“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!

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“Night Of Camp David” by Fletcher Knebel (1965)

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“Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth.”

I’m not someone who wants to use his platform to discuss political opinion, but in reading a wide variety of novels, sometimes it’s inevitable. In this book, I found myself at the heart of the political system.

Senator Jim McVeagh gets the feeling that his political career is about to get a boost when, after a gala dinner, the President himself, Mark Hollenbach issues an invite for Jim to attend a private meeting at Camp David. When he arrives, Jim becomes uncomfortable when the President reveals that a joke he made during his speech earlier in the night about wiretapping was actually in earnest. It gets worse when he begins to display true paranoia and is convinced that “they” are out to get him.

Unsure what to do, Jim confides in his mistress, Rita, who shares her own story of instability from Hollenbach. Jim attempts to raise the subject with some others high up in Washington, but all that does it make people convinced that he’s the one with the mental illness, and he begins to spot the Secret Service are on his tail night and day. Suddenly, the life he saw as the future vice president is shattered as the President begins to share more of his secret plans, and Jim becomes convinced that the the most powerful man in the world has gone mad – but who is going to believe him?

First published in 1965, the book was at the time pure escapism. Knebel wrote many political thrillers, but this one appears to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years. In 2018, Vintage announced they were going to publish it again and it has definitely struck a nerve in today’s political climate. Proving to be remarkably prescient, the novel includes early mentions of there being no such thing as “true facts” because it implies the existence of “false facts”, which obviously can’t exist. And yet doesn’t that just resonate with the cries these days of “alternative facts” and “fake news”? There’s also a moment where the President plans a meeting with the Russian premier, and the main characters argue that the meeting cannot be allowed to go ahead. Again, timely.

Being of its time, the book is notable for its lack of female characters, with I think only four ever getting any speaking roles: Jim’s wife, his daughter, his mistress, and a secretary. This is not a political landscape where women are present, and probably not even welcome, and with a twenty-first century mindset, their absence is very obvious. Women are never even mentioned as political figures, with many conversations using “men” to describe everyone in the room or who may be of relevance at that moment.

If you’re a fan of The West Wing, then this is surely something that you’ll enjoy. As a Brit, my knowledge of the American political system is pretty shaky and I don’t necessarily understand all the titles and roles in play here, but the tension racks up well enough that I also don’t think it matters completely. The dialogue is occasionally quite dense, but not impenetrable, and it does deal with very real and important issues of mental illness, responsibility and power. While interesting and loaded with food for thought, maybe it is a little far fetched. I mean, can you really imagine a mentally unstable, paranoid halfwit being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

Exactly.

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!

“Fear Nothing” by Lisa Gardner (2014)

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“Rockabye, baby, on the treetop…”

The cosy crime novels of the early twentieth century are where I spend a lot of my time. There are some modern crime novels I love, including the easy and engaging works of Peter James and the supernatural-tinted Rivers of London series, but generally I prefer the bloodless criminal activities of the aristocracy in their large country estates. Although crime and thrillers are huge genres today, it’s a bloated arena, and not all are created equal.

In Fear Nothing, Boston homicide detective D.D. Warren has been injured after attending a crime scene alone in the hopes to find out more. The victim was found in bed, the sheets stained with blood and her skin entirely peeled from their body and left in a mound of thin strips on the floor. D.D. hears a noise as she explores and the next thing she knows, she’s at the bottom of the stairs having fired off her gun, with a severely damaged arm and no memory of how she fell or why she fired her gun.

Elsewhere, Dr Adeline Glen – a pain specialist and the daughter of infamous serial killer Harry Day – is having trouble with her sister, Shana Day, who has inherited their father’s bloodlust and fascinating with killing. Adeline has a rare condition that means she cannot feel pain, which leaves her vulnerable to many things, leading to a life of almost entire isolation. She meets D.D. after the detective is told to visit her to learn how to manage her pain. But then another body is found in the same condition, and the police realise that they’ve seen this kind of thing before, from a man who died forty years ago. It seems that Harry Day is back from the dead and killing again … or maybe someone else has decided to follow in his footsteps…

I confess that around 150 pages in I really started skim-reading. Although the book does open dramatically with the discovery of the first body, it then seems to take ages to get going. This is apparently the seventh book in the series featuring Detective D.D. Warren, but I’m not sure that even having started at the beginning would have served me any better. The characters are flat and usually defined by a single trait – D.D. is a cliched, no-nonsense female cop with pain problems; Adeline is a psychologist who can’t feel pain; Shana is a serial killer; Alex is D.D.’s husband – and never really feel like people you would ever genuinely meet.

Also, I’m definitely not someone who has a problem with gore – both of my books feature a fair amount of it – but here is just feels entirely unnecessary. Excessive detail is used which, in fairness, does make the actions leap off the page, but is this quite so welcome? It did lead to me having several horrible dreams last night that were certainly related to content of the book. It wasn’t just the gore that was overly detailed, however. At one point, D.D. takes two paragraphs to get her sweater off over her painful shoulder. Yes, this helps emphasise the agony she’s in, but it doesn’t half slow down the story. That’s really the problem here – it gets too wrapped up in its own detail to let the story emerge from underneath all the padding.

Fear nothing but long-winded modern thrillers.

Looking for something different to read that bursts genre and shakes up the status quo of storytelling? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available now at Amazon and Waterstones! 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!

“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)

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“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi (2017)

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“I’m just going up to the room for a second.”

I’ve never been one for travel or holidays where one sits by the pool or on the beach for hours at a time. If I’m somewhere new, I like to explore the museums and landscape. Some reading time is, of course, essential, but there’s only so much time you can spend laying in the sun in my opinion. However, despite the heatwave that ravaged the northern hemisphere for much of the last few months, the last week or so has been wet and chilly, so a beach might be a decent idea. Without the time or funds to take off to one, however, I instead hid myself inside a novel set on the sunny shores of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. However, this is a book, so there’s naturally trouble in paradise.

While enjoying a family holiday on the beautiful resort of Saint-Gilles, Liane Bellion goes to her hotel room for a moment leaving her husband Martial and daughter Sopha by the pool. When she hasn’t returned after an hour, Martial goes to find her, but all he finds is a locked room. When it’s opened, there’s no one inside, but no one ever saw her leave. The police are called and Martial is initially worried about the incident, but after a couple of days when Liane hasn’t returned, he grabs Sopha and the pair go on the run across the island, evading the police at every turn.

Things look worse when another body shows up, and Martial’s fingerprints are all over the weapon. Who is he, and what is he running from?

Honestly, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the story. The premise is great – a locked room mystery is always good fun – but I never properly clicked with any of the characters or their motives. Martial Bellion is a confusing character, at times a terrified husband but simultaneously a master criminal with the ability to outrun an entire police force. While some characters have motives that make sense, Martial’s aren’t always clear and even when everything is explained at the end, it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense. Sopha, the six-year-old daughter, too, is irritating, as her narration is entirely unconvincing and makes her seem much older than she is.

The novel is unfortunately also heavily reliable on deus ex machina, with particular clues being revealed or unlikely coincidences happening on at least four occasions that I can think of. Being surrounded by police just as thick fog envelops you and allows you to escape? Please. It’s all a shame really, because my friend was hugely positive about the novel, but for me none of it stacked up. It is interesting to learn more about the culture and people of Réunion, however, as it’s an island I’m unlikely to ever visit, and some of the descriptions of the landscape are fascinating and give the reader an image of a land that seems almost otherworldly.

The book had such potential, but there were threads left hanging, a somewhat hurried denouement, and a cast of characters none of whom ever really sparkled for me. Nice to spend a bit of time in the sun, but my TripAdvisor review would leave a lot to be desired.

“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)

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“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology are becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.

“The Place That Didn’t Exist” by Mark Watson (2016)

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“They had left Heathrow on a morning so gloomy it could have passed for dusk, and now ten hours later it was the opposite: a blue-purple night that felt like day.”

For both the reasons that I don’t care much for travel anyway, and that my Scottish ancestry means my tan is a lovely shade of tomato ketchup, Dubai has never much appealed to me as a destination. Building a city in the desert may have worked for Las Vegas, but the UAE is undoubtedly a more conservative country, and there doesn’t seem to be a year go by without a Westerner being thrown in jail or threatened with execution for doing something that goes against the moral standards of Dubai. It feels like an odd place, and Mark Watson emphasises that enormously in his novel, The Place That Didn’t Exist.

Tim Callaghan is a junior creative at an advertising company who has been flown out to Dubai to assist in the filming of a new ad campaign for poverty charity, WorldWise. He is hypnotised by the city with perma-blue skies, the world’s best customer service, and buildings that look like they’ve been dropped from the future into the early 21st century. He, like many visitors, comes to believe that everything here runs so perfectly that nothing could possibly go wrong.

However, this belief is quickly removed when a few days later one of the crew is found dead in his hot tub, and the surrounding circumstances are more than a little mysterious. In fact, Tim suddenly realises that he doesn’t know anything that’s going on. He keeps hearing snatches of conversation that suggest there are secrets hidden that he doesn’t know about, and absolutely everyone is on edge, even before the death. Soon, Tim feels Dubai is turning against him, and he comes to the slow realisation that everything seems too good to be true because it is.

I’m familiar with Watson’s work as a comedian, and I suppose I expected something in a similar tone with his novels. As it is, this feels a very different beast indeed, which is by no means a complaint, merely a lovely realisation that he’s even more talented than I first thought. It’s not a particularly funny book, although there are some amusing scenes, particularly featuring the sweet but slightly hapless Tim trying to deal with conflicting slang and people who treat advertising like they’re curing cancer, but it is very engaging. The world gets under your skin, tickling that part of your reptile brain that knows something is wrong, but you can’t work out what it is. It’s set in 2008, during the global financial crash, so things in Dubai are even more precarious, as the people and money that all flooded in are beginning to seep away again.

The charity Tim is working for is one that is trying to expose the vast gulf of inequality that separates the rich from the poor, and this is a theme that appears throughout the novel. The world created for tourists and the very wealthy Emirati is being serviced, cleaned and kept afloat by society’s poorest, some of whom are technically not even apparently considered human under UAE law due to their nationality. Dubai has created a “perfect world” that is eerie in its perfection, where nothing is quite what it seems and once you scratch the surface, you discover it’s just a veneer. The setting, plot and characters all reflect one another in these terms, and you can never be fully sure how you’re meant to feel about anything or anyone.

Creepy, insidious and unreal, but very, very good.

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 80% 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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