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 offers 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. 

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 6 – Nemesis (1971)

It’s half-way through the challenge set by agathachristie.com and I’m still going strong.  This month the choice had to involve gardens and this late-period Miss Marple was the official suggestion.  By 1971 Agatha Christie was a publishing phenomenon and had been putting out her crime stories for over 50 years.  I really enjoyed having Miss Marple as the central character here, rather than off in the side-lines (as she was in last month’s choice “A Pocket Full Of Rye”).  By this time the mature amateur sleuth had been cracking cases for 41 years and as a character, Christie, who by this time was herself 81, allows Miss Marple to feel her age, living a much more sedentary life at St. Mary Mead (her doctor seems to have banned her from gardening) is in need of more care and is less mobile (although she soon leaves the village and is off on location for this book).  There are quite a lot of references made to advancing age for both Marple and other characters here.

There is actually a weird sense of time going on.  Whilst perusing the obituaries Marple notes the passing of a character she has previously encountered in “A Caribbean Mystery” a 1964 novel which I have never read.  Plot-wise, though this is set only around a year and a half later and the death notice leads to her involvement with other characters but its conveyed as if it is years ago and these overlapping characters have only hazy memories of one another.  I’m sure if I met Miss Marple on holiday 18 months ago and became embroiled in a murder situation with her I would have remembered clearly.

It is a strange plot structure here which can feel a little lumbering but it does allow my favourite of Christie’s recurring characters to have prominence.  The dead man offers Miss Marple a reward for some sleuthing but she has to embark on this without knowing what is going on or why.  It requires her attendance on a organised tour of English houses and gardens (there’s the Challenge theme for you) during which she begins to piece together what is asked of her.

There’s a lot of chat and not much action and a lot of reiterating what Marple already knows when she encounters characters who might edge her quest forward.  Christie normally catches me out but I had this one solved quite early on.  A little more tension might have been good for the reader if not for the well-being of Christie’s aging characters.

This was the last Miss Marple novel Agatha Christie wrote (although “Sleeping Murder” was the last one published) and it is a bit of a muted, if age-appropriate farewell.  At the time it was generally considered not be amongst her finest.  On my list of those I have read so far for the challenge I think I would slot it in at 4th below “The Hollow” and just above “Lord Edgware Dies”.  For August’s challenge my job is to read a book involving a vicar, a challenge which I could have anticipated would make an appearance before long.

Nemesis was first published in 1971. It is available in the UK as a Harper Collins paperback. Further details/book group info etc on the Reading Challenge can be found at www.agathachristie.com

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 5- A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953)

This month’s challenge book needed to involve tea and the featured choice, published in 1953 was the most recent Christie I have read so far and the first to feature Miss Marple.  I am beginning to show a preference for her later work, they seem more subtle with greater depth in terms of character and psychology behind the crime, although of course, I am basing this on just a handful of titles.

This one is slipping in at number 2 in my favourite Christie titles.  It didn’t sparkle as much as last month’s “Murder Is Easy” (1939) but positions itself just ahead of “The Hollow” (1946).  The tea makes an early appearance as it is the last thing consumed by Rex Fortescue, the head of Consolidated Investments Trust, a family business, which he has controlled by just being on the right side of the law.  Inspector Neele is on the case and much of the work is done before Miss Marple makes a very delayed appearance and stays at the Fortescue’s home on the flimsiest of pretexts.  Further crimes occur which appear to link to the “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” nursery rhyme or is someone just using this as a device to mask the real motive?

It’s very much a backstage role for Miss Marple here and some may say her presence wasn’t necessary but I did rather enjoy her contribution to balance out the not terribly likeable set of suspects.  I thought I’d picked up on the clues and sorted out the ending but I hadn’t, so there is the pleasure of Miss Christie outfoxing me again.  All in all a very satisfactory read which will have me looking forward to next month without blowing me away on this occasion.  June’s challenge is to pick a book which features a garden.

A Pocket Of Rye was published in 1953.  It is available as a Harper Collins paperback.  I read it from an omnibus edition of Miss Marple novels (number 2) which also includes A Caribbean Mystery, They Do It With Mirrors and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Further details about the Christie Reading Challenge can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com

Agatha Christie Challenge Month 4- Murder Is Easy (1939)

This month’s challenge was to read a book set before World War II and this 1939 publication just fits into the timescale.  This  was the title recommended by the good folk at agathachristie.com and I did think it was a stand-alone, but no, after I read it I discovered it is the 4th in the series featuring Superintendent Battle,  a sequence which had begun with 1925’s “The Secret Of Chimneys”.  Here Battle makes a blink and you miss him appearance and adds nothing to the plot so my thinking it a stand-alone is very excusable.

Main character Luke Fitzwilliam is a retired police officer returning to England from his post in the Mayang Straits when he meets an elderly woman on the train on her way to Scotland Yard to report a murderer at large in her village of Wychwood-Under-Ashe.  Fitzwilliam, at a loose end goes to investigate on the pretence of writing a book about folklore and local customs.

This has been my favourite of the Challenge books so far and there’s quite a notch up in the entertainment factor from my second favourite, The Hollow.  Most of the murders have already taken place leaving Fitzwilliam to work out whodunnit.  I like the feel of this book, the location and characterisation gives it stronger atmosphere and the folklore slant offers us suggestions of darker forces at play and even of satanic orgies in the woods.  Fitzwilliam stays at the home of poor-village-boy-made good now newspaper magnate Lord Whitfield and becomes fascinated by his fiancée.  There’s a mixture of doctors, librarians, publicans, servant girls in the cast list and even a cat called Wonky Pooh!

The novel feels freer and less formulaic than some of her Poirot titles.  I was thoroughly entertained and didn’t guess whodunnit.  I would have been unlikely to have encountered this book without the Christie Challenge and would have missed out on this enthralling cosy crime caper with good edges of darkness.  Next month it’s a story featuring tea, luckily there’s a suggested title.

Murder Is Easy was first published in 1939.  I read a Harper Collins paperback edition. Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

Agatha Christie Challenge- Month 3- Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

This is the 9th Hercule Poirot novel and was the recommended choice for this month’s Christie Reading Challenge which specified a book including a society figure.  Its 1933 publication date means that it is the earliest of the novels I have read for the Challenge.  I’m beginning to think that my suspicions that those featuring Poirot would not be my favourite of hers is coming true, I do find him a little hard to take as a character.

However, this is narrated by sidekick Captain Harding who I do like and who is as exasperated by the Belgian detective as I am, who wearies at any mention of “his little grey cells” which assist greatly in helping Poirot solve his cases.

I also like there being more than one corpse, thus whittling down the suspect list.  My only real gripe is with characterisation.  I feel that they are introduced well and I know who each is and the relationship to the victim initially but start to lose my grip on this mid-way through.  I think this is because there is limited character growth.  This was certainly a stronger feature in the later publication “The Hollow” I read in January so perhaps this is a way in which Christie developed as a writer.

It’s no spoiler to say that it is Lord Edgware who is the first victim here.  His American actress wife has already met Poirot and enlisted his help before the nobleman’s demise.  Other suspects include his heir, a disappearing butler, a film actor and a stage actress who impersonates Lady Edgware as part of her act.  Poirot is keen to find out whodunnit before Inspector Japp and asks the right questions to the right people.  Unusually this book ends with the confession by the killer which has been sent to Poirot so no looking to the last page or it will spoil everything.  Next month the challenge is to read a story set before World War II.  I’m hoping to read one of her stand-alone novels and it will be interesting to see if, as I suspect, I will favour these.

Lord Edgware Dies was published in 1933.  I read a Harper Collins e-book which was available on Borrowbox, my library service’s online app.  Further details about the Agatha Christie Challenge and Facebook/Instagram book groups on this title can be found at http://www.agathachristie.com.

Agatha Christie Challenge – Month 2 – Parker Pyne Investigates (1936)

This month on the Agatha Christie Challenge the theme was love with the suggested title being this collection of linked short stories.

It’s an earlier Christie than “The Hollow” I read last month and all of the fourteen stories feature Parker Pyne, a man who promises happiness.  This is the only work wholly dedicated to this character, he made appearances in other short stories but never made it into the novel form.  (In the closing story “The Regatta Mystery” he was replaced by Poirot in an American collection).

Pyne is not an especially well-drawn character, we have little idea why he does what he does.  In an advert which appears to feature regularly in The Times he offers consultations on unhappiness and in this collection the majority of his clients show up because of this ad.  He brings happiness by his unique approach to problem-solving involving a small team of people who work for him and through his ability to see the true root of a problem, often through his fondness for statistics.  The most successful stories keep things simple, there is a tendency in some of the later tales to overload with characters to get Christie’s celebrated whodunnit format which doesn’t work so well in the short-story framework where they become names more than characters and I found myself turning back to see who was who.

In around half of the stories Pyne is office-bound but mid-way through begins a Mediterranean/Middle East tour which gives more exotic locations and a more diverse cast for him to bring happiness to.  I think he loses his identity and individuality somewhat in these stories, which is what might have led to his replacement by Poirot in a later version of one of them.   It seems that the format of the office-based Pyne sorting out the problems from behind his desk was deemed not gutsy enough to last the whole book.

In a Foreword the author claims her own favourites (this seems an unusual move) “The Case Of The Discontented Husband” and “The Case Of The Rich Woman”, this last one based on a remark made to Christie from a woman who did not know what to do with all of her money!

This is an enjoyable set of stories, very much of its time, with quite a few missing jewels and just the odd murder.  I didn’t like it as much as last month’s choice.  I felt the stories tended to blend one into another probably because Christie struggled to establish much in the way of characters within the short fiction format.  I don’t think I would have ever discovered Parker Pyne if not for this challenge so it was good to meet up with him in these stories.

Next month the book choice needs to involve a society figure.  For more information on the challenge and details of a Facebook/Instagram Book Club on this months choice visit agathachristie.com.

Parker Pyne Investigates was first published in 1936.  I read a Harper Collins Kindle edition.

The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

I’ve been meaning to read more 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 Hollow” 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.

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.