“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!

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“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.

“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

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 failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Want You Dead” by Peter James (2014)

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“Karl Murphy was a decent and kind man, a family doctor with two small children whom he was bringing up on his own.”

The Peter James series about Brighton detective Roy Grace rolls on, with Want You Dead being the tenth instalment. In the hands of a lesser author, the series could be getting tired by now, and yet here we are, with me finished and wanting to get hold of the next one. We return to Brighton’s criminal underbelly to meet with an obsessed stalker.

Red Westwood had left a dull relationship and tried online dating, where she met the rich, charming and handsome Bryce Laurent. He seemed too good to be true, but while her family and friends had reservations and told her to be careful, she blindly ignored them, until it was almost too late. Bryce became violent and jealous, and eventually, after Red’s mother had hired a private detective to prove that Bryce’s history was a tissue of lies, Red kicked him out. Bryce, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight. Red might be under police protection, but Bryce is determined to destroy everything she loves in the city: her new boyfriend, her favourite restaurant, her old car…

Red is now stuck in a nightmare she can’t wake up from, and despite the restraining order, Bryce seems to know everything about her, and is becoming more and more unhinged with every passing day. The spate of arson across Brighton doesn’t go unnoticed by Roy Grace and his team, however, and when they discover that Red is the link between the murder of Karl Murphy, the fire at a swanky bar, and the incident at an old block of flats that leads to the death of one of the police force’s finest sergeants, they pull out all the stops to see that Bryce is stopped. And on top of that, Roy really just wants to get married and have his honeymoon in peace, but crime doesn’t stop just because you’ve got a flight to Venice booked…

Starting out a little slower than usual from James, the emphasis – for the first half of the novel at least – is firmly on Red and her life. We know from the off that Bryce is responsible, so the mystery here is more how the police will capture him, rather than who is starting all the fires. Bryce Laurent is one of the most villainous characters in perhaps any crime novel in recent years; mentally unbalanced and damaged by an abusive childhood and an obsession with fire. He’s an egomaniac with a nasty temper, and will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he is owed. Roy and his team are on fine form here, too, and for a while it seemed like a run-of-the-mill entry into the series, but I should’ve prepared for more – as ever. With the death of one of the characters we have grown to know and love over the last ten books, and the return of another Roy hoped he’d never see again, it’s all change here and promises drama for the next book in the series.

James’s style is as readable as ever, with characters and scenes leaping off the page, particularly given any reader who has made it this far has is now very familiar with the characters. There are some huge tragedies awaiting in this one, so brace yourselves if you’re regular readers. It’s also worth noting something that I don’t think I’ve dwelt on too much before on these books – they are incredibly dark. The criminals are not those you’d find in an Agatha Christie – these are some proper bastards with evil minds and broken moral compasses. Ingeniously written, and you sometimes have to sit back and admire that Peter James – who otherwise seems a charming and friendly man – can create such odious characters and incredible scenarios.

Keep ’em coming.

“Colour Scheme” by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

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“When Dr James Ackrington limped into the Harpoon Club on the afternoon of Monday, January the thirteenth, he was in a poisonous temper.”

I keep reading reviews that tell me Ngaio Marsh was an even better mystery writer than Agatha Christie. No disrespect meant to Marsh, but she isn’t. She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but her stories lack something that Christie’s had, although I’m not sure I would ever be able to pinpoint exactly what it was. They’re just different, and that’s almost certainly due to a difference in upbringing. This is the third Marsh novel I’ve read now, and I’m finally heading back to her homeland. It’s time to solve a murder in New Zealand.

The Claire family run a small guest house on the North Island, notable for its access to the hot springs and their curative properties. The family are having difficulty with the businessman Maurice Questing, who is determined to take over and expand the hotel himself to bring in more money, with Colonel Claire firmly under his thumb. Elsewhere, the chief of the nearby Maori tribe, the Te Rarawas, has concerns that Questing seems very interested in some of his ancestors weaponry, and there’s talk of a spy in the area who is responsible for the sinking of a nearby ship.

Things come to a head on the night of a concert held by the Maoris for their white visitors. Maurice Questing has made no friends among the staff and guests at the hotel, so when he disappears into the night and the police find evidence that he may have ended up drowned in one of the hot mud pools, there is little sympathy. It does however raise that eternal question – whodunnit? With a love triangle building, a number of suspicious figures in the frame, and the threat of fifth columnists, the police have their work cut out for them.

Being a native Brit who hasn’t left the continent, never mind the hemisphere, it is always interesting to explore another country via literature. New Zealand feels almost as much of a character here as the humans, and Marsh seems respectful of Maori culture, incorporating figures and their beliefs into her work. She is almost at pains to remind the reader that these islands were inhabited long before Westerners turned up. There are some interesting characters here too, particularly Mr Gaunt, the Shakespearean actor who has been coerced into attending the spa against his will, and now fans are turning up in droves to catch a glimpse of him.

While there is a conventional murder mystery in here, it takes a long time to kick in as Marsh lays down the numerous threads required for the final chapters and the solution to play out. While there’s no confirmation as to which character is even going to end up dead, you quickly get a good idea. Then we get the usual scenes of the suspects all discussing their movements as the police arrive. There is a final twist, but I’d seen it coming a long time before it arrived.

It isn’t my favourite of the Marsh books I’ve read so far, but not so off-putting that I’d never return to her. You can call her the Kiwi Christie, by all means, but she still comes in second place to me.

“The Saltmarsh Murders” by Gladys Mitchell (1932)

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“There are all sorts of disadvantages in telling a story in the first person, especially a tale of murder.”

After reading a parody of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it seemed fitting to dip back into a genuine one. I’ve long been ignorant of Gladys Mitchell, which seems odd given she was so prolific. Perhaps her profile is simply lower, or maybe even not all of her books are currently available. I can only make excuses for my ignorance. Nonetheless, I’m here now with the surprising The Saltmarsh Murders.

Noel Wells, the curate in the small village of Saltmarsh, sets about telling us the story of the murders that he got caught up in. He prefers to spend his time dancing with the vicar’s niece, but the peace is shattered when the unmarried housemaid is found to be pregnant, and the vicar’s shrewish, vindictive wife throws her out. A few days after the baby is born, the housemaid is strangled and the baby disappears, with no one ever having set eyes on it. Questions are raised – who had the motive and the opportunity? Why was the girl so secretive? And was there even a baby at all?

Noel calls on Mrs Bradley, an amateur detective and psychologist who happens to be staying in the village, to investigate the murder and together they find themselves dragged into Saltmarsh’s seedy underbelly as the story grows to incorporate a false letter, a kidnapped vicar, smuggling, the village lunatic, a missing corpse and an excavation of the local quarries. With Mrs Bradley convinced that the wrong man has been convicted, it is a race against time to find the true culprit and save an innocent man from death.

For much of the reading, I was worried I’d have to come here afterwards and give a negative review. The opening chapters were slow, somewhat repetitive and I kept losing track of who was who. It took a while to get to the actual murder, giving us some strange plots earlier on that quickly get discarded and prove not to be so important. I’d also made guesses on a number of plot points and was rapidly proven right on them all. However, when Mitchell finally reveals who the murderer was, the rug was pulled out from under me and I wasn’t anything like close. It’s a curiously satisfying solution.

The style of its time, with language and attitudes one would expect of the 1930s, so there are some terms that seem questionable to modern readers, but in many other respects there are some curiously modern topics involved, including pre-marital sex, incest, racial tension, and pornography. It was undoubtedly quite a shocking read at the time, and indeed, parts of it are still so today. Many other elements remain typical of books of the sort – small village, missing people, a secret passage and a country vicar.

I’d probably read Mitchell again, although I don’t necessarily see Mrs Bradley as one of fiction’s “most memorable personalities”, but I’m in no particular hurry.

“A Murder To Die For” by Stevyn Colgan (2018)

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“A warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of festival bunting was being hung.”

As surely anyone who follows me on Twitter or is a regular reader here will know, I went through the crowdfunding publishers Unbound to produce my second novel, The Third Wheel, and thanks to the support of many of you, it will be out later this year (and there is still time to pre-order a copy!) While scratching around the website, however, I of course stumbled across many other works-in-progress, some of which I have supported in turn. A Murder to Die For was already funded by the time I got to it, but that’s no bad thing. As seems to be the purpose of Unbound, it seemed exactly the sort of book I was looking for…

Agnes Crabbe lived a solitary life between 1895 and 1943, penning many murder mystery novels, none of which saw the light of day. By accordance with her will, her manuscripts were revealed to the world at the turn of the millennium, and what was discovered blew everyone’s minds. Some of the best stories from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction were flung out into the world decades after they’d been written, birthing hundreds of TV adaptations, radio plays, stage shows, and fan clubs. Not least of these is the annual Agnes Crabbe Murder Mystery Festival held in her hometown of Nasely.

Normally a fairly sedate event where hundreds of fans – usually all dressed as Crabbe’s famous detective, Millicent Cutter – turn up to hear talks, swap theories and drink heavily, this year things go a bit different when the festival opens with a shocking murder. The heads of the different fan clubs begin to spread their own theories and given that the town is overrun with murder mystery fans, everyone thinks that they can be the one to solve the case. However, fiction isn’t as neat as reality, and the police first have to deal with all the amateur sleuths before they can get to the issue of what actually happened. But given that this is a village where the suspects, witnesses and victim are all dressed as Millicent Cutter, things are not always what they seem…

After a run of books that were temperate, unimpressive, or simply not capable to hitting exactly the right spots, it was a delight to breeze through this excellent novel over the weekend. Sat in the garden under a scorching sun, I consumed this in two days and slightly regret having done so, as it just made it end all the quicker. Stevyn Colgan, who has previously appeared in my consciousness as one of the QI elves and as a guest on one of my favourite podcasts, Worst Foot Forward, now turns his attention to fiction and does it with serious skill. A former policeman himself, he knows the ins and outs of the crime solving world and is as such perfectly placed to be able to bring the reality to the table.

The novel joyfully plays up the tropes and themes of murder mystery stories and while some of them are retained in full, he’s not above twisting, bending or snapping the rules as he deems fit. After all, crime stories follow a pattern – real life doesn’t. Colgan wrote the entire book, I’m sure, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, giving the overblown and eccentric characters life in a way I’ve not seen for some time. It’s very silly, but it’s also very clever, much like something by Jasper Fforde. Although Colgan states in the novel’s acknowledgements that Agnes Crabbe’s life story mimics in many ways that of Vivian Maier, a photographer who only received acclaim for her work after her death, there feel enough references in here to also parody the greats like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beautifully, the novel also opens with an introduction to the life and work of Crabbe, and a complete list of her titles, all of which sound so improbably like mysteries from the golden age that I would love to have a read.

A truly remarkable, funny, sharp, creative and interesting look at murder mysteries. Bring on the sequel.

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