Short Stories on Sunday

Over several years I’ve been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s books and short stories. I’ve read all her detective/mystery novels and some of her short story collections. In an attempt to read more of the short stories I’ve decided to read some each Sunday, beginning with the stories collected in Miss Marple and Mystery.

IMG_20180513_095855842.jpgThis collection contains 55 stories, 20 of them featuring Miss Marple. There is an Short Story Chronology in the Appendix with a table aiming to present all Agatha Christie’s short stories published between 1923 and 1971, listed in order of traced first publication date. Counting how many there are in total is a difficult task – some stories that first appeared in weekly or monthly magazines were later  re-worked and became chapters in a larger work, some in Partners in Crime were sub-divided into smaller chapters, 13 were re-worked into the episodic novel, The Big Four, and some were rewritten so substantially that they appear separately in different books!

I’ve read some of these in other short story collections but there are still many I haven’t read.

The Girl in the Train is one I haven’t read before. It was first published in Grand Magazine in February 1924 and was adapted as one of the Agatha Christie Hour drama series for by Thames Television in 1982 as part of their ten-part programme. It’s a very short story that also appears in The Listerdale Mystery collection of short stories.

George Rowland is the heir to his Uncle William’s wealth but is left without a job or a home when William throws him out on his heel. On a whim George Rowland decides to catch a train down to Rowland’s Castle, a village which happens to bear his name. A beautiful girl bursts into his compartment, frantically begging to be hidden.  She gives him a package saying it is the key to everything and he is to guard it with his life. Jumping out of the train at the first stop she tells him to follow the little man with a small dark beard getting on the train. His life changes dramatically as he follows her instructions.

It’s a bit of nonsense really, in the same vein as Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence stories. A quick easy read, but entertaining nevertheless and possibly the first of books entitled The Girl … 

Killing Me Gently by Hazel McHaffie

Killing me gently

VelvetEthics Press|1 July 2019|390 pages|Review copy|4*

I’ve read two of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and Inside of Me. In both books I was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, I was pleased when she asked if I would like to read her latest book, Killing Me Gently, her 11th published novel set in the world of medical ethics.

The story begins with a dramatic scene – in the middle of the night, in February, in complete darkness as Anya, feeling desperate and close to breaking point, runs alongside a fast flowing river:

Mud sucked greedily at her boots, branches tangled in her hair, exposed roots snaked across her path. The vicious swirl of the river drew her like a magnet down into the thick darkness, the dank odour of slowly decomposing vegetation.

Anya had no notion of time, only all-consuming compulsion to get as far away as possible from her tormentor. Several times she skidded wildly, once finding herself at the very brink, one false move away from those unforgiving rocks.

I was immediately drawn in – what has happened to make her so desperate? Who is she running from and who is tormenting her? Will she fall in – or is she trying to kill herself? I had to know.

The blurb expands more on Anya’s situation without giving away any spoilers: 

Blurb:

Anya Morgan has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband, and now to complete the picture, a new baby. But Gypsy Lysette doesn’t conform to Anya’s criteria for perfection. Sleep deprived and insecure, she searches for solace and reassurance.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising their marriage.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon.

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? And will the professionals act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

It is an intense, emotional and dramatic psychological thriller. Hazel McHaffie trained as a nurse and a midwife, gained a PhD in Social Sciences and was Deputy Director of Research in the Institute of Medical Ethics and her expertise is reflected in this book. Her writing successfully conveys the stress Anya was under and the damage to their relationship that Anya and Leon experienced as their baby became ill and was admitted to hospital. Right from the first page I was completely gripped by the mystery – what was the cause of Gypsy’s illness and was it Anya’s fault?

It is so tense and at first it was hard to decide who could be trusted. The tension rises, so much so that I was convinced of the danger of the situation and I feared the worst. And even when I thought I had worked out what was actually happening to Gypsy, my heart was in my mouth as I read on. 

Killing me Gently raises ethical and moral questions about childcare and the relationship between the medical practitioners, social workers and parents, looking at it on a personal level. It is by no means a comfortable read, because it is both emotional and disturbing. However I was completely absorbed by the drama of it all.

Hazel McHaffie’s other novels cover medical ethic issues such as Alzheimer’s and the right to die. Her non-fiction books are about life and death decisions. For more details see her website. She also writes a most interesting blog.

My thanks to Hazel McHaffie for a copy of her book for review.

The Lying Room by Nicci French

Lying Room

 

Simon and Schuster UK|3 October 2019|432 pages|e-book |Review copy|3.5*

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Vanished Bride

Hodder & Stoughton|12 September 2019|352 pages|e-book|Review copy|5*

From the Sunday Times-bestselling author of The Memory Book, Rowan Coleman, comes a special new series featuring the Brontë sisters, written under the name Bella Ellis

Yorkshire, 1845

A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

Desperate to find out more, the sisters visit Chester Grange, where they notice several unsettling details about the crime scene: not least the absence of an investigation. Together, the young women realise that their resourcefulness, energy and boundless imaginations could help solve the mystery – and that if they don’t attempt to find out what happened to Elizabeth Chester, no one else will.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

My thoughts:

When I first came across this book I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books about famous authors solving crimes. However, the Brontë sisters books have been amongst my favourites for years and I was curious find out what this book was all about. So, I was delighted to find that I thoroughly enjoyed The Vanished Brideand that it is not all a flight of fancy, although of course the story of how they became ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths, is pure imagination.

‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life. I haven’t read any of her other books but I’ll be looking out for them now. The Vanished Bride is historical fiction that brings the period (1845) and the setting vividly to life, Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell becoming real people before my eyes in their home in the Parsonage at Howarth.

I think it helps that is not all pure fiction – in the Author’s Note she explains that it is based on biological facts or inspired by them. The book begins with a short passage in 1851 when Charlotte is alone in the Parsonage her sisters, brother and father had all died and she looks back to the year 1845 when they were all together. That is fact – and in the following September they began to consider writing for their living.

The mystery whilst it is well plotted is not to difficult to solve and I had predicted the basics of it quite early on in the book, although  I didn’t guess the full detail until much later on. But the real joy of the book is in the historical detail and the depiction of the characters and the insights given to their personalities through their conversation. The story is told through each of the sisters eyes, each one clearly distinctive, whilst Emily is the standout character. All three are clearly individuals, women caught in a society dominated by men and each wanting to lead independent lives. 

The book ends as a letter arrives for the sisters presenting a new case for them to investigate. Their curiosity is immediately ‘taking flight’ – and so is mine!

My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

Operation Pax by Michael Innes

When people disappear, one hears talk of Milton Porcorum

Operation Pax

Agora Books|3 May 2018|384 pages|e-book|Review copy|4*

Operation Pax by Michael Innes, an Inspector Appleby mystery, was originally published in 1951, and in the United States as The Paper Thunderbolt.

I enjoyed Operation Pax much more than I expected I would when I began reading it. Almost the first third of the book is about a petty thief, Alfred Routh, an unpleasant little man, who for much of the time is confused and bewildered by his own thoughts and fears, which plunge him into utter panic. As his fears spiral into a engulfing and terrifying fantasy, he finds himself in the little village of Milton Porcorum and here is where his nightmare really begins. A tall man with square shoulders ushers him within the walls of Milton Manor, a most bizarre place where Routh fears for his life. A place where experiments are carried out in a sequence of laboratories and dangerous animals are kept in enclosures surrounding the house. A place with a mysterious and unnamed ‘Director’ who masterminds the whole operation.

After that rather surreal opening the action moves to Oxford and a rather more normal atmosphere – but strange and disturbing things are happening there too. An undergraduate, Geoffrey Ourglass, has disappeared and both his uncle, a university don and his fiancée, Jane, Sir John Appleby’s younger sister are concerned for his safety. Jane enlists her brother’s help to find Geoffrey – and so begins an adventure involving the dons of St Bede’s college, a group of boisterous children on bikes, European refugees as well as Appleby, Jane and her taxi-driver, Roger Remnant. It takes us from St Bede’s college into the depths of the Bodleian Library, on the trail of clues, around Oxford and out into the surrounding countryside in a thrilling chase against time to rescue Geoffrey. There are strange phone calls and most mysterious of all a formula written on a scrap of paper that threatens the safety of the whole world – it must be found and destroyed.

I loved a number of things about this book – the descriptions of the dons and their ‘erudite’ conversations, the setting in Oxford and particularly in the Bodleian library is brilliant, and the children are lively, argumentative and entertaining, providing comic relief.  It is pure escapism with an incredibly unbelievable plot and strange eccentric characters that wormed their way into my mind and made it a book I just had to finish. Once it got going it is fast- paced and it kept me guessing about the identity of the mastermind behind the threat to mankind – I was completely wrong!

The Author

Michael Innes is the pseudonym of John Innes Mackintosh Stewart (1906 – 1994), a British scholar and novelist. He was born near Edinburgh, the son of a Scottish professor, and attended Edinburgh Academy, then Oriel College, Oxford where he won the Matthew Arnold Memorial Prize in 1939 and honours in English. He was a Lecturer, then a Professor in English at different universities, including Adelaide University in South Australia from 1935 to 1945. He became an Oxford fellow in 1949 and finished his academic career in 1973 as a Student (Fellow) at Christ Church Oxford.

As Michael Innes, he published numerous mystery novels and short story collections, most featuring the Scotland Yard detective John Appleby.

My thanks to Agora Books for an e-book review copy via NetGalley

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers, is the second Lord Peter Wimsey book and one of my 20 Books of Summer. It was first published in 1926. My copy was reprinted in 1984 and I bought it secondhand four years ago.

Clouds of witness Sayers

From the back cover of my paperback:

A man is found shot, and the Duke of Denver is charged with his murder. Naturally, it is his brother, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is called in to investigate the crime. This is a family affair, for the murdered man was the fiancé of the sister of Denver and Wimsey.

Why, then, does the Duke refuse to co-operate with the investigation? Is he really guilty, or is he covering up for someone? Why is Wimsey attacked by an enraged farmer on the lonely moors? Why is an attempt made on his life in a Soho street?

My thoughts:

So many questions! And as I read even more popped into my mind – why did Lady Mary, Wimsey’s sister, leave the house at 3am on the morning of the murder? Why is she feigning illness? Whose footprints are those near the body of Denis Cathcourt (the murdered man)? What is the significance of the diamond cat charm with eyes of bright emeralds? And why won’t the Duke defend himself? Then there are the bloodstains and signs that the body had been dragged to the door of the conservatory where it was found, leading into the nearby thicket. If the Duke didn’t kill Cathcart who did and why?

The evidence against the Duke is circumstantial. So, Wimsey has his work cut out to prove his innocence and save him from the death penalty. Together with his friend, Inspector Charles Parker (who is in love with Lady Mary), and Bunter, his manservant, they look for clues and interview the family’s guests on the night of the murder. There are several strands to the story and minor characters who all manage to confuse the mystery.

There are some memorable scenes, such as Wimsey and Bunter’s escapade on the moors when they attempted to get to Grider’s Hole. The fog had come on them suddenly, blotting out their surroundings and they had no idea what direction to take. They strode forward gingerly unable to distinguish uphill from downhill – then Wimsey tripped into a bog, and found himself sinking up to his thighs. As well as struggling in the foggy bog, Wimsey also got shot and rather dramatically flew to New York in pursuit of evidence, a dangerous journey in a fragile plane as a deep depression was crossing the Atlantic bringing storms with heavy rain and sleet, rising to a gale as the plane lurched from gust to gust.

The trial scene in the House of Lords is fascinating:

The historic trial of the Duke of Denver for murder opened as soon as Parliament reassembled after the Christmas vacation. The papers had leaderettes on ‘Trial by his Peers’, by a Woman Barrister, and ‘The Privilege of Peers: should it be abolished?’ by a Student of History. The Evening Banner got into trouble for contempt by publishing an article entitled ‘The Silken Rope’ (by an Antiquarian), which was deemed to be prejudicial, and the Daily Trumpet – the Labour organ – inquired sarcastically why, when a peer was tried, the fun of seeing the show should be reserved to the few influential persons who could wangle tickets for the Royal Gallery. (pages 217 -218)

Clouds of Witness is a book of its time, there is much banter, wit and humour, and plenty of snobbery of all types clearly showing the class distinctions between the working and upper classes. It is a clever story, well told, with colourful characters and I liked the details it gives about Wimsey’s family as I’ve been reading these books totally out of order.

All in all, I enjoyed it – 4*.

Reading challenges: 20 Books of Summer, Calendar of Crime, and Mount TBR challenge 2019

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

 A house with the darkest of secrets.

Family upstairs

Random House UK Cornerstone|8 August 2019|464 pages|e-book |Review copy|5*