Archive for September 11, 2014

photo 3_2During an eventful summer I read six crime fiction books that I haven’t reviewed as yet. I will say a few words about each of them, and possibly expand on that if the more recent books are shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, or the Petrona Award next year. 

Agatha Christie isn’t the most widely published author of all time for nothing. Reading her books is relaxing and takes you into a different world away from the many worries of 21st Century life. I read two of Agatha’s novels; The Secret of Chimneys from 1925, and Crooked House from 1949.

The Secret of Chimneys [1925] is truly evocative of its age with some politically incorrect xenophobia, and a plot involving jewel thieves, Balkan spies, glamourous seductive flappers, maids, butlers, and amiable young men at the Foreign Office. 

Bill Eversleigh was an extremely nice lad. He was a good cricketer and a scratch golfer, he had pleasant manners, and an amiable disposition, but his position at the Foreign Office had been gained, not by brains, but by good connexions.

If you read between the lines Agatha Christie was a great observer of people, and even as early in her writing career as 1925 some of her commentary on the ruling class is very much to the point.

On the sideboard were half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements.

‘Omelet,’ said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn.’ Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant. I don’t like any of these things, Tredwell. Ask the cook to poach me an egg, will you?

‘Very good , my lord.’

The plot is ridiculous, the thriller element unbelievable, the characters are stereotypes, but above all  it is frivolous fun and escapism so one can almost excuse the references to a dago, and this sort of tosh:

‘Herman Isaacstein. The representative of the syndicate I spoke to you about.’

‘The all-British syndicate?’

‘Yes. Why?’ ‘

Nothing-nothing-I only wondered, that’s all. Curious names these people have.’

That is how it was in 1925 and for many years after. Trying to sanitise historical attitudes by for example removing the n- word from Mark Twain, or taking out the anti-Semitism from many of the Golden Age writers will blind us to far more serious present day problems. photo

Crooked House [1949] is a far superior novel, a classic country house mystery with a dysfunctional family, an elderly victim of a poisoning, Aristide Leonides, [how Christie loved her poisons] and some well drawn characters. Aristide, a Greek, originally came from Smyrna and his elderly sister-in-law does on one occasion refer to him as a dago, but otherwise the book won’t offend as much as the earlier work. 

The Crooked House is lived in by Aristide, and his much younger second wife Brenda.

Aristide’s grown up children by his first wife, Philip and his wife Magda, an actress, who have three children, Sophia engaged to our hero Charles Hayward, and the younger Eustace and Josephine. Roger and his wife Clemency, who don’t have any children. Roger runs Aristide’s business now. Aristide had settled large amounts of money on his children, and everyone in the house appears to be financially very comfortable.

The younger children have a tutor Laurence Brown, who may or may not be having an affair with Brenda. There is also Edith de Haviland, sister of the first Mrs Leonides, and Nannie an elderly retainer who looks after Josephine. 

As Chief Inspector Taverner exclaims-

“Everybody in the damned house had a means and opportunity. What I want is a motive.”

The plot is taut with an ending in which Agatha Christie once again does something completely unconventional. A very good read.

The third English crime fiction book I read this summer was by coincidence The Riddle of The Third Mile [1983] by Colin Dexter.

I have to admit that I found this novel a little hard going. I think the author’s plot twists are a bit too clever for me, and I have come to the conclusion that his reputation does owe a lot to the brilliant acting in the TV series by John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis. The complexity of this plot blending Oxford Dons, an unidentifiable body with no head or hands, exam results, the college vacation, tooth abscesses, strip clubs, prostitutes and removal firms had me slightly confused for a little while, but then so was Morse.

Back in Morse’s office, Lewis launched into his questions: ‘It’s pretty certainly Brown-Smith’s body, don’t you think, sir?’  

‘Don’t know.’

‘But surely-‘

‘I said I don’t bloody know!’ 

The Riddle of The Third Mile was a good read, although the theme of feuding dons seemed a little repetitive, possibly because I have watched too many episodes of the TV series. 

[Summer reading roundup to be continued]