“Colour Scheme” by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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rook“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Over the years I’ve encountered so many books that I wish I’d written, but known that I’d never be able to do them as well as they were done. Rowling and Fforde have both done wonders with their works, but there are numerous other titles too. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, for one – I had a very similar idea about a week before I found the book. And Superpowers by David J Schwartz: I considered something very similar for about a month before finding it. But then there are books that I didn’t know I wanted to have written until after I’d read them. This brings us to The Rook – a book oddly written by an Australian, first published in the USA, but set very definitely in Britain.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park, surrounded by gloved corpses and with absolutely no memory of how she got there. A letter in her pocket informs her of whose body she is inhabiting and she makes her way to a hotel to sleep and hopefully recover some memories. When none come, she finds another letter and is asked to make a choice. She can either run away and start a new life that the Myfanwy Thomas writing her letters has arranged for her, or she can choose to continue impersonating Myfanwy. Although originally going for the first option, when the time comes she finds it impossible to resist the second. Thus, her life becomes something rather strange indeed.

It turns out that Myfanwy Thomas is an operative in the Checquy, a top secret agency that deals with the supernatural, bizarre and downright weird. Everyone working for it has a superpower of some kind – Myfanwy can manipulate people’s nervous systems – and the positions of high office are named for chess pieces. Myfanwy is a Rook. She finds herself thrown into a world where the magical seems mundane, and she has to try and convince everyone that she is the real deal, which proves harder than one would imagine when she doesn’t know a thing about her predecessor.

Before look, Myfanwy and the reader are catapulted into a series of adventures involving a centuries old group of dangerous Belgian scientists who have given a whole new meaning to “biological warfare”, dragons, vampires, secret schools for the superpowered, a prophetic duck, and piles and piles of paperwork. On top of this, she must try and work out who it was that came before her and what happened. No small task when you can’t even remember your own address.

It’s hard to try and explain this book any further without ruining the surprises along the way. It’s mad, it’s intelligent, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s creative to all extremes. It seems nonsense, but it works, and everything hangs together neatly. The Rook plays with your expectations. The heroine is not a gung-ho adventure type, but a quiet, shy, efficient bureaucrat. What you think you see coming as the final showdown happens two hundred pages before the end, opening much more speculation about what the hell could come next. The exposition is neatly handled in a genuinely realistic way. The magic and powers on show are highly unusual and wonderfully creative. And best of all, there’s barely a hint of a romantic subplot, without having to resort to turning Myfanwy into a man-hater or indeed give any excuse for why she does or doesn’t seek a husband at every waking moment.

It’s peppered with wonderful, interesting characters, not least Myfanwy who is incredibly likeable, and everyone with a name is given some characterisation, often rather a lot. I’m particularly fond of Ingrid, Myfanwy’s super efficient personal assistant, and Gestalt, a mind with four bodies. The idea of having the original owner of Myfanwy’s body leave her a lot of notes behind to help her means that the exposition comes with humour and seems natural, rather than having to have the other characters explain things over and over again. Somewhat wonky in its chronology, jumping between narrators – primarily the two owners of the heroine’s body – it manages to grip you and keep you interested for nearly five hundred pages.

The book’s cover states “Welcome to MI5 … for wizards” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a science fiction fantasy mystery comic novel about a fully-realised, brilliantly constructed universe in which magic is kept hidden from the general population. O’Malley has given real thought to the history of this organisation, and the jokes come thick and fast, interspersed with some really quite horrific scenes.

I’ve gone a bit overboard on the adverbs today, but it feels necessary. This book is a gem of the genre – whatever genre that might be – and is sure to delight anyone who likes a bit of magic and mystery in their lives.

“From Russia With Love” by Ian Fleming (1957)

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frwlbook

“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.”

My love of Agatha Christie is now well-documented on this blog, but we mustn’t forget that her detectives are not the only ones ever worth mentioning. One of my friends is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, which I still don’t really understand, and another, the librarian, is James Bond’s number one fan. Between us, we cover the three biggest detectives and spies of the last century and have started dabbling in one another’s areas.

Despite her love of Bond, however, this book actually came from my publisher who produced it from his bag as if by magic after a night out. The version I have is something pretty special. It’s from 1963, smells stunning, has a wonderfully outdated price on the front (2′ 6), and on the first page there is mention of how Eon Films are turning this title into the second James Bond film, starring Sean Connery. How times change.

I’ve seen a smattering of the Bond films – I got quite into them when Pierce Brosnan was in the role, my knowledge is otherwise somewhat limited – and always had an interest in the gadgets and gizmos he’s given to play with by Q, but I had never read any of the books, so this was my first foray into the literary world of James Bond. Many of you have probably already seen this film, but for those who haven’t, here is briefly what this story is about.

Somewhere deep within Russia’s Secret Service, SMERSH, in the mid-fifties, a plan is being drawn up. They feel that some of their enemies have become too complacent and they decide that an act of terrorism should shake people into action. They begin to decide which country they will attack, and then pinpoint an individual spy to defame and destroy. There is much discussion, but they soon decide that the British are a worthy enemy. Who will they attack? Well, it turns out there’s this fellow called James Bond…

Bond, meanwhile, is called into M’s office and told that somewhere within the folds of the Russian Secret Service is a young woman who has fallen in love with Bond through the photographs and reports she’s been looking through. If Bond can convince her that he loves her too and grant her safe passage to England, she will in turn bring a cipher machine that will greatly aid in codebreaking.

The suspicions that I’ve long held about Bond through the films and general cultural osmosis were proven to be mostly right within this book – he’s not a particularly nice man. Much is made of his “cruel smile”, and while perhaps he’s not quite as ruthless here as he can be in other stories, I still don’t think I’d want to meet the man. In fact, most of the characters are unpleasant, obviously because most of the focus goes on the antagonists. In fact, Bond doesn’t even turn up for the first third of the book; instead, Fleming deals with the background and the Russians’ plot. He paints vivid pictures of sadistic, torture-loving lesbian Rosa Klebb and psychopathic murderer Red Grant. In fact, Kerim Bey, the head of British Intelligence in Turkey, is just about the only person you’d want to join for dinner, providing you didn’t have to drink the raki. (Bond drinks a hell of a lot of raki in this novel and, take it from me, it’s not a drink that’s easy to stomach.)

It feels oddly dense for such a short book, and lacks the dynamic action feel of the films, but that’s only to be expected, I think. It’s hard not to think of the films when reading the book, and perhaps that is why it feels tainted. However, that sounds negative but I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s smart and has some curiously beautiful sentences and witty one-liners within, and ends on a surprising cliffhanger when all the action begins to accelerate but there aren’t enough pages for everything to happen. Fleming takes his time to describe people and places with intimate detail, allowing for almost complete immersion into the world.

I would return to Bond again, quite happily, but not just yet. Fleming is good, but Christie still wins out, so as a congratulatory present to myself for trying a new author, I’m going back to her for my next book.

If you want to read more of my words, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from Amazon or iTunes, wherever you are in the world!

“N Or M?” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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n or m“Tommy Beresford removed his overcoat in the hall of the flat.”

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are unique in the Christie canon as they are the only protagonists she has that age in time with the real world. When we first met them, they were in their twenties and simply old friends. They turned up again a little later, now married. As it is, the world has now changed greatly, and so have our heroes. It’s 1940, war is upon us, and with two grown up children and middle age descending unwelcomingly over their lives, the pair are once again bored. The war effort doesn’t want them, and they need something to do.

And then a Mr Grant turns up and offers Tommy a job in Scotland, involving some top secret paperwork. Once Tuppence leaves, however, Grant changes this offer – Tommy is to go undercover in the search of Fifth Columnists on the south coast. Ashamed of having to hide the truth from Tuppence, he nonetheless heads off to the hotel Sans Souci to do his sleuthing. Upon arrival, he meets the various residents which include the ditzy young mother Mrs Sprot, fearsome Irishwoman Mrs O’Roarke, German refugee Carl von Deinim, blustering old soldier Major Bletchley and Tuppence Beresford.

As it turns out, little gets past her – she heard of the plans and beat Tommy down here to join in the search. Now under their guises of Mr Meadows and Mrs Blenkensop, they must investigate all the staff and residents of the Sans Souci, any of whom could be taking secrets from the British and sharing them with the Nazis. And after Tuppence overhears a phone call in the hotel, they soon find that they may be very quickly running out of time. They must find out the true identities of the mysterious N and M.

The five Tommy and Tuppence novels are different to the Christie fare, as I’ve said before and all other readers have noted. The focus is less on the whodunnit, and more on having adventures. These are spy novels; thrillers rather than the cosy crime we expect of Marple and Poirot. This doesn’t make them any less interesting, however. There is still a mystery element, but the action is fast-paced and the tropes of adventure are present.

Tommy remains solid and stalwart, but it is Tuppence who I prefer of the two. A heroine in her forties – a rare thing indeed, the only other one I could name right now is Thursday Next – but refusing to accept that women are weaker than men. In fact, the novel is packed with strong female characters. Tuppence doesn’t falter when the call comes, indeed, doesn’t even get the call but answers anyway. She is a wonderful creation.

The story has a few odd contrivances, such as a perfectly placed bar of soap, and a bizarre moment when someone communicates in Morse code via snoring. Still, you go with it, and you want the heroes to thrive. Like many Christie books (sadly), there is a touch of racism about the thing, but in this case it is fairly justified, the characters being English people during World War Two, who are naturally unfriendly towards the Germans. This makes Carl von Deinim the prime suspect, but surely that’s too easy, isn’t it? However, the book makes an acceptance that while the Nazis are deplorable, it is not all the German people. Tuppence feels pity for those German mothers who have lost their sons at war. Still, there’s a number of comments along the lines of describing people as having Prussian faces and distinctly un-British jawlines.

This is a great, fun book which plays with your expectations and keeps you hooked until the surprising conclusion. The Beresfords return again in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which will undoubtedly be on this blog before too long as well.