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.  

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.

A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

This is a book which often appears in best crime series debuts and mystery/thriller recommendations lists.  I did the unusual thing (for me) of reading the third in this series “Smoke And Ashes” when it came out in 2018 and with the recent publication of the fourth in paperback I thought I’d start off at the proper place – the beginning- especially as I enjoyed very much the book I did read.

“A Rising Man” introduces Police Captain Sam Wyndham, recently arrived in Calcutta in 1919 and billeted in a British run guest-house where the food he is served up puts him at greater risk from illness than if he took his chances on the streets of Calcutta.

He is called to a street murder of a senior Civil Servant and he meets up with Surendranath Banerjee, nicknamed “Surrender-not” by British officers unwilling to learn the correct pronunciation of his name, who becomes Wyndham’s sidekick in this series.  The pair set out to uncover the murderer amongst growing unrest in the local population which comes to a head when news of a massacre by British troops in Amritsar travels to Calcutta.

This novel won the 2107 Historical Dagger at the Crime Writers Awards so I was expecting big things.  I was impressed by it but I think I just slightly preferred “Smoke And Ashes” which felt a little pacier and by which time Abir Mukherjee had confidently established the characters.  Wyndham’s flaw is a predilection for opium as a result of the trauma of the war years and the loss of his wife in the flu epidemic straight afterwards, an addiction which he will certainly have the opportunity to explore in early Twentieth Century Calcutta.

This is a strong debut with a satisfactory conclusion and has set the series up appealingly and I am keen to seek out the other titles.

A Rising Man was published by Harvill Secker in 2016.  I read the 2017 Vintage paperback edition.

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.

Bluebird Bluebird- Attica Locke (2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

Attica Locke is an American author I’ve been meaning to read for some time.  I chose to start with the 4th of her 5 novels, the first in her so far two novel series “Highway 59” which features black Texan Ranger Darren Matthews.

In this novel Darren uses a temporary suspension from duties to visit the small East Texan town of Lark where two bodies have been fished out of the Bayou in rapid succession; a black man visiting the area followed a few days later by a young mother who lived locally.  This is not the usual order for murder victims in a location where the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas still operates, historically, too often a black man has been killed in retaliation for a white woman killing so the Ranger’s interest and his local knowledge of both the black and white local communities leads him to risk his fragile marriage and stay to unravel the case, meeting up with the dead man’s widow in the process.

Tensions simmer and occasionally bubble to the surface in this oppressive atmosphere which the author very effectively conveys.  Her main character is flawed but driven by a background brought up by two uncles, one himself a Texan Ranger, the other a lawyer, and a strong sense to do the right thing.  The story behind his suspension adds another layer to the plot and feels like it will carry over to the next in the series.  Richly written, strong characterisation and subtle plot twists made this very enjoyable and I would certainly want to catch up with this author’s other novels.

Bluebird Bluebird was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2017.

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.

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.

four-star

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.