Crime Fiction Alphabet: H is for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

This week’s letter in the Crime Fiction Alphabet series is H for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie.

I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie crime_fiction_alphabetbooks I’ve read recently. Poirot investigates the death of Simeon Lee, the head of the Lee family. None of his family like him, in fact most of them hate him and there are plenty of suspects for his murder. He is found dead with his throat cut in a locked room – locked from the inside.

He lived with Alfred his eldest son and his daughter-in-law Lydia. Their lives are dominated by him and they agree to his every demand. He has invited his other two sons and their wives to stay for Christmas – David and Hilda and George and Madeleine. Then Simeon annouces he has invited two more guests, who happen to be another son Harry, who left home years ago, a disreputable character who is at loggerheads with Alfred, and Pilar his granddaughter, his daughter Jennifer’s child. Jennifer had recently died in Spain where she had married a Spanish artist.  Pilar quickly gains her grandfather’s favour and when he annouces he is going to remake his will she hopes she will be included. Another unexpected guest turns up – Stephen Farr, the son of Simeon’s former partner in a diamond mine in South Africa.

The mystery is just how was Simeon killed? The family are dispersed through the house and on hearing a blood curdling scream they all rush to Simeon’s room. Pilar finds a small piece of rubber and a peg on the floor – just what do they signify? And the uncut diamonds Simeon kept locked in a safe in his room have gone missing – who has stolen them?

This story kept me guessing all the way through, with lots of red herrings and Tressilian, the butler’s confusion about the identity of the guests. He is old with poor eyesight and can’t be sure who is who. Poirot who is staying nearby with Colonel Johnson, the Chief Constable, unravels the mystery with the aid of a false moustache and then gathers the family together to go through the evidence and reveal the identity of the murderer.

There are a variety of themes, including the psychological hold Simeon has over his family, the effect of heredity, the distortion of the past through holding on to obsessions, jealousy amongst the siblings, and the effect of holding grudges for many years. Lydia and Hilda are level headed women, both of them suspicious of Simeon’s motives and supporting their husbands. Lydia maintains that evil exists and Hilda believes that it is the present that matters and not the past.  But the past has cast a long and evil shadow over the present.

NB see more Christmas titles here – Suggest a Christmas Title.

The Builders by Maeve Binchy: Book Review

I think The Builders is a brilliant little book. I suppose it’s really a long short story, or a novella. It’s part of the Open Door series written by Irish authors for adult literacy learners, so it’s a quick read. It took me about 30 minutes to read it and I was amazed at how much detail and characterisation was packed into its 87 pages and in such a simple, direct style.

It’s the story of a lonely woman, Nan who finds friendship when the builders start to work on the house next door. At the same time her relationships with her three adult children undergo a radical change. I enjoyed it very much but I’m glad I borrowed it from the library as at £4.99 I think it’s overpriced.

Is Anybody Up There? by Paul Arnott

Subtitled Adventures of  a Devout Sceptic I thought Is Anybody Up There? was an interesting book, although it is more a biography or memoir than an exploration of why Paul Arnott calls himself a sceptic. At times he seemed to me to be advocating most of the world’s religions. He describes how as a child he believed in fairies, leprechauns and Father Christmas, his introduction to Christianity, atheism and his growing interest in Buddhism, Hindusim and Islam.

In fact it’s only with Richard Dawkins that he has any real issues, thinking that “his extrapolations into altruism and faith [in The Selfish Gene] were too deterministic, rich in some answers and impoverished in others.” (page 5)

Writing about Dawkins’s The God Delusion he says

To my mind, it was if he had written a book about football and only focused on the hooligans, corruption in the boardroom, and the few bent referees, ignoring the fantastic skills of both male and female players on the ball and the communal wonder which comes with the scoring of a goal. Dawkins railed against easy targets one after the other, without recognising that every religious person, other than the lunatic fringe he was tilting at, agreed with him wholly about life at the extremes of faith. (page 5)

Arnott’s difficulty is that he just isn’t sure. He explored different faiths, but the “more [he] read and reread, the more any spiritual truth eluded [him].” (page 174) He admits that he “likes religions” (page 211), he commends a “laissez-faire approach” and believes in a “devout acceptance of the beliefs of others” (page 226).  And yes, he does believe there is “somebody” “up there”, whatever that is. His reasons are rather vague -“because of how much is going on out there down here” and because “most people throughout the ages have found it makes more sense to have an idea of divinity than not.”(page 205)

It’s easy reading, with information about a number of religious beliefs, but it’s not very enlightening. Still, I enjoyed reading it.

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!

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.

The Gardens of the Dead by William Brodrick: Book Review

The Gardens Of The Dead

The Gardens of the Dead by William Brodrick is his second novel. Although this book is a page turner I felt it was rather disjointed in parts. I had to backtrack a few times to make sure I was following the plot and the timeline is occasionally confusing. But on the whole I thought the book was pretty good.

Elizabeth Glendenning QC dies of a weak heart at the start of the book. Ten years earlier she had successfully defended a guilty man, Graham Riley. Just before her death she devised a scheme to bring Graham Riley back to court and to implement this scheme she had enlisted the help of Father Anselm, the barrister turned monk and her son Nick. She left a safety deposit box key with Father Anselm along with instructions that he should open it in the event of her death. Once he does this a sequence of events is triggered as Father Anselm and Nick follow the trail laid out by Elizabeth.

Part of me, the cynical part, wondered why she did this – it would have been much simpler to simply leave a written account rather than set what turns out to be a puzzle to be solved. But another part of me enjoyed seeing the mystery unfold. There are several surprising and some not so surprising elements to this story of good and evil, of revenge, family loyalties, justice and morality.

I liked the character of Anselm. He is kind and patient, well versed in analysing information and questioning people from his work at the Bar and also a good listener. My favourite character though is Father Andrew, the Prior, who was fond of a saying from a Desert Father:

Don’t use wise words falsely.

So he didn’t talk much and was always cautious when he spoke, but throughout the book he has several conversations with Anselm which are always perceptive and wise.

I borrowed this book from the library and at the time I thought the author’s name was familiar to me but couldn’t remember reading anything by him or reading any reviews of his books. Later I realised that I have the first novel he wrote The Sixth Lamentation, languishing somewhere in my to-be-read piles. Now I really must dig it out to read more about Anselm.

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

agatha_christie_rcIn The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie a group of friends, including Miss Marple meet on a Tuesday night and tell sinister stories of unsolved mysteries. It was first published in the UK in 1933, collecting together short stories previously published in various magazines. The first story The Tuesday Night Club introduces the character of Miss Marple.

The members of the Tuesday Night Club are Miss Marple, her nephew Raymond West a writer, Joyce Lempriere an artist, Sir Henry Clithering the ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Dr Pender a clergyman and Mr Petherick a solicitor. Raymond wonders what type of person succeeds best at unravelling mysteries and puts forward that the ‘art of writing gives one an insight into human nature’, but Miss Marple questions him thinking that ‘so many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly.’ Mr Petherick thinks imagination is dangerous and that it needs a legal mind to sift through the evidence looking only at facts to arrive at the truth. Whereas Joyce believes it takes a woman’s intuition, such as hers – an artist who has ‘knocked about among all sorts and conditions of people’. She discounts Miss Marple thinking she cannot possibly know about life only having lived in St Mary Mead.thirteen-problems

So they each tell a tale and are amazed when it is Miss Marple, sitting primly, ‘knitting something white and soft’ who comes up with the right solution each time by using her knowledge of human nature gleaned from observing similar cases in St Mary Mead. She sees similarities and makes connections the others overlook.

The second set of stories are told at Colonel and Mrs Bantry’s house, when the guests tell their after-dinner stories. Sir Henry is visiting them and suggests they invite Miss Marple to make a sixth guest at dinner, along with Jane Helier the beautiful and popular actress, and the elderly Dr Lloyd.  Again Miss Marple correctly solves the mysteries, seeing through the red herrings to discover even the crimes that no one even knew had been committed. As she says

a lot of people are stupid. And stupid people get found out, whatever they do. But there are quite a number of people who aren’t stupid, and one shudders to think of what they might accomplish unless they had very strongly rooted principles.

The Thirteen Problems is an easy read and the short stories are ideal for reading quickly and in isolation. They are not complicated and once Miss Marple starts her explanations the crimes are easily solved.

I particularly liked the first description of Miss Marple, sitting erect in a big grandfather chair she

wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of her bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled up masses of her snowy hair.

Kerrie recently ran a poll asking Who is the Best Miss Marple? My answer was Joan Hickson because I liked her portrayal, and the way she spoke and behaved seemed to me to be Miss Marple. But even though she looked nothing like this description I still prefer to ‘see’ Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. A strange case (for me) of a TV portrayal taking precedence over a book.

The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine: Book Review

I first wrote about Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present a few weeks ago when I’d almost got to the point of giving up reading it. But I decided to read a few more pages and ended up finishing it.  It wasn’t too bad even though the plot depended upon too many coincidences and I thought it was rather lifeless.

Ivor Tesham, MP decides to give his married girl friend, Hebe a birthday present, one with a difference.  He arranges to have her ‘kidnapped’ and delivered to him bound and gagged.  It all goes wrong when the kidnap car crashes and Hebe is killed. Ivor is then consumed by worry that his part in the affair will be exposed, but everything he does only gets him into deeper trouble.

The story is narrated by Robin, Ivor’s brother and by Jane, Hebe’s friend who gives her an alibi when she is out with Ivor. I think the problem for me with this book was that both narrators seemed detached from the events. Jane’s story is told through her diary and she  lives in a dream world. She’s lonely and bitter and I was in two minds whether I felt annoyed and amazed at her stupidity or sorry for her low self-esteem. Ivor is amoral and both characters are selfish and self-obssessed.  I was exasperated at Robin’s drawn out recital of his brother’s rise and fall, and it was obvious that the fall was coming well before it happened. The book for me could have been shorter and it was all so predictable, which is why, in the end, it was a bit disappointing.