“Curtain” by Agatha Christie (1975)

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The end of an era…

“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience, or feeling an old emotion?”

The exact date I first picked up an Agatha Christie novel is lost to me now; it was before I had started recording everything I read. 2009, most likely, as I was just finishing university and it was a lecture there that had inspired me to finally pick up one of her novels. It was Death in the Clouds, and I was hooked from the very first moment.

The world has changed since then, but my admiration and love for Christie and her work has only grown. I’m feeling very sentimental today because with this review, I have reached an end – having finished Curtain, I have now read all of her mysteries. Curtain is particularly notable. She wrote it during the Second World War, to be published in case she was killed during the war. She survived, but the book stayed locked in a safe until the 1970s. It was finally revealed to the world and told everyone how the story of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings ended. She died a year later.

In this novel, the setting is a familiar one to her fans. It is set in the country house of Styles, which was the key location in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is now a boarding house. Hastings has been summoned to visit his dearest friend, Poirot. The famous Belgian, however, is not in a good way. Confined to a wheelchair, crippled with arthritis, and prone to heart problems, he is nearing the end of his life. Poirot, however, notes that all his little grey cells are still in tact, and has one final mission – he is at Styles to prevent another murder, as one of the other guests seems to be something of a serial killer. Hastings is employed as the detective’s eyes and ears, to study the residents and work out not only who the killer is, but who is going to be the next victim.

It’s a mixed bunch, as is usual for a Christie novel, including the Luttrells, the old couple who now run Styles and are usually bickering; the quiet birdwatcher Stephen Norton; researcher Dr Franklin and his hypochondriac wife; Hastings’ own daughter, the headstrong Judith; and Mrs Franklin’s nurse, the no-nonsense Nurse Craven. Poirot claims to know who the killer will be, but decides it is safer if Hastings isn’t told. The two must try and prevent another murder from happening, but an accident changes everything, and now they’re all definitely running out of time…

The plot is all we’ve come to expect from the Queen of Crime, but even more so. It has apparently been a long time since Hastings and Poirot have seen one another, and indeed, the readers hadn’t seen Hastings for quite some time now. It is wonderful to have him back, as he is easily one of the most charming and well-bred men in fiction, and such a sweet modest fellow compared to the arrogance of Poirot. The characters are all finely realised and it’s tragic to see Poirot in the state he’s in. The solution is inspired – I was wrong, as ever – and provides an utterly incredible end to the series. Given that the books Christie wrote towards the end of her life were, it’s fair to say, not her finest, it’s a thrill to get a snatch again here for her at the height of her powers. There will never be another like her.

It’s not really the end, of course. I’ve not read her romance novels, or her poems. There are still plays to see, adaptations to get hold of, and her autobiography still sits on my shelf awaiting consumption. But the mystery novels are at the core of who Christie was and the work she did. I’ve finished now, and I know for a fact that this isn’t the end – I’m coming back. They’re not all recorded on the blog for a start! You can only do these things for the first time once, though, and this has been an incredible journey.

So, as I say my goodbyes to the worlds that Agatha Christie created, I raise a glass to Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite; to Mr Parker Pyne; to Ariadne Oliver; to Miss Lemon, George, and Inspector Japp; to Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race; to Tommy, and to Tuppence; to Captain Hastings; to Miss Marple; to Hercule Poirot; and, of course, to Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie herself. This has been the adventure of a lifetime, and to quote Poirot himself: “They were good days. Yes, they have been good days…

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. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

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“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

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“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

“Sad Cypress” by Agatha Christie (1940)

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sad-cypress“Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You stand charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?”

If there’s one enduring certainty left in this world, it’s that books will always be there to rescue us, to teach us, and to help us. As the news of this week sunk in and seemed to become worse with every passing moment, I moved from Jasper Fforde to Agatha Christie, feeling safe among the words of writers I admire and know I can trust.

The book opens in court, with Elinor Carlisle being accused of murder of the young Mary Gerrard. The evidence all seems to point at her guilt, but the defence counsel isn’t so sure, and neither is Hercule Poirot. The story leaps back to show us how to got to here. Elinor and her fiancé Roddy Welman receive an anonymous letter from, apparently, a concerned well-wisher who tells them that their Aunt Laura (biological aunt to Elinor, aunt by marriage to Roddy) is not long for this world and that the young woman who lives at the lodge on the grounds of the house, Mary, is sucking up to the old woman presumably hoping to be left money in her will.

Upon arriving, Roddy finds himself immediately smitten with Mary, and when Aunt Laura has a second stroke, her death soon follows, much sooner than either Doctor Lord or Nurses Hopkins and O’Brien had thought. But it soon turns out that Laura Welman had never written a will, and so the money all falls directly to Elinor. Unable to marry her now, in case people think he’s only doing it for the money, Roddy ends the engagement and sets off for Europe to decide if he really does love Elinor, or if it’s now Mary he adores. Elsewhere, Nurse Hopkins discovers that some morphine has gone missing from her bag, but she convinces herself that she left it at home by mistake. It’s only when Mary Gerrard is found dead, and morphine poisoning is stated as the cause, that suspicion falls on Elinor, the only person who seems to have had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the act.

Now everyone has questions. Why did Elinor give Mary money before killing her? What made Mary so eager to write a will of her own? Where has the morphine gone? And what significance does a rose bush have to the solving of the crime? Poirot has his work cut out for him again, but with his little grey cells, he’s certain that he’s on the right track.

A little more emotionally pliable than some of her works, in Sad Cypress Christie plays with the notion of the love triangle again, and lays out the red herrings and genuine clues so beautifully that you can’t help but slap your forehead at the end and realise exactly what’s going on. And if you happen to be a horticulturist, you may be able to get it sooner even than that. It’s all there, and it’s all so obvious once you’re told the solution, but nonetheless it’s a good, fun tale.

It’s divided into three parts, which roughly coincide with the murders and everyone’s reactions to and around them, Poirot’s investigations, and then the court case. The latter section deals with the witnesses for the prosecution and the defence. Elinor seems very definitely in the frame – and things are complicated further when Laura is exhumed and they find she too shows signs of morphine poisoning – but Poirot and the very capable lawyer Sir Edwin Bulmer are on hand to make sure justice is fair.

The cast is small, but it’s a big mystery, and a very smart one too. Just remember that everyone lies, and their lies often reveal truths they didn’t intend.

“Murder In The Museum” by John Rowland (1938)

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murder-in-the-museum“Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him.”

The British Library is responsible for many great things, but lately I am simply grateful for their Crime Classics series. I’ve read five of these beauties now, so regular readers of my blog will probably have seen me gush about them before. In short, however, they are republishing crime novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that, for whatever reason, have not survived to be worshipped into our age. In fact, the book being discussed today, Murder in the Museum, hasn’t been republished since it was released in the late 1930s. And it was completely overdue.

It’s 1937, and in the Reading Room at the British Museum, visitor Henry Fairhurst takes an interest in a man who isn’t looking too well. By the time Henry is at the side of Professor Julius Arnell, the academic is dead, apparently having died quite suddenly of natural causes. However, the police are called and soon discover that things are not that simple. Arnell was killed after eating a sugared almond – his favourite treat – that had been laced with poison.

When two more academics in the same field as Arnell also die in suspicious circumstances around the museum, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard is called upon to try and make sense of the situation. Accompanied by the efficient Sergeant Cunningham, and eager Henry Fairhurst, who has decided that he’s an amateur detective and can solve the murder, Shelley must now work out who the killer is, whether Arnell’s daughter or nephew, both of whom stand to inherit from the old man’s death, are involved, and just what a certain young Harry Baker was doing at the museum on the occasion of yet another murder…

Quite why this book disappeared from circulation so quickly is beyond me. It’s short and snappy, although breaks a few of “the rules” of detective fiction at the time. However, I can’t complain too much – Agatha Christie broke pretty much all of them – and it leads to more suspense and confusion that keeps the tale going. It’s also pretty funny, with the relationship between the policemen Cunningham and Shelley being well constructed and honest, and everyone’s frustration with Henry Fairhurst who seems to think that because he was on the scene at the time, he should be involved in the police’s work. To have him unknowingly share more information than he knows he has feels like a laboured coincidence, but also you just go with it for fun.

There’s one great surprise about two thirds of the way through, which really does make you sit up and take notice, but otherwise it’s a pretty easy-going read and one for anyone who loves detective fiction, especially from the era when it was at its best. Great characters, fun plot, and generally an entertaining fast read that’ll put you off sugared almonds forever.

“Three Act Tragedy” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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Three-Act-Tragedy“Mr Satterthwaite sat on the terrace of ‘Crow’s Nest’ and watched his host, Sir Charles Cartwright, climbing up the path from the sea.”

It’s been a really terrible week, what with one thing and another. As we stagger blindly towards our new home inside an out-and-out dystopian novel, it’s a comfort to take sanctuary inside a comfortable novel. I’ve made my way back to Agatha Christie where, while the situations recounted might not be terribly pleasant, at least they’re well-written and the guilty party will get what’s coming to them.

Our story begins at a party hosted by noted actor Charles Cartwright, a man who never seems to be himself and enjoys playing a part whenever he can, much to the amusement of his friend Mr Satterthwaite. The usual suspects gather at the party – friendly vicar Mr Babbington and his wife, actress Angela Sutcliffe, playwright Muriel Wills, feisty young heroine Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, notable nerve specialist Dr Bartholomew Strange, snide young upstart Oliver Manders, and a few more besides. Most familiar of all though, is the world-renowned detective, Hercule Poirot.

Before the night has even really begun, Mr Babbington sips his cocktail and keels over. He is dead, and it’s written off as an unfortunate accident. But a few weeks later, at a party with a very similar guest list, Dr Strange dies in an oddly similar manner. When it turns out that Strange was killed by nicotine poisoning, Satterthwaite, Cartwright and Egg become convinced that both deaths are connected, but who on earth would want to kill off an innocent parson and a kindly doctor? Enlisting the help of Poirot, the group begin to study what could possibly have happened and how.

Christie fans will note that Mr Satterthwaite is not new to the canon, and has in fact appeared once before, in the more supernatural tales of The Mysterious Mr Quin. He’s back here now, though, and seems to have past experiences with Poirot. Satterthwaite is an expert in people, and is very observant, always thinking he knows best about people from studying their behaviour. This comes in useful, but his mind is that, as Poirot says, of a playgoer, distracted by drama and too busy looking at the actors rather than noting the scenery. Poirot, however, declares his mind is not the same and he can see things more prosaically.

I wasn’t as captivated by this story as many of Christie’s others, but I put that down to my mood this week rather than the storytelling. It’s a good one, with the usual twist that we always love, and I consider this half a win, as I’d worked out details of the solution, but not the whole thing. She artfully weaves a narrative where, not only anyone could do it, but absolutely anyone could never make it out the book alive. As usual, all the clues are there, but it takes more skill than I have to put them in the right order and solve the entire puzzle.

“Five Little Pigs” by Agatha Christie (1943)

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five little pigs“Hercule Poirot looked with interest and appreciation at the young woman who was being ushered into the room.”

As I’m writing this today, 21st October 2015, people all over the world with a tenuous grip on reality (myself included) are acknowledging that today is Back To The Future Day, the day in which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second film of the trilogy which, at the time, was a futuristic and impossible-to-imagine-would-ever-arrive day thirty years in the future. As of today, the whole trilogy now takes place in the past. And I for one am dreading how long we can cope without someone suggesting a rehash of it set in this year and moving into 2045. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Although there is little connection between Poirot and Marty, I mention this anyway because the idea of going back in time is very relevant to this novel. Read on, and I shall explain why.

The novel opens with Poirot being approached by a new client, the invigorating and exciting Carla Lemarchant. She is seeking an explanation for what happened to her parents, Amyas and Caroline Crale. Caroline died in prison having been accused and convicted of poisoning Amyas, her supposedly beloved husband, but Carla has a letter from her mother, written before she died, in which she claims she was innocent. Carla wants Poirot to hunt down who the guilty party actually was. The “five little pigs” in the firing line are, Amyas’s best friend Philip Blake, the stockbroker; his weedy herbalist brother Meredith; three-time divorcee Elsa Greer who was courting Amyas’s affections before he died; the stern governess Cecilia Williams; or young Angela Warren, Caroline’s disfigured younger sister.

So far, so Christie. But there’s a small fly in the ointment that means Poirot has got his work cut out for him in a way he’s never yet experienced: the murder took place sixteen years ago.

The book is divided into neat, symmetrical chapters and three separate books. In the first, Poirot visits the five suspects in turn and asks them, in various ways, to write down their memories of the day in question. In the second, we read the five accounts of the events, and in the third, as is again typical of Christie, Poirot gathers everyone together and reveals the truth.

I can’t count this one as one of the Christie novels that I got right, because I saw the play a couple of years ago and knew the solution. Mind, in the play, there’s no Poirot, and it wasn’t completely unlike Christie to change the endings of her books when she adapted them for the stage, so there was a point at which I wondered if she’d done the same here again.

It isn’t my favourite of her books – it’s very uniform in it’s style – but it’s a fascinating concept and shows Poirot at his best, using psychology to solve the crime again, rather than looking for clues. Indeed, in this case he can’t search for fingerprints or cigar ash; he has to rely entirely on people’s memories. And as he is well aware, what people choose to remember and forget can be very telling.

Sometimes things you thought were dead and buried are just biding their time…

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