“Dead Man’s Folly” by Agatha Christie (1956)

2 Comments

dead-mans-folly“It was Miss Lemon, Poirot’s efficient secretary, who took the telephone call.”

There’s no denying that Agatha Christie novels, after a while, begin to follow a format. Take a big country house, fill it will suspicious looking people, toss in a couple of dead bodies, sprinkle with red herrings and there you go! Your basic Christie novel! Christie, however, was well aware of what she was doing and that formulaic approach may have been what led her to write Dead Man’s Folly, possibly the most meta of all her novels.

In this one, we once again meet Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist and friend of Poirot who pops up occasionally. She is Christie’s self-insert, as it were, being the mouthpiece for Christie’s opinions on writing and the structure of crime novels. She’s also sometimes used so that Christie can complain about things she doesn’t like, or correct mistakes she’s made through earlier novels by making Oliver make the same ones. Although she only appears in seven novels (and a handful of other short stories), Ariadne Oliver is definitely one of my favourite characters in the Christie canon. Anyway, on with the plot.

This novel is set in a big country house full of suspicious people. Sir George and Lady Stubbs have recently moved into Nasse House, former seat of the Folliat family, which has stood empty for years. When the last remaining Folliat, Amy Folliat, finds that the house may soon be sold off, she convinces George to buy it and marry the young woman in her charge, Hattie. Now, to celebrate the return off the house to its former glory, they’re holding a summer fete for the surrounding neighbours. Ariadne Oliver is invited to set up a Murder Hunt, sort of like a treasure hunt, except players must follow clues to find out who committed a murder. A young Girl Guide is employed to be the body, and the game is afoot!

But Oliver is convinced that something is wrong – female intuition perhaps. Her worry prompts her to call Hercule Poirot, telling the others that he is there to give out prizes, but in reality he’s there to prevent whatever dastardly deed Oliver suspects. Soon the game is underway and it all seems to be going very well. But when the fake victim is found dead for real, things take a turn for the worrisome. With hundreds of people at the fete, it seems impossible at first to know who did it. And on top of that, Hattie’s estranged cousin has just turned up, there are youngsters from a nearby youth hostel trespassing at all hours, and Hattie herself has completely disappeared…

So, I noted above that this is a meta novel? That’s because Christie is writing a plot about an author writing a murder, albiet a murder that actually happens. As such, it’s very clever and a fascinating romp. The “folly” of the title has a double meaning, but at first seems to refer to a folly that has been built on the grounds of the estate, but hidden in the woods rather than out for all to see as would be usual. It becomes a pivotal point in the novel, but every character seems to have an opinion of it.

The criticism I’ve seen again and again about this novel in reading other reviews is that the characters are flat, and I concede that they aren’t the most exciting bunch that Christie has produced, with Poirot and Oliver stealing all of their scenes. There are perhaps too many characters, many of whom are only there to cross off the suspect list immediately, but it has the adverse effect of not allowing enough page time to each. Granted, this is a novel with a few decent red herrings, but there remains also an issue of a few questions being unresolved, as far as I could tell. A couple of threads are left hanging, and the story ends with more to come – the ultimate fates of the surviving characters are unknown to us.

I liked it, I always like Christie, and I’d ignore the naysayers. The suspects may be a little flatter, but Christie’s ingenious plotting is in full force here and her use of the murder mystery within the murder mystery is brilliant.

“The Bookshop” by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)

3 Comments

bookshop“In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.”

I’ve covered elsewhere my love of bookshops, but if you haven’t read that post (and you should, because it’s bloody marvellous) it’s probably a given that I have a fondness for them. There’s nothing more enjoyable than browsing the shelves of a bookshop, hundreds and thousands of new worlds sealed up in paper and ink, ready for adoption by a hungry reader.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Bookshop, we get the tale of middle-aged widow Florence Green who has decided that her small seaside town of Hardborough could really do with a bookshop. She purchases the building – a house that has been empty for seven years due to damp and a resident poltergeist – and despite various objections, begins running the only bookshop and lending library in the area.

As her success grows, so does her animosity with some of the other residents, not least the social climbing Mrs Gamart, who believes that the building should have instead been used to house an Arts Centre. However, others are far more willing to give their blessing, including young Christine Gipping and reclusive Mr Brundish. With their encouragement, Florence sets out against the struggles to make the best of the situation and inject a little bit of culture to the sleepy town.

This is a book about that peculiarly British issue of class. Florence is not a member of the high society, and perhaps that is why she is looked down upon by those who are. In fact, those who oppose the bookshop are the same ones who claim to be cultured, fighting tooth and nail to show that they are more cultured than everyone else by knowing what is best for the town in the fields of art and literature. The lower orders, who care little for social standing but rarely read, are much more supportive.

Florence is a magnificent character. I imagine that the late fifties were not the easiest time for a woman to make it on her own – the following decade would do much for equality – and perhaps this adds to the views of her detractors. However, through correspondance with her solicitors and bank manager, it is made clear that Florence can hold her own and has a core of steely determination. She will not be beaten back, not by inspectors, lawyers or ghosts, and she will fight against the vile people around her to do what she thinks is right.

It’s a charming, if emotionally poignant and gut-wrenching, story that shows a nasty side of human nature, and what happens when a force for good comes up against them. One for the ages.

“Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan (2012)

1 Comment

Brighton-Belle

“Brighton looks as though it is a town helping the police with their enquiries.” – Keith Waterhouse

“London was glossy – the pavements shone with a slick of rain now the sun had broken through the clouds.”

So I’ve rambled on before about how London is probably my favourite city, but another city comes perilously close to knocking it from that top spot and that is my local city, Brighton. Honoured to have known Brighton for most of my life (and more and more intimately as time as gone on), it holds a peculiar place in my heart. It is the only place it can hold as it is, indeed, a peculiar place.

Granted city status along with Hove in 2000, the city is a byword for “sleazy weekend” and the mere mention of the name conjures up the scent of fish and chips and salty sea air. It’s also got over three hundred pubs, four hundred restaurants and allegedly more bars and clubs per square mile than anywhere else in the country. With both a huge LGBT community and a reputation for vegetarianism and bohemianism, it is one of the most charming and bizarre places I know.

But this novel is not set in the Brighton I know and love. In Brighton Belle, we step back in time over sixty years to 1951 when it was just a town and not nearly as busy as it is today. Standing on the shore in post-war Britain, the city shows glimmers of its future, but there’s a far more sombre overtone.

Mirabelle Bevan is ex-Secret Service, having worked in the offices during the Second World War but never actively participating in the field. Still, she’s read all the books on spying (and even wrote a couple of them) and knows what to do in a crisis. She now works for a debt collecting agency, trying to forget her past life and her past love, Jack.

However, she finds herself embroiled in another mystery before long when some strange business occurs with one of her clients who is reported dead. With her boss out of the office and the incredibly keen insurance clerk Vesta Churchill next door, she sets off on the trail of the missing Romana Laszlo, a Hungarian refugee who died in childbirth. But, she quickly discovers upon meeting Romana’s sister Lisabetta that things are not at all what they seem. Add to that a captured priest, a goldsmith minting fake coinage and a prostitution ring and the situation becomes more and more complex with every passing hour.

Mirabelle is a delightful character, rather gung-ho and keen to prove herself. She is ahead of her time and determined that what she did during the war should not be forgotten. She knows what she’s doing and if she can use her abilities for good, then she will. Vesta is a lovely creation, a black woman in fifties England with a fondness for cake. The racism and segregation of America during this time tends to overshadow the fact that things weren’t entirely perfect over the pond here.

I’m not one particularly for books and films set during the Second World War (no real reason either, just never taken to many of them) and while this isn’t set during the war, it still features prominently due to all of the characters having not only lived through it, but fought, worked and lost during it. The writing is neat and the characters are warm, but the climax does seem to come together a little too neatly, a chance encounter leading to the surprising conclusion. Still, it’s a nice period romp.

It appears that the book is the first of an intended series and the novel ends with a sequel hook. I will probably keen my eye on Mirabelle Bevan – she seems like one to watch.