Sunday Salon

Last Sunday I wrote that I was going to concentrate on reading just two books at a time concentrating on reading one non-fiction and one fiction. I sort of stuck to my plan and am still reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I finished Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear (more about that in a later post) and my plan after that was to go back to reading one of the books shown on the sidebar – Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book.

But it didn’t work out like that, because I went with D to a hospital appointment and needed a book to read whilst waiting. Both Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book are heavy hardbacks and wouldn’t fit in my handbag so instead I picked up one of my library books – Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell and started to read that. Reading in a hospital waiting room is an exercise in concentration. First off  we had to use the hand spray to prevent catching, spreading the swine flu germs – how that works I don’t understand given that once you’re in you have to touch chairs, doors etc. Then we were told to sit on the green chairs whilst waiting to go to the next waiting area. The green chairs are next to the entrance doors that open automatically each time someone goes near, and it was a wet, windy day. One small boy was fascinated by the doors and kept walking in front of them saying “close” when they opened which meant that they stayed open. This went on for several minutes until his mother came and took him away. I read a few pages whilst being alternately amused and irritated and shivering.

We then were called to the next waiting area – no automatic doors, but a constant stream of doctors and nurses calling out names and ushering people through, people complaining about how long they’d had to wait, the phone ringing and people talking loudly. Still, it is a hospital, not a reading room, no matter how long you have to wait. But Faceless Killers is sufficiently engrossing so that I was hardly aware of what was going on around me.

I finshed it this morning and will now read either Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book. I started both of them a while back and only put them down because they’re so heavy it’s hard to read them in bed (where I like to do my reading). I’ll have to work on strengthening my hands and arms.

I hadn’t heard of Henning Mankell until the BBC broadcast the Wallender series last year with Kenneth Branagh playing Kurt Wallender. I’d been meaning to read one of the books since then. Branagh’s face was inevitably in my mind as I read Faceless Killers, but as it wasn’t one of the books filmed the rest was purely down to my imagination from reading the book.  Wallender is yet another detective to join the ranks of Rebus in my mind. He is a senior police officer and, like Morse, listens to opera in his car and in his apartment. He is lonely, morose, overweight and drinks too much. His wife, Mona has left him, he’s estranged from his daughter, Linda and has problems with his father, an artist who has painted the same picture for years and is now senile.

I discovered on the Inspector Wallender website that Faceless Killers is the first in the Kurt Wallender series of books, so for once I’ve begun at the beginning of a series! (Although Wallender first appears in The Pyramid, a collection of short stories). It’s about the brutal murder of the Lovgrens, an old man and his wife in an isolated farmhouse in Skane, the southern most province in Sweden (there’s a helpful map in the book). The old lady’s last word is “foreign”. Does this mean the killers are foreigners? When this is leaked to the press the ugly issue of racial hatred is raised. Are the killers illegal immigrants from the refugee camps, or should the police be looking at the Lovgrens’ family? Why would anyone kill them in such a savage way – they weren’t rich and had no enemies?

This is not just a detective story, apart from racial discrimination and refugees, Wallender reflects on the problems of change in Swedish society, of aging, and of the uncertainty and fragility of life – the incantation he often reflects on is:

A time to live and a time to die.

I hope to find the next Wallender book to read soon: The Dogs of Riga.

Faceless Killers, like other Wallender books, has been adapted into a series on Swedish TV and an English version, again with Kenneth Branagh, is due to be broadcast next year.

Teaser Tuesdays – Among the Mad


Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) ‘teaser’ sentences from that page.
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

 Today’s teaser is from page 165 of Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear:

    The report concluded that the poison had been administered in a powder form, probably thrown into the man’s face when he turned towards the murderer. A powder that had never been seen before. 

The Riddle of the River by Catherine Shaw

The Riddle of the River by Catherine Shaw is the fourth book featuring Mrs Vanessa Weatherburn. It’s the first one I’ve read so it took me a little while to work out her background. Set in Cambridge in 1898  Vanessa used to be a school mistress until she married Arthur. Now with two children (twins) she acts as a private investigator.

Vanessa is enlisted by her friend, journalist Patrick O’Sullivan to investigate the death of a young woman found floating, reminding her of Ophelia, in the River Cam:

The grass and flowers, all the little life that flourishes on the edge of a stream, formed a frame for the figure of the floating girl. She lay face down in the water, caught in the rushes near the edge, her hair fanning out like algae, and her white dress forming a poetic, ghostly shape as the lines of those parts of it which floated under the water were deformed into waves. The back of her head emerged from the stream, and the wet hair floated, echoing the ripples of the Cam itself.

Her task is to identify the girl and discover why would anyone want to murder her. Her friend’s husband, Ernest Dixon leads her to wonder whether the unidentified body could be that of the lovely young actress named Ivy Elliot he saw playing the part of Ophelia in the Young Shakespeare Company on the outskirts of London.  In the production she actually floated away down a stream, out of sight. Ernest who has fallen in love with Ivy is worried about her disappearance. Just who was Ivy and how is she connected with the elderly and unpleasant Geoffrey Archer and his son Julian?

Vanessa, acting undercover travels by train to Holyhead where she embarks on the Royal Mail Steamer crossing to Dublin and then on to Kingston for the Regatta and there discovers a brilliant invention that revolutionised communication and so solves the “riddle of the river”. This is a well constructed book with plenty of complications that kept me guessing, a strong sense of location and well drawn and believable characters, but most of all I loved the way it evokes the Victorian era.

It was no surprise to read that the author is an academic and a mathematician as the novel includes many scientific details which combined with accounts of contacting the dead through the ether, the British Psychial Society, the scientific study of seances in the Victorian era, references to Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, make this a fascinating book.

The first three books featuring Vanessa are The Three-Body Problem, Flowers Stained with Moonlight, and The Library Paradox, which I hope to read soon.

Sunday Salon

tssbadge1Today’s reading:

I finished reading Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear this morning. I’ve read a couple of the Maisie Dobbs mystery books before and this one is  very good. Set in 1930 Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France – to the battlefields where she had been a nurse. Knowing she is going to France her old friend from Girton, Priscilla whose brother, Patrick died in France asks her to find out where he is buried. Maisie’s investigations reveal a number of photographs and a journal written in code leading her to to discover what actually did happen in 1917.  She then has to decide whether telling the truth is the right thing to do. Parallel with her investigations in France, Maisie is also involved in discovering the truth about a young girl accused of murdering her ‘uncle’.

I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still  strong, people still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets. Maisie is an example of a working girl who has moved out of her ‘class’, driving an MG and supporting herself independently.

With the description of a police woman in the first chapter I wondered when women were first employed in the police force. The Metropolitan Police Service’s website provided the answer – in 1914 Margaret Damer Dawson, an anti-white slavery campaigner, and Nina Boyle, a militant suffragette journalist founded the Women Police Service and by 1923 – 30, women police were fully attested and given limited powers of arrest. I also found it interesting that later in the book Maisie and Billy see

one of the new female recruits to criminal investigation disguised as a passer-by

and the undercover police using

 a new police wireless radio … invented at the request of the chief of police down in Brighton. Scotland Yard have been testing it for about a month now – it looks as if it mught come in handy today. (page 310)

I have the latest book in the series, Among the Mad on loan from the library, so I can continue reading about Maisie Dobbs very soon. But maybe I should read the earlier books first. Now I want to get back to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, even though I’m tempted to read another crime fiction – Murder Being Once Done by Ruth Rendell – which I borrowed from the library yesterday. As usual I have too many books clamouring to be read and I haven’t done the ironing or any de-cluttering ready for moving house!

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie: a Book Review

Collingwood Arms books

My posts may be a bit  hit and miss for a while as we have recently sold our house and are busy searching for somewhere to live in Northumberland/Scottish Borders. Whilst we were away over the last few days I did take some of my current books with me to read but as the hotel had two bookcases of books to choose from I picked up Elephants Can Remember to read instead.

It’s not the best Agatha Christie book I’ve read, but I found it entertaining, if rather repetitive and predictable – I worked out the mystery quite easily. Celia’s parents, apparently a happily married couple, were found shot dead on a cliff top – apparently as a result of a suicide pact. Some twelve to fifteen years later Mrs Burton-Cox, concerned that Celia is about to marry her son, approaches Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist, at a literary luncheon and asks the question – who killed whom? As Ariadne is Celia’s godmother she is curious and starts investigating, enlisting the help of Hercule Poirot.

ElephantsThe mystery is unravelled by Poirot and  Ariadne  by talking to the people who knew the couple and comparing their stories. Mrs Oliver interviews several elderly witnesses who she describes as “elephants” because they can remember certain incidents from the past. Much hinges on memory and interpretation of the events, highlighting the unreliable nature of witnesses and their memories, and the brilliance of Poirot in getting to the truth.

In my opinion it would have better if it were shorter and more concise, but then this was Agatha Christie’s last Poirot mystery, published in 1972 when she was in her eighties!

I did like the comments Ariadne makes about the relationship between authors and their readers, but as I put the book back on the hotel’s bookshelf I can’t give any quotes! This is only the second book I’ve read featuring Mrs Oliver, but occurs to me that Agatha Christie was using her to express her own views on writing and her reaction to her readers. Ariadne doesn’t like “literary lunches” and is shy about talking to people about her books, especially disliking those who simply gush and tell her how wonderful her books are. I can see I’ll have to read Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and her autobiography.

AC autobiog


Strange Affair by Peter Robinson: a Book Review

Peter Robinson has written a series of Inspector Banks books. Strange Affair is the first one I’ve read but not the first in the series. I borrowed this one from the library as it was the earliest in the series available on the shelves. Although it’s one of the later ones in the series it does work on its own, as enough information is given about earlier events for me to get the gist of Banks’s history, but I would like to read the novels in the order they were written.

As soon as I started reading it I was hooked. It’s a great read – I didn’t want to stop reading. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks receives an urgent phone call from his brother asking for his help. He has never been close to his brother Roy, but alarmed by the message on his answerphone he sets off from the Yorkshire Dales for London to see exactly what the problem is. But on his arrival he finds his brother’s house empty and no-one knows where he is.

Meanwhile back in Yorkshire DI Annie Cabbott is investigating the death of a young woman found in her car. She had Banks’s name and address scribbled on a piece of paper in her pocket. Unaware that Banks has gone to London, Annie tries to find him to discover the link between them. Although officially on leave from work Banks, who is still recovering from his depression after the fire that destroyed his house and possessions, immediately gets involved in delving into Roy’s life whilst trying to find out what has happened to him. Just how has Roy made his money, what shady deals has he done, who are his connections? The more Banks discovers the worse it gets, until he fears for his parents’ safety, not just his brother’s.

A tense and gripping novel – I loved it and can’t wait to read more by Peter Robinson.

The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie: a Book Review

Hound of deathI borrowed The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie from the library. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, stories of unexplained phenomena, in most cases tales of the supernatural rather than detective stories.

Of the twelve stories I think The Witness for the Prosecution is the best. Agatha Christie later wrote a play based on this story which has subsequently been adapted for film and television. It’s the story of Leonard Vole, a young man who has been arrested for the murder of an elderly lady, Miss Emily French. He befriended this rich lonely old woman who left him everything in her will. He protests his innocence and is astounded when Romaine (who lives with him as his wife) refuses to back up his story at the trial. It is up to his lawyer Mr Mayherne to get to the truth.

I also liked the more supernatural stories – those with no explanation and those where the supernatural either have natural, scientific explanations or are plain con tricks. The narrator in The Hound of Death is unsure of how to view the events during the First World War where a Belgian nun, Sister Marie Angelique is said to have caused her convent to explode when it was invaded by German soldiers. He reflects:

But of course it is all nonsense! Everything can be accounted for quite naturally. That doctor believed in Sister Marie Angelique’s hallucinations merely proves that his mind too, was slightly unbalanced.

Yet sometimes I dream of a continent under the seas where men once lived and attained to a degree of civilization far ahead of ours …

… Nonsense – of course the whole thing was merely hallucination! (p36)

There are stories of premonitions, intuition or a sixth sense, stories of seances, haunted houses, nightmares, amnesia and a very strange tale The Call of Wings in which a millionaire hears a tune, played by man with no legs.

It was a strange tune – strictly speaking, it was not a tune at all, but a single phrase, not unlike the slow turn given out by the violins of Rienzi, repeated again and again, passing from key to key, from harmony to harmony, but always rising and attaining each time to a greater and more boundless freedom. (p269)

The music makes him feel he is being released from all his burdens as he is carried higher and higher. This story, with its mystical overtones reveals the power of music to transport the soul.

Years ago I read as many of Agatha Christie’s books as I could find, but they were all the detective stories – Poirot or Miss Marple. I was unaware that she wrote anything else, so these collections of short stories are a bonus for me. She really was a superb storyteller.

This year’s Agatha Christie Week is being celebrated at The Southbank Centre in September and on the English Riveria too, along with new radio productions and publications of previously unpublished stories – see the Agatha Christie website.