“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith (2018)

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“If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.”

A national lock down seems like the right time to get through some of the larger hardbacks on my shelf while I haven’t got to be carrying them around. As such, we come at last to the fourth part of the Strike series, Lethal White. It turned out that aside from the last couple of pages and one or two smaller plot points, I had all but entirely forgotten everything that had happened in Career of Evil. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know that much, as very quickly we’re plunged into a brand new case which leaves you almost unable to put the book down. There are also some spoilers ahead for the previous books, so that’s your final warning.

Robin and Matthew have just tied the knot, but within minutes of the vows being said it seems that that knot is strained. When Robin realises that Matthew deleted some messages from Strike from her phone, she loses a great deal of trust and respect for him, but for the sake of their families, they go ahead with the honeymoon. A year later, their marriage isn’t in much a better position, but there are other things to worry about now. Following the high media attention that Strike and Robin received after finding the Shacklewell Ripper, Strike has fewer money worries and can hire some more detectives, but is less able to be covert himself. A problem falls in in his lap, however, when Billy, a mentally disturbed young man, bursts into his office and tells him he once witnessed a murder. Before Strike can find out anymore, Billy bolts in a panic.

Thus the case begins. Using what scant knowledge he has, Strike finds himself going from the very poorest corners of London to the highest echelons, where Jasper Chiswell, the Minister for Culture, has asked him to step in and find out something about Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport, who is blackmailing Chiswell. Robin goes undercover in the Houses of Parliament and begins to get to know the Chiswell family and the people around it. Strike meanwhile is keeping tabs on Billy’s brother Jimmy, an anarchist who is currently protesting the damage done to London by the upcoming Olympic Games. When these two cases collide, it spells a fatal end for one of Strike’s clients. He and Robin now need to work out who is keeping secrets, because someone knows more than they’re letting on, and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it.

Rowling, despite her flaws, has always had a knack for characters and really has a good handle on how mysteries should work. It’s been said before, but several of the Potter books are basically just murder mysteries and it’s never been a surprise that she went into crime once she’d finished those. As with all the best mysteries too, it’s all there for you to solve, but I admit I didn’t quite see the ending coming. Rowling excels once more at keeping a complicated and twisted plot together and the book’s length seems almost justified. There’s a stark realism to the books that is thoroughly captivating. It’s also a prolonged study into the class system, showing the working classes being brushed aside and left to struggle, with the wealthy repeatedly showcase their belief that the world is there solely to bend to their will. Divisions are hugely prevalent, as are the themes of pairs and partnerships. Rowling is, really, quite a skilled writer, and becoming increasingly brilliant.

I remain disappointed by the inclusion of the romantic sub-plot, though. I’ve no problem with Robin or Strike being in relationships, as indeed they are, but the constant nods to the fact that they might be falling in love with each other are non-essential. The story works perfectly well without adding in the further tension to their relationship that it might be more than professional. The relationship, nonetheless, feels real and well-painted. As ever with Rowling, the characters are solid and real, each with depth and perfectly-fitting names. Strike is still one of the most interesting detectives of recent years, and Robin is aptly named as his competent sidekick who this time round gains a new strength that we had already seen coming to the forefront. She is determined and forceful and I adore spending time with her.

Another excellent addition to the series. I read this week that Rowling has plans for “at least ten more”. I’m not sure I have space on my bookshelf (or the upper arm strength) for them, but if the quality stays this good, I’ll do my best to try.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Death Of Mrs Westaway” by Ruth Ware (2018)

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“The magpies are back.”

I long for the day someone appears and hands me a big cheque informing me that I’ve won or inherited a lot of money and life will be a bit easier now. That kind of thing only happens in fiction though, and is the catalyst for the events of The Death of Mrs Westaway.

Harriet “Hal” Westaway is a young woman with a problem. Orphaned at eighteen and now three years on reading tarot cards on a Brighton pier and never quite knowing where the next rent money is coming from, she has had a very difficult and lonely life. She’s also now at risk of physical harm as she’s being stalked by a threatening loan shark who knows where she lives and isn’t afraid to mention the fact he’s broken bones before. Survival seems impossible, until she gets the letter. According to a lawyer in Penzance, her grandmother has died and left her a substantial estate.

There’s a slight problem though – Hal’s grandparents have been dead for decades. It’s clear that the letter has come to the wrong person, but Hal is desperate and with her years doing cold readings on people, she seems perfectly suited for conning her way into an inheritance she isn’t entitled to. The choice she makes will change everything, and before long she’s embroiled in a family that has more secrets than she ever thought possible. She just has to make sure no one finds out hers…

It’s a rollercoaster of a novel and just when you think you’ve got the hang of where it’s going, there’s another lurch to the side and you’re disoriented once again. The world is rich and haunting, the characters flawed but interesting and there’s a smoothness to the prose that means you find for every time you sit down to read one chapter you find you’ve read five instead. It’s moreish. It all feels very real too – with the exception of the fact that here Brighton’s West Pier still exists (a beautiful and touching inclusion) – and the honest, simple details that ground it in the real world make the paranoia and tension that build through the novel even more chilling. Throughout there are a lot of questions and we are left to make up our own mind, like Hal. And as any of us know, the mind is a dangerous thing and nothing will always be scarier than something.

I have a couple of questions left at the end regarding plot points that don’t get resolved and it’s one of those books that left me thinking, “But what happened next?” I don’t think Ware needs to do a sequel at all, but it would be interesting to know how everyone’s lives were changed after the events of this novel. A fascinating, tense read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Ink” by Alice Broadway (2017)

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“I was older than all my friends when I got my first tattoo.”

I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t think I’ll ever get one. I’ve nothing against them, and obviously I’ve no problem with other people having them, but I don’t think I could commit to having something to permanent on my skin. I’d want to change it after a while. If I had to, however, I know exactly what I would have. Ink takes place in a world where tattoos take on a whole new meaning.

Leora Flint lives in Saintstone, a town where everyone’s deeds are tattooed onto their skin. A dot on the hand for every year you’ve lived, your achievements on your right arm and your failures on the left, a family tree on your back showing where you’ve come from. There are no secrets in Saintstone, and everyone can read exactly who you are and what you’ve done with your life. Not long before graduating school and beginning her new career, Leora’s father dies and his skin is bound into a book so that future generations can read about him and have him never be forgotten.

Saintstone, however, has a new mayor, and he’s got some radical ideas, beginning with wanting everyone to register exactly what tattoos they have and what they mean, and bringing back the idea of marking criminals “forgotten”. Anyone tattooed with a crow will have their skin book burnt and it will be illegal to talk about them after they’ve gone. When Leora sees a man get marked with the crow for stealing someone else’s skin, it brings back a memory of her childhood that she’d blocked out. She remembers her father having that very same tattoo, hidden on his scalp under his hair. Leora realises that her father should be forgotten, and she’s determined to make sure his book comes home with her. As she delves into the family history, however, she soon discovers that the world is far more complicated than she imagined, and sometimes fairy tales are truer than the population believes.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had assumed that it was a world where tattoos made it impossible to have secrets because they appeared on your skin by magic, but nope, it’s a very mundane practice done by people called inkers. Every tattoo has a meaning, and the way this is all set out is very cool. Everyone has a family tree on their back, but if someone’s name has been replaced by a tattoo of a cuckoo, it means they’ve been forgotten. Fallen, dead leaves at the tree’s roots represent miscarriages or children who died in infancy. Every single symbol is layered with meaning, and while there are official marks, there is plenty of freedom for people to use the remaining space to decorate their bodies as they see fit. Everyone does, and it is considered weird and antisocial to keep your skin clear. The fear of the “blanks” – those people who choose not to tattoo themselves – are seen as untrustworthy with something to hide. It’s just an example of fantastic racism, but it works very well.

My main complaint is a lack of pacing in places. Occasionally weeks or months pass with little development in characterisation when there really feels like there should be some more exploration of people’s feelings, motives and interactions. Leora is also quite a flat character in places, having no personal tattoos but an innate ability to read and ink others like she was born to do it. The other characters are often more interesting, including Obel who trains her, Mel the town’s storyteller who has the people’s history inked on her skin, and even Leora’s parents.

It’s a thought-provoking book with some interesting concepts. I’m sure I’ll carry on with the series at some point.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins (2019)

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“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

If it wasn’t obvious, I love books. They hold such power and mystery, each one containing a new world that we’re free to explore if only we open the covers. Sometimes they are magical, other times dangerous. Sometimes they’re to entertain, or to teach. They have all sorts of purposes. Perhaps their most powerful ability is that they can store our thoughts, but what if that could be abused?

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory.

This is a world where binders are employed to take memories from people, things they would rather forget, and store them into beautiful, unique books for safekeeping. But binders are not always trusted and some people disagree with what they do. Seredith is no exception, and when an angry group arrives on her doorstep, she and Emmett manage to chase them away but to the detriment of her health. But Emmett has another problem. Beneath Seredith’s house sits all the books she has ever bound, stored away so that the people can forget. Down here, however, Emmett makes a shocking discovery: one of the books has his name on it.

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. Lucian Darnay, his rival, is basically his antithesis. He is born of privilege and never had to work a day in his life, but lives in the shadow of his abusive father. Seredith is a wonderful creation, something like Minerva McGonagall, and I enjoyed her. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

The concept of binding is, of course, at the heart of the novel. One can see how it would be tempting to be bound. You could forget failed love affairs and embarrassing moments in society, but surely the point is that we are all better people because we can remember our flaws? At first, the characters we see who are being bound are doing it for important reasons, just once a lifetime, to banish something they cannot live with from their brain. It’s an act of self-care, in some ways. As it progresses, however, we see how people use and abuse this ability, such as the vile Piers Darnay who rapes his maids and then periodically has them bound again so he can read their thoughts and take advantage again without them knowing it’s not the first time. There is also a horrible trade in books, with people prepared to sell others memories. A lighter note is made that some people are now making up fake memories, called “novels”, but the characters can’t comprehend of someone who would willingly make up a tragedy and spend so much time in that head space.

A surprisingly beautiful and moving novel about what we are willing to sacrifice for our happy endings.

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 Chalk Man” by C. J. Tudor (2018)

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“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Given the state of the world, fiction always serves as a grand, eternal escape, but one would imagine I’d be wanting to fall into something soft and funny that acts as a welcome distraction. As it is, I find myself inside the creepiest thriller I’ve read in a long time. Despite the subject matter, I can’t recommend it enough.

In 1986, Eddie was just twelve years old. He was pretty normal, spending time with his friends Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky in their average town. That was, until he saved Waltzer Girl’s life. This is perhaps the beginning of the story, although he can’t be entirely sure. It was certainly then that he met the albino teacher Mr Halloran. It would be later that he and his friends began drawing chalk men, and later still that the chalk men began appearing on their own. It was before the body was found, however. That was when it all came to an end.

In 2016, Ed, now a teacher himself and doing his best to hide from the past receives a letter in the post that threatens to bring everything back to the forefront of his mind. When Metal Mickey reappears in his life, too, things seem particularly nasty. Mickey wants to write a book about what happened back in 1986 and wants Ed’s help in filling in the gaps. Because it turns out that the police were wrong all those years ago. Mickey knows who really killed her, and now Ed sees that he’s got to dive back into the past and relive the worst years of his life in order to get the answers the world has been missing for thirty years…

It’s been a long time since I devoured a book so quickly. It is the very definition of gripping, and keeps you enticed until the very last page before it finally lets go of your lapels and throws you back into reality, confused and scared. The fact the narrative switches between the two time periods in roughly alternating chapters means we pick up the story in the wrong order, but references are often made to things that will happen in the future, or happened in the past that we’ve not seen yet. As such, the jigsaw begins to come together, but we must have lost the box with the picture on it, as it never seems to get any clearer. If anything, I found it much easier to work out what wasn’t going on than what was.

It’s the kind of story that, in the wrong hands, would be bland, boring and tiresomely predictable. As it is, Tudor manages to produce a masterful example of the genre, filled with exactly the right levels of unease, tension, bluff and pathos that is required. The characters are rich and interesting, and even when it feels like it’s leaning too heavily on coincidences and chance, she somehow gets away with it and there is an answer for everything. I’m wary to say too much about this book, as to speak too openly about it will remove much of the tension and might untangle some of the twists before you get to them. Most, you’ll never see coming.

I guess, really, the book is all about questions and answers, memory and secrets. It reminds us that in seeking out the truth, sometimes we find out things we’ve always wondered about, and other times we learn things that we simply wish we’d never uncovered. As Fat Gav says, conjuring up a vivid mental image, everyone has secrets and everyone has an arsehole, but some are just dirtier than others.

Beware the past – it is not the place it once was.

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!

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

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“My name is Kathy H.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was this month awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the news marked one of the very few times that I’ve agreed with the results of a major literary prize. I would have awarded it to him on the strength of this novel alone. Despite the huge fanfare that exists around The Remains of the Day, I’ve yet to have read it – the focus of this review and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I’ve read, but they’re heaven.

This is actually the third time I’ve read Never Let Me Go, but it had yet to feature on my blog and what with the need to be somewhere familiar and meaningful and the aforementioned award, I felt a reread was in order. I was wary about how many spoilers I would put in here, as I’m not sure how well integrated the story is to the cultural consciousness, but there are aspects I want to discuss that I can’t without giving away major plot points and so I say here now, there are spoilers below – stop reading now if you want to discover this book on your own.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H. She’s a young woman in England, reminiscing about her time at Hailsham, a prestigious school that houses some of her fondest memories. She is now trying to understand her childhood, with her friends including the bad-tempered by innocent Tommy, and the somewhat manipulative and tactless Ruth, and what it means for her adulthood. She now spends her days driving around the country, working as a carer, but it’s quite soon evident that Hailsham wasn’t quite what it seemed to be at first, and Kathy isn’t exactly ordinary.

This is an alternate England, where medical science clones humans and uses them for organ donation freely. Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and all their friends at Hailsham, and at various other schools around the country, are merely clones, and are taught that one day they will grow up and begin donations. As they grow up, their relationships strain, against maturity and the inevitability of their futures, and Kathy now just wants to try and make sense of what she’s been taught. And maybe she’s hopeful … maybe there’s another option. What if they could find their old teachers and ask for help?

The text is haunting in the way it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I first read this as a set text at university – one of the very few I enjoyed – and it hasn’t left me yet. There’s no big reveal as to what’s happening – information just drips in, mimicking the way the students seem to learn about it. This fits, too, given that Kathy is seemingly writing to a reader who is in the same position as her. You can’t help but feel sorry for them all, but the discovery of the truth is so gentle in its delivery that when it arrives, you’re also not terribly surprised and seem capable of taking it all in.

The characters themselves, the main ones at least, feel very rich, and while some people have questioned why they don’t try to run away from their circumstances, they fail to appreciate that psychologically their “purpose” is too deeply ingrained and besides, they have nowhere to run too. Because they can’t reproduce, sex isn’t a taboo among the students and is discussed freely, whereas topics of religion and philosophy are ignored or shied away from. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are all very deep and I enjoy them all. Ruth is catty and downright poisonous to Kathy and Tommy’s relationship, but she seems to be the one struggling most of all with their situation, lying to herself and to others. Kathy is perhaps the most passive, but also the most introspective, but part of that may just come from the fact she’s narrating, so we only really know what she’s thinking.

The biggest aspect of their time at school is that the main focus is on creativity. The best examples of their paintings, pottery and poems are then collected by the mysterious “Madame” for reasons they are unable to fathom at first. When the explanation comes, it will break your heart, as so many aspects of this book do. It’s easy to read, but it’s hardly the most uplifting novel. However, like I said, you get drawn in and if you emerge unchanged, then you might be beyond emotional rescue.

Little is explained about the wider world and exactly how and why this timeline veered off from our own. However, much of England is hinted at being somewhat dilapidated and underpopulated, and it’s explained later that the clones began to appear not long after “the war”, again assumed to be World War 2. But in a creepy England, where science and medical advances run on without much apparent worry surrounding ethics, it’s only later you begin to wonder – who won the war?

As a bibliophile of the highest order, I know I’m not really meant to have an answer when people ask me what my favourite book of all time is. It’s like asking a parent which of their children they love most. In all honesty, I don’t have a concrete answer, but Never Let Me Go sits, without question, somewhere in the top five. I can give little higher praise.

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.

“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.

“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

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