“Lies Sleeping” by Ben Aaronovitch (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All aboard!

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

“An Exaggerated Murder” by Josh Cook (2015)

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“A daredevil’s thrill surged up his spine as the blood approached the toes of his shoes; an inspiring and destroying thrill for criminals, detectives and other artists of existence.”

The only time I’ve ever found Sherlock Holmes palatable is when he was strolling around modern London looking like Benedict Cumberbatch. I don’t know why I found him more believable in that guise (and even then the realism had strained to breaking point by the time the series was wrapping up) but I never got on with him in the original books, and any attempt at parody usually ends in tragedy. This brings us to An Exaggerated Murder.

Private investigator Trike Augustine has a photographic memory. He never forgets a name, a date or a detail. This obviously annoys a lot of people. When a very wealthy man goes missing from his home, leaving only a bloodstained rug and a suspiciously tidy attic behind, Trike sets about trying to solve the mystery and grab the reward money. Unfortunately, a Sherlockian brain requires logic, and there’s precious little of that here.

While he tries to get to the bottom of things with his assistants, former FBI agent Max and starving artist Lola, it turns out that the clues make no sense. Why did the missing man hire a butler with a passion for knitting that he never sees? Who left a dead pig in Trike’s kitchen with a warning attached to it? Where is all the money? All Trike knows for sure is that he definitely picked the wrong week to give up smoking.

So, certainly, it’s a funny novel. Cook can tell a joke, has great comic timing, and really does wonders with metaphor and simile that would make Raymond Chandler happy. I also really enjoyed the supporting characters of Max and Lola, both of whom are indeed exaggerated in their abilities, but still seem more realistic than Trike. He is the key problem here. Billed as someone even cleverer than Sherlock Holmes, he is a man who has a memory unlike anything human, and can pick up details from the smallest things. He appears to be an expert in absolutely everything and can remember when things happened down to the minute. He never forgets a conversation, is able to extrapolate any information from any data within minutes, and has the traditional “uber-detective” trait of being a bit rubbish with people. I don’t buy any of it for a second. I get he’s meant to be abrasive and irritating, but the dial is turned up too far. With Dirk Gently, for example, this kind of madness works, but here, there’s something lacking.

It’s a shame because there’s probably a good story in here, but it gets lost among Cook’s courting of the meta narrative, his habit of playing with form and the fact that absolutely nothing makes sense. The book appears to be laced with references to Ulysses, but since that’s not a book I’ve ever read – or am ever likely to – they all go over my head, and there are therefore many things that I don’t understand. It’s hard to even say that it needed another edit, but because it probably didn’t. Like I said above, the jokes are solid and a lot of the silliness works very well. But as a mystery novel, I was left wanting more and not really sure what it was I read after all.

It’s been a long week, so I’m going back to the expert to see how it’s done. Another Christie will be up in the next few days.

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

“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

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

“The Wimbledon Poisoner” by Nigel Williams (1990)

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“Henry Farr did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife.”

Wimbledon, to most people around the world, is simply the place where the tennis happens. If you’re of a certain age, you may also associate it with the Wombles, the rodent rubbish collectors of the common. This fairly affluent area of south London became central to three of Nigel Williams’ books, known as The Wimbledon Trilogy. This suburban murder mystery is the first.

Forty-year-old solicitor Henry Farr is having something of a mid-life crisis. He has realised that his life has devolved to containing nothing but an unhappy marriage, a demanding daughter, an unfulfilling job, and weekend visits to Waitrose. The only thing that makes him happy is writing his magnum opus, The Complete History of Wimbledon, and even that has lost some of its lustre after it was rejected by a publisher. He manages to put most of the fault on his wife, Elinor, and decides that he needs to kill her. He debates strangling, electrocution and pushing her off a cliff before realising that his method should be poison, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s bought some thallium from the chemist and is smearing it onto that evening’s chicken.

However, Elinor is in one of her “moods”, and rejects dinner after all, much to the annoyance of Henry. Unfortunately, friend and local doctor Donald has popped in for dinner and eats the chicken instead, which proves to be his last act. Furious that his murder attempt has failed – and saddened by the death of his friend – Henry decides to make a second attempt. Soon, his friends and neighbours begin falling like dominoes and things begin to get out of control as he continues to fail in killing his wife. He needs to stop, not least because DI Rush from over the road has begun hanging around more often than usual, and Henry is sure that his taciturn nature is just a front for what he really suspects is happening in their quiet neighbourhood…

Suburbia is broadly assumed to be a very boring place indeed. It is a place between the city and the country where people have gone to raise families and absolutely nothing exciting happens at all. Therefore, in fiction, the suburbs are incredibly thrilling places, with all sorts of things going on in them, from wizards and vampires hiding among the normal people, to every other resident being a murderer. Williams really plays up the smallness of the situation, with Henry knowing everyone in the street and discussing them only in terms of their nickname and house number. We all have people in the street that we don’t really know the names of, but refer to as things like Jungian Analyst with the Winebox or Unpublished Magical Realist. Some of the names are brilliantly obscure and make little sense, their reasoning lost to time which feels very real. I think all of the action takes place in Wimbledon and it becomes the key focus of the novel in many ways.

Henry isn’t especially unlikable, but then again, not many of the characters are. You don’t wish any of them dead, sure, so you still have some empathy as the list of the dead grows, but you’d also be hard-pushed to find a solid reason to bring them back again. Of their time, while some of the characters have embraced feminism and environmentalism, most of the others are still small-minded, racist, sexist and unwilling to engage with modern society. I’ve recently binge-watched the entire series of Ever Decreasing Circles, and you get the same feeling of a “little England”, where everyone should be obliged to be white, straight, in steady employment and part of the local cricket team. Of course, at least there none of them were trying to kill each other (as far as we know).

The ongoing madness and the escalation of murders is done very well, and in some ways the book is a classic farce. Yet, as it becomes more objectively ridiculous, it stays engaging and still feels real. It’s effortlessly funny and it doesn’t need to reach far for the jokes, simply relying on observation and the interaction between the characters. We definitely need more comedy novels these days and while the likes of Jasper Fforde and Stevyn Colgan are doing their best, the wider publishing world seems to have little interest. The British are obsessed with murder and we pride ourselves on our humour – why are books like this not held in higher esteem or considered “worthy”? A mystery for the ages.

In the meantime, I recommend this delightfully dark and silly comedy of manners.

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

“Death Of A Dentist” by M. C. Beaton (1997)

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“It was a chill autumn in the Highlands of Scotland when Police Constable Hamish Macbeth awoke in hell.”

I hate the dentist. Not my dentist himself, he’s a perfectly personable Greek chap who doesn’t make me feel guilty about not flossing, but the whole process in general. I guess I resent someone fiddle about with my mouth, take sharp implements to my teeth and gums and possibly make me bleed, only for me to then have to pay them for the privilege. Still, better than being toothless, I suppose. This mood is fresh as I had my check-up only this morning, and it’s sheer coincidence that I happened to be reading this book today, too. I still decided not to take it to the waiting room anyway, in case I looked suspicious.

Dr Frederick Gilchrist has a reputation has a terrible dentist, prone to pulling out any teeth that are causing problems rather than fixing them. Despite this, he’s also very cheap, so there are a lot of people going about the Highlands with not many teeth. When PC Hamish Macbeth wakes up one morning with unbearable toothache and no desire to drive to through terrible weather to his dentist, he instead decides to see Gilchrist. Unfortunately, the dentist is dead, poisoned in his chair with a hole drilled in every tooth. While no one seems too sorry to have seen him go, there’s apparently no one around who actively wanted him dead.

Elsewhere, things are becoming increasingly confusing. Hamish has heard rumours that two local brothers are running an illegal still. At a nearby hotel, thousands of pounds have been stolen from a safe. And a beautiful, charming woman has just arrived in the village and caught Hamish’s eye. It seems the village bobby has his work cut out for him.

I return to Lochdubh as recently promised and find myself charmed once more by Highland village life. The same problem exists here as does with Midsomer Murders and Murder She Wrote, simply that small places have crime rates higher than Chicago or New York. Nonetheless, you overlook this because of the sheer joy of the thing. The murder and the burglary are both set up in the first chapter, with the illegal still coming along not long after, so you’re trying to solve three crimes, none of which seem to have much evidence to help them along, and the cast of characters is as ever quite wide, although few of them seem to have any reason to commit any of the crimes, so I found myself left scratching my head and wondering who were actually meant to be the suspects. The subplot of Hamish finding another lovely lady to spend his time with also feels unfinished and ends too abruptly for me.

Otherwise, it’s a treat. Hamish is still one of the finest detectives in fiction, and the minutia of village life is played out well, with characters who all know one another and interact naturally, showing how villagers often end up living in one another’s pockets and no one’s business is safe for long. This is best shown by the local seer, Angus Macdonald, who claims to have a second sight but more than likely just has a very good ear for gossip. Fairly bloodless in the manner on a classic Christie, in fact the only bit that truly made me shudder was the fact that the body was found with all his teeth drilled. Makes my molars tingle at the very thought of it.

A quick, joyful read.

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

“Death Of A Celebrity” by M. C. Beaton (2002)

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“Hamish Macbeth did not like change, although this was something he would not even admit to himself, preferring to think of himself as a go-ahead, modern man.”

Four years ago, somehow, I read the second book in the Hamish Macbeth series. At the time, I heaped praise on the man, suggesting that he had been forgotten as one literary’s great detectives, and found the book fun and interesting. At the end, I made a promise to return soon. I did not return soon. My grandfather, however, recently discovered M. C. Beaton and Hamish’s world, and now whenever he finds one in a charity shop, buys it, reads it and passes it on to me. The stack is building, so it was time I returned to Lochdubh, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long.

The sleepy Scottish village of Lochdubh is rocked when TV reporter Crystal French turns up to record footage for her new show, Highland Life. Unfortunately for the locals, it seems to be less about what it’s like living in a remote crofter’s village and more about Crystal and her media team digging up every scandal for miles around. Within days she’s made plenty of enemies, not least Hamish Macbeth, the village constable, who tickets her for speeding and does not take kindly to a bribery attempt. In revenge, Crystal plans an episode dedicated to embarrassing Hamish.

It never comes to pass, however, as Crystal’s body is found out in the hills. It was apparently suicide, but the rest of the media team don’t seem so sure – someone that keen on the spotlight surely wouldn’t end their own life? Unfortunately, Crystal has made a lot of enemies in her short time in the Highlands, and so the list of suspects is long. Hamish must also do battle with his new superior, DCI Carson, who isn’t used to Hamish’s methods, and the potential affections of local journalist and astrologer, Elspeth Grant, if he is to solve the murder.

Hamish Macbeth remains a man with the most Scottish name in history and the most unorthodox policing methods. He has little interest in proper procedure if it interferes with solving a case, and as he is the only policeman in the village, it’s generally not a problem. He is, however, a great copper, and always solves the case due to his ability to notice things that others don’t. Being in a small community means he knows everybody and is well-liked, so people don’t tend to lie to him or withhold information. Like most detectives in fiction, he loves the job but has other interests too – in this case, fishing, caring for his animals and cooking. An interesting character thrown in to the mix is DCI Carson, who has never come across a man like Hamish (or a village like Lochdubh) and finds himself, against his will, charmed by both man and village. He has a grudging respect for Hamish, even though his superiors and colleagues often talk the man down. The relationship between the two men is lovely.

The plot is clever enough, but several parts hang on the psychic abilities of Elspeth Grant, and it’s never properly clarified whether there is genuinely something about the occult going on, or if she just knows more than she likes to reveal. If she is genuinely having psychic visions, it gives the book – and I suppose, series – a different tone, as adding supernatural elements to a murder mystery is a little like cheating. Nonetheless, it all holds together and the clues are all there, even if they’re perhaps a little more blatant than they were during the Golden Age. Beaton is still a brilliant writer though, and the story fizzes and pops with charm, humour and suspense.

Sorry, Hamish. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

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

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