“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Secret Of Chimneys” by Agatha Christie (1925)

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Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

Always check your chimneys for rogue Dick Van Dykes.

“Gentleman Joe!”

I write these words from Stratford-upon-Avon; not my usual home, but a fitting place as any to write about one of the greatest wordsmiths in history. Obviously, it would be more fitting if I was writing about Shakespeare, but Christie will have to do. (I fear that Shakespeare will repeatedly appear on this blog in the future, however, due to the glut of new books I’ve picked up here.)

The Secret of Chimneys is one of Dame Agatha’s earliest novels dating from 1925. While Poirot, Marple and the Beresfords are all absent, it does feature another recurring character of hers – Superintendent Battle, the stoic and incredibly efficient policeman of Scotland Yard. However, the story starts in South Africa where Anthony Cade, a bored tour guide with a lust for adventure, meets his friend Jimmy McGrath. Sensing that Cade wants to escape, McGrath offers him the very opportunity.

It seems that McGrath is in possession of the memoirs of a certain Count Stylptitch, a noble from the country of Herzoslovakia, which has recently gone through hell and back after the assassination of the king and queen and the introduction of a republic. These diaries, McGrath says, will contain great secrets that would do best to keep hidden, but nonetheless a publisher in London is willing to pay £1000 to the person hands them over. McGrath offers Cade the chance to head back to England in his place and take the memoirs with him. He also asks that a private bundle of letters be taken too – they are written from a lady to a gentleman and contain information that suggests the woman, Victoria Revel, is being blackmailed. Cade is to return them to the woman in question so she can do what she wants with them.

Leaping at the opportunity, Cade heads to London under the name of McGrath and sets about trying to pass the documents on to the right people. However, his presence has not gone unnoticed and he is soon greeted by people who very much want the memoirs to fall into hands other than the publishers. He even wakes up one night in his hotel to find a waiter rustling through his suitcase. After meeting the infamous Victoria Revel, it soon becomes clear that the answer to all their problems lies at the stately home of Chimneys.

Heading to Chimneys separately, Victoria and Cade eventually reunite over the murder of a visiting nobleman, much to the annoyance of the owner of Chimneys, Lord Caterham. This would be bad enough but when it turns out that even more people are after the memoirs, there’s a jewel thief on the loose, someone is plotting to reinstate the monarchy to Herzoslovakia, and policeman from Britain, France and the United States are all descending on the stately home, Chimneys suddenly becomes a hub of considerable activity.

There’s quite a lot going on in this novel. It’s partly a small scale story about blackmail and missing jewels, while also having a second side that involves the abolition and potential reinstatement of a monarchy. I always prefer Christie when she’s writing small, but the big world-changing stuff is handled nicely. I was entirely wrong on who was to blame, as usual, and Christie once more throws everyone off the scent very smartly.

The suspects are varied and frankly all of them seem likely at one point or another. This is, however, a book where everyone is hiding a secret of some kind, and the inspectors are playing their cards very close to their chests. When Cade believes that he’s about to be implicated, he comes forward immediately and explains himself. The police may not believe him, but his story does at least hold together, if not posing further questions and suggesting a contrived coincidence or two.

The resolution is neat and leaves you satisfied, even if the characters are not. Lord Caterham is one of my favourite Christie characters I think; a man who is not so much appalled by the murder as simply annoyed that it’s happened in his house and he might now have to answer some questions rather than just fade into the background as he prefers.

Although you can tell that it’s one of Christie’s earlier works, already her trademarks are in play, messing with the heads of her readers and turning tropes on their heads to weave a tale of international mystery.