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.

Truth Be Told – Kia Abdullah (HQ 2020)

I haven’t read Kia Abdullah’s debut “Take It Back” but I will certainly be on the look-out for it after reading her first-class second novel.  I feel like I have been on a real journey with the author with what is ostensibly a legal thriller- but it is so much more.

I’m not going to say much about the plot other than not one of the twists did I see coming.  Thematically, it is rich.  It’s mainly a tale about consent, but also cultural pressures and entitlement.  We meet 17 year old Kamran, educated at boarding school (which seems alarmingly close to his house I always assume children board some distance from home but here not so)  who one night has too much to drink and changes his life forever and Zara, an ex-lawyer, now working in counselling and support who is coming to terms with an act of violence perpetrated against her.

This was a novel I found difficult to put down.  I was using my finger to cover up the bottom of the page at times as I was reading it, not wanting my eyes to slide down and pick up on events too soon.  I savoured every word and it is well written.  I admittedly had a slight issue with a group of male protesters who do not seem as well thought out as characters and whose presence in part of the narrative caused its only few clunky moments.  I socially distanced myself at work one lunchtime even more than necessary by seeking out a space alone so I could read the court case section of the novel.

I’m not even a huge fan of legal thrillers.  The only one (not including “To Kill A Mockingbird” which is loosely a legal thriller) which has really impressed me is Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” (2016) and this is every bit as thought-provoking and good.

Truth Be Told will be published on September 3rd by HQ Books.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

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.