“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Bobby Jones teed up his ball, gave a short preliminary waggle, took the club back slowly, then brought it down and through with the rapidity of lightning.”

And with this one down, I’ve only got two Christie novels left to read. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to think of a good introduction for this one, so unless you want to skip back and read my post about Agatha Christie herself, we may as well crack on.

Vicar’s son Bobby Jones is playing golf one misty afternoon when he hears a cry – a man has fallen over the cliff. Bobby rushes to his aid, but the man’s back is broken and it’s too late to do anything much. However, just before he dies, the man comes round and says, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” Bobby doesn’t have much time to dwell on this, as he’s due at the church to play the organ, so he leaves another fellow, a passing Roger Bassington-ffrench, to look after the body and wait for help to arrive.

But soon after the inquest, there is confusion abounds. Was the dead man really who the courts thought he was? Who was the woman in the photograph he had in his pocket? And was it really all an accident? Bobby, along with his aristocratic childhood friend Lady Frankie Derwent, set about trying to prove that the man was pushed off the cliff. And when Bobby himself is nearly murdered, he realises that they’re closer to the truth than they realised. Frankie infiltrates the home of the Bassington-ffrench family and with Bobby stationed close by in disguise, they set about trying to solve the mystery.

Firstly, this novel does have one of the best and most evocative titles in the Christie canon, but while you think it’s going to be hugely important throughout, it really only plays a minor role. It’s also used well for humour. The book is set in Wales where Evans is a common name, and there’s a great moment where Frankie tries to find how many Evans’ there are in the town and learns there are over 480. Bobby and Frankie make for great amateur sleuths and there’s definitely something of the Tommy and Tuppence of them. As much as I like the established detectives, I do also enjoy the books where Christie gives us a new hero, especially such a likeable one.

The plot holds up well and is served up with more red herrings than a meeting of the Communist Fish Party. As usual, the hints are all there, but some of them are desperately subtle, and I certainly didn’t catch most of them until they were explained. It always seems so obvious at the end, doesn’t it? It would be another good one to start novice Christie readers off with, as it’s a simple premise which introduces us to a raft of interesting characters, as well as one of the best surnames in fiction – Bassington-ffrench.

It’s a short review today, simply because I run the risk of giving away spoilers if I say much more, but I promise you it’s certainly worth a read.

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. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Unexpected Guest” by Charles Osborne / Agatha Christie (1999)

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The-Unexpected-Guest“It was shortly before midnight on a chilly November evening, and swirls of mist obscured parts of the dark, narrow, tree-lined country road in South Wales, not far from the Bristol Channel whence a foghorn sounded its melancholy boom automatically every few moments.”

You’ll note I’m sure that the date of this book’s release is long after Christie’s death, but there’s a good reason for that. It was originally written as a play in the 1958, penned in four weeks and staged to great acclaim in the West End. Like the previously reviewed Spider’s Web, this is a novelisation of that play, completing the trifecta of plays-to-books that Charles Osborne undertook, the third being Black Coffee.

The novel opens on the foggy night described above when Michael Starkwedder’s car gets stuck in a ditch. Not knowing how he’s going to get out of it, he makes his way to a large nearby house and, finding the french windows open, enters a luxurious study. To his shock, sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the room is a dead man with a gunshot wound in his head.

Finding a light switch, he makes a second surprising discovery – a woman stands in the corner, terrified and holding a gun. She gives her name as Laura Warwick and says the dead man is – or was – her husband, Richard. For the first time in Christie history, it seems an open and shut case. Laura admits to Michael that she killed him, but Michael can’t resist a pretty woman and suggests they concoct a story to save her from arrest.

But perhaps Laura didn’t kill him at all. Maybe she’s covering for someone else, but why, and more importantly who? Everyone in the house seems relatively unworried by Richard’s death, and everyone seems very keen to let Michael, and the police, know that they know who didn’t do it, leading to a situation where everyone seems to be willing to claim they were responsible…

Brevity is the name of the game here. It’s a short book, as I said originally a play, and it’s the one of the three that sounds least like it’s still a play. The dialogue is sharp, and while some of the action does ring a bit of directions for actors (and a couple of things that the audience are meant to see but none of the characters do jar a little in the narration), it remains very obviously Christie. She’s at her prime here, having written this after her last play, Verdict, flopped. It feels like a “take that!” to all her critics, and more power to her.

It also brings in perhaps two of my favourite policemen in the series. Inspector Thomas is sharp and sarcastic, but clearly very efficient. Sergeant Cadwallader provides light comic relief, being a man who is far more interested in poetry than police work. Thomas is clearly irritated by his tendencies to quote poetry at the least appropriate moments, and to write his own poems when he should be taking down witness statements.

The novel also contains one of my favourite Christie lines of all:

“What it comes down to is this. Men are really the sensitive sex. Women are tough. Men can’t take murder in their stride. Women apparently can.”

It’s a twist on the old suggestion and one that I happen to actually agree with. The first part, at least – I’ve never brushed up against murder in real life, so I couldn’t comment on that. Although I have a feeling that I’d be the one breathing into a paper bag in the corner while my female friends dealt with the situation effectively.

Although it may have been tweaked by someone else, it’s so definitely Christie, that it can’t help but be a wonder. The twists are incredible, and the solution seems to flip-flop repeatedly, the truth being outed when you least expect it.

The back of the book contains the review, “Like a martini – crisp, dry, sophisticated, habit-forming, ever-so-slightly dated”. That’s absolutely the epitome of what Christie is about, and this book is one of the best examples of that.