“The Death Of Grass” by John Christopher (1956)

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“As sometimes happens, death healed a family breach.”

For all my love of city breaks and wandering around London, I’m a child of the countryside through and through. Last time I was working in a London office for a few weeks, it was only a matter of days before I had to escape for my lunch break to the nearest green space to sit on some spongy turf. (Mint Street Park, incidentally, is charming.) My hometown is surrounded by field, forest and farm, and it’s great. So the idea of living in a world suddenly that lacked so much greenery feels like one of the worst dystopian scenarios available. Despite me promise to myself that I’d stop reading dystopian fiction until we stopped living in one, I found myself this weekend engaged in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a sort of distant cousin to The Day of the Triffids.

John and David Custance have lived very different lives. While David inherited the family farm and concerned himself solely with growing crops and raising livestock, John adopted a more sedate and comfortable life in London, working as an engineer. Both, however, are troubled by the news from Asia. A virus has caused the rice harvest to fail, and massive swathes of the continent are now starving and suffering from near-total anarchy. The rest of the world is working on a cure, but everyone’s quietly convinced that something like that could never happen in the West.

But soon the virus mutates and now is taking out all grasses, from lawns to wheat, barley and rye. With enormous food shortages across the whole world, there soon comes the discovery that the government have been lying: there is no cure for the virus. The Prime Minister is rumoured to be arranging a plan to drop atom bombs on the UK’s major cities, leaving a smaller population to feed on whatever root vegetables and fish can be harvested, but panic sets in before that, and soon anarchy finds its way to British shores too. John rounds him his family and friends, and a couple of other stragglers, and they set off on a cross-country journey to his brother’s farm, where they hope they will find salvation. They just have to make sure they don’t lose their humanity along the way.

John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) has created here a terrifying world. While the virus is what causes all of the problems, it’s fair to say that the real villain here are humans themselves. As soon as word leaks out that there’s no hope, everyone begins to change. John takes the lead of his group and becomes almost fixated by his role of “tribal chief”. He quickly becomes harsher and more stubborn. His friend, Roger, who has always been very jovial and unable to take much seriously, seems to be sobered up quickly by the events. His sense of humour can’t cope with this new world. Even Ann, John’s wife, changes and becomes unafraid to wield a weapon.

Hands down, though, creepiest character is Henry Pirrie. He’s an older man, a gunsmith, who joins the group with his wife because he knows how to use weapons better than any of them. He is, however, more cunning than they first realise, and uses the new lawless state as an excuse to fulfill his fantasies. He’s deeply unpleasant, but John appears unable to be able to do away with him. Perhaps the most tragic figures are the children, who seem so full of life but the reader knows that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

The science behind a lot of it seems sound to me. The rise of monocultures and pesticides have led to this virus being able to spread and mutate easily. It does make one wonder whether we’d be able to halt something like this before it got out of hand. The only science that seems particularly dated is the use of atom bombs to destroy the cities. While I understand, theoretically, that a smaller population would find it easier to survive than a large one, it does beg the question: did no one consider that the nuclear fallout would render the entire country sterile anyway?

When the Financial Times reviewed the book (I didn’t know they did that), they said, “of all fiction’s apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting” and I really have to agree. Aliens, zombies and nuclear weapons may be scary, but there’s something insidiously terrifying about this one. I think it’s the speed at which society collapses (an issue I deal with in my second novel, see below) and how soon people are willing to turn on one another. The fact that something like this has already begun to happen – a fungus called Ug99 has been spreading around wheat fields in Africa and the Indian subcontient since 1999 – only makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Brilliant, shocking, and maybe a little too prescient for comfort.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, 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 two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“After The Funeral” by Agatha Christie (1953)

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Let's put this year to rest.

Let’s put this year to rest.

“Old Lanscombe moved totteringly from room to room, pulling up the blinds.”

The year is almost at an end  – thank goodness – but there was still time to squeeze in one more book before it ended. Given the slew of high profile deaths this year – with George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds all joining the list in the last few days – it seemed that there was only one book suitable to sum up the year. This is Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

The remaining members of the Abernethie family have gathered at the family pile of Enderby Hall after the funeral of the eldest brother, Richard. Everyone seems far more eager to have lunch and get the will read, rather than do much mourning. After solicitor Mr Entwhistle goes over the basics of the will, Richard’s younger sister, the slightly scatty and simple Cora Lansquenet comments that it’s all been rather hushed up and when everyone stares at her in confusion, she adds, “He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

The family think that Cora may just be trying to wind them up or has entirely got hold of the wrong end of the stick, but the next day, Cora is found mudered in her bed, a hatchet taken to her sleeping body several times. Suspicion abounds immediately, as it seems the Abernethie family have a killer in their midst, and it will surely only be a matter of time before they strike again. Entwhistle calls in the assistance of Hercule Poirot, who sets about infiltrating the family to find out the truth behind these deaths.

It’s hard to often know what to keep saying about Christie novels. They are all so clever and interesting that they generally garner a lot of praise from me immediately. This one is definitely very smart, and while I’d brushed up against the solution a couple of times, I had chased myself away from it too with other ideas. The red herrings are deftly placed, and truly right up until the reveal just a few pages before the end, it could plausibly have been any of the suspects. In many ways, this is peak Christie – a big house, a dysfunctional, wealthy family, a string of murders. Perhaps the most striking elements are the fact that all the murders are very different, whereas most murderers seem to have a particular method, and that, as Sophie Hannah says in her introduction to the book, the motive is non-transferable. That is, it’s a motive that could not belong to any other character, making the solution all the tighter.

Christie wasn’t fussed about how likely things were to happen. As long as they could happen, no matter how unlikely, then that was good enough for her to use. This allows her to write books like this, where the ending feels unique, and her style is so good that you don’t find yourself questioning any of the methods. This is, dare I say it, one of her best books, with a collection of selfish characters and speedy pacing that serves as a great delight to see out the year.

So, let’s put this year to rest. Early in the new year, I shall present a list of my ten favourite books of 2016, but until then, I wish you all the best for 2017. X

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts (2012)

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my-policeman“I considered starting with these words: I no longer want to kill you – because I really don’t – but then decided you would think this far too melodramatic.”

Despite America’s attempts to drag us back into the past, we’ve definitely come a long way in the last few decades. My latest read was set in Brighton, a city notable for its collection of the weird and wonderful, as well as seeming to always have been a haven for anyone who felt like they didn’t fit in. It was for this reason, according to many, that it became home to so many of the LGBT community. But Britain wasn’t always so tolerant, even in Brighton, and this book explores the city in the 1950s.

Teenager Marion has just met Tom, the older brother of her best friend and she is in love. His blond hair, his strong arms – he’s perfect. They meet again when they’re a little older, and he teaches her to swim in the sea, and she becomes convinced that they are going to get married and her love will be enough to propel them though a beautiful future.

Elsewhere, Patrick has just met Tom, a policeman with an interest in art and culture, which seems very unusual. Immediately smitten, Patrick teaches Tom more about these subjects, and the two begin meeting more regularly until it becomes clear that there is a little more than art appreciation on their minds. But this is the 1950s, and so it will be safer for Tom to marry Marion. Both blinded by their love for their policeman and prepared to ignore what’s right in front of them for a sniff of happiness, they must share him, but it all becomes too much one day, and something’s got to give.

The novel opens with the three characters now living together in 1999; although while Marion and Tom are still married, Patrick is a guest and being looked after by them after his second stroke. Half of the book is narrated by Marion, writing to Patrick about what really happened back when they were young, as she hopes he’ll be able to hear the truth before it’s too late. The other half is from Patrick’s point of view, as taken from his journal in the fifties where he is very cagey about naming his lover, referring to him as simply “my policeman”. Despite the perfectly good reason the two have for hating one another, they are curiously similar, and it’s interesting to read their opinions on one another, and see the way they describe the same events from different points of view.

The world is conjured up beautifully, a slightly sad and tragic world in both the fifties and the nineties. We are given constant reminders of how homosexuality was viewed during the middle of the century, with a vast range of opinions on show, much like today. Still, this isn’t nearly as jolly as back then a man could still be imprisoned for being a “sexual invert”. The struggles they go through are writ large and people rarely seem willing to jump to their defence, while Tom, who is perceived by most people to be straight, coasts through life feeling loved by one and all.

Personally, I don’t understand quite what they both see in Tom. They both seem far more attracted to him physically than to who is he, Marion in particular, and while he does seem rather a kind man in some ways, he’s still willing to marry a woman just to act as a cover for his affair with a man. It’s heartbreaking to see both Marion and Patrick suffer, especially Patrick who suffers more than most. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story and full of emotional truths that can resonate with anyone who has had to lose the person they love to someone else.

Charming and cruel in equal measure.

“They Came To Baghdad” by Agatha Christie (1951)

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Baghdad“Captain Crosbie came out of the bank with the pleased air of one who has cashed a cheque and has discovered that there is just a little more in his account than he thought there was.”

People go on about how travelling broadens the mind and that if you don’t travel you only read one page of the world’s book and a lot of other stuff like that. It’s not for me, though. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t judge those who like it. Do what you do! But for me, I find it far more comforting to travel by book. There’s none of that tiresome waiting around at airports, you don’t need vaccinations, and there’s no problem trying to understand the language … unless you’re reading Kafka in the original German, of course. No, give me a quiet corner and a book and I’ll travel that way. I’ve spent the last week, for example, in Iraq.

Chrisite is once again here playing with international intrigue, doing away with a murdered body in a quaint English village in exchange for something a bit bigger. With the Cold War looming, things are tense between Russia and the USA, and talks are planned to try and broker an arrangement for peace. They will take place in Baghdad. But hidden within the Middle East is an underground organisation that plans to sabotage the talks.

Meanwhile, young Victoria Jones has just been fired from her latest typing job and while consoling herself with a sandwich in the park, she meets the curiously handsome Edward. He seems just as smitten with her, and admits that he is off the Baghdad the following day with the professor he works with. Both young things are sad that their affair must end before it’s even had a chance to get started, so Victoria becomes determined to find her own way to Baghdad, despite knowing nothing about it. She is a girl keen for adventure, and a new one begins when she indeed finds a way to her destination.

But once she’s there she’s in trouble. She can’t find Edward, has no money or prospects, and then as if things couldn’t get any worse, a man dies in her hotel room. As he slips away from life, he utters three words – “Lucifer … Basrah … Lefarge”. Victoria quickly finds herself embroiled in an adventure far bigger than any she could have imagined.

Whenever Christie goes big, I find myself slightly less interested. While there’s no doubt she could do the bigger plot lines as well as the smaller murder mysteries, I generally prefer the latter. This one takes a while to get going – there’s no death until about halfway through – but things move rapidly from that point onwards. Christie seems mostly to be using the novel to tell us what she knows about the Middle East. Her second husband was an archaeologist and Christie often accompanied him on his digs, meaning she had first hand knowledge of this part of the world and the customs. This does not go to waste, and has been seen in others of her novels too, including Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. It definitely adds sparkle and colour to the writing.

The only character of any particularly memorable note is Victoria Jones, a natural-born liar who manages to get herself out of any tricky situation thanks to her quick mind and ingenuity. While she might go giddy for a man so quickly, she’s definitely no damsel in distress and can more than take care of herself. Otherwise, this isn’t one of her best books for characterisation. Nonetheless, it’s a fun romp through the world of secret agents and secret political discussions which feels like a bit of an interesting change from Christie’s usual fare.

Anyway, time to read myself into a new location. I’ll be in Dublin if you need me.

“Psycho” by Robert Bloch (1959)

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psycho

Eeek, eeek, eeek!

“Norman Bates heard the noise and a shock went through him.”

The book is always better than the film. Yes, I’m one of those people. Generally though I do experience both, just to confirm that. Most of Hollywood’s greatest films once started out as books – Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Cloud Atlas, The Martian are all great films, but the books just edge them out. Sometimes though, I haven’t seen the film. And in this case, I don’t intend to.

Psycho is one of the most famous films of all time, to the point that we are far more likely to associate the story with Alfred Hitchcock than Robert Bloch, the man who actually wrote the story. As noted above, I’ve never seen the film but its fame is such that details of the plot have seeped through to me via cultural osmosis. Still, not all of it has, meaning I went into this book with suspicions as to what was going to happen, but not necessarily knowing all the details. If anything, that made this whole experience much worse.

Norman Bates is a middle-aged man who runs a motel with his domineering mother. She doesn’t let him drink or smoke or socialise with women, and she firmly disapproves of the books that Norman spends his time reading. But with no one else for company, the two are stuck together in their motel in the middle of nowhere, with just occasional guests to break the monotony. One night, Mary Crane arrives, carrying the $40,000 she’s stolen from her boss and intends to take to her lover. Things, however, don’t go to plan. When Norman is caught by his mother spying on this woman in the shower, his mother takes matters into her own hands and … well, I’m sure you all know what happens next.

When Norman finds out what his mother has done, he endeavours to protect her, but he knows that more people will soon arrive at the motel to find out where Mary and the money have gone. Norman is going to have to lie through his teeth to save himself, his mother, and his motel.

OK, so hands down, this is one of the scariest fucking books I have ever read in my life. Although, as I said, some of what was going to happen was known to me, I didn’t know everything, which means the suspense was racked up to eleven. Had I remembered correctly, too? That was another concern. Bloch’s style is painfully atmospheric and in this short novel he manages to create a world and a character so haunting that they will be lodged in my brain for a very long time. I’m already starting to wonder if I’ll ever sleep again. It does however contain one of the best lines and best examples of zeugma in literature: “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

If you’re not one with a faint heart or stomach that turns over at horror, then you might have a better time with this than me. By the way, I’m not at any point saying I didn’t like this book. It’s absolutely brilliant, so tightly plotted and able to bring to the forefront true fear and anxiety. It’s not fun to read, but it’s great to have read. Just don’t make me watch the film now.

“The Unexpected Guest” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1999)

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The-Unexpected-Guest“It was shortly before midnight on a chilly November evening, and swirls of mist obscured parts of the dark, narrow, tree-lined country road in South Wales, not far from the Bristol Channel whence a foghorn sounded its melancholy boom automatically every few moments.”

You’ll note I’m sure that the date of this book’s release is long after Christie’s death, but there’s a good reason for that. It was originally written as a play in the 1958, penned in four weeks and staged to great acclaim in the West End. Like the previously reviewed Spider’s Web, this is a novelisation of that play, completing the trifecta of plays-to-books that Charles Osborne undertook, the third being Black Coffee.

The novel opens on the foggy night described above when Michael Starkwedder’s car gets stuck in a ditch. Not knowing how he’s going to get out of it, he makes his way to a large nearby house and, finding the french windows open, enters a luxurious study. To his shock, sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the room is a dead man with a gunshot wound in his head.

Finding a light switch, he makes a second surprising discovery – a woman stands in the corner, terrified and holding a gun. She gives her name as Laura Warwick and says the dead man is – or was – her husband, Richard. For the first time in Christie history, it seems an open and shut case. Laura admits to Michael that she killed him, but Michael can’t resist a pretty woman and suggests they concoct a story to save her from arrest.

But perhaps Laura didn’t kill him at all. Maybe she’s covering for someone else, but why, and more importantly who? Everyone in the house seems relatively unworried by Richard’s death, and everyone seems very keen to let Michael, and the police, know that they know who didn’t do it, leading to a situation where everyone seems to be willing to claim they were responsible…

Brevity is the name of the game here. It’s a short book, as I said originally a play, and it’s the one of the three that sounds least like it’s still a play. The dialogue is sharp, and while some of the action does ring a bit of directions for actors (and a couple of things that the audience are meant to see but none of the characters do jar a little in the narration), it remains very obviously Christie. She’s at her prime here, having written this after her last play, Verdict, flopped. It feels like a “take that!” to all her critics, and more power to her.

It also brings in perhaps two of my favourite policemen in the series. Inspector Thomas is sharp and sarcastic, but clearly very efficient. Sergeant Cadwallader provides light comic relief, being a man who is far more interested in poetry than police work. Thomas is clearly irritated by his tendencies to quote poetry at the least appropriate moments, and to write his own poems when he should be taking down witness statements.

The novel also contains one of my favourite Christie lines of all:

“What it comes down to is this. Men are really the sensitive sex. Women are tough. Men can’t take murder in their stride. Women apparently can.”

It’s a twist on the old suggestion and one that I happen to actually agree with. The first part, at least – I’ve never brushed up against murder in real life, so I couldn’t comment on that. Although I have a feeling that I’d be the one breathing into a paper bag in the corner while my female friends dealt with the situation effectively.

Although it may have been tweaked by someone else, it’s so definitely Christie, that it can’t help but be a wonder. The twists are incredible, and the solution seems to flip-flop repeatedly, the truth being outed when you least expect it.

The back of the book contains the review, “Like a martini – crisp, dry, sophisticated, habit-forming, ever-so-slightly dated”. That’s absolutely the epitome of what Christie is about, and this book is one of the best examples of that.

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