“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“Breakfast With The Borgias” by D. B. C. Pierre (2014)

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“Technology is the way, the truth and the life.”

I was probably attracted to this book by the title. Although I really don’t know very much about the Borgias, as a family dynasty I find them oddly magnetic, and most of that is due to their bloodthirsty reputation that has passed down through the centuries. A rotten lot; the father bribed his way to become Pope, his son was the real life version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and his daughter was famous as a poisoner. And yet they still all seem to be slightly more pleasant than the characters herein.

Zeva Neely is stood on a train platform in Amsterdam, waiting for the arrival of her teacher and lover, Ariel Panek. When he doesn’t show, and makes no attempt to get in touch with her to explain his lateness, she begins to worry, but has no choice but to make her way to the hotel. Ariel, meanwhile, is stuck in a taxi in Suffolk, on his way to a guesthouse. The fog has enveloped Britain so thickly that planes are all grounded and he’s going to have to spend the night in The Cliffs Hotel, the only place for miles around.

Once there, Ariel is still unable to get any phone signal and has to ask the other residents of the hotel whether he can borrow their phone. But the family present here, the Borders, are there to acknowledge a death in the family, and they make for a very odd bunch. Margot is confined to a wheelchair and has the air of a Hollywood starlet. Leonard is convinced that his plan to turn his pub into a working museum will be a success. Jack is glued to his game console. Olivia is young, beautiful and broken, but seems more sane than anyone else in the building.

But it’s only when Ariel meets Gretchen that he realises something is really wrong about this place. He has to get out, and fast.

Billed as a horror novel as part of the Hammer portfolio of novels to compete with the classic “Hammer horror” films, I’ve first got to say that the book lacks any real sense of what it’s clearly going for. I’ve tagged it appropriately to be kind, but while there are several words I could use to describe it – “creepy”, “claustrophobic”, “commonplace” – I’d never really consider this a horror novel. Actually, truth be told I hadn’t even realised it was until I got to the end.

The twists are signposted so much that when they arrive there’s not so much a sense of shock and release of tense build-up as a shrug which makes you go, “Yeah, obviously.” I wrote a short story myself a couple of years ago (not one that has ever troubled a publisher, mind) which had a weirdly similar premise, involving a man lost in the wilderness and finding himself in the only inhabited place for miles around. Although the endings were starkly different, it wouldn’t have taken much to have given either of these the other ending.

The trouble is that to make a book really ramp up the drama, you have to give a shit about the main characters and feel their jeopardy as you go. As it is, Ariel isn’t an especially engaging protagonist. The first chapter isn’t even from his point of view, and by the end of that I’d already decided I didn’t like him. He’s also partial to declaring what twists are happening, leaving the reader with no chance to work things out for themselves.

It’s an interesting idea, but executed poorly. Sinister environments, creepy characters but lacking any real tension.

“Feed” by Mira Grant (2010)

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“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Fiction is laced with creepy creatures, and it’s always fun to see an author mess around with them. This year so far I’ve already dealt with vampires, monsters, gorgons and fairies, so it’s time to turn my attention to zombies.

It was 2014 when it all began. We’d cured the common cold and eradicated cancer, but something far more severe was released in the process – the Kellis-Amberlee virus, or as we may be more familiar with it, the “zombie virus”. In 2040, we meet Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings who work as journalists, one of the most respected professions in this new world. But as much as humanity survived, so did the zombies, and the world has been changed forever.

Via their popular news website, the Mason siblings have just learnt that they’ve been selected to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman, a Republican who seems to have a genuine shot at being the country’s next leader. Following him across the country with their third member of the team, the technophile Buffy, they get to the heart of American politics and do their best to spread the truth about Ryman and his campaign to everyone else. Things start to unravel, however, when there’s a zombie outbreak at one of his conferences, and then another at his wife’s ranch, which ends up killing their daughter. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and late addition Rick are on-hand to find out what happened, but end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for.

Most notably, I felt, Grant does something that almost no other zombie fiction seems to do – it acknowledges previous zombie fiction. It always struck me as strange in zombie films and books that no one seems to know how to handle these creatures, suggesting that George Romero, Simon Pegg and their like never produced any zombie fiction and, indeed, they never existed in the mythology either until that moment. Here, it’s stated that George Romero is considered an international hero, as his movies allowed everyone to have the upper hand when zombies appeared. There are a few twists on the nature of the disease too. Grant goes into scientific detail about how the virus started and what it does to the body, and it’s noted that only people who died after the virus’s release reanimate, so there weren’t scenes of graveyards coming back to life, which probably allowed for the invasion not to lead to the end of the world. However, any mammal that weighs over forty pounds can be infected with the virus and become a problem. Because of this, most of the human population is now vegetarian, with it being unsafe to keep cows, sheep and pigs anymore. It also implies there are zombie whales roaming the oceans, which definitely needs exploring.

Grant’s worldbuilding is impressive. She takes into account how society would have to change with these events having happened, going into detail on hazard levels, cities that have been abandoned (the entire of Alaska is a no-go area now), how security and communication technology improved, what happened to religion, and most importantly how people’s view of the media changed. The reason that bloggers are now considered so worthy is that when the news broke, unofficial news blogs were already running information on how to defeat the zombies before the mainstream media were even admitting there was a problem. It has some rather prescient parallels to how the media is already being viewed, with many people seeming to get their news online instead, although not always from reputable sources. New slang is also introduced, such as dividing up the journalists into different factions; for example, Newsies report unbiased fact, and Irwins (named after the crocodile hunter, one presumes) like to get into the field and experience zombies up close.

However, Grant has a habit of getting bogged down in the minutia. It’s established very early on that security levels are ridiculously high, with blood tests and retinal scans being compulsory to enter any building, and often to leave them too. However, there are frequently long, slightly repetitive passages going into detail on all these scans and checks, despite the fact we’ve seen them all only a few pages before. Some of the dialogue is repetitive and phrases occur over and over again, such as Shaun always being described as liking to poke things with sticks. I also panicked towards the end that Grant was going to whip out a dues ex machina and make me want to drop the book into the water butt, but it was handled with such deft aplomb that I almost found myself applauding her.

Impressively for a zombie tale, the zombies don’t even feel like a major plot point. Very rarely do we have the protagonists dealing with them first hand; they’re merely part of this world, but one you forget at your own risk. It’s nicely done in that it’s not over the top, and the main story is really the presidential election, with themes embedded that we can totally understand. While it definitely has its problems, they aren’t related to plot at all, and it’s an inventive, exciting and really rather impressive introduction to what may well prove to be an engaging series.

“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

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“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a fine wine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“Brighton Rock” by Graham Greene (1938)

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brighton-rock“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”

Ah, the classics. I like to keep my hand in and, maybe it’s my age, but I’m becoming convinced that I should read more of them. With this one down now too, it means I’ve already read two of them since the year began, which is pretty good going as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed The Diary of a Nobody, I wasn’t so keen on Brighton Rock.

Journalist Charles Hale is on a job in Brighton, mingling with the crowds as part of a newspaper treasure hunt. If someone finds him and says the magic words, they’ll win a cash prize. He is found, however, by Pinkie Brown, a seventeen-year-old gangster who has a bone to pick with Hale and isn’t content with a bit of a moan. After trying to seek company all afternoon with the buxom, brash Ida, Hale eventually finds himself alone again and Pinkie and his cronies strike.

With Hale dead, Ida is convinced that the police have been wrong in their assessment that the death was natural causes, and sets about playing detective to prove that Pinkie had a hand in the nice man’s murder. Pinkie, meanwhile, is trying to erase any evidence that Hale was even in Brighton, and soon realises that his alibi could be blown by a waitress who knows too much. Despite both being too young, Pinkie decides that he needs to marry Rose, as a wife can’t testify against her own husband, and that could be the only thing that’s going to save him…

This is one of those books that I could actually, happily, have cast aside quite early on, but I don’t like giving up on books unless absolutely necessary, so I pressed on solely for Ida Arnold. A colourful, brilliantly moral and unafraid character, Ida is the real hero of the story as far as I’m concerned, she displays no fear in going after Pinkie and his gang, simply because she believes in the right thing being done. I know that Pinkie has entered the canon of great antiheroes of English literature, but I found him ridiculous and unbelievable.

At only seventeen, he’s leading a gang of much older men who seem to hang on his every word, and he’s a sociopath, apparently unable to experience emotions the way other people do. Again, maybe this comes down to my age. I’m nearly twenty-nine, and I look at seventeen-year-old’s now and see how they think they know everything. I’m not saying that I’m much wiser, but I’m old enough to know that at seventeen you know nothing. He plays the big man, but I find him pathetic, nonthreatening and stupid. He is obsessed with sex, but also apparently phobic of it, and is cruel to his wife, Rose, who he marries merely for convenience. Caught up in girlish desires to be married, she remains convinced that he loves her, when in reality he is disgusted by her and is thinking of himself the whole time. Rose is but a child, only sixteen, and I feel a great deal of pity for her. She is easily duped and almost ends up committing suicide over Pinkie’s selfishness.

Primarily, the themes are those of good and evil, with Pinkie and Rose both being Catholic, they are preoccupied with the notion of sin, with the murder and their marriage both being wrong in the eyes of God. The only character with any real sense of morality though seems to be Ida. She does what is right, while everyone else seems to be trying to save themselves. It’s rather a tiresome book, and I never totally felt gripped, although most of that is Pinkie and the rest is my current need to check Twitter every five minutes to make sure a war hasn’t started.

Anyway, I’m off to embark on another classic; one I’ve read before and one that seems terrifyingly appropriate…

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

“Let’s Kill Uncle” by Rohan O’Grady (1964)

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uncle“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for publishing houses to be rooting around in forgotten books of the last century, dusting them off and republishing them. I don’t have any complaints with this. The British Library is focusing on crime novels, but Bloomsbury seem to have cast the net a little wider. I knew nothing of Rohan O’Grady (real name: June O’Grady Skinner) but I was intrigued by the title and blurb, so dived into this novel from the sixties.

Barnaby Gaunt has been sent to a remote island of Canada for his summer holidays, but his Uncle hasn’t arrived yet, so he’ll have to stay with Mr and Mrs Brooks in the meantime. Also spending her summer holidays on the island is young Christie McNab and, being the only two children on the island, they are forced to become friends and play together. While things start off a little rocky, the eventual harmony is shattered when Barnaby learns that his Uncle will soon be there. Everyone thinks he should be happy about this, but no one knows the truth – Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune, and his Uncle is trying to kill him.

The island’s Mountie, Sergeant Coulter, tries to be fair to the children and forgive their misdeeds, but he doesn’t believe Barnaby for a minute when the young boy confides in him his fears. Barnaby and Christie, therefore, decide to take matters into their own hands. They must kill Uncle before it’s too late.

Despite the premise’s promise of being about two children plotting to kill a relative, this only forms half the tale. The rest is taken up by the thoughts and feelings of the Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. He is a native of the island and the only one from there who went to war and didn’t do the decent, brave thing of dying in battle. He is kind and fair, and has a complex relationship with the children, of whom he is very fond, but also can’t wait to see them leave. Despite the kindness he shows to humans, he is far less patient with the island’s lone cougar, One-Ear, and ruthlessly plots to kill the beast.

As I often find with children in novels, Barnaby and Christie are fairly irritating, but you can see that they mean well. Barnaby has many issues to deal with regarding his Uncle, and these become clearer as the book goes on. At first they seem irredeemable, but like Coulter I came to have a certain grudging like of them by the end. The oddest character of all, though, is Uncle himself. He doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the narrative, and while we know he’s out to kill Barnaby – and there’s no question that it isn’t the imaginary ramblings of a small child – he is almost cartoonishly villainous, a sociopath of the highest order. He seems to have stepped into this book from one that was somewhat lighter. Because don’t be fooled by the childishness suggestion given by the title – this is rather a dark novel.

A review on the cover says that the book is ahead of its time, and I can see that in a couple of ways. It reads a little like something Lemony Snicket would produce, with the same set-up of children in a small community of adults, none of whom believe the danger they are in. Uncle reminded me throughout of Count Olaf. It also makes an oblique reference to sexual abuse towards children, as Uncle is noted a few times to have a fondness for little girls, and there’s a mention that he’s made many of them disappear in the past. When he muses on the fact that Christie is too wise to be fooled into following him in exchange for candy, it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine. The mix of the naivety of the children and the horrors like this jar occasionally, but it’s rather a good book nonetheless.

What strikes me most about the book is the sense of loneliness and stagnation hanging over everything. With no young men or children left on the island, the place is slowly dying, and everyone is hurting and has lost someone. It’s always quite a moment when you find a line in fiction that reveals such a truth about you that you have to stop reading for a moment and contemplate things. I leave you with a quotation from the book that particularly struck me.

He couldn’t stand it and walked down to the beach, feeling as though the main stream of humanity had passed him by and that he would stand on beaches, forsaken and forgotten, for the rest of eternity.

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