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. 

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. 

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

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line- Deepa Anappara (2020)

This debut has been on my radar since pre-publication and it featured on my “What I Should Have Read In 2020” post (this is now the 5th book on this list I’ve since read).  At that time I said I hadn’t actually seen a copy, perhaps it was initially lost amongst the impossible to promote debuts which appeared in the early months of 2020 but this has now become a very visible title (helped by its striking front cover in hardback, less striking in the paperback edition which appeared on 3rd June 2021.)  There is still a good buzz about this book which suggests it should be a strong seller in paperback.

It deserves success.  It’s an impressive book with characters that will linger for a long time and a lightness of touch which belies some very serious issues.  We begin with street children scavenging for survival for a man called Mental in a preface which suggests this may be dark reading but within a few pages we are into a first person narrative from 9 year old Jai, a child living with his child-like concerns of school, friends and TV, poor but happy in the slum-like conditions of his basti with his parents and sister.  When local children start to go missing Jai takes on detective duties with his two friends, the academically successful Pari and Faiz, a Muslim minority within their Hindu environment.

The authorities are not taking the disappearances seriously, they demand bribes for even basic policing and threaten demolition of the basti.  It is up to the children to find out more.  The superstitious Faiz believes it is the work of the supernatural, namely, djinns.  Pari and Jai remain unconvinced but do not recognise the daily dangers they face closer to home.

These three children are the life-blood of this book and it is impossible not to be drawn in by their outward confidence and swagger.  Anaparra worked for years as a journalist amongst such children and seems to have got her portrayals just right.  The fact that there’s a touch of the “cosy crime” novel about this when behind the façade much is horrific actually serves to intensify its power.  This is a strong work.  It will be interesting to see if Anaparra gives us more from these children in future as her reading public might demand or whether this will remain an enthralling stand-alone novel.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line was first published in the UK in hardback in 2020.  The paperback edition is out now published by Vintage.

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 Whites – Richard Price (2015)

I have  read one other Richard Price novel, his 1974 debut “The Wanderers” which when I discovered it in 2014 I made my Book of The Year.  This tale of a teenage gang in the Bronx in the early 1960’s I described as “unsympathetic, gritty and yet touching”. It was published when Price was 25 and 41 years later came his 9th novel originally written under the pseudonym Harry Brandt, although this edition puts Price’s own name to the forefront.

The title refers to the nickname given by a group of NYPD members past and present to those individuals who literally got away with murder, whose obvious guilt in the execution of terrible crimes becomes an obsession to the detectives – becoming their own personal nemesis.  Still serving in the Night Watch is main character Billy Graves who regularly meets up with ex-colleagues “The Wild Geese” where their Whites are often a topic for conversation.  When bad things begin to happen to those they obsess over is it karma kicking back or is someone taking the law into their own hands?

Alongside this we have sections devoted to another serving policeman, Milton Ramos, more obnoxious and obsessed with revenge, which is a major theme of the novel.  This begins to infiltrate the lives of Billy, his ER nurse wife Carmen, their two children and Billy’s Alzheimer’s stricken father, himself an ex-cop.

This is very much a hard-boiled crime tale but it really works for me as it is so character led.  It is hard to initially warm to all the characters, but Price, as he did in his debut over 40 years before, does draw the reader in.  These are undoubtedly flawed individuals but you still end up caring.

In the intervening years between “The Wanderers” and this, apart from the 7 other novels, Price has written Hollywood screenplays for movies such as “The Sea Of Love” (1989 starring Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin) and “The Color Of Money”(1986 with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, for which Price was nominated for an Oscar) and also wrote episodes of “The Wire”, rightly regarded as one of the best written crime TV series ever, so you can see the credentials right away.  There is no doubting his ability in getting the feel of authenticity in his writing.

The day to day (or night to night) crimes in Billy’s professional life go on in the background in an unrelenting, grinding, life-sapping way which is very effective and shifts the novel in a direction I was not really expecting when I started it, when I felt that it would be this aspect which would take centre stage. 

This is impressive writing and I think, that especially here in the UK, this writer is under-valued.  Stephen King described it on publication as “the crime novel of the year, grim, gutsy and impossible to put down.”  I would find it very hard to disagree.

The Whites was published by Bloomsbury in 2015.

The Lost Brother – Susanna Beard (Joffe 2021)

I have saluted the UK publishers Joffe here before for the sterling work they have been doing in lockdown to provide very affordable good quality commercial fiction.  This new publication which they invited me to review is the fourth novel by Susanna Beard.

It begins in the summer of 1987 when it is decided that 12 year old Ricky should, in the New Year, attend the same boarding school as his father did – in South Africa.  This fills Ricky with horror, he does not want to leave the UK and does not feel he is the right sort of person for boarding school but is particularly unhappy because of his close relationship with his 10 year old sister Leonora, and the thought of leaving her with his cold, cruel father and emotionally distant mother.  No amount of cajoling on the children’s part can stop the inevitable and once Ricky has left their father is determined to drive as big a wedge as possible between the boy and Leonora.

This novel is about the damage families can do to one another alongside the lasting bond of a positive sibling relationship.  Characterisation is solid and the sense of desolation endured by the separated pair is conveyed very effectively.  Leonora has always experienced synaesthesia, in her case letters are represented by colours, which is an unusual device on the part of the author but one which I wish had been made more of as it feels slightly under-realised.

The plot is always involving.  As the years pass the brother and sister are unable to forget how much they mean to one another as circumstances continue, through twists, to keep them apart.  Although I did not feel the ending was as “electrifying” as the cover suggests it all added up to a very satisfactory reading experience.

The Lost Brother is published on 11th February 2021 by Joffe Books.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.