Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 11 – Crooked House (1949)

The challenge this month was to read a title set after World War 2 with the recommendation from agathachristie.com being this standalone which in the Foreword the author claims as being one of her favourites which she planned for years.

I’m quite surprised by this because it feels to me fairly standard Christie, maybe a stronger literary feeling than some of her works yet lacking a little in tension.  Her narrator Charles is effective in that he is able to observe situations both from those involved in the crime committed and those involved in the solving of it as his father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

When his girlfriend’s wealthy grandfather Aristide Leonides is believed to be murdered Charles decamps down to Swinley Dean and the Crooked House of the title to see what he can find out.  Sophia’s family have not met him before but they conveniently embrace him and soon trust him with confidences rather than seeing him as the outsider with police associations which he actually is.  This gives him a good position in the middle of the situation.  It’s obvious that Christie is using the Crooked Man nursery rhyme as a device as she does in a number of her books but I do not really see how it fits in here despite it being quoted in full in the third chapter.  I would have thought that if she was going to use this she would have made more of it than she has (as she did in “A Pocket Full Of Rye” (1953)).

The family are all suspects giving this crime a very domestic feel.  Sophia’s mother, Magda, steals scenes with her dramatics and her brother and sister Eustace and Josephine are distinctly odd (the younger generation damaged by the uncertainties of the war years?).  Grandfather married a woman a fraction of his age not long before his death so it is no stretch of the imagination to see who the family thinks bumped him off.

It is enjoyable throughout but I wouldn’t consider it amongst Christie’s best works and of the 11 read for the challenge I would put it around mid-way.  Next month the theme to finish off this year long reading challenge is a book set in bad weather.

Crooked House was published in 1949.  I read the Harper Collins e-book edition.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 10 – Death In The Clouds (1935)

This month’s theme at agathachristie.com was to read a book set on a form of transport.  The recommended title was held until the start of the month and I just assumed it would be her most famous luxury train-set novel but no, they opted for her 12th Poirot written some 15 years after the Belgian detective was first introduced.

I’ve not been the greatest Poirot fan up to now, but having completed this and reflected, it is not only the best Poirot novel I have read but my favourite Christie I’ve read for the Challenge.  The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.  It’s a classic locked-room mystery in many ways only this locked room is an air-liner, Promethus, making a crossing from Paris to Croydon.  Poirot is one of the passengers but air-sickness makes him less observant and he doesn’t notice one of his fellow travellers being bumped off.  With a weapon found by the side of his seat he becomes a suspect and has to clear his name as well as satisfying his hunger for crime-solving.

There’s the usual mish-mash of characters- a Countess, French archaeologists, a doctor, a dentist, a businessman and a hairdresser who paid for her flight from a winning Irish Sweepstake ticket.  The plot moves on from the on-board incident, to the inquest and the French and British police’s handling of the crime both aided by Poirot. 

The writing feels more vibrant, there’s humour and, admittedly, the odd cringe-worthy moment where Christie’s characters seem inappropriate for 2021 but all in all this seems the sort of book that would have enhanced Christie’s reputation as the leading crime writer back in the day.  Next month (month 11 already!) the challenge is to read a book set after World War II, so there will be a bit of a chronological leap from this pre-war novel.

Death In The Clouds was originally published in 1935.  I read a Harper Collins hardback edition.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge- Month 9- Cat Among The Pigeons (1959)

This month’s challenge from agathachristie.com was to read a book set in a school with this 1959 Poirot novel the recommended choice.  This was Christie’s 32nd novel to feature the Belgian detective although he does not make an appearance until (according to the e-book I was reading) 63% through and his role here is largely to recap all that has happened and solve everything that had so foxed the police during a showdown in a room full of suspects, so just what we would expect from Poirot really and little more.

This is perhaps the most melodramatic of the Christie books I have read to date.  Largely set at Meadowbank, a prestigious girls school where missing diamonds are anticipated and murders occur.  The portrayal of school life seems very superficial, the teaching staff are not strongly developed and the girls all rather Blyton-ish.  It’s hard to get the sense of what Christie herself felt about the world she created, she doesn’t always seem to be on the side of women here and those not British are often dismissed.  Because of these underlying attitudes this later novel has dated less well than many earlier ones.  It comes across as slightly St Trinian’s without the spark of the Alastair Sim and George Cole characters.

There is a prelude in the nation of Ramat on the cusp of a revolution where diamonds are hastily smuggled out of the country.  Various agencies are aware of this and are keeping an eye on Meadowbank as a result but one individual knows the exact location of the diamonds.

Without giving any plot away at least one of the loose ends Poirot ties up is fairly ludicrous which adds to the melodrama of the proceedings.  There’s often a sense of a classy read to Christie’s novels but his feels a little, dare I say it, trashy.  That in itself does give it its own charm.  I’d put this at number 4 of the books I’ve read for the Challenge, slipping in between “The Hollow” and “Nemesis”.  Incidentally, I’ve been keeping records of every book I have read since 1994 (well actually years before that but earlier records got lost in a move) and reading this book pushes Agatha Christie into the Top 3 of my most read authors jointly with Charles Dickens with only Peter Ackroyd and Christopher Fowler ahead of her and not once have I given her a five star rating.  Perhaps next month’s choice will change that.

Cat Among The Pigeons was first published in 1959.  I read a Harper Collins e-book edition from Borrowbox, which is part of my local library membership.

Dust Off The Bones – Paul Howarth (One 2021)

Have you ever been away on holiday, had bad weather and had to put up with everyone saying how glorious it was the week before?  Well, that’s a little bit how I felt reading this book.  And that is my fault.

This is the sequel to the very well received “Only Killers And Thieves”, a historical tale of early Queensland, Australia by British-Australian author and former lawyer Paul Howarth.  I haven’t read that book and when Paul’s publishers got in touch to see if I would be prepared to read and review his latest I was intrigued enough to say yes – to a sequel.  I was hopeful it would work as a stand-alone and I’m sure for many it would.  Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of reader I’ve realised.  I’m happiest when working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre and for me to read a sequel to a book I didn’t know is pretty much unheard of.

On its own “Dust Off The Bones” is a very good novel but I suspect that “Only Killers And Thieves” is even better and read as a pair might just be something pretty extraordinary.  The action which the sequel hinges on has taken place in the first book and this is largely the repercussions of those actions which affect a family throughout their lifetime.  There are enough references back to the first book to let the reader know what was going on (and thus it can work as a stand-alone) but some of the references seemed so good that I felt like I was missing out.

None of this is Paul Howarth’s fault.  He has focused on a fictional account of one of the many real-life atrocities carried out by the Native Police in Victorian Queensland where treatment of the native population was both obscene and went unpunished.  The McBride brothers have been split up by the traumatic events from the first book and are stalked by the truly evil Noone, who heads a division of the Native Police.  When a lawyer tries to get justice for terrible crimes the poison these characters carry with them takes hold again.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Western would love this with the Australian setting giving it a different feel.  It is violent and the existence can be harsh but family bonds, however strained, cannot be broken by such harshness.

Those that have read “Only Killers And Thieves” will no doubt be chomping at the bit to read this book.  For maximum reading pleasure I would suggest reading that first to allow this recommended read to create an even greater impression.

Dust Off The Bones was published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press which promises “compelling writing, unique voices, great stories” on August 26th 2021. Many thanks to the publishers, particularly Tara from the Press Office for the review copy.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 8 – Midsummer Mysteries (2021)

The theme for this month’s challenge was a story set at the seaside and the recommended title at agathachristie.com was this recently published collection of 12 stories and 1 autobiographical extract.  It’s an unsurprising companion piece to “Midwinter Murders” which appeared at the end of last year.  I think maybe the fireside and a winter evening feels more appropriate for Christie.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled to purchase this book but certainly wasn’t giving up on the Challenge at this point and I can see why the official website is promoting this collection.

Discounting the introductory fragment here called “Summer In The Pyrenees” which came from the 1977 “An Autobiography” most of these stories herald from the 1920s with just one first published in 1933.  I was disappointed that they did not feel unified by the theme- summer is strong in a couple of the tales but otherwise the selection seems somewhat random.  Two I’ve also read this year in the challenge as they were taken from “Parker Pyne Investigates”.  I think they do make more of an impression, however, in this collection.

Poirot gets the lion’s share of stories with four and the strongest is the longest which closes the collection, “The Incredible Theft” which adds a touch of political intrigue to the country house tale.  Two Marple stories come from “The Thirteen Problems” which I assume follows the format of mysteries being told by different individuals in a group with Marple providing the solution.  She doesn’t really exist as a character here.  That said, the summer flavour of “The Blood Stained Pavement” was strong and this would end up in my Top 3 from this collection.

I’ve not read the five Tommy and Tuppence novels and I don’t think “The Adventure Of The Sinister Stranger” would spur me on to do so.  Out of context from its appearance in “The Mysterious Mr Quin”, “Harlequin’s Lane” is just odd and I found it hard to like. 

My favourite and one that best fits with the theme is the stand-alone “The Rajah’s Emerald” in which the crime is backstage leaving us with a highly likeable character study of James Bond (no, not that one, Christie is using the name long before Ian Fleming) attempting to impress his girlfriend on the beach, but unable to compete with her wealthier, more entertaining friends.

This is definitely a mixed bag of tales and I can’t help feeling that most would work better in their original collections.  I’m not sure that if this was my introduction to Agatha Christie (and theoretically a new publication would lure new readers in) whether I would have a strong urge to read on.  I think, because of the stronger variety, I’d put it just ahead of Month 2’s “Parker Pyne Investigates” as my 7th favourite from the Challenge.  Next month I’m to read a novel featuring a school.  I think I will be back in Poirot territory.

Midsummer Mysteries was published by Harper Collins on 22nd July   2021.

Next Of Kin – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2021)

Kia Abdullah’s last novel, the terrific “Truth Be Told” (2020) made it onto my End Of Year Top 10 and was my favourite new novel of the year slipping in just ahead of Kiley Reid’s “Such A Fun Age”.  I pledged to read this author’s debut and I do have it waiting for me on Kindle but she is ahead of me and exactly one year later her third novel is ready for publication.

On the evidence of these two novels she has a format.  After getting to know the characters a shocking event takes place which leads to a court case and its aftermath.  It’s an effective format and she handles it superbly.  She drip feeds us information, taking us on wrong turnings and just like last time when you think it you have it sorted we’re off in a different direction.  This author is so good at manipulating her readers and I for one, love it. Also like last time I found myself covering the bottom half of pages as I didn’t want to know of various outcomes until the exact moment Abdullah intended me to.

Plot-wise I’m giving nothing away, but once again it is disturbing and thought-provoking and so set in the everyday that it would make most readers blood run cold.  I’ll just introduce the characters- Leila Syed is a successful businesswoman who has achieved much having escaped poverty when her mother died when she was 18 leaving her to bring up her 11 year old sister Yasmin.  Both are now married, Leila to Will, a journalist and Yasmin to Andrew who works in IT.  Three year old Max completes the younger sister’s family and that is all you are getting from me.

At times sympathies towards these characters will be strained but there will be much empathy.  There are moments which are difficult to read because of the misery heaped onto these people (and because of this I might just give the slightly more restrained “Truth Be Told” the edge) but the events and the plot will drive the reader on.  With two out of two five star novels, this is a writer I am thrilled to have discovered.

Next Of Kin is published by HQ on 2nd September 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Long Call – Ann Cleeves (2019)

This is the first Ann Cleeves novel I’ve read, despite having watched every episode of “Vera” which features her characters and is adapted from her series of 9 novels and 1 novella featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, beautifully played by Brenda Blethyn.  I also had neither watched any of her other acclaimed tv adaptation, “Shetland” nor read any of those 8 novels, 1 Quick Read and 1 associated non-fiction work, but I have always wanted to.  There’s also two earlier series of novels featuring George and Molly Palmer-Jones (8 titles) and Inspector Ramsay (6 titles) so it is pretty incredible that I hadn’t got round to this prolific British author’s work.

This novel is an obvious staring place- a brand new series, “Two Rivers”, and one which has been recommended to me a number of times.  I’ve also seen it on lists of titles with positive LGBTQ+ representation embodied here in main character Detective Matthew Venn.  Set in coastal North Devon, which Cleeves has conveyed very effectively through her writing, Venn is embarking on married life with husband Jonathan following years of estrangement from his Christian Fundamentalist family who rejected him and his lifestyle.  Ostracised from the community he grew up amongst he has returned to the area to live and work.  Jonathan runs a community arts centre and when a body which turns up on the beach close to their home proves to be a volunteer from The Woodyard, Venn knows he has to tread carefully to avoid conflict of interests.

Matthew and Jonathan are well-established as characters with the policeman’s background giving a depth which could last for many cases.  His team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May also both have lots of potential.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and I very much liked that.  I felt, away from the crime, a community of memorable characters had been created and I felt part of their lives, which is an unusual experience for me within the crime fiction genre where I tend to feel less connected with characters’ lives. 

This is a strong opening title for a new series and with the second “The Heron’s Song” due to arrive on September 2nd 2021 whilst the paperback edition of this is still selling well I’d heartily recommend seeking this out.

The Long Call was published in September 2019 by Macmillan. The Pan paperback edition is also available.

A Corruption Of Blood – Ambrose Parry (Canongate 2021)

This is the third in a very solid historical crime series written by husband and wife Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman.  The combination of their professional backgrounds, Brookmyre, an established best-selling crime author and Haetzman, an expert on anaesthesia, is tailor-made for this mid-nineteenth century series set in Edinburgh featuring two fictional characters working for Dr Simpson, a real-life medical pioneer who developed the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Good groundwork has already been laid in the first two novels “The Way Of All Flesh” (2018), a book I often recommend to our library users, and “The Art Of Dying” (2019).  Firstly, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher is enthralling as are the ongoing obstacles for a nineteenth century woman attempting to prove herself as anything other than a wife and mother.  At the start of this novel, in 1850, Sarah has set off to meet with another real life figure, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain a medical degree and be registered with the UK General Medical Council for advice, but she is not encouraging.

In fact, the malaise experienced by Sarah as she returns to Edinburgh following this encounter seems to infiltrate the novel as the first half feels a little flat compared to its predecessors.  Raven should be in celebratory mood as he has developed an understanding with a doctor’s daughter, Eugenie, but she feels under-drawn here (purposely so?) making it hard to appreciate why Raven would choose her over Sarah.  However, the Victorian Era is full of contradiction and hypocrisy and the victim of one of the crimes, which occupies Raven’s time, is an advocate for ill-treatment of prostitutes who may have been poisoned by his son.  The title refers to the term for total disinheritance should the heir be convicted of such a crime.

Sarah, at the same time, is engaged on locating the whereabouts of an unfortunate housemaid’s baby, given away at birth. It’s not until the two main characters come together that the pace picks up enhanced by the chemistry between them.  The last quarter of the novel is very strong indeed which lifts this book back up onto a par with the other two.  Further crimes are revealed, some particularly horrific, and careful plotting leads to an impressive exciting climax and resolution.

There is plenty of mileage left in this series and I look forward to finding out what the writers have in store for these characters.

A Corruption Of Blood is published in the UK in hardback by Canongate on 19th August 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 7 – The Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

This is more like it!  This has the sparkle I was expecting from Agatha Christie which I haven’t always found in some of the other books I’ve read during this Challenge.  This month the book needed to feature a vicar and here we have one in a first-person narrative.  It is set in St. Mary Mead and was the first novel to feature Miss Marple, not in a central role but she certainly knows what’s going on and I’m not surprised that Christie saw her potential as a recurring character.

Clement, the vicar lives with his much younger wife Griselda and his sixteen year old nephew Dennis at The Vicarage.  The Protheroes lives up at the Old Hall.  In the opening lunch scene the vicar announces any would-be murderer of Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a great service and before long the Colonel turns up dead in the vicar’s study.  It’s investigated by the prickly Inspector Slack who has no time for how things are done in small villages and the more genial Chief Constable Colonel Melchett.  Two people own up to the murder early on but their confessions do not fit into the timeline.  The villagers, especially the group of elderly ladies who don’t miss a trick are keen to unravel the truth behind the murder.

There’s a good range of suspects to consider from an adulterous couple, the future heiress, a handsome artist, a mysterious newcomer and a vengeful poacher and luckily Miss Marple is on hand to sort and analyse as in Christie’s words; “There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

This has been my favourite of the Christie titles I have read for the seven months of the Challenge.  Next month I need to seek out a story set at the seaside.

Murder At The Vicarage was first published in 1930.  I read a Harper Collins e-book edition.

Dog Rose Dirt- Jen Williams (Harper Collins 2021)

This marks a complete change of direction for award-winning British author Jen Williams whose published works to date have included two Fantasy trilogies.  Here, she has poured herself into crime writing which often hovers close to horror.  It’s all imbued with a sense of dark folklore which has the effect of making the implausible seem possible and it simmers throughout with an edge of nastiness which makes even the lighter moments seem tense.

Heather has returned to her family home after the suicide of her mother with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.  Whilst sorting the house she discovers she does not know her mother as well as she thinks she did, opening a veritable Pandora’s Box of serial killers, dark fairy tales, copycat murders and a barghest, a legendary phantom dog around the setting of a commune where her mother lived when she was younger.

Heather is a journalist who has made bad decisions in her past and quite frankly continues to make them as she keeps things quiet which she should be sharing with the police whilst giving out too much information to others.  There are reasons for this which are posited by the turn of events but it is difficult to relax with her as a main character.

I think personally I could have done with a little more light amongst all this shade but there is no doubt that this is atmospheric with the rural environment demonstrating its power running alongside the depressing banality of clearing up after a lost life.  There are incidents in this book I found particularly difficult which made me feel I was reading it at the wrong time for me but there is no doubt that Jen Williams here makes a powerful entrance into the world of crime writing.

Dog Rose Dirt is published in the UK by Harper Collins on July 22nd. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.