“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch (2013)

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“At twenty-three minutes pat eleven Robert Weil drove his 53 registered Volvo V70 across the bridge that links Pease Pottage, the improbably named English village, with Pease Pottage, the motorway service station.”

I’m back in the midst of a series again, so if you’re fussy about things like an ongoing narrative or spoilers, I’d advise you first work through Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground before disembarking here. In the fourth installment of this series, we’re back with Peter Grant, London policeman and amateur wizard, and his unusual caseload.

The novel opens in Sussex, near Crawley, when a car crash brings to light a man who may be a murderer. When there’s a suggestion of something unusual going on, Nightingale, Peter and Lesley descend to look for hints of magic. However, soon London calls them home when a town planner is reported to have jumped in front of a tube train, and there’s the news that an old German spell book has turned up in the wrong hands.

Events bring to light a strange housing estate near Elephant & Castle, designed by a bonkers German architect, and focused primarily on the Skygarden, a tower block with bizarre dimensions and larger-than-necessary balconies. Sensing that this is where the answers are, Peter and Lesley move in and begin to explore. But things quickly go sour when the estate’s resident dryad is killed, and the gods of the river begin to seek revenge. With a Russian witch on the run, and suggestions that the Faceless Man isn’t too far away, Peter and Lesley must work out what’s so important about the Skygarden before it’s too late.

Four books in and the world is pretty established by now. London is full of magic, ghosts, gods, fairies and a whole manner of other supernatural beings. Peter is becoming increasingly skilled at wielding his magic, but a lot of it takes place off the page, so we don’t get to see everything that he’s developing. Perhaps this is for the best, as the study of magic seems to mostly involve reading a lot of dusty old textbooks and since most of Peter’s spells still end in something catching fire, I guess there’s only so many times you can see that. We finally learn a little more about Nightingale who lets slip some information about his family for the first time, and Zach, the half-fairy from Whispers Underground is back, and far more sympathetic this time around. He’s a complicated character, simultaneously a help and a hindrance.

A friend who had read this one before me warned me that there is a moment towards the end that made her gasp openly, meaning I read the whole thing with a sense of trepidation, wondering what surprise was about to be sprung on me. Her wording was so vague though, that I couldn’t think where it had come from. I’ll leave you with the same wording, too, because you won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

The reintroduction of Beverly Brook, one of the river goddesses and former fling of Peter Grant, jarred with me a little. I remember her being important in the first book, but it’s been so long since I read that one, and we’ve seen nothing of her for the last two books, that her impact is dulled for me. Nonetheless, the river gods remain quite entertaining characters, if confusing. I like the introduction of the dryad, and hope we get to know more about this species in later books. Their life cycle seems to mimic their trees, acting childish in the spring, taking evening classes come autumn, and hibernating in the winter.

Aaronovitch has a really relaxed and fun style of writing and he’s heavy on the understatement. There’s barely a page goes by without some incident of litotes, although my favourite has to be, “In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the City of London burnt down.” The following description of how London was rebuilt against the wishes of Christopher Wren and his buddies is also brilliant.

A nice continuation of the series, although I was desperately sad to realise that many of the buildings in this novel are fictional, when most of what had come before seemed so realistic. Nonetheless, it’s handled well and with great fun. Expect the fifth installment along soon.

“Dead Man’s Grip” by Peter James (2011)

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“On the morning of the accident, Carly had forgotten to set the alarm and overslept.”

It’s only been a month since I last read Peter James, which makes a change from seemingly having a year or so between each outing. There may be a couple of spoiler-y points below as this is the seventh in the series, so if you’re really interested in protecting your narrative interests, go back and read up to this point. If you’re not fussed, then please, continue!

One rainy morning in Brighton, Tony Revere is killed on his bike in a road traffic collision. The vehicles involved are a car with a drunk driver, an articulated lorry with a driver who is overtired, and a white van that lost its wing mirror and quickly fled from the scene. The tragic event is made worse, however, when it turns out that Tony Revere is the grandson of New York’s current Mafia “Godfather”, and his family have some powerful connections.

Upon learning about the death of their son, the Revere’s set about plotting revenge. DS Roy Grace and his team are trying to find the driver of the white van, but when they do find him, it’s too late, he’s already dead. Not long later, the body of the lorry driver is found too, brutally murdered in a very inventive manner. Carly Chase, the surviving driver of the collision, is told that she should go into hiding and may even have to change her name and start a new life to avoid being killed, as someone has clearly got it in for anyone involved in the death of Tony Revere. But Carly is determined that she will not be scared underground, a decision she may come to regret as a mother’s worst fears begin to be realised…

Once again, Peter James makes use of his astounding attention to detail, bringing every single location, character and plot point to a fully three-dimensional state. While the main characters of Roy Grace, Cleo Morey and Glenn Branson are all excellent and hugely developed, there aren’t any characters, really, who simply fade into the background. Almost all characters have a name and are introduced with an appearance description and some nugget of information or two about them, even if we only see them for one chapter. The exposition never feels heavy-handed though, just incredibly immersive.

I am becoming increasingly fond of the characters Norman Potting and Kevin Spinella. Neither of them are pleasant people – Norman is on his fourth marriage and still has old-fashioned views on sex and race, and Kevin is every inch the kind of journalist that gives the rest a bad name – but they still manage to be somewhat sympathetic. Norman, for example, seems to be experiencing the breakdown of his latest marriage, and despite his views, remains an excellent copper and seems to be very lonely, spending more time at work than necessary so that he can feel wanted. Kevin is nasty, but here you can’t help feel a little sorry for him when Roy lashes out at him; it is his job to sell newspapers, of course. ACC Rigg, Roy’s boss, is also a great addition to the series.

James’s level of detail is not limited only to descriptions, but also he’s very aware of the history of these characters. Throughout, references are made of the cases in the previous books. A lesser writer would have them forgotten about, but here some of them are just starting to go through the courts. There’s also a really smart insertion of a character from the previous novel who got away with his crimes and is still living unmolested in Brighton. His name isn’t given, but it’s quite obvious who it is. Little touches like this are smart, and bring home the fact that all these stories are taking place in the same city, so there are bound to be some overlaps. We also get to learn a little more about Roy’s missing ex-wife Sandy, and James knows how to end on a cliffhanger, for sure.

The story does take a little while to get going, I felt, but once the killings start, things are impressively gory and the methods of execution are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’d worry about what goes on in James’s head, if it wasn’t for the fact I don’t want them to stop. The fact that the minutia of the novel is so realistic means that when the more bizarre incidents occur, you completely buy them, no matter how scary or shocking.

Seven books down, and the thirteenth has just been released. I’d better get a move on.

If you like tales of macabre murders, may I be so bold as to suggest my novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which gives murder a slightly more magical twist.

“Whispers Underground” by Ben Aaronovitch (2012)

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“Back in the summer I’d made the mistake of telling my mum what I did for a living.”

Any review of a book that’s in the middle of an on-going series requires a certain amount of preamble, although I’m far too lazy to provide a fresh synopsis of what you’ve missed so far, so either duck out of this review now until you’ve read the series, or if you’re happy to get potential spoilers or would like a brief rundown on what came before this, then click for reviews of the first two books, Rivers of London and Moon Under Soho.

And breathe.

Whispers Underground reunites us with Peter Grant and the supernatural side of the Metropolitan Police. After Abigail Kamara, a nosy young girl from his housing estate, tells him that she’s seen a ghost, but Grant is soon pulled away from this discovery when a young man is found dead, stabbed, on the platform at Baker Street tube station. James Gallagher was an art student with no known enemies, but unfortunately for the police, his father is a US senator, and soon the FBI have descended.

The cause of Gallagher’s death certainly seems to be in Peter’s remit, which becomes more obvious when it turns out that Gallagher’s housemate is half-fairy and doesn’t seem all that keen to help the police with their inquiries. Meanwhile, Peter is still struggling to get used to magic and Lesley’s half-face, the FBI agent seems to be on a mission of her own and should definitely not be allowed to know about magic, there are some shifty looking traders down the market who swear they can do you a good deal on some unbreakable pottery, and Christmas is just around the corner. Just another day, then.

More than anything this time round, I felt a lot of similarities to Peter James’s novels featuring Roy Grace. The research into the working of the police force is evidently greatly detailed, and whereas those books show the familiar streets of Brighton, here we get to explore London. The true joy comes from the supernatural elements that most of society ignore, partly because the police are very good at hiding the truth, and partly because people would rather not deal with anything out of their comfort zones.

The style remains flippant and genuinely funny, packed with pop culture references, and there’s a real joy in these worlds. When I reviewed the first book, I said that something was missing, and I think I know what it was now. The books are not separate entities; they are complete continuations, and if they all existed in the same tome, while it would be heavy to read in the bath, it would make just as much sense. The ending is great, setting up things for the fourth book, and the final line sends a shiver down the spine. Clever, clever stuff.

“King Crow” by Michael Stewart (2011)

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‘king hell…

“When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.”

It’s been a long time since I found myself close to not bothering to finish a book, so this was very overdue. I haven’t not finished a book in years, and this one was only small, but after getting only 70 pages in over three days (given I read the 600+ pages of Dead Like You in the same time), I seriously thought about not finishing. But, then today happened, the weather was nice and I had a hangover to fight off, so I got stuck in and finished the damn thing.

Paul Cooper is a sixteen-year-old boy with no friends and a fascination with birds of all kinds. He has a rotten home life – his father left when he was very young, and his mother now has a string of affairs with unsuitable women – and has recently moved to a new school, where he’d rather read his ornithological books and ignore the world around him.

Then he meets Ashley, who is cool, good-looking and basically his polar opposite. Ashley has got involved with a gang of drug dealers and when a deal goes wrong, Ashley is tortured. Cooper helps him escape, and the two steal a car to get away from their assailants, but may kill one as they drive off. With some pissed off men on their heels, the two set off to the Lake District – Ashley to escape whatever crime he’s committed, and Cooper to finally see some wild ravens. Along the way they pick up the wealthy Becky who seems to fancy Cooper and his oddities, and soon their story reaches the national press. There’s a manhunt underway, but all Cooper can think about is how ravens scavenge at carcasses…

So, while it’s never explicitly stated, it’s fairly obvious that Cooper is meant to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. While this is handled beautifully in some novels, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, unfortunately here it seems to have been penned by someone who once read a pamphlet on the condition and all they took away was the fact that sometimes autistic people develop strong obsessions with one topic. This is played out here with Cooper ticking off all the birds he’s seen wild. Throughout, he’s more interested in the fact he’s just seen a woodcock and a raven than knowing he’s carrying drugs, or is embroiled in some serious crimes. His behaviour seems to be that of two entirely different people, which I guess plays in to the ending, but I found it so jarring to read.

While the ornithological facts that intersperse the text are quite interesting, there’s no engaging plot to hang them on. Cooper is irritating, Becky doesn’t seem deep enough to contain all the facets of the personality she’s supposed to have, and the resolution, as far as I’m concerned, just leaves so many questions unanswered that I was simply frustrated.

According to Amazon and Goodreads, I appear to be all but alone in this summary of the book, with everyone else hailing it as a masterpiece and an exciting new voice, but I was utterly unmoved. If you like birds, read H Is For Hawk instead.

“Dead Like You” by Peter James (2010)

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Roy Grace is on the hunt of a monster…

“We all make mistakes, all of the time.”

This is another one of those reviews that focuses on a book that’s part of a series. Unfortunately, unlike Poirot which can be read in any order, Peter James’ Roy Grace novels form a coherent narrative so some of what I say may not make sense if you haven’t read the first five novels in the series, although this one is actually a bit less about the ongoing plot.

All caught up? Good, let’s carry on.

In 1997, a serial rapist known to police and the media as the Shoe Man due to his habit of taking one of his victim’s shoes after each crime attacked several women, leaving their lives ruined. The final of these was Rachael Ryan, who saw his face, condemning her to death as he couldn’t let her go and run to the police. Twelve years later, there’s another rapist prowling around Brighton’s streets, with a very similar MO.

When women report being raped, DS Roy Grace sets about trying to piece together the story, but he overwhelmed by his feeling that this is the same man as before. Convinced that history is repeating itself, and keen to impress his new boss Peter Rigg, Grace rounds up  his finest men and women to set about putting this monster behind bars once and for all. But the rapist is clever, and all too aware of forensic evidence, seeming to never leave any behind. All they know for sure about him is that he’s obsessed with women in expensive shoes. With this one connection between all the attacks, Roy begins to solve the puzzle, but the answers may lie in the past, back when he was married, back before his wife disappeared…

Roy Grace is far and away one of my favourite fictional detectives. Hard-working, fair, competent and smart, he always comes up trumps, even if he takes a few wrong turnings along the way, and his “copper’s nose” is incredibly good at sniffing out the answers. Throughout this one, he remains convinced that the events of 1997 are related to what’s happening now, and the novel straddles the two time periods well, finally giving us a chance to see a younger Roy, as well as get to know his wife Sandy a little better. While in the earlier books Roy pines for Sandy (at this point, he’s now engaged again and his partner, Cleo, is pregnant), I found her to be a completely unsympathetic character. I don’t quite see how they ever managed to be married – but then, people come together for all sorts of reasons.

As usual, Peter James populates the book with numerous characters, each introduced with their own description and fleshed out more than just a name on the page. As I’ve surely said before, the books are incredibly real and very rich in their level of detail. Conversations that have no bearing on the plot save to reveal something about a character are fairly common, but the story doesn’t get lost among them. Despite clocking it at over 600 pages, it felt like it passed by a lot quicker.

That’s the real beauty of James’s writing. His novels are not small but the writing style is so quick and comfortable that you skip through it, desperate to know what happens next and almost feeling “at home” in his prose, despite whatever gory, macabre or twisted thing he happens to be writing about. And he has quite the imagination.

I’d solved the bulk of the crime a long time before it was revealed, but James still produces a hell of an ending with a remarkably good little extra flourish. The next book in the series sits on my shelf, ready and waiting.

If you like tales of macabre murders, may I be so bold as to suggest my novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which gives murder a slightly more magical twist.

“Problem At Pollensa Bay” by Agatha Christie (1935)

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“The steamer from Barcelona to Majorca landed Mr Parker Pyne at Palma in the early hours of the morning – and straightaway he met with disillusionment.”

I’ve been commuting via train this week which has certainly been a novel and tiring experience. Engaged in Catch-22 for the previous week, I finished and decided I needed something a bit less dense that was easier to read in the mornings when surrounded by other passengers. When in doubt, it’s always best to turn to Agatha Christie.

A collection of eight short stories, these tales bring back some old characters, as well as including two other stories with none of the usual heroes. Two tales feature Mr Parker Pyne, another two reunite us again with Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, and two more provide a welcome return for Hercule Poirot. The final two are gothic tales and not the mysteries we associate with Christie, but I’ll get onto them shortly.

Poirot appears in “The Second Gong” and “Yellow Iris”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a stage adaptation. The first involves the murder of a man in his study and is very traditionally Christie, and in the second, Poirot receives a mysterious phone call from a panicked woman who tells him to join her immediately at a restaurant where she feels something awful is about to happen. Mr Parker Pyne shows up in the titular “Problem at Pollensa Pay” where he’s desperately trying to enjoy a holiday without being recognised but he still ends up trying to fix an unwelcome engagement. He shows up again in “The Regatta Mystery” when a rare jewel goes missing after a prank goes wrong.

Mr Satterthwaite once again meets his mysterious friend Harley Quin first in “The Harlequin Tea Set”, in which a knowledge of genetics will help prevent a murder. They collide again, literally, in “The Love Detectives” where a man has been killed and it seems that everyone is prepared to claim they did the crime, despite none of them seeming to know how he died. All six of these stories are brilliant and charming, full of character and humour alongside the darkness and I’m almost sorry it took me so long to get around to them.

The final two stories, on the other hand, are less engaging. Involving no murder, or really any crime at all, they are gothic tales that are somewhat haunting, but not particularly engaging. “Next to a Dog” is about a young woman who needs to get married because no job she goes for will allow her to keep her precious dog, Terry, meaning she is blindly led into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn’t love. The second, “Magnolia Blossom” also feels very familiar as a story and I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point but I can’t quite remember. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband, but dashes back later the same day when she discovers her husband’s company has collapsed and her loyalty is such that she can’t leave him on the same day as that happening. Her husband, however, then tries to use her for his own means to save his life, leading her to wonder if her loyalty wasn’t misplaced.

So, while mostly a good batch with a great collection of Christie’s finest characters, I was left disappointed by the final two tales. Still, they can’t all be winners, and you can’t begrudge her from trying some new styles every now and again. Truth is though, her murder mysteries are still the best, and nothing else can quite measure up.

Just as a quick note in case there are the sort of people reading this and get fussy about specifics, although published as this collection in 1991, I have dated it 1935, which is the date the title story was first published. The stories themselves, however, were published separately between 1926 and 1971. So there you go.

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