“Uncorking A Lie” by Nadine Nettmann (2017)

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“When bottles of wine are sold for large amounts of money, they end up in the news.”

A couple of years back I tried a novel about a sommelier who solves a murder at a vineyard thanks to her extensive knowledge of wines. I decided then it seemed a bit ridiculous, but I’ve drunk a lot more wine since then and the reduction in brain cells causes me to make many bad choices. So here we are again, reading the sequel, and while I’ve built that up to sound like I’m going to hate it, I don’t.

Katie Stillwell works as a sommelier at Trentino, a fashionable restaurant in Napa Valley and lives, works and breathes wine. There seems nothing that she doesn’t know about it, and she’s now in training for her Master Sommelier exams. One of her regular customers is Paul Rafferty, a wealthy lawyer who is throwing a party at his mansion to celebrate his purchase of a $19,000 bottle of wine and invites Katie along to the tasting. The fellow party guests might not care for Katie much, but they all adore wine. When the bottle is opened and at last tasted, however, only Katie realises that something is wrong. The wine is counterfeit and not at all what the label says it should be. Before she can get to the bottom of it however, Paul’s assistant is found dead in the cellar.

Convinced that someone at the party knows more than they’re letting on, Katie confesses all to Paul and he hires her to get to the bottom of how he came to possess fake wine. Katie finds herself thrown into the murky waters of counterfeit wine and before she knows it, she’s in danger herself. She’s got to use all her skills to solve the crime, but who can she trust, and who else will end up dead?

My primary issue with the book is the same as last time. While the plot itself is quite fun and I enjoy the concept of a detective sommelier (no matter how contrived things have to become for her to get a particular clue), it is the actual writing that lets the book down. I feel it just needed another couple of rounds with an editor to tidy it up and give it a polish. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and there is strange expostion that does nothing to further the story and doesn’t need to be there. One particularly stuck out for me when it’s mentioned what sandwich Katie buys and then specifies that they likes all the ingredients in it, like we couldn’t assume that entirely pointless detail without it being said.

Katie herself is also something of a Mary Sue, apparently never being wrong about wine. I’ve got friends in both the wine and whisky industries, so I know that expert tasters exist and I know enough myself to be able to tell major grapes apart, but narrowing down a specific year or vineyard is not an everyday ability. Granted, Katie has had years of training, but it still comes off a bit too convenient sometimes. The other characters, however, are interesting and obviously have more depth to them that we aren’t always allowed to see, and the plot itself is great. I’ve read books about counterfeit art and wills before, but wine is an unusual one, and there is indeed a burgeoning criminal industry of it.

It might not be an expensive Riesling of a book, but it’s still a pretty decent house white. Uncomplicated and unusual with a sickly sweet finish.

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 Man In The Brown Suit” by Agatha Christie (1924)

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“Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again.”

It’s hard to know how to keep prefacing the Christie novels, other than to say it’s another cracker, so we’ll just press on. Today, I’m discussing Christie’s fourth novel, and first to contain none of her most famous detectives, The Man in the Brown Suit.

After the sudden death of her absent-minded but brilliant father, Anne Beddingfield heads to London to seek adventure and thrills. While standing on the tube platform at Hyde Park Corner, she witnesses a man fall onto the tracks. He’s pulled back up and a doctor appears, confirms the man is dead, and then leaves. Convinced that that was no doctor, Anne gives chase. He manages to get away from her, but drops a scrap of paper that reads: 1 71 22 Kilmorden Castle. Hours later, a woman is found dead in an empty London house. These things seem unconnected, but it turns out the first victim had in his coat an order to view the property. The only lead the police have right now is a mysterious man in a brown suit.

Desperate to work out what happened, Anne approaches a journalist with her findings, but he is sceptical of her abilities. Nevertheless, Anne soon discovers that Kilmorden Castle is a cruise ship heading to South Africa the next day. Buying a ticket, she finds herself among a number of suspicious characters and finds that she is unable to trust anyone. There’s Colonel Race, who may or may not be in the Secret Service; Suzanne Blair, a wealthy independent woman; Eustace Pedlar, millionaire owner of the house where the dead woman was found; and his two mysterious secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. When Anne’s life is threatened, she becomes convinced that “the man in the brown suit” is one of her companions, and she quickly learns that adventures aren’t so fun as they seem in books when they’re happening to you for real…

I think I’ve said before that Christie is never held up as a feminist icon, but I think this is a mistake. Here she gives us one of those spunky young girls that the twenties were terribly keen on. Anne is cut from the same cloth as Tuppence, but is shown again and again to be sharp, smart, wickedly cunning and more than capable of holding her own. She exhibits fear, but she isn’t going to wait around for a man to save her. One of my favourite moments is when she approaches the police who dismiss her as being a young woman who doesn’t know anything useful, and manages to use her scientific background to entirely flummox them and show that they are not her superiors in every way.

Although none of the major detectives turn up here, we do meet Colonel Race, who will appear in later Christie novels as a friend of Hercule Poirot. In his first outing, we get to learn more about his emotional life than we ever do later, plus this also sets up his position and background when he turns up later. The other characters are good fun, and as ever Christie intelligently lays down all the red herrings and we gleefully pick them up and run with them, only to realise too late that we’ve been going in the wrong direction. It isn’t one of my absolute favourites – the solution is just a touch too convoluted for me, and one character manages to have five or six distinct aliases over the course of the book – but it shows her chops as a thriller writer, an aspect of her work which is often overlooked.

Still one for the completists, with a few good jokes, funny observations and a good sense of peril.

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 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!

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