“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

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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“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.

“Sparkling Cyanide” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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Not your average cocktail.

Not your average cocktail.

“Iris Marle was thinking about her sister, Rosemary.”

We arrive now at the first Agatha Christie novel of 2016, Sparkling Cyanide. Although lacking in any of the more prominent detectives, we do get Colonel Race, a former soldier and MI5 agent who turns up in a few books either to aid Poirot or replace him. In this case, he works with the police to solve a bizarre double murder.

A year before the novel opens, Rosemary Barton died at the dinner table of a fancy London restaurant, the Luxembourg. At the time, it was deemed by the police to be suicide. Rosemary had slipped cyanide into her own drink and killed herself, although no one could really explain why. However, a year on, it turns out that the six other people who had been sat at the table that night are all thinking on the events, and it transpires that each of them had a reason to see Rosemary dead.

Her husband, George, had suspected her of an affair. Her sister, Iris, came into a lot of money after her death. Anthony was suspect because Rosemary knew the truth about his past misdemeanors, and George’s secretary Ruth was in love with her employer, and wouldn’t it have been helpful to have Rosemary out of the way? Finally, there was Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra, the man that Rosemary was having an affair with, although he was trying to end it, and the woman who knew about it all but kept quiet with simmering rage.

A year later, almost to the day, George invites the same people back to the same table in the same restaurant with the plan to lay a trap, having come to believe that it wasn’t suicide at all, but pure cold-blooded murder. But great plans often go wrong, and when history repeats itself, the police find themselves dealing with a double murder where everyone and no one seems guilty.

The novel took a while to get going, I thought, but once it found its feet we were well away. The first six chapters detail the suspects’ memories of the night of Rosemary’s death, and then we follow George’s descent into possible madness as he brings everyone back together, while struggling also with his nephew Victor who keeps sending messages demanding money. It’s a book where everyone is hiding secrets and everyone seems just as likely to have committed the murders, but there’s also no evidence that’s obvious to say which one did.

Somehow, despite all this, I remain intensely proud of myself because I got it right! I’d made my guess quite early on in the telling, and didn’t waver for once, to find that I was correct in nailing the murderer! I didn’t get all the details – does anyone? – but I got the main answer and that’s good enough for me. Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of these books with just a few to go. Christie uses her usual raft of red herrings and twists here, but if you’re paying close enough attention, she actually spells out the solution for you early on … although I admit that’s not what led me to the answer, and I still missed it.

Sharp as usual, but it’s a retelling of her short story Yellow Iris, which originally contained Poirot, and you can tell he’s missing from here. This feels like one of his stories, and much as I like Race, it’s a shame to lose the little Belgian. But it’s a good one nonetheless, and will make you double check your champagne glass before you drink from now on…

“Five Little Pigs” by Agatha Christie (1943)

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five little pigs“Hercule Poirot looked with interest and appreciation at the young woman who was being ushered into the room.”

As I’m writing this today, 21st October 2015, people all over the world with a tenuous grip on reality (myself included) are acknowledging that today is Back To The Future Day, the day in which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second film of the trilogy which, at the time, was a futuristic and impossible-to-imagine-would-ever-arrive day thirty years in the future. As of today, the whole trilogy now takes place in the past. And I for one am dreading how long we can cope without someone suggesting a rehash of it set in this year and moving into 2045. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Although there is little connection between Poirot and Marty, I mention this anyway because the idea of going back in time is very relevant to this novel. Read on, and I shall explain why.

The novel opens with Poirot being approached by a new client, the invigorating and exciting Carla Lemarchant. She is seeking an explanation for what happened to her parents, Amyas and Caroline Crale. Caroline died in prison having been accused and convicted of poisoning Amyas, her supposedly beloved husband, but Carla has a letter from her mother, written before she died, in which she claims she was innocent. Carla wants Poirot to hunt down who the guilty party actually was. The “five little pigs” in the firing line are, Amyas’s best friend Philip Blake, the stockbroker; his weedy herbalist brother Meredith; three-time divorcee Elsa Greer who was courting Amyas’s affections before he died; the stern governess Cecilia Williams; or young Angela Warren, Caroline’s disfigured younger sister.

So far, so Christie. But there’s a small fly in the ointment that means Poirot has got his work cut out for him in a way he’s never yet experienced: the murder took place sixteen years ago.

The book is divided into neat, symmetrical chapters and three separate books. In the first, Poirot visits the five suspects in turn and asks them, in various ways, to write down their memories of the day in question. In the second, we read the five accounts of the events, and in the third, as is again typical of Christie, Poirot gathers everyone together and reveals the truth.

I can’t count this one as one of the Christie novels that I got right, because I saw the play a couple of years ago and knew the solution. Mind, in the play, there’s no Poirot, and it wasn’t completely unlike Christie to change the endings of her books when she adapted them for the stage, so there was a point at which I wondered if she’d done the same here again.

It isn’t my favourite of her books – it’s very uniform in it’s style – but it’s a fascinating concept and shows Poirot at his best, using psychology to solve the crime again, rather than looking for clues. Indeed, in this case he can’t search for fingerprints or cigar ash; he has to rely entirely on people’s memories. And as he is well aware, what people choose to remember and forget can be very telling.

Sometimes things you thought were dead and buried are just biding their time…