Sunday Salon – An Ordinary Couple?

Sunday SalonAfter  ploughing my way through White Noise and feeling a bit jaded I turned to an old favourite – Agatha Christie and this week I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs. After such a rambling, verbose book as White Noise it was so refreshing to read this book, posing a mystery to be solved – what had happened in the house by the canal, whose child had died and how, and where was Mrs Lancaster?

pricking-of-my-thumbsThis is the first Tommy and Tuppence story I’ve read, but it’s not the first Agatha Christie wrote – there were earlier ones featuring Tommy and Tuppence, which I’m now going to look out for. Outwardly they are an ordinary couple, pleasant and past the prime of life, just like any other old couple. But appearances are deceptive and in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tuppence in particular has no hesitation about getting mixed up in dangerous situations. Her daughter wishes that ‘her age she’d learn to sit quiet and not do things.’ There’s no chance of that after Tuppence met Mrs Lancaster in the nursing home where Tommy’s Aunt Ada had died. Seemingly incoherent and rambling Mrs Lancaster referred to ‘something behind the fireplace’ and a ‘poor child’ and when she disappeared after leaving behind a painting of a house by a canal Tuppence sets out to investigate.

As you would imagine from the title of the book (taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), ‘something wicked’ is afoot, there is evil about and Tuppence’s life is in danger. A dark and sinister tale.

I was still feeling like reading another mystery and picked up Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Jackson Brodie featured in the other book by Kate Atkinson that I’ve read – Case Histories – and I was pleased to find he’s in this one too. I read this in a couple of days, finishing it this morning as I just had to find out what happened. My faith in books has been fully restored as this is a very good book, and very satisfying – a complex and complicated plot with lots of action, good characterisation and drama.  More about that in a separate post.

Not Every Book’s a Winner

death-of-a-gossipI’ve read a lot of good books recently so I shouldn’t really be surprised to read one that’s not so good but I was a little disappointed with the last book I’ve read – Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton. I hadn’t read anything before by M C Beaton but I kept seeing her books on display at my local library. The New York Times Book Review quote  on the back cover made this book sound ok: “An enchanting series … M C Beaton has a foolproof plot for the village mystery”, so I thought I’d try it.

This is the first in her Hamish Macbeth Murder Mystery series and sadly it’s going to be the only one I’ll read. Despite the interesting quotes at the start of each chapter it’s a bit lightweight. The story is told mainly from one character’s perspective and that is the rather silly 19 year old secretary, Alice, who along with seven other people has enrolled in a fishing class at John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, staying at Lochdubh Hotel a remote village in the Scottish Highlands. The other “students” include a rich American couple, a “galloping major”, a twelve year old boy and a society widow, Lady Jane Winter. Hamish is the local bobby, apparently slow-witted and oafish, ambling aimlessly round the village.

Lady Jane is a most unpleasant woman who appears to know secrets that all the others would prefer to remain secret. So it is no surprise to find out that she is a gossip columnist and when, as the book title indicates, her strangled body is fished out of the river there is no shortage of suspects. Despite help from detectives from Strathbane CID it is Hamish who solves the case.

There was too much about the techniques of fishing for my my liking. I thought the characters were really just stereotypes, the descriptions of what everyone was wearing became quite tedious and the plot was rather simple. But it is a very quick read when you don’t want anything too challenging.

There is a quote on the inside of the front cover from Anne Robinson and I wondered if this  really was from the icy, sarcastic  presenter of the Weakest Link. It seemed too fulsome:

Sharp, witty, hugely intelligent, unfailingly entertaining, delightfully intolerant and oh so magnificantly non-pc.

Maybe the words “delightfully intolerant” and “magnificantly non-pc” are from the Anne Robinson who upset me by wanting to put the Welsh into Room 101! She’s not been my favourite ever since then, even though I used to like her Saturday morning radio show in the early 1990s.

Book Notes – Crime Fiction

I’ve recently read the following books:

Tiger In the Smoke by Margarey Allingham (first published 1952).  Jack Havoc is on the loose in post-war London, resulting in murder, mystery and mayhem.  I was immediately struck by the imagery – the fog pervades everything. At times I wished there was a bit less description but at other times I was completely caught up in the story and could feel the tension and fear in the characters. I expected Inspector Campion to take the lead but he only appears as a minor character. I thought the attitude to women was a bit condescending, and Meg, the young widow, didn’t really engage my sympathy.  However, Canon Avril is one of the best characters (along with Tiddy Doll), and forms a complete contrast with Havoc – good/evil.  His view of anger is that it is “the alcohol of the body”, which “deadens the perceptions.” And l liked his thoughts on the soul: “When I was a child I thought of it as a little ghostly bean, kidney shaped, I don’t know why. Now I think of it as the man I am with when I’m alone.”  After a slow start I read with increasing anticipation to find out what happened next.

Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer. Published in 1953 a year after Tiger In the Smoke this is a much lighter novel. As the title implies there are many suspects for the murder of Sampson Warrenby, found dead under a tree in his garden with a bullet through his brain and many people all too ready to tell Inspector Hemingway who did it. I was immediately drawn into a world gone by in a small village, with characters such as Mrs Midgeholme with her pack of Pekes, whose names all begin with ‘U’, Mr Drybeck, the old-fashioned solicitor, Warrenby’s long-suffering niece, Mavis, the country squire and his lady-wife, the maiden aunt Miss Patterdale, and the village bobby on his bicycle. A spot of blackmail, and a  number of twists and turns in the plot kept me interested to the end.

I thought A Christmas Visitor by Anne Perry was a little disappointing. The only Christmas connection I could see is that it is set just before Christmas. The good thing about this book is that it is very short (133 pages). The bad thing is that it is rather tedious. It began well set sometime in the 19th century with Henry Rathbone’s visit to the Dreghorn family near Ullswater in the Lake District for Christmas.  Judah, a judge in the local court at Penrith, had been found drowned in a stream, having gone out late at night. It was assumed at first that it was an accident. Antonia, Judah’s widow tells Henry of the death of her husband and then one by one Judah’s brothers, Benjamin, Ephraim and Naomi, his sister-in-law arrive and are met by Henry and he relates the account of Judah’s death to each one and I started to get tired of the repetition. The chief suspect is Ashton Gower, who has just been released from prison, sentenced by Judah to twelve years for forgery. Gower claims to be the rightful owner of the Dreghorns’ house. Not the most riveting of mysteries.

The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards

The Arsenic Labyrinth (Lake District Mystery, #3)

The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards is such a good book that I had to put to one side the other books I was reading in order to concentrate on this one alone. It is a fascinating book. Not only is it set in the Lake District, a beautiful part of the country but it is a mystery of the best kind. Ten years earlier Emma Bestwick had disappeared. At the time there had been no apparent reason why she vanished into thin air but more information is revealed following an article in the local paper appealing for the case to be re-opened on the tenth anniversary of her disappearance. There are many twists and turns as Detective Inspector Hannah Scarlett’s Cold Case Review Team carries out its investigation.

This is the third book in Martin Edwards’ Lake District mystery series but it stands well on its own. I haven’t read the first two yet – The Coffin Trail and The Cipher Garden – but I will. I only wish I’d come across these books before. Martin has a very good website giving much more information – see here.

The central characters are Guy, aka R L Stevenson, (you know someone is not who he says he is when he introduces himself as R L Stevenson and Guy has many secrets!), Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind, a former historian who has left Oxford to live in the Lake District. As Miranda, Daniel’s partner becomes less enchanted with living in the Lakes,  preferring to live in London, the relationship between Daniel and Hannah is resumed (there is obviously some history to their relationship in the earlier books – I think I’ll have to read those books soon). Daniel meanwhile carries on with researching Ruskin’s life and his dread of “industry encroaching on the glory of the Lakes”, but also gets caught up in Hannah’s investigation.

Soon attention turns to the Arsenic Labyrinth, hidden in the hills on Mispickel Scar. The labyrinth was on the ground level with “shafts and tunnels from the mines winding around the length and breadth of the Scar.” (The author’s note at the end reveals that arsenic was never mined in Cumbria.) The arsenic works brought about the ruin of the Inchmore family and Mispickel Scar is said to be cursed.  Alban Clough, the fount of all knowledge on local mythology, is the owner of the Museum of Myth and Legend, where Emma had worked for a while. But just where did the legend  of the curse of Mispickel Scar originate? And what is the connection between the Clough and Inchmore families and Emma’s disappearance? Tom Inchmore, was the only suspect at the time of Emma’s disappearance but he died some years ago – did he kill her? How does her sister, Karen cope with Emma’s death and where do Francis and Vanessa, who Emma lodged with, fit in? To complicate matters it turns out that Vanessa was previously married to Jeremy, Karen’s husband. The overlapping and complex relationships are eventually sorted out, but just when you think you’ve worked it all out there are yet more complications. I never guessed who-did-it until just before the end.

There is mystery upon mystery as the secrets of the Arsenic Labyrinth are revealed. An engrossing book that had me racing through it and itching to get back to it each time I put it down.

A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill

A Clubbable Woman (Dalziel & Pascoe, #1)

A Clubbable Woman came out in 1970. It was Reginald Hill’s first published book and the first book featuring Dalziel and Pascoe. I borrowed this book from the library and read it very quickly last week. At times I thought I knew the story as I’ve watched practically all the Dalziel and Pascoe episodes on TV but I couldn’t remember how it ended.

Connon, known as Connie, was set to play rugby for England before an ankle injury ended his career. He is no longer Wetherton Rugby Football Club’s star player but he still plays occasionally. After a match in which he returns home dazed and confused after a blow (was it deliberate?) on the head he finds his wife, Mary watching television, leaving him to get his own meal. Feeling sick he goes upstairs, then passes out. Later he realises that she is still downstairs, apparently still watching the television – then he discovers that she is dead, with a hole in the middle of her forehead.

Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the murder. Dalziel who is a member of the rugby club is on his home ground and knows all the players.  Has Connon killed his wife suspecting that she had been unfaithful? Or could someone at the club have it in for the rugby star and his family? As the mystery unravels, I was just as interested in the characters of Dalziel and Pascoe as in identifying the murderer. My image of Dalziel is inevitably formed on Warren Clarke’s portrayal of him and this fits well with Reginald Hill’s description:

Superintendent Andrew Dalziel was a big man. When he took his jacket off and dropped it over the back of the chair it was like a Bedouin pitching camp. He had a big head, greying now; big eyes, short-sighted but losing nothing of their penetrating force behind a pair of soild-framed spectacles; and he blew his nose into a khaki handkerchief a foot-and-a-half square. … Dalziel sank over his chair and scratched himself vigorously between the legs. Not absent-mindedly – nothing he did was mannerism – but with conscious senuousness. Like scratching a dog to keep it happy, a constable had once said within range of Dalziel’s very sharp hearing. He had liked the simile and therefor ignored it.

He is passionate about rugby and Pascoe (then a Sergeant) responds “with the resigned condescension of one certain of the intellectual superiority of Association Football.” Pascoe’s thoughts about the investigation and about Dalziel are scattered throughout the book:

Do I want to amuse Dalziel? And if I do, is it to keep him sweet so I can manipulate him, like I pretend? or is it because he puts the fear of God into me? Just how good is he anyway? Or is he just a ruthless sucker of other men’s blood?

He calls him “Uncle Andrew”, “Randy Andy” and “Bruiser Dalziel lecturing me on tact and diplomacy. It was like Henry the Eighth preaching about marital constancy”. Pascoe’s degree is the butt of Dalziel’s jokes and Pascoe is offended by Dalziel’s lack of organization. He learns that Dalziel was divorced and his wife had gone off with a milkman, fifteen years earlier. Despite being two such diametrically opposed characters you can trace the growing bond between Dalziel and Pascoe and by the end of the book Pascoe finds himself cast in the role of Dalziel’s confidant and even becoming enthusiastic over a game of rugby.

Reginald Hill has written many Dalziel and Pascoe novels, enough to last me for years. I’ve only read three so far and I’m not going to try to read them in the order they were written, but I’ll be looking out for more of them from now on.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

This is the 2007 winner of Long Barn Books First Novel Award. From the back cover of A Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: Charlie Howard writes caper novels about a career thief. He also happens to be one.
It’s set in Amsterdam, conveying its atmosphere, canals and buildings well for some one like me, who has never been there. He is asked by an American to steal two little monkey figurines to make up the set, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil‘. They don’t appear to have any value and he has to steal them from two different people on the same night. Then the American is found murdered and at first Charlie is suspected of being the murderer.

From that point on the book moves at a fast pace through all the ins and outs of the mystery – who did murder the American, why, and what is the significance of the monkeys? At the same time he has a problem with a book he is writing and spends time on the phone discussing the difficulties of sorting out the plot with Victoria, his agent in London.

It kept me guessing and amused. The only problem I had reading it was that I raced through it to find out what happens. The three monkeys have always interested me, ever since I was given a small ‘speak no evil’ monkey. It is valuable to me as it was given to me by my favourite aunty. I don’t know where it came from or why there is only one. I always wondered where the other two were. Maybe there is some mystery surrounding this set as well.

There are more Charlie Howard mysteries to come. At the end of the book he leaves Amsterdam for Paris and A Good Thief’s Guide to Paris will be the next book in a series of Charlie Howard mysteries, so I’m looking forward to reading more from Chris Ewan.


August’s Books Part One

Books read in August

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Made in Heaven by Adele Geras
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert

I started August reading The Crooked House by Agatha Christie, which I had borrowed from the library. It’s been a long time since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I felt like reading something quick and easy after some of the long books I’ve read this year. This is a short book and an easy read, but enjoyable because I didn’t have to think too much and I guessed the murderer’s identity. Sometimes that’s annoying but in this instance I found it satisfying to spot the clues along the way – and be right.

Agatha Christie described this as “one of my best.” Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot feature in the book and as my current knowledge of Christie’s books are from the TV programmes I found this a refreshing change. That’s not to say I dislike Miss Marple and Poirot – on the contrary I avidly read and enjoyed many of the books featuring these two characters and love both Joan Hickson’s and David Suchet’s performances and the productions as a whole.

Aristide, the head of the Leonides family has been murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. It seemed that they were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion, but things are not what they seem. His young widow, fifty years his junior, is the obvious suspect. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of Sophia, the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

Next up was Adele Geras’s Made in Heaven. It’s a story that pulls you along – even though I could see where it was heading and the ending was no surprise. The main themes of the book are marriage and divorce and relationships. A traditional wedding is being planned between Zannah and Adrian. The story opens with the lunch that has been arranged so that Zannah’s parents can meet Adrian’s mother and stepfather. Zannah wants a perfect, elaborate and very expensive wedding, to make up for her first wedding in a Registry Office, which ended in divorce. She knows exactly what she wants – the dress, flowers, church, reception and so on. The first problem that arises is the strange behaviour of Joss, Zannah’s mother, on meeting Adrian’s parents and everything goes downhill from then on, from her relationship with Adrian and Cal, her ex-husband to that of Adrian with Isis, Zannah’s daughter. Obviously there is a secret that will eventually surface and cause complications all round.

The characters are believable and the analysis of their relationships is good, so much so that I found some of the characters exasperating. The descriptions of the wedding preparations, the homes and garden, the beautiful dress materials, the sumptuous, delicious food bring the book to life, although I found it intriguing that one of the locations is Altrincham. I used to live near Altrincham and went to school there, but apart from the name I didn’t recognise it in this book – but then that wasn’t important in terms of the plot. However, I did get quite excited when “Altrincham” was mentioned as I’ve never come across it in fiction before and wanted more detail.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman and Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert are much longer books.

I found all of them to be satisfying and excellent books. I’ve already written about Season of the Witch here. The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and I’ll write a separate post about all three books.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a contrast to the other books. The story is narrated by a boy who leaves California to attend a college in New England and becomes involved with a group of students studying ancient Greek. From the back cover:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

There is a death recounted in the prologue. The book then goes back in time and the mystery unfolds. I found it just a bit too long and drawn out in parts and wanted to wind it up before it actually finished, but taken as a whole the tension and pace of the book was maintained.