“Decanting A Murder” by Nadine Nettmann (2016)

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“One thousand seven hundred and forty-two.”

I love a drink. A good glass of wine, a fancy well-made cocktail, a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. As I write, I’m drinking a salted caramel flavoured vodka. However, it’s wine that I favour above all others – a large Viognier if you’re buying, thanks.

It’s also well documented that I’m a big fan of murder mysteries, so a novel about a trained sommelier solving a murder felt like it should be right up my vineyard. And yet, I emerge from the book, fresh from the Napa Valley wineries, torn about the whole thing.

Katie Stillwell is a sommelier in a fancy San Francisco restaurant, with only two obsessions: her job, and practicing for the Sommelier Certification exam. Known among her friends and colleagues as “The Palate”, she has a remarkable ability to successfully name wines in most blind taste tests. When she’s invited to a party at the highly secretive and exclusive Frontier Winery, courtesy of her friend Tessa, she leaps at the chance to meet the owners and sample some of the Napa Valley’s best wine.

However, after some flirting with the vineyard manager Jeff, the party takes a dip for the disastrous when the winery’s owner, Mark, is found dead in one of his vats with a bottle opener stuck in his back. Tessa is nowhere to be seen, and all the evidence begins to point to Katie’s friend being the one responsble. Katie, however, is sure that Tessa is innocent, and drops everything to help the police in solving the mystery. After all, if Katie can detect the subtlest notes in a glass of wine, surely she can turn that detection to other things, right?

OK, so let’s give the book some credit. I rather cockily decided quite early on that it was obvious who was responsible for the murder, but Nettmann actually managed to pull the wine label over my eyes so I wasn’t completely correct. The characters are generally quite well fleshed out, if not entirely appealing people, and you can’t deny that she knows her stuff, being a Certified Sommelier herself. There’s also a pleasant touch of each chapter being headed with a wine pairing, although given the speed I read and the fact I read most of this book on my morning commute, following along with it seemed inadvisable.

And yet.

Far be it from me to call a book amateurish given the stage my career is at, but I can’t help but feel that this could’ve done with another round or two with an editor. Some of the dialogue is a little forced and exposition-heavy, and occasionally characterisation doesn’t sit well. The clues we’re given are either forced or written in riddles, and many plot points seem a tad unbelievable and laden with coincidence. Katie is very bland as a character, and she seems quite content to tell us all about herself, or how she views herself at least. She has a deep, repressed secret that is built up to be quite serious, and while the consequences of it clearly were, the actual event itself is quite silly.

Altogether, it’s not a bad story. There’s a good, solid mystery here, but the edges just need tidying up. This is apparently the first in a series, and I’m not sure if I’ll find my way back here. But, never say never.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Bobby Jones teed up his ball, gave a short preliminary waggle, took the club back slowly, then brought it down and through with the rapidity of lightning.”

And with this one down, I’ve only got two Christie novels left to read. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to think of a good introduction for this one, so unless you want to skip back and read my post about Agatha Christie herself, we may as well crack on.

Vicar’s son Bobby Jones is playing golf one misty afternoon when he hears a cry – a man has fallen over the cliff. Bobby rushes to his aid, but the man’s back is broken and it’s too late to do anything much. However, just before he dies, the man comes round and says, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby doesn’t have much time to dwell on this, as he’s due at the church to play the organ, so he leaves another fellow, a passing Roger Bassington-ffrench, to look after the body and wait for help to arrive.

But soon after the inquest, there is confusion abounds. Was the dead man really who the courts thought he was? Who was the woman in the photograph he had in his pocket? And was it really all an accident? Bobby, along with his aristocratic childhood friend Lady Frankie Derwent, set about trying to prove that the man was pushed off the cliff. And when Bobby himself is nearly murdered, he realises that they’re closer to the truth than they realised. Frankie infiltrates the home of the Bassington-ffrench family and with Bobby stationed close by in disguise, they set about trying to solve the mystery.

Firstly, this novel does have one of the best and most evocative titles in the Christie canon, but while you think it’s going to be hugely important throughout, it really only plays a minor role. It’s also used well for humour. The book is set in Wales where Evans is a common name, and there’s a great moment where Frankie tries to find how many Evans’ there are in the town and learns there are over 480. Bobby and Frankie make for great amateur sleuths and there’s definitely something of the Tommy and Tuppence of them. As much as I like the established detectives, I do also enjoy the books where Christie gives us a new hero, especially such a likeable one.

The plot holds up well and is served up with more red herrings than a meeting of the Communist Fish Party. As usual, the hints are all there, but some of them are desperately subtle, and I certainly didn’t catch most of them until they were explained. It always seems so obvious at the end, doesn’t it? It would be another good one to start novice Christie readers off with, as it’s a simple premise which introduces us to a raft of interesting characters, as well as one of the best surnames in fiction – Bassington-ffrench.

It’s a short review today, simply because I run the risk of giving away spoilers if I say much more, but I promise you it’s certainly worth a read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Floating Admiral” by The Detection Club (1931)

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“Three glimpses through the rolling smoke of opium, three stories that still hover about a squalid opium joint in Hong Kong, might very well at this distance of time be dismissed as pipe dreams.”

Have you ever played Consequences? It’s that quaint party game where people write a sentence of a story, pass it on, and the next person has to continue the story and so on through as many players are there are. It’s quite good fun, and usually ends up with some ludicrous stories at the end. Now imagine doing that with a whole book. What if you could get the best writers of the age to work together and pen a single story? Well, satisfyingly, it’s already been done.

The Detection Club is a group of detective fiction writers. Formed in 1930 and still running today, almost every notable crime writer has found their way into the illustrious circle. It seems that they decided to pool their resources and so started writing together. However, the way they did it was much in the manner of Consequences. Each writer penned a different chapter, having to follow on from what the previous writer had said in theirs. Some of the contributors are well known – G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – while others such as Henry Wade and Edgar Jepson have fallen to the wayside with time and do not have such a great reputation now. Surprisingly, given their differing styles and the very nature of the challenge, the whole thing works. Here’s what’s going on…

Local fisherman Neddy Ware sets out in the early hours of the morning to the River Whyn, determined as usual that that’s the best time to land some fish. However, he gets more than he bargains for, when a rowing boat floats past him. He realises that it’s the Vicar’s boat and then, a moment later, there’s a body sprawled in the bottom of it; the murdered figure of Admiral Penistone. Ware tethers the boat immediately reports it to the police. Soon Inspector Rudge is on the case, but things are definiely not as smooth-sailing as the aforementioned boat.

For a start, every suspect has suddenly been called away to London on urgent business before they can be detained, leaving Rudge to learn the local gossip regarding the Admiral through busybody servants and nosy porters. The Vicar seems to know more than he’s letting on, but hides behind the excuse of “secrets of the confessional”. It seems impossible that the Admiral should be there at all, and everyone’s evidence contradicts, but as the suspects return one by one, Rudge begins to piece together what’s happened.

According to the prologue by Sayers, each writer had to write their chapter with a solution in mind, but also making use of all the clues, hints and facts mentioned in the previous chapters. Anthony Berkley, who has the unenviable task of writing the final chapter calls it “Clearing up the Mess”, which seems about right. And yet, somehow, the whole thing works very well. I’ve only read full books by three of the contributors, so I cannot fully assess their styles, but of the ones I know, you can almost tell. The characters and information come naturally, but it doesn’t stop the writers from adding in information that has merely been unmentioned up until they get a chance to speak. For example, one chapter suddenly mentions that two minor characters are actually related, and while there’s been no evidence of this so far, there’s also nothing saying it’s not possible.

It’s actually a really fascinating conceit, and deftly shows how talented these writers all were independently of one another that when they came together, they could still manage to “solve” a crime with only half the story. At the appendix at the end of the book, each writer also gets a chance to explain the solution they were aiming for, giving a great example, as seen in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of how facts can be distorted and how odd it is to take the protagonist’s theory as sacrosanct. Had any chapter been the final one, there’s a very different solution up for grabs.

The Detection Club actually did a few of these, but this was the only one that Agatha Christie joined in with, so it’s naturally the one I was drawn to. Perhaps I’ll return to the others once I’ve become more familiar with their work, but this is a must for any lovers of classic detective fiction.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

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“Roger Sheringham took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.”

During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, dozens of authors tried their hands at writing murder mysteries. When Anthony Berkeley published this one, he attempted to subvert a genre that was saturating the market and yet was nowhere near being over. Agatha Christie had only published eight of her books by this time; Ngaio Marsh was yet to publish anything. However, the tricks and tropes of the genre were well-established, and so people were already playing with the conventions. Here, Berkeley does it with serious aplomb.

The murder in question here is that of Joan Bendix. Devotedly married to her husband Graham, they seem to have an ideal life, until a box of chocolates drops into their life. Joan is killed by poison hidden within the chocolates, and the police, led by Chief Inspector Moresby, are at a loss to explain who killed her. It seems, after all, that she was never to be the intended victim, as the chocolates had originally been delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather. Disinclined to have a sweet tooth, he passed the chocolates onto Graham Bendix and he in turn gave them to his wife as a gift.

Stumped, Moresby calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, who leads the notable group the Crimes Circle, a motley crew of amateur detectives who love nothing more than discussing crime and murders. Each is given exactly the same details that the police have, and sent out to test their skills – can they, in the space of a week, solve the crime that has plagued the police? The six amateurs – including a crime novelist, a dramatist and a lawyer – set about their task, but when all six of them return with six entirely different solutions, how can anyone be sure who the real killer is?

Berkeley does a great job at bringing up the fatal flaw in detective fiction. In most stories, whatever importance the detective hero ascribes to an object or clue is taken at face value and it is assumed that he is correct. The characters here, quite wonderfully, display that any clue can be taken in any number of ways. There are only three obvious clues here – the box of chocolates, the wrapping they came in, and the accompanying note sent to Pennefather – but the characters manage to construct whole theories based around these items.

Each theory is actually entirely compelling and believable, and it’s remarkable to see each character bring forward their solution, only to have it torn down by the next one. Each uses different methods, focuses on different aspects of the case, and comes up with an entirely different killer. Members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one of the characters even manages to build a watertight case against himself, thus showing the readers that anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

Even more wonderfully, at the end of the original book, it becomes clear who really had the right answer, but that was then. In the 1970s, writer Christianna Brand who knew Berkeley penned her own ending, changing the outcome to a seventh villain. And in the new edition I have, published by the British Library, contains a brand new, never-before-seen ending written by the current president of the Detection Club, a very real version of the Crimes Circle that, over the years, was presided over by such luminaries as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As such, with each new chapter we are given a new solution, meaning the book now contains eight alternative theories, each which could potentially have led to an arrest if used alone.

It is an outstanding piece of work, occasionally dry due to the language, but funny and clever enough to keep my attention. Anyone who loves a good mystery will find something to appeal to them here. In fact, I would compare it a little to the podcast Serial. Several of my friends listened to it and, with our own backgrounds in different fields, we each came up with different ideas as to what really happened.

A remarkable novel.

“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

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“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Problem At Pollensa Bay” by Agatha Christie (1935)

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“The steamer from Barcelona to Majorca landed Mr Parker Pyne at Palma in the early hours of the morning – and straightaway he met with disillusionment.”

I’ve been commuting via train this week which has certainly been a novel and tiring experience. Engaged in Catch-22 for the previous week, I finished and decided I needed something a bit less dense that was easier to read in the mornings when surrounded by other passengers. When in doubt, it’s always best to turn to Agatha Christie.

A collection of eight short stories, these tales bring back some old characters, as well as including two other stories with none of the usual heroes. Two tales feature Mr Parker Pyne, another two reunite us again with Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, and two more provide a welcome return for Hercule Poirot. The final two are gothic tales and not the mysteries we associate with Christie, but I’ll get onto them shortly.

Poirot appears in “The Second Gong” and “Yellow Iris”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a stage adaptation. The first involves the murder of a man in his study and is very traditionally Christie, and in the second, Poirot receives a mysterious phone call from a panicked woman who tells him to join her immediately at a restaurant where she feels something awful is about to happen. Mr Parker Pyne shows up in the titular “Problem at Pollensa Pay” where he’s desperately trying to enjoy a holiday without being recognised but he still ends up trying to fix an unwelcome engagement. He shows up again in “The Regatta Mystery” when a rare jewel goes missing after a prank goes wrong.

Mr Satterthwaite once again meets his mysterious friend Harley Quin first in “The Harlequin Tea Set”, in which a knowledge of genetics will help prevent a murder. They collide again, literally, in “The Love Detectives” where a man has been killed and it seems that everyone is prepared to claim they did the crime, despite none of them seeming to know how he died. All six of these stories are brilliant and charming, full of character and humour alongside the darkness and I’m almost sorry it took me so long to get around to them.

The final two stories, on the other hand, are less engaging. Involving no murder, or really any crime at all, they are gothic tales that are somewhat haunting, but not particularly engaging. “Next to a Dog” is about a young woman who needs to get married because no job she goes for will allow her to keep her precious dog, Terry, meaning she is blindly led into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn’t love. The second, “Magnolia Blossom” also feels very familiar as a story and I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point but I can’t quite remember. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband, but dashes back later the same day when she discovers her husband’s company has collapsed and her loyalty is such that she can’t leave him on the same day as that happening. Her husband, however, then tries to use her for his own means to save his life, leading her to wonder if her loyalty wasn’t misplaced.

So, while mostly a good batch with a great collection of Christie’s finest characters, I was left disappointed by the final two tales. Still, they can’t all be winners, and you can’t begrudge her from trying some new styles every now and again. Truth is though, her murder mysteries are still the best, and nothing else can quite measure up.

Just as a quick note in case there are the sort of people reading this and get fussy about specifics, although published as this collection in 1991, I have dated it 1935, which is the date the title story was first published. The stories themselves, however, were published separately between 1926 and 1971. So there you go.

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