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Saturday, 29 December 2018

The ABC Murders (BBC, directed by Alex Gabassi)

This is my first blog post in a while, and I’m putting it on my main website and my review blog. Over
the last couple of months, I’ve started and not finished numerous blog posts and reviews (psychic vampires, a new book deal announcement with Routledge, reviews of Fiona Barton, Edmund Crispin, Henry Slesar, and more). But I’ve been having a frankly terrible go of it lately and prioritising accordingly. However, I couldn’t let the TV adaptation of the year, the BBC’s The ABC Murders, pass by without comment.

According to many self-proclaimed ‘purist’ Agatha Christie fans, I rarely have the correct opinion on screen adaptations. I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. I thought that Agatha and the Truth of Murder was fine and more authentically structured than the majority of Christie adaptations. The ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot frequently annoyed me, and I certainly don’t picture David Suchet when I read the books. I also think that Sarah Phelps, whose name has succeeded Princess Diana’s as the curse-word of choice among Daily Mail readers, is the best dramatist of Agatha Christie’s work ever to put finger to key.

The ABC Murders is Sarah Phelps’s fourth Agatha Christie adaptation. And Then There Were None was universally praised. The Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence split viewers into two camps: those who loved them as great dramas, and those who insisted they were bastardisations of Agatha Christie’s work and essence. So, The ABC Murderswas always going to cause a bit of a tizz.

Director Alex Gabassi has done a masterful job. The adaptation uses light and dark, as the previous ones did. In The Witness for the Prosecution, the shadows became slightly overdone, but here they work brilliantly. The adaptation is set in 1933, a dark time for Britain and also for Europe. There are Brexit parallels throughout, as Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, frequently runs into fascists, openly flaunting their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism. Others are questioning his relevance, or whether he should even be in the country, despite all that he has contributed to it since the First World War. On Caroline Crampton’s excellent podcast, Shedunnit, Phelps said, ‘I want it to feel like it’s the first time it’s ever been touched - that it’s the first of the stories to have ever been told.’ And she has achieved this with a vengeance. A remarkable reimagining of a well-known novel, The ABC Murders is also a powerful drama in its own right.

Christie’s 1935 novel is not her best. That’s another opinion of mine that many of my friends disagree with. I think that it’s a fabulous idea – the serial killer narrative, the apparently motiveless murder, and the detective who wants to read meaning into his own involvement in the case – but the execution feels rushed and the narrative too light. It feels almost bashed out. It’s brilliant – of course it is; it’s Agatha Christie – but not her best. I feel similarly about Five Little Pigs, another novel that’s widely praised by Christie fans but which I think represents a missed opportunity. Both those books have excellent premises and fabulous plots and concepts but I don’t think Christie wrote them as well as she could have. What the story does give us, though, is something that can be taken in any number of ways. Well, almost any number. The less said about the Carry On-style adaptation, The Alphabet Murders (1965), the better. But there was a perfectly reasonable frothy and earnest whodunit dramatization on ITV in the 1990s and a rather immersive video game a couple of years ago.

The world Sarah Phelps shows us is not a clean or pretty one. It’s not that smooth and simple, whitewashed past we revel in in the David Suchet version. It’s a grim, gritty, violent, and horrible one. And it’s all there in the book, if you read the book a certain way. In the final episode, Poirot decries ‘vapid nostalgia for the gentle past. Cruelty is not new,’ he adds, in a remark that Agatha Christie herself frequently made throughout her work.

The big shocker here is not the identity of the murderer (which was changed in Easter’s adaptation, Ordeal by Innocence) but the character of Hercule Poirot himself. The dust had just settled on manufactured outrage over the fact that Poirot as played by John Malkovich would not be sporting a pantomime accent or an obviously fake moustache when genteel viewers spilt their Earl Grey and soiled their finest doilies beyond repair. You see, in Episode Three, we find out that Poirot has a past.

A past? A past?! Twitter users were not happy. One Twitter user wrote:
I couldn’t resist responding:
But it got better – or worse, depending on your perspective. Poirot, the guilt-ridden Catholic who has killed a man in his murky history, who acts as confessor and calls himself ‘Papa Poirot’, who is constantly calling people around him ‘mes enfants’ (that’s all in the books, by the way), reveals himself in flashback to have been a priest.

It’s a masterstroke. It ties the character together as neatly as any exposition in any example of detective fiction or drama. It explains so much not just about the character as envisaged by Phelps but also about the world in which Christie was writing and which this drama reflects. Poirot, with his out-dated arrogance, his uncertainties and crises in interwar Britain, has a background as a figure of religious authority. And, when faced with the greatest of all tragedies, he gave it up. Michel Foucault theorised that in the twentieth century, the authority of the priest gave way to the authority of the doctor. We see mental illness galore in The ABC Murders, and the detective finding his relevance coming under fire. Throughout the three episodes, Poirot is looking for purpose, and the serial killer is giving it to him. It’s perfect.
Even if this adaptation had been a big pile of poo (which it is not), it would hold a special relevance for me, because I make a very fleeting appearance in it! In the last few minutes of Episode 2, if you squint, you can see me getting off the underground at Paddington Station. It was filmed at Aldwych Station on the last day of shooting, in August 2018, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first – and probably only – experience of extra-ing.  We were all put up in the Waldorf Hotel (which is decidedly not normal, according to other extras).

Here are ten fun things that might interest you:

1.    In a scene that was evidently cut, a group of drunken fascists sings ‘Jerusalem’.
2.    I was very confused when the wardrobe mistress lined us all up and pointed to certain young men, saying ‘You’re BUF, you’re BUF, you’re BUF.’ Then she stuck British Union of Fascists pins to their clothes and all was clear.
3.    Every costume is meticulous. Even though I appear for half a second in poor light in the background, I wore a full three-piece suit including period socks and braces, underneath a thick overcoat, and my hair was styled under the hat I never took off.
4.    When Cust appears through the smoke on the platform, he is played by a body-double.
5.    Nearly all extras smoke roll-ups.
6.    Many extras don’t get haircuts, because if the studio has to cut your hair or shave you on-set, they pay you.
7.    John Malkovich is very down-to-earth and friendly, but few of us dared to talk to him.
8.    A two-second scene took four hours to film.
9.    Aldwych Station is used in several period dramas. There are remnants of posters from each decade of the last century on its walls.

10.  The reason there’s a lot of period advertising in the underground scene is that the ‘No Smoking’ signs had to be covered.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Mini Reviews #23

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) by Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m currently rereading the original Holmes canon in order – just for fun – and one thing I’m noticing is the sheer number of stories Agatha Christie ripped off! I would bet money that she had this volume open when she started work on The Murder on the Links; key plot devices are lifted directly from ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’ and ‘The Adventure of the Second Stain’. While the stories in this collection are not generally considered among the best, some – ‘The Six Napoleons’ and ‘The Dancing Men’ are rightful classics. ‘The Abbey Grange’ also contains a piece of dialogue that should be, but for some reason isn’t, widely quoted, from Holmes himself: ‘Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience. Let us know a little more before we act.’

The Killings at Badger’s Drift (1987) by Caroline Graham. A truly great crime novel, The Killings at Badger’s Drift deserves to be remembered as so much more than the book that kicked off Midsomer Murders. In a self-consciously classical narrative, Caroline Graham goes where few British genre novelists dare to tread even now, making a pillory of rural nostalgia.

Code to Zero (2000) by Ken Follett. A thriller set in 1958, in which a man wakes up with no memories of who he is. The book is set around the space race between America and Russia, and evokes the Cold War thrillers of the subsequent decade. There is a conspiracy, of course, and the CIA is involved. This is one of those books in which the author has done lots of technical and historical research, and is keen to show you the fruits of his labour. To that extent, there’s an uneven tone. But for the most part, it’s a straightforward blokey thriller.

The Herring in the Library (2010) by L.C. Tyler. A fun, cosy comedy mystery with the emphasis more on the comedy than the mystery. The narrators are Ethelred Tressider, a self-professed ‘third-rate crime writer’ and his outspoken literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle. An old acquaintance invites them to his country home, and, on the night, he ends up dead. Gentle metafiction, stock characters and tropes, and Cluedo references galore. I’d be shocked if any reader failed to solve the mystery two-hundred pages before the detectives, but it’s a light and easy read.

Tricky Twenty-Two (2015) by Janet Evanovich. My first and last brush with Janet Evanovich and her ‘sassy, kick-ass’ bounty hunter detective, Stephanie Plum. I always knew these books appealed to teenage girls, but I didn’t expect them to have been written as if by one. The only possible reason to read this book is if you like cringing. Among other sins, it is responsible for the absolute worst metaphor I have ever come across: an unsavoury relative is described as ‘the pimple on the backside of my family tree.’ After reading Tricky Twenty-Two, I turned to an Artemis Fowl novel, which felt significantly more worldly and sophisticated.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Mini Reviews #22

Death of My Aunt (1929) by C.H.B. Kitchin. Death of My Aunt was published by the Hogarth Press, and with its droll narrative style aimed to challenged the status quo and raise the tone of detective fiction, while embracing the gameplay aspect that dominated 1920s British crime fiction. The book was a mild success, but it failed to innovate the genre, because what Kitchin did not understand was that the best Golden Age novelists were already embracing the artificiality of their own narratives. The narrative concerns Malcolm Warren, whose aunt is poisoned. When he realises that he himself administered the poison, he decides to find out who he can blame to avoid suspicion falling upon him. Interestingly, the snobbishness of the narrative reveals the author’s out-of-touchness and it’s perhaps significant that he tried subsequently to turn Warren into a ‘straight’ series detective. I think this book is overrated.

The Case of the Late Pig (1937) by Margery Allingham. One of the stronger entries into Allingham’s Albert Campion series, The Case of the Late Pig is relatively short, and all the better for its length: it’s pacier than some of her other novels. Campion, who narrates, attends the funeral of an old enemy from his school days. Several months later, a fresh body turns up: that of the same old friend. We also learn a bit more about the mysterious Campion’s sidekick, the equally enigmatic Lugg.

Beneath the Skin (2000) by Nicci French. My first experience of Nicci French, and it won’t be my last. In fact, I think they might well be a new favourite crime writer. There are three parts to Beneath the Skin, and each is narrated by a different victim of one man’s psychotic obsessions. The narrative is utterly gripping and absorbing, the psychology is watertight, and there are two twists. The first – the psychopath’s identity – occurs halfway through and hit me like a lightning bolt. The second twist, the big finale, was one I saw coming a mile off, but that did not stop this novel being compelling from start to finish.

The Front (2008) by Patricia Cornwell. Dull, predictable, and riddled with stock characters and set-ups. Written by committee, and it shows.

The Awakening (2011) directed by Nick Murphy. Since today is Hallowe’en, I hope you’ll forgive me for including a horror film. Although it is not a crime drama, The Awakening is structured so much like a detective narrative that it earns its place on this blog. Rebecca Hall plays a debunker of psychic frauds in interwar England. One investigation takes her to a particularly gloomy boarding school, where she is forced to confront an unexplainable apparition – and to face her own childhood traumas. Mystery fans will recognise in the opening sequence, in which Florence (Hall) interrupts a séance to explain how it works, a device present in most pilot detective dramas of the twenty-first century. The most elegant and intelligent film of its kind, the Awakening deserves to be hailed as a modern classic.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House by M.C. Beaton

Scouring my bookshelves for something seasonal to blog about in the run-up to Hallowe’en, I saw several contenders. I knew that everyone would do Christie’s Hallowe’en Party and, besides, I wanted to read something I hadn’t read before. Of the half-dozen appropriate titles to hand, Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House (2003) looked by far the easiest read.

M.C. Beaton gets a terrible rap at crime fiction conventions, and I’m never quite sure why. She doesn’t write literary fiction, but very few crime writers do. I find the Agatha Raisin books uneven and at their best they are unspoilt conservative fun. She recently wrote in the CWA’s newsletter Red Herrings that writing light, easy reads is as much hard work as writing anything else.

Perhaps this was in my mind as I read, or perhaps it was the fact that I’ve been trying to teach myself to speed-read, but the novel felt remarkably like an abridgement. It reminded me of a university creative writing assignment, turned in by a bright student who has been forced to pare down the sentences in order to get down to the wordcount. Things happen very quickly (‘The game progressed. Paul won easily. They started another.’), giving me the impression that Beaton has worked harder on her prose than one might expect.

Anyway, about the story. Agatha Raisin, not yet over her ex, reads in the local papers about a mysterious haunting in a nearby village. By chance, a silver fox moves in next door and tells her that he’s going ghost-hunting, so she decides to pop along. When they get to the haunted house, they take an instant disliking to its owner, who quickly winds up murdered. One thing I like about Agatha Raisin is that, despite being one of the strongest and most robust of ‘cosy’ detectives, she sometimes makes an absolute idiot out of herself. There is a scene early on, in which she runs out of the house in question, screaming, in the dead of night. She drives back to her village, leaving her friend stranded, because she has seen a ghost. The ghost, we learn on the same page (brevity again) was the house’s owner in a mudpack.

So, yes, nothing very original in this book but it’s certainly one of the strongest entries to the series. Worth reading if you’re looking for something to prepare you for the new series of Agatha Raisin which (coincidentally) someone just told me is airing next month.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Every Three Hours by Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney, not the journalist, is a Boston-based thriller writer who has sold over a million books. Mooney has been praised by all the giants of macho thriller writing, from Lee Child Michael Connelly to John Connolly. His series detective, though is a woman, who appears in eight books, of which this is the sixth.

Every Three Hours (2016) is certainly an easy read, the equivalent to watching Blindspotin that Chris Mooney is joyfully unafraid of the cliché. The story: a masked individual in a suicide vest takes hostages at a police station in Boston and the only person the bomber will talk to is Dr Darby McCormick, a forensic investigator.

The gimmick here is that every three hours, until a full list of demands are met, a bomb will go off in an unnamed Boston location. However, the bombs don’t really come into it and it’s almost as if the author got bored of that idea but couldn’t be bothered to rewrite it, or was already stuck with the title, because after a while the bomber just starts handing out locations and codes for diffusing them.

The whole thing is enjoyable enough and nothing special, although the final chapter raises the philosophical stakes to something slightly above a standard thriller. 

Monday, 22 October 2018

The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr

So many of my friends love John Dickson Carr that, although it wasn’t conscious, the fact that I haven’t read a single one of his novels until now cannot be a coincidence. Among my Golden Age friends, he receives nothing but fulsome praise. But I think the reason I haven’t read him until now is that he is universally praised for his puzzles. Carr was, of course, the master of the locked room mystery.

While most of my friends who love the Golden Age do so because they love the puzzles, working out whodunnit is rarely the impetus or major take-home for me. I adore Agatha Christie because her social, psychological commentary is second to none, and the puzzles themselves are woven into that commentary in a way that other authors are yet to emulate. That’s why I can reread a Christie twenty times, not in spite of knowing the outcome but because of it. Carr has always had such a good press for his puzzles that I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything else to the books.

Well, I am honoured to be writing a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Crime Fiction, on self-referentiality and meta-fiction, and what did I think of when that remit was given to me? The infamous ‘locked room lecture’ in The Hollow Man (1935, known in the US under its original title, The Three Coffins). It is, in Malcah Effron’s words, ‘the benchmark for metatextuality in crime fiction’: Gideon Fell, the detective, acknowledges that he is among ‘characters in fiction’ and gives a detailed outline of every possible permeation of the locked-room mystery. He cites examples from literature, including A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mysteryand some of his own cases. So, although I’ve cited this passage several times, I felt that, really, I ought to read the book. And, as chance would have it, it’s widely considered one of Carr’s best.

Upstairs in a pub, Professor Grimaud is entertaining friends when a strange man enters the room and announces that he knows men who have risen from the grave. He then threatens Grimaud with the wrath of his mysterious brother, and disappears. A short while later, Grimaud is found dead in his locked, sealed study. At the same time, Grimaud’s visitor is shot dead in the middle of a street – and witnesses swear he was killed by a ghost.

The book has a very good puzzle. I was completely stumped but, once everything had been explained, totally satisfied. As an intellectual exercise, The Hollow Man is up there with the best of Christie. Also like Christie, Carr creates some wonderfully grotesque characters and scenarios in an elegantly streamlined plot.

However – and this is where I part company with so many of my friends – I was disappointed that each element remained separate. The setting is great. The puzzles are great. The characters are great. But none of them fit together. There is a very real sense in which the ‘goblin-like’ male secretary with the ‘large and loose mouth’, about whom ‘[y]ou would have diagnosed a Physics BSc with Socialist platform tendencies’, didn’t have to appear in this story specifically. The victim didn’thaveto die in his study – simply in a locked room. Remember that Hercule Poirot solved his first case because his obsessive neatness led him to straighten out objects on a mantelpiece; Gideon Fell’s eccentricities, however, are all window-dressing, and I never got the sense that I was enjoying a novel– rather, I was enjoying a story– as I read.

The upshot is that I found The Hollow Man extremely enjoyable, and now that I’ve jumped aboard the JDC Express, I’m not jumping off. Nonetheless, in a sense, my opinion has not changed: perhaps the puzzle isn’t everything in this book, but it is certainly the dominant feature – which is absolutely fine, and brilliantly done in this case – but not what I personally devour crime fiction for.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Stage Fright, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

In his podcast on Alfred Hitchcock, Adam Roche laments that Stage Fright (1950) is 'less of a Hitchcock, and more like an Agatha Christie.' Naturally, upon hearing this, I decided I absolutely had to see it! As if to whet my appetite further, I found out that the film also contained Marlene Dietrich, a theatrical setting, and an original song by Cole Porter. Irresistible, right?

The movie, based on a 1948 novel, stars Jane Wyman as 'a very good actress indeed' in training and, reportedly, production was plagued by Wyman's insecurities at being cast alongside the effortlessly glamorous Dietrich. Matters weren't helped by the fact that their scenes together see Wyman's character in disguise as a frumpy maid, and Hitchcock -- as ever -- played on his leading lady's insecurities by showing blatant favouritism to Dietrich on-set.

Eve (Wyman) is accosted mid-rehearsal by an ex-flame, who tells her that he's a suspect in a murder, and she sets out to clear his name. The not-very-complicated investigation involves doubling as a dresser to the diva Charlotte Inwood (Dietrich). Essentially, she puts on glasses and no one recognises her. As she probes deeper and deeper, getting closer to Charlotte, Eve finds herself falling into a very theatrical trap.

At two hours, the film is pacy and suspenseful. It is generally regarded as one of Hitchcock's lesser works, and often dismissed now as a crowd-pleaser (hence Roche's disparaging Christie comparison). Personally, I'd say it was nothing like a Christie, although the presence of Dietrich and a blood-stained overcoat invites comparisons to Billy Wilder's adaptation, seven years later, of Witness for the Prosecution. In fact, as Mark Aldridge reveals in his excellent Agatha Christie on Screen, Hitchcock was originally considered to direct that film.

The direction in Stage Fright is distinctly Hitchcockian, blending light and dark and hamming-up the close-ups, which neatly covers over a disparity in acting styles and prevents the stars' egos from overshadowing their performances. It is understandable that not many people seek out Stage Fright, but the film is worth seeing if you get the chance.