Six Degrees of Separation from Where Am I Now? to The Book of Illusions

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with with Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson, subtitled True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. Mara Wilson is a former child actress best known for her starring roles in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. I haven’t read this book which tells the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. 

Where Am I Now?

As the title of Mara Wilson’s book is a question my first link is to another book with a question in the title. When Will there Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. A tale of disasters beginning when six year old Joanna witnessed the murder of her mother, older sister and baby brother. It’s the third in her Jackson Brodie series. I raced through this very quickly as I was so keen to find out what happened. I know I missed the clues and I’d love to re-read it sometime!

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie #2)Three Act Tragedy (Hercule Poirot, #11)

The second link is to another book by Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn. This is the second  Jackson Brodie book, a cleverly constructed and complicated murder mystery. It’s a puzzle and like the Russian dolls within dolls (which also feature in this book), there is a thread connecting it all together. I didn’t think it was quite as good as When Will There Be Good News?, but still enjoyed it.

Another book with a number in the title is Agatha Christie’s  Three Act Tragedy, also a book containing lots of puzzles to be solved. Poirot plays a secondary role, preferring to think rather than act and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles who investigate the deaths of two of the guests at Sir Charles Cartwright’s party. This is one of Christie’s earlier books (1935) and I really enjoyed it.

Mr Satterthwaite, along with Mr Harley Quin, also features in Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Mysterious Mr Quin, first published in 1930 . This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (Harley Quin, #1)The Breaking Point: Short StoriesThe Book Of Illusions

My fifth link is to another collection of short stories: The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier. These stories are dark, difficult, perturbing – and sometimes shocking, telling of double lives, split personalities, paranoia and conflict, each one with a ‘breaking point’. One of the stories is The Menace about a silent movie star, a heart-throb until the advent of the ‘feelies’ when it is discovered that his magnetism is almost non-existent.

One of the characters in The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster is a silent movie star – Hector Mann. There are many layers to this novel; it’s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach. It’s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it ‘will start all over again.’

And this completes my chain beginning and ending with books about movie stars, passing through murder mysteries and short story collections, and moving from the US to the UK and back to the US, linked by the titles, authors and characters.

Next month (October 6, 2018), we’ll begin with a book I haven’t read (or heard of before) – a story of teenage rebellion, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.

Six Degrees of Separation from Atonement to Out of Bounds

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Atonement

This month the chain begins with Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book I’ve read and loved! This is a love story and also a mystery. It revolves around the lives of  two sisters, Briony and her older sister, Cecelia. It has vividly-drawn characters and harrowing descriptions of war with reflections on the process of writing and the interpretation of novels.

Kew GardensThe Gardens of the DeadThe Black Friar (Damian Seeker, #2)He Who Whispers (Dr. Gideon Fell, #16)CauldstaneOut of Bounds (Inspector Karen Pirie, #4)

Briony is an admirer of Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness writing and that brings me to the first link in the chain – Virginia Woolf’s short story Kew Gardens with its descriptions of people in the Gardens on a sunny day as they pass by a flowerbed.

My second link is to a book also with the word ‘gardens‘ in the title –  The Gardens of the Dead by William Brodrick, featuring Father Anselm, a barrister turned monk. Another book, also crime fiction, that features a monk is –

The Black Friar by S G MacLean, set in the 17th century, in which the body of a man dressed as a Dominican friar, is found bricked up in a wall in Blackfriars, once a monastery. He was actually an undercover agent going under the name of ‘Gideon Fell’.

In He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr, one of his series of locked room mysteries/impossible crimes, Dr Gideon Fell is an amateur sleuth.  A body is found lying on the parapet of a tower, once part of a chateau since burnt down.

My next link takes me to another book featuring a tower – Cauldstane by Linda Gillard, a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands owned by Sholto MacNab, a retired adventurer. It’s also a story of loss and revenge, of good versus evil and the power of love. Meredith, Sholto’s second wife, was killed in a car crash.

There is also a car crash in my final link, another crime fiction novel, Out of Bounds by Val McDermid, the 4th Inspector Karen Pirie novel, in which a teenage joyrider crashes a stolen car and ends up in a coma. A routine DNA test reveals a connection to an unsolved murder from twenty-two years before.

 ~~~

My chain is made up of a mixture of books that I’ve read or are on my TBR shelves and a mix of short stories, historical fiction and mostly crime fiction. Beginning with a book set in the 1930s and 40s the chain moves through the centuries from the 17th century to the present day linked by the titles, monks, names of the characters, towers and car crashes.

Next month (1 September, 2018), we’ll begin with Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson.

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes edited by Martin Edwards

I’ve said before that I’m not a big fan of short stories, often finding them disappointing. So I’m glad to say that I enjoyed this anthology edited by Martin Edwards: Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes. Some stories, of course, are better than others.

These are the sixteen stories in the collection. Martin Edwards has prefaced each one with a brief biographical note, which I found useful as some of the authors were new to me. I read the collection slowly, which I find is the best way to approach a short story collection.

  • The Lost Special by Arthur Conan Doyle (not a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson story) about a train that disappears on its route from Liverpool to London. This was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1898.
  • The Thing Invisible by William Hope Hodgson, an author I hadn’t come across before. First published in 1913 this is a murder mystery dressed up as a ‘ghost’ story. Very atmospheric.
  • The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room by Sax Rohmer, another new-to-me author, although I had heard of his most well known character, the master criminal Dr Fu Manchu. In this story amateur detective Moris Klaw  and his beautiful daughter investigate a locked room murder in a museum, involving ‘psychic photographs’.
  • The Aluminum Dagger by Richard Austin Freeman, featuring one of Dr. John Thorndyke’s scientific stories, describing in detail how a man was discovered in a locked room, stabbed to death.
  • The Miracle of Moon Crescent by G. K. Chesterton, a Father Brown story set in America, in which the cleric investigates a death by a curse.
  • The Invisible Weapon by Nicholas Olde, an impossible murder mystery, in which there is only one man who could have done it – and he could not have done it.
  • The Diary of Death by Marten Cumberland – an impossible crime, a kind of chess problem. Lilian Hope’s diary provides a list of victims -people she had hated.
  • The Broadcast Murder by Grenville Robbins, in which a murder takes place in a radio station and is broadcast has it happens.
  • The Music-Room by Sapper (not a Bulldog Drummond story), featuring a secret passage and a falling chandelier.
  • Death at 8:30 by Christopher St. John Sprigg, in which a murderer predicts the date and exact time of the death of the victim unless a ransom is paid.
  • Too Clever By Half by G. D. H. and Margaret Cole – Dr Tancred’s advice, if you intend to commit a murder, is don’t make the mistake of trying to be clever!
  • Locked In by E. Charles Vivian – a death by shooting in a locked room.
  • The Haunted Policeman by Dorothy L. Sayers (a Lord Peter Wimsey story) – probably my favourite in the collection. It had me completely mystified. The policeman is new to the beat and can’t believe his eyes.
  • The Sands of Thyme by Michael Innes (a John Appleby story) murder at Thyme Bay, or was it suicide? Footprints in the sand provide a clue.
  • Beware of the Trains by Edmund Crispin (a Gervase Fen story), a clever and baffling story about a lost train driver.
  • The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham (an Albert Campion and Inspector Luke story) – another favourite, in which a young couple disappear, leaving behind their half-eaten breakfast, taking only a couple of clean linen sheets. There was no clue why they left and no signs of any violence.

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

Agatha Christie’s Short Stories: The Mysterious Mr Quin

Agatha Christie blogathon

This post is my contribution to  Little Bits of Classics and and Christina Wehner‘s Agatha Christie Blogathon in honour of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September.

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.

The Short Stories

There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications  as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.

img_20160917_122804

But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.

As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:

The Mysterious Mr Quin

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpg
The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover

This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.

In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:

… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.

Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:

Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.

The titles are

1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane

In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway.  The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is  dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.

In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.

One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …

Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.

Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.

The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.

They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly  who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:

Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.

And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.

Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, R.I.P. Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a ‘performer’.

The current paperback edition:

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154845

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.

Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.

All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.

Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:

  1. 1922 The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1)
  2. 1941 N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3)
  3. 1968 By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence 4)
  4. 1973 Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence 5)

Reading Challenges: the Agatha Christie Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge, and the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt.

My copy is the current edition with this cover:

 

The first UK edition, however, has this cover, which I prefer.


So I’m choosing this cover for the Vintage Scavenger Hunt, in the category of a book showing a Shadowy Figure on its cover.

Books Read in August 2016

I read 6 books this August, three of them TBR books, and all are fiction, a mix of crime fiction, historical fiction and epic fantasy novels. One book is a library book and one a review copy. (The links are to my  posts on the books.)

  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (TBR), a fascinating novel about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485 and one of the best historical novels that I’ve read.
  • The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas Hume (LB), the second The Sea Detective novel, set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby.  It had been assumed that her mother, Megan had committed suicide, although her body had never been found.  Cal McGill helps Violet find out what really happened.
  • The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961. It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
  • The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, a review copy from Lovereading due to  be published in October. This is another unputdownable book by Karen Maitland, set in Porlock Weir in 1361, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My full review will follow later this month.
  • A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire,1) by George R R Martin (TBR), an epic fantasy novel  set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict. It’s complex and multifaceted, and full of stories and legends and wonderful characters. I loved it.
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin (Agatha Christie'¦The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (TBR) – I finished this collection of short stories yesterday. It’s one of her earliest books, first published in 1930, not at all like her Poirot or Miss Marple books, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written. I’ll write about it in more detail soon.

It’s impossible to decide which is my favourite this month between books in different genres. I loved The Sunne in Splendour, The Game of Thrones and The Mysterious Mr Quin in almost equal measure, each book taking me to completely different worlds and times.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.

Not so with Sandlands – I think this is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked  as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.

The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:

You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really  listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)

Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:

You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)

As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.

And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.

Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.

As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.

… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)

It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.

With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045