“The Real-Town Murders” by Adam Roberts (2017)

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“Where we are, and where we aren’t.”

Last time I met Adam Roberts’ writing, we were sinking fast towards to an ocean floor that never seemed to arrive. I didn’t even register this was the same author until about halfway through. I should’ve cottoned on sooner, as once again he’s created a strangely unsettling world where everything is just a bit off and you’re never going to get everything explained.

In the near future, private detective Alma has been called upon to solve an impossible murder. In a car-making factory where everything is automated and human contact is minimal, a body has turned up in the boot of one of the new cars, stone dead with his lungs and heart mashed up. Watching the security footage, it seems there is no way a body can have been inserted into the car at any point of its construction, and yet there it is. Alma promises to take the case, but is chased off it by a mysterious figure called Michelangela. Much as it would have been nice to have the money, Alma has more pressing things to worry about, such as her partner Marguerite whose genes have been hacked with a disease, and only Alma can administer the cure, once every four hours.

But while most of the world remains oblivious to this murder, trapped as they are in the fully immersive Shine – the Internet’s entirely virtual successor – some people are keeping an eye on the Real, and Alma soon finds that she’s involved in something much more sinister than she first realised. Before she can really register what’s going on, she finds herself shunted from police custody, hospital and back home again, with her only goal being to keep Marguerite alive. She’s entirely off the grid now, as if she onswitches back into the feed for even a second, the authorities will be able to track her down. Then again, they know where she has to be every four hours. The hunt is on…

So, trying to explain a future world and all the technology that encapsulates is sometimes part of the fun of writing, although it’s possible to get bogged down in specifics. Here, I don’t think we often get specific enough. Granted, to have the characters stop and explain to one another what the Shine is, or how people stuck in it for months at a time used mesh suits to exercise their muscles would break the reality. We never get to enter the Shine, though, so we don’t know exactly what it is, although I got the impression it’s a full VR world that the user can build themselves and live in their own private paradise. Similarly, all the people we do see have constant feeds surrounding them, and it’s not exactly clear how these work. I ended up assuming it was a Google Glasses kind of technology, but it could just as easily be some kind of brain implant, or even a product of the environment.

Some aspects are a little far fetched, but then I suppose all good science fiction has something that makes you think that this really is the future. Drones, self-driving cars, VR, these are all fine, but it’s actually the more mundane parts I disliked. The story takes place in R!-town, which was once known as Reading, but had rebranded for tourism. Apparently so had other towns nearby – sWINdon and Basingstoked!, for example – and even the country is now known as UK!-OK! It’s stuff like this that takes me out of it, as it seems too silly. The one aspect I did really like though was the the White Cliffs of Dover have been carved like Rushmore with the faces of famous Brits, leading to a bizarre and surreal scene in which the characters scale Shakespeare’s face and take refuge in his nostril.

Honestly, I found the concepts of the future more interesting than the actual murder case. The solution, while ingenious in its own way, actually felt a bit like a cop-out. The text also gets a bit repetitive at times, with characters repeat conversations with one another, or drop in exposition we already know. Something else I must praise though was the way that people speak when they meet in the real world. Alma and most of the others have normal speech patterns, but people who live mostly in the Shine and have only dropped out for a while tend to mix up words, repeat themselves, stumble over syntax and are prone to spoonerisms. It’s a neat little touch.

An intriguing and distressing future where privacy is a thing of the past and people never have to go outside. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.

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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“The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Harcastle” by Stuart Turton (2018)

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“I forget everything between footsteps.”

One of the most difficult questions you can be asked as an avid reader is, “So, what’s your favourite book?” This must be the same problem faced by film buffs and music nerds – how are you meant to pick a favourite? As such, I don’t have a specific answer, but have about ten that I would pick out as examples of some of my favourites. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has already taken its place among their number. How best to describe it? It’s kind of like if Quantum Leap found its way into an Agatha Christie novel, via Groundhog Day. Let me try and explain.

Blackheath is a crumbling old manor house, and tonight there is to be a party where Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the hosts, will die, as she has done every day for many, many years. Our narrator, Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a body that is not his own in a large forest, with no memories of how he came to be there or what he needs to do about it now. He finds his way out of the forest and to the house, where he begins to meet other members of the household and party. After Evelyn’s death, instead of a new day breaking, the same one starts again, but this time Aiden is in a different body, while the same events play out around him.

Caught in a time loop, Aiden is doomed to live out the same day over and over again, each time in the body of a different guest. The only way to escape the loop is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder. But this is apparently not as easy as it appears when Aiden can’t change events, merely experience them from different vantages, inside a variety of hosts with very different skills and abilities. There’s also the discovery that he’s not the only one stuck in a loop like this, and he has to do his best to avoid the nefarious “footman”, who seems determined that Aiden doesn’t escape from Blackheath…

I got this book for Christmas and it naturally made its way onto the reading list, but then another friend of mine said that it was one I would love, so I raised it up the pile a little and got to it sooner than I anticipated. Originally daunted by its size and the promise of a complicated plot line, I found that neither of these were mattered. This book is the definition of a page turner, with constant twists and amazing, often beautiful, descriptions. This is an insanely good debut novel from Stuart Turton and one that has left me jealous and somewhat bereft that I’ll never be able to do better.

What a mind Turton must have to be able to weave together the timeline in such a way that we can see it play out in numerous ways and yet still be continually surprised and shocked. I was proud of myself for working out one aspect of the finale before it happened, but most of it remained out of sight, blowing my mind when it finally did all arrive. Because it’s a repeat of the same day, certain things happen out of order and we only get explanations of them in later attempts, but I don’t think there’s a single loose thread in the whole novel. I’ve also never been more grateful for a map and a list of characters in the front of the book, which I had to keep referring to for at least the first three fifths of the book, before much of it settled into my memory. Layers upon layers of mysteries and secrets surround Blackheath, and they are tied up together so neatly it feels like real magic has been achieved here.

More importantly, Turton’s grasp on the characters is phenomenal. The more bodies Aiden inhabits, the harder it becomes to remember who he is, and instead he finds himself dominated by the personalities and memories of his hosts, each one stronger than the last. Each character is fully realised and so vivid, as is Aiden’s reaction to each of them. On one day he’s inside an enormously fat man and is very aware of his own physical bulk and how the world views him. The day after, he finds himself back in a thin man and struggles to acclimatise to the sudden loss of weight. He often struggles with the morality of some of his hosts too, which is fun to see and handled so delicately that it all feels believable.

Not just one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. Do not miss out.

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!

“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!

“Ten Little Astronauts” by Damon L. Wakes (2018)

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“Even before the alarm began to sound, Blair knew in his gut that something was wrong.”

I’m normally against remakes. I’m one of those people constantly screaming at the publishing industry and Hollywood that it needs to have some new ideas, not just keep throwing out rehashes, remakes, reimaginings, retellings, repeats … People need to take more risks. There are, of course, exceptions. Some films with literary backgrounds actually do turn out very well (see Stardust or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), and sometimes an author can take a classic (Hamlet) and give it a new entertaining twist (The Lion King). In Ten Little Astronauts, Damon L. Wakes takes Agatha Christie’s crown jewel, And Then There Were None, and gives it a sci fi flavour.

The U. N. Owen is a spaceship that has long departed Earth and is now hurtling through the void to a new planet for humanity to colonise with four thousand bodies preserved in suspended animation. Ten astronauts are awoken mid-journey, something that is only supposed to happen if there’s an emergency on board. It seems that something has gone wrong with the computer system. Then they find the body.

Trapped in interstellar space, trillions of miles from home and with no chance of rescue, the ten astronauts must deal with the fact that one among them is a murderer. With no way of being sure who it is, they agree that they can’t go back to sleep until they’ve worked it out. But then more of them die, and as the bodies pile up, so does the tension. They just have to hope that the little grey cells work just as well in space…

As a premise, it works wonderfully. The original novel is of course one of the finest examples of mystery writing in history, with ten people isolated on an island and killed off one by one. The “closed circle” plot is common in the murder mystery genre, and here it’s dialled up to eleven, with the characters entirely isolated from everything and everyone else. Although occasionally erratically paced, the tension ramps up perfectly and you begin to question your own thoughts, because as soon as you think you’ve worked out what’s going on, the rug is pulled from under you and things prove to not be as they seem. A stellar retelling.

The book also contains a second short story, Six Years Stolen, which is another science fiction crime story set in a future where people no longer require sleep. Some specialised police officers – known as sleeper agents – do still sleep as we do, but it renders them with better cognitive faculties and speedier reactions, meaning that sacrificing a third of their life to sleep is beneficial. The whole thing is apparently based on a pun in the term “sleeper agent”, and I applaud Wakes for managing to pull off an interesting, intelligent story around it that feels curiously believable. I enjoyed it as much as the first story.

If you want a quick, thrilling read, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of this clever and unusual story.

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!

“The Golden Age Of Murder” by Martin Edwards (2015)

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“On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in darkness to perform a macabre ritual.”

Crime fiction has held a key spot in book sales for decades, now. Changing tastes may have seen a switch from detective stories in English country manors to blood-soaked thrillers on the mean streets of New York, but at their heart sits the puzzle that people still clamour for. It was in the 1920s and 1930s, however, that detective fiction took off in a big way, with figures like Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley and Ngaio Marsh enjoying incredible fame and success with their detectives. But they were far from the only ones, and their novels were not as cosy and conventional as many people now believe they were. The greatest detective writers of the age needed an outlet, and together they formed the Detection Club, an exclusive London society for all the luminaries of the genre. This is their story.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I am an enormous fan of murder mysteries, particularly those of the Golden Age, and this book was therefore an inevitability for me. It explores the history of the club and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

Top of the class, of course, sit Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and, naturally, Agatha Christie. Each of them remains well known today, but they were all fascinating people with murder on their minds. Each of them also took a secret with them to the grave, and in the case of Christie and her disappearance, the puzzle yet to be resolved. But while much of the biography focuses on these three superstars, we also get to spend time with others of the group including G. K. Chesterston, partners in writing and matrimony G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Baroness Orczy, E. C. R. Lorac, Val Gielgud and even, perhaps surprisingly, A. A. Milne, who wrote one detective novel that was deemed brilliant enough to allow him membership. We also get to experience second-hand the initiation ceremony of the group which involved a skull with glowing red eyes and a solemn oath that promise not to make use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.

The book uncovers not only the mysteries of this group, but also does away with all stereotypes and assumptions made about the genre from people who clearly have never read any. Many of the books are these days labelled “cosy crime”, a term I’ve definitely used too, but when you look properly, there is absolutely nothing cosy about these. Across thousands of novels, the authors discussed everything from religion and the death penalty, to extramarital sex, fetishes, suicide, Nazism, justice, and feminism. They get typified as being uptight, conservative members of society and while some of them definitely were, their numbers included many people on the political left. Some were university educated, others had had no official schooling at all. Some were wealthy, others struggling. Some shy and retiring, some gregarious and gossipy (I’m looking at you Christianna Brand). Among them, all they had in common was a love of writing detective fiction.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to.

This book is really quite something and, as Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction. With something interesting on every page, rare photographs, and some genuinely funny stories and phrases too (a particular favourite is, “…Agatha Christie, a quiet, pleasant woman who was easy to read unless you wanted to know what was going on in her mind.”) it’s a real treasure for anyone interested in crime, either factual or fictional.

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!

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

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“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!

“Bats In The Belfry” by E. C. R. Lorac (1937)

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“As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort!”

My re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue is almost upon us, and I’ll be kicking off with it as soon as 2019 rolls around. For now though, I turn to another writer from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, a woman who has almost entirely been forgotten until the British Library dug her up again for reissue – E. C. R. Lorac.

At the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s cousin, talk naturally turns macabre between some of the guests. Young Elizabeth Leigh comments that there’s a game she’s played at her club – they take turns to suggest the best way to hide a dead body. Everyone seems content to join in, not taking it very seriously, but apparently all keen to share their theories. A short time later, Bruce is called away to France on urgent business, it seems that that’s the last anybody sees of him.

But then his suitcase and passport show up in a crumbling Notting Hill artist’s studio. There’s still no sign of Bruce himself, but there are many secrets that seem to be surrounding him. His friend Neil Rockingham was meant to see him in France, but he never turned up. Bruce was once a respected novelist, but has fallen on hard times, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of his actress wife Sybilla. His young charge, Elizabeth, would love to be married to Robert Grenville, but it’s yet to be allowed. And then there’s the difficult issue of the strange artist Debrette, who might just have been blackmailing our missing man. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is put on the case and begins to learn more about the Belfry and quite who had the most cause to see Bruce Attleton disappear…

This novel, like apparently all of Lorac’s work (her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) slipped through the cracks of literary history but it’s no sad thing that she’s been rediscovered for the modern era. While her characters don’t particularly stand out as greats of the genre, they’re distinct from one another, and Inspector Macdonald is a very fine policeman and a man I would trust wholeheartedly. Other characterisation is still quite clever though, making use of tropes and ideas that perhaps a lesser author would have done something obvious with. Debrette, for example, has an enormous and distinctive beard, which would be quite useful as a disguise should someone be pretending to be him. But are they?

Actually, it’s London itself that sticks out most of all. It’s a very real version of the city in the thirties, with thick fog and people hidden round every corner. Not much has changed in eighty years in fact, as best indicated when Macdonald makes a comment that it’s quicker to walk through London than take a bus during rush hour.

A fairly good example of the genre, with the clues neatly seeded and all there for you if you’re paying attention – the early conversation about how best to dispose of a body becomes particularly prescient – and one that I’m pleased the British Library has dug up from the archives. Long may they continue to do so.

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