Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

I first read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia in 2012 but never got round to writing about it. It was a good choice to re-read for the 1936 Club as I didn’t remember much about it. It’s a Poirot mystery, but he doesn’t appear until about halfway. As the title tells you it is set in Mesopotamia, the area in the Middle East between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates (the area of present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey).

An archaeologist’s wife is murdered on the shores of the River Tigris in Iraq…

It was clear to Amy Leatheran that something sinister was going on at the Hassanieh dig in Iraq; something associated with the presence of ‘Lovely Louise’, wife of celebrated archaeologist Dr Leidner.

In a few days’ time Hercule Poirot was due to drop in at the excavation site. But with Louise suffering from terrifying hallucinations, and tension within the group becoming almost unbearable, Poirot might just be too late…

Agatha Christie had first visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. So, by 1936 when she wrote Murder in Mesopotamia she had frequently accompanied Max on his archaeological digs and her books set in the Middle East are based on the everyday life that she experienced on a dig and on the people she met.

The murder victim is Louise Leidner, the wife of the leader of the expedition. The novel is narrated by Nurse Amy Leatheran, who had been asked by Dr Leidner to care for Louise, although he is vague about what is wrong with her. It seems she is scared and has nervous terrors. She has fearful visions and the other members of the expedition blame her for the oppressive atmosphere on the dig.

It’s a seemingly impossible murder – she is found in her room, dead from a blow on her head, and suspicion falls on Louise’s first husband who had been sending her threatening letters, or so she had claimed. But no strangers had been seen on or near the expedition house and it is down to Poirot to discover what had actually happened. Fortunately Poirot was in the area, having sorted out a military scandal in Syria (referred to at the beginning of Murder on the Orient Express) and was passing through the expedition site on his way to Baghdad before returning to London.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I think the details of how the murder was committed are rather far-fetched. I was hoping that Agatha Christie had mentioned writing it in her Autobiography, but I couldn’t find any reference to it, although she wrote extensively about her time in the Middle East with Max, and in her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live she wrote about how much she loved the country and its people.

The Mirror Dance by Catriona McPherson

Hodder and Stoughton| 21 January 2021| 259 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*

Description:

Something sinister is afoot in the streets of Dundee, when a puppeteer is found murdered behind his striped Punch and Judy stand, as children sit cross-legged drinking ginger beer. At once, Dandy Gilver’s semmingly-innocuous investigation into plagiarism takes a darker turn. The gruesome death seems to be inextricably bound to the gloomy offices of Doig’s Publishers, its secrets hidden in the real stories behind their girls’ magazines The Rosie Cheek and The Freckle.

On meeting a mysterious professor from St Andrews, Dandy and her faithful colleague Alex Osbourne are flung into the worlds of academia, the theatre and publishing. Nothing is quite as it seems, and behind the cheerful facades of puppets and comic books, is a troubled history has begun to repeat itself.

My thoughts:

I’ve read some of the Dandy Gilver mysteries by Catriona McPherson, set in the 1920s and 1930s Scotland. The Mirror Dance is the 15th book. The last one I read was the 6th, a few years ago now, so when I saw it on NetGalley I requested it. I was pleased to find, that although I’d missed so many of the books in the series, it’s easy to read as a standalone.

It begins on an August Bank Holiday weekend in 1937, when Dandy (short for Dandelion Dahlia!), a private detective, receives a phone call from Miss Sandy Bissett, a magazine publisher in Dundee. She asks Dandy to go to Dudhope Park to warn the Punch and Judy man there that he is infringing copyrighted property as he is using two of the magazine’s cartoon characters, Rosie Cheeke and Freckles in his show. So, the next day, Bank Holiday Monday, together with her female staff, Grant, her lady’s maid, Becky her housemaid and Mrs Tilling, her cook, Dandy goes to Dundee to see the puppet show, looking out for the appearance of the magazine characters.

But during the show, the puppet Scaramouche extended his neck upwards, unfolding from pleats like an accordion and then stayed still like a tableau. The children lost interest and the adults were grumbling. When Dandy and Grant went to the back of the Punch and Judy tent they found the puppeteer slumped dead behind the scene, with his throat cut. The police are called but Dandy and her partner, Alec take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, an apparently impossible murder, with no signs of the murderer, and no one knew the puppeteer’s name.

I liked the setting. There is a good sense of location in Dundee in the 1930s, when the effects of the First World War were still lingering and the threat of another war was on the horizon. This is a convoluted murder mystery, where there is more than meets the eye. There is a lot of detail about the publishing industry and the theatrical world of the time which was interesting, but overall the amount of detail of everyday life, with all its sights and smells, slowed the book down too much for me.

There are several complications, red herrings and apparent impossibilities and I was puzzled about the relevance of a murder 50 years earlier in the same park, of an earlier Punch and Judy man. I became a bit lost in the detail about the number of women suspects Dandy and Alec consider – there were two, and then perhaps there were three. Who were they and what was the motive for the murder? Gradually that became clear, but I got exasperated at the number of times Dandy and the others went over and over what was happening, working out how it could have happened and why. Although some of it is confusing and I hadn’t worked out the identity of the murderer some of it seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t see why it took them so long to work it out. So, although I enjoyed the actual murder mystery and the mirror dance aspect, where everything is turned on its head, I did not enjoy how it was told.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

My Friday Post: Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, one of my TBRs that I bought two years ago. It’s a standalone book, first published in 2017.

It begins with a Prologue:

Those months before she disappeared were the best. .

Chapter One begins:

Laurel let herself into her daughter’s flat. It was, even on this relatively bright day, dark and gloomy. The window at the front was overwhelmed by a terrible tangle of wisteria while the other side of the flat was completely overshadowed by the small woodland it backed onto.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 57 (page 56 is blank):

Laurel was alone. Her family was broken. There was nothing left. Literally nothing.

Blurb:

She was fifteen, her mother’s golden girl.
She had her whole life ahead of her.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Ellie was gone.

Ten years on, Laurel has never given up hope of finding Ellie. And then she meets a charming and charismatic stranger who sweeps her off her feet. But what really takes her breath away is when she meets his nine-year-old daughter. Because his daughter is the image of Ellie. Now all those unanswered questions that have haunted Laurel come flooding back.

What really happened to Ellie? And who still has secrets to hide?

Can’t-Wait Wednesday: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Can’t-Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings, to spotlight and discuss the books we’re excited about that we have yet to read. Generally they’re books that have yet to be released.

This week I’m featuring The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson, release date 3 June 2021. I’ve read just two of Ragnar Jónasson’s books in his Icelandic Hulda series and enjoyed both of them. So, I’m keen to read this one, which is a standalone novel.

Description


‘TEACHER WANTED ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD . . .’
.

Una knows she is struggling to deal with her father’s sudden, tragic suicide. She spends her nights drinking alone in Reykjavik, stricken with thoughts that she might one day follow in his footsteps.

So when she sees an advert seeking a teacher for two girls in the tiny village of Skálar – population of ten – on the storm-battered north coast of the island, she sees it as a chance to escape.

But once she arrives, Una quickly realises nothing in city life has prepared her for this. The villagers are unfriendly. The weather is bleak. And, from the creaky attic bedroom of the old house where she’s living, she’s convinced she hears the ghostly sound of singing.

Una worries that she’s losing her mind.

And then, just before midwinter, a young girl from the village is found dead. Now there are only nine villagers left – and Una fears that one of them has blood on their hands . . .

What upcoming release are you eagerly anticipating?

My Friday Post: Not Dark Yet by Peter Robinson

Yesterday Peter Robinson’s latest Inspector Banks book, Not Dark Yet was published and once I’d read the opening pages I decided to abandon any plans I had for what to read next and started to read it properly. So this is my choice this week for Book Beginnings on Friday and the Friday 56.

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The book begins in Moldova:

Zelda hadn’t visited Chișinău since she had been abducted outside the orphanage at the age of seventeen. And now she was back. She wasn’t sure how she was going to find the man she wanted – she had no contacts in the city – but she did have one or two vague ideas where to begin.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Banks found himself with a lot to think about as he made his way back to Vauxhall Underground station. He had originally intended to do some shopping while he was in London, check out the big Waterstones in Piccadilly, visit FOPP in Cambridge Circus, but decided he couldn’t face it. Like everyone else, he did most of his shopping online these days. London was too hot and too crowded today; he just wanted to go home.

My thoughts exactly each time I’ve been to London – I can’t stand crowds.

This is the 27th Inspector Banks books and I’ve read I’ve several of them, totally out of order, which doesn’t seem to matter – they work well as stand alone books. I’ve also watched the TV series, which I enjoy even though they are different from the books and my vision of Banks is nothing like Stephen Tompkinson who plays him. In fact, the characters are clearly meant to be different versions of the same person; they look different, have different personalities and meet different fates in different worlds.

The 1936 Club

I read about the 1936 Club on Karen’s blog, BookerTalk. It’s being hosted by Karen at kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at stuckinabook and is scheduled for 12-18 April. It’s been a while since I joined in one of their Club Reading Weeks, but when I looked at the books I’ve read and the books that I have waiting to be read I found that quite a lot of them were first published in 1936.

There is just one of these that I haven’t read – Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston. But I would like to re-read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia that I first read in May 2012, because I never wrote a review post about it. And there are some short stories, first published in 1936 that I haven’t read yet, such as Problem at Sea, which is included in the short story collection, Poirot’s Early Cases.

Can’t-Wait Wednesday: The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Can’t-Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings, to spotlight and discuss the books we’re excited about that we have yet to read. Generally they’re books that have yet to be released.

Sharon Bolton is one of my favourite authors, so I’m delighted to see that she has a new book waiting to be published: The Pact: Release date 27 May 2021

Description

A dark and compulsive thriller about secrets, privilege and revenge.

A golden summer, and six talented friends are looking forward to the brightest of futures – until a daredevil game goes horribly wrong, and a woman and two children are killed.

18-year-old Megan takes the blame, leaving the others free to get on with their lives. In return, they each agree to a ‘favour’, payable on her release from prison.

Twenty years later Megan is free.
Let the games begin . . .

What upcoming release are you eagerly anticipating?

Two Chief Inspector Macdonald Books by E C R Lorac

E C R Lorac was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s, and a member of the prestigious Detection Club. She formed her pseudonym by using her initials and for the surname, the first part of her middle name spelled backwards. She also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac.

I’ve read just a few of her Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald books., written under the name E C R Lorac – Bats in the Belfry (1937) , Fell Murder (1944), Murder by Matchlight (1945) and Fire in the Thatch (1946).

And recently I’ve read two more : Checkmate to Murder, first published in 1944 and Murder in the Mill Race, first published in 1952. These have been recently re-published by the British Library as part of the British Library Crime Classics, with introductions by Martin Edwards.

On a dismally foggy night in Hampstead, London, a curious party has gathered in an artist’s studio to weather the wartime blackout. A civil servant and a government scientist match wits in a game of chess, while Bruce Manaton paints the portrait of his characterful sitter, bedecked in Cardinal’s robes at the other end of the room. In the kitchen, Rosanne Manaton prepares tea for the charlady of Mr. Folliner, the secretive miser next door.

When the brutal murder of ‘Old Mr. F’ is discovered by his Canadian infantryman nephew, it’s not long before Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called to the scene to take the young soldier away. But even at first glance the case looks far from black-and-white. Faced with a bevy of perplexing alibis and suspicious circumstances, Macdonald and the C.I.D. set to work separating the players from the pawns to shed light on this toppling of a lonely king in the dead of night.

What I found fascinating in this book is the insight into what life was like in wartime London, complete with the London fog and the details of the blackout and although the Blitz was over there were still plenty of bangs and noise so that a gunshot wasn’t easily heard. The setting in a large studio that opens the book is a quiet scene as Bruce paints his sitter dressed as Cardinal Richelieu and two friends play a game of chess. Roseanne, Bruce’s sister is busy in the kitchen cooking their supper.Their evening is disrupted when a Special Constable bursts in with a young soldier in tow, claiming that he had killed his great-uncle in the next door building. This turns out to be more complicated than it first seemed. Even with just a limited number of suspects I couldn’t didn’t work out who the murderer was, nor how the murder had been committed. Macdonald explains it all at the end, having worked out ‘a reconstruction of the possibilities.’

~~~

When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice.

Everyone says that Sister Monica, warden of a children’s home, is a saint – but is she? A few months after the Ferens’ arrival her body is found drowned in the mill race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

One of the things I think that Lorac excelled in was her settings. Each one is described so that you can easily picture the scenery and the landscape. And that is important in this book as Sister Monica drowned in the mill race, the stream leading into the water mill. She sets out through Macdonald exactly how that could have happened. She also conveys the atmosphere and the social interactions of an isolated village in Devon in the years just after the end of the Second World War. On the surface this is an idyllic village, but it is just like any other community, with a cross-section of personalities, and a mix of neighbourliness and an undercurrent of envy, hatred and malice. Sister Monica, a formidable woman, revered by some, is in charge of a children’s home, which she rules with a rod of iron and knows everything about everybody. Others regard her with caution, as the bailiff, Sanderson tells Anne Ferens, the doctor’s wife:

She is one of those people who can not only lie plausibly and with conviction, but she can tell a lie to your face without batting an eyelid, knowing that you know it’s a lie, and it’s very hard to bowl her out. (page 34)

But the village close ranks when she is found dead in the mill race and it is hard for Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeeve to get the villagers to open up and and talk about what she was really like. It appears to be suicide, but is it?

My Friday Post: Checkmate to Murder by E C R Lorac

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring one of the books I’m currently reading, Checkmate to Murder: a Second World War Mystery by E C R Lorac, first published in 1944. One of the things I like about this book is the setting and atmosphere of wartime London, when details such as blackouts, fire-watching and air raid precautions were everyday events.

It begins:

The vast studio had two focus points of light; between two pools of radiance was a stretch of shadows, colourless, formless, empty. At one end of the long, barn-like structure, where the light was most strongly concentrated, was a model’s platform. A high-backed Spanish chair stood upon it, with a dark leather screen as background. On the chair sat a man arrayed in the superb scarlet of a Cardinal’s robe, the broad-brimmed Cardinal’s hat upon his head.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

“Deceased was a miser, one of the real old-fashioned storybook misers. I won’t say I haven’t met one before – I have, though they are getting less common than they used to be. D’you remember old Simple Simon, who was always getting run-in for begging on the Embankment – £525 we found under the boards in his bedroom when he died, and another fifteen pounds odd in his filthy bedding. He died of starvation at last.”

~~~

About the book:

On a dismally foggy night in Hampstead, London, a curious party has gathered in an artist’s studio to weather the wartime blackout. A civil servant and a government scientist match wits in a game of chess, while Bruce Manaton paints the portrait of his characterful sitter, bedecked in Cardinal’s robes at the other end of the room. In the kitchen, Rosanne Manaton prepares tea for the charlady of Mr. Folliner, the secretive miser next door.

When the brutal murder of ‘Old Mr. F’ is discovered by his Canadian infantryman nephew, it’s not long before Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called to the scene to take the young soldier away. But even at first glance the case looks far from black-and-white. Faced with a bevy of perplexing alibis and suspicious circumstances, Macdonald and the C.I.D. set to work separating the players from the pawns to shed light on this toppling of a lonely king in the dead of night.

What do you think – would you read this book?

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

I hung back a while from buying The Thursday Murder Club because of all the hype it has received, but in the end I gave in to my curiosity and I listened to the audiobook (one of my Audible trial books) rather than reading an e-book or a paperback. Currently it is no.1 on the Amazon UK best sellers chart and it has been on the list for 26 weeks. When I started listening to it it had over 41,000 reviews and by the time I finished it there were 42,679 reviews – the vast majority being 5 and 4 stars reviews.Unfortunately, I don’t think it lived up to the hype and I can only give it 2 or maybe 2.5 stars.

Blurb:

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.

But when a local property developer shows up dead, ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ finds themselves in the middle of their first live case.

The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing 80, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?

My thoughts:

It’s read by Lesley Manville, who is so good at bringing the characters to life.The estimated listening time is 12 hours and 25 minutes, but I listened to it over 7 days with increasing impatience. It begins well but the labyrinth-like plot is expanded with so much unnecessary padding and digressions into the characters’ backstories that the story soon dragged. More murders follow the first and I was curious to find out who did what to whom, so I persevered. You do have to suspend your disbelief at the way the police, PC Donna De Freitas and DCI Chris Hudson, carried out their investigation and shared information with the four friends.

I did have to rewind several times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything as it’s so easy to get carried away, listening to the chatty style of narrative. There are 115 short chapters, alternating between a third person narrative and the diary of Joyce in the first person. This makes the narrative rather disjointed as it follows several storylines, with each chapter ending at the point where you want to know more, but you have to wait whilst Joyce reads from her diary or until another storyline continues, before you can back to each one. The action is far too slow for me, and the ending, when you finally get there, is a bit of an anti-climax.

I liked the characters, some more than others and in the main they are convincing and believable. But despite all the detail of their life stories I still wondered what Elizabeth’s job really was, although there are hints that she was a spy. She had travelled all over the world and had lots of useful contacts for solving a murder mystery, far too coincidentally useful I thought. She is the leader of the group, an organiser and very bossy. Elizabeth’s husband Stephen is a minor character. He is an enigma; he has dementia but plays a good game of chess.Then there are Penny, who is a retired police officer, now in a coma, and her husband, John. Penny could have explained a lot, but that’s not revealed until just before the end of the book. Joyce is quiet and unassuming, but the waffle in her diary hints that there is more to her than the obvious insignificant old lady she appears to be. She likes Bernard, another minor character, who sits on a seat overlooking the Garden of Rest. Finally, there is the enigmatic Polish builder, Bogdan, who I grew to like as the story progressed.

This is a ‘cosy’ mystery, quietly humorous in parts – not laugh out loud funny, but it did make me smile in a few places. The murder mystery element is over complicated with far too many twists and turns, suspects and false trails. I was glad to finish it. Except when you get to the end of the audiobook it hasn’t finally finished as there is chapter 116, which is a conversation between Marian Keyes, who loved the book and found it much funnier than I did, and Richard about the novel and his experience of writing his debut book.

Well, with so many reviews full of praise and glowing endorsements from numerous other authors and professional reviewers it certainly doesn’t matter much what I think. But I am left wondering just what Ian Rankin meant when he wrote: “So smart and funny. Deplorably good” – surely that’s an oxymoron? And why he is described as “Ian Rankin, New York Times bestselling author of Westwind“? What about his Rebus books ….

Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be as good as I’d hoped, but maybe a film would be better – Steven Spielberg has bought the film rights to the novel – that should be good.