“The Mysterious Affair At Styles” by Agatha Christie (1921)

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“The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided.”

Ninety-eight years ago this January, a book was published that changed everything. It wasn’t the first murder mystery, and it wasn’t the first bit of detective fiction, but it would revolutionise the genre, introduce one of the most compelling and loved characters in fiction, and lead to its author staking her claim as the bestselling author in history. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not just a great book because of its content, but what it stands for and what it led to. I begin my re-read of Agatha Christie the only place that is good and proper – at the beginning.

We find ourselves in England at some point during the Great War. Arthur Hastings has been invalided out of the army and is back home, at a loss, until he bumps into his old friend John Cavendish. Hastings takes up the offer of going to stay at his family’s country house, Styles, but when he arrives, things aren’t particularly rosy. Tensions are high as John’s mother, Emily, has recently remarried and her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, isn’t particularly popular with everyone else, not lead Emily’s sons or her companion Evelyn Howard.

Things reach a head, however, when Mrs Inglethorp dies one evening, apparently having been poisoned. It seems now that several of the residents would happily have seen her dead, and no one knows who they can trust. Hastings calls in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective of his acquaintance who happens to be living nearby with some fellow Belgian refugees. Poirot is regarded as one of the sharpest detective minds in the world, and with his fastidiousness and gentle touch, he begins investigating the murder, taking into account far too much strychnine, a suspicious doctor, a burnt will, a broken coffee cup and a smear of candle grease. Can he bring the villain to justice before it’s too late?

As the very first time we meet Poirot, this book does have a little bit of early weirdness, such as when we see Poirot run and gambol across a garden, something he’d never do in later books – particularly without his hat on. He is already an old man here, which Christie would come to regret when she then continued writing about him for fifty years. It gives a little of his backstory though and explains what he is doing in England, although none of this detracts from the plot, which, as ever with Christie, is king. I hadn’t read this one for many years, so I couldn’t remember the entire solution, but I could pick out half of it, and when you know, you can see the clues more obviously. Everything you need to know to solve it is there, but emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on the most important clues. When you get to Poirot explaining his solution at the end, he ties up absolutely every clue, be them major or throwaway lines that you didn’t take notice of, into a neat answer.

Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, and the influence of that is very clear here, as a hospital dispensary and a young pharmacist both feature somewhat prominently in the story. She naturally uses poison as her weapon of choice for her first murder, as she knows a lot about them, and would continue to do so through much of her career. The book also manages to tie in the Great War well, with even the setting providing more clues about the solution, and giving us an explanation as to why Hastings – who inexplicably is only thirty here, far younger than I recalled or the TV show suggested – isn’t currently on the front lines.

It feels neatly cyclical to be here again, as the last one I read was Curtain, which is Poirot’s final case and also takes place at Styles, with Hastings. It is a brilliant book, and the beginning of an unrivalled career. I’m so happy to be diving back into this world again. One down, seventy-nine to go…

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

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“Bats In The Belfry” by E. C. R. Lorac (1937)

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“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort!”

My re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue is almost upon us, and I’ll be kicking off with it as soon as 2019 rolls around. For now though, I turn to another writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a woman who has almost entirely been forgotten until the British Library dug her up again for reissue – E. C. R. Lorac.

At the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s cousin, talk naturally turns macabre between some of the guests. Young Elizabeth Leigh comments that there’s a game she’s played at her club – they take turns to suggest the best way to hide a dead body. Everyone seems content to join in, not taking it very seriously, but apparently all keen to share their theories. A short time later, Bruce is called away to France on urgent business, it seems that that’s the last anybody sees of him.

But then his suitcase and passport show up in a crumbling Notting Hill artist’s studio. There’s still no sign of Bruce himself, but there are many secrets that seem to be surrounding him. His friend Neil Rockingham was meant to see him in France, but he never turned up. Bruce was once a respected novelist, but has fallen on hard times, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his actress wife Sybilla. His young charge, Elizabeth, would love to be married to Robert Grenville, but it’s yet to be allowed. And then there’s the difficult issue of the strange artist Debrette, who might just have been blackmailing our missing man. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is put on the case and begins to learn more about the Belfry and quite who had the most cause to see Bruce Attleton disappear…

This novel, like apparently all of Lorac’s work (her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) slipped through the cracks of literary history but it’s no sad thing that she’s been rediscovered for the modern era. While her characters don’t particularly stand out as greats of the genre, they’re distinct from one another, and Inspector Macdonald is a very fine policeman and a man I would trust wholeheartedly. Other characterisation is still quite clever though, making use of tropes and ideas that perhaps a lesser author would have done something obvious with. Debrette, for example, has an enormous and distinctive beard, which would be quite useful as a disguise should someone be pretending to be him. But are they?

Actually, it’s London itself that sticks out most of all. It’s a very real version of the city in the thirties, with thick fog and people hidden round every corner. Not much has changed in eighty years in fact, as best indicated when Macdonald makes a comment that it’s quicker to walk through London than take a bus during rush hour.

A fairly good example of the genre, with the clues neatly seeded and all there for you if you’re paying attention – the early conversation about how best to dispose of a body becomes particularly prescient – and one that I’m pleased the British Library has dug up from the archives. Long may they continue to do so.

“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi (2017)

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“I’m just going up to the room for a second.”

I’ve never been one for travel or holidays where one sits by the pool or on the beach for hours at a time. If I’m somewhere new, I like to explore the museums and landscape. Some reading time is, of course, essential, but there’s only so much time you can spend laying in the sun in my opinion. However, despite the heatwave that ravaged the northern hemisphere for much of the last few months, the last week or so has been wet and chilly, so a beach might be a decent idea. Without the time or funds to take off to one, however, I instead hid myself inside a novel set on the sunny shores of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. However, this is a book, so there’s naturally trouble in paradise.

While enjoying a family holiday on the beautiful resort of Saint-Gilles, Liane Bellion goes to her hotel room for a moment leaving her husband Martial and daughter Sopha by the pool. When she hasn’t returned after an hour, Martial goes to find her, but all he finds is a locked room. When it’s opened, there’s no one inside, but no one ever saw her leave. The police are called and Martial is initially worried about the incident, but after a couple of days when Liane hasn’t returned, he grabs Sopha and the pair go on the run across the island, evading the police at every turn.

Things look worse when another body shows up, and Martial’s fingerprints are all over the weapon. Who is he, and what is he running from?

Honestly, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the story. The premise is great – a locked room mystery is always good fun – but I never properly clicked with any of the characters or their motives. Martial Bellion is a confusing character, at times a terrified husband but simultaneously a master criminal with the ability to outrun an entire police force. While some characters have motives that make sense, Martial’s aren’t always clear and even when everything is explained at the end, it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. Sopha, the six-year-old daughter, too, is irritating, as her narration is entirely unconvincing and makes her seem much older than she is.

The novel is unfortunately also heavily reliable on deus ex machina, with particular clues being revealed or unlikely coincidences happening on at least four occasions that I can think of. Being surrounded by police just as thick fog envelops you and allows you to escape? Please. It’s all a shame really, because my friend was hugely positive about the novel, but for me none of it stacked up. It is interesting to learn more about the culture and people of Réunion, however, as it’s an island I’m unlikely to ever visit, and some of the descriptions of the landscape are fascinating and give the reader an image of a land that seems almost otherworldly.

The book had such potential, but there were threads left hanging, a somewhat hurried denouement, and a cast of characters none of whom ever really sparkled for me. Nice to spend a bit of time in the sun, but my TripAdvisor review would leave a lot to be desired.

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

“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.

“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.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

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