“The Mysterious Mr Quin” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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quin“It was New Year’s Eve.”

Over sixty years before DC Comics introduced the world to supervillain Harley Quinn, the name had been introduced to the public with Christie’s creation, Mr Harley Quin. Although not nearly as famous these days as his female counterpart, both characters are based on the Harlequin, a typicallly comedic fellow from the Italian Commedia dell’arte. The stock character is typically seen as a clown-like figure, wearing a costume patterned with brightly-coloured checks. As far as personality goes, he’s something of a trickster, witty and light-hearted, usually seen as a servant. He’s physically agile and there’s something a little bit magical about him.

This collection of short stories from Agatha Christie puts a character like this down in the real world. With the name Harley Quin, there’s little to hide the fact that he is indeed a harlequin, or perhaps even the original harlequin. Unlike most everything else Christie wrote, these aren’t necessarily crime stories. In fact, only one or two feature the police.

The stories are actually about elderly Mr Satterthwaite, a man who has spent his whole life on the edges, listening to people and watching the world go by. He knows all the best people and has seen a great many things of note. As such, he has come to learn much about human nature. However, in the first story he encounters Mr Quin who turns up at a house where Satterthwaite’s friends are hosting a party. They’re talking about the unexplained suicide of an old friend, and Mr Quin suggests that looking at the situation from further in the future might make the details clearer. Satterthwaite takes his part and the friends discover the truth about what really happened all those years ago. Quin takes his most mysterious leave.

Over the following stories, Satterthwaite encounters Quin in places as diverse as his local restaurant to the Corsican mountains, each time the man appears just as there is drama unfolding and Satterthwaite believes that Quin is helping save people and solve their problems, while Quin insists that it is all Satterthwaite’s own work. As the mysteries pile up, and Satterthwaite becomes less and less surprised at encountering Quin, the true nature of his fairweather friend becomes more and more obscure. One wonders if he’s even real…

These are clever stories and such a different change of pace from the usual Christie fare. They’re easily the most different of anything else she wrote, being as they are about the supernatural (or implied to be so, at least). They remain top class mysteries, but the crimes and issues being discussed happened long before, and now run on the implication that a later study will make more sense of them, once feelings and emotions have cleared up and the facts can be laid bare.

Mr Satterthwaite is rather an interesting figure, a gentleman and a genuinely nice man who is nonetheless influential in his circles. He knows everybody and everybody knows him, from artists and actresses, to duchesses and countesses. He is floored by Mr Quin, and believes that it is he that is solving all the problems, although it’s clear he’s merely giving the right nudges.

Mr Quin is an marvellously creepy creation. I don’t know if he’s supposed to be that way, but by the end he’s almost malevolent in his manner. His story is never wrapped up and it’s not clear if he is human or something else entirely, prone as he is to simply disappearing whenever he deems his business finished, and the implication at least once that he can speak to the dead, or maybe even bring them back….

My favourite three stories differ from those Christie chose. We both are fond of “Harlequin’s Lane”, but whereas she picks her other two favourites as “World’s End” and “The Man from the Sea”, I’d plump for “The Shadow on the Glass” and “At the ‘Bells and Motley'”. The stories were apparently written over a period of years (indeed, Satterthwaite seems at least ten years older by the end as he is at the start) and were never intended as a blatant series, but there are a couple of references between the twelve that link them together. They’re a curious collection. Christie claimed that Satterthwaite and Quin were probably her favourite characters, and I can definitely see their appeal. Both appear in other unrelated novels, too, so I expect that before long I will run into one of them again.

And drama will unfold once more.

“Shampoo Planet” by Douglas Coupland (1993)

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Presumably has a Conditioner Moon.

Presumably has a Conditioner Moon.

“My mother, Jasmine, woke up this morning to find the word D-I-V-O-R-C-E written in mirror writing on her forehead with a big black felt pen.”

My Coupland Rereadathon continues with his second novel, Shampoo Planet. It’s not one that had particularly stuck in my mind and, as such, I had relegated it to position of Least Favourite Coupland Novel. However, after reading it again and noting that it isn’t quite as good as Generation X, if this is the worst then the rest must be really good.

This is the story of Tyler Johnson, a twenty-year-old student in hotel/motel management in Washington state. He’s a product of his generation with memories that start from Ronald Reagan, obsessions with both the future and haircare products, and a hippie mother who is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He has a good life, however, living with his mother and his siblings, radical Daisy and geeky Mark, and spending time with his wonderful, smart girlfriend Anna-Louise and his strange motley crew of friends. He plans to one day work for Bechtol, a large company with a finger in every pie.

But things don’t necessarily always work out the way we plan, and when Stephanie, Tyler’s French fling from his gap year in Europe, turns up unannounced, she changes everything. With no apparent ambition and scathing of pretty much everything the American dream stands for, she ruffles more than a few feathers. Anna-Louise realises the history between Tyler and Stephanie and so leaves him, and when Jasmine’s ex Dan reappears in her life, Tyler is prompted to up-sticks and move to Hollywood, taking Stephanie and his broken dreams with him.

As usual, Coupland is a master of digging into the here and now and finding the truths that we’ve tried so hard to hide. In this book, he tackles the nature of shopping malls and nuclear power plants and the damage both are doing to our minds and bodies. It’s a study in commercialism. Jasmine had such hippie ideals but now just one generation later, Tyler is one of those swaddled in a world driven by consumerism (he names at least sixteen brands of shampoo over the course of the short book). There are discussions about the divide between the rich and the poor (the rich always win, says Tyler) and there’s much about money, how easy it is to lose but how hard it is to get.

As an undercurrent to the whole text, there lies Tyler’s grandparents who have entered into a pyramid scheme (although are apparently unaware that the whole thing is a scam) selling cat food. They work to get pretty much every other character in the book to join them.

The book has some of the great, surreal moments that you expect from Coupland. When he’s not comparing how Europe is obsessed with history and America is obsessed with the future, Tyler is doing things like writing slogans onto banknotes, dubbing it “tragic cash”. He originally pens a flaw of one of his friends onto each one, but they’re generic enough that any of us could relate to them, if we really admitted it. Some examples include:

Your inability to achieve solitude makes you settle for substandard relationships.

You still don’t know what you do well.

You pretend to be more eccentric than you actually are because you worry you are an interchangeable cog.

At the start of the novel, there are also two curious periodic tables, featuring erroneous elements more suited to the modern world. These include Television (Tv), Guns (Gu), Hard Drive (Hd), Obsession (Ob), The Eighties (Ei), McNugget (Mc), Leather Jacket (Lj), Anorexia (Ax), Photocopy (Xx) and Spandex (Ly). They’re never mentioned in the text, but they make for an interesting idea.

It’s not a bad book, so I retract my previous statement of it being the worst of his books for now. Hell, I may find it is later, but I feel that last time I read it, I just didn’t get it. As it is, I think it’s a brilliant but not exactly critical look at the world of mass-production and McJobs that has existed for the last twenty years or so.

“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett (2012)

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He'd do anything.

He’d do anything.

“The rain poured down on London so hard that it seemed that it was a dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellow for supremecy in the air and waiting to splash down.”

Last year I wrote a somewhat scathing review of Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, bidding the Discworld canon adieu as I did so. However, not so long after this statement, this novel found its way onto my shelves and there it has sat for the best part of a year as I worked up the courage to return to Pratchett. However, this not being a Discworld novel, I hoped that maybe I would have better luck with it than previous experiences with him.

This is the story of Dodger, a tosher in Victorian London who knows everyone but manages to keep on the right side of the law by living up to his name. However, one night during a torrential storm, he comes across a young woman being beaten by two men. Dodger is not without heart and takes it upon himself to rid the girl of these men, thrashing them senseless. Later, Dodger and the girl are rescued by two other men who take them to a place of safety.

It then turns out that this girl is not just any girl. Although she refuses to give her name, it quickly becomes evident that she is of aristocratic and foreign stock. Dodger learns that their saviours are none other than Henry Mayhew and Charles Dickens, the latter of whom wants Dodger to put his skills to the test and find out who it was beating up the girl (known as Simplicity) and to perhaps put a stop to them. Accompanied by his Jewish landlord Solomon and his stinky dog Onan, and with the luck of the Lady of the Sewers on his side, Dodger begins an adventure that sees his name become more and more common around the city. And when he is recorded as having done battle with cut-throat demon Sweeney Todd, it suddenly seems that everyone is after Dodger.

OK, so first things first, I enjoyed this much better than my previous visits to the Discworld. Although the tone and style is still unmistakably Pratchett (which in itself is not a bad thing), it requires far less world-building meaning that one can get stuck right into the story and spend more time with the characters and the action. It’s almost like a Who’s Who of Victorian London at the time, featuring not only the aforementioned Dickens and Mayhew, but also founder of the police force Robert Peel, up-and-coming politician Benjamin Disraeli, cartoonist John Tenniel, and millionaire philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, among others.

There is the obvious assumption, also, that Dickens eventually takes Dodger’s character and immortalises him on the pages of Oliver Twist, and while I was half expecting the titular orphan or Nancy to turn up, neither did, although Solomon Cohen is the very basic blueprint for Fagin. As mentioned, the only other fictional character present is Sweeney Todd, presented in a very different light than we are used to. The book is peppered however with references to Dickens’ work, such as people using his titles in passing. Dickens is never slow in making a note of what he sees as a good idea for a future novel.

Victorian London was a ghastly place, and the book highlights that, spending much of its time in the sewers, and many more pages in the slums of the East End. The divide between the rich and the poor is never far from the text though, as Dodger is sucked into the world of the upper-class, donning a suit and his now infamous stovepipe hat in order to pass as a gentleman. It’s a book about battling the odds and surviving no matter the cost, but also about the “fog of truth”, that is to say that everyone sees things slightly differently, and it is up to journalists, historians and other individuals to decide on what they think is the truth or not, plucking the salient points in their preferred order from the mist of ideas.

Pitched as a young adult book, I don’t necessarily feel that that’s exclusively the case, and it certainly reads for an older audience, using Pratchett’s typically verbose style. Outdated concepts and other Victoriana are discussed in footnotes and the acknowledgements, and there’s a wonderful “bonus scene” at the end if one keeps on reading, like a deleted scene on a DVD. I’ve always had rather a fondness for the Artful Dodger, and this sort-of-retelling of his life is a fascinating, funny and charming read.

“Man In The Empty Suit” by Sean Ferrell (2013)

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empty“It is unfortunate for me that I am, by most any objective measure, a genius.”

Ah, time travel. I love it, my best friend hates it, and it’s been the backbone of the BBC’s drama department for half a century. Ever since H. G. Wells, time travel has become a popular concept in the imagination of people of all ages. We like to imagine a world before or after our time and how things may have been, or how they may be yet. We’ll accept any explanation, taking versions of the genre where time can be rewritten, and others where it’s impossible to change anything. We’ll lap up paradoxes and split timelines and enjoy the whole mess of the thing. Sean Ferrell has here taken the thing to a new, even more complicated and thrilling, level.

Man in the Empty Suit is the story of an unnamed man (the lack of a name repeats in time travel fiction, such as in both The Time Machine and Doctor Who) who has invented a raft that lets him travel forwards and backwards in time. However, as a central point, every year on his birthday, he returns to an abandoned hotel in New York City, 2071, and has a party with himself. That is, about sixty versions of himself.

He experiences the party over and over again, but each year from a different perspective, remembering what happens and performing actions simply because he already knows he does them. However, on arriving at the hotel for his 39th birthday, he finds the body of his 40-year-old self dead – shot in the head. The older versions of himself explain that it’s up to him to now prevent this because in a year’s time, that body will be his own. Thus, the race is on for the narrator to prevent his own paradoxical death, as well as try to understand how and why there is someone – a woman – at the party, despite no one but himself ever attending.

This book is cleverly constructed, knitted together in such a way that the plot tree must look more like tumbleweed than an oak. Most of it takes place in real time, although the middle third is considerably different and the pace is slower. We see different versions of the party from different points of view, as the Youngsters don’t know what’s going to happen and the Elders try not to reveal anything about their future. It’s a smart murder where the same person is the victim, investigator and suspect.

Paradoxes are frequent and explosive, such as the fact that the narrator seems to have simultaneously broken and not broken his nose, and that things are happening to his younger selves that he knows never happened to him. It’s an upside down world where he plays by rules he set down himself, which eventually hinder him when the Elders are not allowed to reveal anything.

The nature of the time travel is secondary – the story launches in that he is a time traveller, he invented the machine that lets him do it, and he lives the rest of his life at various spots throughout history. New York City, by 2071, is almost entirely abandoned, but no explanation is ever given as to why. In fact, we see very little of the world outside the hotel and the few surrounding blocks. I like this – the focus is not on the science, but merely on the character.

It’s dark, smart and perhaps prone to being a little verbose a times, but it ties up all the loose ends (as far as I could see), straightens out all the paradoxical events and ultimately shows that it’s not ever really possible to change the past and whatever happened, happened, even if not in the way you ever planned it to. If you like time travel, this is a great book to explore, but don’t dive in expecting a particularly easy read.

“Appointment With Death” by Agatha Christie (1938)

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He's got an opening at 2.40?

And unlike your dentist, He’s never late…

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed.”

Once more I drop down into the sordid, corpse-ridden world of Agatha Christie. For such a well-spoken, upper-class woman, it is surprising how many people she killed over her career. However, in this one she seems to have held back, with fewer bodies falling than usual.

We’re back in the Middle East with this Christie adventure, this time in Jordan, visiting the great ancient city of Petra. There are a few people on the trip: newly qualified doctor Sarah King, elder psychologist Dr Gerard, prominent politician Lady Westholme and, of course, Hercule Poirot himself who just so happens to be around. With them all, are the Boynton family; six Americans visiting the sights. But they are a strange bunch. The children, Lennox, Raymond, Carol and Ginevra (as well as Lennox’s wife Nadia) are all of age, in their twenties, but they live under the shadow of the colossal Mrs Boynton, a huge presence in both physicality and personality.

The family do – and always have done – exactly what they are told. Mrs Boynton seems to enjoy controlling them, like some sick game. They are financially dependent on her and have their own methods of dealing with the nasty old woman. Sarah King tries to prise some of them away, to talk and engage with someone other than their fellow Boyntons, but her efforts are short-lived and squashed by the matriarch.

One evening, however, the large Buddha-like body of Mrs Boynton is found – dead, with only a small mark on her wrist indicating a potentially fatal injection. Poirot is asked by a local officer to solve the riddle. Poirot promises that he might not find any evidence that will stand up in court, but nonetheless he will try and find out what has happened anyway. Without even any real assurance that it is murder, Poirot has twenty-four hours to point the finger.

Although it took a third of the book for the murder to happen, the first part isn’t wasted, filling us in on the crimes of this old hag and the struggles faced by her family. The characters around them are all equally horrified by the lady and so they too begin to look like suspects. There are red herrings galore, too many hypodermic needles sitting about, and no one’s timings are completely consistent. It ties up neatly at the end (I’ve seen some reviewers complaining that it’s too neat – if you don’t like the “happily ever after” touch in books, don’t read the epilogue) and I was, once again wrong. Although … not entirely. Not only has Poirot by now become something of an expert of criminals, I am getting more and more familiar with the way Christie’s mind works. I worked out a couple of plot points before they were revealed but, yes, as with the actual murderer, I was wildly off course once more.

A nice touch in this book is the idea of how Poirot’s previous adventures are recounted by other characters. It’s announced to us on numerous occasions throughout the canon that Poirot is world famous, but here his part in both The ABC Murders and Murder On The Orient Express are mentioned. In fact, the latter has the solution hinted at (although not ruined for those who have yet to read that one) and a character tries to use Poirot’s methods in that case against him.

It’s all done very well, and Christie is on top form with this one, bringing together a tight cast of characters, all of whom are equally likely to have done it when viewed from afar.

“The Gospel Of Loki” by Joanne M. Harris (2014)

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gospel-of-loki[1]“All of us came from fire and ice.”

I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I’m a mythology nerd. I love the myths of old, and the idea that maybe the stories of our time will be myths for those distantly in the future. I even like to take concepts from them in my own writing, be they Greek, Egyptian, Celtic or Christian. The Norse myths are some of those that I’ve taken a passing interest in, but never settled down to study in any particular depth, so this was my chance. Another present from my editor friend and, by this time, I know that anything she selects for me will be a winner.

This is a retelling of the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki, the trickster god who caused more drama than delight in the days of old. As it turned out, I knew more about the Norse myths than I thought I did, but there were still amazingly wonderful surprises within.

Loki comes from Chaos. He’s been there for ages, but one day decides to escape and see what the other Worlds have to offer. He meets Odin, Allfather, who swears allegiance to him, an offer which means that Loki is now tainted and cannot return to Lord Surt in the Chaos. Not that he especially wants to, and if he tries, he won’t last an eyeblink.

Now he has to try and win the favour of the gods, phenomenal characters like dim-witted Thor, caring Sigyn, irritating Honir, and Freyja, who is unable to walk past a mirror without having a look at her own beauty. The book unfolds almost like a series of short stories, which I suppose myths generally are, so each time we see Loki struggling to deal with a new situation. They are all classic stories that we’ve come to expect from gods – someone is promised something insanely expensive or impossible, or a mortal is challenging the gods to a battle of some kind. Loki becomes known as a liar and a tricky customer, willing to trade the safety and well-being of his friends to achieve his own ends, and yet they keep him around simply because they know he can talk them out of anything. He’s a demon with an answer to everything. But then things go too far and he finds himself cast from Asgard as a prophecy begins to worry the others…

A superbly clever book, it isn’t the first to take a story and turn it on its head and show the events from the villain’s point of view (Gregory Maguire has done it on a number of occasions, and Maleficent is about to show the other side of Sleeping Beauty) but that hardly matters. It’s always interesting to see – especially when it’s done well – because, after all, every antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. The characters are all wonderfully interesting and as flawed as all the classical gods are – it’s the big thing the classic myths have going for them against Christianity and the like: the gods are all so human – you can’t help but feel a certain warmth for them, even, or rather especially, Loki.

Norse mythology appears to be undergoing a tiny resurgance at the moment, thanks mostly to the Marvel films and The Avengers in particular, which feature Thor and Loki in big parts, but that’s not a complaint because mythology is always welcome. Those films are so ubiquitous now, that it’s all but impossible to not imagine Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston reprising their roles in your mind for the novel. Again, not a complaint, as they’re perfect in those roles.

This is a stunning book and if you have even a passing interest in mythology, it’s definitely worth looking at. Hell, even if you don’t, it’s a hugely entertaining read with some of the most fascinating characters in history.

“Lolito” by Ben Brooks (2013)

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lolito

I haven’t read “Lolita”, so don’t expect any comparasions…

“We’re fifteen and drinking warm cider under the cathedral grounds’ pine trees.”

Ben Brooks is my sworn enemy, although I don’t believe he’s aware of the fact. He was born four years after me, has had six books published, and the only thing that keeps me from giving up now and drowning my tears in a bottle of house wine is that we write in different genres and in a very different language.

I read another of his books a few years ago, Grow Up, and once I’d become less bitter, I actually rather enjoyed it, despite the strangeness of it. I thought I’d try again, and here I am with Lolito.

This is the story of fifteen-year-old Etgar Allison. He has just discovered that his girlfriend of three years, Alice, has “sort of” cheated on him. When punching the other guy involved doesn’t solve anything, Etgar locks himself away, drinking heavily and calling Alice to call her a walrus. Bored, he stumbles into adult chatrooms where he meets Macy, a similarly bored older woman in need of a little comfort. He pretends to be a twenty-something mortgage broker and the two are soon engaging in cybersex.

Macy then announces that she’s going to be in London soon, so Etgar books a hotel to go and meet her. His actions are not those of a smart person, and indeed, I suppose, neither are hers, but they meet and things soon go down the path you would expect them to. But the consequences are dire, and no matter how either of them tries to justify what’s happened, they’ve definitely broken the law…

To be honest, the relationship, such as it is, between Macy and Etgar is probably the bit of the story that is easiest to believe. I suppose that some of my disregard for it comes from the fact that I was a late bloomer and have never been a rebellious soul. These characters are, almost without exception, vile and disgusting. Etgar watches gore videos online with Alice and drinks so much that, were he real, he would almost certainly end up with his stomach pumped. This also appears to be a world in which no one ever gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The kids – and they are indeed kids – are all fucking each other with such abandon that it shouldn’t be a surprise later on when one of the characters (at fourteen) has just had her second abortion, but it is. They’re busy pretending to be grown up, all doing drugs and drinking from the age of twelve upwards, but the language with which they speak is ultimately juvenile. In fact, the most sympathetic character is probably Macy, and even she’s less than pleasant.

And yet, despite my annoyance at Etgar and the others, there is definitely something about this book, much like the last one of Brooks’ I read. I’ve no idea what it is, but there is something intangible that just lingers out of reach, but makes you want to carry on and find out what happens. At one point I thought it was a sweetness, but that quickly dissolved. Maybe I’m too old, and maybe this is what “the kids” are doing these days, but how many fourteen-year-old girls really know what a golden shower is, much less want to perform one?

I cannot explain this book adequately. I liked it, but the reasons are lost to me. It’s ridiculous, disgusting and runs very close to the bone, and yet there’s a heart in here.  The characters seem cartoonish, sure, but something about them draws you in, regardless. The book is worth a read (although it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart or those of a sensitive disposition – it is, after all, about paedophilia above anything else) and maybe you’ll find something in it and be able to explain to me what it is.

In the reviews on the inside flap, a Tim Key describes Brooks as “a frightening young talent”. I have to agree – he’s talented, but my god if he isn’t horrifying.