“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

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“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

“A Talent For Murder” by Andrew Wilson (2017)

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“Wherever I turned my head I thought I saw her, a woman people described as striking, beautiful even.”

If you delve into the life of Agatha Christie, there’s something very interesting about her that will quickly come to the surface. On the 3rd December 1926, following a row with her husband Archie, she disappeared. Eleven days later, she was found at a spa hotel in Harrogate, checked in under the name of her husband’s lover and apparently suffering with amnesia. She never told anyone what had happened during this time, and the whole incident is missing from her autobiography. The mystery remains one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century.

Did she suffer from a breakdown? Did she do it to spite her husband and stir up trouble? Was she trying to drum up publicity for her next novel? Did she have an encounter with a giant wasp and a Time Lord? No one knows, and it’s unlikely now we’ll ever find out. Andrew Wilson, however, has had a bash at an explanation.

Agatha Christie is out Christmas shopping, and while waiting for a tube station platform, she feels herself being pushed in front of an oncoming train. However, she is pulled back at the last moment by a man who introduces himself as Dr Patrick Kurs. He insists on taking her for tea to restore her nerves, but she can’t help think – did this man push her before he pulled her to safety? He seems to know a startling amount about her life, her marriage problems and her family, and it soon becomes clear that Kurs most certainly does not have Christie’s best interests at heart.

Kurs wants his wife dead, but knowing that he would be the prime suspect, he employs Christie to do his evil work for him, convinced that because she knows so much about murder, she’ll be quite willing to perform one. Besides, if she doesn’t … well, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Christie leaves her house in the dead of night and is taken by Kurs to a hotel in Harrogate where they can plan the murder. It all seems hopeless, but her disappearance is quickly noticed and soon the whole country is looking for her, in particular the stubborn Superintendent William Kenward in charge of the case, and Una Crowe, an intrepid would-be journalist who is determined to prove that Christie is still alive.

It took a bit of time to get into, and was unusual but spine-tingling to see my heroine as the central figure in a mystery book. Wilson portrays her with love as a gentle, damaged woman, who is struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, still in denial and hoping he’ll come back to her. You have to feel sorry for her as she is taken away from her life by the nefarious Dr Kurs, but you understand why she does it – she can’t risk any harm coming to her daughter, Rosalind. Wilson, to his credit, seems fairly run-of-the-mill in his style, before coming into his own with twists worthy of a novel by Christie herself.

His attention to detail is phenomenal. At first I thought it might be an opportunity to get in every fact we knew about Christie – the fact she could surf and roller skate, her favourite drink, the name of her publisher – but it soon becomes clear that it all goes far deeper than that. The events of her first night at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel are documented as really happening. She did receive a package while at the hotel, although what it contained remains a mystery in reality. Even Una Crowe, the amateur journalist, was a real person, but to the best of our knowledge, she didn’t know Christie and was never a reporter. Wilson has weaved magic here to answer more than just what happened to Christie, and it’s absolutely genius.

The book purports to answer several questions that have remained unanswered for nearly one hundred years. Why did she introduce her husband as her brother? Why is there no mention of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in her notebooks? Who killed Una Crowe? Why did Christie choose the name of her husband’s lover as her pseudonym?

Of course, I’m still going to favour the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” as the truth regarding Christie’s disappearance, but this is still a fun, engaging and really enjoyable read, and it’s not over yet – there’s a sequel on the way, although I’d be curious to see how they fit any other changes into her life. Then again, the rest of her life did take her all over the world…

“Foxglove Summer” by Ben Aaronovitch (2015)

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“I was just passing the Hoover Centre when I heard Mr Punch scream his rage behind me.”

It’s been a difficult weekend for London. As the city dusts itself off from the second terrorist attack this year (the third in the UK), it showcases once again that the British people are strong, brave and resilient, and despite claims of certain American news outlets, we are not left “reeling” or “cowed”. What better to read right now than a story about the Metropolitan police continuing to do the outstanding work they do.

Foxglove Summer is the fifth installment of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, only this time we’re leaving the beauty of London for the even more outstanding beauty of the British countryside. There may be a couple of spoilers here if you’ve not read the first four, but this book feels slightly out of line with the others and more of a standalone. It opens with PC Peter Grant leaving London on the orders of his boss to join the investigation into two missing girls. Finding nothing inherently magic about the disappearance, but with little to return to London for right now, Grant offers his services to the local community and joins their team.

However, he soon learns that perhaps not everything is quite as it seems. He meets with an old wizard in a country manor house, has to rescue Beverley Brook – a river goddess – from the clutches of some rivals, and sets about trying to understand the magic of the countryside, which, being a Londoner born and bred, he knows little of. Soon he’s on the track of an invisible unicorn, dealing with nutty UFO spotters, and wondering if maybe there is a magical angle to this crime after all. In the countryside, there’s no one to hear you scream…

After the events of the last few books, this one brings a whole new breath of fresh air to the series. We’re out of the city, the air feels cleaner, and everything’s bright and sunny, although that might just be the weather outside. The fact that most of this book was read while sunbathing in my garden means that the descriptions of a very hot summer hit right at home. As usual, Grant knows little about what he’s getting involved in as he is still an amateur wizard, so many things go unexplained, even up until the end. You really have to just go with these stories. Yes, this person is a god, and this person is a fairy, fine, just accept it. It’s also satisfying that mundane things that some people in our world have trouble with are shown with the normalcy they should have. Grant’s colleague, the charming and sweet Dominic Croft, is gay, and it’s never considered by anyone to be an issue, even in a small country village where everyone knows one another. There are a couple of nods to Peter Grant’s mixed race heritage, with some of the local coppers claiming that his help will do wonders for their diversity figures, and a scene in which he is given menacing looks by a couple of local racists, noting with humorous tragedy that the trouble with being a racist in the white heartlands of Britain is that you don’t get much practical exposure.

Aaronovitch, as usual, writes with great humour and the book is packed with witty one-liners and smart, unusual metaphors. Grant’s internal monologue – although it seems clearly in this book that he’s actively telling someone the story – is great fun. At one point, he finds himself having to scurry up a tree and notes, “This is where the whole ape-descended thing reveals its worth […] Opposable thumbs – don’t leave home without them.” He remains a fun lead character and someone I enjoy spending time with.

We see less of the other regular cast this time, with I think all of them being on the other end of a phone for the whole book, and one of the few nods to the continuing plot of the books is that Lesley May, his former friend and colleague who has recently changed loyalties, is trying to get in touch with him, but her motives remain unclear. I suppose more will be tidied up in the next installment which, I’m informed by a friend who is one book ahead of me, requires a notepad to keep track of all the newly introduced characters. Bring it on, Aaronovitch.

“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.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and on day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“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.

“The Radleys” by Matt Haig (2010)

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Every family has secrets.

“It is a quiet place, especially at night.”

Vampires have a long and fascinating history, from the tales of blood-sucking demons of ancient Persia, via Bram Stoker’s famous addition to the canon Dracula, up to sparkly immortal teenagers of Twilight. It’s always fun to see these kinds of monsters turn up where you least expect them too, and so suburban England is perhaps the last place you’d think there might be any vampires. Oh, how wrong you’d be…

Peter and Helen Radley look like pretty normal people. Sure, they may be a little insular, but they seem harmless enough. Their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, though are a bit odd. Often sickly and slathered in sun cream no matter the time of year, both insomniacs with a distaste for garlic and a fondness for the macabre, they’re considered by their peers to just be strange. One night, Clara is attacked by another student on the way home and her reaction would perhaps seem a little over the top. By that time, however, it is too late and Peter and Helen must tell their children what they’ve tried to hide for them for their whole lives – the Radleys are vampires.

Now they know they should be drinking blood, Rowan and Clara begin doing so (although Rowan with some trepidation at first) and start learning about their history. With fresh blood now inside them, they become stronger and undergo changes in personality and appearance. Things may have gone alright, if not for the arrival of Peter’s brother Will, a practicing vampire who has become sloppy of late and killing people in a more obvious manner, and often from the back of his camper van. But once you invite a vampire inside, it’s very hard to get them to leave, and Helen is determined that he should before secrets are revealed and their quiet little suburban life is ripped apart.

Matt Haig is a great writer and I’ve covered both his fiction and non-fiction on here before. The Radleys appeals to me firstly because of the sheer Englishness of the whole thing (a friend of mine this week said that all my writing is deeply English too, which isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned) despite the fantastical elements. I also love the juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical. Haig delves into the lore of vampires in this universe. They aren’t immortal, but can live for a couple of centuries, faking their deaths and continuing on in a new guise later (Lord Byron is stated to have been a vampire who did this and only died in the late twentieth century). There is a difference between vampires who actively suck blood – and often kill – and those who abstain, such as the Radleys. And certain branches of the police are fully aware of the existence of vampires and there is a special branch of the force armed with crossbows to deal with errant members of the community.

The science of vampirism is mostly brushed over, but that’s how it should be. Going too deep into it would, I think, take away some of the much needed mystery, but instead uses the old lore in a modern setting and showing how society has changed. For example, while people aren’t going around swinging cloves of garlic at one another, it makes eating a Thai salad something of a risky endeavour.

But as much as it’s about vampires and fantastic powers, it’s really about being human. The Radleys are all perfectly nice people and just want to be accepted in their community but allowed to have a private life. They feel love and hate and envy and pride like the rest of us, but the primary difference, aside from the blood-sucking, seems to be that they have to deal with a lot more temptation. All the characters are tempted throughout the novel, mostly by the thought of renegading on their promise to live a blood-free life, but for other reasons too. Peter is tempted by a flirtatious neighbour, and Helen is tempted with memories of her past that have recently come back in ways she had never dreamed.

I expected gore, and I expected wonder, and I got both, but I didn’t expect such a charming tale of a family who simply want to be allowed to live. A disarmingly sweet novel for anyone who feels their family is a bit weird.

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