“Z” by Therese Anne Fowler (2013)

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“Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume – same as I would wear that evening.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a performance of the play The Lost Generation, a three-hander about the tumultuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. Long a fan of their hedonistic lifestyles if not their writing (I’ve still never read any Hemingway or Mrs Fitzgerald, and only a couple of Mr Fitzgerald), I was inspired to finally pick up Z, which tells the story from Zelda’s point of view.

Not long before her eighteenth birthday, fun and flirty Zelda Sayre meets the handsome and confident F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s 1918 and Scott is about to head off to join the war in Europe, meaning Zelda isn’t sure whether to accept his sudden offer of marriage, even though she knows she’s never felt like this about another man. When the war ends, Scott stays after all and just two years later, the two are married and begin their journey to define a generation.

As Scott gains success and recognition for his writing, Zelda finds herself living in his shadow and her once exuberant personality and zest for life begins to wane. They drink too much, they argue, and Scott becomes increasingly controlling and obsessed with his new friend Ernest Hemingway, who Zelda can’t stand. There is some happiness and love in their relationship, but very little stability, and Zelda must work out who she is in this modern world and reclaim her own independence once more. As they pass through various cities and countries, with Scott always working on the next novel (read: drinking heavily), the couple – along with their daughter Scottie – begin to change and we wonder if their lives are as glamorous as history has recorded.

As it’s based on the true story of Scott and Zelda, how it ends is a foregone conclusion, but I won’t reveal it here in case you don’t know what befell them. We hear a lot about the Fitzgeralds as the couple who made the 1920s what it is. They are a symbol of the Jazz Age, Prohibition and the excesses of the interwar years. Myth states that he was worshipped as a literary idol, and she flirted her way through the entire Western world, but the version presented here by Fowler is much different and far closer to the truth. Zelda was hamstrung by Scott’s ego and he dominated her life, dissuading her from following her own goals of being a professional dancer because they didn’t fit in with what he wanted to do. Perhaps this is par for the course given that at the time men did have much more say in relationships than women, but Zelda is not your average 1920s woman (considered by many to be the “first flapper”) and doesn’t like being corralled and beaten into submission. And yet, on a couple of occasions where Scott’s abuse turns physical, Zelda still seems prone to blaming herself.

Scott, himself, was prolific and wrote stories for magazines and screenplays for Hollywood, but his novels were few and far between and he didn’t really achieve the success and introduction to the literary canon until after he’d died. Because the story is from Zelda’s perspective, it’s hard to know if Scott’s monstrosity has been played up or is an accurate reflection of his personality, because he comes across as singularly unpleasant. He is selfish and domineering but simultaneously thin-skinned and weak, breaking down in tears whenever things don’t go his way or he doesn’t get to be the centre of attention. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, there are people that say Scott ruined Zelda’s life, but also those who say that Zelda ruined Scott’s. I know which side I come down on, easily.

It is nice for Zelda to be thrust into the spotlight for a change. She also wrote a novel, Save the Last Waltz, and was a great painter and dancer, but to this day she struggles under the reputation of simply being “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife”. It’s fantastic and fascinating to see her given some agency and learn about the tragedy that she went through.

A compelling and startling exploration of the Jazz Age and how history likes to put a neat gloss on everything.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Man In The Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie (1924)

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“Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again.”

It’s hard to know how to keep prefacing the Christie novels, other than to say it’s another cracker, so we’ll just press on. Today, I’m discussing Christie’s fourth novel, and first to contain none of her most famous detectives, The Man in the Brown Suit.

After the sudden death of her absent-minded but brilliant father, Anne Beddingfield heads to London to seek adventure and thrills. While standing on the tube platform at Hyde Park Corner, she witnesses a man fall onto the tracks. He’s pulled back up and a doctor appears, confirms the man is dead, and then leaves. Convinced that that was no doctor, Anne gives chase. He manages to get away from her, but drops a scrap of paper that reads: 1 71 22 Kilmorden Castle. Hours later, a woman is found dead in an empty London house. These things seem unconnected, but it turns out the first victim had in his coat an order to view the property. The only lead the police have right now is a mysterious man in a brown suit.

Desperate to work out what happened, Anne approaches a journalist with her findings, but he is sceptical of her abilities. Nevertheless, Anne soon discovers that Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship heading to South Africa the next day. Buying a ticket, she finds herself among a number of suspicious characters and finds that she is unable to trust anyone. There’s Colonel Race, who may or may not be in the Secret Service; Suzanne Blair, a wealthy independent woman; Eustace Pedlar, millionaire owner of the house where the dead woman was found; and his two mysterious secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. When Anne’s life is threatened, she becomes convinced that “the man in the brown suit” is one of her companions, and she quickly learns that adventures aren’t so fun as they seem in books when they’re happening to you for real…

I think I’ve said before that Christie is never held up as a feminist icon, but I think this is a mistake. Here she gives us one of those spunky young girls that the twenties were terribly keen on. Anne is cut from the same cloth as Tuppence, but is shown again and again to be sharp, smart, wickedly cunning and more than capable of holding her own. She exhibits fear, but she isn’t going to wait around for a man to save her. One of my favourite moments is when she approaches the police who dismiss her as being a young woman who doesn’t know anything useful, and manages to use her scientific background to entirely flummox them and show that they are not her superiors in every way.

Although none of the major detectives turn up here, we do meet Colonel Race, who will appear in later Christie novels as a friend of Hercule Poirot. In his first outing, we get to learn more about his emotional life than we ever do later, plus this also sets up his position and background when he turns up later. The other characters are good fun, and as ever Christie intelligently lays down all the red herrings and we gleefully pick them up and run with them, only to realise too late that we’ve been going in the wrong direction. It isn’t one of my absolute favourites – the solution is just a touch too convoluted for me, and one character manages to have five or six distinct aliases over the course of the book – but it shows her chops as a thriller writer, an aspect of her work which is often overlooked.

Still one for the completists, with a few good jokes, funny observations and a good sense of peril.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Red House Mystery” by A. A. Milne (1922)

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“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta.”

A. A. Milne, despite all his work as a playwright, poet, comedic journalist and soldier, is these days remembered primarily for just one thing: Winnie the Pooh. His life story, or at least the part focused around Pooh, featured heavily in the recent film Goodbye Christopher Robin. It is therefore easy for many these days to assume that that was all he did. However, four years before a certain bear of very little brain wandered into our hearts, Milne created an entirely different story, set a long way away in space and substance from the adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. This is Milne’s only foray into the world of mystery writing.

The Red House Mystery opens with the servants of the titular property discussing their master, Mark Ablett. It seems he’s just received a letter that his ne’er-do-well brother Robert has returned from Australia and is coming to see him that afternoon. Not long after the arrival of Robert, however, a gunshot is heard from somewhere in the house.

Antony Gillingham, a stranger in these parts, has got off at the village train station on a whim, upon learning that his old friend Bill is staying at the Red House. He arrives just as Mark’s friend and manservant Cayley is struggling to get into the house to learn who has died. Robert is dead on the floor, and Mark has gone missing. The police speak to the servants and the guests who had been staying at the house, and the latter are bundled off quickly when it transpires they were all off playing golf. Bill, however, stays on to keep Antony company, as the newcomer has decided to take on the role of Sherlock Holmes and needs a Watson. Without telling the police, the pair set about solving the murder themselves…

The novel is filled with most of the trappings of the classic crime story. There are secret passages, missing keys, a dredged lake … and yet what’s really missing are suspects. From the off, it seems there are very few people who could possibly have committed the crime, so quite quickly it stops being a “whodunnit” and instead a “howdunnit”. That’s not necessarily a complaint, as they can be just as engaging.

I did find the character in the Sherlock role, Antony, to be faintly unbelievable though. His guesses are always correct, never mind how flimsy the evidence that points him to a conclusion. While with Sherlock Holmes himself, you sort of accept it as he’s been training himself for years on how to be the world’s greatest detective, but Antony is by his own admission an amateur, so some of his leaps of faith are a bit of a stretch. Still, it’s entertaining enough that I didn’t mind too much. The characters are funny, and there’s definitely the occasional burst of the kind of wit and humour that Milne used to great effect in his time with Punch, and while writing Winnie the Pooh.

Alexander Woolcott noted that this novel was “one of the three best mystery stories of all time”, but I think he’s being rather too generous on that front. It has its place, certainly, and Milne can happily be counted among the authors of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but if you ask me, it is right that we remember Winnie the Pooh over this. I doubt anyone would really disagree.

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.

“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

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Not pictured: her gams that won’t quit

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

Every so often a book comes along that births or redefines a whole genre. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd blew wide open what was possible in a murder mystery. Mary Shelley is widely agreed to have invented science fiction with Frankenstein. And The Lord of the Rings ensured that in all future fantasy worlds the dwarves have beards and the elves are irritatingly smug. Dashiell Hammett takes his spot among these greats with The Maltese Falcon, popularising and cementing in many of the tropes associated with the hard-boiled detective novel. Though not the inventor of the genre – that title arguably falls to Carroll John Daly – it’s Hammett and his detective Sam Spade that we think of first when we find ourselves exploring this route.

It’s 1928, and a the beautiful Miss Wonderly has just walked into the offices of Spade and Archer. She wants them to tail a man called Floyd Thursby who has run off with her sister, and she’s worried. Before the night is over, Thursby is dead and so is Archer. The police immediately question Spade, who refuses to tell them anything.

Soon, Miss Wonderly is revealed to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a woman who is on the trail of the Maltese Falcon, a statuette of a black bird worth millions of dollars. She however, is not the only one. Joel Cairo, a Greek homosexual and Casper Gutman, an enormously fat and desperate man, are both after it too, although no one seems to know where it is, and no one seems very keen on telling the truth or admitting who they’re working for or with.

Are any of them in it together? Who is the young man tailing Spade all over town? Was Archer’s wife really leaving him to run off with Spade? With his work cut out for him and the police on his tail, Spade must get to the bottom of the business with the Falcon before it’s too late and he’s found floating face-down in the harbour.

Sometimes you read a book and think, “Something is off about this but I’m not sure what”. I had that here, and it took a few chapters for it to sink in. The book is told in the third person, which is far from uncommon, but it is perhaps the purest third person novel I’ve ever read. At no point do we get any hint of what people are thinking, what occurred in their backstory, or how they feel about situations. We are only told what people look like, what they’re doing and what they say. It’s easy to see, because of this, why the film was so readily produced. It’s a very visual piece, focused in the here and now so you aren’t distracted by knowing about Spade’s childhood, or how Brigid feels about her involvement.

Spade himself is a difficult character to pin down. Despite the fact he’s emotionally detached, a chauvinist, and willing to let any and all the women in his life believe that he loves them and them alone, I don’t altogether dislike him. He’s sharp and determined, although his sense of justice may not always align with ours, and I also find him quite funny. When being questioned by the police, he’s more than happy to wind them up, and he isn’t fond of taking shit from anyone. He’s inordinately brave, although perhaps its just sheer foolishness, and I’d trust him to solve any case I had. I wouldn’t trust him to not sleep with my wife before he’s through, however.

Plotwise, I suppose it holds together well enough but I found myself drifting a few times, though as usual that’s more of my own fault than a failing in the text – it’s been a long week. I like the set up that seems to be taking the novel one way, only for it to shift abruptly onto another tangent, a device I like employing in my books. It’s iconic in the genre, and I spent much of it suddenly wanting a cigarette, a trench coat, and a dame with legs that won’t quit to walk into my office. Even though I know she’s going to be trouble.

An interesting read, but I’m informed by a crime aficionado friend that Raymond Chandler is a step up again. I’ll get there soon.

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.

“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.

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