“Strangers On A Train” by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

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“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.”

While most people would never act on murderous impulses, should they have them, it’s fortunate that this is the case. Quite a fun (purely theoretical) exercise, however, is to come up with the “perfect murder”. I’ve discussed some true ones before, and my extensive time spent reading crime fiction and books on how to write crime fiction means I’ve got a couple of ideas. But don’t worry, you’re not in any immediate danger.

In Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train, we open on a locomotive tearing across the American south. On this train are architect Guy Haines and alcoholic Charley Bruno. Guy is on his way to finalise his divorce with his estranged wife, Miriam, although admits to himself that it would just be easier if she was dead. Bruno feels similarly about his hated father – why can’t he just disappear? Buoyed by alcohol, Bruno makes a proposal – the two men should swap victims and kill for each other. There would be no evidence leading to either man, as no one need ever know they’ve met, making it a pair of perfect murders.

Guy thinks Bruno is talking rot, and ignores him, but Bruno is not a man who gives up easily, and when Miriam is found dead a few days later, Guy is convinced that Bruno is behind it all. His new acquaintance now seems unable to leave him alone and begins to insidiously creep into Guy’s life, and both men are driving to madness and into actions that they may come to regret…

I love a good murder, and this is a really clever twist on the whole thing. It’s not a horror by any means, but it’s definitely a creepy thriller. You find yourself in the minds of Guy and Bruno, both apparently very different men who seem to perhaps have more in common than they’d like to admit. The idea of “swapping murders” is a good one, and has been copied and parodied endlessly since. I’m aware that Hitchcock turned it into a film, but from what I’ve read of that, he changed several major plot details, and what happens in the book is easily better. It’s quite clear what attracted Hitchcock to the text though; it’s just haunting enough to lodge itself behind your ear and bug you for days.

One of the most startling aspects of the book, for the time it was written anyway, was the sheer amount of homosexual subtext. Bruno, in particular, seems to be infatuated with Guy, even going so far at one point to think about killing off Guy’s second wife Anne so that he and Guy can be together. Their personalities become entwined quite marvellously, to the point that I wondered if there was going to be a sudden twist that revealed one of them didn’t exist and the other had just gone completely mad.

While not the greatest murder tale I’ve ever read, it’s nonetheless interesting and worth a look if you like that sort of thing. Just don’t go getting any ideas.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Floating Admiral” by The Detection Club (1931)

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“Three glimpses through the rolling smoke of opium, three stories that still hover about a squalid opium joint in Hong Kong, might very well at this distance of time be dismissed as pipe dreams.”

Have you ever played Consequences? It’s that quaint party game where people write a sentence of a story, pass it on, and the next person has to continue the story and so on through as many players are there are. It’s quite good fun, and usually ends up with some ludicrous stories at the end. Now imagine doing that with a whole book. What if you could get the best writers of the age to work together and pen a single story? Well, satisfyingly, it’s already been done.

The Detection Club is a group of detective fiction writers. Formed in 1930 and still running today, almost every notable crime writer has found their way into the illustrious circle. It seems that they decided to pool their resources and so started writing together. However, the way they did it was much in the manner of Consequences. Each writer penned a different chapter, having to follow on from what the previous writer had said in theirs. Some of the contributors are well known – G. K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – while others such as Henry Wade and Edgar Jepson have fallen to the wayside with time and do not have such a great reputation now. Surprisingly, given their differing styles and the very nature of the challenge, the whole thing works. Here’s what’s going on…

Local fisherman Neddy Ware sets out in the early hours of the morning to the River Whyn, determined as usual that that’s the best time to land some fish. However, he gets more than he bargains for, when a rowing boat floats past him. He realises that it’s the Vicar’s boat and then, a moment later, there’s a body sprawled in the bottom of it; the murdered figure of Admiral Penistone. Ware tethers the boat immediately reports it to the police. Soon Inspector Rudge is on the case, but things are definiely not as smooth-sailing as the aforementioned boat.

For a start, every suspect has suddenly been called away to London on urgent business before they can be detained, leaving Rudge to learn the local gossip regarding the Admiral through busybody servants and nosy porters. The Vicar seems to know more than he’s letting on, but hides behind the excuse of “secrets of the confessional”. It seems impossible that the Admiral should be there at all, and everyone’s evidence contradicts, but as the suspects return one by one, Rudge begins to piece together what’s happened.

According to the prologue by Sayers, each writer had to write their chapter with a solution in mind, but also making use of all the clues, hints and facts mentioned in the previous chapters. Anthony Berkley, who has the unenviable task of writing the final chapter calls it “Clearing up the Mess”, which seems about right. And yet, somehow, the whole thing works very well. I’ve only read full books by three of the contributors, so I cannot fully assess their styles, but of the ones I know, you can almost tell. The characters and information come naturally, but it doesn’t stop the writers from adding in information that has merely been unmentioned up until they get a chance to speak. For example, one chapter suddenly mentions that two minor characters are actually related, and while there’s been no evidence of this so far, there’s also nothing saying it’s not possible.

It’s actually a really fascinating conceit, and deftly shows how talented these writers all were independently of one another that when they came together, they could still manage to “solve” a crime with only half the story. At the appendix at the end of the book, each writer also gets a chance to explain the solution they were aiming for, giving a great example, as seen in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of how facts can be distorted and how odd it is to take the protagonist’s theory as sacrosanct. Had any chapter been the final one, there’s a very different solution up for grabs.

The Detection Club actually did a few of these, but this was the only one that Agatha Christie joined in with, so it’s naturally the one I was drawn to. Perhaps I’ll return to the others once I’ve become more familiar with their work, but this is a must for any lovers of classic detective fiction.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Hanging Tree” by Ben Aaronovitch (2016)

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“I dreamt that I heard Mr Punch laughing gleefully by my ear, but when I woke I realised it was my phone.”

I always think it’s a struggle to review whole series on here. For a start, it locks out anyone who hasn’t read the previous books, because spoilers will automatically feature, and oftentimes there’s a lot of repetition about style, language, plot and character. Nonetheless, on I go, hoping I can keep on finding something new to say. If you want to read on, you can catch up with my thoughts on the previous five books (Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer), or just dive in here and pretend you know what I’m talking about. Then at least one of us might have some idea.

After the exchanging of hostages in rural Hertfordshire, Peter Grant is back in London now and Lady Tyburn is calling him in for a favour. Her daughter’s best friend has got herself tangled up in the death of a teenage girl – there’s a possibility she provided the fatal drugs – and Lady Ty needs to ensure her family aren’t caught up in it all. Grant is flung into the world of London’s super-rich, where every basement has a swimming pool and money is king.

But things keep bringing him back to his old nemesis, the Faceless Man. Everything is linked, and when he tries to get some information out of Reynard Fossman, an anthropomorphised fox from an ancient fairy tale, he also ends up meeting turncoat Lesley May, and blowing up half of Harrods. Add to this the fact that Isaac Newton’s Third Principia, said to contain the secrets of alchemy, has appeared on eBay and things are about to get extremely messy, extremely quickly. Grant has to arrest the right people, maintain the secrecy of magic and try not to get killed, all of which is far easier said than done.

The most pertinent thing to mention about the Rivers of London series is simply how witty they are. The language and use of metaphor would make Douglas Adams proud, and they just slide off the page with great ease. Aaronovitch is also prone to filling his books with endless references and jokes to pop culture. The ones relating to Harry Potter are very obvious, as are the ones to Doctor Who, but it’s quite clear that I’m not picking up on everything. Indeed, I tweeted Aaronovitch to ask if anyone else had discovered the Weird Al reference in the book, and he replied, “Which one?” Dammit; he’s a canny devil.

However, we’re now six books into the series and I am bemused. The plot ricochets around erratically, occasionally dropping in references to previous installments of the series that have since slipped from my mind, and seeming to change direction halfway through and bringing back something else entirely. My friend who was a book ahead of me with this series advised me that I keep a notebook handy for this one, and she wasn’t wrong. There are so many characters to deal with here that it soon becomes a struggle to keep up with who is who’s daughter, lover, enemy or arresting officer. There’s little consistency on who to focus on as well, as characters slip out of the limelight only to reappear later with seemingly new motives. The central characters though, including Peter Grant, Sahra Guleed and Lady Ty, are marvellous creations and I enjoy them and their banter immensely.

Despite all the magic, Aaronovitch paints a London that feels inexplicably real, and there’s no losing sight of the fact that he’s developing a really fascinating world here. But it at times feels a hodge-podge of several different plots battling out for front and centre, and many things have to be taken for granted, such as Grant’s developing magical abilities, almost none of which we see him learning first hand. I accept that it would be boring to fill the book with pages of failed spells, but a little more information regarding what exactly Grant is being taught would be great.

It’s all change now though, as I’m just embarking on the most classic of classic novels.

“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

“The Poisoned Chocolates Case” by Anthony Berkeley (1929)

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“Roger Sheringham took a sip of the old brandy in front of him and leaned back in his chair at the head of the table.”

During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, dozens of authors tried their hands at writing murder mysteries. When Anthony Berkeley published this one, he attempted to subvert a genre that was saturating the market and yet was nowhere near being over. Agatha Christie had only published eight of her books by this time; Ngaio Marsh was yet to publish anything. However, the tricks and tropes of the genre were well-established, and so people were already playing with the conventions. Here, Berkeley does it with serious aplomb.

The murder in question here is that of Joan Bendix. Devotedly married to her husband Graham, they seem to have an ideal life, until a box of chocolates drops into their life. Joan is killed by poison hidden within the chocolates, and the police, led by Chief Inspector Moresby, are at a loss to explain who killed her. It seems, after all, that she was never to be the intended victim, as the chocolates had originally been delivered to Sir Eustace Pennefather. Disinclined to have a sweet tooth, he passed the chocolates onto Graham Bendix and he in turn gave them to his wife as a gift.

Stumped, Moresby calls upon his friend Roger Sheringham, who leads the notable group the Crimes Circle, a motley crew of amateur detectives who love nothing more than discussing crime and murders. Each is given exactly the same details that the police have, and sent out to test their skills – can they, in the space of a week, solve the crime that has plagued the police? The six amateurs – including a crime novelist, a dramatist and a lawyer – set about their task, but when all six of them return with six entirely different solutions, how can anyone be sure who the real killer is?

Berkeley does a great job at bringing up the fatal flaw in detective fiction. In most stories, whatever importance the detective hero ascribes to an object or clue is taken at face value and it is assumed that he is correct. The characters here, quite wonderfully, display that any clue can be taken in any number of ways. There are only three obvious clues here – the box of chocolates, the wrapping they came in, and the accompanying note sent to Pennefather – but the characters manage to construct whole theories based around these items.

Each theory is actually entirely compelling and believable, and it’s remarkable to see each character bring forward their solution, only to have it torn down by the next one. Each uses different methods, focuses on different aspects of the case, and comes up with an entirely different killer. Members of the Circle themselves are accused, and one of the characters even manages to build a watertight case against himself, thus showing the readers that anything can be “proven” if you look at the facts in a certain way.

Even more wonderfully, at the end of the original book, it becomes clear who really had the right answer, but that was then. In the 1970s, writer Christianna Brand who knew Berkeley penned her own ending, changing the outcome to a seventh villain. And in the new edition I have, published by the British Library, contains a brand new, never-before-seen ending written by the current president of the Detection Club, a very real version of the Crimes Circle that, over the years, was presided over by such luminaries as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As such, with each new chapter we are given a new solution, meaning the book now contains eight alternative theories, each which could potentially have led to an arrest if used alone.

It is an outstanding piece of work, occasionally dry due to the language, but funny and clever enough to keep my attention. Anyone who loves a good mystery will find something to appeal to them here. In fact, I would compare it a little to the podcast Serial. Several of my friends listened to it and, with our own backgrounds in different fields, we each came up with different ideas as to what really happened.

A remarkable novel.

“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.

“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

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“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

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