“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“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.

FILM: “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”

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fantasticbeastsposter“Witches live among us.”

J. K. Rowling didn’t know what she unleashed when she gave us the Harry Potter books. His story is grand enough, sure, but I’m a sucker for a well-built world, and Rowling builds worlds with the best of them. So much is dropped into the Potter books that makes you want to know more about the wider world, and during those books and since she has teased us with fascinating and exciting information about the world that Harry was born into. But it’s not all about Harry, and so we find ourselves in the same world, but in an entirely different time and place.

It’s 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just arrived in New York. It’s meant to be a short visit, but when a Niffler escapes from his case, he sets about trying to get it back, although while doing so he accidentally reveals his wizarding status to Jacob, a baker and a No-Maj (American word for Muggle). He is arrested by Tina Goldstein, who works for the magical government for breaching the Statute of Secrecy, and then things go from bad to worse when he realises that he’s misplaced his suitcase. This would be bad enough anywhere, but it’s full of magical beasts, and the American wizarding community is even more secretive than the British one, and they don’t take kindly to a menagerie of magical animals running around New York.

However, there’s some dark magic afoot in the city and it’s believed to be caused by Gellert Grindelwald and his supporters. There’s also the issue of a group called the Second Salemers led by Mary Lou Barebone, a woman who beats her children, including adopted son Credence, and believes that witches are hidden among ordinary people and are causing all the strange events of recent times. Newt must get all his beasts back into his suitcase without causing too much of a disruption, but that’s going to be far easier said than done.

I went to the cinema trying to not have high hopes, but failing miserably. The trailers had looked good, all the reviews had been positive, and the few people I knew who’d already seen it reported back great things. There’s nothing worse than hoping something it going to be great only to then have it stink. Fortunately, this is a piece of sheer cinematic magic. With no original book for us to spend the film going, “But that didn’t happen!” you are able to focus entirely on the story. The new characters all burst with magnetism. Queenie is an amazing young woman who I really loved, and Tina is a fine example of a woman who won’t stand by when she sees injustice, despite being slightly awkward and at times uncertain. Jacob, the token Muggle (I can’t get on board with No-Maj as a term), is an interesting device to be used in the story and serves as the audience surrogate to introduce us to this new world. Eddie Redmayne gives an amazing performance as Newt, a geeky, awkward, eccentric collector who by his own admission annoys people and will stop at nothing to protect animals.

And while they’re all stellar performances, it is the animals that steal the show. If you’ve read the companion book, you’ll recognise everything that turns up here, and the film delights in showing us these amazing new creatures. The Niffler, Bowtruckle and Demiguise are all great and good fun (and also, let’s be honest, an excuse to sell cute merchandise) but for me it’s the Occamy and the Erumpent, my favourite animal from the book, that really shine.

The film is different enough from the Harry Potter stories to ensure we’re not retreading old ground, but similar enough to make them feel like home. It opens with a short burst from Hedwig’s Theme, which is surely the anthem of the Potter generation. A chill ran down my spine upon hearing it. It’s loaded with references to the original books, some more obvious than others, and opens up many more questions about the world. New aspects of the lore are added and work seamlessly, which is more than can be said for parts of the “eighth book“. It seems that the series – for there are planned to be five of these films – will focus almost more on the Wizarding War that culminated in Grindelwald’s downfall as much as if not more than the magical beasts and Newt’s career with them.

Roll on part two – something magical is happening here again, and I’m once again back and raring to go.

“Peril At End House” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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peril end house“No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo.”

I like new books, but there is little that pleases me more than the smell of an old book. The version of Peril at End House I have is in the same book as The Pale Horse, which I’ll review another time, and is a beautiful leather-bound copy from the 1970s. While not exactly ancient, it’s old enough to have developed its own scent, and the leather certainly helps. If you’re in need of new books, head to where I got this, the book market beneath Waterloo Bridge. But I digress, on we get with the review.

In what is chronologically the eighth Poirot novel, he and Hastings are on holiday in the picturesque Cornish town of St. Loo. Poirot is, once again, determined that he has retired, but when he gets talking to a young woman who lives nearby, he finds that he might be coaxed out of retirement once more. Miss Buckley, known to all as Nick, lives alone in End House, the old family home, and is the last of her lineage, but it turns out that in the last few weeks she has been at the wrong end of four nasty accidents. At least, what might be accidents. There was the heavy picture frame that fell on her bed, the boulder that fell from the clifftop, the tampering of her car brakes, and now she’s just been shot at.

Poirot is adamant that these are not mere accidents and that someone has it in for Nick Buckley. He is determined that the fifth attempt will not be successful, but when it leads to the death of Nick’s innocent cousin Maggie, Poirot thinks that for once he might just have his work cut out for him, as he investigates the nine people who have close contact to Nick, and contemplates that, maybe this time, he’s missing one suspect entirely.

I confess upfront that for some reason this book didn’t grab me as other Christie novels do. I’ve been quite distracted this week, so I think it was probably just that, because it took me longer than usual to find it interesting. But, as usual, particularly with her earlier work, Christie does deliver. We see a more personable and human Poirot here, one who seems to have real affection for the intended victim, and we also get to see him more stumped than ever as he struggles to piece together the jigsaw, the pieces of which don’t seem to fit.

It’s potentially quite racy for the time too, as one of the characters – and a woman no less – is revealed to be taking cocaine on a regular basis, to which none of the other characters seem to react with horror. It is very much a product of its time – the 1920s were a time when everything was changing quickly, as particularly noted in a funny scene where Poirot searches Nick’s underwear drawer and Hastings flusters in a very English manner about the whole thing in the corner. Poirot notes that these “modern” girls are far less secretive about their under garments in these enlightened, un-Victorian times. If only he could see how people dress today.

Despite feeling slightly underwhelmed for much of the novel, the ending is probably one of her best and while, once again, all the clues are there, I did not pick up on them. Christie is as intentionally misleading as ever, and allows you to chase many theories round and round your mind before settling on, undoubtedly, the wrong solution. The ending alone redeems the rest of the book, and while not one of my favourites all over, it’s definitely another one that shows simply how skilled she was at laying traps and plotting genius ideas.

“The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse (2009)

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It leaves a chill, certainly.

It leaves a chill, certainly.

“He walked like a man recently returned to the world.”

If, like me, you live in Britain, you will have probably noticed how hot it’s been these last few days. The unseasonable weather, while ultimately welcome, seems to have made most of us sweaty, irritable and  uncomfortable. In a vague attempt to cool off, I hoped that a book with “winter” in the title and a snowflake on the cover might have the same effect as a cold shower. Now though, I think that “damp squib” is a better description for the book than “cold shower”. And I’m still too hot.

Giving away the twist and the main plot in the three words of the title, The Winter Ghosts takes us to France between the world wars. Freddie Watson has arrived in Toulouse in 1933 to find someone who can translate a letter he’s been carrying. When the translator, Saurat, asks where he found the letter, which may just be a priceless historical artifact, Freddie tells his tale.

Five years earlier, Freddie had gone to France after a spell in a sanatorium. He is unable to get over the death of his older brother during the Battle of the Somme and it has driven him mad. Seeking closure, he goes to France but his car gets caught in a snowstorm and hurled off the road. Travelling through the blizzard, he arrives at a town that seems deserted, but takes refuge in the hostel of M and Mme Galy. They invite him to a celebration that night that all the villagers will be attending. Deciding to go along, he finds the place in question and enters, being introduced to various members of the crowd.

One of them stands out for him though, the beautiful, ethereal Fabrissa. They talk into the night, Freddie telling her his tragic story, when the party is interrupted by soldiers carrying swords. In the scuffle, Freddie and Fabrissa escape into the mountains where, once safe, Fabrissa tells her story. The next morning, Fabrissa is gone and Freddie can’t be sure if she was ever there in the first place, but he is determined to find her.

I’ve never read Kate Mosse before so didn’t really know what to expect; I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into a ghost story, assuming, at first, the title was metaphorical. Given that the bulk of the story is supposedly Freddie telling Saurat the tale, it genuinely does (at first anyway) feel like Freddie is telling you the story personally. The imagery and the location are both beautifully handled, and Freddie’s struggle to cope with his brother’s death feels realistic. It seems rarer to contemplate how siblings feel after a death, focus instead tending to go to the parents. Here, Freddie has to cope with the loss of his whole family, really, as it’s made patently clear, both to him and us, that George was the favourite brother and his parents had little time for Freddie, even before George’s death and especially after.

For all that though, the book is flawed. It was apparently originally released as a short story, and you can definitely tell that’s the case. It feels like it’s been padded with superfluous description and dialogue, like an overstuffed armchair that’s lost its shape. Freddie is the only character who is properly fleshed out, and his heel face turn after realising that Fabrissa isn’t quite what he thought seems a little strange. He’s a dim character, apparently completely unaware for a long time that he witnessed something stranger than usual. When it comes down to it, the beautiful language cannot mask the fact that nothing really happens here. It’s immediately forgettable, chilling in all the wrong ways and I’m not tempted to read Mosse’s earlier work.

If I had a five-star rating system, something it’s too late to implement at this point, then this gets a solid three. It is neither outstanding in being either really good or really bad, and it will pass a couple of days, but it just never grabbed me. You may not agree, but you’d have to make a good case for me to change my mind.

“The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie (1926)

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roger ackroyd“Mrs Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September – a Thursday.”

Pop culture osmosis is a funny old thing. I was reminded of it earlier this week when I went to see a production of West Side Story. Despite having never seen it either on stage or film before, it turned out that I knew pretty much every single song to some degree or another, simply because it has become so ingrained in the cultural psyche. I bring this up because this book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is another one of those things that seems to be well known the world over. It’s a whodunnit, of course, but I think most people (or at least, those with a vested interest in mystery fiction) know who the murderer is before they even read the book. I did.

Like Murder on the Orient Express, it is one of the most well-known of the Christie canon, so much so that the mystery has entirely been removed for many readers. In case you’re thinking of stopping reading this, know that in this review I will not be revealing the novel’s solution, as I’d imagine there are still people who don’t know how it ends, but rest assured that it’s a good one.

The story takes places in King’s Abbot, a small village full of neighbours who love nothing more than to gossip with one another. Hercule Poirot, famous detective, has taken up retirement in the village and is doing his best to remain inconspicuous, although the villagefolk are curious about who he is. Hastings has gone from this book, and in his place we find a narrator in Dr James Sheppard, the local GP, who lives with his omniscient spinster sister, next door to Poirot.

One night, after a genial dinner at his large house of Fernly Park, one Roger Ackroyd is found dead, a dagger through his neck. He had been worried; his close friend Mrs Ferrars had just died and it’s possible she was being blackmailed before her death. Ackroyd recieves a letter from her, but its contents remain a mystery as when Ackroyd’s body is found, the letter is missing. Suspicion falls over the house. Ackroyd’s stepson Ralph has vanished, suggesting he’s guilty, but his bride-to-be Flora steps forward to say that it couldn’t have been him. There are plenty of other suspects – fusty old big game hunter Major Blunt, the highly efficient but debt-ridden secretary Geoffrey Raymond, the faithful butler John Parker, or perhaps dedicated housekeeper Elizabeth Russell, who according to village gossip may have had more than a strictly professional relationship with the dead man.

Flora calls on Poirot to solve the case and take Ralph out of the frame. Poirot makes it clear that he will not stop until he has solved the puzzle, and may dig up some other things that people may not want unearthed along the way. Nonetheless Flora is insistent and, with the help of Dr Sheppard taking the place of Poirot’s faithful Captain Hastings, he sets about working out who killed Roger Ackroyd.

The book is one of Christie’s best known, indeed the one that had the greatest impact in catapulting her to stardom, and there’s a very good reason for that. It is held up as one of the great novels of the genre, not only heavily impacting it, but turning it on its head, shaking it about, and making everyone go, “Now hold on a minute!” I’ve said before that Christie played wonderfully with the “rules” of the mystery genre and probably nowhere else does she do it as well as here. It is one of the most influential crime novels of all time (according to Howard Haycraft).

Christie, as usual, uses just the right number of clues and red herrings to spur you along. The answers are all there if you choose to look for them and, for once, I knew what I was looking for. Whether I would have got it right without knowing the answer, I can’t say. Probably not, given my track record, but nonetheless the novel is incredibly smart, and an absolute must not just for Christie fans, or even crime fans, but anyone who enjoys tracing the history of the novel. This was a game changer, and remains one of the sharpest novels of the last one hundred years. Sheer brilliance.