“Murder On The Orient Express” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.”

There are certain books that are truly iconic in their genre. The Lord of the Rings stands out above all others in fantasy. Misery lords it over the other thrillers. Dune sails high above the rest of science fiction. When it comes to murder mysteries, however, there are few titles better known than Murder on the Orient Express.

The world famous Orient Express is regarded as one of the most luxurious trains in the world. Taking passengers of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds across Europe, it is the last word in quality. Hercule Poirot finds himself returning from Syria to England and aboard a surprisingly packed train, which, shortly after midnight one night on its journey, gets halted by a snowdrift. And then things go from bad to worse – Simon Ratchett, the American millionaire who the night before approached Poirot with a theory that someone was out to get him, has been found dead in his compartment. The door was locked from the inside and he’s been stabbed multiple times. And due to the lack of tracks in the snow, this can only mean one thing: the murderer is still on the train.

Poirot is rapidly hired by the train’s staff to work out who killed Ratchett and why, and as he interviews the passengers he finds himself dealing with endless contradictory explanations. It seems there’s almost too much evidence to be had. Someone is lying, but who, and why, and will justice finally be served?

Even though the solution is now quite well known and, like several of Christie’s stories, something of an open secret, I won’t be sharing it here. It is, however, ingenious and is one of her novels that changed everything about murder mysteries again. Because of the large number of suspects, the book is surprisingly methodical, divided into three parts – the facts, the evidence and the solution. Each character gets a chapter in the second section to explain who they are, what they were doing at the time of the murder, and why they’re travelling. The evidence is all there and, if you’re paying attention, you can solve it quite early on, but some of the finer points might still elude you.

Not only is the solution ingenious, but the way it is handled is wonderful too. Poirot is someone who always wants to see justice done, and here he does that admirably, although it’s impossible to say much more for the few people who haven’t yet read it and don’t want to be spoiled. It still ranks much higher in my head than the film, although my problems with the film were nothing to do with the plot, and more to do with Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot. Perhaps still Christie’s most logical novel, laying out all the evidence piece by piece, it is a masterclass in how to deceive, although I’m certain people at the time – and still now – consider bits of it to be “cheating”. I happen to disagree.

As close to perfection as you’ll get in the genre.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Lord Edgware Dies” by Agatha Christie (1933)

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“The memory of the public is short.”

What I find when it comes to re-reading all the Christie novels is that I often think I remember the solutions. Lord Edgware Dies, it turns out, I haven’t read since 2012, so it’s one of the handful that aren’t on the blog yet. I thought I remembered it really well, and was content to settle down and see how it was done, rather than worrying about who the killer was. Unfortunately, it turns out my memory was not quite as good as I thought it was.

After a night at the theatre seeing the latest show by celebrated comic Carlotta Adams, Poirot and Hastings run in to Jane Wilkinson, the air-headed and selfish Lady Edgware. She accosts Poirot after the performance and asks him to go and visit her husband, Lord Edgware, and try and convince him to divorce her so she is free to marry a Duke she has been courting. Curious, Poirot follows through with the request but is surprised to learn that Lord Edgware wrote to Jane months ago to say he was willing to allow the divorce. Later that night, Lord Edgware is found dead in his study, stabbed in the neck.

The case at first seems easily solved. Jane Wilkinson was seen entering the house just before the murder occurred, and the police are ready to arrest her for murder. The difficulty is, there are twelve people who were at a dinner party elsewhere in London which was happening at the same time as the murder – and Jane was in attendance. Besides, why should she want to kill her husband when he’s already given her the one thing she wants? As Poirot uncovers more and more deceptions, he begins to unravel how one woman could be in two places at once, and who really did the murder.

Still one of the smartest, in my opinion, Lord Edgware Dies plays with the concept by having the solution appear immediately obvious. All the while you’re dancing around it wondering why Poirot can’t see it too (even though you know he would do), the truth is hiding behind a series of increasingly devilish red herrings, misdirections and bluffs. Hastings and Japp are both on good form, and Poirot is constantly having to change his theories. Even he seems a little more stumped than usual here, and it is in fact an idle comment he hears on the street that directs him to the correct solution.

The killer is a fascinating character, and even after being caught, they still insist on writing to Poirot to explain exactly how it was done, being proud of their actions rather than showing any remorse. Indeed, their final words are to wonder whether they will be immortalised in Madame Tussauds. The suspects are all a slightly unpleasant bunch, with a number of them being egotistical performers, the story being set against a backdrop of actors and the theatre. Unfortunately, this seems to be one of the Christie novels that never saw an editor’s pen in later years, with several references to Jewish people being greedy and one use of a swear word that feels especially inflammatory given the news this week. Oh dear. We can only mutter “of it’s time” and not dwell. No one’s claiming Christie was perfect, but as times and attitudes moved on, she did go back to some of her earlier works and change details like this, having learnt better. It’s jarring when they remain.

Nonetheless, a fun and interesting puzzle.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Black Coffee” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1998)

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“Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions.”

Since lock down kicked in, I’ve realised I’m really missing the theatre. I’m not someone who goes particularly regularly – a few times of year at most – but I love it. Musicals, plays, comedies, dramas – what’s not to love? Theatre is second only to books for me as a way to tell a story. It’s there and vivid and right in front of you. If you’ve been on my blog before, you almost certainly know that I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and while people may know her for her novels and be aware that she is responsible for the longest-running play in history – The Mousetrap has only been halted by this bloody lock down – she wrote many other plays. In fact, she is the only female playwright to have three plays on at the same time in London, and she was so revered that when she died, all the theatres in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour in her memory.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to say that in the 1990s, three of her plays were adapted into novels by Charles Osborne. The other two, Spider’s Web and The Unexpected Guest are already on the blog, so it’s time to complete the set. It’s time to enter her first play, Black Coffee.

Notable inventor Sir Claud Amory calls his family into the library after dinner with an announcement. In his safe he had a formula for a powerful new explosive that would change the face of war forever, but now it has gone. The thief, he knows, is in the room. He has already called Hercule Poirot in who will be arriving imminently. Amory offers up a simple option. He will turn the lights off in the room for a short while, the thief can place the stolen formula on the table, and no further questions will be asked. However, once the lights come back up again, the formula – or at least the envelope it was in – has appeared on the table, but the darkness brought death, and now more questions arise, just as Poirot and Hastings turn up on the doorstep. Now there are two puzzles to solve, and a lot of tangled familial relationships to unwind before the answers can be found.

So, it’s a Christie story at her peak. Obviously it’s good. But like with the others, it still lacks something. Reading an adaptation makes you realise quite how much difference there is between prose and scripted story. Most of the action here takes place in a single room, as it would on stage, but here that seems a little unnatural. Quite often you feel like you’re simply reading stage directions, and the mind’s eye can’t help but envision the whole drama unfolding on a stage. In those terms, it still works. The mystery is also particularly engaging, and I only remembered the solution as it drew closer. Christie uses Poirot’s obsession with neatness to assist him once more in solving the plot, but it’s done remarkably well. Unfortunately, because of the stage direction elements of it, some actions are deliberately pointed out to us whereas, in the theatre, we might not have seen them.

The characters are perhaps not quite as fully rounded as some of hers, but with a play you have more limited time to get things across. There’s a deft touch of humour throughout the story, too, as there is in all the best Christie’s. It’s a satisfying solution, with Poirot proven his talents once more. A quick, charming read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Rules For Perfect Murders” by Peter Swanson (2020)

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“The front door opened, and I heard the stamp of the FBI agent’s feet on the doormat.”

Some books fit you better than others, but once in a blue moon a book comes along that makes you think it must have been written for you and you alone. As soon as I saw the premise of Rules for Perfect Murders a few months ago, I knew that this was one of those times. I had to have it. Expectations were high as I made my way into the novel and settled in for the fun.

Malcolm Kershaw, owner of Boston’s famous Old Devils mystery bookstore, has had a call from the FBI, and soon meets Agent Gwen Mulvey who wants to ask him a few questions. In 2004, Malcolm wrote a list for the shop’s website about what he declared fiction’s eight most perfect murders. Now it seems that someone is using the list to perform the murders for real. The evidence is at first slim, and the deaths seem unrelated, but when it turns out that Malcolm knew at least one of the victims, it seems that maybe Mulvey is on to something.

As Malcolm gets more involved in the case, we find out more about his past, why he still sells crime fiction despite having long given up reading it, and which murder the killer will use as inspiration next. It becomes increasingly clear that he is being taunted, but he has no idea who would want to do this. The killer must be stopped before they managed to reenact all eight murders, but how can one predict such a thing?

Firstly, if you intend to read this book, I would suggest you go in blind and don’t read any further. I will try and avoid spoilers, but some are inevitable to discuss it. Secondly. Well. What a phenomenon. Swanson throws us right into the story, with a number of the murders having already happened, and the sense of dread – helped along by the chilling and bitterly cold Boston winter that the story is set in – immediately ratcheted up high. Malcolm is a fascinating narrator, somewhat unreliable at times, but he knows full well what he’s doing. Quite early on you think you know exactly where it’s going, especially if you’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, but the rug is pulled out from under you as soon as you think you’ve got it, leaving you fumbling for clues once more.

The choice of using real life murder mysteries as the basis is inspired, and it’s not a new concept. On a few occasions, murderers have be caught and later discovered to have Agatha Christie novels on their shelves with passages underlined. The eight books selected intrigued me too, and I think had I not read any of them, I would have been less inclined to read the book. Of the eight, I’d read four, and it’s just as well because the book does not go easy on spoilers, and outright ruins the twists of several of the greatest murder mysteries of the last hundred years. The four I had read are The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie), The Red House Mystery (A. A. Milne), The Secret History (Donna Tartt) and Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith). The four I hadn’t were Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley Cox), Double Indemnity (James M. Cain), The Drowner (John D. MacDonald) and Deathtrap (Ira Levin). It’s a good list, but for me, I think you’d have to include the likes of Quick Curtain (Alan Melville), And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, again) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (Anthony Berkeley Cox, again). I appreciate the mix, though, and it’s great to see a wide variety, as well as a good selection of murder methods and the disparate motives that seem to be set up. Like all the best murder mysteries, it plays out like a macabre game of Cluedo. This is a perfect example of how to play with the genre, explore it in depth, and do the whole thing knowingly. Swanson is a master.

Absolutely incredible stuff from someone who completely understands the genre.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Deadly Dance” by M. C. Beaton (2004)

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“The thing that finally nudged Agatha Raisin into opening her own detective agency was what she always thought of as the Paris Incident.”

Any prolific writer is bought to have a few stinkers. Stephen King gave us The Tommyknockers. Toni Morrison gave us Jazz. Even my beloved Agatha Christie managed to write Passenger to Frankfurt. M. C. Beaton has never been one of the world’s finest writers, unlike the other three, but her stories are entertaining enough to keep your interest up. As I’ve said on others from her though, she does have a habit of cramming a few too many plots into a single book, which comes into full force here.

Agatha Raisin has had some success in solving crimes in and around her village of Carsely, so has finally decided to take the plunge and open her own detective agency. Taking on her new neighbour, Emma Comfrey, as a secretary, the two do not rub along together quite as nicely as either would hope, perhaps because of differences or maybe because they’re a bit too similar. The detective agency deals for a while with missing cats and divorces, before Catherine Laggat-Brown gives them their first real case.

Catherine’s daughter has been threatened with murder, but the family are determined to go ahead with their family party. Agatha attends, and soon discovers that there was a sniper at a window of the house, managing to save the lives of Catherine and her daughter. Now the hunt is on for who wanted her dead, and why. Things become even more complicated by Agatha’s feelings for a number of the men in her life, and the fact that someone seems very desperate to have her removed from the picture entirely. Maybe the killer is closer to home than she thought.

First up, the title. There’s absolutely no reference to this in the plot. Yes, the key murder plot takes place at a party, but there’s no dancing in particular, so one must assume that the title is meant metaphorically to describe the actions the myriad characters perform around one another. If so, everyone’s got two left feet. The characterisation is thin, and people appear with simple descriptions and then vanish again as quickly, still somewhere in the background but with little justification for their existence. This is most strongly shown with Agatha’s detective agency. She originally hires Emma to be her secretary, but when she discovers that she’s a good detective (although how this can be proved from finding one cat and one teenager, neither of which required much brainpower), she is promoted and another secretary is drafted in. This one, Mrs Simms, too shows her skills with one case and so becomes another detective, with a temp filling in as secretary from then on. By the end of the novel, neither of these detectives are working for Agatha anymore, and we’re left wondering almost what the point of them was. Everyone also has a strange tendency to fall in love – and obsessive love at that – at the drop of a hat.

I also wonder that by this point in her career if editors are scared of questioning Beaton too heavily. There are so many places where superfluous sentences linger, dodgy descriptions and bad dialogue haunt the sloppy paragraphs, and the point of view jumps around with dizzying frequency. There’s also an epilogue tacked on that is clearly only there for light relief, but adds absolutely nothing to the story, simply shows Agatha as being a bit ridiculous once more. While I’ve read more of the Hamish Macbeth novels and this is only my second time with Agatha Raisin, I’ve already tired of her as a character somewhat. A middle-aged Bridget Jones, with a venomous personality.

The plot is shaky at best, and it wouldn’t really be possible to solve this one yourself. Yes, I can see where the clues are being clumsily dropped, but they come together in such an unusual shape, and definitely with some things that we should have been told sooner. The reason for the crime is somewhat flimsy, and there are far too many coincidences for anything to be entirely satisfactory.

Don’t write off Beaton entirely, but this is not a good one to start with.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Thirteen Problems” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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“Unsolved mysteries.”

I keep thinking I’ve reviewed every Agatha Christie on here by this point, but given I started reading her four years before I started the blog, some have definitely slipped through the net. The second Miss Marple, The Thirteen Problems, is one of them. Time to rectify that.

On Tuesday evening, a group of acquaintances have come together and before long the conversation, as it so often seems to, turns to unsolved crimes. The group is diverse – a lawyer, a retired police officer, an artist, a writer, a priest, and a village gossip – and they ponder which of them has the better background for solving crime. Thus forms the Tuesday Night Club, where each member must share a mystery that they know of and the rest must try and solve it.

The thirteen riddles are certainly challenging. There’s the story of the woman who was told that a blue geranium would mean death, the girl poisoned by foxglove leaves accidentally mixed in with the sage stuffing, a case of disappearing bloodstains, and the case of the missing bullion from a shipwreck. With every puzzle, the armchair detectives are stumped. There is however one exception. Miss Marple, dismissed by the others at first for being a slow old woman who has rarely left her village, is the only person to correctly solve every single crime, always able to relate each case back to an incident of village life. Thus her capability is proven time and time again, in a couple of places even bringing justice herself.

Although the second Marple book, this is the one where we see what she is really capable of. She is a little cattier in the first, and readers could have been led to assume that her solving of the case was just a fluke. As with Poirot’s Early Cases, this establishes our hero as being a rank above everyone else when it comes to detection. Whereas Poirot is more interested in psychology, with Marple we see that she just has a good memory and that humans are, broadly speaking, more alike than they care to acknowledge. As she herself says, perhaps it’s better that people don’t realise this. While there is an underlying arc of the characters telling one another stories, they can each be read individually and don’t necessarily follow on.

Christie’s real skill here is in having the narrators all have their own way of telling the tale. One is very conscious to go into detail on the atmosphere of the crime’s location. Another is not a natural storyteller at all and, after giving the basics, answers questions from her companions instead. One tries to tell a tale about a friend that is actually about herself, and Marple herself is prone to going off on tangents that seem to serve no purpose at all.

Most of the stories would have worked as an extended novel, if you threw in more detail, but by condensing them, Christie once again shows that length isn’t everything, and you can have a perfectly serviceable mystery set up, deconstructed, twisted and solved within twenty pages. Few are capable of doing this well, and none better than she. A genius collection.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Last” by Hannah Jameson (2019)

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“Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification.”

I never learn. Why did I think it was a good idea to read another dystopia during the rise of an international virus that the media are touting as the scariest thing ever? And why did I think that the same book would be a sensible thing to read while staying in a hotel alone all weekend, when it’s also a thriller set in a hotel? Suffice to say, my imagination ran away with me and I did very little actual reading in the hotel, although my podcast consumption shot up. It’s over now, so it’s time to review The Last.

While Jon Keller is staying in a remote hotel in Switzerland, the world ends. Major cities across the planet are hit by nuclear weapons and the Internet quickly goes down. Many people flee from the hotel, hoping to make it somewhere safe, but a handful stay behind. Jon is one of twenty survivors now holed up in the hotel. As a history professor in his previous life, he takes it upon himself to make a record of the end of the world. Fifty days after the bombs dropped, he finds a body.

Convinced that one of the group is a murderer, Jon sets about interviewing the other survivors, not all of whom want to join in with his theorising. As the days pass, suspicion grows and Jon finds that the vital clues he needs are going missing. He doesn’t know who he can trust, and tensions flare as the final pocket of survivors work out how they’re going to stay alive in the long term. But things get worse when they get evidence that they might not be the last people after all. They might not even be the only people in the hotel…

This is one of the tensest books I have read in a very long time. The end of the world is tragically believable, although we never find out exactly who began the bombings, it never seems to matter. The stakes are high and feel real, and you are wrapped up in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel, with no idea what is happening outside. The events of the first day of the end of the world are revisited a few times, as Jon and others remember more and more about it. It’s almost funny when one of the fleeing guests deadpans, “Scotland’s gone”. Is this how we’ll be if it ever happens? The use of social media comes into play as well, from the opening line. For most of the novel, the characters don’t have Internet access, but when they do get some they learn that some people did indeed live-tweet the apocalypse.

The characters are a rich and varied bunch, with some getting a lot of page time and others just shining for a cameo, based on how much Jon speaks to them. He is, however, an unreliable narrator, consumed with toothache and a sense of self-importance. You can’t fault his drive regarding his desire to solve the murder, but there’s another part of you that wonders if he’s just going mad. There’s a sense of insanity about him and an obsession that sees him doing anything to distract from thinking about his wife and children. At first you believe him, but even as a reader you begin to doubt him as a narrator – is all of this just in his head? The others, particularly student Tomi, doctor Tania and head of hotel security Dylan, are shown only through Jon’s eyes, so we don’t know what prejudices he’s putting on to them. We see them as he interprets them, so we can’t know for sure if they really are acting in the way he says, or if it’s just paranoia. From what we do see, however, many of them do seem to be acting suspiciously, but the suspense keeps on ratcheting up and characters motivations seem to change day by day.

I’ve said this before, but I think I need to say it again. Until the news perks up and it doesn’t feel like we’re living in the end days, I really need to stop reading dystopian fiction, especially when it’s this visceral and real. An amazing book, but consumed by a bruised mind. I don’t want to put anyone off, because it’s a brilliant read, but take care.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Busy Body” by M. C. Beaton (2010)

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“Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.”

The rise in M. C. Beaton novels on the list this year is entirely down to my grandfather. Having discovered a few of her early ones on my shelf, he became obsessed and started buying up others he found and then passing them on to me when he’d finished. The Hamish Macbeth ones I’d got used to, so I decided to try an Agatha Raisin.

It’s Christmas in the little village of Carsely, but not everything is merry and bright thanks to health and safety inspector George Sunday. Zealous and tediously officious, he seems to have a grudge against everyone in the area having any fun. He bans the vicar from putting the tree on the church roof as ever, forbids the putting up of Christmas lights without a proper cherry picker, and even disallows people to put decorations up around their own homes.

A meeting is called to decide what to do about him, but it gets interrupted by George himself when he falls against the window, stabbed. Any number of people have a motive, but few seem to have had the opportunity. Agatha Raisin decides she must bring the killer to justice and give herself a PR boost. Elsewhere, one of the key witnesses thinks she’s remembered something fishy about the night Sunday died, but she too is killed before she has a chance to tell anyone. As the villagers turn on one another, Agatha must work out who hated Sunday most – and it’s a very long list.

These books have much the same flavour has the Hamish Macbeth ones, just moving the action from the Highlands to the Cotswolds and having the main character be a private detective instead of a policeman. One of the issues here is entirely on my side, in that I’ve thrown myself down in the middle of the series, and while the crimes appear to be independent, there is evidently a through-line with the secondary characters that I need to know about. Hell, one of them actually dies in this one, and I didn’t feel the emotional impact one presumably does if they’ve got to know the people.

As ever with Beaton though, and this is surprising given how prolific she is, there is an awful lot going on in this novel. The main murder gets overshadowed fairly quickly by another that (no real spoiler) turns out to be entirely unrelated. It’s like the novel got invaded by a second one and only when that’s been cleared up can we return to the main story line. The whole novel takes place over the course of a year which, in fairness, does add realism to the police work and doesn’t see everything wrapped up in a week (trials and DNA tests don’t work like that), but it means there is a lot of time to kill. During the time, Agatha has major surgery and develops swine flu, and neither of these seem to affect the story at all, instead being glossed over in a few short paragraphs. Heaven knows, there are stories to tell here. Agatha Christie one had Poirot solve a murder while he was in bed with a cold – surely giving Agatha Raisin one of these handicaps to battle against adds further jeopardy?

All in all, the titular mystery itself is good, but it feels like three novels’ worth of stuff trying to happen all at the same time and it ends up all being a bit cluttered. Sure, I’ll return, but I may have to head back into the series for some earlier stuff to work out a few of the motivations. Still a good example of what happens to people when they get a little bit of power or fame and it all goes to their head. People will stop at nothing to get the happiness they think they deserve.

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 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!

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