“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“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.

“The Labours Of Hercules” by Agatha Christie (1947)

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the-labours-of-hercules“Hercule Poirot’s flat was essentially modern in its furnishings.”

I love the Greek myths. I love Agatha Christie. Bring in a book that combines the two and I’m a very happy man indeed. Fortunately, you don’t need to be classically educated to keep up with this one, so let’s just get stuck in.

Hercule Poirot, world-famous detective, is contemplating retirement. He’s getting on, and these days he’s more into the idea of growing marrows than seeking out murderers. But when an old friend scoffs at Poirot’s thoughts of retirement, Poirot seems determined to prove him wrong. Poirot, however, can’t just disappear of the scene, however. He decides that he will take twelve more cases, only dealing with those that seem to mirror the Twelve Labours of his mythological namesake, Hercules.

And so Poirot sets about his task. The twelve short stories each detail a specific crime that, in one manner or another, represents the Herculean task. Unusually, he is rarely dealing with murder here, and along the way he solves issues of missing persons, theft, a brainwashing, money-grabbing cult, criminal gangs and drug addiction. He is occasionally assisted by Inspector Japp and his secretary Miss Lemon, and he meets again Countess Vera Rossakoff, the only woman to whom he seems to show any attraction, despite her criminal background.

Despite the assurance that these are his last cases before retirement, we know full well that this was never going to be the case. He is retired already in his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is growing marrows in the countryside. However, he also makes reference here to an incident from The Big Four (the novel in which the Countess is also introduced), which was published after Ackroyd, suggesting to us that the novels were not published in the order that things happen. These fit in somewhere, but their real place in the canon isn’t strictly important.

Poirot’s insistence that the stories match up to the legendary tasks means that he can only take certain cases, although he’s definitely stretching a point a few times. “The Lernean Hydra”, for example, is famously about a monster that can never die because it always regrows new heads when one it cut off. Here, he is dealing with a village of gossips, who can never be fully silenced. “The Horses of Diomedes” gives us an untamed herd of daughters that are running riot with the wrong crowd, and for “The Apple of the Hesperides”, we are taken along on a journey to recover a stolen goblet that is decorated with emeralds to represent apples in Eden. “The Capture of Cerberus” is indeed about bringing a dog up from Hell (although, in this case, Hell is an underground nightclub), but “The Stymphalean Birds” merely relates the title to two women who are birdlike in their manner and appearance, with beaked noses and big capes.

They’re an enjoyable set of stories, and while the body count is low, it’s almost refreshing to see a Christie where the bodies aren’t piling up. Poirot dealt with far more than just murder, and this collection shows of his ability to turn his little grey cells to any puzzle. Short, sharp and very clever; a delightful read.

“A Void” by G-org-s P-r-c (1969)

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a void

“Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light.”

This post is mostly about lipograms. A lipogram (for any man or woman out past this monitor with no grasp on this word’s signification or connotation) is writing with constraint, such as taking out a particular symbol of our linguistic toolkit and not allowing it into a book, play or ballad. A Void (originally La Disparition in Français) is a fiction of full duration that has a total lack of a particular grammatical prop (to quoth our book’s blurb). Which? That which is most common in our jargon. A non-consonant that shows up not at all in 278 lists of paragraphs. Now, with much difficulty, I will try to copy this action in my post. Pass luck my way!

So. Location? Paris. Plot? Conflicting, smart and wily. Author? That you must look up without my aid, as this poor chap’s autonym contains four of our taboo initial. I can say, though, that it was Mr Adair who brought this Parisian’s story to our British coast. Kudos must rain down on this translator, who has such skill to pull off an act of amazing transnational wordplay.

Our story, such as it is, follows protagonist Anton Vowl, an insomniac and curious man, who starts noticing things amiss in his days. A void, if you will. Trying to find out what is going on, our man absconds with small warning. His companions and chums, now full of confusion as to his location raid his flat, find his diary and start to fix a jigsaw that Vowl was doing. Is Vowl hiding, or has an onimous, ill-boding action had its dark way with him? Living or pushing up tulips? Olga, Arthur, Amaury and Squawk must find out.

Showmanship is also on display within, such as with proxy forms of famous historical works, most notably a popular soliloquy from a world-class bard born in Stratford-upon-Avon (“Living or not living: that is what I ask”), and a scary composition about a particular black bird that affirms a synonym for, “Not again!” (Work it out, guys.)

All must assign paudits to our author, with his magical ability to construct a functional narration without allowing author or bookworm so much as a sniff of that missing symbol. I may try and copy his skill in this post, but a short handful of words is nothing in comparasion to what witchcraft this saint of wordplay has wrought. I doubt not for a jiffy that it is a book of fantastic skill, although ocasionally wording is a bit much, sounding almost archaic as our author must do a small amount of acrobatic wordsmithing to comply with his laws and stick to his guns. Floaty, occasionally stodgy communication, and using tricks of a rascal and crook in particular paragraphs, such as using USA-isms (“ax”, “gray” and so on) or cutting off folk part way through dialog. I’m guilty of similar tricks too…

It’s hard going, but it’s totally worth it. Six stars, for I cannot apply a digit a fraction minor thanks to my limitations. For my following post, I shall go back to normal for, as you may fancy, this was hard! How an author can maintain it for a full yarn, I cannot fathom. Congratulations to him and his translator!

Want to know about a book that contains our total linguistic toolkit, but also cannibals, gods, black magic and tabloid journalists? Hop aboard an Atomic and Bloody Bus, now on Amazon, a first book by yours truly.

“Lord Lucan: My Story” by William Coles (2009)

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lucan book

Hide and seek champion since 1974…

“This is the story of a vile man – and I am that man and I committed a most wicked deed.”

There seems to be nothing quite like a murder to excite the British, and in fact the only way such a thing could be made more exciting would be to have the murderer be a member of the aristocracy. And then, to add to the excitement further, have the murderer vanish into thin air! How remarkable and intriguing would that story be? The truth is, it has happened.

Step forward, Lord Lucan … wherever you are.

For those not in the know, here’s a quick run down. Lord Lucan was a peer of the realm and a really unlucky gambler. On November 7th, 1974, he attempted to kill his wife Veronica. However, things became confused and instead he did in the children’s nanny, Sandra, bludgeoning her to death with a length of lead piping. He fled into the night, was last seen in Uckfield in East Sussex and his car was later discovered on the coast, blood on the seats and another pipe in the boot. He hasn’t been seen since.

For forty years now, the British public have been fascinated by what happened to this man. Was it really him who did it? Was he really trying to kill his wife? If not, why did he run? Did he kill himself? Or, if not, where the hell is he now? This book tries to give us one possible outcome.

The book is supposedly edited versions of memoirs written by Lord Lucan himself after the date of his disappearance. Of course, absolutely no trace of the man has been seen since 1974, so it is entirely fictional, although the book does do a good job of setting up the belief that it’s real. Events begin on the night of the murder and Lucan begins to explain what actually happened to him. In this version of events, Lucan contacted his friend John Aspinall, a famous casino owner and zookeeper from Kent, who took him and hid him in a nicely furnished bunker under his mansion. For four months Lucan lived there, until he was shipped out by freighter from the country with the aid of a former enemy, Jimmy Goldsmith. One of the most common theories for his later whereabouts is Africa, but in this tale he is sent to Goa, India.

There, his memory is hazy, as he has become addicted to heroin in an attempt to blot out the nightmares he’s been having about Sandra, who he sees wherever he turns. He meets Karen who tries to straighten him out, and he is occasionally visisted by Goldsmith, who he believes has set the whole tragedy up to make sure his life is a living hell. And then the visions keep coming.

It’s a really interesting premise for a book, this, as the story of Lord Lucan has interested me and many of my fellow countrymen for decades. I even have a tenuous link to the whole mess, as my grandfather was a policeman who worked on the case for a while (and even claims to know exactly where Lucan’s body is now – he believes he didn’t even survive the rest of the night). It’s fascinating because for all we know, this is what happened to him. Goldsmith and Aspinall are, indeed, real people (although both now deceased) and they were friends of Lucan. Who’s to say that they didn’t hide him? Aspinall in particularly certainly seemed eccentric enough to do so. One train of thought suggests that Lucan’s body was fed to his tigers to hide it forever.

The text is messy, supposedly a product of Lucan’s drug-addled and deranged mind. It slips between the past and the present, sometimes he’s almost poetic, and you can’t always tell what is real and what he’s imagining. His final discussion with Goldsmith leaves a lot of that wide open, and perhaps it’s better that way. What if Lucan himself has no idea what happened? It’s an interesting story even before playing up to the “these are his lost memoirs” idea. You feel for the poor man, a tragic figure who got into a difficult situation. He clearly loves his children (he was in the middle of a custody battle he was sure he’d lose when he planned the murder), which is something that was well-documented with the real man, and I’m prepared to believe that his reactions to leaving them here are probably akin to how he actually felt. Still, we’ll never really know so while it’s a fun thought experiment, it doesn’t answer any questions.

A genuinely beguiling read about one of the most famous missing persons in history.