telling.

The book, as a whole, just falls short of the very best of the three other Collins novels I’ve read and I think it was because of the hospital/school setting rather than anything else but it is another high quality read.

Children Of The Archbishop was published in 1951 by Collins.

100 Essential Books – Once Upon A River – Diane Setterfield (Black Swan 2018)

I used to read this kind of atmospheric, richly told novel imbued with a hint of magic quite regularly but for every gem like “Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke, “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower and “Things In Jars” by Jess Kidd there were many others that fell so short that they switched me off and stopped me selecting books of this type as often.

I think this is why I have not read any of Diane Setterfield’s novels up to now, if this, her third novel, is anything to go by I have really missed out. 

There is outstanding story-telling here.  The novel is set on a stretch of the River Thames between Cricklade and Oxford in the 1880’s centering on The Swan pub at Radcot.  It is here that story-tellers meet to regale each other with tales of local folk, events and particularly the mysteries of the river and on a Summer Solstice evening they become part of their own tales when a badly injured man appears with the body of a drowned girl.  Nobody knows who they are and things take a momentous turn when the dead girl comes back to life.

The repercussions of this spread along the Thames.  The event and the child herself proves a great pull for some residents and this is their tale.  It is beautifully rich, imaginative, involving and operates on the thin line between myth and dark reality.  I was spellbound by this book.  Excellent characterisation of those involved on that night and those who hear about it.  This is a confident skilful writer, who, very early on, like the best story-tellers will have readers entranced.  A definite five star read and I am looking forward to reading her earlier two novels.

Once Upon a River was published in 2018 by Doubleday and as a 2019 paperback by Black Swan.