“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.

“The Murdstone Trilogy” by Mal Peet (2014)

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Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

Every writer has a crack at fantasy at least once.

“The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbellows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.”

Tolkien has a lot to answer for. Without his huge success writing about elves, dwarves and journeys across sprawling landscapes to find or return some sort of jewellery, there wouldn’t be such a market for these sorts of books. The Fantasy genre, in name alone, implies that anything is possible in this world, and yet it seems that over and over again the same sort of story is played out. Having recently just got back into playing Skyrim,  it’s particularly on my mind right now. But, as I say, these books sell, and this is a tale about what happens when they reach the upper echelons of popularity.

Philip Murdstone has had a fairly successful career writing Young Adult books about overly sensitive boys, but recently the bottom seems to have dropped out of the market and his newest offering was barely noticed. His agent, Minerva Cinch, has a new idea for him. Seeing the change in the tide, she suggests he try and write a fantasy novel, or even better a trilogy, as readers can’t seem to get enough of that sort of thing. There’s only one slight problem – Philip hates fantasy.

Now told that he has to write a fantasy novel if he wants to reclaim his earlier success, Minerva sends him off with an outline of what such a novel should contain. All the tropes are there: a sword with a funny name, an evil overlord and his ugly minions, a hero from a shire on the very edge of the Realm, a McGuffin that needs to be acquired at all costs. Philip doesn’t know where to begin. However, while staggering home from the pub one night, he meets Pocket Wellfair, a Greme from another Tolkienesque world, who shares with him a story of such wonder and majesty that before he can blink, Philip is the internationally famous and wealthy author of Dark Entropy.

But now the world wants the sequel, Philip can’t seem to do it without Pocket’s help, and Pocket is far more interested in getting the Amulet back to his homeland, and if he can destroy Philip’s testicles at the same time, then all for the better. The Murdstone Trilogy must be completed: humanity is hungry for the sequel. Philip must make a pact with Pocket to save his own life.

This is a brilliant and darkly funny take on the fantasy novel, both playing with the concept and the very notion of the genre’s existence and predictability. The writing style is reminiscent in many ways of the fantasy novels being discussed. Set in Devon, there are few places more perfectly suited to represent the wonder of a Middle Earth like world. Philip, however, can’t see that, and laments how difficult it is to invent a fictional world, in between listing details of local folklore, describing people in the village in a way that would fit into his novel, and reeling off the unusual place names that make up his environs. It also mocks authors in general, and shows that we’re all a bit fraudulent and worried that one day the switch that powers our imaginations will turn off.

Philip is a fun character, if rather sad and pathetic. It’s hard to say how much he’s based on Mal Peet himself, who similarly made a career writing YA fiction, before switching to this adult offering. He, unfortunately, died the following year, which made me feel guilty that I’d discovered him too late. Minerva is also brilliant; a modern creature unsuited to the fantasy genre, but with a name that suggests otherwise, and the mad locals of Flemworthy, the local town, are of great comedic value. They indeed wouldn’t look out of place in a pub the heroes travel into. They even have local nicknames that suit them.

The ending left me a little disappointed, but it’s a nice twist nonetheless and allows for the genre to do something different. It’s further a reminder that I’d rather read books like this than actually have to wade through The Lord of the Rings. Good fun, and very clever.

I’ve never been into writing sword & sorcery, but my own book has more than its fair share of myth and magic. Download The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or wherever else you get your ebooks and check it out.