Archive for the ‘Agatha Christie’ Category

cobenI picked up Harlan Coben’s The Stranger in our local supermarket simply because the main character was called Adam Price.

The book was a typical quick read airport novel with Adam’s American Dream life coming to an abrupt end as a stranger tells him something about Corinne, his wife, he does not want to hear. In typical Coben style Corinne mysteriously goes missing. This is the third Harlan Coben novel I have read and in Tell No One, Six Years and The Stranger the main protagonist is searching for his woman. It seems to be a winning formula? 

The setting is in one of those idyllic American small towns where everyone seems to have a plenty of money, but there is an undercurrent of trouble. The reader realises the suburban town is very wealthy, because Adam’s sons play lacrosse at high school. The plot features embezzlement, corporate greed, murder, blackmail and computer hacking. 

One of the book’s failings is that many of the characters lack any depth. They seem to have been selected from a box of standard stereotypes, but Coben sells millions of books simply because his novels are such easy reads.  

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn’t see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy “country club” section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and hers Mercedes. People respected them.

I have noticed reading Le Carre, and some Nordic authors, that “happy endings” are not in vogue, and Harlan Coben follows this trend. Does ending a novel with a tragedy make it great literature?   

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The announcement of the Petrona Award Shortlist is always  a bit of a sad time as I remember my friend the late Maxine Clarke.  

Maxine’s blog Petrona was an inspiration to so many, and she was one of a very small group of bloggers who spread the word concerning  Scandinavian crime fiction at a time when very few had even heard of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or Stieg Larsson. 

This year’s shortlist looks very impressive with books from Norway, Finland and Sweden. I have read two of these books Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Satellite People and I enjoyed both immensely. I hope to read at least two of the others before the announcement of the winner at Crime Fest in Bristol. 

Last year for the first time I totally disagreed with the judges on their choice of a winner. I think that one important criteria for the award should be that the book that wins should be one that Maxine would have enjoyed reading. 

A few thoughts about the contenders. I noticed the Lagercrantz on a half price offer in our local Waterstones. I haven’t read anything about this book but my natural reaction, possibly misguided, is that the series should have ended with the death of Stieg Larsson, and that the original fans of the series may regard this novel as an exploitation. 

On a more serious subject when I met Karin Fossum at Crime Fest several years ago we very briefly discussed her social work with children with Down’s Syndrome. She is a charming lady and does know what she is talking about on this subject.

The judges comments about her book The Drowned Boy are very interesting:

After the drowning of a young child with Down’s syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. 

This is a subject about which I know a great deal, but reading this novel in the circumstances might be too traumatic. In our case for the wonderful twenty seven years our son Jacob was part of our family we thought we were looking after him, but in reality he was looking after us.  

I have linked to my reviews of two of these books. 

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)     

AmblerCrime fiction not only can cover today’s important topics, such as immigration [The Defenceless by Kati FurstHiekkapelto], but also take the reader into the past to discover what went wrong, and why. 

Two very different books  published seventy four years apart both deal with the subject of the methods by which Nazi Germany degraded France’s will to defend itself. Spies, payments for influence, threats of violence, and ruthless exploitation of weakness were the methods used. 

In Eric Ambler’s 1938 classic thriller Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and language teacher in Paris, is holidaying in a small hotel on the French Riviera. When he takes his holiday photographs to the chemist to be developed he is arrested as a spy, the photographs show Toulon’s naval defences. Vadassy has picked up the wrong camera in his hotel lounge. Beghin, a sweaty individual from the Surete Generale attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence sums up the situation.

“The Commissaire and I agreed”, he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one or an innocent man.

I may say that the Commissaire thought you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you are innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”

One of the other guests at the hotel, or the owner or his wife, must be the spy. Vadassy is sent back to discover who among the twelve suspects is guilty in an Agatha Christie type, who did it investigation. He is not a master detective or even a passable one and his blunders make for an interesting story as he surreptitiously gathers information about his interestingly varied fellow guests. Each of them has a secret and we learn something about the Europe of the 1930s. One of the guests tells him about post -war German social-democracy…

Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar……

Worst of all, it thought you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In nineteen-thirty-three German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, is much more of a modern style political thriller but also set in the corrupt France of 1938.

…but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale, and degrade France’s will to defend herself…..

Or rather German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs-tens of millions of dollars-had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933.

Frederic Stahl, an emigre from Europe, now an American movie star is sent to Paris to make a film. Frederic had spent the Great War in the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona after having run away to sea at seventeen. The Nazis want to use his Austrian ethnicity as a propaganda weapon, and make various efforts to recruit him. The narrative moves rapidly and Stahl’s love affairs, clashes with German agents ,and meetings with American diplomats lead him to get more involved in very dangerous situations.

‘Excuse me , sir’ she said to Stahl in French, ‘but there is finally good news. Very good news.’

‘Hello, Inga,’ Renate said. ‘Hello, Klaus.’

‘They’ve made a deal with Hitler,’ Inga said, now back in German. ‘He takes the Sudetenland, but promises that’s the end of it, and he signed a paper saying so.’

In another quote from the book, but something that many people thought at the time, 

You appease a thug like Hitler, it just makes him greedy for more, because he smells fear.

Have we learned anything from the past?

I don’t think so our politicians still allow vast amounts of foreign money to enter the country. They “kowtow” to foreign leaders, who run various forms of dictatorships, and appease loud minority groups, while ignoring the silent majority. Recently the Labour Party members and their associates voted in a leader, who advocates a “kinder gentler politics”. His “friends” and those who he has gone the extra mile to support over the years have a somewhat different agenda, and are not kinder gentle people.

My worries about this man becoming Prime Minister are lessened by the fact that he and his crew appear from recent events not to be able to run a bath, yet alone a Gestapo or a Stasi. 

But our present Conservative government can not be trusted to look after my budgie, or even the British steel industry, and I fear for the future. 

Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are always worth reading, and these two books are excellent examples of their work.  

HOL sat peopleFrom the back cover: Oslo 1969.

When a wealthy man collapses and dies during a dinner party. Norwegian Police InspectorKolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, is left shaken. For the victim Magdalon Schelderup, a multi-millionaire businessman, and former resistance fighter, had contacted him only the day before,  fearing for his life.

This is the second book in the series featuring K2, and his brilliant young associate, the wheel chair bound Patricia, and is dedicated to Agatha Christie. The narration is in the first person by K2, and the plot is a classic in that there are a limited number of suspects, the ten that attended the dinner party, and that the victim is a thoroughly unpleasant character. Therefore the book comes over as being very similar in atmosphere to The Human Flies, the first book in the series. One persistent theme, like the previous book, is events during the German occupation of World War II.

One misconception about Agatha Christie’s body of work is that she wrote the same English country house mystery over and over again, when in fact by varying the location and producing new plot twists she kept her work fresh. If she did parody herself there were usually thirty or forty years between the books.

The ten guests at the Schelderup dinner party, include a wife, two ex-wives, three children from the various wives, a young attractive secretary, and friends who go back to his wartime activities. K2 must negotiate his way through this plethora of suspects, numerous red herrings, and of course in true Christie tradition some of his suspects will not survive till the end of the book. 

The combination of K2 and Patricia is unlike Poirot and Hastings, or Holmes and Watson, and much more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. K2 tells the story and does the legwork, but Patricia is very much the brains behind the duo.

I found myself faltering while reading Satellite People, as I was distracted by advancing old age, the serious political problems facing this country, and very much more pleasant events. I would not say that Satellite People is a great read because the plot lines are very derivative, as they were intended to be, but this means that it lacks a freshness and the ability to grip the reader. But if you haven’t read a lot of classic crime fiction it is a very interesting take on the genre.

Patricia stared at me wide-eyed for a moment.

‘You surpass yourself,’ she remarked, apparently serious.

My joy lasted for all of ten seconds. Because when she continued it was far less pleasant.

‘I would not have believed it was possible to get so much wrong in two sentences, and at such a late stage of a murder investigation.’ 

 

TPA2015S

 

 

It is sometimes difficult to get old dinosaurs like me, who are very set in their ways, to read new authors, and therefore I am grateful to the judges of the Petrona Award in adding two impressive authors, new to me, to their shortlist. I have now read four of the shortlisted six books, and may possibly have the time to read one more book before the winner is announced.

HummThe Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackstrom, is an excellent police procedural with an interesting female main protagonist, Anna Fekete, a Hungarian immigrant from the northern part of the former Yugoslavia. The book begins with a murder, and as more murders occur and a serial killer investigation begins, it widens its remit to deal with the problems of multiculturalism in a democratic society.

Although Anna has lived in Finland for most of her life and speaks perfect Finnish she faces a lot of antagonism from Esko, one of the police team. Esko could be classified easily as a racist, or is he just someone very scared of the changes in Finnish society.

As a rule, minorities weren’t oppressed in the former Yugoslavia- except for the Roma, a sin of which the whole world is guilty. 

 

A subplot and another narrative theme blended into the story involves a Kurdish family, and the possible forced marriage or even “honour killing” of their daughter. We also learn about Anna’s family life, her brother, Akos, has failed to adjust to life in Finland and can’t even speak the local language, while her sexual liaisons and the marital problems of her fellow team members add to the interest.

Finland it seems has a difficult combination of problems with wide gun ownership, and heavy alcohol consumption. The Hummingbird is yet another excellent Scandinavian crime book that adds a layer of realism to the  myth of Scandinavia’s social democratic utopia. This is definitely a strong contender for the Petrona Award. 

Bihar Chelkin is lying. I’m convinced this is a matter of honour violence,’ Anna said eventually. She felt compelled to repeat herself  one last time, especially to that arsehole.  

‘Finnish law doesn’t recognise such a crime,’ he replied impassively.

The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson is a very different book. This novel is set  in theflies distant past, 1968, when I was a young man in my prime, and the world was almost in as big mess as it is today. 

The story told in a crisp first person narrative by young detective Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, is a variation on the locked room mystery being a tribute or pastiche of an Agatha Christie novel. The English country house mystery moved to an Oslo apartment block at 25 Krebs’ Street. The victim is Harald Olesen, one of the heroes of Norway’s wartime resistance movement to the Nazi occupation, and a cabinet minister in the post war period. When Kolbjorn begins to unravel the lives of the other occupants of 25 Krebs’ Street he finds a group of people who underneath a facade of comparative respectability have many secrets. Kolbjorn has few leads, and when a friend of his parents Professor Borchmann tells him that his daughter Patricia, an eighteen year old girl with a brilliant mind, who is confined to a wheelchair, can help him he accepts the offer. Patricia swiftly solves the mystery of how the locked room murder was committed, but the pair still have to discover the identity of the murderer. She has worked out how, now we want to know why and that will lead to who.

Kjolborn and Patricia uncover a web of lies and intrigue, marital infidelity, love affairs, wartime treachery and collaboration as they hunt for the killer. 

Those who enjoy Agatha Christie novels, and good crime fiction will love the twists and turns in this tale. The Human Flies is yet another contender for the Petrona Award, and I congratulate the judges on providing readers with such a strong shortlist. 

‘He is everything that I have ever dreamed of in a man. There is a physical aspect, obviously. I have always been attracted to to blond men of my height, and he has just the right physique and is so elegant’………….[my comment: he also has a wife and young baby]

………….

As I walked down the stairs, I pondered whether the ever more mysterious Sara Sundqvist had been aware of the fact that I too was a blond and well-built man of about her height.  

P1020051I have always considered crime fiction awards and polls very useful for introducing readers to writers and books that they haven’t read.  Even if one doesn’t agree with the choices made by the judges, or general public, the results are usually quite fun. But they do have to adhere to certain basic standards like sanity. If we judge the best crime writers simply on all time sales there is obviously only one winner with Agatha Christie a long way ahead of the number two, and James Patterson back in third place.

Do you know who number two is? 

WH Smith has a list 107 crime fiction authors in order of merit, and I do worry about my ageing eyesight, because I cannot see Colin Dexter’s name anywhere. Some of the voting was quite astonishing with S.J.Watson, who up to date has only published one book, at 65 ahead of Stieg Larsson 68, Lindsey Davis 69, Elizabeth  George 70. That one book may be very very good, but surely S.J. has to produce more than one book to merit a position among the best crime writers of all time.

Television exposure does not seemed to have helped some fine authors with Ann Cleeves at 90, Ellis Peters at 89, Andrea Camilleri at P102004884. I am ashamed to find that I haven’t even read any of the books by the numero uno on the list, Peter James. His detective Roy Grace works in Brighton, a town I used to know very well, as three of my mother’s sisters lived in Hove, the adjoining seaside resort. I will have to remedy my omission as “he won the crown effortlessly by an incredible number of votes.”

He must be very good to streak ahead of  Agatha Christie at 5, Raymond Chandler at 47, Michael Connelly at 32, Reginald Hill at 48, and Patricia Highsmith at 52. I would suggest that if the poll had asked readers to name their “favourite” five crime fiction authors it might have produced a more interesting result. 

By the way the number two  all time best selling crime fiction author was Georges Simenon. 

 

death in the stocksThe front cover of Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument, a mystery novel published three years after Death in the Stocks, trumpets this recommendation from the San Francisco Chronicle :

“Ranks alongside such whodunnit authors as Christie, Marsh, Tey and Allingham”.

Reading this high praise, and also because Death in the Stocks was on a list of ten of the best Golden Age Crime novels at Crime Fiction Lover was more than enough reason to read this novel. 

My recent reading has raised certain questions in my mind.

Was the Golden Age a high point in crime fiction writing? Were most of the novels merely pure escapism from the harsh realities of the depression, and the difficult political situation during the interwar years, or did they have merit as social commentary about those times? And was Dame Agatha Christie by far the best author from that period, maybe not in literary style, but in the creation of clever plots and memorable characters? 

Georgette Heyer is more famous as a writer of historical romance novels set in Regency England, but between 1932 and 1953 she also wrote twelve detective books.

 P1010773Death in the Stocks published in 1935 has many of the classic features of Golden Age detective fiction, a wealthy hated murder victim, a lengthy cast of suspects, a dysfunctional family, a country cottage, faithful servants, and an affable detective. 

Arnold Vereker [the back cover and Crime Fiction Lover refer to Andrew Vereker but this is an error] a very rich man whose hobbies are social climbing and young women is found by Police Constable Dickenson stabbed to death, and put in the stocks at Ashleigh Green. 

‘Don’t seem to know his face.’

‘Well, I daresay you might not, sir. It’s Mr Vereker, of Riverside Cottage.’

‘Oh!’ said the Inspector with a little sniff. ‘One of those week-end people.’

So even back in 1935 wealthy townies bought property in villages, which then remained vacant throughout the week destroying the community, and also increasing house prices beyond the means of the locals. Clearly Ms Heyer foresaw the future of English village life.

When Riverside Cottage is searched Arnold’s half sister Antonia, known as Tony, is found to have spent the night there. She had quarrelled with Arnold, her P1030714guardian, over her engagement to company accountant Rudolph Mesurier. Arnold naturally objected to Rudolph borrowing company money, or as it is known among those without cut glass accents, embezzlement. She had come down to Ashleigh Green to have it out with Arnold. Antonia’s brother the supercilious Kenneth, an artist, is engaged to the beautiful Violet Williams, but also has the ordinary looking Leslie Rivers pursuing him. The faithful female servant is called Murgatroyd [first names for the lower classes were only discovered in England around 1963, along with The Beatles, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice -Davies and Sex] while a cousin Giles Carrington is conveniently a lawyer and executor of Arnold’s will. 

Tony [Antonia] and her brother Kenneth talk to the detectives Superintendent Hannasyde and his assistant Sergeant Hemingway as if they are under footmen, but from my experience that is how the upper and upper middle classes reacted to workers in the 1950s so I am sure it was considerably worse in 1935. I read somewhere that Ms Heyer is able to reproduce accurately the “brittle and ironic conversation of the upper middle class Englishwoman”.

‘You do understand, don’t you darling?’

‘Yes, absolutely,’ replied Antonia. ‘You cooked the accounts and Arnold found out. I’ve often wondered how that’s done, by the way.

How do you do it, Rudolph?’ 

The dialogue in Death in the Stocks, so evocative of the time,  unfortunately to a modern ear makes the characters appear to be just spoilt brats so that one does not really care about them. When a supposedly dead relative arrives from South America to claim his inheritance the whole thing becomes a bit of a frivolous farce. When Death in the Stocks was produced as a play, concentrating on the comedic aspects of the book, in New York in 1937, it ran for 3 nights.

On the evidence of Death in the Stocks Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels are not in the same class as Christie, Marsh, Tey and Allingham, because the characters are stereotypes and the plot lacks complexity. But most of all because the detective Superintendent Hannasyde is not the dominant figure  that a Poirot would be.

‘I’m terribly sorry, Rudolph, but-but Giles wants me to marry him.

And he knows me awfully well, and we get on together, so-so I think I’d better, if you don’t mind very much.’     

cyril hareI decided to read Tragedy At Law firstly because it was recommended by Martin Edwards at his brilliant blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Martin gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction’ and his blog is always a great read. 

Also I have been reading some Agatha Christie as sheer escapism from more modern crime fiction that deals with such serious subjects as the aftermath of the Algerian War, or racism in the American South, or the current problems of terrorism and kidnapping. Therefore over the next few months, all being well, I shall be reading several books from the period of the Golden Age of the English Detective novel, and investigating whether they have any interest for the modern reader. 

Tragedy At Law was published in 1942, it is set in late 1939 and the action runs into 1940 during the period known in Britain as the Phoney War. There was actually nothing phoney about it if you happened to live in Warsaw, Copenhagen or Oslo, but that is what it is called in history books.

Distinguished lawyer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark wrote Tragedy At Law under the pseudonym Cyril Hare. He was educated at Rugby and Oxford and was a member of the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1924. He practised as a barrister up the the Second World War  and therefore had a thorough knowledge of the procedures about which he wrote with such skill.

” No trumpeteers!” said his Lordship in a tome of melancholy and slightly peevish disapproval. …………

War with all its horrors was let loose upon the earth and His Majesty’s Judge must in consequence creep into his car with no more ceremony than an ambassador or an archbishop. Chamberlain had flown to Godesberg and Munich pleaded for them, but in vain. Hitler would have none of them. The trumpeters must go.

The book tells the story of pompous the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, a High Court Judge, on his circuit round the Assize Courts in the South of England, a circuit through fictional towns. He is accompanied on his travels by a group of acolytes, Beamish the Judge’s Clerk, the Judge’s Marshal, Derek Marshall, “Marshall by name and marshal by occupation”, the Judge’s Butler and the Marshal’s Man.

And after the Judge receives threatening letters he is joined by his attractive wife, Lady Hilda, whose takes upon herself the task of protecting her husband, aided by Derek. Unfortunately the Judge has already blotted his copybook by driving while inebriated and without a valid licence or insurance, and in the process having a motor accident that involved damaging the hand of a distinguished concert pianist. So he is concerned about both physical, legal and financial threats to his and his wife’s comfortable existence.

Tragedy At Law is a beautifully written portrait of the legal system in wartime England affected at that stage by only minor inconveniences. The quaint Ruritanian world of Britain’s class system is seen to function with all the pomp and circumstance it can muster.  The story has some great characters, biting sarcasm, humour and gradually builds tension to an interesting climax. It is a slow almost pedestrian progress but has charm and even though it appears outdated has a few interesting comments about society and the almost revolutionary concept of State legal aid. The narrative is enhanced by accounts of various legal cases and of the struggling career path of barrister Francis Pettigrew, who plays a small but vital part in the action. 

Tragedy At Law is a pleasant amusing read, but then for the wealthy and the well off middle class England in the Golden Age of the Detective novel was a pleasant place to live.

To Derek Marshall, experiencing his first contact with the criminal law, it was an august, a thrilling moment………….

” Let Horace Sidney Atkins surrender!” piped the Clerk.

A meek, middle-aged man in a grey flannel suit climbed into the dock, blinked nervously at the magnificence that his wrong-doing had somehow collected together, and pleaded guilty to the crime of bigamy.

Markhampton Assizes was under way at last.   

12BMSI have got into the habit of putting aside any long heavyweight book with an exotic foreign setting when we go on our mini-breaks in England. I take a shorter very English book for instance  a Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter and Agatha Christie on our trips taken over the last year. So last week I read Agatha Christie’s One , Two, Buckle My Shoe  published in 1940 in which Hercule Poirot’s dentist Mr Henry Morley is found shot dead in his surgery only hours after treating the famed Belgian detective. 

Chief Inspector Japp believes it is a suicide, a theory that seems to gain justification when one of his patients that morning, Mr Amberiotis, a mysterious character involved in espionage, later that day dies of an overdose of novocaine and adrenaline. Did Mr Morley kill himself in remorse over a professional error? Poirot doubts that and suspects murder. 

Miss Christie introduces the reader to a large cast of suspects. The female grenadier Georgina Morley, the dentist’s sister, Gladys Nevill, his young attractive P1050222secretary, Frank Carter, her unsuitable unemployed young man, Reilly, Morley’s business partner, a dentist with a drink problem, Alfred Biggs, the page boy; and Morley’s patients, the dowdy Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, Mr Barnes, a secretive civil servant, Alistair Blunt, a distinguished banker, and Howard Raikes, a young man with revolutionary ideas. We later learn that Raikes hopes to marry Jane Olivera, the daughter of Julia, Blunt’s niece by marriage. We are taken on a journey littered with red herrings, and when a character disappears we suspect a body will turn up soon.

P1050199Along the way the Queen of Crime scatters some snippets of social commentary that could have been written yesterday suggesting that her books contain a little bit more than just clever puzzles.

He glanced at the paper and remarked that the Government seemed to be passing from a state of incompetence to one of positive imbecility!

Of course England was a very different country when this book was written, but some things never change.

‘Blunt is the kind of man who in private life would always pay his bills and live within his income-whether he’d got twopence a year or several million makes no difference. He is that type of felllow. And he thinks that there is no reason why a country shouldn’t be the same! No costly experiments.

No frenzied expenditure on possible Utopias.’

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is not in the top drawer of Miss Christie’s books but it is a pleasant enough read, with a very minimum of the attitudes of the time, and with a typical Christie surprise at the end. 

[photos taken at Westonbirt, the National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, where you can imagine you are back in the England of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.] 

 

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]