“The Murder At The Vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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“It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage.”

With absolutely no surprise, here comes the twelfth Agatha Christie of the year to round off the twelfth month. That’s made a dent, but it’ll still be 2025 before I’ve finished the whole re-read at this rate. Plenty of time to savour them. Anyway, we end the year with the introduction of one of her most famous characters – please take to the stage, Miss Marple.

In the quiet village of St Mary Mead, the vicar, Leonard Clement, has made an offhand and very uncharitable comment regarding local magistrate Colonel Protheroe. He says that anyone who killed the man would be doing a great service to the whole village, but his wife and nephew sweep the comment aside. It comes back to bite him, however, when just a few days later, Protheroe is dead. And not only that, he has a bullet wound in his head and his body is sprawled out in the study of the vicarage!

Before long, Lawrence Redding, a local artist who, prior to an argument, had been painting Protheroe’s daughter Lettice, admits to the murder, walking into the police station with the gun. The village is shocked, but things are complicated further when Protheroe’s own wife also admits to the murder. However, according to local gossip, neither of them could possibly have done it, so what are they playing at? Who are they protecting? The village spinsters set to work rumour-mongering, and at the top of the tree sits Miss Marple, the shrewdest old woman you’ll ever meet, who can see that everything is not as it seems. But will the police listen to a nosy old woman?

So, first up – Miss Marple. She’s not fully-formed yet, and slightly less saccharine than she becomes later. In many ways, I prefer that. She’s prudish, but aware of her failings and nosiness, and villagers are torn over whether or not they like her. All the spinster women of the village are gossiping busybodies, but Marple seems to mean to harm in hers, she is just interested in people and not necessarily going to spread any news that might be incriminating or personally damaging, unless there is a higher necessity. She isn’t really even the focus of the novel, and while she provides the solution, most of the detective work is done on-page by the vicar himself, joined by Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack from the local police.

There’s a wide cast of characters here, and they’re all quite fun, from Len’s young, beautiful wife Griselda who is everything a vicar’s wife shouldn’t be, to the flighty and purposely-vague Lettice Protheroe and even modern Dr Haydock, the local physician. It seems that everyone in the village had a decent motive to kill Protheroe, but there is a distinct lack of broken alibis. My only quarrel with it is that a gunshot would certainly be heard at such close quarters, and this is explained rather weakly towards the end. It works, but not enough attention is paid to it.

Christie herself became dissatisfied with the novel, feeling it had too many characters and sub-plots, but I’m inclined to disagree with her on this occasion. Yes, the cast is fairly substantial and they all have secrets, but this merely serves to provide us with a stack of red herrings that threw even me. Remember, I’ve read all these before, and I’m still getting them wrong. It’s been a very long time since I read this one, however, but I thought I could see what she was doing. In a couple of places I could – always take note of conversations that have no bearing on the current point in the plot – but the rug was still pulled from under me as she plays with tropes, cliches and notions of justice.

While not regarded warmly at the time, I think it’s a fine introduction to one of literature’s greatest amateur detectives.

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 take a look!

“The Mystery Of The Blue Train” by Agatha Christie (1928)

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“It was close on midnight when a man crossed the Place de la Concorde.”

In December 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days before turning up at a hotel miles away from where her car had been abandoned and with, supposedly, no memory of any of it happening. When she returned, her life was in turmoil. Her first husband, Archie, had filed for divorce and Agatha was struggling to cope with this burden (remember, at the time this would have been quite shameful) and having to restart her life with her daughter. She did, however, keep writing, although even she admitted it was a struggle. The result was this book.

All over Europe, things are falling into place. A set of priceless rubies, with the infamous and supposedly cursed “Heart of Fire” at their centre have just been bought and sold in shady and probably illegal circumstances. They make their way from the millionaire Van Aldin to his daughter, Ruth Kettering. He tells her to keep them safe and that it probably wouldn’t be wise to take them with her on her upcoming journey on the luxurious Blue Train. Elsewhere, Ruth’s husband Derek wants a divorce so he can be with his mistress, the beautiful dancer Mirelle, but if they divorce, he’ll be penniless and she might leave him.

In a small village in England, Katherine Grey finds herself without work after the woman she looks after dies and leaves Katherine an enormous fortune. Deciding to experience the world at last, she takes the Blue Train across France to meet her society cousins, but while aboard encounters Ruth Kettering, who is only to happy to talk about her failing marriage and the real reason she’s on board – she’s going to meet another man. Before the train reaches its destination, however, Ruth is dead and the rubies have gone missing. Her husband is the prime suspect, but Hercule Poirot also happens to be a passenger at the time of the murder and he has reservations. Taking Katherine under his wing, he sets about trying to save an innocent man and see if he can’t bring down a crooked member of the aristocracy or two while he does it.

As ever, the clues are all there, and while Christie directs the reader to focus on just two suspects, it is useful to remember that the cast is bigger than that, and everyone has secrets. The use of a cigarette box embossed with a “K” is also a great clue and most readers at this point might start thinking, “Excellent, that’ll nail this down immediately!” until you realise that the cast includes two people called Kettering, a Knighton, a Katherine and even a Kitty Kidd. You thought she was going to make this easy for you? Never.

Like any old steam train of the era, the story takes a good long while to get going. No one dies until we’re 115 pages in, with Poirot showing up for the first time just before, and for the first few chapters we simply leap around a collection of apparently unrelated characters, most of whom seem to be shady in one way or another, and it’s not until the Blue Train begins its journey that the stories begin to properly tie together. Nonetheless, despite the slow start the journey is eventually one worth taking. Christie herself never particularly rated this one in her later years, and it has certainly been overshadowed by her other novel which focuses on a murder on a luxury train, and I can’t say it’s one of my absolute favourites, but it still has a certain charm. Poirot is on form, and the cast of characters is laced with interesting people. They include many of the staples Christie would use again and again, such as the demanding millionaire, the status-hungry aristocrat, and the warring couple, but many of them have more depths than you may imagine.

All aboard!

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 take a look!

Six of the Best … Agatha Christie stories

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It’s Agatha Christie’s birthday, so how better to celebrate than with six of my favourite of her stories! Agatha Christie was born on 15th September 1890 and thirty years later she would publish her first novel (the first novel she wrote, Snow on the Desert, remains unpublished) and change the face of literature forever. She is only outsold by William Shakespeare and the Bible, making her – quite comfortably – the bestselling novelist of all time. The shocking thing is that so many people I speak to have still never read one of her books. I admit myself that I came to her later than many (I didn’t read my first one until I was 21), but surely everyone has had a look at one or two, at least.

Six of the Best, therefore, seems like a good place to introduce people to her work and give you a good place to start. Ordinarily, I would spend a lot more time talking about Christie here, but I’ve done plenty of that on the blog already, having reviewed most of her books here now, and also doing a special post with my twenty-five favourite facts about her, so instead let’s just press on.

Here are six of the best stories Agatha Christie ever wrote…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was her sixth novel – seventh book – and sees Hercule Poirot finally making good on his promise to retire to the countryside to grow marrows. But, as with all the great detectives, wherever they go, murder is sure to follow. When his friend, the wealthy widower Roger Ackroyd is found murdered in his study, Poirot calls on his neighbour, the village doctor James Sheppard, to help solve the case. Blame seems to immediately fall at the feet of Ackroyd’s adopted son, Ralph Paton, and when the police are unable to find him, it only further suggests his guilt. Elsewhere, the details of the will come to light, a strange man was seen around the house on the night of the murder, and Poirot wonders if there is anything that James’s gossipy sister Catherine doesn’t know…

The reason that this one stands up as one of her most famous is because it saw Christie tear up the rule book and change everything about the murder mystery. Some saw her as a cheat, but most saw her as a genius. It wasn’t long after the publication of this one that she famously disappeared, and so that helped it raise to fame as well. Some people thought she went missing as a publicity stunt, but frankly she didn’t need to. She was already well on the way to being a household name and Roger Ackroyd cemented it, with or without a real-life mystery to accompany it. To many, this is considered her masterpiece.

A Caribbean Mystery

The books featuring Miss Marple seem to get somewhat discarded next to the Poirot novels, but this isn’t fair. In some ways, I actually prefer Miss Marple, although she appears in far fewer stories. A Caribbean Mystery is, as you can tell from the title, one of Christie’s books that takes us far from an English country house and out to the beautiful, sunny shores of St Honore. With her holiday paid for by her nephew, Miss Marple is enjoying meeting the other guests, including Major Palgrave, who has tales of murder and even asks Marple if she wants to see a photograph of a murderer. He, however, appears to spot something in the room and changes his mind. The next day, he is dead. Marple is convinced that he has been murdered, and must now work out what it was that made Palgrave have second thoughts, and who could have had reason to end his life.

Famous for one of the best misdirects in any of her novels, this is a great example of how Christie lays out every single clue for you but not necessarily how you want to see them. Every one of her mysteries is entirely solvable, but you need to have a mind that works the right way. I’m still terrible at it and I’m on my second read-through of them all! It also serves as an important reminder that while we immediately associate her work with England, the aristocracy and draughty old houses with everyone gathered in the library, her books took in many influences from her travels around the world, and her books set away from Great Britain are just as fun and wonderful as those that are homegrown.

The Mousetrap

There’s a legend that says if all the ravens leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and England will be plunged into chaos. (Actually, looking at the news lately, has anyone checked they’re still there?) The same could be said of The Mousetrap – if it ever closes, the West End will fall. First staged in 1952 with a cast that included Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, the show has run continuously for the next 67 years. Christie herself gave it eight months and it broke the record for the longest-running play in the West End in 1957, which was acknowledged by a begruding telegram from Noel Coward to Christie that began, “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you…” It is the longest-running play in history. It even changed theatres and didn’t miss a night, and all the while it is still on stage, it can never be adapted for television or radio.

But why has it lasted? That’s a mystery all in itself. Perhaps it’s just because it’s one of her absolute finest stories. The plot centres around a married couple who have just opened a new hotel in a very rural area. When a snowstorm comes in and cuts them and their guests off from the outside world, they begin to rub up against one another, and things get worse when a policeman arrives to tell them that there is talk of a killer in the area. As the group turn against one another, they realise they were all involved in some way with a case that involved the mistreatment of a foster child many years earlier. With the phone cut off and the bodies beginning to fall, tensions run high and no one can be trusted.

And Then There Were None

Quite rightly considered the jewel in the crown of Christie’s back catalogue, And Then There Were None is unparalleled in its ingenious plot. The novel takes us to a small island off the coast of Devon where ten people have been invited to dinner. The host, however, is nowhere to be found, and not long after learning that a storm means the island is now inaccessible from the mainland, a mysterious recording plays in the house, accusing all ten visitors of murder. And then the bodies begin to fall.

By the novel’s end, there is no one left alive on the island. But who is the killer? Who is the mysterious U. N. Owen who invited them all and how does he know about their sordid pasts? Are they really all alone? One of the most incredible stories I have ever read, it works whether you know the solution or not. If you don’t know, you’ll love trying to work it out, and if you do, you’ll love trying to see how she does it. As ever, the clues are all there, you just have to be able to untangle them.

Murder on the Orient Express

Aboard the most luxurious train of the age, Poirot finds himself in strange company. The other passengers are cagey, not necessarily friendly, and all have their own reasons for travelling. One of them is Samuel Ratchett, a distasteful man of the sort who believes he can solve any problem by throwing money at it. Convinced that his life is at risk, he asks Poirot to protect him, but Poirot refuses, simply because he does not like the man or his methods. That night, however, the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Croatia, and the following morning Ratchett is found dead in his cabin. Someone on the train is guilty, and with nowhere to go and nothing else to do, Poirot sets about interviewing everyone on board to see if he can solve the case before the police get to them.

Murder on the Orient Express is another of the best-known novels, with a solution that’s probably better known than its plot. It’s a staple for anyone entering the world of Christie, however, as it explores much more fully than in many others Poirot’s sense of justice. It’s a fiendish solution, but the emphasis here is on character and how we deal with revenge, fairness and honesty. It rounds out Poirot into an even greater character than he was before and amply shows off how his reputation now precedes him. It’s also a key example of how Christie – and many other crime writers – used real world crimes to inspire their fiction. Both this and The Mousetrap take their inspiration from enormously famous and influential crimes, but each is given a Christie twist.

Cards on the Table

There is an assumption with Christie’s work that it’s better to suspect “the least likely person”. She knew that people thought this, and it had become a common trope in murder mystery fiction, so Cards on the Table was published in 1936 to entirely subvert it. The story begins with a wealthy collector, Mr Shaitana, inviting eight people to dinner and then to play bridge with him. By the end of the night, Mr Shaitana is dead. Nobody left the room, and nobody else came in, so the killer is there. Four of the guests, however, are detectives – Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and Ariadne Oliver. That leaves the other four as the suspects: and they’ve all got murky pasts with suspected murders in them. As such, there is no one who is less likely than any other. The rest of the novel progresses as normal, with the detectives working out which suspect has struck again. Fiendishly clever, if her reputation hadn’t already been assured, this one would have done it.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

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!

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

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I’ve just had the enormous pleasure to spend four days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have long-adored the city, but had never visited the world-famous festival before, so this was quite literally a dream holiday. The city remained as beautiful as ever, with the added bonus that everywhere you turned, there was a remarkable talent (or a shameless exhibitionist) on display. As my friend said, “There’s not a single room in Edinburgh they’ve not crammed something into, is there?” And she’s right. We plodded around theatres, pubs, comedy clubs, spare rooms in bar basements and even the Student’s Union building in search of entertainment, and boy, did the city deliver. Since this is a blog all about reviews, it seems only fair to then discuss, if only briefly, every show I saw on my whistle stop visit, starting with…

Best of the Fest: Daytime

We decided to open with a show that would give us a taster of the sort of thing to expect from the week. With a rotating cast of comedy and music acts, you never know who you’ll be seeing in the spiegeltent on the day. Our MC was drag act Reuben Kaye who burst onto the stage with great energy and introduced us to comedian Marlon Davis, comedy troupe Pamela’s Palace, sketch-performing duo Max and Ivan, and dancers Noise Boys. All great fun, the middle two involving audience interaction (important tip for Edinburgh: unless you’re a confident sort, don’t sit in the front row or on an end), but probably it was Reuben who stole the show. His flyer contained a review saying he was like a hybrid of Liza Minnelli and Jim Carrey, and it’s very hard to dispute that. I’d recommend a “Best of the Fest” to anyone, like me, who is new to it and wants to get a taste of the thing.

Cordelia and Dimple: Buffet

In the spirit of there not being a single empty room during the Festival, we dived into a tiny room beneath the City Cafe, around the size of my bedroom, where maybe fifteen people were sat for Dimple Pau and Cordelia Graham. Due to the smallness of the room, it was an intensely intimate gig where I was sat but a foot from the performers. Had they not been funny, this would have been very awkward, but fortunately they were. Dimple shared stories of her home life, where her parents strict adherence to veganism has meant she has to lie about her own lifestyle, and Cordelia points out the struggles of having a mother who quotes Shakespeare all the time. When Cordelia, however, complained that she wanted to write a book but would never get round to it, she asked the audience if any of them had ever published a book. Basically, what I’m saying is, thanks for letting me plug my novel in a very minor way at the Fringe!

The Daily Ceilidh

This was not so much a show as an experience, but it’s worth mentioning because it still appears in the brochure and was enormous fun. Held in the awesome Stramash bar, throughout the Fringe the bar hosts a new band and a ceilidh every evening. For those who don’t know, a ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is a traditional Scottish folk dance and is fast, frantic and, I discovered to my immense pleasure, fun. Had I been alone, there was no way I would have taken part, but after watching a few dances, my friend and I joined the crowd and got stuck in. I don’t think I’d realised that “dance in a ceilidh” was on my bucket list until it happened.

Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human

I’ve been a big fan of Brighton-based comedian Zoe Lyons since she first started appearing on TV, so she was high on my list of people I wanted to see. As a big fan of comedy, I was also aware of the Gilded Balloon as a big Edinburgh location, and it was a thrill to be in there, too. Zoe’s set was fast and enormously witty, with talk on why computer experts all sound a bit adenoidal, why we all become a bit more “Brexit-y” as we get older, what makes flies able to get into a window but not out of one, the problem with Deliveroo, and the dangers of travelling to very conservative Muslim countries as a lesbian. (Spoiler: the problem isn’t what you think.) I love her even more than I did before – an absolutely stellar show and one of my favourites.

Mark Watson: I Appreciate You Coming to This and Let’s Hope For the Best

When he appeared on Taskmaster, Greg Davies insisted repeatedly that Mark looks like a heron. Having now seen him in person, I can only agree. His terrible posture is made up for by his absolutely incredible material, made all the more impressive that this show is a “work in progress”, meaning it’s not actually finished yet and he’s just testing jokes and routines to see how they work for a final show to go on tour later in the year. Mark manages to be wonderfully self-deprecating but also comes across as a genuinely nice man who is just a bit wound up and only thin because he lives life at a level of anxiety that his body can’t keep up with. There was talk of his recent divorce, why he’s a bad parent, his attempts at learning to drive, and how to deal with the responsibility of being in the exit row of a plane. But given the nature of the show, what he talks about another night might be entirely different.

Ben Van der Velde: Fablemaker

Speaking of a different show every night, we come to Ben Van der Velde. I’m already a big fan as the podcast he co-hosts, Worst Foot Forward, is one of my absolute favourites, so I was determined to catch him at the Fringe. Based entirely around crowd work, of which he is surely one of the masters, he finds out about his audience and weaves their stories into a single narrative with an astounding memory of names and details. Because of this reliance on the crowd, every show is entirely different, but Ben manages to keep the audience on-side and any digs at them are tongue-in-cheek and he never oversteps the line to direct offence, no matter what he’s actually saying. And, as a bonus, we had a nice chat after the show as well and he was just as charming off stage as on.

The Thinking Drinkers: Heroes of Hooch

If a show is advertised where you get given drinks while you watch it, you know I’m going to be there. The Thinking Drinkers are Tom and Ben, two alcohol experts who have the mantra, “Drink less, drink better”, which is solid advice. The show takes the form of both a set of comedy skits and a Ted Talk about the history of alcohol, as we explore how it came to be and who has loved it since. Focusing on “heroes of hooch”, the pair touch on the alcohol-fuelled exploits of the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and even God. Throughout, the audience are handed drinks and taught how to taste them. We knocked back beer, gin, rum, whisky and Gran Marnier as the show became more hysterical. It’s kind of like QI, but down the pub.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare

Is this a pint I see before me? The opposite of the previous show, here the audience aren’t given alcohol, but we instead see a performance of Macbeth where one of the cast has been drinking for hours before the performance begins. This time round it was Banquo who had been on the lash (six beers and quarter of a bottle of gin) and thus began one of the most anarchic performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered. While the rest of the five-person cast gamely tries to complete the play, our Banquo (who also took on the role of Lady Macduff and one of the witches) stumbled through her words, was encouraged to drink further by the audience, and at one point even kicked Macbeth in the face. The rest of the cast hilariously incorporate any mistakes into the play, and it was one of the maddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s what William would have wanted.

Are we not drawn onward to new erA?

We decided we had to get something highbrow in, and the reviews of this show from Belgian troupe Ontroerend Goed were amazing, so we decided to snatch up some tickets. Experimental theatre at its most experimental, this show sees a first act take place entirely in reverse with even the dialogue happening backwards, making it sound like you’re watching The Sims on stage. The actors destroy a tree, litter the stage with plastic bags and build a statue. At the halfway point, they realise that they have destroyed their world, and the second act sees exactly what happened the first time but forwards instead. How do they achieve this? That’s not my place to say, but it blows the mind, and things take on a different take when seen the other way around. A haunting and intelligent piece about climate change and environmental disaster.

Agatha is Missing

You thought I’d manage to get through the whole experience without somehow involving Agatha Christie, did you? Please, I’m not an amateur. In this one-woman show, we meet Miss Clarissa Marbles of Scotland Yard, who is attempting to solve the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance. Everyone in the room is a suspect, but we also get a chance to submit our own solutions and see if we can work it out. Relying heavily on audience participation, suspects and witnesses are called up out of the crowd, sometimes selected by Marbles, but sometimes simply by previous players. Shows like this only work if the audience are into it, and while most people gave it a good go, others were clearly dazzled by the lights and couldn’t handle the pressure. I’m not saying I could do any better, but when there’s nothing for the host to bounce off of, it means some lines fall a bit flat. Prudence Wright Holmes, however, the single performer, is absolutely wonderful and fully embodied the hilarious role, from her abhorrence regarding anything modern or immoral, to her tuneless singing of the national anthem.

Geeks, Stand Up

This was another free show we decided to pop in on and give a chance to as the concept seemed interesting. The premise is simple enough: four geeky comedians get to come on and talk about things they are passionate about but are a bit too niche to include in their usual set. I was a bit worried this might mean an hour of Star Wars or Avengers talk that I didn’t understand, but the spread was wide, with the MC taking on the superhero stuff (and finding the audience taking the opposite point of view for almost everything he said), and the other four joking about basketball, online homophobia, archaeology and professional wrestling. A decidedly mixed bag, the absolute stand out was 19-year-old Andrew White who tackled homophobia and did jokes about being the only single person in his hometown and not being a stereotype because he can’t dress well. He also included some of his “failed” observational comedy, including the bizarre but honest question, “Why do you never see a little branch of Asda?” Very true, and funny simply by the conceit of not being funny at all. Fortunately, he knows this, and he’s very much in on the joke.

Phil Wang: Philly Philly Wang Wang

Phil’s rise to the top of the comedy pile seems to have been meteoric, but we sure are glad to have him. In his highly-polished show at the Pleasance (another one of those fabled Fringe institutions), he discusses getting older and how this has impacted his farting habits, when it’s OK to impersonate another race’s accent, male contraception, and how Tinder is the quickest way to gain friends but not actually have any sex. Sweet and very endearing, he is great at balancing egotism and self-deprecation. I particularly enjoyed the quip, “People try to call me a minority, but I’m half English and half Chinese. I’m both majorities.” This, he explains, means that whichever side of the world ends up taking over, he’ll be fine.

Alex Love: How to Win a Pub Quiz (British Edition)

Hosted by Alex Love, this one saw the first half of the performance involve a stand-up set, and the second half contained a pub quiz, mostly based on things that Alex had discussed. It was a nice concept, and Alex had a few good moments, but the show unfortunately stalled a couple of times, particularly when team names were recorded and points were added up. Alex did his best to fill the gaps, and some of the questions were very clever, relying on red herrings and trip-ups from his earlier stories, such as talking about Tim Peake or Loch Ness, but then asking questions on similar topics where the answers were actually Helen Sharman or Lough Neagh. A good quiz, but could have benefited from being hosted more like one, rather than with the audience in rows.

Stuart Goldsmith: Primer

Another show I went to because of a podcast, and another work in progress. Stuart Goldsmith hosts The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, in which he interviews other comics about their careers and processes, and whenever he’s released a stand-up set alongside it, they are also hysterical. His new work in progress show was similarly brilliant. His notes were up on the side of the stage alongside him, and it was charming to see him work through them, as well as leave audio notes for himself on his recording of the show. Topics included how you change as you get to know your romantic partner better, how to perform acts of terrorism on the cheap, the large population of fairies in his nearby park, and the incredible story of the time his family stole a car. Incredible stuff, and I hope I get to hear the final show at some point.


And that’s it! Fourteen in four days is pretty heavy going. I already plan on going back for next year, for longer hopefully, but I think a day of rest in the middle would be very necessary. If you’re in Edinburgh and are looking for suggestions, I hope some of these have helped. And if there is anything you saw that you think I should know about, please let me know! It’s astonishing how many thousands of performances there are and I wish there was time to do them all. As it is, my first Fringe experience was absolutely wonderful and I consider myself very lucky to have seen such great shows.

For those uninterested in this stuff, don’t worry. Book reviews will continue again in the next few days.

Six of the Best … Fictional Vehicles

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Characters in books rarely stay in one place for long, unless they’re stuck in prison. How they get about, however, is often of enormous interest to readers. In our world, we are limited by fuel, time and distance, but in fiction the same rules don’t necessarily apply. You can travel at colossal speeds and cover massive distances given the right technology or magic. Cars can fly, submarines can sink to impossible depths, airships can …  well … they can be feasible. Even an elevator can serve as a spaceship with enough ingenuity. We’re also not limited by travelling through space, as time travellers need a vehicle too, and they’re inherently cool.

Rarely is a vehicle the main focus of a book, although exceptions could possibly be made of the Thomas the Tank Engine series. Still, enough have vehicular titles. Many of us would recognise titles such as Murder on the Orient Express, Three Men in a Boat, Strangers on a Train, and The Little Engine That Could.

Transportation often features heavily in fiction as it is not without its risks. Trains were occasionally locations for murders in Agatha Christie’s novels, and few of us can forget the dangerous driving in The Great Gatsby. Despite all this, there is something fantastic about vehicles that inspire humanity. Literature is where we’ve let our imaginations run wild. Books are already an escape from reality, so giving us a cool car, train, boat or spaceship is just adding to that. China Miéville created an ocean-less world in Railsea, where long trains trawl eternally across the planet’s dry surface, acting like boats do for us. Great ships like the Pequod in Moby Dick, the Walrus in Treasure Island, or the Jolly Roger in Peter Pan stir the imaginations of anyone who’s ever wanted to cast anchor and set sail for new shores. The Nautilis submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so inspired people that numerous real ships and submarines have been given the name, which is ironic as the fictional one got its own name from the first practical submarine, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton.

Above all, a vehicle in fiction has to be cool. James Bond is of course particularly notable for his exquisite taste in cars, and will forever be associated with Aston Martins. Elsewhere, Lord Peter Wimsey drives V12 sleeve-valve Daimlers, and Australian flapper and detective Phryne Fisher traverses her books in a bright red Hispano-Suzia. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo tear through the desert in cars named The Great Red Shark and The Great White Whale, which are cool just for their names, even if the rest of the book lacks.

Before we get on with the list of my six favourite fictional vehicles, I’d like to first run through some honourable mentions. First up, on the left, the shoe car driven by Mr Funny. It would be a great as a statement vehicle, but it has very little practicality, with no luggage space, room for one person only, and apparently no doors. I also avoided putting the TARDIS on the list as, while there are Doctor Who novelisations, it’s better known as a television series (although I go against this reasoning with one of the other vehicles on the list, so, whoops). The TARDIS is remarkable, however. Able to go anywhere and everywhere in time and space (not that you’d necessarily believe it given how much time it spends in modern day London), it is as much a character of the show as anyone. It is the ultimate in travel, even if the pilot doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing with it. I also left off the titular bus of my first novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus. Formerly nothing but a horse and cart, every piece has been replaced over the years until it now resembles a London bus, except for the sheen of blood over everything and the cannibal driving it around Britain at breakneck speed.

And now, on with the list!

Hogwarts Express

J. K. Rowling not only gave us an enormous amount of spells, magical creatures, beloved characters and mouthwatering foods when she created the Harry Potter universe – she also gave us a huge plethora of ways to get around. Wizards never really have to walk anywhere as they’ve got dozens of ways to get from A to B. They can use a Portkey, travel through the Floo Network, ride on the back of a thestral or hippogriff, pilot a broomstick, or catch the triple-decker Knight Bus. This is still before we come to Mr Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, Sirius Black’s enchanted motorbike, the submersible Durmstrang ship, the enormous Beauxbatons carriage pulled by winged horses, flying carpets, and the Vanishing Cabinet. If all else fails, they can learn to apparate, although this always comes with a danger of splinching.

Despite all this, I think we can all agree that by far and away the greatest vehicle in the series is the Hogwarts Express. The scarlet steam engine is one of the most iconic symbols of the series, even gracing the front cover of the first book. While home to some pivotal scenes in the novels, including Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first interactions, a Dementor attack, and a fight with Malfoy, it’s broadly speaking a very safe space, watched over by the trolley witch, and anyone who’s read or seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child knows what she’s capable of! The train seems to have very few particularly magic powers, having been stolen from Muggles in 1830. According to supplementary material, the operation required the use of the biggest concealment charm ever performed in Britain, and 167 memory charms, creating a brand new train station at Hogsmeade that hadn’t existed the day before, and leaving the railway staff at Crewe with the feeling that they’d misplaced something.

The Hogwarts Express might not be the most magical of things in the series, it represents something enormous, as it is the literal way Harry moves between the Muggle world he hates and the wizarding world he loves. Despite the lack of inherent magic, who wouldn’t want to set off from the fabled Platform 9¾ at eleven o’clock on September 1st, eating Chocolate Frogs and Pumpkin Pasties with your best friends, watching the British countryside swish by, as you head to the greatest school in fiction? No one, that’s who.

The Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, as surely many of you know, is credited as being one of history’s first computer programmers, working alongside Charles Babbage. She was the first person to realise that a computer could do more than pure calculation and is responsible for writing the first algorithm. As a fun aside, she was also the daughter of flamboyant romance poet Lord Byron. It was, therefore, absolutely fitting for Nick Harkaway to name his code-breaking train the Ada Lovelace in his astounding novel Angelmaker.

Eleven carriages long and containing “a kitchen, bathrooms, and two carriages of strange machinery”, the train tears through the countryside of Britain, never stopping, “occupying empty sidings and blank slots in the timetable, rolling and slipping around the edges of the map”. Although designed to be perfect, the materials used to make it are not, so the entire train is maintained by hand. It’s a fascinating idea to basically put Bletchley Park on wheels, as it’s then never where it was five minutes ago and it makes it a lot harder to trace. Although it “is narrow and sways with a strange eerie motion”, I think living aboard the Ada Lovelace is something I could definitely get used to.

Death’s bike in Discworld

Since the Second World War ended, the motorcycle has been seen as the coolest way to travel. In Terry Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music – part of the Discworld series – Death rides a motorbike that has been created in accordance with the tropes of rock music. As such, it isn’t designed to slow down, never mind having the ability to stop safely, and is specifically designed to crash at the end of the eighth verse. Even weirder, the bike itself falls apart pretty early in the story, but the idea of it remains, appearing simply as light reflecting off a machine, but without the machine.

Otherwordly figures almost by their very nature have to have bizarre and awesome vehicles. It’s worth pointing out as well that in another of Pratchett’s works, Good Omens, the demon Crowley has a Bentley that is protected from damage by his infernal powers – at least until it drives through a “wall of fire formed by a highway shaped like a diabolical sigil”. After that, it only completes its final journey through sheer force of will and by the end no longer resembles a Bentley – or a car.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang

I know I said I was leaving the TARDIS off the list because it was better known from television, but I’m allowing this car famous from a film onto the list because the book categorically came first. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was published in 1964 was written, perhaps surprisingly, by Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. Inspired by a series of racing cars also called Chitty Bang Bang, it was Fleming’s final work but he did not live to see it published.

The titular car is named for the noise it makes when it starts – the engine noise coupled with two loud backfires – and has been restored to glory by the inventor Caractacus Pott. The car, however, soon begins to exhibit signs of sentience, performing independent actions. When it instructs Mr Pott to pull a lever when stuck in traffic, the family learns that the car can fly. Later, on a beach, it develops hovercraft tendencies. Chitty is also able to track enemies when in pursuit and lock onto their location. The book ends with implications that it has many more secrets still to be revealed…

Flying cars are still absent from the real world, despite decades of promises from scientists that they’ll be along soon, so for many of us, fantasising about flying in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, even if it is off to a country where children are forbidden and Benny Hill is inexplicably in work as a toy maker, is the closest we’ll get. And as if it wasn’t strange enough that Ian Fleming had written the book, Roald Dahl then penned the screenplay and the car soared into the hearts of people everywhere.

Thursday Next’s Speedster

Like the Hogwarts Express, this is one that is simply in here for being impossibly cool. Thursday Next, my favourite literary heroine, owns a 356 Speedster, that she is compelled to buy after seeing a future version of herself driving it. She claims that she was never much of a car person, but “this one was different”. Described as having a spartan interior, it is painted in red, blue and green. It takes her only a few hundred yards driving the car for them to be “inseparable”.

Beautiful and unusual, the car then features prominently in the series, even turning up on two covers – each book actually features a vehicle of some kind on the cover, usually a cool car – and taking part in one of the only car chases to ever appear in literature. Car chases are ten a penny in films, but in books it’s much harder to get the action right. Still, Fforde manages it, and with a car like this, how could he not?

Bookjumping – the act of reading yourself into a book – is still the coolest method of getting about in the whole series, but it doesn’t count as a vehicle. Unless you flag down a TransGenre Taxi, of course. That might.

Heart of Gold

It wouldn’t be possible to complete this list without the only vehicle possibly more remarkable than the TARDIS – the Heart of Gold. Springing from the pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it stands out among the other strange spaceships that Douglas Adams dreamt up as being the only one powered by improbability. Other ships present in the series include the Starship Bistromath, which runs on the laws of “bistromathics” (the specific mathematics of factors in restaurants), Golgafrincham B-Ark, a two-mile long generation ship built to exile a third of its home planet’s population, and Hotblack Desiato’s entirely frictionless Space-Limo which is so cool that Zaphod and Ford are compelled to steal it.

Heart of Gold, however, still rises above the rest for me. Described as the first ship to successfully use the Infinite Improbability Drive (an early form was used in the Starship Titanic, but due to the nature of infinite improbability, the ship stopped existing before it had even been launched), it was devised as a secret project on Damogran, before being stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox at the launching ceremony. The faster-than-light drive was invented following research into finite improbability, which was often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess’ undergarments leap one foot simultaneously to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy”. The Guide itself states that a lot of respectable scientists wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing “partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.”

The drive works by ignoring space and travelling through every point of every possible universe at the same time, meaning you’ll never be completely sure where you’ll end up or who you’ll be when you arrive. As Adams says, it is “therefore important to dress accordingly”.

I think we can all safely agree that however you travel through fiction, you’ve gotta do it in style. Happy travels!


Thanks for joining in and reading the third entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Opening Lines

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You only get one chance to start a story. When I was studying Creative Writing at university, emphasis was sometimes placed on the first page of a novel. Books have to be engaging throughout because the writer naturally wants the reader to finish the whole book, so every page is a new challenge to make them turn over and keep going. If you can’t even sustain their interest to the end of the first page then something has gone very wrong. Even more so, then, you need a first line that grabs the reader and drags them into the adventure they’re about to undergo.

Probably the most famous opening line, used to begin many stories in the English language and popularised by fairy tales, is “Once upon a time…” When you give it some thought, it’s actually a bit of a nonsense phrase, but one we accept without question because we are all exposed to it from a young age. It’s deliberately vague, setting the following story in deep history, back when magic was real and animals talked. In other languages, however, the phrase isn’t ever used and they have their own curious phrases, some of them actually much more fun. In the Indian language of Telugu, fairy tales open with, “Having been said and said and said…”, implying the story has been repeated throughout history. In Korean, fairy tales begin, “Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…” and Polish ones focus on a location rather than a time, beginning, “Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…” Fairy tales are always meant to be out of reach of us mortals to visit. One of my favourites however is that of Chile, where the traditional beginning is, “Listen to tell it and tell it to teach it”, which focuses on the oral tradition and morality aspects of fairy tales.

Because life doesn’t have beginnings and endings the way fiction does, it can be interesting to see where writers choose to begin their stories. Common beginnings, however, can be setting up a location (Fantastic Mr Fox: “Down in the valley there were three farms.”), having the character waking up (The Way Inn: “The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”) or perhaps already at the breakfast table (Third Girl: “Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”). Starting in the morning seems to make sense to us, and I can’t think of many if any books where the character’s first act is to go to sleep. Mornings, and breakfasts feel like suitable beginnings, although perhaps The Bible takes this to its logical extreme by beginning at the creation of the universe. It’s far from the only book to do so.

Another very common form of opening line is one that discusses the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night” is often thrown up as an example of purple prose, and is now often mocked and parodied. Washington Irving (writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) first used the phrase in 1809, but it reached its fame as an example of bad writing in 1830 with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, which opens:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t all bad – he also coined the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” – but this opening line was so maligned that that in 1983, San Jose State University began the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a contest to find the worst opening line in fiction for each year. None of this, however, has stopped the use of weather in opening lines. In Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, writer Ben Blatt analysed the use of weather in opening lines and found that Danielle Steel is one of the biggest culprits, with 46% of her 92 novels opening with a description of the weather. Other well-respected novelists use the same methods – 26% of John Steinbeck’s novels and 17% of Stephen King’s begin with the weather, as do 10% of Charles Dickens’.

Blatt also explored the length of opening lines, are his findings are interesting. Toni Morrison averages five words in her opening lines; Jane Austen, thirty-two. Charles Dickens straddles it all, with A Christmas Carol‘s first line being just six words long, but the opening of A Tale of Two Cities being a sentence of “119 words, 17 commas and an em-dash.” Despite the extraordinary difference in lengths, both are considered classics, showing that really there are no hard and fast rules for what makes a good opening line.

So what is the best opening line of all time? This is a point hotly debated by readers and writers, but often the same contenders crop up again and again. I’ve tried not to include many of them in my list below and give some others a chance to shine, but they are still worthy of a mention. 1984 famously opens with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” I’ve always been a fan of this, as it invokes the fact that you’re about to step into a world where everything is just a bit off. It’s immediately uncomfortable. Alert Camus’ novel The Stranger says enormous things about grief just with its first ten words: “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Moby Dick, of course, opens with “Call me Ishmael”, which serves to simply make us ask more questions than necessary – there’s an implication that Ishmael isn’t the narrator’s real name. Immediately you’re curious to know what – or indeed if – he’s hiding. And Pride and Prejudice opens with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is probably one of the most parodied first lines in literature, and very quickly establishes a lot about the plot, characters and culture of Austen’s world.

And with those out of the way, may I share with you six of my favourite opening lines in all fiction.

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead: to begin with.

I’m not especially a fan of Dickens, finding him long-winded, but this is understandable given the man was paid by the word. He is, however, responsible for this opening line, which contains what is surely the best colon in literature. Death is so often the end, but here we know straight away that Marley is coming back in some form or other. It feels topsy-turvy – if you start dead, surely you can’t become anything else? Like 1984, it introduces an immediate sense of unease which then pervades the rest of the novel. You can’t not be captivated by this opening.

Slaughterhouse-Five

All this happened, more or less.

It’s been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s one of those books that has stayed with me and began an ongoing fondness for Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of great stories have unreliable narrators, and this first line gives the indication straight away that it’s one of them. As the old saying goes: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Here, we know immediately that things are not necessarily going to be quite as they seem, and details of Billy Pilgrim’s life may have been altered for the purpose. What is true and what is false, however, are left for us to decide ourselves.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

The Narnia books passed me by as a series, and I wonder if it’s too late now to head through the wardrobe and learn about Christianity through the eyes of a lion. Probably for the best, as I never liked Turkish delight anyway. This opening line, however, always makes me laugh, though as a friend once said, “That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose middle name is Staples.”

A name can tell you a lot about a person – and if you don’t believe me, then think of two people called Wayne and Percival and tell me you don’t have preconceived notions about what these people would be like – so to open with a name like that is a sure fire way to grab the attention. Like a lot of good openers, too, it brings about questions. Who is he? Why does he almost deserve his name? Why doesn’t he fully deserve it? There’s something silly about it, but it works.

The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

The Day of the Triffids is still remembered but doesn’t seem to be held up in the same regard as other classic science fiction tales. Cool and terrifying, I’d forgotten the opening line entirely. It’s a great one though, upending the world immediately and throwing you in, once again, with a sense of concern. I also like that it suggests we all know a Sunday morning is a very different beast to a Wednesday morning. Like many traditional openings, we are of course starting with talk of the morning, but it quickly points out that this is not going to be normal. Whatever is going to happen has already happened in some respects, and now we’re straight in dealing with the fallout.

The Crow Road

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

I’ve never read The Crow Road and this opener came to me when I asked others for some suggestions of their favourites. It’s instantly captivating, shocking, weird, funny and makes you wonder what on earth is happening. There doesn’t seem to be any shock in the words, like this is something that happens regularly. It’s another one that instantly makes you want to know more.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.

In a similar vein to A Christmas Carol, The Beginner’s Goodbye opens with someone not being quite as dead as they were first thought to be. Like The Crow Road, it takes something strange and normalises it. We aren’t meant to think that this is odd, or at least not if we’re siding with the hero. It’s everyone else that seems to have the problem. It’s cleverly worded, and I adore the use of the word “strangest” which you think should be about one part of the line but is actually about another. It also doesn’t feel creepy in the slightest, just makes you want to know how people reacted and, frankly, how his wife made it back.


Thanks for reading the first post in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

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