“Death Comes As The End” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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This murder is ancient history...

This murder is ancient history…

“Renisenb stood looking over the Nile.”

Agatha Christie lived an interesting life. After her first marriage broke down, she found happiness with Max Mallowan, an archaeologist of some renown. Being fourteen years her junior never seemed to stop either of them from being incredibly happy in one another’s company and soon Christie was joining him on his digs to North Africa and the Middle East. Her novels Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile and Appointment with Death all make use of her knowledge of archaeology and the landscape she and her husband were visiting, but then one book took this to a whole new level. Unique among the canon of Christie, Death Comes as the End is the only one that doesn’t take place in, what was to her, the modern day. Instead, we are catapulted to 2000 BC to the shores of the Nile, where we are soon to learn that humans haven’t actually changed all that much in the intervening four millennia.

Young Renisenb has returned to the home of her father Imhotep, a priest, and her extended family. Her brothers Yahmose, Sobek and Ipy live here still with their wives, along with her grandmother Esa, and several other workers around the house including the bright and charming Kameni, the doting and wise Hori, and the snivelling, creeping Henet. Things seem much as they were when Renisenb left eight years ago, but soon her father returns from his travels with a stranger in tow, his new concubine, Nofret. This new woman soon has turned everything in the house upside down.

However, soon things go from bad to worse when Nofret’s body is found at the foot of a cliff, crumpled and dead. Imhotep is adamant that it’s an accident, but Renisenb has other ideas. It seems too convenient that a woman who was so hated has suddenly died, and it’s only when other members of the household start to be killed off one by one that everyone becomes a lot more wary. Murder is hardly a new thing, and here we are, thousands of years in our past, dealing with a serial killer and a complex web of lies, in classic Christie fashion.

As I said above, this is a Christie novel that is in many ways unlike any other, but then again, it contains all the usual hallmarks of her work. Human nature never changes, which is something Miss Marple in particular always notices, so it’s great fun to see a classic murder mystery set somewhere entirely different. The outcome remains the same and the issues of love, family, jealousy and murder are just as at home here as they are in a little English village in the thirties. Esa, indeed, as a character reads a lot like an Ancient Egyptian Miss Marple, and Renisenb has much in common with the spunky, adventurous girls of her modern books. The characters are almost archetypes – the domineering wife, the doting mother, the spoiled child, and creepy servant – and yet each character also manages to be fully fleshed out.

The murderer in this novel, unusually, has a wide range of methods of murder at their disposal, rather than picking one and sticking to it. Christie makes excellent use of her knowledge of the time period and while she occasionally seems to dip into more exposition than is necessary for the story, such as listing of gods or going into detail on burial practices, it actually just adds to the colour rather than distract and feel like showing off.

Christie has done something entirely different and it has worked. This might be one of her novels that I like best. Fresh, smart and a touch creepy.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

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And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“Murder In The Museum” by John Rowland (1938)

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murder-in-the-museum“Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him.”

The British Library is responsible for many great things, but lately I am simply grateful for their Crime Classics series. I’ve read five of these beauties now, so regular readers of my blog will probably have seen me gush about them before. In short, however, they are republishing crime novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that, for whatever reason, have not survived to be worshipped into our age. In fact, the book being discussed today, Murder in the Museum, hasn’t been republished since it was released in the late 1930s. And it was completely overdue.

It’s 1937, and in the Reading Room at the British Museum, visitor Henry Fairhurst takes an interest in a man who isn’t looking too well. By the time Henry is at the side of Professor Julius Arnell, the academic is dead, apparently having died quite suddenly of natural causes. However, the police are called and soon discover that things are not that simple. Arnell was killed after eating a sugared almond – his favourite treat – that had been laced with poison.

When two more academics in the same field as Arnell also die in suspicious circumstances around the museum, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard is called upon to try and make sense of the situation. Accompanied by the efficient Sergeant Cunningham, and eager Henry Fairhurst, who has decided that he’s an amateur detective and can solve the murder, Shelley must now work out who the killer is, whether Arnell’s daughter or nephew, both of whom stand to inherit from the old man’s death, are involved, and just what a certain young Harry Baker was doing at the museum on the occasion of yet another murder…

Quite why this book disappeared from circulation so quickly is beyond me. It’s short and snappy, although breaks a few of “the rules” of detective fiction at the time. However, I can’t complain too much – Agatha Christie broke pretty much all of them – and it leads to more suspense and confusion that keeps the tale going. It’s also pretty funny, with the relationship between the policemen Cunningham and Shelley being well constructed and honest, and everyone’s frustration with Henry Fairhurst who seems to think that because he was on the scene at the time, he should be involved in the police’s work. To have him unknowingly share more information than he knows he has feels like a laboured coincidence, but also you just go with it for fun.

There’s one great surprise about two thirds of the way through, which really does make you sit up and take notice, but otherwise it’s a pretty easy-going read and one for anyone who loves detective fiction, especially from the era when it was at its best. Great characters, fun plot, and generally an entertaining fast read that’ll put you off sugared almonds forever.

“First Among Sequels” by Jasper Fforde (2007)

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first_among_sequels“The dangerously high levels of the Stupidity Surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning.

It’s been a while, for both myself and Thursday. I left her fifteen books ago and she returns here in the fifth book of the Thursday Next series, and things are a little different. As ever, there will be some spoilers in here for people who haven’t read the first four, though if you do feel like starting in the middle for absolutely no sensible reason, here would be the best place to start.

The book opens fourteen years after the end of the last one, and things are very different. Thursday Next is now 52 and still happily married to Landen, with three children, the perpetually lazy and smelly cliched teenager Friday, the phenomenally intelligent Tuesday, and the quiet, unsociable Jenny. SpecOps has been mostly disbanded, leading Thursday and her former colleagues without official work, so now they run a carpet fitting shop. Except this is just a cover – they’re still dealing with the “weird shit” that the regular police won’t touch. And this is a cover too – Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction, deep inside the BookWorld, where her own stories have now become books that she’d rather distance herself from. As ever in Fforde’s world, there are a lot of threads here.

Firstly, Thursday has to mentor her fictional selves, the hyper-aggressive and violent Thursday1-4, star of the first four Thursday Next books, and the hippie, museli-loving rewrite of the fifth, Thursday5. Secondly, she has to convince her son Friday to join the ChronoGuard where he is meant to become the most successful operative of all times, but he’d rather be playing in his band and sleeping in until midday. With the End of Time approaching, never has the phrase “running out of time” been more apt.

Thirdly, the government are introducing the idea of reality television into books, suggesting that they should be rewritten with people choosing how they want the story to run and which characters they want to kill off. With Pride and Prejudice up for first adjustment, there are a lot of worried people. It may be true that fewer people are reading than ever before, but surely this isn’t the way to get them back into literature? And then of course there’s the discovery that Sherlock Holmes has been killed, and there’s the possibility that a serial killer is running free through the pages of the BookWorld.

More than ever, the book is loaded with hilarious exposition, scenes that seem pointless and sometimes are just there for the humour, but other times load up some highly important information without you noticing. The book is notable for several reasons. One of these is for the greatest time travel twist I’ve ever seen in fiction. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed and makes me laugh out loud. In fact, several concepts here are wonderful. Joining the time travel debacle is the idea that TK-Maxx isn’t a discount clothing store, but in fact a prison where criminals are kept in stable time loops, aging but unable to do anything more than live out the same few minutes for years on end.

Where was I? Notability, right. If it seemed unusual enough before that Thursday was a heroine in her mid-thirties, here she’s in her early fifties, and still kicking arse and taking names as much as she ever used to, even though her back is starting to hurt and she’s not quite as quick as she once was. An action heroine in her fifties? You don’t get that in Hollywood. Another reason why these books are sheer perfection. Fforde messes around with intertextuality, goes meta to greater extremes than displayed anywhere else, and yet all the nonsense still works with great humour and serious intelligence. There’s even a jaunt into an Agatha Christie novel in here, and because the books are now set in the early 2000s rather than the 1980s, there are references to more modern characters, including Temperance Brennan and Harry Potter (the latter being unable to attend a couple of scenes due to issues of copyright law).

I’m aware that my posts about Thursday Next and Jasper Fforde are little more than giddy fanboying, but frankly I don’t care. Read these books and join me in my madness – you won’t regret it.

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

Two Years Ago

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atomic coverTwo years ago today I achieved a goal I’d been aiming at for pretty much my whole life – I got published. Funnily enough, my life did not immediately become one of literary lunches, drinks with Stephen King and book signing tours. I never expected it to. But the fact remains that I did something that I had always wanted to do. My book existed, an ebook, a full (if short) novel that I had written and was now out there in the public consciousness.

If you’ve already bought it, thank you. If you haven’t, why not help me out and download yourself a copy. It’s available around the world on Amazon, iTunes and Smashwords, depending on what device you’re using. It won’t blow your bank account, and it’s not going to change the world, but you’d be supporting me in my work, and treating yourself to an easy-to-read tale of gods, witches, cannibalism, magic and tabloid journalism. And when you’ve read it, pop onto Amazon, iTunes or Goodreads and give it a review; spread the word and tell everyone!

This is the story of Garfield Sutton, a cannibal who has been travelling the UK for centuries on the titular bus. It’s also the story of Algernon, an ex-god of spring who has been accompanying Garfield since the Georgian era, using his powers to help hide their crimes. It’s also the story of Gwen McKenna, a very bored journalist with too much missing in her life for her life to have any meaning, until she finds herself on the trail of missing people who were last seen boarding a bus. And it’s also the story of the last three witches of Britain, of a battle between gods, of what happens in the afterlife, and how breakfast remains the second best social lubricant after alcohol.

Normal service will resume in the week – currently reading a novel about Richard Nixon – and hopefully soon some more books of my own writing will be out and about in the world. Fingers crossed, and thanks again.

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