The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

I’ve been meaning to read some Agatha Christie for some time.  I’ve checked back and it was 15 years ago since I read 1949’s “The Moving Finger”.  She was perhaps the main author who turned me into an adult reader as around the age of 12/13 I really got into her books, interspersing them with the less appropriate horrors of James Herbert, “Jaws” and “The Godfather”.  Reading her as an adult I can’t say I’ve ever really fallen in love with any of her titles but it is generally always a pleasing experience.

Recently I spotted the year long Read Christie challenge set up at agathachristie.com, the official home for this important twentieth century British author.  The challenge is to read each month a book within a theme, there is a main title specified with other suggestions made.  For January the theme is a story set in a grand house and the choice is “The Hollow” which I have never read.  It’s not too late to sign up for the challenge at the website and receive a Read Christie 2021 postcard to track your progress and take part in social media activities and a Facebook/Instagram Book Club meeting on 28th January.

I found a copy of “The Hollow” available on Borrowbox, the online e-book/audiobook site which is part of my local authority (Isle Of Wight) library membership. (I have returned it now if anyone on the island is after it!) 

I know that my attitude towards Agatha Christie is somewhat quirky.  I have tended to shy away from anything featuring her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot.  I have never seen David Suchet’s famous depiction in the TV adaptations yet I will always watch any standalones that have been filmed and my favourite Miss Marple is not the archetypal characterisation by Joan Hickson, but the 60’s black and white of Margaret Rutherford, or even, which might upset Christie purists further, Julia McKenzie.

Here, however, we are indeed in Poirot territory, but he does not really have that great of a role to play.  “The Hollow” is the name of the country house, specified by my challenge, the home of Lord and Lady Angkatill and it begins with the prospect of a weekend gathering at the property which will be attended by (mainly) cousins and other family friends.  I thought the characterisation here was much stronger than I remembered of this author and I became really invested in those desperate to escape to “The Hollows” for a couple of days and those dreading it.  I really enjoyed the build-up to the murder (not a plot-spoiler, you knew there was going to be one, didn’t you).  I have felt in the past that the investigations (especially when Poirot is heavily involved) can be a little turgid but here much less so.  I think putting the eccentric Lady Angkatell and sculptor Henrietta at the centre of things helped as they are both sparky characters, intent on doing and saying their own thing and not letting a murder in the country house hold them back.

The weaker element here was the resolution which wasn’t as clever as I had hoped and Poirot’s success was largely just to him being in the right place at the right time. I did find my return to Christie after a lengthy absence very satisfactory.  The book was always involving and, although unlikely to be amongst many Christie fan favourites top picks I would have thought, it certainly whetted my appetite for the next challenge.  One month ticked off on my postcard.  February, appropriately for the month of St Valentine’s Day, asks for a story involving love to be read.  I hope February does not pass me by without me experiencing a bit of love Christie-style.

“The Hollow” was published in 1946.  I read the Harper Collins e-book.  Details of the Read Christie 2021 challenge can be found at agathachristie.com

The Windsor Knot – S J Bennett (2020)

This was a title from my “What I Should Have Read in 2020” post.  I liked the idea of this but recognised it could go either way.  Get it wrong and it could be embarrassing but I was spurred on to read it by positive reviews and Amanda Craig’s on-cover observation “Miss Marple meets The Crown.”

It has been done very well.  S J Bennett introduces us to a new sleuth for her series (with second title due November 2021) but it is someone we all feel we know well – The Queen.  From Windsor Castle, Elizabeth II indulges in something, we are assured, she has done from time to time during her reign, some amateur detective work.

Here, following a rather lively dine and sleep at the Castle a young Russian pianist is found dead in his room in circumstances nobody wants to share with the Queen.  Unfazed by the position the corpse was found in but distressed by what looks like a murder in one of the Royal bedrooms the Queen begins her investigations alongside those of the official channels of the Metropolitan Police and MI5.

The problem with Elizabeth II as a sleuth is that she can’t do very much.  She has to rely on others to do the door to door investigating and report back to her.  Here it is Rozie, a recently appointed assistant Private Secretary, who is taken into the Queen’s confidence and secretly begins to find things out for her.  This does tend to shift the emphasis away mid-way through the book where the main character’s role becomes passive.  This might become an issue in later instalments of the series but I forgive it this time around.

It works because it is convincing.  S J Bennett obviously knows her Royals and doesn’t overcomplicate things by putting in the whole family.  It is merely the Queen with Prince Philip in a supportive role yet it feels like we are being given titbits on their lives and life in the palace whereas it is just a work of fiction.  The author could have just made everything up but it feels authentic and imbued with a British charm which I very much enjoyed.

This would not normally be the sort of book I would read that often, if fitting it into a genre it is light-hearted cosy crime but I think that this is something which has an impressive amount of sparkle to it.  If the publishers Zaffre could get this book out there it could end up a very big seller, especially if continued lockdowns means we will be looking for something which is both reassuring and different.

The Windsor Knot was published in hardback in 2020 by Zaffre.

A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

This is a book which often appears in best crime series debuts and mystery/thriller recommendations lists.  I did the unusual thing (for me) of reading the third in this series “Smoke And Ashes” when it came out in 2018 and with the recent publication of the fourth in paperback I thought I’d start off at the proper place – the beginning- especially as I enjoyed very much the book I did read.

“A Rising Man” introduces Police Captain Sam Wyndham, recently arrived in Calcutta in 1919 and billeted in a British run guest-house where the food he is served up puts him at greater risk from illness than if he took his chances on the streets of Calcutta.

He is called to a street murder of a senior Civil Servant and he meets up with Surendranath Banerjee, nicknamed “Surrender-not” by British officers unwilling to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, who becomes Wyndham’s sidekick in this series.  The pair set out to uncover the murderer amongst growing unrest in the local population which comes to a head when news of a massacre by British troops in Amritsar travels to Calcutta.

This novel won the 2107 Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers Awards so I was expecting big things.  I was impressed by it but I think I just slightly preferred “Smoke And Ashes” which felt a little pacier and by which time Abir Mukherjee had confidently established the characters.  Wyndham’s flaw is a predilection for opium as a result of the trauma of the war years and the loss of his wife in the flu epidemic straight afterwards, an addiction which he will certainly have the opportunity to explore in early Twentieth Century Calcutta.

This is a strong debut with a satisfactory conclusion and has set the series up appealingly and I am keen to seek out the other titles.

A Rising Man was published by Harvill Secker in 2016.  I read the 2017 Vintage paperback edition.

Shadow Sands – Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review

I really enjoyed Robert Bryndza’s fairly grisly “Nine Elms” earlier this year and so was really looking forward to the second in his series featuring ex DC Kate Marshall, now working as a university lecturer and her assistant, Tristan.

At the end of the last novel it looked like a career change may have been in the offing with the duo moving on to private investigations but here two years later both are still at the university.

A new case is triggered when Kate, out diving with her teenage son in a reservoir near her home in Devon, encounters the corpse of a young man.  Initial post-mortem reports seem implausible and the youth’s mother gets in contact to get Kate to carry out her own investigations.  Alongside this we get more insight into the two lead characters who Bryndza is fleshing out nicely, especially the very appealing Tristan in this novel and their working relationship shows much potential for the future.

This is a strong crime novel.  Last time round I felt Bryndza was hovering too closely towards the horror of torture and abduction and said of it; “That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living now.”  I do think here the author has reined it in a bit.  It’s still admittedly a dark tale with some difficult scenes to read but it feels less over the top and this lighter touch has made for a second in the series novel which is even stronger than the debut.

At the novel’s satisfactory conclusion Kate announces her intention to give up academia for private detective work.  Whether this happens remains to be seen but I am certainly looking forward to more cases for her and Tristan.  This is a strong partnership in what is developing into a high-quality crime series.

Shadow Sands will be published by Sphere on 3rd November.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

Crowner’s Quest- Bernard Knight (1999) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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It’s a quick return for me to Bernard Knight’s medieval Crowner John series having only read one a couple of months ago.  This is book number three and now I seem to have formed a regular pattern with my response to this writer.  I’m involved until after the first crime is revealed (here it’s a hanging Canon) but then I experience a slump where I’m struggling until around the mid-way point when once again something happens which brings me back (here the lead character is set up leading to the accusation of a crime) and then my interest level stays fairly constant until the end by which point I’m looking forward to the next in the series.  That’s from a book I could have abandoned around 100 pages in (if I would ever do such a thing, which I can’t).

Knight’s writing style is rather dense and very detailed but sometimes the history sits heavy on the plot.  We get characters telling each other things they would already know purely for our benefit because of our lack of knowledge in medieval history.  Sometimes this feels heavy-handed but I totally understand that the world of Crowner John is so different to ours that it needs this to keep readers in the loop.

I did not feel this book flowed as well as its predecessor but it does have a bigger scope and moves further and more often beyond the Exeter city walls.  It takes place a few weeks after “The Poisoned Chalice” to which there is the odd reference but nothing that would make this book not work if encountered as a stand-alone.  (I just have a thing about reading series titles in order).

We begin at Christmas Eve 1194 where the coroner’s wife is attempting to boost her standing socially with a celebratory feast with local dignitaries.  The relationship between John and Matilda is strained at the best of times and suffers further when he is called out to investigate a death in the Cathedral’s precincts. Initially considered a suicide it develops into a cover-up murder where discontent with the largely absent King Richard is implicated.  Buried treasure is also involved.  When the plot is wound up satisfactorily there’s a surprising turn in a Trial By Combat.  This feels like a set piece added on to the novel to explore a legal quirk of the period (we had this with Trial By Ordeal in the first novel) yet this section and its aftermath was what ended up with me more eager to seek out the next in the series than I was expecting when reading the first half.

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Crowner’s Quest  was first published in 1999. I read a Pocket Books paperback edition

Nine Elms- Robert Bryndza (Sphere 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Nine Elms: The thrilling first book in a brand-new, electrifying crime series (Kate Marshall)

This is a grisly crime novel with three characters who are wholly evil. That’s quite a lot of evil for one book and it might be a little full on for the times we are living in now. This is the first of a projected series featuring Ex-Detective Constable Kate Marshall from British author and Slovakian resident Robert Bryndza. I haven’t read him before but he has already had a best-selling crime series of 6 novels to date featuring Detective Erika Foster and has also written romantic comedy novels. The second instalment of this new venture is due to be published in November 2020.

The novels begins with a short section in 1995 where Kate’s direct involvement with a serial killer known as The Nine Elms Cannibal leads to her departure from the police and as the novel shifts to 2010 Kate is now a lecturer in Criminology at Ashdean University with a young assistant, Tristan, helping her out. Kate’s much publicised connection with the Nine Elms Cannibal, now incarcerated in a secure mental institution, leads to parents of a long-time missing teenager to ask her to carry out some private investigation work. At the same time a copycat killer begins recreating the Cannibal’s crimes and once again Kate is forced to face her past and fear for her future.

Before reading this I might have said I’d had enough of abduction and gruesome murders of teenage girls but this book did grip me, a couple of times I felt unsure about this as it hovers towards torture porn but Bryndza can certainly structure a gripping tale and there is considerable depth in this crime novel which makes it stand out.

I liked the past and present crimes overlapping and I actually responded better to the PI work of Kate and Tristan more than I did to the more prevalent copycat thread which is actually a good sign as this is the direction the series is going with. I particularly liked the blank canvas of Tristan and feel there is much mileage between the relationship of these two characters.

Elsewhere the copycat theme strays into horror territory in very much the way “The Silence Of The Lambs” did and there were echoes of this crime classic and if you enjoyed that then this is worth considering.

It is a strong series opener from a writer confident in this genre. I would certainly look out for the follow-up.

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Nine Elms was published by Sphere in November 2019 with the paperback due on June 25th 2020. Many thanks to the publishers and Secret Readers for the review copy.

The Greenway – Jane Adams (1995) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have recently become aware of and pretty fascinated by independent UK publishers Joffe. They seem to be rewriting the rules of publishing and as a result are doing extremely well with 2.2 million books sold in 2019 from 116 books published in e-book editions with big plans to launch paperbacks this year. They develop a fan-base for their authors by drawing readers in with free and low-price offers. Proof this works is suggested by the latest title from one of their biggest authors Faith Martin (2 million books sold and rising) which is currently sitting atop the Bookseller monthly E-Book ranking with another of their authors (Joy Ellis) at number 4.

I picked up ten free titles recently on an excellent one-day offer many of which are debut crime novels. I’ve sung the company’s praises now all I have to do is read one of their books, which up to now I haven’t done. They have also purchased a number of backlist titles and relaunched them and this which was first published by Macmillan in 1995 has been revised by Joffe in 2019. It is the first of a series of four novels published by them featuring detective Mike Croft.

Set in a small town about 15 miles from Norwich, it opens with a dream sequence (which is not my favourite way to open a novel and there are actually quite a few dreams in this) but then settles into introducing Cassie returning with her husband and friends for a break in a place that 20 years before as a child she’d visit frequently to stay with an aunt. This ended abruptly when her cousin disappeared from a wooded passage known as The Greenway. Cassie returns to deal with demons from the time and when another child disappears under similar circumstances we have a case for recent arrival Mike Croft.

The tension is especially well cranked up at the beginning but that dissipates somewhat once we get into the police procedural aspect. The rural location has a history of supernatural legend which Adams touches on nicely from time to time and I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Croft and Tynan, the retired detective from the earlier case. I hope that this is something developed in the future novels. I found this a satisfactory crime thriller experience and will certainly look out for further titles by this author. Fans of the psychological thriller genre will find lots to enjoy and I like it that Joffe are giving their readers opportunities to discover their authors on their publishing list for little or no cost. If you haven’t read a Joffe title perhaps it is time to explore these innovative publishers who have certainly been doing their bit to keep readers occupied during lockdown.

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The Greenway was originally published in 1995. I read the 2019 Joffe e-book edition.

The Poisoned Chalice – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I should really crack on with this series.  I  read  the first one “The Sanctuary Seeker” (1998) back in 2017 and it has taken me this long to get round to the second.  I have another 8 of them on my shelves and at this rate I’m not going to complete them until 2032 and then there are the other five Bernard Knight has written that I do not currently own.

My experience with this one was much the same as the previous which introduced us to medieval coroner Sir John De Wolfe.  I found it took me quite a while to get into it and never felt totally immersed in Knight’s vision of late twelfth century Exeter.  Set a month or so after its predecessor this tale begins with an inspection of a shipwreck then moves back to largely within the city walls as a local silversmith finds himself implicated in two crimes involving daughters of notable families.  Relationships between the characters are further established.  We know that the coroner is going to continue to be pitched professionally against his brother-in-law, the sheriff, an inevitable consequence of the redefining of legal boundaries at the time and is also going to experience a fair amount of conflict with his wife Matilda, preferring the more welcoming arms of his mistress, pub landlady Nesta.

Knight packs quite a lot of history into his text which initially makes it a dense read as the historical significance of events require backtracking and a glossary of medieval terms needs to be frequently consulted but once the plot hits its stride around mid-way through this becomes less of an issue as the events in Exeter are brought to a satisfying conclusion.  I think, on reflection, I did enjoy this more than “The Sanctuary Seeker” which bodes well for the series.threestars

The Poisoned Chalice was first published in 1998.  I read a Pocket Books paperback edition.

 

Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (2004) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I always find re-reading a book fascinating. In the last few years with so many good books out there (and also sat on my shelves) waiting to be read the first time I haven’t re-read nearly as much as I’d like to. It’s always reassuring to find a book which is as good the second time around as it was the first. It makes me feel like I’ve got in touch and am still in agreement with an earlier me. Occasionally, on second read the book doesn’t quite match the memories but it’s always a delightful surprise when on a re-read the book turns out to be even better than you remember and that is what has happened with this.

My records say I read this in 2005 and really enjoyed it rating it 4 stars. It did not make my end of year Top 10 that year in a list topped by “Middlesex” by Jeffery Eugenides and including real favourite authors of mine; a John Steinbeck, Alan Hollinghurst, Alan Bennett and Andrea Levy (I’m actually very impressed with what I read in 2005!) I had read Atkinson’s debut “Behind The Scenes At The Museum” (1995) some years before and had enjoyed that- another 4 star read. My relationship with this author changed when I read her stunning “Life After Life” (2013) and its five star associated novel “A God In Ruins” (2015). I decided I wanted to get back into her Jackson Brodie series of novels when the announcement was made that she was to publish “Big Sky” in 2019 but realised I could remember nothing at all about “Case Histories” and that I should start this series with a re-read of this title, especially as I hadn’t got round to reading any of the subsequent novels in this series.

I can see from my Book Journal that I first read this in August, at the height of the summer and it took me what seems like an astonishingly long time of 14 days to read (this time, perhaps thanks to lockdown I polished it off in four). I thought that this might have been the key to me not adoring it. Perhaps something was going on I was preoccupied with in 2005. That got me trawling through the loft to find 2005’s diary and discovering that I thought it was “a well-written, nicely plotted and tied up detective story”. This seems like faint praise for a novel which 15 years later I thought was excellent. That’s the magic of re-reads….

I actually didn’t have any of the plot recall that I would normally expect (even with a 15 year gap). It read like a book I hadn’t read before which does make me wonder what was going on in the summer of 2005! The novel starts in the summer of 1970, in a period of hot, unbroken weather and introduces us to the Land family, four girls, a distracted mother and a disinterested father. This forms the first of three historic cases which feature one after the other, one from 1994 and one 1979 which are brought to the attention of Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman now working as a private detective. These cases make a marked change from Brodie’s usual trailing of suspected adulterous spouses and take his mind, temporarily, off his own fractured personal situation.

What stands this novel above much crime fiction is the sheer quality of the writing, a richness of cultural references which makes the events feel totally real. There’s so much in Atkinson’s writing, an ability to turn from humour to tragedy in a couple of sentences in a way which feels so plausible and convincing. She really does take the reader on a ride and this may very well be why a re-read works so well. There is so much to take in, so much that seems incidental to the plot but which adds to the wealth and richness of the novel. I’m really liking Jackson Brodie and hope it won’t be that long before I move onto the second of the five books in this celebrated series which has got off to an excellent start (even if it has taken me 15 years to recognise this).

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Case Histories was published in 2005. I read a hardback edition but it is easily available as a Black Swan paperback in the UK.