“The Murder At The Vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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“It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage.”

With absolutely no surprise, here comes the twelfth Agatha Christie of the year to round off the twelfth month. That’s made a dent, but it’ll still be 2025 before I’ve finished the whole re-read at this rate. Plenty of time to savour them. Anyway, we end the year with the introduction of one of her most famous characters – please take to the stage, Miss Marple.

In the quiet village of St Mary Mead, the vicar, Leonard Clement, has made an offhand and very uncharitable comment regarding local magistrate Colonel Protheroe. He says that anyone who killed the man would be doing a great service to the whole village, but his wife and nephew sweep the comment aside. It comes back to bite him, however, when just a few days later, Protheroe is dead. And not only that, he has a bullet wound in his head and his body is sprawled out in the study of the vicarage!

Before long, Lawrence Redding, a local artist who, prior to an argument, had been painting Protheroe’s daughter Lettice, admits to the murder, walking into the police station with the gun. The village is shocked, but things are complicated further when Protheroe’s own wife also admits to the murder. However, according to local gossip, neither of them could possibly have done it, so what are they playing at? Who are they protecting? The village spinsters set to work rumour-mongering, and at the top of the tree sits Miss Marple, the shrewdest old woman you’ll ever meet, who can see that everything is not as it seems. But will the police listen to a nosy old woman?

So, first up – Miss Marple. She’s not fully-formed yet, and slightly less saccharine than she becomes later. In many ways, I prefer that. She’s prudish, but aware of her failings and nosiness, and villagers are torn over whether or not they like her. All the spinster women of the village are gossiping busybodies, but Marple seems to mean to harm in hers, she is just interested in people and not necessarily going to spread any news that might be incriminating or personally damaging, unless there is a higher necessity. She isn’t really even the focus of the novel, and while she provides the solution, most of the detective work is done on-page by the vicar himself, joined by Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack from the local police.

There’s a wide cast of characters here, and they’re all quite fun, from Len’s young, beautiful wife Griselda who is everything a vicar’s wife shouldn’t be, to the flighty and purposely-vague Lettice Protheroe and even modern Dr Haydock, the local physician. It seems that everyone in the village had a decent motive to kill Protheroe, but there is a distinct lack of broken alibis. My only quarrel with it is that a gunshot would certainly be heard at such close quarters, and this is explained rather weakly towards the end. It works, but not enough attention is paid to it.

Christie herself became dissatisfied with the novel, feeling it had too many characters and sub-plots, but I’m inclined to disagree with her on this occasion. Yes, the cast is fairly substantial and they all have secrets, but this merely serves to provide us with a stack of red herrings that threw even me. Remember, I’ve read all these before, and I’m still getting them wrong. It’s been a very long time since I read this one, however, but I thought I could see what she was doing. In a couple of places I could – always take note of conversations that have no bearing on the current point in the plot – but the rug was still pulled from under me as she plays with tropes, cliches and notions of justice.

While not regarded warmly at the time, I think it’s a fine introduction to one of literature’s greatest amateur detectives.

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!

“Death Of A Dreamer” by M. C. Beaton (2006)

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“It had been a particularly savage winter in the county of Sutherland at the very north of Scotland.”

For the fourth time this year, I return to the village of Lochdubh. In the real world, life in small villages in remote corners of the country is quiet and peaceful, where the most exciting thing to happen is the annual village fete. Fiction, however, has a different idea about villages and, like St Mary Mead and Midsomer before it, Lochdubh turns out to be quite a haven for murderers.

Artist Effie Garrard moved into the village when the weather was good, but the locals didn’t expect her to stay around once she learnt how harsh Highland winters were. When everything thaws, however, not only is PC Hamish Macbeth surprised to see that she’s still there – but not without having spent some of the winter in Brighton – but she seems determined to stay. Regarded as a talented artist, she becomes affronted when another painter, Jock Fleming, moves to the village as well. She cools towards him, however, and finds herself in love with him. Indeed, she’s so certain that this is the man of her dreams that she begins to imagine they’re in love already, and he’s even proposed to her.

Effie’s infatuation and delirious visions cause problems, however when Jock’s ex-wife Dora turns up, followed by his agent Betty. By now, the whole village knows that Effie’s story about her engagement and pregnancy are completely fabricated, and so it is Jock who is the prime suspect when Effie’s body is found in the hills. She had been drinking from a bottle of antifreeze-tainted wine and died of a combination of poison and exposure. As Hamish Macbeth begins to suss out who had the strongest motive to get her out of the way, more secrets and another body emerge, and it seems that these newcomers are all causing trouble. Hamish is also struggling with the fact that two of his ex-girlfriends are back in the village, and one of the suspects in the murder case seems to have her sights set on him too.

Often in these books, there is a very limited number of suspects and it sometimes feels like the solution has been pulled out of thin air. The trouble with setting a murder mystery series in a small village means that the locals reoccur each time and therefore by their very nature are unlikely to be suspected of anything. One must wonder, though, if they get annoyed by Hamish questioning them every six months. Here, though, Beaton has provided us with a good number of new people to suspect, and it works much better. Even more staggeringly, I actually got the solution right!

The other thing I find to be a recurring issue in these books is that inclusion of smaller crimes and tiny subplots that get solved in the space of three pages. Beaton is clearly full of ideas, and in many ways it builds up the world by showing Hamish and the villagers have other things to deal with other than just the central crime, but sometimes these smaller vignettes can detract from the main story and feels a bit like padding. Nonetheless, like I said, they bring the world to life.

Another darkly funny and interesting novel from Beaton showing how dangerous our fantasies can be.

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 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!

“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!

“Whose Body?” by Dorothy L. Sayers (1923)

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“‘Oh damn!’ said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.”

There were three personalities that really created and gave life to the Detective Club, which is ironic given they they dedicated the rest of their lives to ending lives. Anthony Berkeley, I’ve read a little of. Agatha Christie, I’ve read the lot. That leaves the third – Dorothy L. Sayers. Just as mysterious, macabre and magnificent as the others, Sayers was responsible for gifting the world Lord Peter Wimsey, so I felt it was about time I introduced myself.

Lord Peter Wimsey, aristocrat and detective, has been called to investigate the bathroom of Mr Alfred Thipps. It’s a pleasant room, except for the fact that there’s a dead body in the bath. Thipps has never seen the man before, and can’t explain how he ended up in his bath. The body is also, surprisingly, naked, save for a pair of pince-nez.

Elsewhere across town, Jewish financier Sir Reuben Levy has gone missing, last seen walking out of his house apparently without any clothes on. To Inspector Sugg, it seems an open and shut case – the body is clearly that of Levy. However, Wimsey is pretty sure that it isn’t and so begins a mission to find out where Levy went and whose body is in the bath…

As ever with the murder mysteries of the twenties, it’s a surprisingly modern and funny tale. Wimsey is a character I was immediately charmed by and find him silly and whimsical but immensely sharp and good company. It turns out that he saw active duty during World War One and Sayers does not shy away from this, as in one scene, Wimsey wakes up in the night convinced that he is still in the army. His butler calms him and returns him to bed. This is referred to as Wimsey’s “shell shock”, but of course we would know it better now as PTSD. It’s vital to remember that this book was published just five years after the war had ended, and there wasn’t a soul in the country who wasn’t cognisant of the effect it had had on the serving population.

Of course, the book is still somewhat bound to sensibilities of the time. The plot is actually based on a true case, but in that one, the corpse was identified as not being Jewish by the fact that it wasn’t circumcised. Sayers did not include this specific detail, instead having the identity hang on a couple of scars and some badly-bitten nails, but if Wimsey was any sort of detective, he would have spotted this immediately. Funny, certainly, but of its time. There are a couple of choice remarks relating to Jewish people, although none necessarily out-and-out offensive, just coming from clueless characters. The fact alone that Sayers named her character Reuben Levy seems to point out that she didn’t want you to forget at any moment that he was Jewish.

The plotting is clever and the solution immensely satisfying, even if Wimsey is sometimes prone to deductions that even Sherlock Holmes might find a bit fanciful. His butler, Mr Bunter, is also a great foil for his erratic behaviour, but I reserve a particular fondness already for Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, who seems just as insightful as her son and quite a force to be reckoned with. It’s a very sharp, tight story and has a really wonderful, easy structure that pulls you in and ensures you want to stay and find out what happens.

I’ll definitely be back here again. Sayers is clearly one of the Grand Dames of the Murder Mystery.

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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