“Mr Commitment” by Mike Gayle (1999)

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“Have I missed something here?”

Commitment is still seen in our culture as a scary word at times. This is particularly skewed towards men, who are viewed as never wanting to grow up, leaving women wondering when the man-child they’re dating is ever going to get down on one knee. Most romance stories seem to deal with this from the female point of view, so thank goodness we’ve got Mike Gayle on hand to share the other side of the story.

Duffy has been dating Mel for four years and is very happy with how things are going. Mel, however, needs something more. She is so desperate to marry Duffy that she has proposed instead, and when his response does not match up to the one she wants – and he doesn’t even suggest moving in together as an alternative option – she decides that maybe she’s been wasting her time. Scared to lose her completely, Duffy agrees to marry her, but she knows his heart isn’t in it, and after a mighty argument in IKEA, it seems like things are over for good.

As the two begin the healing process, Duffy can’t let go completely and is keen to ensure they remain friends. However, with Mel getting in touch with her previous boyfriend again, and Duffy being charmed by a beautiful television presenter who should be everything he dreams of, there are things getting in the way, and Duffy has to come to terms with his fear of commitment. Surely losing Mel forever is a scarier prospect?

I love Gayle’s writing, and have discussed it several times over on the blog, and while Mr Commitment isn’t my favourite, it’s still full of life. The jokes work, although there’s a certain irony in the fact that Duffy is a struggling stand-up comedian but we never once see him on stage or doing any of his material. I would imagine this is for the better, as it’s hard to write that kind of stuff, and it runs the risk of the reader not finding him funny. I also was struck by how much the world has changed in such a short time. Although this book was only published in 1999, I baulked when I realised that that was actually twenty years ago. This is still a world where everyone smokes in pubs, nobody has a mobile, and there’s a woman called Alexa who, twenty years on, must be going insane.

Much as I am not someone who has marriage, babies and a life time commitment to weekends in IKEA in their future and broadly speaking I think there should be more books about friendships and less emphasis on everyone finding “the one” (which entirely explains the existence of my novel The Third Wheel), I did really enjoy it. I’m not against romance or the concept of marriage at all, it’s just not really for me. It’s still great to read a book with characters that I like that has a happy ending where everything is resolved. Perhaps the trends of men being all terrified of commitment and the women being desperate for a wedding day is a bit of a tired cliche, but then again things have maybe just changed a lot more in the last couple of decades. Besides, it can’t be true as it’s usually the man who proposes in a heterosexual relationship, and they can’t all have been arm-wrestled into it. I think it’s one of those cases where you have to look at the characters and say that while these states are normal for them specifically, you can’t extrapolate to assume it’s true of all men and women. I know women who don’t want to marry and men who long to settle down. It takes all sorts.

Life is messy and complicated, and the characters here display that fully, with no one’s life running as smoothly as they outwardly present. Nonetheless, love always wins.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

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“Lies Sleeping” by Ben Aaronovitch (2018)

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“His name was Richard Williams and he worked in public relations.”

And so we return to London for another run around magical crime scenes with Peter Grant. Let’s crack on.

We are at the point now where series lock-out has increased so much that if you’ve not read the previous books, nothing here is going to mean anything to you. Grant even says as much on the first few pages. Closing in on Martin Chorley, a wizard who would rather use his powers for evil than good, Peter Grant and his fellow police officers are reaching the end of their tether. Several people involved with a screenplay with an Arthurian flavour have been found dead, and it seems that whatever Chorley has been planning all this time is far from over.

With a long-term plan finally coming together and involving a giant bell, the mischievous spirit of Mr Punch, and a sword that may or may not be Excalibur itself, Chorley has a plan that could see London destroyed forever thanks to a two thousand year old myth and the ego of a former Eton schoolboy who has just been given the keys to Number 10. Loyalties are tested, magic is pushed to its limits, and Grant will stop at nothing to save the city he loves.

So, here we are.  The seventh novel, but with all the supplementary material available, it’s far further on than that. It might just be me and the fact that quite a bit of time passes between reading each one, but I find that the overarching plot has got away from itself. The series would be better served when binged, I think, as at this point, Aaronovitch assumes that you immediately know every reference he’s making to previous moments in the plot, and I simply didn’t. I’d lost track of some of the characters, and there’s definitely a sense that this one is wrapping up a lot of earlier threads. There isn’t much of a plot here that could be dipped in to without having read the previous ones, and everything hangs on what has come before. Despite the gaps of time, I get the sense that someone somewhere is hurrying these out, as there were multiple grammar and spelling errors. I’m not someone who gets hung up on these – it’s not Aaronovitch’s fault and 99% of books have at least one error in them – but you get the impression that corners were cut in an effort to release at a certain time, come hell or high water.

Still, it’s not bad. I think maybe some of the novelty has worn off – and I definitely put some of that down to professional jealousy, as I write in a very similar style to Aaronovitch but don’t have the sales – and there are a whole lot of things going on at the same time that don’t always interact neatly, but I’m not here to demonise it as a book. The jokes are sharp as ever, the characters are fun, full and lovable (even if the cast has now become so large that several of them who used to be big-hitters now seem to have been reduced to extras) and the ideas sizzle with originality. Aaronovitch is writing a love letter to London with these novels, and it works. By using as many real locations as possible, it brings the novel entirely to life and we find ourselves fully immersed in his world.

The book ends by wrapping up several of the major threads and, frankly, it could all end here and I’d be happy. But I sense there is more to come, and despite all I’ve said, I’m prepared to join Peter Grant on his continuing adventures. London always has more to offer.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

Six of the Best … Fictional Drinks

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Some people are of the opinion that literature goes best with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I’m sure that for many people, this is spot on, but I’m afraid I’m not one who agrees. Literature should be paired with alcohol. Books and booze, as I’ve long said, are two of the greatest things that humanity ever came up with, so it seems rude not to enjoy them together. Indeed, my relationship between alcohol and literature was best summed up in a line in Charlie Hill’s novel Books:

“Someone who reads too much without wetting his whistle regularly will become stupid; someone who drinks too much without diluting his drink with literature will end up in the gutter. Only the two together preserve culture; only the two together are culture.”

And I’m not alone in this belief. In honour of World Book Day 2019, the Independent published an article celebrating the pastime of reading in pubs. But even if that’s not enough, you simply need to take a quick look back through the annals of literary history to see that the two have been linked forever. In her 2013 book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing beautifully explores the struggles that some writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver had with alcohol. Everyone knows how booze defined the lives and literature of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. In fact, just about the only author who didn’t seem to spend their free time in the pub was my dear Agatha Christie, who eschewed alcohol in favour of – unbelievably – double cream.

So what are we going to drink while we read?

My go to beverage is usually wine. White wine ideally, and something German like Riesling or Gewürztraminer, but I’ll always settle for a good Sauvignon Blanc, and any number of reds, from Malbec to Merlot. The oldest evidence we have for wine in human society dates back to around 6000 BC in what is now Georgia, and it’s fair to say that it’s defined many aspects of our culture since. It has long played an important role in religion, for example, being associated with blood in ancient Egypt, being used in Roman Bacchanalia and associated with the Greek cult of Dionysus, and even still being consumed in Judaism and Christianity to this day, in the Kiddush and Eucharist respectively. There’s nothing quite like a glass of wine.

Or how about beer? Beer dates back 13,000 years and is believed by some historians now to be the entire reason that civilisation exists. Before beer, humans could be nomadic, but brewing takes time, so people would have had to stay in one place for longer periods of time for the grain to ferment. This led to the construction of villages, and later cities, which meant agriculture could take off and change humanity’s path forever. After water and tea, beer is the third most popular drink in the world, and the surge in craft breweries in the last decade proves that it is in no danger of disappearing. People continue to experiment though, and there are now craft beers available that are based on the flavours of almost everything including coffee, sriracha, lobster bisque and Christmas cake.

Maybe you prefer your spirits? Mine is vodka, and I’m one of the only people I know who drinks vodka neat. A lot of people prefer gin, though, and in recent years gin has been the mainstay of booze culture. Originally Dutch, when it arrived in Britain it was served by the pint as people didn’t quite know what to do with it. Fortunately, this incredibly dangerous and foolish habit has long died out, and gin is far more respectable. In 2017, there was even a haunted gin sold for the first time, each bottle of which had been personally cursed by a white witch. According to those in the industry, however, gin is slowly beginning to drop away and we can expect a rum revolution in the coming months. Famously associated with pirates, navy personnel used to receive a rum ration when heading out to sea, forever linking it with ocean goers. It even became a vitally important trade good when Australia was founded, due to the lack of coinage. These days, it forms the basis of one of my favourite cocktails, a Zombie.

Speaking of cocktails, maybe they’re what you prefer. The first cocktail recipe book appeared in 1862, and the first cocktail party was held in 1917 in Missouri, but they didn’t really come into their own until Prohibition kicked in across the USA and speakeasies sprang up all over the country. With a secret bar having the potential to be raided at any moment, drinkers preferred these drinks that could be finished quickly, and gin soon replaced whisky as the nation’s favourite spirit as it didn’t take so long to make. Cocktails became less popular throughout the twentieth century, but towards the turn of the millennium interest grew once more, and cocktail culture is again a key part of society, with new concoctions being created all the time. Despite this, no one still really knows where the word “cocktail” comes from.

But we’re travellers in fiction. So why should we limit ourselves to drinks in the real world? Without further ado, here are six of the best fictional drinks…

Lacasa

Let’s start with something fizzy, to wet our whistle. Since we’re setting out on a journey through the fictional world of beverages, it seems only sensible to turn to a famous fictional journey to find some inspiration. In The Road to Oz, the fifth book in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Dorothy returns to the eccentric land once more, and at a birthday party for Princess Ozma. Although what the drink actually contains remains up for debate – and in Oz, it could literally be anything – it is said to be much nicer than soda water or lemonade. From this, we assume it is non-alcoholic, but it’s always nice to try and explore something new.

Vesper

James Bond is credited with inventing the Vesper martini but it is the only drink on this list that has made it into the real world. Now a staple on the list of official cocktails established by the International Bartenders Association (IBA), the drink has remained a favourite. Unlike a traditional martini, a Vesper uses gin and vodka instead of just one, Kina Lillet instead of vermouth, and lemon peel instead of an olive. Oh, and it famously, it was shaken, but not stirred.

Bond listed it as his favourite drink, and after first sharing the secret with a barman in Casino Royale, noted, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.” However, despite the IBA including it on their list and its notoriety, it is now impossible to to create the original recipe. Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986, and in 1992 Gordon’s gin cut their proof. Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray gin both work adequately now, and Cocchi Americano often replaces Kina Lillet, as it has a bitter finish. In 2006, Esquire published an updated recipe which ended, “Shoot somebody evil.”

Moloko Plus

This is probably the drink on the list that I’d least like to have a go with, but it’s an iconic drink of fiction – if for all the wrong reasons – so I thought it deserved a spot on the list for sheer imagination. Moloko Plus is a drink from the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, and the ingredients are very vague. What we do know, however, is that there are several forms and they all are made primarily of milk and some kind of drug, such as barbiturates. On at least one occasion, the characters introduce one that doesn’t have any drugs in, but instead contains small chips of glass. This is a “moloko plus, with knives”. Drunk to prepare for a session of ultraviolence, it’s also possible to give it to minors, as the drugs involved are technically not illegal. You know, I think I’ll stick with a White Russian.

Butterbeer

The Harry Potter universe is so vast that, just like with picking the best fictional vehicles, I had to include something from here. Witches and wizards do drink many things that we Muggles would recognise, such as tea and hot chocolate, but they’ve got a plethora of their own drinks to choose from. Prop yourself up at the bar of The Leaky Cauldron and you could settle in with a pumpkin juice, pale blue nettle wine, laughter-inducing Gigglewater, a disgusting infusion of Gurdyroots, or even a glass of Ogden’s Old Firewhisky. However, the best drink in the series is of course Butterbeer. With a very slight alcoholic content that disagrees with house elves, it’s otherwise considered alright to serve it to minors. Said to taste like a less-sickly butterscotch, it’s a thick, foamy and refreshing drink. Like the Vesper, many people have tried to reconstruct it, with various degrees of success. I’ve had it made from several different recipes – some alcoholic, some not – and all I can say that is if I was at Hogwarts, I’d be quaffing the stuff back like it was going out of style.

Frobscottle

Speaking of drinks you can’t get enough of, we come to frobscottle, the drink favoured by Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant. Because he refuses to eat children, the only food available to the BFG are disgusting vegetables called snozzcumbers that taste like, depending on who’s eating them, cockroaches and frog skins. On the other hand, the only drink the BFG has is frobscottle, a fizzy soda drink that tastes incredible. It is unique among carbonated beverages because the bubbles sink downwards rather than rising up, but this does lead to, what the BFG refers to as, “whizzpopping“.

Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster

We can’t finish this list, of course, without the “best drink in existence”. Showing up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy having been invented by ex-President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, humanity has yet to find a way to replicate it so far. Famously, while we’re not sure entirely what it tastes like, we do know that the effects of drinking it are similar to “having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”. Official advice is that you should never drink more than two of them unless “you are a thirty ton mega elephant with bronchial pneumonia”. The recipe is one that can only exist in the mind of Douglas Adams, and ingredients include, four litres of Fallian marsh gas, a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, the juice from a bottle of Ol’ Janx Spirit, the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger, and a single olive. Drink, but very carefully…


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“You” by Caroline Kepnes (2014)

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“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.”

It is quite amazing how naturally we seemed to take to social media as a species. Granted, a lot of us have become more savvy in recent years and maybe don’t feel the need to “check in” to every location or update the world on every change in mood. After all, you never know who is watching. You came to me originally in the form of a series on Netflix that I devoured. It was just the right type of creepy, and my friend who also loved it bought me the novel. I thought it was time to dive back in.

Joe Goldberg is immediately struck when Guinevere Beck walks into his bookshop. She’s beautiful, flirtatious, and intelligent, and Joe knows that he is meant to be with this woman. Luckily for him, she has an unusual name and a very public social media presence, so finding her again will be a piece of cake. After he saves her from being hit by a train on the subway, Beck finds herself attracted to Joe as well, and they begin a delicate courtship.

There are other problems around them, however. Joe has the bookshop to run, and Beck’s life is complicated. There’s Benji, the guy she keeps hooking up with despite knowing he’s no good for her, and Peach, the wealthy best friend who is somehow related to J. D. Salinger but likes to keep the specifics secret. In fact, she likes to keep a lot of secrets, and has Beck on a short leash. Beck can’t help but run off to these people whenever they call, so Joe decides he has to intervene to make sure that he and Beck can be together. He’s already stolen her phone – he now wants to steal her heart.

But neither Joe or Beck are quite the people the other thinks they are, and soon the “relationship” becomes a tangle of lies and deceit as they try to work out what they want and how to get it. And Joe in particular will stop at nothing to achieve his happy ending…

Although pretty much everything that happens in the book also happens in the TV show, the adaptation has a lot of extra stuff. Most of that revolves around further acts that Joe performs that he thinks are “romantic” but any sane person would see as “psychotic”. However, both he and Beck get further characterisation in the show and their extremes are muted, giving them far more shades of grey than the novel allows them. In the book, it is much harder to see Joe as having any redeeming features at all. He is a single-minded sociopath with no boundaries, little empathy and a terrifyingly selfish outlook on the world. Beck on the other hand is probably a good deal nicer in the show, and in the book has more issues and flaws. This is another one of those books where it’s just a lot of horrible people doing horrible things to each other, but I didn’t dislike it for that. Sometimes I do, but sometimes the writing is just too good. It’s a very fine balance to achieve, and I don’t think it’s one I could ever articulate. What makes an unpleasant character someone you want to read about? I don’t know.

The writing sings, though, and it’s a rare foray into a second-person narrative – always a tricky thing to pull off – where everything we experience is from Joe’s point of view, but he’s constantly talking to Beck, often applying his own interpretation of her actions and emotions to suit himself. It’s an insidious book that gets under your skin and unsettles you. It might also make you think again about sending that tweet. You never know who’s reading…

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“The Mystery Of The Blue Train” by Agatha Christie (1928)

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“It was close on midnight when a man crossed the Place de la Concorde.”

In December 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days before turning up at a hotel miles away from where her car had been abandoned and with, supposedly, no memory of any of it happening. When she returned, her life was in turmoil. Her first husband, Archie, had filed for divorce and Agatha was struggling to cope with this burden (remember, at the time this would have been quite shameful) and having to restart her life with her daughter. She did, however, keep writing, although even she admitted it was a struggle. The result was this book.

All over Europe, things are falling into place. A set of priceless rubies, with the infamous and supposedly cursed “Heart of Fire” at their centre have just been bought and sold in shady and probably illegal circumstances. They make their way from the millionaire Van Aldin to his daughter, Ruth Kettering. He tells her to keep them safe and that it probably wouldn’t be wise to take them with her on her upcoming journey on the luxurious Blue Train. Elsewhere, Ruth’s husband Derek wants a divorce so he can be with his mistress, the beautiful dancer Mirelle, but if they divorce, he’ll be penniless and she might leave him.

In a small village in England, Katherine Grey finds herself without work after the woman she looks after dies and leaves Katherine an enormous fortune. Deciding to experience the world at last, she takes the Blue Train across France to meet her society cousins, but while aboard encounters Ruth Kettering, who is only to happy to talk about her failing marriage and the real reason she’s on board – she’s going to meet another man. Before the train reaches its destination, however, Ruth is dead and the rubies have gone missing. Her husband is the prime suspect, but Hercule Poirot also happens to be a passenger at the time of the murder and he has reservations. Taking Katherine under his wing, he sets about trying to save an innocent man and see if he can’t bring down a crooked member of the aristocracy or two while he does it.

As ever, the clues are all there, and while Christie directs the reader to focus on just two suspects, it is useful to remember that the cast is bigger than that, and everyone has secrets. The use of a cigarette box embossed with a “K” is also a great clue and most readers at this point might start thinking, “Excellent, that’ll nail this down immediately!” until you realise that the cast includes two people called Kettering, a Knighton, a Katherine and even a Kitty Kidd. You thought she was going to make this easy for you? Never.

Like any old steam train of the era, the story takes a good long while to get going. No one dies until we’re 115 pages in, with Poirot showing up for the first time just before, and for the first few chapters we simply leap around a collection of apparently unrelated characters, most of whom seem to be shady in one way or another, and it’s not until the Blue Train begins its journey that the stories begin to properly tie together. Nonetheless, despite the slow start the journey is eventually one worth taking. Christie herself never particularly rated this one in her later years, and it has certainly been overshadowed by her other novel which focuses on a murder on a luxury train, and I can’t say it’s one of my absolute favourites, but it still has a certain charm. Poirot is on form, and the cast of characters is laced with interesting people. They include many of the staples Christie would use again and again, such as the demanding millionaire, the status-hungry aristocrat, and the warring couple, but many of them have more depths than you may imagine.

All aboard!

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

Six of the Best … Agatha Christie stories

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It’s Agatha Christie’s birthday, so how better to celebrate than with six of my favourite of her stories! Agatha Christie was born on 15th September 1890 and thirty years later she would publish her first novel (the first novel she wrote, Snow on the Desert, remains unpublished) and change the face of literature forever. She is only outsold by William Shakespeare and the Bible, making her – quite comfortably – the bestselling novelist of all time. The shocking thing is that so many people I speak to have still never read one of her books. I admit myself that I came to her later than many (I didn’t read my first one until I was 21), but surely everyone has had a look at one or two, at least.

Six of the Best, therefore, seems like a good place to introduce people to her work and give you a good place to start. Ordinarily, I would spend a lot more time talking about Christie here, but I’ve done plenty of that on the blog already, having reviewed most of her books here now, and also doing a special post with my twenty-five favourite facts about her, so instead let’s just press on.

Here are six of the best stories Agatha Christie ever wrote…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was her sixth novel – seventh book – and sees Hercule Poirot finally making good on his promise to retire to the countryside to grow marrows. But, as with all the great detectives, wherever they go, murder is sure to follow. When his friend, the wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, Poirot calls on his neighbour, the village doctor James Sheppard, to help solve the case. Blame seems to immediately fall at the feet of Ackroyd’s adopted son, Ralph Paton, and when the police are unable to find him, it only further suggests his guilt. Elsewhere, the details of the will come to light, a strange man was seen around the house on the night of the murder, and Poirot wonders if there is anything that James’s gossipy sister Catherine doesn’t know…

The reason that this one stands up as one of her most famous is because it saw Christie tear up the rule book and change everything about the murder mystery. Some saw her as a cheat, but most saw her as a genius. It wasn’t long after the publication of this one that she famously disappeared, and so that helped it raise to fame as well. Some people thought she went missing as a publicity stunt, but frankly she didn’t need to. She was already well on the way to being a household name and Roger Ackroyd cemented it, with or without a real-life mystery to accompany it. To many, this is considered her masterpiece.

A Caribbean Mystery

The books featuring Miss Marple seem to get somewhat discarded next to the Poirot novels, but this isn’t fair. In some ways, I actually prefer Miss Marple, although she appears in far fewer stories. A Caribbean Mystery is, as you can tell from the title, one of Christie’s books that takes us far from an English country house and out to the beautiful, sunny shores of St Honore. With her holiday paid for by her nephew, Miss Marple is enjoying meeting the other guests, including Major Palgrave, who has tales of murder and even asks Marple if she wants to see a photograph of a murderer. He, however, appears to spot something in the room and changes his mind. The next day, he is dead. Marple is convinced that he has been murdered, and must now work out what it was that made Palgrave have second thoughts, and who could have had reason to end his life.

Famous for one of the best misdirects in any of her novels, this is a great example of how Christie lays out every single clue for you but not necessarily how you want to see them. Every one of her mysteries is entirely solvable, but you need to have a mind that works the right way. I’m still terrible at it and I’m on my second read-through of them all! It also serves as an important reminder that while we immediately associate her work with England, the aristocracy and draughty old houses with everyone gathered in the library, her books took in many influences from her travels around the world, and her books set away from Great Britain are just as fun and wonderful as those that are homegrown.

The Mousetrap

There’s a legend that says if all the ravens leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and England will be plunged into chaos. (Actually, looking at the news lately, has anyone checked they’re still there?) The same could be said of The Mousetrap – if it ever closes, the West End will fall. First staged in 1952 with a cast that included Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, the show has run continuously for the next 67 years. Christie herself gave it eight months and it broke the record for the longest-running play in the West End in 1957, which was acknowledged by a begruding telegram from Noel Coward to Christie that began, “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you…” It is the longest-running play in history. It even changed theatres and didn’t miss a night, and all the while it is still on stage, it can never be adapted for television or radio.

But why has it lasted? That’s a mystery all in itself. Perhaps it’s just because it’s one of her absolute finest stories. The plot centres around a married couple who have just opened a new hotel in a very rural area. When a snowstorm comes in and cuts them and their guests off from the outside world, they begin to rub up against one another, and things get worse when a policeman arrives to tell them that there is talk of a killer in the area. As the group turn against one another, they realise they were all involved in some way with a case that involved the mistreatment of a foster child many years earlier. With the phone cut off and the bodies beginning to fall, tensions run high and no one can be trusted.

And Then There Were None

Quite rightly considered the jewel in the crown of Christie’s back catalogue, And Then There Were None is unparalleled in its ingenious plot. The novel takes us to a small island off the coast of Devon where ten people have been invited to dinner. The host, however, is nowhere to be found, and not long after learning that a storm means the island is now inaccessible from the mainland, a mysterious recording plays in the house, accusing all ten visitors of murder. And then the bodies begin to fall.

By the novel’s end, there is no one left alive on the island. But who is the killer? Who is the mysterious U. N. Owen who invited them all and how does he know about their sordid pasts? Are they really all alone? One of the most incredible stories I have ever read, it works whether you know the solution or not. If you don’t know, you’ll love trying to work it out, and if you do, you’ll love trying to see how she does it. As ever, the clues are all there, you just have to be able to untangle them.

Murder on the Orient Express

Aboard the most luxurious train of the age, Poirot finds himself in strange company. The other passengers are cagey, not necessarily friendly, and all have their own reasons for travelling. One of them is Samuel Ratchett, a distasteful man of the sort who believes he can solve any problem by throwing money at it. Convinced that his life is at risk, he asks Poirot to protect him, but Poirot refuses, simply because he does not like the man or his methods. That night, however, the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Croatia, and the following morning Ratchett is found dead in his cabin. Someone on the train is guilty, and with nowhere to go and nothing else to do, Poirot sets about interviewing everyone on board to see if he can solve the case before the police get to them.

Murder on the Orient Express is another of the best-known novels, with a solution that’s probably better known than its plot. It’s a staple for anyone entering the world of Christie, however, as it explores much more fully than in many others Poirot’s sense of justice. It’s a fiendish solution, but the emphasis here is on character and how we deal with revenge, fairness and honesty. It rounds out Poirot into an even greater character than he was before and amply shows off how his reputation now precedes him. It’s also a key example of how Christie – and many other crime writers – used real world crimes to inspire their fiction. Both this and The Mousetrap take their inspiration from enormously famous and influential crimes, but each is given a Christie twist.

Cards on the Table

There is an assumption with Christie’s work that it’s better to suspect “the least likely person”. She knew that people thought this, and it had become a common trope in murder mystery fiction, so Cards on the Table was published in 1936 to entirely subvert it. The story begins with a wealthy collector, Mr Shaitana, inviting eight people to dinner and then to play bridge with him. By the end of the night, Mr Shaitana is dead. Nobody left the room, and nobody else came in, so the killer is there. Four of the guests, however, are detectives – Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and Ariadne Oliver. That leaves the other four as the suspects: and they’ve all got murky pasts with suspected murders in them. As such, there is no one who is less likely than any other. The rest of the novel progresses as normal, with the detectives working out which suspect has struck again. Fiendishly clever, if her reputation hadn’t already been assured, this one would have done it.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

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