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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.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Mini Reviews #21

‘Too Clever by Half’ (1939) by G.D.H. and M. Cole. A short story featuring a locked-room puzzle, although we are told the murderer at the outset. In what would become a Columbo-style set-up, we follow the detective as he unravels the clues. The idea is that if the killer hadn’t been so attentive in trying to cover up the crime, he’d probably have gotten away with it; the extra touches were his undoing. If any real murderer made any one of this killer’s five mistakes (e.g. leaving a ‘suicide note’ but neglecting the pen), then ‘clever’ is not the word one would use.

Busman’s Honeymoon (1940) directed by Arthur B. Woods. Competent film adaptation of the novel by Dorothy L. Sayers and the play she co-wrote with Muriel St Clare Byrne, featuring Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey and Constance Cummings as Harriet Vane. Yes, Americans! Take it as a period murder mystery, rather than as anything to do with Sayers’ ambitious (and, arguably, unsuccessful) novel, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

A Simple Favour (2018) directed by Paul Feig. This movie, based on Darcey Bell’s debut and starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, is absolutely marvellous. I haven’t read the novel, and, candidly, I’m not keen to because it looks like a serious thriller, and the plot is an utterly ridiculous elevation ofGone Girl. However, the film is so splendidly camp – every scene contains one of those cringy stress-release gags that appear once an hour in normal thrillers – that it works brilliantly. Kendrick gives her best ever performance as a single mother-turned-YouTuber and Lively plays her mysterious rich new friend in a way that will make everyone recognise someone they know. The whole thing is very slick and very entertaining.

Bodyguard (BBC, 2018). Honestly, I don’t know why you’re all raving about this, or why you’re all complaining about the last episode. It starts as it means to go on: as a pretty standard BBC political thriller. That is, very gripping, quite preposterous, and mildly jingoistic, like London Spy. The final episode which disappointed so many viewers (seriously, I don’t know why?) is exactly what the first five episodes promised.

Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) by Liane Moriarty. Moriarty’s new novel is a satire that is sometimes witty and sometimes poignant. Set in an unorthodox health resort, it features an engaging and very believable villain, and a nice range of annoying rich protagonists. There is a delightful meta moment in chapter 58, in which a middle-aged romantic novelist trips out on LSD and realizes that she is a character in a poorly written detective story in which no one has yet died. The move towards satire in what used to be called ‘grip-lit’ is very reassuring, although I’ve not yet seen it perfected; Moriarty veers from dark humour to ‘I’m being serious’ moments – and she isn’t alone in that.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Mini reviews #20

Verdict of Twelve (1940) by Raymond Postgate. An excellent psychological mystery, with two strands: the puzzle of a child's murder, and an exploration of the private lives of the twelve jurors at his aunt's trial. The very first juror we meet has gleefully gotten away with murder in the past, making the whole thing an interesting take on the justice system at an increasingly frantic point in British history. The book is also worth reading for Postgate's ironic self-portrait in the figure of a self-important socialist intellectual, and for his thinly-veiled depiction of his brother-in-law, G.D.H. Cole, as a monstrous gay academic, Dr Holmes. Notwithstanding the presence of three distinct Edwards, it's an engaging and memorable novel.

The Secret Vanguard (1940) by Michael Innes. Unpopularity, I really enjoy Innes' adventure novels. They are so escapist: undeniable page-turners which draw you into a fantasy Britain in which everyone is wonderfully well-read and erudite. The Secret Vanguard is a kind of cross between a detective-mystery and an adventure thriller. There are vaguely-defined German spies and mad scientists who mostly swan around inhabiting John Buchan via the Romantic poets. And Inspector Appleby plays a big role but is, as usual, quite forgettable. The really memorable part is the protagonist, Sheila Grant. Described in the blurb to my edition as 'a most attractive heroine,' she is one of the more interesting, believable, and funny lead figures I've come across in earnest fiction of the late 1930s/early 1940s. I could have done without her love interest, Dick, who doesn't do much but, by virtue of his name alone, leads to some unintentionally hilarious passages.

The Hound of the D'urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman. Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty and his own sidekick Colonel Sebastian Moran take the lead in this extravagance of seedy Victoriana. Will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman, Tape Five, etc.

The Husband's Secret (2012) by Liane Moriarty. The mixed reviews for this book baffled me initially, until I saw the original book cover and realised that many people had expected it to be a love story. Also, being published in 2012, it was slightly ahead of the 'husband' craze in crime thrillers.  That's my best guess: the narrative itself is utterly compelling and praiseworthy.  Our starting point is a relatively normal Australian wife discovering an envelope, addressed by her husband to her, 'to be opened in the event of my death.' The husband is still alive -- can she resist? What follows is a labyrinthine and very human psychological thriller following three sets of people whose lives and deaths intersect. I can't wait to read more by Moriarty.

Holmes Entangled (2018) by Gordon McAlpine. Gloriously accessible Sherlockian postmodernism. During the Second World War, Jorge Luis Borges visits a private detective with what he claims is a manuscript written by Sherlock Holmes himself. Holmes, we learn, was a well-known detective, occassionally helped by a 'middling scribbler' called Arthur Conan Doyle (who has pretty much gone mad, after becoming obsessed with fairies and speaking to the dead). The manuscript reveals Holmes' investigation of claims by Doyle that he was visited  during a seance by the spirit of the still-living Prime Minister. Cracking the case also involves solving the murder of Edgar Allen Poe. The solution lies in poststructuralism and quantum physics. Oh, and Holmes comes up with Schroedinger's cat all by himself.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

One problem with neoliberalism is that it seeks to combine two largely incompatible things: human empathy and satisfaction with the status quo. In the new Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White (2018), some attention is paid to a group of socialist activists, who are caricatured as lazy, stupid, violent, aggressive, paranoid, rabidly anti-Semitic, secretly rich, and on a scale from narcissistic to misguided to mentally ill. It’s a sketch that could appear in the Daily Telegraph (if not quite the Daily Mail) and it illustrates Robert Galbraith’s shortcomings as an author of social commentary; an inability to grasp nuance in a demographic to which she doesn’t belong.

Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) has been particularly vituperative towards the left on social media in recent years, and that is her prerogative (although her Twitter attacks on some fans got tacky last year). I personally appreciate it greatly when an author does put their understanding of groups they disagree with into prose because it is usually done, as it is here, elegantly and methodically – enabling us to weigh up their perspective.

The first three Strike novels have another tension at their core: they are straightforward, conventional whodunits wrapped up in characters, settings, and adjectives that might be called ‘hardboiled’. In Lethal White, Galbraith seizes a concept that has been slowly gathering strength in the first three books: the idea that the crime novel should be a novel of social commentary, and one of ideas.  As a result, the plot is more labyrinthine and more grounded in character than those of The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.

What has not developed, though, is the worldview. In a Strike novel, you can be reasonably sure that the rich are evil, the poor are honest and wise but stupid, and the characters designed for our sympathy are those who’ve been forced by ‘the system’ to use, gasp!, their other money. Cormoran Strike is a troubled, unfit, but brilliant middle-aged man, and his sidekick, Robin (ho ho), is a young, beautiful, ‘feisty’ woman who comes to realise she’s in love with him.

For a long time, the Harry Potter books have been critiqued for being white-centric. Criticism has also centred on Rowling’s decision to retroactively label certain characters gay or transgender – as if these are not issues that should properly be discussed in texts that would, given the author’s platform, have received instant guaranteed bestseller status. Was she playing it safe? That was the consensus around much of the middle-class-white-straightness in the Potter universe. But, as Lethal White demonstrates, it might just be that the author doesn’t have a problem with dominant ethical models in contemporary Britain. Considering this, it isn’t massively surprising that Rowling was able to say, after all seven Potter books were out, that such-and-such a character is gay, black, or trans: to her mind, it doesn’t actually make a difference to their personalities and therefore isn’t the point of the stories. Many of us would disagree and say that, since the model of normalityin the books is white, male, cis, and heterosexual, then classifying social minorities as blending in seamlessly into a world structured along those lines is implicitly erasing difference and therefore identity.

That’s a criticism Rowling/Galbraith has never addressed. Like the fourth Potter book, the fourth Strike book took longer than its predecessors to write. Like the fourth Potter book, it is longer and more ambitious – and it depends on a loyal readership to make sense as a standalone novel. You have to care about the central characters and know where they’re up to. No one entering the series here would bother starting their journey with a novella-length account of a perfectly average wedding ceremony. But because it’s Robin Ellacott, who has provided our main POV so far in the series, and because we know that of courseshe shouldn’t be marrying this man, we do not look up from the page. Fortunately, the author has an unparalleled gift for creative compelling, hypnotic characters through dialogue and free indirect discourse. The book is masterfully written and an addictive page turner; something almost impossible to achieve.

It’s disappointing, however, that the main drive for the plot is the sexual tension between Strike and Ellacott. What, exactly, is the point?  We’ve seen the same dynamic play out on a million television shows. The rest of the plot, not quite integrated, unfolds slowly. Very slowly. Whether that makes reading a boring chore or a rare chance to bask in the wordsmithery of a once-in-a-generation storyteller is up to you.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Double Death by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and others

A few years ago, I was doing some private research in estates and came across a title that was wholly unfamiliar to me: Double Death (1939) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Valentine Williams, F. Tennyson Jesse, Anthony Armstrong, and David Hume. Wow! I thought. This is a must-read! So I quickly bought a copy, and over a year later, finally got round to reading it.

The Detection Club’s round-robin novels have received renewed attention since HarperCollins reprinted the most famous one, The Floating Admiral, nearly a decade ago. But many still languish in obscurity: The Scoop (not very good, but containing an Agatha Christie contribution), Behind the Screen (very good, and again featuring pre-Dame Agatha), Crime on the CoastNo Flowers by Request, and more. All of these are items I got hold of in my teens and enjoyed, but, somehow, Double Death passed me by.

There are six chapters to this novel, each written by a different distinguished crime writer. The story was written as a newspaper serial and later tidied up with a fresh prologue by John Chancellor before its original publication. In 1939, it was reprinted in book form, along with each author’s notes on how the story should continue, which appear – fascinatingly – at the end of their respective chapters (rather than in an appendix). This aspect, the inclusion of the notes, is by far the book’s most interesting feature.

The story concerns Mrs Farland, a wealthy hypochondriac who might, for the first time in her life, be truly ill. She believes that she is being poisoned and keeps changing her will to inherit, then disinherit, various relatives and hangers-on, including her soon-to-be-married nephew John. When a nurse, who has experience of poisons, is sent for, someone decides to act. The nurse is drugged and killed in the railway station.

Dorothy L. Sayers, who needs no introduction, sets the scene in her chapter. She introduces various characters, each of whom, she explains in her methodical notes, could be the murderer, and gets slightly caught up in the topography and railway timetables of the imagined village of Creepe. She also introduces a real, over-the-counter and quite lethal sleeping draught, which the editor wisely fictionalises as Sleepine, and kills off Nurse Ponting.

Freeman Wills Crofts has Chapter Two, which is largely devoted to reproducing Sayers’ notes on poison in the mouth of a police doctor, and which culminates in a second death. I’ve always found Crofts quite boring but in a single chapter format, where he’s clearly annoyed at having to beboring, he shines and I found his contribution highly entertaining.

The third chapter is by Valentine Williams, the only contributor I’d never heard of, and, based on this contribution, I’m not keen to check him out. However, I did find hugely exciting the politics of his chapter.  To set the scene, Williams has decided that John, the romantic hero, will be the murderer, so he sets up a secondary love interest for John’s fiancé (more on this later).  Of this other chap, John says: ‘he hates me. He’s hated me ever since we blackballed him at the Conservative Club as an out and out Bolshie.’ In his notes, Williams explains that the aim of this is to make the rival appear ‘honest-minded’ and in touch with ‘the plight of the poor’ on a subconscious level, and to make John appear (again subconsciously) as a bully so that the reader is prepared, if still surprised, when he is unmasked.

F. Tennyson Jesse, author of the fourth chapter, displays such bitterness towards her peers and the whole task in general in her notes that I’ve gone off her for life! In her chapter, she decides that it would be cool and totally unexpected to make the young beautiful woman the murderer (yeah, that’s never been done before), so everything she writes is devoted to blackening this character’s name. So much so that, if anyone had taken up her suggestion, the reader would have felt hugely cheated at such an obvious outcome. While the three-quarter point is probably the easiest part to write in a collaborative mystery (you need suspense and action, you already have the characters and the big clues should have been dropped by now), Jesse insists that it’s the hardest – and her chapter makes it look that way.

The penultimate chapter is by Anthony Armstrong, an author I’d heard of but never read, and it aims to move everything towards the solution that Armstrong has devised. This is probably the most skilful chapter in the entire book and I do hope one day to check out more of Armstrong’s work.

As stated, though, the notes are really the interesting thing here. I love seeing the petty egos, the thinly-veiled contempt for other writers, and the sense that everyone is slightly afraid of Sayers. Everyone refers to each other with initials – FWC, FTJ, etc. – but Sayers is always ‘Miss Sayers.’ In the preface, John Chancellor can’t resist a swipe at ‘one or two of the authors’ who ‘would not permit their manuscript to be altered’ or who were ‘ignorant of, or indifferent to, the peculiar needs of newspapers.’ Several of the contributors express their ardent hope for a very good copyeditor, who is eventually named ‘The All-Seeing Eye of God (ASEOG).’

Each writer approaches not only the text but also the explanation of process and ideas differently: Armstrong highlights all his clues with page references. Sayers gives an essay on poison and a map. Crofts draws the map to scale and goes through each character methodically. Williams and Jesse state outright that that’s too much to get their head around and that maps and timetables can be red herrings, best ignored.

The romance angle is what struck me most. Over a decade earlier, Sayers herself had decried the need for romance in crime fiction as a ‘fettering convention’. In her notes, though, she explains that she has introduced a young couple purely in case John or his fiancé Penelope turn out to be guilty – the couple ‘may supply the love-interest (since the murderer obviously can’t have the love-interest)’. It seems that all her hopes of reinvigorating the genre retired with Lord Peter Wimsey. When Williams identifies John as the murderer, he introduces another young man for Penelope, as stated. Jesse goes for Penelope, writing: ‘I admit that if Penelope is the guilty one we are left without a love interest (which is not a thing that interests me personally in a detective story).’ However, she introduces another young woman (late on and unnecessarily sharing a Christian name with Sayers’ alterna-interest) for John, and spends a great deal of this chapter comparing that woman’s ‘natural beauty’ to Penelope’s obvious ‘golden’ sexiness. If all these writers felt so fettered by the convention, I just wish they’d had the guts to spice it up a bit!

A final point of interest in the notes is each writer’s proposed solution to the case, and how they’ve tried to present clues towards it; also how they’ve manipulated the previous information to serve it.  Recently, on a Facebook page where I lurk more than I post, someone asked the question: have you ever read a Golden Age book and come up with a better solution than the author, which still fits all the clues? Several replies to the question came from writers who had been convinced they’d solved a mystery, found themselves proved wrong, and then determined to write a new story along the lines they’d thought of. Often when I read crime fiction from the 1920s and 1930s I feel like Agatha Christie might have had a similar idea. And here, I think, one of the solutions Armstrong proposes is almost certainly the basis for the solution to Sad Cypress, Christie’s 1940 novel. 

David Hume’s final chapter is supposed to tie everything together. Instead, Hume picks a character no one else has suggested as the murderer, and then introduces a load of new evidence to incriminate them! This is not at all a satisfactory ending to the story as a story – and necessitates a fresh prologue by John Chancellor so that there is at least some basis for such an ending.

Written on the verge of war, Double Death comes at the end of crime fiction’s playful Golden Age and its publication with private notes shows some of the magic wearing off the genre. As a story, it’s frankly a mess, but as a curiosity and an insight into the workings of these writers’ minds, it’s of greater value than all the other round-robin novels put together.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Actor's Guide to Greed by Rick Copp

As you may know, I don’t tend to enjoy gay detective fiction. I find the wish-fulfilment, the nostalgia, the cliquiness, and the attempts to imitate and seek approval from ‘straight’ crime fiction at best disappointing and at worst painful. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve found a series of three American gay detective novels I don’t hate.

A couple of weeks ago, at a spiritual festival (of all things) in Norwich Library, I noticed a copy of Rick Copp’s The Actor’s Guide to Greed (2003). It looked so camp and colourful and bloody American that I thought I’d look it up. So I did, and learnt about Copp’s series featuring Jarrod Jarvis, a former child-star in Hollywood. Copp is a screenwriter, so I figured that there’d be a bit more nuance than usual to the actor-hero trope. Besides, I have always thought that a former child star would make a great detective: it solves the problem of them needing to be young and rich enough to go anywhere, but also without having the obstruction of a day job and with access to closed communities and enough of a chequered past to be interesting.

Thinking, ‘why not?’, I ordered all three books in the series, of which The Actor’s Guide to Murder is the first and The Actor’s Guide to Greed is the last. I read them all quickly and enjoyed the escapism. The writing is slightly cynical but mostly very gentle and not technically very good. It sounds odd, but sometimes, if I’m after sheer escapism, I don’t want good writing. I don’t want to be sticking post-it notes on pithy phrases or rereading immersive passages, I just want to rattle along with the story. So shoot me: I’m middlebrow.

The plot in this third book sees Copp’s bag of tricks starting to wear thin, and I understand why he turned to other things at this point. It’s a kind of fusion of the first two plots with some ambitious elements underpinning the story. Jarrod and his LAPD boyfriend Charlie find themselves drawn to London’s West End, as Jarrod’s latest hope for a comeback rests on a supporting role in a new murder mystery drama. There is camp humour in abundance here, but the thing that really tickled me was how completely and utterly bizarre the atuhor’s idea of England is. The idea that the West End would be jumping at the chance to stage a play called Murder Can Be Civilised, the first line of which is ‘More tea and crumpets, sir?’; that they could assemble a cast full of Hollywood a-listers, Bollywood a-listers, a thinly-veiled Judi Dench, a thinly-veiled Emma Thompson, and a thinly-veiled Ian McKellan; that they would then put up every single cast member in a private suite at the Savoy for the whole three month run … it’s just hilarious!

Before long, of course, one of the cast is murdered. On stage (how else?), and Jarrod finds himself falling under suspicion.  A strange thing follows. In Britain, we view American media coverage of crimes with horror – in the name of ‘free speech’, people spew their hot takes on whatever crime is in the news, regardless of facts or defamation. My boss, Sophie Hannah, was so affected by this in the case of the kidnapping of Casey Anthony that she wrote a book about it (Did You See Melody?). But, apparently, at least some Americans think that we do it worse in Britain?! I think based on all the stuff that appeared after Diana, Princess of Wales’ death, Copp has the British tabloid relentlessly pursuing our intrepid hero, splashing about direct accusations of murder on their front pages – something that’s not only never done, but is also completely illegal.

Anyway, he survives it and uncovers the truth. Now – I solved the first two Copp/Jarvis mysteries simply by fixing on the least likely suspect, rather than looking for evidence. Since that method had served me well, I tried it again here… and got it wrong. In this book, Copp does something that Ruth Rendell mastered: the double-twist. By this, I mean, he gives us a big twist that we have probably seen coming, and then, while we’re patting ourselves on the back for having got one up on the author, he throws another twist at us, catching us completely off-guard. In fact, the least-likely-suspect  theory wouldhave served me well, if I hadn’t committed the cardinal sin of completely overlooking someone as a suspect.

Gayness is woven into every fibre of the plot here and in Copp’s other two books. However, they do not explore or engage with gay communities. Not at all; in fact, it’s a very homonormative set-up: Jarrod is in a monogamous long-term relationship, living comfortably with a dog (child-substitute). His best friend is a straight woman who talks through boy troubles with him. These books are never going to rally the queer revolution. One thing that interests me about the detective’s domestic arrangement, though, is that – for no apparent reason – he lives in an inverted house. That is to say, the living area is upstairs and the sleeping area is downstairs. I’m not overly sure of the point of this, but it’s almost as if there’s something self-consciously imitative about this actor’s straight-American-dream aspirations.

This book (and the two that came before) were just what I needed at a stressful time. They made me smile, not always for the right reasons, and I enjoyed them very much. However, it is the gayness that makes them interesting, so I will not be rushing out to buy Rick Copp’s straight mysteries, written under the name Lee Hollis.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Mayfair Mystery by Frank Richardson

I regret having listened to this as an audiobook, as I wish I’d noted down some of the one-liners, and I’d love to have a copy I can keep and consult (luckily, under its original title, 2835 Mayfair, it is available online here). I’m grateful to those of my friends who recommended Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery (1906) to me.

An eminent Harley Street doctor has been murdered – or has he? A valet discovers his master dead and summons the authorities – but, when he returns to the scene, the body has gone …

The Mayfair Mystery was the first title republished in those gorgeous Collins Crime Club editions in 2015. It’s an interesting choice, as the original publication predates the traditional parameters of the Golden Age, and the puzzle aspect (with which the renaissance seems outwardly obsessed) is not strong. Indeed, supernatural explanations for the crime are routinely flirted with and – arguably – not wholly abandoned.

It’s also not well-served by HarperCollins’ blurb, which makes it sound like a straightforward brain-teaser. In fact, the prose is absorbingly witty and satirical – as is the story architecture. Almost every other line is some loaded throwaway comment about the hypocrisies of the well-to-do, particularly those in pursuit of marriage.

I still might buy myself a copy because I am keen to read David Brawn’s introduction to the text. In particular, I’d like to find out more about Frank Richardson, who committed suicide in 1917. He was well-known as a satirist with, bizarelly, an obsession with facial hair (he is said to have coined the term ‘face fungus’), and it does not take a supersleuth to understand the moustache-obsessed hack novelist Frederick Robinson within these pages as a self-portrait.

As I listened to this book (you may have gathered, audiobooks are relatively new and not quite comfortable territory for me), I was struck by a feeling of pleasure: normally, when I ask people for recommendations, they just fish about in their favourite canons and recollect one with a gay character or LGBTQ themes.  Often these are great, but often they’re not the most enjoyable part of the canon, and I get a bit peeved that people just think, ‘oh, yeah, Jamie likes gay stuff, so the gay stuff is for him’ (I was nearly put off Kerry Greenwood by being told I’d love to start with Murder and Mendelsohn, one of her worst). So, I was delighted that people seemed to have grasped that I’m interested in society satire etc etc etc…. until I got to the ending. Oh, well! Still, it’s very interesting and put me in mind of Dorothy Bowers, who wrote some 30-40 years later.

There's one mystery I cannot solve. At the end of the audiobook, the narrator announced that authorial copyright for this novel is held by none other than David Brawn, and Google tells me it was registered in 2015. Surely, 101 years after an author's death, their work cannot be copyrighted by anyone. Now, is this simply a muddle -- i.e., is it merely David's introduction that has been copyrighted? Or has he adapted the text?

Monday, 27 August 2018

Mini reviews #19

Poirot Investigates (1924) by Agatha Christie. It's been said that Arthur Conan Doyle should have stuck to writing short stories and Agatha Christie should have stuck to novels. The mysteries are too complex, people claim, to work in a 4,000 word format. Maybe. This was Christie's first collection of stories, originally published in the trendy Sketch magazine and featuring Hercule Poirot, who was becoming a household name. Poirot's on top form here, and the faithful Captain Hastings is wonderfully idiotic. Christie is still trying to write like Doyle, which can be grating. But 'The Mystery of Hunter's lodge' is melodramatic and keyed in, satirically, to debates around psychoanalysis. 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb' is full of entrancing period detail.

Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar (1936) by Barry Perowne. Perrowne, a pseudonym for Philip Atkey, was appointed by the estate of E.W. Hornung to write new novels and stories featuring gentleman thief A.J. Raffles. This is one of his two novels pitting Raffles against the ever-popular poor man's Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake. Raffles' Crime in Gibraltar is par-for-the course pulp. It's enjoyable enough, with obvious padding in places... and cigarettes are lit whenever dialogue needs breaking up. Full of sinister foreigners and implausible chases, it is forgettable. As it was designed to be.

Endless Night (1967) by Agatha Christie. A masterpiece. A psychological thriller, a literary novel, and everything they say she couldn't write. It's hard to believe Christie was 77 when Endless Night came out. Slap a random name on the cover, change a few details, and release it to day: it would become an instant bestseller and then a classic in its own right.

Monk's Hood (1980) by Ellis Peters. 'It was now imperative to find the murderer, otherwise the boy could not emerge from hiding and take up his disrupted life.' The third Brother Cadfael novel features a mysterious poisoning. Try as I might, I cannot get into these books. The writing style fails to engage me, although I have enjoyed some of Peters' short stories, historical or otherwise. However, I shan't be giving Cadfael another chance any time soon.

The Actor's Guide to Murder (2003) by Rick Copp. A mostly fun, campy crime novel about a former child star in Hollywood and his police detective boyfriend solving another former child star's murder. They are put onto the case by the main character's personal psychic warning that someone close to him will die. Reading it, I developed two theories as to whodunit: one was based on logic and the other on the least-likely-suspect theory. The latter was correct. The solution tries to veer into social commentary which is, perhaps, a mistake, as the author is not as informed on the issues as the glamorous setting. Also, a reference to 'an Agatha Christie pot-boiler' irritated me! But I plan to read the second in the series, The Actor's Guide to Adultery.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (1921-95) would not like being featured on this blog, as she strongly resented the label 'crime writer', and, if we interpret crime fiction and detective fiction as roughly synonymous (as Highsmith Certainly did), A Suspension of Mercy (1965) is an anti-crime novel. While the central character, Sydney Bartleby, is responsible for three deaths, only the third is actually a murder, and it's the only one of the deaths for which the authorities don't investigate him. A fantastically tense and unsettling read,   A Suspension of Mercy is Highsmith at her lucid, cynical, and misanthropic best.

The tagline on my paperback edition -- 'Who hasn't imagined killing his wife?' -- cannot fail to draw you in. The fact that the image on the cover shows a woman's legs in a rolled up rug only piqued my curiosity; just the other week, my own spouse returned home with an unexplained new rug. It's also set in Suffolk, the English county where Highsmith lived for a while and where I currently live. So, yeah.

Sydney is a struggling writer, unhappily married to Alicia and more fulfilled by his creative partnership with a young man, Alex. While he struggles with creative block -- or, with channeling his creative vision to fit commercial demands for clear plot and structure -- Sydney spends every spare moment fantasising about murdering Alicia. He has it all planned out: the push down the stairs, the disposal of the body, and the cover story. One day, Alicia disappears without a satisfactory explanation, and Sydney sees his private fantasies playing out in the minds of everyone he meets.

One big theme throughout the novel is the problem of trying to narrate and give shape to real life. It doesn't fit. Sydney is proposing a new television series about an antihero called The Whip, who is more AJ Raffles than Tom Ripley. The Whip robs, maims, and kills, but in the service of justice. However, network after network rejects it, repeating that there is too much unfettered immorality on TV and that what the stories really need is a crime-solving detective hero. As Highsmith points out, in various voices, crime-solving heroes are ten-a-penny and real antiheroes are hard to come by.

As Sydney finds his imagined life becoming a reality without his direct agency, his writing takes off and -- although he never realises it -- he starts to sell out; to write in market-ready stencils.  At the end, with fame, riches, and no wife, he's able to separate his work from his unfettered and partway realised fantasies. As the novel concludes, 'everything [i]s a matter of attitudes.'

There is nothing I dislike about this book, and if you haven't read any Highsmith, I'd recommend it as an excellent introduction to her twisted, unique, and vital prose.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Mini reviews #18

The Allegations (2016) by Mark Lawson. Lawson’s novel provides an inevitable response to what the author considers the age of trial-by-public opinion. It’s exactly what you’d expect, and, if you agree philosophically with Lawson, you’ll probably enjoy it. He is a satirist for those who don’t wish to challenge the status quo. They might as well have one.

Fallet (STV, 2017). This 8-part Swedish television is the inevitable parody of Nordic Noir, and, while there are some missed opportunities, the overall result is inspired. An incompetent Swedish detective, the tortured, introspect Sophie Borg (Lisa Henni) teams up with an even more incompetent English policeman, the overly polite and reticent DCI Tom Brown (Adam Godley) to solve a ritualised and apparently religious murder with links in their own disparate pasts. There are a great many English and Swedish puns (some of which I certainly didn’t get, as my Swedish is poor), in the title sequence and throughout – the police chief is called Klas Wall, for instance, and a chunk of the plot is spent chasing around after a product called McGuffin. There’s also a great set of characters, my favourite of which is a dark, death-obsessed forensic scientist from Finland. A strong supporting cast includes Dag Malmberg of The Bridge fame. I hope there will be another series; I know that the Americans are planning to remake it although I can’t imagine that will end well. ‘Fallet’, by the way, means ‘The Case’. Which is perfect.

100 Greatest Literary Detectives (2018) edited by Eric Sandberg. I was thrilled to contribute to this volume, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory, and can’t do better than linking to fellow contributor (and superior blogger) Kate Jackson’s review. 

The Death of Mrs Westaway (2018) by Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware evokes Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier in this excellent fourth novel, proving herself the heir to both. The plot concerns an unscrupulous tarot-card reader who comes into an unexpected inheritance – unexpected because it seems to have been meant for someone else. The Westaway family at the heart of this novel is full of secrets and dilemmas, unravelling as quickly as one turns the pages. A highly recommended mystery thriller.

Social Creatureby Tara Isabella Burton (2018). Marketed as ‘[t]he missing link between Bret Easton Ellis and The Secret History’ (Emma Flint) and ‘[a] Ripley story for the Instagram age’, the influences on Burton’s debut are plain for all to see. The plotting is highly indebted to Patricia Highsmith, the characterisation to Bret Easton Ellis, and the graceful unfurling of the story to Donna Tartt. There’s also a very deliberate Gatsby vibe. Take four pastiches and mix in a truly unique social media-influenced type of language (everything is ‘so’ something and/or introduced with ‘Here’s the thing’) and you have Social Creature. It’s very good (but not original enough to be great), and it sticks with you. The central character is excellent. I can imagine this being filmed. I have no idea what the author will do for her second novel, because she can’t really repeat the tone here. But, as a debut, Social Creatureis hugely promising.