“The Remains Of The Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

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“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.”

One of my favourite novels of all time – I could never pick an absolute favourite – is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The story was magical, the prose beautiful, and I got swept up in it quite by accident, having judged the book by its cover originally and not really thinking it was me. It was perhaps the only book on my university reading list I came away loving. I since read a collection of Ishiguro’s short stories called Nocturnes, which I quite liked, but I thought it was time to finally turn to the novel that has, by all accounts, already settled itself among the literary classics.

It is 1956, and Stevens is the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, recently taken over by an American gentleman by the name of Mr Farraday. With the running of the household his primary concern, Stevens wonders if they aren’t a bit short-staffed and when he receives a letter from the former housekeeper Miss Kenton which suggests she is having marital difficulties, he decides to ask for a week off to travel down to the West Country and see if she would want to be employed at Darlington Hall once more.

Unused to free time, Stevens is nonetheless determined to make the most of it, and when Mr Farraday offers him the loan of his car, a short holiday is booked, which takes Stevens deep into the countryside and his past. As he travels to Miss Kenton, never quite sure what the outcome of the meeting will be, he reminisces on his career, thinking back to his time under the late Lord Darlington. Some of his memories perhaps he would rather not have played back, and his obsession with dignity and loyalty time and time again encroach on them. He begins to wonder if things may have turned out differently, and what really does make a good butler.

While quite funny in places – it’s a typical comedy-of-manners – overall I found the story really rather tragic. Stevens strikes me as a lonely figure, although I don’t think he even realises this extent of this himself. His primary goal is always to run a perfect household, regardless of whatever else might happen. He struggles with personal relationships and is seen at times practising witticisms, in case his employer expects him to be able to banter, and also reading romance novels where he can better learn how people talk in informal situations. It is upsetting that he has not learnt these skills organically. He is tonally deaf to so many situations, his employer always coming first. Even when his father dies, he is unable to attend his bedside because he is needed in the dining room, and when Miss Kenton is upset, he remains resolutely professional and would rather chastise her for a failing in her work rather than offer sympathy. He belongs in a past era, and Miss Kenton serves to explore how behind the times he has become, and is about the only person who has never dared question him. Although they call themselves friends, I do wonder if Stevens has ever had a true friend in his life.

Stevens is so obsessed with dignity that he loses his humanity, and towards the end seems almost surprised to learn that the nature of “bantering” is the “key to human warmth”. He and Miss Kenton could quite easily have fallen in love, I’m sure, but he won’t yield and therein lies the tragedy. He is so loyal to Lord Darlington that he forgets to have a personality and life of his own. I imagine this is true of many butlers of the time, and I find it impossible to imagine a life in service like this. In some ways, I admire his resolution and devotion to his job, but above all I just feel pity. He has been constrained by his role and doesn’t know how to escape these bonds he has made for himself, and perhaps isn’t even sure he wants to. At the very end, there’s a hint that he thinks he has missed out on life, but his final words go back to his concern for his employer. He will never change.

A heart-breaking and beautiful novel.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Black Coffee” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1998)

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“Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions.”

Since lock down kicked in, I’ve realised I’m really missing the theatre. I’m not someone who goes particularly regularly – a few times of year at most – but I love it. Musicals, plays, comedies, dramas – what’s not to love? Theatre is second only to books for me as a way to tell a story. It’s there and vivid and right in front of you. If you’ve been on my blog before, you almost certainly know that I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan, and while people may know her for her novels and be aware that she is responsible for the longest-running play in history – The Mousetrap has only been halted by this bloody lock down – she wrote many other plays. In fact, she is the only female playwright to have three plays on at the same time in London, and she was so revered that when she died, all the theatres in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour in her memory.

Anyway, this is all a meandering way to say that in the 1990s, three of her plays were adapted into novels by Charles Osborne. The other two, Spider’s Web and The Unexpected Guest are already on the blog, so it’s time to complete the set. It’s time to enter her first play, Black Coffee.

Notable inventor Sir Claud Amory calls his family into the library after dinner with an announcement. In his safe he had a formula for a powerful new explosive that would change the face of war forever, but now it has gone. The thief, he knows, is in the room. He has already called Hercule Poirot in who will be arriving imminently. Amory offers up a simple option. He will turn the lights off in the room for a short while, the thief can place the stolen formula on the table, and no further questions will be asked. However, once the lights come back up again, the formula – or at least the envelope it was in – has appeared on the table, but the darkness brought death, and now more questions arise, just as Poirot and Hastings turn up on the doorstep. Now there are two puzzles to solve, and a lot of tangled familial relationships to unwind before the answers can be found.

So, it’s a Christie story at her peak. Obviously it’s good. But like with the others, it still lacks something. Reading an adaptation makes you realise quite how much difference there is between prose and scripted story. Most of the action here takes place in a single room, as it would on stage, but here that seems a little unnatural. Quite often you feel like you’re simply reading stage directions, and the mind’s eye can’t help but envision the whole drama unfolding on a stage. In those terms, it still works. The mystery is also particularly engaging, and I only remembered the solution as it drew closer. Christie uses Poirot’s obsession with neatness to assist him once more in solving the plot, but it’s done remarkably well. Unfortunately, because of the stage direction elements of it, some actions are deliberately pointed out to us whereas, in the theatre, we might not have seen them.

The characters are perhaps not quite as fully rounded as some of hers, but with a play you have more limited time to get things across. There’s a deft touch of humour throughout the story, too, as there is in all the best Christie’s. It’s a satisfying solution, with Poirot proven his talents once more. A quick, charming read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

My journey through the Western canon has been sporadic. Sometimes I stumble onto something I like very much. Other times, I read Thomas Hardy. The trouble is that when everyone is telling you something is really good, it raises your expectations. You also come to think that you know the story. However, as I learnt from the likes of Frankenstein or Catch-22, what I thought I knew barely touched the surface or was wildly incorrect. That was how I felt about Rebecca – I know all about the woman who overshadowed her husband, I know about Manderley, and I know all about the terrifying Mrs Danvers. But, it turns out, I knew nothing.

Our nameless narrator begins the novel dreaming of visiting Manderley, the house where she lived with her husband, Maxim de Winter. The de Winters are now living in Europe, in exile, living a dull life, and we wonder how they got there. Skipping back through the past, we find our heroine serving as a companion for the bad-tempered and status-obsessed Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. She finds herself interested in the quiet, brooding gentleman who dines next to them every night. Mrs Van Hopper informs her that this is Maxim de Winter, who owns the exquisite country seat of Manderley and has never got over the death of his devoted wife, Rebecca. By the time the holiday is over, our narrator finds that she is to become the second Mrs de Winter, with Maxim determined to give her a more exciting life.

When they arrive at Manderley, however, things do not seem as rosy as promised. Maxim is distant and somewhat harsh, and everything about the house is reminiscent of Rebecca, with the staff – particularly the skeletal and domineering housekeeper Mrs Danvers – still determined to do things just as Rebecca did them. Trapped behind the reputation of Maxim’s first wife, our heroine tries to forge her own path and make a name for herself in this world. How can one woman retain such power from beyond the grave, and will it ever be removed?

The story is naturally about a woman seeking to find her identity, which makes it all the more ironic and fitting that we never find out what her name is. Indeed, aside from a few hints at her hobbies and appearance, we know very little about her. It is Rebecca who dominates the book, which should be obvious given she’s the title character, but it’s unusual to have a story named for a character who never actually appears. Waiting for Godot is the only other one that springs to mind. Despite not really existing, Rebecca’s personality shines through the text and it seems that no one will ever be over her death, although as the novel progresses and more is uncovered, it seems that perhaps not everything was as it seems at first glance. The new Mrs de Winter is shy and doesn’t want to tread on any toes, but when the time comes to be severe and take on a more commanding presence, she does so with aplomb.

There are, however, two real stars of the novel. The first is Manderley itself, regarded as one of the most important houses in the area, if not the country. Legend surrounds it and people clamour to be invited to one of the famous parties that Rebecca frequently held. Maxim seems less keen on them, but his apparent devotion to his wife suggests that he will let her do as she pleases to keep her happy. The second is Mrs Danvers. Almost certainly a monomaniacal psychopath, she is the one with the strongest loyalty to Rebecca. She has never got over the death and knew Rebecca for much of her life. They were close, and I’d argue that Mrs Danvers may even have been in love with her employer. She is cruel and manipulative, tricking the narrator into humiliating herself and at one point trying to convince her to kill herself. She is terrifying at first, but she certainly has a human side, too. She’s got a misplaced devotion, a resistance to change, and a fierce need to protect the woman she loved, even from beyond the grave. She is an utterly fascinating character, made all the more interesting by the fact that she only seems scary to the narrator when they are alone. As soon as she sees Mrs Danvers in the company of others, it is clear that she is not so intimidating.

I know no one’s asking me to curate the list of what “counts” on the list of canonical Western fiction, but if they did, Rebecca gets a spot without question. My advice to everyone is to head back to this and maybe some of the other classics that you think you know so well and see if maybe you weren’t a bit wrong after all.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Death Of Mrs Westaway” by Ruth Ware (2018)

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“The magpies are back.”

I long for the day someone appears and hands me a big cheque informing me that I’ve won or inherited a lot of money and life will be a bit easier now. That kind of thing only happens in fiction though, and is the catalyst for the events of The Death of Mrs Westaway.

Harriet “Hal” Westaway is a young woman with a problem. Orphaned at eighteen and now three years on reading tarot cards on a Brighton pier and never quite knowing where the next rent money is coming from, she has had a very difficult and lonely life. She’s also now at risk of physical harm as she’s being stalked by a threatening loan shark who knows where she lives and isn’t afraid to mention the fact he’s broken bones before. Survival seems impossible, until she gets the letter. According to a lawyer in Penzance, her grandmother has died and left her a substantial estate.

There’s a slight problem though – Hal’s grandparents have been dead for decades. It’s clear that the letter has come to the wrong person, but Hal is desperate and with her years doing cold readings on people, she seems perfectly suited for conning her way into an inheritance she isn’t entitled to. The choice she makes will change everything, and before long she’s embroiled in a family that has more secrets than she ever thought possible. She just has to make sure no one finds out hers…

It’s a rollercoaster of a novel and just when you think you’ve got the hang of where it’s going, there’s another lurch to the side and you’re disoriented once again. The world is rich and haunting, the characters flawed but interesting and there’s a smoothness to the prose that means you find for every time you sit down to read one chapter you find you’ve read five instead. It’s moreish. It all feels very real too – with the exception of the fact that here Brighton’s West Pier still exists (a beautiful and touching inclusion) – and the honest, simple details that ground it in the real world make the paranoia and tension that build through the novel even more chilling. Throughout there are a lot of questions and we are left to make up our own mind, like Hal. And as any of us know, the mind is a dangerous thing and nothing will always be scarier than something.

I have a couple of questions left at the end regarding plot points that don’t get resolved and it’s one of those books that left me thinking, “But what happened next?” I don’t think Ware needs to do a sequel at all, but it would be interesting to know how everyone’s lives were changed after the events of this novel. A fascinating, tense read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Death And The Dancing Footman” by Ngaio Marsh (1942)

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“On the afternoon of a Thursday early in 1940, Jonathan Royal sat in his library at Highfold Manor.”

As the sunshine finally breaks through and the northern half of the planet remembers that spring exists, I instead make my way back to the 1940s to a snowy scene of murder and mystery. Yes, it’s a return to the works of Ngaio Marsh, the woman I’m currently interviewing as a replacement for Agatha Christie. Both women are hugely regarded in their field, and people it seems tend to view one or the other as superior. My loyalty remains to Christie, but Marsh is certainly not one to be trifled with.

Jonathan Royal is throwing a party, but not just any party. As he tells his first guest, his friend the playwright Aubrey Mandrake, each of the other guests has been specifically invited to create the most drama possible. For a start, there’s no love loss between brothers William and Nicholas Compline. Chloris Wynne was first engaged to Nicholas, and is now set to marry William. Their mother, Sandra Compline, dislikes the woman, adores Nicholas and all but ignores William, the son who dotes on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Royal also invites Francis Hart, a plastic surgeon who is the man responsible for the failed surgery on Sandra’s face that has left her with a tragic appearance. He is enamoured, so it seems, with Elisa Lisse, the woman responsible for the break down of Nicholas and Chloris’ engagement. Completing the set is Royal’s cousin and Lisse’s rival, Lady Hersey Amblington. Everyone has accepted the invitation unaware of the fellow guests, and now they’ve all arrived, fireworks are sure to fly.

Things, however, begin to get out of hand when the arguments are slightly bigger than Royal perhaps imagined they might be. A snowstorm traps everyone in Highfold Manor, many miles from the nearest town, and the phones are cut off. As tensions rise and secrets are revealed, nasty events that can hardly be called accidents begin to happen to some of the guests. Everyone feels their lives are in danger. And then one of the party is found dead. As everyone professes their innocence, it can only be the case that someone is lying. It all seems to hang on the testimony of Thomas, the dancing footman…

Not that I didn’t enjoy my first tromp into Marsh’s work, Surfeit of Lampreys, I found this one much more engaging. Sure, it took me a while to get through (part of that is due to having started watching The Crown on Netflix) but it’s been a while since characters leapt quite so readily off the page. Each one appeared to be very visually and so the action seemed all the more intense. There are plenty of red herrings abounds in the story, as is the nature of the genre, but by now I’d managed to pick up on a couple of them and saw them for what they were. However, it doesn’t mean I caught them all, and I still didn’t get the solution, although I think a couple of extra clues and I would have done.

A tricky novel, but one that is clearly enjoying itself very much.

“Portrait Of A Murderer” by Anne Meredith (1933)

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“Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death though violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931.”

One of the key features of many Christmas celebrations is surrounding yourself suddenly with people that you perhaps don’t really want to be spending time with, namely: your family. When families come together, often arguments follow soon after, as we’ve seen in numerous books. When the Gray family return to the nest for their festive party, things are perhaps a little more extreme than we could imagine.

Adrian Gray has never particularly got on with the six children, nor their partners, so when the whole family must gather at King’s Poplar, fireworks are sure to fly. Things go from bad to worse, however, when on Christmas morning Adrian is found dead at his library desk, head bludgeoned in with a paperweight. It’s enough to put a dampener on anyone’s celebrations.

But this isn’t a murder mystery. We know who killed him, and the novel instead explains what the killer did in the immediate aftermath to frame another member of the household, and we are left seeing if the truth will out. Will the wrong person be sentenced? Can a maid’s private midnight celebration unravel the carefully executed fraud? Can the police catch up to the real killer? It’s only a matter of time.

The British Library Crime Collection, I don’t think, has let me down so far and I’ve been captivated with most everything they’ve dug up from the archives and republished. This, however, was something of a disappointment. It’s not that it’s bad – it’s engaging in it’s own way, and an interesting and unusual take on the murder mystery conceit – but I could at no point get too invested in any of the characters, all of whom are unpleasant and selfish. The act of knowing who the killer is and instead watching how they escape the clutches of justice was much better portrayed in Antidote to Venom, although I admit I like the twist on the usual tale by letting us be aware of the murderer.

Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more at a different time of year, or in a different mood – it’s been a weird week – and I found the style to be needlessly wordy. The cast of characters is pretty substantial, and while they all get an introduction at the novel’s opening, a lot of them become irrelevant quickly, and I found myself confusing who was married and what everyone’s motives were. A larger cast may work in a situation where the killer is unknown, but here, there’s little need for them all, except as to act as an instant jury.

An interesting take on the murder mystery genre, but not a stand out example from the Golden Age.

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.