“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1843)

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“Marley was dead: to begin with.”

I have been asked before how I can consider myself such an avid student of literature when I have (until now) entirely bypassed Dickens. Alright, not entirely. Great Expectations was one of my set texts at university, but I tired of Pip and his accomplices after four or five pages, discarded the novel, and blagged my way through the associated essay. (Stay in school, kids.) Finally though, at the age of twenty-nine, I have read an entire Dickens story. It’s a short one, true, but it counts, and it could really only be read at this time of year.

Do I even need to recount the plot? Ebenezer Scrooge, a notorious miser and uncharitable fellow, loathes joy, happiness and, above all, Christmas, despite all the “fools” around him rejoicing in the festivity. One Christmas Eve, he is visited by the spirit of his former partner, Jacob Marley, who tells him that three ghosts will come to him to get him to mend his ways, thus beginning one of the most famous tales in the English language.

We, of course, all think we know the story and yes, all the usual stuff we remember is in here, usually put into whichever adaptation we’re watching. But the thrill of reading the original text comes from learning that there is so much more. I didn’t know that Scrooge had a sister, but it was obvious really, given we knew he had a nephew. There are more ghosts than just the four famous ones in the text, and we see Scrooge go through more visions than I’m used to. Tiny Tim is as sweet as ever, making it all the more heartbreaking when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come reveals what happens to him.

Scrooge is vile, yes, but it feels almost comedic a lot of the time. Indeed, Dickens is far more prone to a pun or a gag than I would have given him credit for. The true barbarity of Scrooge’s deeds and personality come when we see the Cratchit family and how they struggle, although even in the dire situation they find themselves in, Bob still raises a toast to his employer on Christmas Day, further emphasising what a good man he is. Even Scrooge cannot fail to be touched by this. On the other side of the comedy, the chapter featuring the aforementioned Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is very creepy and oddly tense, even though you know exactly what is going to happen. Scrooge seems slow on the uptake regarding whose death he is being shown in these scenes, but it’s quite easy to read him as being in denial.

Much as I’m not sorry I’ve finally read the text – and in particular, I have to praise it for one of the very best opening lines in all fiction, and perhaps the greatest use of a colon ever – I’m mostly just pleased that I can finally say that I have read Dickens. As for the story? I’ll be sticking to the Muppet adaptation, which is far and away the best retelling of the novella, and given that it uses so much of the original text, may also be the one truest to its source material. Kermit improves everything.

It’s a little early to celebrate, but nonetheless if I forget to do so again, may I wish a very merry Christmas to all my friends and readers. Have a lovely season, and here’s to a wonderful new year.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Red House Mystery” by A. A. Milne (1922)

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“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.”

A. A. Milne, despite all his work as a playwright, poet, comedic journalist and soldier, is these days remembered primarily for just one thing: Winnie the Pooh. His life story, or at least the part focused around Pooh, featured heavily in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is therefore easy for many these days to assume that that was all he did. However, four years before a certain bear of very little brain wandered into our hearts, Milne created an entirely different story, set a long way away in space and substance from the adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. This is Milne’s only foray into the world of mystery writing.

The Red House Mystery opens with the servants of the titular property discussing their master, Mark Ablett. It seems he’s just received a letter that his ne’er-do-well brother Robert has returned from Australia and is coming to see him that afternoon. Not long after the arrival of Robert, however, a gunshot is heard from somewhere in the house.

Antony Gillingham, a stranger in these parts, has got off at the village train station on a whim, upon learning that his old friend Bill is staying at the Red House. He arrives just as Mark’s friend and manservant Cayley is struggling to get into the house to learn who has died. Robert is dead on the floor, and Mark has gone missing. The police speak to the servants and the guests who had been staying at the house, and the latter are bundled off quickly when it transpires they were all off playing golf. Bill, however, stays on to keep Antony company, as the newcomer has decided to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and needs a Watson. Without telling the police, the pair set about solving the murder themselves…

The novel is filled with most of the trappings of the classic crime story. There are secret passages, missing keys, a dredged lake … and yet what’s really missing are suspects. From the off, it seems there are very few people who could possibly have committed the crime, so quite quickly it stops being a “whodunnit” and instead a “howdunnit”. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as they can be just as engaging.

I did find the character in the Sherlock role, Antony, to be faintly unbelievable though. His guesses are always correct, never mind how flimsy the evidence that points him to a conclusion. While with Sherlock Holmes himself, you sort of accept it as he’s been training himself for years on how to be the world’s greatest detective, but Antony is by his own admission an amateur, so some of his leaps of faith are a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I didn’t mind too much. The characters are funny, and there’s definitely the occasional burst of the kind of wit and humour that Milne used to great effect in his time with Punch, and while writing Winnie the Pooh.

Alexander Woolcott noted that this novel was “one of the three best mystery stories of all time”, but I think he’s being rather too generous on that front. It has its place, certainly, and Milne can happily be counted among the authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but if you ask me, it is right that we remember Winnie the Pooh over this. I don’t anyone would really disagree.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Death Of Grass” by John Christopher (1956)

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“As sometimes happens, death healed a family breach.”

For all my love of city breaks and wandering around London, I’m a child of the countryside through and through. Last time I was working in a London office for a few weeks, it was only a matter of days before I had to escape for my lunch break to the nearest green space to sit on some spongy turf. (Mint Street Park, incidentally, is charming.) My hometown is surrounded by field, forest and farm, and it’s great. So the idea of living in a world suddenly that lacked so much greenery feels like one of the worst dystopian scenarios available. Despite me promise to myself that I’d stop reading dystopian fiction until we stopped living in one, I found myself this weekend engaged in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a sort of distant cousin to The Day of the Triffids.

John and David Custance have lived very different lives. While David inherited the family farm and concerned himself solely with growing crops and raising livestock, John adopted a more sedate and comfortable life in London, working as an engineer. Both, however, are troubled by the news from Asia. A virus has caused the rice harvest to fail, and massive swathes of the continent are now starving and suffering from near-total anarchy. The rest of the world is working on a cure, but everyone’s quietly convinced that something like that could never happen in the West.

But soon the virus mutates and now is taking out all grasses, from lawns to wheat, barley and rye. With enormous food shortages across the whole world, there soon comes the discovery that the government have been lying: there is no cure for the virus. The Prime Minister is rumoured to be arranging a plan to drop atom bombs on the UK’s major cities, leaving a smaller population to feed on whatever root vegetables and fish can be harvested, but panic sets in before that, and soon anarchy finds its way to British shores too. John rounds him his family and friends, and a couple of other stragglers, and they set off on a cross-country journey to his brother’s farm, where they hope they will find salvation. They just have to make sure they don’t lose their humanity along the way.

John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) has created here a terrifying world. While the virus is what causes all of the problems, it’s fair to say that the real villain here are humans themselves. As soon as word leaks out that there’s no hope, everyone begins to change. John takes the lead of his group and becomes almost fixated by his role of “tribal chief”. He quickly becomes harsher and more stubborn. His friend, Roger, who has always been very jovial and unable to take much seriously, seems to be sobered up quickly by the events. His sense of humour can’t cope with this new world. Even Ann, John’s wife, changes and becomes unafraid to wield a weapon.

Hands down, though, creepiest character is Henry Pirrie. He’s an older man, a gunsmith, who joins the group with his wife because he knows how to use weapons better than any of them. He is, however, more cunning than they first realise, and uses the new lawless state as an excuse to fulfill his fantasies. He’s deeply unpleasant, but John appears unable to be able to do away with him. Perhaps the most tragic figures are the children, who seem so full of life but the reader knows that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

The science behind a lot of it seems sound to me. The rise of monocultures and pesticides have led to this virus being able to spread and mutate easily. It does make one wonder whether we’d be able to halt something like this before it got out of hand. The only science that seems particularly dated is the use of atom bombs to destroy the cities. While I understand, theoretically, that a smaller population would find it easier to survive than a large one, it does beg the question: did no one consider that the nuclear fallout would render the entire country sterile anyway?

When the Financial Times reviewed the book (I didn’t know they did that), they said, “of all fiction’s apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting” and I really have to agree. Aliens, zombies and nuclear weapons may be scary, but there’s something insidiously terrifying about this one. I think it’s the speed at which society collapses (an issue I deal with in my second novel, see below) and how soon people are willing to turn on one another. The fact that something like this has already begun to happen – a fungus called Ug99 has been spreading around wheat fields in Africa and the Indian subcontient since 1999 – only makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Brilliant, shocking, and maybe a little too prescient for comfort.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

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“Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion.”

As first lines go, that’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The opening paragraph describing the many moods of Britain’s capital should alone have given J. Jefferson Farjeon a place at the table of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, odds are you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t. He somehow slipped from the public consciousness despite writing over sixty novels that were, in his lifetime, highly regarded. Fans included the famously tough critic Dorothy L. Sayers, and it seems remarkable that someone so prolific could now be forgotten. Still, thanks once again to the British Library who are continuing to rediscover forgotten gems from the Golden  Age of Detective Fiction, and have brought to us here one of the alphabetically-last novels in the library. Ladies and gentlemen, The Z Murders.

We open in London, with a train pulling into Euston station at five o’clock in the morning. On it is Richard Temperley, come to London to visit his sister, and having had a disagreeable journey sat next to a loud snorer. Arriving in the city far too early to arrive at his sister’s house, he goes to a hotel over the road where he can sleep in the lounge until the dawn fully breaks. Unfortunately, the snorer comes too and is soon seen slumped in a nearby chair. But he’s not snoring anymore – he’s dead.

Shocked, Temperley examines the body and it becomes apparent he’s been shot. Is the incident at all related to the pretty but tense young woman who fled from the lounge mere minutes before the body was discovered? After the police have investigated, Temperley notices the woman’s purse forgotten in one of the chairs. He decides not to inform the police of his findings, and instead seeks the woman out. The police, however, are not stupid, and everyone is soon embarking on a game of cat and mouse that will take them all over the country, by train and taxi, on the hunt for a serial killer with a mysterious motive.

For some reason I keep being surprised when books of this age are funny, like I forgot it was possible that our ancestors had a sense of humour. The book is heavy in silly moments and smart quips, and the heroes are easily likeable. Richard Temperley is a bit gung-ho but is the sort of chivalrous chap who won’t think twice about crossing the country to help a woman in need. The woman in question, Sylvia Wynne, is secretive and you can’t be sure, really, how involved she is in everything. The policeman in charge of the case, Inspector James, is also a great character, and reminded me of Christie’s Inspector Japp, but there’s a suggestion that it’s actually his colleague Dutton who really knows what’s what.

Ted Diggs, the taxi driver who gets lumbered with driving Richard and Sylvia around the country is also great fun, and deeply fleshed out, perhaps slightly more so than even the main characters. Much of the humour comes from the difference in class between characters like Richard and Ted, which is common to novels of the time. In fact, it really is the characters that make this story. The plot is fine, but hangs a bit loose for me, and it’s a tiny bit farcical. Also, several details of it are never quite fully explained, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

The British Library also published Murder in White by Farjeon which was an unexpected success, so I daresay I’ll be returning to him at some point. After all, sixty to get through? Sounds like a challenge to me.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

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Not pictured: her gams that won’t quit

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

Every so often a book comes along that births or redefines a whole genre. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd blew wide open what was possible in a murder mystery. Mary Shelley is widely agreed to have invented science fiction with Frankenstein. And The Lord of the Rings ensured that in all future fantasy worlds the dwarves have beards and the elves are irritatingly smug. Dashiell Hammett takes his spot among these greats with The Maltese Falcon, popularising and cementing in many of the tropes associated with the hard-boiled detective novel. Though not the inventor of the genre – that title arguably falls to Carroll John Daly – it’s Hammett and his detective Sam Spade that we think of first when we find ourselves exploring this route.

It’s 1928, and a the beautiful Miss Wonderly has just walked into the offices of Spade and Archer. She wants them to tail a man called Floyd Thursby who has run off with her sister, and she’s worried. Before the night is over, Thursby is dead and so is Archer. The police immediately question Spade, who refuses to tell them anything.

Soon, Miss Wonderly is revealed to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who is on the trail of the Maltese Falcon, a statuette of a black bird worth millions of dollars. She however, is not the only one. Joel Cairo, a Greek homosexual and Casper Gutman, an enormously fat and desperate man, are both after it too, although no one seems to know where it is, and no one seems very keen on telling the truth or admitting who they’re working for or with.

Are any of them in it together? Who is the young man tailing Spade all over town? Was Archer’s wife really leaving him to run off with Spade? With his work cut out for him and the police on his tail, Spade must get to the bottom of the business with the Falcon before it’s too late and he’s found floating face-down in the harbour.

Sometimes you read a book and think, “Something is off about this but I’m not sure what”. I had that here, and it took a few chapters for it to sink in. The book is told in the third person, which is far from uncommon, but it is perhaps the purest third person novel I’ve ever read. At no point do we get any hint of what people are thinking, what occurred in their backstory, or how they feel about situations. We are only told what people look like, what they’re doing and what they say. It’s easy to see, because of this, why the film was so readily produced. It’s a very visual piece, focused in the here and now so you aren’t distracted by knowing about Spade’s childhood, or how Brigid feels about her involvement.

Spade himself is a difficult character to pin down. Despite the fact he’s emotionally detached, a chauvinist, and willing to let any and all the women in his life believe that he loves them and them alone, I don’t altogether dislike him. He’s sharp and determined, although his sense of justice may not always align with ours, and I also find him quite funny. When being questioned by the police, he’s more than happy to wind them up, and he isn’t fond of taking shit from anyone. He’s inordinately brave, although perhaps its just sheer foolishness, and I’d trust him to solve any case I had. I wouldn’t trust him to not sleep with my wife before he’s through, however.

Plotwise, I suppose it holds together well enough but I found myself drifting a few times, though as usual that’s more of my own fault than a failing in the text – it’s been a long week. I like the set up that seems to be taking the novel one way, only for it to shift abruptly onto another tangent, a device I like employing in my books. It’s iconic in the genre, and I spent much of suddenly wanting a cigarette, a trench coat, and a dame with legs that won’t quit to walk into my office. Even though I know she’s going to be trouble.

An interesting read, but I’m informed by a crime aficionado friend that Raymond Chandler is a step up again. I’ll get there soon.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Gently Does It” by Alan Hunter (1955)

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“Chief Inspector Gently, Central Office, CID, reached automatically into his pocket for another peppermint cream and fed it unconsciously into his mouth.”

Due to the sheer number of crimes that take place annually within fiction, it follows that there have been an awful lot of detectives invented to catch the criminals. Each has appeared with their own methods, and many of them are household names. Hercule Poirot relies on psychology. Miss Marple uses her knowledge of human nature to pin people down. Hamish Macbeth and Roy Grace are methodical and hard-working, Sherlock Holmes is highly observant, and Thornley Colton, now forgotten by most people, is blind and makes use of his highly-honed other senses. And then there’s George Gently, who does the graft and will stop at nothing to ensure justice is done.

In the first of the George Gently books, our hero is on holiday hoping to do a spot of fishing but finds himself roped into helping the local constabulary when a dead body is found. Nicholas Huyssman, a Dutch timber merchant, is discovered by the maid on the floor of his study having been stabbed in the back. His son, Peter, is believed to have been the last person to see him alive, but he’s gone missing, which leads the police to come to the obvious conclusion as to the killer’s identity. Gently, however, is not so sure. There are plenty of other people with a motive.

Huyssman was domineering to his daughter Gretchen, was disliked by his chauffeur Fisher, and the manager of his timber yard, Mr Leaming, potentially stands to inherit the business now that his boss is out the way. Gently must get everyone to admit the truth and work out what connects a knife stashed in a chest, a missing key, a football match and a cache of stolen money to find his killer.

There’s something oddly likeable about George Gently. The local police find him irritating and they clash horns quite badly, given that Gently won’t just settle for the first answer and instead is determined to work out exactly what has happened. It actually feels like the premise of The Poisoned Chocolates Case working as a full plot. He is a smooth operator, knowing exactly what questions to ask and when to remain silent and let his interviewee fill the silence with something they may not meant to have let slip. He’s also shown to be good with children, and doesn’t ignore the potential a child has to be a good witness, as long as you can tailor your questions to their interests.

But his most overriding feature is his obsession with peppermint creams. Rarely does a page go by without him popping another one of the sweets into his mouth, and he seems to become agitated when he doesn’t have any to hand, then relying on his pipe to provide a distraction. In fact, the book is quite heavy on food in general, often describing Gently and his dining companions’ meals in a curious level of detail. This does lead to some good adverbs when Hunter describes Gently as talking with his mouth full, the best of all being when Gently speaks while crunching through toast, his voice coming off “butteredly”.

There are over forty books in the George Gently series, and while I’m in no immediate hurry to dive into them all, I daresay that I’ll drop in again in the future and see what he’s up to, particularly if this is an anomaly and he behaves differently around his own staff. It’s a good solid crime novel though, not a whodunnit as Hunter politely reminds his readers at the book’s opening, and the solution is immensely satisfying.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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