“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.

“A Talent For Murder” by Andrew Wilson (2017)

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“Wherever I turned my head I thought I saw her, a woman people described as striking, beautiful even.”

If you delve into the life of Agatha Christie, there’s something very interesting about her that will quickly come to the surface. On the 3rd December 1926, following a row with her husband Archie, she disappeared. Eleven days later, she was found at a spa hotel in Harrogate, checked in under the name of her husband’s lover and apparently suffering with amnesia. She never told anyone what had happened during this time, and the whole incident is missing from her autobiography. The mystery remains one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century.

Did she suffer from a breakdown? Did she do it to spite her husband and stir up trouble? Was she trying to drum up publicity for her next novel? Did she have an encounter with a giant wasp and a Time Lord? No one knows, and it’s unlikely now we’ll ever find out. Andrew Wilson, however, has had a bash at an explanation.

Agatha Christie is out Christmas shopping, and while waiting for a tube station platform, she feels herself being pushed in front of an oncoming train. However, she is pulled back at the last moment by a man who introduces himself as Dr Patrick Kurs. He insists on taking her for tea to restore her nerves, but she can’t help think – did this man push her before he pulled her to safety? He seems to know a startling amount about her life, her marriage problems and her family, and it soon becomes clear that Kurs most certainly does not have Christie’s best interests at heart.

Kurs wants his wife dead, but knowing that he would be the prime suspect, he employs Christie to do his evil work for him, convinced that because she knows so much about murder, she’ll be quite willing to perform one. Besides, if she doesn’t … well, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Christie leaves her house in the dead of night and is taken by Kurs to a hotel in Harrogate where they can plan the murder. It all seems hopeless, but her disappearance is quickly noticed and soon the whole country is looking for her, in particular the stubborn Superintendent William Kenward in charge of the case, and Una Crowe, an intrepid would-be journalist who is determined to prove that Christie is still alive.

It took a bit of time to get into, and was unusual but spine-tingling to see my heroine as the central figure in a mystery book. Wilson portrays her with love as a gentle, damaged woman, who is struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, still in denial and hoping he’ll come back to her. You have to feel sorry for her as she is taken away from her life by the nefarious Dr Kurs, but you understand why she does it – she can’t risk any harm coming to her daughter, Rosalind. Wilson, to his credit, seems fairly run-of-the-mill in his style, before coming into his own with twists worthy of a novel by Christie herself.

His attention to detail is phenomenal. At first I thought it might be an opportunity to get in every fact we knew about Christie – the fact she could surf and roller skate, her favourite drink, the name of her publisher – but it soon becomes clear that it all goes far deeper than that. The events of her first night at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel are documented as really happening. She did receive a package while at the hotel, although what it contained remains a mystery in reality. Even Una Crowe, the amateur journalist, was a real person, but to the best of our knowledge, she didn’t know Christie and was never a reporter. Wilson has weaved magic here to answer more than just what happened to Christie, and it’s absolutely genius.

The book purports to answer several questions that have remained unanswered for nearly one hundred years. Why did she introduce her husband as her brother? Why is there no mention of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in her notebooks? Who killed Una Crowe? Why did Christie choose the name of her husband’s lover as her pseudonym?

Of course, I’m still going to favour the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” as the truth regarding Christie’s disappearance, but this is still a fun, engaging and really enjoyable read, and it’s not over yet – there’s a sequel on the way, although I’d be curious to see how they fit any other changes into her life. Then again, the rest of her life did take her all over the world…

“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Broken Homes” by Ben Aaronovitch (2013)

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“At twenty-three minutes pat eleven Robert Weil drove his 53 registered Volvo V70 across the bridge that links Pease Pottage, the improbably named English village, with Pease Pottage, the motorway service station.”

I’m back in the midst of a series again, so if you’re fussy about things like an ongoing narrative or spoilers, I’d advise you first work through Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground before disembarking here. In the fourth installment of this series, we’re back with Peter Grant, London policeman and amateur wizard, and his unusual caseload.

The novel opens in Sussex, near Crawley, when a car crash brings to light a man who may be a murderer. When there’s a suggestion of something unusual going on, Nightingale, Peter and Lesley descend to look for hints of magic. However, soon London calls them home when a town planner is reported to have jumped in front of a tube train, and there’s the news that an old German spell book has turned up in the wrong hands.

Events bring to light a strange housing estate near Elephant & Castle, designed by a bonkers German architect, and focused primarily on the Skygarden, a tower block with bizarre dimensions and larger-than-necessary balconies. Sensing that this is where the answers are, Peter and Lesley move in and begin to explore. But things quickly go sour when the estate’s resident dryad is killed, and the gods of the river begin to seek revenge. With a Russian witch on the run, and suggestions that the Faceless Man isn’t too far away, Peter and Lesley must work out what’s so important about the Skygarden before it’s too late.

Four books in and the world is pretty established by now. London is full of magic, ghosts, gods, fairies and a whole manner of other supernatural beings. Peter is becoming increasingly skilled at wielding his magic, but a lot of it takes place off the page, so we don’t get to see everything that he’s developing. Perhaps this is for the best, as the study of magic seems to mostly involve reading a lot of dusty old textbooks and since most of Peter’s spells still end in something catching fire, I guess there’s only so many times you can see that. We finally learn a little more about Nightingale who lets slip some information about his family for the first time, and Zach, the half-fairy from Whispers Underground is back, and far more sympathetic this time around. He’s a complicated character, simultaneously a help and a hindrance.

A friend who had read this one before me warned me that there is a moment towards the end that made her gasp openly, meaning I read the whole thing with a sense of trepidation, wondering what surprise was about to be sprung on me. Her wording was so vague though, that I couldn’t think where it had come from. I’ll leave you with the same wording, too, because you won’t see it coming until it’s too late.

The reintroduction of Beverly Brook, one of the river goddesses and former fling of Peter Grant, jarred with me a little. I remember her being important in the first book, but it’s been so long since I read that one, and we’ve seen nothing of her for the last two books, that her impact is dulled for me. Nonetheless, the river gods remain quite entertaining characters, if confusing. I like the introduction of the dryad, and hope we get to know more about this species in later books. Their life cycle seems to mimic their trees, acting childish in the spring, taking evening classes come autumn, and hibernating in the winter.

Aaronovitch has a really relaxed and fun style of writing and he’s heavy on the understatement. There’s barely a page goes by without some incident of litotes, although my favourite has to be, “In 1666, following an unfortunate workplace accident, the City of London burnt down.” The following description of how London was rebuilt against the wishes of Christopher Wren and his buddies is also brilliant.

A nice continuation of the series, although I was desperately sad to realise that many of the buildings in this novel are fictional, when most of what had come before seemed so realistic. Nonetheless, it’s handled well and with great fun. Expect the fifth installment along soon.

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