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Friday, 8 February 2019

Mini reviews #26

The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin. Crispin’s debut is a good place to start. A marvellous meta locked room mystery  featuring the eccentric academic sleuth Gervase Fen and revolving around the death of a promiscuous actress in an Oxford college.

The Mousetrap (1952) by Agatha Christie. There’s a reason Christie’s play is the longest-running in West End (and theatre) history: it’s bloody brilliant. I’m pretty much unique in thinking it is Christie’s best play, but I just think it’s perfect. And it features at least two LGBT characters, which is always a plus. A perfect balance of suspense, humour, familiarity, and fresh, contemporary horror, this story of a snowed-in post-war guest house visited by a murderer out for revenge remains relevant in most contexts. I must have seen at least a dozen productions (the West End cast changes each November) and it never gets old. The current incarnation is the best yet, so go and see it if you’re in London. If not, catch the UK tour or one of the regular amateur productions done in other countries. You won’t regret it.

Lord John and the Private Matter (2003) by Diana Gabaldon. Outlander, the TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s time travel romances, is one of my guilty pleasures (and pretty much confirms me as a middle-aged woman in a dashing young buck’s body). This historical spy novel takes one of the supporting character from the Outlander universe, the gay-or-possibly-bi Lord John Grey who is a spy. I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction but found this engaging, and the research not too overwhelming or besides the point. It’s a surprisingly fun novel, too. You probably need to care about the characters to enjoy it, though.

The Widow (2016) by Fiona Barton. A stunning debut psychological thriller. Barton seamlessly inhabits a range of different voices, with the most effective being that of the journalist, Kate Waters, determined to solve an old case.

The Child (2017) by Fiona Barton. A very good second novel. Barton’s writing style is as engaging as ever. However, there is a big twist which I saw coming from the midway point, and it became increasingly difficult to believe that none of the characters could see it coming or at least think of it. It was a disappointment to have this twist be the big reveal and the end of the book.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Mini reviews #25

Today’s mini-reviews, the twenty-fifth set brining the total number of this pithy summaries to 100, are all television productions!

Case Closed (YTV, 1996-present). Also known as Detective Conan and based on the manga series of the same name, this is a fun, long-running murder mystery anime with a ragged bunch of child detectives and plenty of allusions to Golden Age detective fiction. If you like anime or classic crime, if you’re a child or an adult, Case Closed is worth a watch.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC, 2014-present). Overblown, preposterous, and compulsively watchable series about illogically sexy postgraduate law student and their intense relationships with barrister-cum-law professor Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davies, who singlehandedly elevates the programme from utter rubbish to must-see television).

You Get Me (Netflix, 2017). Frothy, silly teen psychological thriller from Netflix. You Get Me owes a great deal of its plot to Swimfan (2002) following a young couple whose relationship descends into bloodshed with the arrival of an obsessive Other Woman. Interestingly, I recently read an upcoming novel by a bestseller (not to be reviewed on this blog), which routinely rips off this rip-off TV film. Half the cast are Youtubers, which should tell you enough.

You (Netflix, 2018). Engrossing ten-part Netflix adaptation of the novel by Caroline Kepnes, charting a bookseller’s obsession with a young writer, as it descends through social media stalking into very dark places.

Agatha and the Truth of Murder (Channel 5, 2018). In my December post, I mentioned that I thought this drama was not terrible and some of my friends let me know that I was wrong. But I stand by what I said: while the budget is clearly not great, Tom Dalton’s script mishmashes real events in a bizarre way, and Ruth Bradley’s performance as Christie is underwhelming, I thought the whole thing was fine. Agatha Christie as detective — especially in those missing days in 1926 — has been done to death, and this Channel 5 drama doesn’t offer anything particularly new. But it’s relatively inoffensive, and the plot is structured along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel of the period. That is a first for one of these projects, and makes it worth watching. Bradley has indicated that she might reprise the role. With Andrew Wilson’s series along similar lines expecting a TV home soon, that would be interesting. 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Mini reviews #24

Northanger Abbey (1817) by Jane Austen. Arguably the first metatextual detective novel, Austen’s witty satire is ostensibly a romance story centred on the young, headstrong Catherine Morland, whose ‘unimproving’ appetite for gothic adventure novels (specifically Udolpho) leads her to view her suitor’s family with intense and amusing suspicion. Most of the ingredients of playful twentieth century crime fiction are pre-empted here, and I’d hold Northanger Abbey, rather than Emma, up as Austen’s work-of-greatest-influence on the mystery genre. Remarkably, it was also her first completed novel, although it was published after her death.

Grey Mask (1928) by Patricia Wentworth. A super-fun mystery introducing the elderly spinster PI Maud Silver, although she barely appears in this one. The plot is beautifully far-fetched and entertainingly told, centring around  troubled bright young things stumbling onto a conspiracy of masked men and women who are trying to manipulate inheritance law. Not for the last time, Wentworth manages to pre-empt Agatha Christie’s next plot (in this case, that of 1929’s The Seven Dials Mystery) remarkably.

Rough Justice (2016) by Adam Croft. This short novel is fast-paced with enough hooks and pithy cynicism to keep you hooked. It will appeal to fans of modern crime thrillers without alienating traditionalists who value engaging plots.

Shedunnit (2018-present) hosted by Caroline Crampton. This exciting feminist podcast focusses on key issues in Golden Age crime fiction. Every other week, Crampton is joined by experts to discuss such matters as the Thompson-Bywaters case, the role of food, and queer codes and characters. If you find yourself with half an hour to spare, check it out. If you don’t find yourself with half an hour to spare, try to make the time, because it’s very, very worth it.

The Bible in Crime Fiction and Drama: Murderous Texts (2019) edited by Caroline Blythe and Alison Jack. I’m thrilled and humbled to have a chapter on Agatha Christie’s later fiction in this stunning volume from T&T Clark. Considering the little-discussed but widely-acknowledged links between crime fiction and the Bible, Blythe’s and Jack’s edited collection features a whole range of essays from across biblical and literary studies. An essential volume for anyone interested in the interplay between popular fiction and religion.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Double Snare by Rosemary Harris

Rosemary Harris, now in her nineties, is not a particularly well-known name any more but, once upon a time, she was a popular and prolific writer for children. In a reversal of the familiar pattern trod by Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and others, she earned her bread with children’s literature and also wrote crime novels. Specifically, she wrote a handful of psychological thrillers.

I came across The Double Snare (1974) on a charity book shelf in a high street shop and picked it up because it looked interesting. That night, I dipped in and stayed up until 6AM, when I’d turned the final page. That’s not to say that this is a particularly gripping novel; it probably says more about my current state of mind —  this is my version of late-night Netflix bingeing.

The novel is narrated by a twenty year-old woman with amnesia. Following a car crash, our heroine - named Maria by the nurses in her Italian hospital - wakes up with no memory of who or where she is. All she has is a showy handbag, a raggedy dress, and the memory of a single name: Robert. Before long, a wealthy Italian family claims her as their wayward daughter Guilia, and she is taken away to live with them. However, when Guilia’s secret boyfriend throws stones at her bedroom window, it becomes clear that she is not who they say she is.

A complex plot unfolds involving the theatre, free love, drugs, art theft and forgery, smuggling, and Shakespeare. Lots and lots of Shakespeare. Naming herself Silvia (‘Who is Silvia, what is she?’, geddit?), our heroine hitches around Italy until she runs into someone who recognises her, and then things get more complex and dangerous.

The Double Snare is told in the first person present tense, making it surprisingly contemporary and fresh-feeling. I don’t know why I spent the last pound in my pocket on this book, why I went on to devour it when my TBR pile is almost sky-high, or why I thought staying up til six would be a good idea when I had a 9AM appointment, but I don’t regret it. This is a diverting psychological thriller and it will stay with me in a low-level way.

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.