The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (2021)

The first of my “What I Should Have Read In 2021” that I’ve got round to reading.  In that post I mentioned I was kicking myself because I saw a copy on the library shelves and was too slow off the mark but a couple of days later it was back again (must have been borrowed by a quick reader) and this time I didn’t hesitate.

This is only the second Ann Cleeves I’ve read but it is really evident that this is an author who knows exactly what to do with a crime series.  “The Long Call” had a murder which had great personal and professional implications for the protagonists which would have had long lasting repercussions (and this case is referred to a number of times in this book).  Here, things are scaled down a little with some echoes of what had been obstacles before, especially as regards to Detective Matthew Venn and his relationship with his local community arts centre manager husband, Jonathan, and the overlap between the private and professional within a small community.

The rest of Venn’s team, Jen Rafferty and Ross May have their roles beefed up a little but Cleeves’ handling of this ensures there’s not too much given too soon.  Jen, however, does find herself more central than she would like when a party she attend.s and gets somewhat inebriated at, is also one of the last sightings of a man who she thinks was chatting her up and is afterwards found murdered in an art studio.

This complex of art buildings, farm and large house, Westacombe, becomes the focus of an investigation which develops very nicely throughout to a conclusion I certainly hadn’t foressen.  It’s exactly the sort of follow-up I would have both expected and hoped for.  Cleeves handles the characterisation, subject matter and twists in the plot with consummate skill.

“The Long Call” did feel fresher and more rooted in its location and I would give it the edge but I felt that became more entrenched in my mind by reading the book and watching the TV adaptation (good but not exceptional) quite soon after one another.  The quality of this “Two Rivers” series is maintained and there’s loads of potential for more cases.

The Heron’s Cry was published in hardback in the UK by Macmillan in September 2021.  The paperback is scheduled to appear in February 2022.

A Year Of Agatha Christie – A Reading Challenge Round-Up

Before my decision to sign up for the 2021 Read Christie Challenge at agathachristie.com I hadn’t read a book by the world’s most famous crime writer for some 16 years. I’d first discovered one of her works when I was around 12 and browsing in the little bookshop which had opened in our school at lunchtimes and provided a valid excuse for being out of the cold playgrounds. The first book I bought was “And Then There Were None”, admittedly, it did have a different title then in the UK and a lurid cover which made me approach the book as if I was going to be reading horror and would need the lights on at night. The out and out chills did not happen but I loved the structure of this book, the one by one killings,a new experience for someone fresh from children’s literature. I think this was probably the first book I’d read which was intended for adults.

I read quite a few more from the Christie canon moving into my early teenage years but then only the odd book until 2002 when I thought I’d start again with “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, I read another two of her books over the next couple of years but then nothing until tempted by the Challenge. TV wise, I’ve never watched an episode of “Poirot”, nor Joan Hickson’s celebrated “Miss Marple” although I’ve watched the Margaret Rutherford films a number of times and the more recent ITV adaptations with Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie. I have never watched any of the big Hollywood adaptations of her movies but have watched the odd one-off BBC productions. I wouldn’t class myself as a Christie fan, as I’m all over the place with what I have read and seen and what I haven’t. I thought the 12 books which would be recommended to me by the organisers of the Challenge might change that. It has certainly pushed the author up to number two in my most read authors list.

Although 2021 is not quite finished I think I can say that none of the Christie titles are going to end up in my Top 10 books of the year but as she has formed a significant part of my reading experience this year I thought I’d give these titles their own moment of glory as I look back at what I have read and which impressed me the most.

My Top 5 Christie Titles from the Read Christie Challenge

5. A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953) (May’s Choice)

I said of this Miss Marple novel; “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.” 

4. The Sittaford Mystery (1931) (December’s Choice)

This snowy stand-alone was a perfect way to finish the Challenge. I said; “There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read”. 

3. Murder Is Easy (1939) (April’s Choice)

Another 30’s novel which is actually classed as a Superintendant Battle novel, although he does not contribute a great deal. I said; “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.”

2. The Murder At The Vicarage (1936) (July’s Choice)

I seem to be showing a clear preference for 1930’s Christie and I said; “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.”

1. Death In The Clouds (1935) (October’s Choice)

There were 6 1930’s recommended titles in this year’s Challenge and I’ve placed four of them in my Top 4 positions. Even more surprisingly, for me, this was a Poirot novel. I’d come to the Challenge thinking I wouldn’t like the Poirot books much. However, of this I said; “The set-up is simple and yet the work seems more substantial and involving.”

And the Christie which really didn’t do it for me…. Well, I didn’t actively dislike any of the books but perhaps the one which most missed the mark was a collection of short stories which shows that Christie did not always have the magic touch in the 1930’s. Of Parker Pyne Investigates (1936) I said; “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.”  

So, that’s the year-long Reading Challenge wound up. I mentioned in my last blog post that I am probably going to give it a miss for 2022 but the team at agathachristie.com have already got some good categories lined up so it is certainly worth signing up for. You never know, by mid- January I may be missing my monthly fix of Christie and might find myself signing up for another year.

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Month 12- The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The year-long Agatha Christie Reading Challenge for 2021 rounds up with a book set in bad weather.  The recommended title was this 1931 stand-alone and for me, it was one of the stronger of the Christie titles I’d read this year.

There’s a lightness and a great energy to it which made it a quick, perfect over-Christmas read.  The bad weather is snow which has cut off the Devon hamlet of Sittaford.  The Willets, South African mother and daughter and recent tenants of the big house have invited some of the other inhabitants for a get-together and during a playful séance a murder is predicted.  When that comes true and a relative of the deceased is arrested, Emily Trefusis arrives in the area to prove the accused’s innocence.  She joins forces with an ambitious young reporter who has arrived to present a resident with a competition prize to find out who the real murderer was.

The séance adds a bit of the supernatural to the proceedings which I actually like in Christie (it was also evident in another of her 1930’s novels “Murder Is Easy” which I also really enjoyed this year).  The amateur sleuths are investigating alongside Inspector Narracott who is not convinced the police have the right person in prison.  There’s well-paced to and fro-ing, as the weather improves, from Sittaford, the nearby village of Exhampton and the city of Exeter.

Emily proves a lively, spirited and very convincing character, enlisting the support of other residents to help crack the case.  You can sense Christie’s approval of her which is not always evident in her characterisation.  This book was a strong finish for the Reading Challenge.

I think for the time being a whole year of Christie is enough (these 12 books have moved the author up to number 2 in my most read list) but the Reading Challenge is gearing itself up again for 2022.  You can find out more at agathachristie.com.  For my next post I am intending to look back at my year of Christie.  I’m thrilled that I have completed the challenge (especially as I am probably going to fall slightly short on my Good Reads Challenge to read 70 books in 2021).

The Sittaford Mystery was published in 1931 by Harper Collins.  I read a paperback edition part of the 1930s Omnibus which also includes “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” “And Then There Were None” and the aforementioned “Murder Is Easy”.

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 nursery rhymes as a device, here the “There Was A Crooked Man”, as she does in a number of her books but I do not really see how it fits in 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.

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.

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.