“The Mysterious Affair At Styles” by Agatha Christie (1921)

2 Comments

“The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided.”

Ninety-eight years ago this January, a book was published that changed everything. It wasn’t the first murder mystery, and it wasn’t the first bit of detective fiction, but it would revolutionise the genre, introduce one of the most compelling and loved characters in fiction, and lead to its author staking her claim as the bestselling author in history. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not just a great book because of its content, but what it stands for and what it led to. I begin my re-read of Agatha Christie the only place that is good and proper – at the beginning.

We find ourselves in England at some point during the Great War. Arthur Hastings has been invalided out of the army and is back home, at a loss, until he bumps into his old friend John Cavendish. Hastings takes up the offer of going to stay at his family’s country house, Styles, but when he arrives, things aren’t particularly rosy. Tensions are high as John’s mother, Emily, has recently remarried and her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, isn’t particularly popular with everyone else, not lead Emily’s sons or her companion Evelyn Howard.

Things reach a head, however, when Mrs Inglethorp dies one evening, apparently having been poisoned. It seems now that several of the residents would happily have seen her dead, and no one knows who they can trust. Hastings calls in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective of his acquaintance who happens to be living nearby with some fellow Belgian refugees. Poirot is regarded as one of the sharpest detective minds in the world, and with his fastidiousness and gentle touch, he begins investigating the murder, taking into account far too much strychnine, a suspicious doctor, a burnt will, a broken coffee cup and a smear of candle grease. Can he bring the villain to justice before it’s too late?

As the very first time we meet Poirot, this book does have a little bit of early weirdness, such as when we see Poirot run and gambol across a garden, something he’d never do in later books – particularly without his hat on. He is already an old man here, which Christie would come to regret when she then continued writing about him for fifty years. It gives a little of his backstory though and explains what he is doing in England, although none of this detracts from the plot, which, as ever with Christie, is king. I hadn’t read this one for many years, so I couldn’t remember the entire solution, but I could pick out half of it, and when you know, you can see the clues more obviously. Everything you need to know to solve it is there, but emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on the most important clues. When you get to Poirot explaining his solution at the end, he ties up absolutely every clue, be them major or throwaway lines that you didn’t take notice of, into a neat answer.

Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, and the influence of that is very clear here, as a hospital dispensary and a young pharmacist both feature somewhat prominently in the story. She naturally uses poison as her weapon of choice for her first murder, as she knows a lot about them, and would continue to do so through much of her career. The book also manages to tie in the Great War well, with even the setting providing more clues about the solution, and giving us an explanation as to why Hastings – who inexplicably is only thirty here, far younger than I recalled or the TV show suggested – isn’t currently on the front lines.

It feels neatly cyclical to be here again, as the last one I read was Curtain, which is Poirot’s final case and also takes place at Styles, with Hastings. It is a brilliant book, and the beginning of an unrivalled career. I’m so happy to be diving back into this world again. One down, seventy-nine to go…

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

Advertisements

“Darwin’s Soldiers” by Ste Sharp (2018)

Leave a comment

“Private John Greene of the Royal Fusiliers stumbled through the dim forest with the Lewis light machine gun held tight across his chest and his khaki bags strapped across both shoulders.”

War! Huh! What is it good for? Well, interesting fiction, for one thing. The fictional world seems to be at war almost continuously, but who can blame it when it’s been created by a species that has spent much of history perfecting the art of killing its own members. Darwin’s Soliders brings together an eclectic mix of history’s fighters to create a unique and compelling new novel.

John Greene is fighting in the Great War, missing his son Joe, and wishing he wasn’t sat in a trench, stinking of rat shit, as gunfire whistles overhead. And then suddenly, he isn’t. He finds himself on a strange hill, facing a white obelisk and all around him are hundreds of others, but they aren’t the rest of his regiment. He’s here with members of every major army in human history, from Aztec to Zulu, via Viking, Spartan, Babylonian, Mongol, Celt, Amazonian, and even wars that haven’t yet happened in his timeline.

The carving on the obelisk gives them a message – this new army has fourteen days to reach the silver gates, where they will apparently achieve victory. But first they need to solve the problem of working together, as each of them has a particular set of skills. And things get more complicated as they begin their trek through this strange new world and they begin to develop unusual abilities, be they extra limbs, sonar, or telepathy. As they get deeper into this strange situation, they discover that they aren’t the first beings to have been brought here, and it isn’t just the environment that wants to kill them…

Ste Sharp, like me and my second novel, crowdfunded this book via Unbound, but it’s publication was an inevitability, as someone would’ve picked it up eventually. The concept alone is amazing and while I’m not generally someone who reads much about war, I was curious as to how this would play out. It’s like one of those idle Internet questions – “Who would win in a fight between a Viking and a Roman?” – but played out for real. The literal evolution of the characters to gain new abilities that help them in warfare is also useful, and Sharp clearly enjoyed giving everyone superpowers. They are also explained away quite nicely, such as one character’s new ability to see sonar being due to a growth in his sinus cavity.

The amount of research in this book is absolutely staggering. While Sharp includes some of his own creations, such as soldiers from the future, mushrooms that allow for communication between races, and a Celtic tribe that didn’t exist, and, of course, all the aliens, much of the information is factually correct as he has studied the methods and weaponry of everyone from the Japanese samurai to the explosives experts of World War Two. This all brings the novel to life and drags you deeper inside it. The other races he’s created too are all superbly rich in their description, and none of them are just humanoid rip-offs of our species, but instead run the gauntlet from cat-people and robots to indescribable lobster-like beasts with too many eyes and claws and not enough empathy.

The pacing is unstoppable and even from the opening, there’s no farting about and we’re immediately on that hill, surrounded by soldiers, sharing in their confusion. Much of the rest of the novel centres around combat and there are few books more action-packed than this. It’s a hefty tome, but entertaining, never particularly dragging. It ends on a neat note that sets up the promised sequel – and I for one already can’t wait to get my hands on it.

“The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse (2009)

1 Comment

It leaves a chill, certainly.

It leaves a chill, certainly.

“He walked like a man recently returned to the world.”

If, like me, you live in Britain, you will have probably noticed how hot it’s been these last few days. The unseasonable weather, while ultimately welcome, seems to have made most of us sweaty, irritable and  uncomfortable. In a vague attempt to cool off, I hoped that a book with “winter” in the title and a snowflake on the cover might have the same effect as a cold shower. Now though, I think that “damp squib” is a better description for the book than “cold shower”. And I’m still too hot.

Giving away the twist and the main plot in the three words of the title, The Winter Ghosts takes us to France between the world wars. Freddie Watson has arrived in Toulouse in 1933 to find someone who can translate a letter he’s been carrying. When the translator, Saurat, asks where he found the letter, which may just be a priceless historical artifact, Freddie tells his tale.

Five years earlier, Freddie had gone to France after a spell in a sanatorium. He is unable to get over the death of his older brother during the Battle of the Somme and it has driven him mad. Seeking closure, he goes to France but his car gets caught in a snowstorm and hurled off the road. Travelling through the blizzard, he arrives at a town that seems deserted, but takes refuge in the hostel of M and Mme Galy. They invite him to a celebration that night that all the villagers will be attending. Deciding to go along, he finds the place in question and enters, being introduced to various members of the crowd.

One of them stands out for him though, the beautiful, ethereal Fabrissa. They talk into the night, Freddie telling her his tragic story, when the party is interrupted by soldiers carrying swords. In the scuffle, Freddie and Fabrissa escape into the mountains where, once safe, Fabrissa tells her story. The next morning, Fabrissa is gone and Freddie can’t be sure if she was ever there in the first place, but he is determined to find her.

I’ve never read Kate Mosse before so didn’t really know what to expect; I certainly didn’t expect it to turn into a ghost story, assuming, at first, the title was metaphorical. Given that the bulk of the story is supposedly Freddie telling Saurat the tale, it genuinely does (at first anyway) feel like Freddie is telling you the story personally. The imagery and the location are both beautifully handled, and Freddie’s struggle to cope with his brother’s death feels realistic. It seems rarer to contemplate how siblings feel after a death, focus instead tending to go to the parents. Here, Freddie has to cope with the loss of his whole family, really, as it’s made patently clear, both to him and us, that George was the favourite brother and his parents had little time for Freddie, even before George’s death and especially after.

For all that though, the book is flawed. It was apparently originally released as a short story, and you can definitely tell that’s the case. It feels like it’s been padded with superfluous description and dialogue, like an overstuffed armchair that’s lost its shape. Freddie is the only character who is properly fleshed out, and his heel face turn after realising that Fabrissa isn’t quite what he thought seems a little strange. He’s a dim character, apparently completely unaware for a long time that he witnessed something stranger than usual. When it comes down to it, the beautiful language cannot mask the fact that nothing really happens here. It’s immediately forgettable, chilling in all the wrong ways and I’m not tempted to read Mosse’s earlier work.

If I had a five-star rating system, something it’s too late to implement at this point, then this gets a solid three. It is neither outstanding in being either really good or really bad, and it will pass a couple of days, but it just never grabbed me. You may not agree, but you’d have to make a good case for me to change my mind.

“The Thirty-Nine Steps” by John Buchan (1915)

Leave a comment

39“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.”

Books are my primary passion and, for me, the best method of telling a story. I prefer to be reading over doing practically anything else – the possible exceptions being drinking and writing. However, while I have little interest in films, I am deeply enamoured with the theatre. Musicals, mostly, but I do love a good play as well. There’s something – as has been said before and better by many others – about the immediacy of the theatre that makes it such a compelling form of entertainment. I love the spectacle, the magic that people are capable of doing on stage, and the strength of the performers who shine brightly and never seem to slip up in their performance.

I bring this up because before reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, I had seen the play. The two are, without question, almost entirely different beasts. Both feature a British hero called Richard Hannay who is framed for murder, and both feature him going on the run. Other than that, they have very little in common.

The book takes place in 1914, just mere weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Richard Hannay is a typically upper-class English fellow who has just returned to the country and is bored. However, he soon finds himself dealing with a man called Scudder. This man has faked his own death and requires hiding in Hannay’s apartment. He supposedly knows things about high-up policians in Europe and has information that is top secret. Hannay takes him in, only to find one evening that Scudder has been killed, pinned to the floor with a knife.

Realising that he is the prime suspect, Hannay goes on the run, while the police instigate a nationwide manhunt. Hannay holes up in a Scottish inn, where he can start looking over Scudder’s notes. The danger is real and the notebook mentions something about thirty-nine steps … but what are they, and can Hannay stop the information from falling into the wrong hands before it’s too late?

Hannay is something of a cartoon character in an otherwise serious novel. He falls into various scrapes but generally comes out unharmed, always happening upon the one person in the area who doesn’t wish to turn him into the police and will aide his disapperance. Hannay displays an uncanny knack for disguise, taking advice from an old friend that if you want to look like someone else, you have to believe you are someone else. The book has great fun in discussing the notion that hair dye and growing a beard actually does less to disguise you than simply holding yourself differently and looking like you belong wherever you are.

It’s a quick romp, over in a couple of hours, but it’s fun and fast. Hannay more than makes up for the lack of characterisation on most of the other people he encounters, and you root for him to come good against the hidden evils that always seem to be just around the corner.

The play, by contrast, is a comedy, something that this novel cannot claim to be. It changes the meaning of the term “thirty-nine steps”, rewrites most of the plot and most strikingly of all, has only four actors playing over one hundred roles. It is absolutely one of the greatest things I have ever seen and I cannot recommend it higher. It’s done with broad humour, fun and still tells a smart story.

This book is good but, if I were you, I’d go and see the play instead.