“Colour Scheme” by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

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“When Dr James Ackrington limped into the Harpoon Club on the afternoon of Monday, January the thirteenth, he was in a poisonous temper.”

I keep reading reviews that tell me Ngaio Marsh was an even better mystery writer than Agatha Christie. No disrespect meant to Marsh, but she isn’t. She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but her stories lack something that Christie’s had, although I’m not sure I would ever be able to pinpoint exactly what it was. They’re just different, and that’s almost certainly due to a difference in upbringing. This is the third Marsh novel I’ve read now, and I’m finally heading back to her homeland. It’s time to solve a murder in New Zealand.

The Claire family run a small guest house on the North Island, notable for its access to the hot springs and their curative properties. The family are having difficulty with the businessman Maurice Questing, who is determined to take over and expand the hotel himself to bring in more money, with Colonel Claire firmly under his thumb. Elsewhere, the chief of the nearby Maori tribe, the Te Rarawas, has concerns that Questing seems very interested in some of his ancestors weaponry, and there’s talk of a spy in the area who is responsible for the sinking of a nearby ship.

Things come to a head on the night of a concert held by the Maoris for their white visitors. Maurice Questing has made no friends among the staff and guests at the hotel, so when he disappears into the night and the police find evidence that he may have ended up drowned in one of the hot mud pools, there is little sympathy. It does however raise that eternal question – whodunnit? With a love triangle building, a number of suspicious figures in the frame, and the threat of fifth columnists, the police have their work cut out for them.

Being a native Brit who hasn’t left the continent, never mind the hemisphere, it is always interesting to explore another country via literature. New Zealand feels almost as much of a character here as the humans, and Marsh seems respectful of Maori culture, incorporating figures and their beliefs into her work. She is almost at pains to remind the reader that these islands were inhabited long before Westerners turned up. There are some interesting characters here too, particularly Mr Gaunt, the Shakespearean actor who has been coerced into attending the spa against his will, and now fans are turning up in droves to catch a glimpse of him.

While there is a conventional murder mystery in here, it takes a long time to kick in as Marsh lays down the numerous threads required for the final chapters and the solution to play out. While there’s no confirmation as to which character is even going to end up dead, you quickly get a good idea. Then we get the usual scenes of the suspects all discussing their movements as the police arrive. There is a final twist, but I’d seen it coming a long time before it arrived.

It isn’t my favourite of the Marsh books I’ve read so far, but not so off-putting that I’d never return to her. You can call her the Kiwi Christie, by all means, but she still comes in second place to me.

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“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

“The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)

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“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

Last week, I watched – for the first time – the 2012 comedy film Pitch Perfect, and I promise you there is a tangential link coming here in case you’re wondering why I’m starting a post about Raymond Chandler by talking about Anna Kendrick. Upon finishing the film, with my friend unimpressed at my unimpressed reaction, she said, “This is the trouble when you come to things too late. You’ve built them up in your head and they never live up to your expectations.” She’s right. As someone who gets to things in his own time, I’m often behind the curve on some of the big titles in popular culture. In the case of Raymond Chandler, I might be about eighty years too late…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by General Sternwood to track down a blackmailer who’s causing trouble for his daughter Carmen. He also lets slip that the husband of his other daughter, Vivian, has gone missing, and while he doesn’t ask Marlowe to find him, it seems that just about everyone else expects that he has. The Sternwood daughters are something of a handful, and Marlowe is caught up in something rather full-on, and that’s before the first body turns up. He finds himself embroiled in a case involving a missing car, some nude photographs, a stalker without a clue, and the disappeared wife of a gangster.

I’d read over the years a number of quotes from Chandler, most of them being either incredibly wise (“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”) or very funny (“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.”), and I think this had led me to believe that this books were a non-stop riot of one-liners and witty words of wisdom. At yet, instead I found myself being the one having to fight off a big sleep as I ploughed through the text. I found that characters blurred together and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the eventual fates of any of them.

It’s not badly written, and it has a fairly interesting story, but something about it failed to capture me. I was told that Chandler was better than Hammett, but there’s not much of a difference. Chandler possibly just clinches it with his dry wit. (“You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record.”) Like Sam Spade, Marlowe isn’t necessarily a fully unlikable character, although that’s purely in the context of him being fictional. He’s an interesting creation, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. Is he as iconic as Sherlock Holmes as some people claim? To me, no, but I can see the tropes and cliches being put into place and he is the Ur-PI that all others will come to follow.

Hard boiled crime looks fun from the outside, but whenever I dive in I just find that it doesn’t live up to my expectations.

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“Electric Dreams” by Philip K. Dick (2017)

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“Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearily home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.”

I’ve always quite enjoyed Philip K. Dick’s work, but I tend to find it quite dense and not the sort of thing you can dip into. His mind was capable of creating some truly excellent, prescient creations, and they linger on your mental palate for a long time after you’re done. In an attempt to delve deeper into his work without having to lose myself in an entire novel, I picked up Electric Dreams, ten of his short stories that were recently adapted for TV. Although I didn’t see the series, in reading about it, there seem to have been a lot of changes made to the stories, with a number of them only having a central theme as the connecting link.

In typical Philip K. Dick fashion the stories explore ideas of technology, consumerism, capitalism, fear and a future that feels aeons away and yet also right around the corner. Here’s a quick summary of all the stories present.

In “Exhibit Piece”, a historian from the 22nd century enters into his exhibition of 20th century life, only to find that his wife and children are there waiting for him, and he begins to be unable to tell which version of reality is true – is he dreaming of the past or the future? In “The Commuter”, a man working for the trains is flummoxed when a customer asks for his regular ticket to Macon Heights, a town that doesn’t exist. Confused, he sets off on his own journey to find the impossible town, and perhaps stumbles into a whole new world.

In “The Impossible Planet”, an old woman’s dying wish is to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth, the legendary home of humanity. The only snag is that no one can be sure where it is or even if it ever existed, but some people will promise anything for money. In “The Hanging Stranger”, a man becomes disturbed when he sees a figure hung from a lamppost, and even more disturbed when he seems to be the only person in town who finds this odd. Realising that his town has been taken over, he flees, but he may just be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. In “Sales Pitch”, a domestic robot has an ingenious way of selling itself – it turns up in your house and doesn’t leave until you’ve bought it. This is all too much for one man, however, who has had enough of this world’s constant bombardment of advertisements.

“The Father-Thing” is easily the creepiest story in the collection, featuring a boy who discovers his father has been taken over by something very un-human, giving him a new personality. He rounds up an unlikely group of friends to help kill the impostor. In “The Hood Maker”, there has been a ban on privacy and a new race of mind readers have begun to control society. In “Foster, You’re Dead”, the fear of the Cold War is turned up to eleven, as a father refuses to cave to peer pressure to buy an underground bunker, and his son is desperate for his family to conform before it’s too late. In “Human Is”, a toxicologist journeys to a distant planet for work, only to return with an entirely new personality, leading to governmental involvement when it’s theorised his body has been taken over by an alien refugee. Finally, “Autofac” features humans in a post-apocalyptic America trying to break the new technology so they can return to a simpler time and take over their own lives.

It wouldn’t be a review of a short story collection if I didn’t say that this is an uneven collection of hits and misses. Some of them, such as “The Commuter” are gripping and fascinating, but others, “Autofac”, for example, are quite dull. The best story to my mind is “The Impossible Planet”, as the ending gave me a proper chill up my spine. It’s one of those stories where not much happens, but it’s all the more compelling for that. “Foster, You’re Dead” is also really good, as it plays on consumer culture using extremes. It posits that now everyone has got a car and a television, capitalism still needs to function, so it does so through fear, and every time the population buys the latest bomb shelter, the media will almost immediately announce a new threat that will require the purchase of an upgrade, or even a whole new machine that’s twice as powerful as the last one. It’s pretty much exactly what we see with smartphones.

The main characters are pretty much all men, with women relegated to the role of housewife for the most part, but these stories were all written in the fifties when times were different and gender roles were drawn clearly. The stories, while prescient, do have that feeling of a future devised by the people from the past. We’re all familiar with what people used to think the future would look like – an occasional term for this is zeerust – and many of these tropes are played out here, with personal robots, constant advertising, and efficient interplanetary travel.

It’s not often I read the same genre twice in a row, but that’s two dystopian futures down in quick succession. I’m sure it won’t harm me to much to go for a third…

“Portrait Of A Murderer” by Anne Meredith (1933)

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“Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death though violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.”

One of the key features of many Christmas celebrations is surrounding yourself suddenly with people that you perhaps don’t really want to be spending time with, namely: your family. When families come together, often arguments follow soon after, as we’ve seen in numerous books. When the Gray family return to the nest for their festive party, things are perhaps a little more extreme than we could imagine.

Adrian Gray has never particularly got on with the six children, nor their partners, so when the whole family must gather at King’s Poplar, fireworks are sure to fly. Things go from bad to worse, however, when on Christmas morning Adrian is found dead at his library desk, head bludgeoned in with a paperweight. It’s enough to put a dampener on anyone’s celebrations.

But this isn’t a murder mystery. We know who killed him, and the novel instead explains what the killer did in the immediate aftermath to frame another member of the household, and we are left seeing if the truth will out. Will the wrong person be sentenced? Can a maid’s private midnight celebration unravel the carefully executed fraud? Can the police catch up to the real killer? It’s only a matter of time.

The British Library Crime Collection, I don’t think, has let me down so far and I’ve been captivated with most everything they’ve dug up from the archives and republished. This, however, was something of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s engaging in it’s own way, and an interesting and unusual take on the murder mystery conceit – but I could at no point get too invested in any of the characters, all of whom are unpleasant and selfish. The act of knowing who the killer is and instead watching how they escape the clutches of justice was much better portrayed in Antidote to Venom, although I admit I like the twist on the usual tale by letting us be aware of the murderer.

Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more at a different time of year, or in a different mood – it’s been a weird week – and I found the style to be needlessly wordy. The cast of characters is pretty substantial, and while they all get an introduction at the novel’s opening, a lot of them become irrelevant quickly, and I found myself confusing who was married and what everyone’s motives were. A larger cast may work in a situation where the killer is unknown, but here, there’s little need for them all, except as to act as an instant jury.

An interesting take on the murder mystery genre, but not a stand out example from the Golden Age.

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.

“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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