“The Murder On The Links” by Agatha Christie (1923)

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“I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: ‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”

Christie is always associated with having her detectives solve crimes in large English country houses, but we’re only two books into the Poirot series and she’s already broken that … by having us visit a crime scene in a large French country house. Establishing much more of the sort of writer she would become, The Murder on the Links is a speedy, moving take on the murder mystery.

On his way back to London, Captain Hastings meets a young woman on a train who has lost track of her sister. Instantly smitten, Hastings chats with her throughout the journey, but when they depart, she only gives her name as “Cinderella”. Realising he’ll never see her again, Hastings instead finds Poirot who has just received a letter from a Paul Renauld in northern France, who is convinced that his life is under threat. Wasting no time, Poirot and Hastings leave for France, but upon arriving at the man’s villa, they find they are too late – Renauld is already dead.

His body has been found in an open grave on his under-construction golf course, wearing a coat that’s too big and carrying a love letter. Apparently stabbed in the back, no one can account for his movements, except his wife who was gagged and bound by two assailants who dragged her husband off into the night when he wouldn’t tell him “the secret”. Poirot decides to do right by the man and stay to solve the case, which isn’t made any easier by the arrival of Monsieur Giraud, a young French policeman whose methods stand opposed to those of Poirot, leading to an unofficial contest between the two men to solve the murder first.

And that’s when the second body shows up…

The book seems primarily to reinforce the kind of detective that Poirot is, focusing on psychology and motive, rather than physical clues. Giraud, the French detective, is very much a Holmesian figure, believing that the answers lie in discarded match heads and specific types of cigarette ash. He openly mocks Poirot’s suggestion that a piece of lead piping or some footprints in a flower bed could be of any use to him, apparently simply because they’re too big. Poirot, however, admits that there’s no point him looking for tiny things as he wouldn’t be able to tell one kind of soil or ash from any other. Poirot, naturally, solves the case before Giraud, who returns to Paris with his tail between his legs. The reader is left in no doubt that the Sherlock Holmes style of detection will not play a part in Christie’s works. Although it could be seen as Christie insulting Doyle, I think it’s actually some gentle mockery, as the two both liked and respected one another’s novels, and Doyle had long been established as a mystery writer. Christie merely was, I think, marking the change as she began her career and Doyle ended his.

Similarly, Christie realises that she doesn’t need a Watson figure in all her books, as Hastings was originally introduced to be. Although this is not the last time that we see him, her original plan to have him narrate all the Poirot tales does not come to fruition and she shows this by ending the novel with Hastings finding a wife and therefore having something to distract him so he can’t be at Poirot’s beck and call at all times. He will return several times, especially in the early years, and he’s always a joy when he does. Here, he adds a good deal of comic relief, being sharp in some ways but utterly dense in others, driven by his emotions. This complements Poirot, who uses logic in almost everything he does.

As ever, the clues are liberally sprinkled throughout and you can see how you should have been able to work it out by the end, although perhaps a couple of them require a bit of reaching to solve. The evidence is all there though, you just have to know which specific bits of dialogue, exposition and description you’re meant to be picking up on. And that’s not always easy.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“Tilting At Windmills” by Andy Miller (2002)

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There's a sport for everyone.

There’s a sport for everyone.

“In the summer of 1984, three teenagers went to war.”

I would never go as far as to say that I hate sport as a concept, but I’m definitely not a fan. Oh sure, I’ll pay vague attention to the Euros or World Cup because my family usually have a sweepstake and money makes everything more interesting (this year I had Iceland, which started out more promising than I imagined). And I quite like the Olympics, too, if only for the spectacle of the thing and my nerdy love of lists and trivia, the Olympics being a non-stop barrage of medal tables and facts about the highest, longest, fastest, biggest, and so on.

But other than that, sport basically leaves me cold. I believe that if footballers are going to get paid that much then they should at least have the decency to be good. I don’t get how cricket can last five days and still end in a draw. I think wrestling is a waste of time, boxing is needlessly violent, golf is a good walk ruined, American football is actually just a stream of advertisements with twenty seconds of play in between, and I reserve a special hatred for tennis, with its weirdly intricate scoring system and all that bizarre grunting. PE lessons were the bane of my life at school, and while since then I have tried my hand at swimming, badminton and squash, the only physical activity I get very excited about is crazy golf.

The same is true of Andy Miller. A self-proclaimed sports atheist, he doesn’t understand anything to do with sport or why it’s so popular. It’s drilled into his head at school, where he is belittled by psychotic games teachers, that real men love sport and anyone who doesn’t is, well, a bit weird. Andy becomes determined to find a sport he enjoys and settles on miniature golf, which turns out to be less “windmills and water hazards” and more “specific equipment and competitive Germans”.

While getting in too deep with organisations that run miniature golf tournaments, Andy finds his game improving and starts learning to love the game, even. Along the way he begins regularly attending the football matches of Queen’s Park Rangers, finds himself reminded that to visit Wimbledon is to spend the day queuing, discovers that the Boat Race is fine as long as you’re drunk, marvels at the sheer spectacle of WWF wrestling, and even interviews a couple of PE teachers who turn out not to be psychopaths.

Genuinely funny, and insanely detailed in places when covering the games of miniature golf he and his new friends play, the book is a real laugh. As a fellow sports atheist, I can relate to him on so many levels, from his horror of having to take part in hockey lessons at school, to his English awkwardness on a Danish crazy golf course with some very loud Europeans. But he shines a light on some aspects of sports that I’d never considered, and his summary of how all sports are basically the same is a masterpiece.

A ball must be thrown or hit or pushed with a hand or foot or some kind of stick. Two individuals or two groups of individuals compete against one another on land or water or even in the air. They must ensure that they perform this activity within some designate lines or on a table or in a ring. In general, they must try not to fall over.

Truth is, ask me to the park on a warm day for a kickaround, or a friendly game of cricket and I’d probably be up for it, unless I’m in the middle of a particularly good book, which I usually am. Hell, let’s go swimming. I always enjoy a dip. But I think, like Andy realises, that what ruins sports more often than not is the people and companies around them. Capitalism has a lot to answer for, and sucking the fun out of sport is just one more of them. After all, a sport is really just a game with the fun removed anyway. Like Andy, I will never fully understand this world, but I guess millions can’t be wrong. Roll on, Rio 2016!