The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893) by Arthur Conan Doyle. This collection of short stories was supposed to provide the final word on the great detective – and, of course, it didn’t. For reasons we may never deduce, Arthur Conan Doyle brought back the character who got him paid-by-the-word less than a decade after killing him off. But Holmes dies here, in ‘The Final Problem’, which has an excellent concluding line. There are twelve stories in all, including ‘The Gloria Scott’, in which Holmes recounts his first case in his university days, and ‘The Greek Interpreter’, in which we meet his brother. Rereading in order, I was surprised to remember how socially functional the original Sherlock Holmes was. That charm that Basil Rathbone captured on-screen, so pointedly sublimated in later adaptations, is certainly there in the stories.
4.50 From Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie. The buoyant Elspeth McGillicuddy boards a train after a hard day shopping. As the 4.50 rushes past another train, she glances through the woman and sees, in the other train, a woman being strangled! When the police dismiss her as a lonely biddy, she calls on Miss Marple… This is Christie in her element, writing about a fantasy England and a changing world. Characters – from the grandiose patriarch who made his fortune in biscuits to the domestic helper with a triple first from Oxford – are quirkily realised and the plot is silly enough to class as genius.
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966) by Patricia Highsmith. Don’t read this as a ‘how-to’ guide, but do read this for the fascinating insights into Highsmith’s own creative routines. Very accessible and very humane.
Dark Corners (2014) by Ruth Rendell. Rendell’s final novel showcases her ambitions and her weaknesses, especially when she tries to be edgy. I wish she had set this novel in the 1960s, as that’s clearly where her imagination has strayed to and the use of ‘the Internet’ (with a very capital ‘I’) at the heart of the plot is slightly awkward. Had all the action taken place in the 1960s, I think this could have been as taut and compelling as vintage Rendell.
Bring Me Back (2018) by B.A. Paris. Paris has a knack of writing compulsively readable prose. You can sit down with her debut, Behind Closed Doors, and not look up until far into the night. She established a formula with that book and largely stuck to it in her second. This is her third and it’s different. For one thing, Paris is trying a male narrator for the first time (there are two narrators here, and a bit of a Gone Girl vibe), and for another the twist is supposed to be unexpected. One thing that made Behind Closed Doors so great is that you know the entire plot, everything that’s going to unfold, more or less from the off – and you know that the author knows that you know. The only person who doesn’t know is the narrator. And that’s compelling. Here, the twist comes right at the end. The problem is that twists are hard to pull off. I saw it coming as soon as the plot had been established, and found myself increasingly frustrated. I turned the pages quickly, but that was to escape some unfortunate writing. The kind of rookie errors I missed – despite their being there – in the first book, and noticed but forgave in the second. B.A. Paris has a genuinely talent but I really, really want her to take more than a year to produce each book, in order to do that talent justice.