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Monday 28 March 2022

The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Quite why I’ve never read a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) before is a mystery to me. Probably the best known of the ‘American Agatha Christies’, she is much cited, but beyond her first novel, The Circular Staircase (1908), and the later, much-adapted The Bat (1926), her work specifically is rarely discussed.

Rinehart is famous for the ‘Had I But Known’ style of writing, where a narrator notes that things could have played out differently had they taken a different course of action, thus creating suspense.  She is also often credited – presumably wrongly – with spawning the ‘butler did it’ cliché.

That was all I knew when I picked up The Man in Lower Ten (1909), the only Rinehart novel I own in physical form. Mine is a 1960s Dell paperback, partly chewed by rats, which came into my possession mysteriously. My parents, who were antiquarian book dealers, one day accidentally mixed up a load of old stock they were throwing away with some of my cherished books that were in storage, and Mum kindly put all the crimey-looking titles aside for me, assuming they were mine.
 
Recently, faced with a nasty bout of Coronavirus (again! And worse!)*, it felt like time to read a Rinehart, so read a Rinehart I did.
 
The story here is, fascinatingly, halfway between late-nineteenth-century post-sensationalism and Golden Age detective fiction. That’s not unexpected but, as a scholar of literature, it’s fascinating to see it in action. For example, while there are some chases, sinister villains, and blemishless damsels, there is also psychology, camaraderie, and comedy. I was particularly struck by the narrator/hero, who is clearly supposed to be an everyman.
 
Lawrence Blakeley, our hero, is a mid-ranking solicitor riding a sleeper train to deliver some key documents in a fraud case. After the first night on board, he wakes up without the documents …. And without his clothes … and in the wrong compartment. He has, for the night, switched identities with an unknown man and when he approaches what should be his bed, he finds a man – murdered!
 
While Blakeley looks like the prime suspect, the train promptly crashes, with few survivors, putting the murder on the back-burner, but Blakeley is keen to recover his luggage and uncover the truth. He also needs to know how and why all signs of guilt seem to point to a beautiful woman he positively cannot allow himself to fall in love with (spoiler: he falls in love with her).
 
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, not so much a mystery as a thriller with clues and deductions, and kept double checking the publication date because it felt so much more 1920s than 1900s.  Even small phrases – ‘amateur detective’ and ‘mental state’ – were more modern than I’d expected and must have been pretty bang up-to-date. There is also a parody of the eccentric amateur sleuth: Mr Wilson Budd Hotchkiss, a fussy little man who declares himself a crime-solver having immersed himself in the works of Poe and Gaboriau and in their characters’ methods of detection.
 
Oh! And I learnt new slang. At one point, a character describes the murder as ‘a regular ten-twent’-thirt’ crime’. This set me googling, and it turns out (perhaps everyone else already knew this) that ‘ten-twenty-thirty’ or ‘ten-twent-thirt’ is slang, which Merriam-Webster defines as ‘a cheap and typically melodramatic theatrical entertainment’. Now I know!
 
I saw ‘cinema’ used for the first time I’ve noticed to mean a portion at the end of a music hall performance where a short film is shown. So, one wouldn’t go to the cinema but to the music hall where one would experience the cinema after the comedy or the dancing. That’s one of the things I love about reading popular fiction from previous times: the use of language, when it mimics speech.
 
The edition I have is illustrated throughout. I don’t know how normal this is for Dell paperbacks. I know that the first edition of The Man in Lower Ten was illustrated but from a Google search, the illustrations look different. Some are quite atmospheric, most are a bit silly, and the illustration that accompanies ‘“You will have to rouse yourself,” the girl said desperately’ is unfortunate.  I’ll show myself out.
 
The Man in Lower Ten was a good read and I look forward to reading more from this author. Luckily, she has a hefty oeuvre to pick from.

* If you're wondering, I caught COVID-19 first in January (the review for Four Days' Wonder mentioning it was posted a month later) and again last week, in March. I am still testing positive and do not recommend!

Monday 21 March 2022

Mini reviews #38

Mystery in the Channel (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts. Inspector French investigates among the French in this vintage murder mystery. Two bankers are found dead on a steamer going from England to France, and a large amount of money has gone missing. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and was especially entertained by the fact that characters are able to remember very specific details and discuss them at length. For example, a man working behind a till happens to glance at the serial numbers on small bank notes used in a transaction then, later, when the police put out a list of around a million serial numbers that cashiers should be on the lookout for, he instantly realises it’s a match! Very much reality according to FWC, and rather endearing for that.


Fletch (1974) by Gregory McDonald. Before I started reading this highly popular 1970s macho ‘comic’ mystery, I was warned: ‘it hasn’t aged well’. That, it seems, was an understatement. Surely, even in 1974, a roguish hero who establishes his charming roguery by psychologically terrorising his various ex-wives and raping a 15 year-old with substance abuse issues can’t have been unproblematic? I was disgusted by this book. The mystery element is generic and has certainly been done better elsewhere.

 

The Other Woman (2016) by Sandie Jones. A friend on Twitter recommended this novel after a Reddit post recounting real-life parallels to the events Jones describes emerged. It is a powerful, character-driven debut. A light-read domestic noir, The Other Woman marries the Perfect Husband and Mother-in-Law From Hell tropes.


True Crime Story (2021) by Joseph Knox. Presented as a true crime book, I read this novel because there was a whole ‘thing’ about people mistaking it for an actual true crime book and getting angry at the author. Knox, after all, features as a character/narrator and is not presented rosily. Interviews, newspaper reports, emails, and commentaries form the bulk of this narrative, which centres on the disappearance of a student from Manchester University. I’m fascinated by this cultural moment when a lot of especially male writers are including themselves as characters in their novels. And I did not solve this mystery!


The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (2022 miniseries, Netflix). I’m surprised this miniseries is as popular as it is because, while I found it very funny, I wouldn’t have expected many people to. It reminds me of when I try to do comedy – the jokes don’t quite land because it always turns out I’m assuming people are equally as obsessed with the topic as I am. But this comedy mystery series, which hits every single trope of the cynical modern domestic noir does it so well that it could almost be an example of that very phenomenon. That said, I don’t know anyone who failed to spot the killer.  It doesn’t matter, though. The comedy is there, and it works.


Saturday 26 February 2022

Four Days’ Wonder by A.A. Milne

It feels needlessly flippant to be discussing detective fiction, especially fun detective fiction, at the present moment. But then again, aren’t scholars like me always banging on about how Golden Age crime writing’s importance lies in its wartime context? Those of us not playing any direct role in the conflicts might find at some times, as have so many readers over history, the need to escape, however briefly.
 
I read Four Days’ Wonder (1933) before we heard about the invasion. At that point, I felt the need to escape something else altogether. Having finally succumbed to COVID-19, at the most inconvenient time – a highly stressful fortnight at work, so I absolutely could not take time off – and with a particularly unpleasant drama playing out on the academic side, I needed some literature of escape. I wanted something light, fun, easily readable, and intelligent. At last, I found the perfect book in my study.
 
A.A. Milne (1882-1956) is of course best known as the author of Winnie the Pooh. Every now and then, someone pops out the fact that he also wrote detective fiction. It nearly always follows the format: “Did you know Milne also wrote one detective novel – and it’s a masterpiece?!” They are referring to The Red House Mystery (1922). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone acknowledge that he wrote at least two detective novels. The other is Four Days’ Wonder
 
When I came across Four Days’ Wonder in a charity shop about a year ago, I picked up it and Two People, which were being sold for the combined total of 50p. I picked it up out of interest because I honestly hadn’t known until then that Milne wrote any books for adults beyond Red House. Now, I enjoyed Red House when I read it yonks ago and have always thought it was more a comedy than a mystery – although apparently that’s not the correct opinion. I also knew that the consensus that it was Milne’s only foray into the genre was wrong, because I read his short story “The Rape of the Sherlock” before even reading Red House. Anyway, I was curious, so I turned to the blurbs. While Two People clearly wasn’t going to be a whodunit but did look fun, Four Days’ Wonder looked much more promising.
 
Nonetheless, the books languished in a TBR mountain until the other week. I opened up Four Days’ Wonder and it turned out to be exactly, and I mean exactly, what I needed.
 
Jenny (Jane) Windell is an eighteen-year-old reader of detective fiction who, one day, stumbles across the dead body of her colourful aunt, actress Jane Latour. After inexplicably cleaning what looks like the murder weapon and losing her monogrammed handkerchief at the scene, she flees and decides, with debatable evidence, that she will be the police’s prime suspect.
 
On the run, Jenny enlists her oldest friend to help her forge various new identities, and finds a handsome artist on a farm near Tunbridge Wells who doesn’t seem to care which name she’s currently using and helps her with equal enthusiasm. All of these characters are wonderfully drawn. Their banter is witty, affectionate, and – considering the period – remarkably alive and inoffensive.  I particularly enjoyed the fantasy worlds Jenny and Nancy, her friend, create and inhabit, and their elaborate secret codes and identities. There is an entire secret code explained clearly at one point and I just ended up wishing I had friends with whom I could be that creative.
 
From the cocksure Inspector Marigold to the conveniently shared initial ‘J’ affecting half the characters, the novel gently lampoons many of the traditions of the then-contemporary adventure mystery story. Of course, Arthur Conan Doyle is namechecked, and so too are Freeman Wills Crofts and – with the irreverence that marks this book as firmly middlebrow – Edgar Wallace.
 
While Jenny is the protagonist, having the adventures and ultimately solving the mystery, what happens to her is mostly happenstance. But the characters are all linked by another one: an exquisite creation. Archibald Fenton is a novelist, who is much lauded as a writer, but as a person is absolutely inadequate. Pompous, self-absorbed, under the generally unevidenced belief that he is irresistible to women, and more concerned with his image than his art, every second with him was a pleasure because I knew the author gets it. My work has put me into close contact with a lot of writers, especially crime writers, most of whom are incredibly lovely but there are egos. And I’d better say no more than that.
 
I did not want Four Days’ Wonder to end. But it had to and, at just over 200 pages, its length is just right. The solution to the mystery might disappoint some and, if this were a Freeman Wills Crofts, I would be a bit miffed, but I powered through it brimming with pleasure and satisfaction, and closed the book with a big smile on my face.
 
You probably do need to be a dedicated Golden Age mystery fan to enjoy Four Days’ Wonder. By that, I mean you probably need to be a serious reader, who recognises the habits of writers beyond the big names. This may not be one for casual readers or fans of the genre in other media. 
 
But if you are a hard-reading genre enthusiast whose heart needs lightening, I cannot recommend Four Days’ Wonder enough. A.A. indeed.

Sunday 13 February 2022

Mini reviews #37 - Death on the Nile special

In honour of the newly (and finally) released movie, I thought I’d offer a special double-length set of mini-reviews, dealing with ten incarnations of the classic murder mystery. Others exist but one has to draw the line somewhere!

 

Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie. An iconic mystery novel for a reason, but not a perfect one, Death on the Nile is a passionate and ingenious tale of love, fame, and the end of opulence. Set aboard a Nile steamer, it concerns a wealthy socialite, famous purely for being beautiful and inheriting her father’s new money, murdered on her honeymoon. The prime suspect Jacqueline de Bellefort, the excellently-drawn ex-best-friend whose fiancée the late Linnet Ridgeway married. But Jacqueline has a very dramatic alibi: she was sedated and monitored after shooting someone else. Hercule Poirot, enjoying ‘the little vacation,’ learns that a holiday is never a holiday and gets to grips with the lengthy list of suspects, all of whom have something to hide. It is escapism at its best, even if some of the logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’d recommend checking out the relevant episode of the All About Agatha podcast for a breakdown of the plot holes – because, honestly, I never notice them when I’m reading this book: I just enjoy it too much. An unusual feature of Death on the Nile is that every single character – from the great Christie ‘types’ like the snobbish Miss Van Schuyler to the very minor players who never appear in the films like Mr Fanthorpe – is brilliantly and engagingly depicted. You feel like you’ve met them all. And I can’t go without mentioning Mrs. Otterbourne, the tragic bestselling author of slushy romances whose books no one reads and who insists that she’s being censored. She is rather relevant in this day and age. I believe that she is a comic self-portrait; not of Christie as she became but of Christie as she might have become had she kept writing in her original derivative genre. Thank goodness she turned to crime.

 

Murder on the Nile (1944) by Agatha Christie. Christie’s stage adaptation famously replaces Hercule Poirot with a new character, the worldly Canon Pennyfather (is this the same Canon Pennyfather who will go on to play an unwitting role in the odd goings on At Bertram’s Hotel? Probably not, but it’s fun to imagine). Although the author claimed that Poirot as a character was too bombastic for the stage, it’s highly likely that she didn’t like certain actors claiming ownership of the role and therefore of her creation. Francis L. Sullivan, who had played Poirot a couple of times, starred in the first production of Murder on the Nile. The action takes place on the deck of the Lotus (the Karnak in the novel) and the heavily reduced cast of characters contains amalgamations of those in the book. Ultimately, although Christie recognized correctly the dramatic potential of her own work, I’m not sure this is quite the exploitation of that potential that it could be. For a Christie play, the dialogue is surprisingly flat and unfortunately one or two moments have not aged at all well.

 

Hercule Poirot: Rendezvous with Death’ (1945), Mutual Radio Broadcasting. Starring Harold Huber, the Hercule Poirot radio series is typical of the craze for such shows on the American radio waves in the 1940s. Only a handful of episodes survive, as far as we know, and ‘Rendezvous with Death’ is a real curio because it’s the only one we have directly based on a published text – although several of the lost ones were. The scriptwriter does a very good job condensing one key element of Christie’s complex plot into less than half an hour. It was first broadcast on 12th July 1945 and exploits the novel’s drama for its own purposes admirably. There really are so few characters that it’s easy to spot the murderer, so it’s maybe more of a howdunit than a whodunit. But it works. Compared to the lamentably rushed 30-minute episode of Suspense! based on The ABC Murders, it comes out easily on top.

 

Death on the Nile (1978), directed by John Guillermin. Peter Ustinov's first and best outing as the eccentric Belgian detective, with a super-starry supporting cast. The scenery is beautiful, Ustinov is entertaining, with his own spin on the character, and the other players have delicious fun hamming up their roles. I feel like a whole generation of homosexuals needs to be told about this film, in which Angela Lansbury plays a drunk and Bette Davis and Maggie Smith have a waspish double act. [Review originally appeared in ‘Mini reviews #9’ in November 2017]

 

Death on the Nile (1996) by Paul Lamond Games. There are a fair few Agatha Christie jigsaws around, with the following format: read a booklet containing a heavily condensed version of the story, up to the point of ‘whodunit’, assemble a jigsaw containing a visual clue, then check you’ve got the answer right by reading the solution in either a sealed envelope or mirror writing at the back of the booklet. Death on the Nile was one of the first. What is interesting is that, inevitably, the puzzle is reduced to just a couple of scenes and there aren’t really many characters or possibilities – although in my edition (the first, from the 1990s), you’re given a deluxe list of suspects and motives from the novel, most of which don’t appear in the booklet at all! As always, the jigsaw aspect is enjoyable; anyone who knows the story fairly well can guess what the visual clue will be, especially when it becomes clear that the image centres on the victim’s cabin.

 

Death on the Nile (1997), BBC Radio 4. Michael Bakewell’s five-part dramatization is the most faithful to the novel’s intricacies and also – perhaps surprisingly – the best paced.  Its episodic nature means there’s always something interesting happening. John Moffatt plays Poirot true to excellent form, and Enyd Williams directs with customary pleasant lightness. There is a definite mix of acting styles here, from the highly accomplished Donald Sinden and Rosemary Leach, to the enjoyable work of the standard Radio 4 players, to one very questionable performance. The only real cock-up is when Linnet Doyle, who has been speaking with an English accent, is referred to as ‘the American lady’. But, overall, a hugely enjoyable adaptation, as we expect in this fabulous series of BBC radio dramas.

 

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Death on the Nile (2004), directed by Andy Wilson. I remember the day this was broadcast on ITV – 12thApril 2004. I was fourteen and very, very, very excited. I was a little disappointed, although I’ve grown to like it more over time. Kevin Elyot’s take on the novel is consciously trying to be different to and darker than the 1978 film, but I’m not convinced that anything really underscores that darkness. It does make the most of the Shakespearean heights of passion, and the futility of love in the story and the direction is really superb. A pre-Hollywood Emily Blunt pops up as the doomed Linnet, and there is sufficient scene stealing from Frances de la Tour. But ultimately the pacing is a problem, with a great deal of action and plot crammed into the last 20 minutes.

 

Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile (2008) by Dreamcatcher. An ‘i-spy’ hidden object game, of the typical format: cheaply made scenes where you click on prescribed items and clues among a lot of clutter. The story unfolds passively. It’s perfectly diverting, exactly like any other game of this kind. There are a few Christies in this series, including 4.50 from PaddingtonPeril at End House, and Dead Man’s Folly.

 

Mystery Match Village X Death on the Nile (2021) by Outplay EntertainmentMystery Match is one of those ubiquitous mobile phone games where you play Candy Crush-style levels between rounds of a hidden-object crime story. By some coup, the developers were able to get permission from Agatha Christie Limited to include a Death on the Nile themed ‘special event’ – that is, a game within the game where you do the same thing on a more basic level (it essentially co-opts their seasonal ‘awards scheme’ where you play special rounds that encourage you to buy virtual bling with real money). Remarkably, they have endeavoured to tell the whole story of Death on the Nile – although their source is clearly the 2004 screen adaptation, not the novel – and the result is perfectly playable but a bit … weird. It really is evidence that Agatha Christie’s genius lay far beyond plotting: while the plot is intact, the characters and dialogue are frankly nauseating.  It all feels cheap and silly and like one of 30-episodes-per-week daytime TV mysteries.

 

Death on the Nile (2022), directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is back in what I suspect will be his last brush with Poirot. I’d like there to be more. But this film has been especially beleaguered, not just by the COVID-19 pandemic but also by some very problematic cast members. However, it’s out now and doing moderately well. I really enjoyed this film, and preferred it to Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. Unlike in that offering, the starry cast gets fair screen time. While Branagh still takes up more screen time than he would if he wasn’t the director (surely young Poirot in flashbacks should have been played by a younger actor?), he doesn’t hog his scenes. It helps that the first hour is spelt ratchetting up the drama before the first inevitable murder. That is of course a feature of the book, too, which has led to criticism over pacing. However, this film doesn’t fall into the trap that both the 1978 and the 2004 versions did: the pace feels beautifully controlled, and the third murder, which feels superfluous in the older films, makes sense here. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green have made several changes to the book and this is a much lusher, sexier version of the story. As in the stage version, several characters have been amalgamated and some have been completely rewritten, this time to make it more diverse and glamorous – which I think is a very good thing for a big screen film in 2022. It is not something Agatha Christie would have written. But I think it works. And the audience when I dragged my poor spouse to see it was generally younger than us, which was a first. They came for the stars, and clearly enjoyed it.

 

 

Tuesday 18 January 2022

The Bat by Jo Nesbø

 “You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel a murder case”, says Harry Hole in his debut thriller.
“Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie.” The worldview presented here is certainly starker and bleaker, with good and bad in a more complex dialogue than in the British school of crime writing.

Norwegian police detective Harry Hole is in Australia to investigate the murder of a young Norwegian woman, who he quickly realises is the victim of a serial killer. The investigation takes him into seedy underworlds and showcases police corruption, racial tensions, and institutional homophobia (although, in the latter case, he shows us his manly heroism by indulging in it).
 
I do not think this book has aged as well as it might have since first publication in 1997. We are meant to admire Hole for fondly remembering homophobic persecution he inflicted on a gay adult as a child and noting that he hadn’t been very nice (he has evolved and is a nice liberal), just a few pages before joining in extensive homophobic police jokes that pretty much result in the one gay character – who is of course wildly attracted to our hero – ending up dead and mutilated.
 
The novel features racism in a very deliberate way, and has some commentary on the dangers of othering, which struck me as similar to the way in which Val McDermid presents transgender issues in The Mermaids Singing, published just two years before The Bat.
 
The most famous critic of the Christie school of crime writing was Raymond Chandler, who sought (how successfully depends on who you ask) to move the crime novel away from artificiality and towards the real world in all its grim, messy reality. Nesbø seems to be following his lead, but his narrative devices, which may enhance the real-world social commentary, present a self-consciously fictional world.
 
At least half the characters have a habit of going off into long and involved stories, each spanning several paragraphs and multiple pages. Sometimes, these are reminiscences which serve as fables from which a clue or psychological point can be extracted. More often, they are bits of history or localised (Australian) legends used as cautionary tales. Everyone is remarkably erudite!
 
I’m not trying to criticise this aspect, because I found these moments among the most engaging. And, honestly, the last thing I expected when settling down with a landmark Norwegian novel was to learn so much about Australian culture and heritage. It’s all told in a pacey, engaging way.

In summary, I enjoyed The Bat, but with some reservations. It is an impressive thriller with an understandable wide appeal, and makes reading more - seeing the character and the series evolve - an extremely attractive proposition.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

“There were so many things in the world she could not solve, but hopefully, she could solve this.”
 
 
This blog has not been my priority in the last few years, for a mix of obvious and less obvious reasons, but I have continued to read widely. Some really cracking crime fiction titles and studies have been published or reprinted this year. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, you’ll get my reviews of 2021 titles like Lori Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway, the reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, and John Goddard’s second volume of Agatha Christie’s Golden Age. Now, though, I wanted to share with you one of my favourite books of 2021.
 
Dead Dead Girls (2021) is a remarkable debut and the first in a series by Nekesa Afia. It is remarkable in its own right, but all the more astonishing when you consider that Afia is 24 and wrote this while studying as an undergraduate. Set in 1920s Harlem, it features Louise Lloyd, a much-needed black queer detective, who will return next year in Harlem Sunset.
 
Louise, who works as a waitress and spends her nights at a speakeasy, is scarred by an incident that took place in her teens. Now, in 1926, black women like her are being abducted and killed, and the world at large seems to be turning a blind eye. When she is apprehended after a drunken brawl, a police detective convinces her to work with him to find the serial killer. Like all the best amateur detectives, her value to the force lies in her access to spaces the white male officers could not hope to  penetrate.
 
From Louise’s tender secret relationship with her girlfriend, Rosa, to squalid boarding house that dancing girls have made a community, and the systematic corruption underscoring every turn of these women’s lives, Afia writes engagingly, eloquently, and evocatively. You really feel like you are experiencing Harlem in 1926. And, with a horrible jolt, you realise how many of the same conversations around race, sex, and class are still extremely relevant today.
 
Before I bought Dead Dead Girls, I read a review online, which I can’t find now, that complained it was nothing special, nothing new. Just a conventional mystery with a new character in the lead. I wonder if that reviewer missed the point somewhat.
 
Hundreds of conventional mysteries are published every year, maybe set in the interwar years and almost always featuring white straight male detectives, with no more than one difference (someone in television once told me, horrifyingly, ‘one difference is edgy, two or more are impossible’ – they were talking about newcomers on television can be people of colour or queer or disabled or over 50 but not any combination, with very few exceptions). Some of these mysteries have strong themes, messages, and senses of place. But think about any ground-breaking, significant, and enduring detective. They all start out comfortably in their series; their presence alone is significant.
 
Sherlock Holmes broke ground as a ‘consulting detective’ given prominence in a crime adventure along already established lines. Miss Marple broke ground as an elderly spinster solving a typically Golden Age complex mystery in her own community. Philip Marlowe broke ground working outside the law and in his own head in a story that had been done a hundred times in print and on screen. Louise Lloyd is a black queer woman of her space and of her time, but no one like her has yet achieved prominence as an investigator in the crime fiction genre. Even without the accessibility and urgency of Afia’s prose, Lloyd’s presence alone is ground-breaking.
 
In sum, Dead Dead Girls is an auspicious start to a series and a career.  It is an immersive read and a mystery that is both entertaining and necessary.

Friday 17 September 2021

Mini reviews #36

 ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ (1923) by Agatha Christie

Christie’s (and Hercule Poirot’s) take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. Like the Sherlock Holmes case, this short story concerns a family curse preventing certain heirs to a baronetcy from living to assume the title. Of course, the solution is different – and more psychologically interesting – and it ends with a very cheeky joke. Highly recommended.


Herewith the Clues! (1939) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links

The fourth and final Links/Wheatley crime dossier is extremely dull and boring. See my reviews of Murder Off Miami and Who Killed Robert Prentice? for overviews of the format and more successful examples.  However, it is fund to see photos of Wheatley and his friends, including many peers and famous writers, posing a scallywags of various ilks.

 

The Crocodile Bird (1993) by Ruth Rendell

In this breathtaking novel, young Liza Beck has lived her whole life cloistered away with her mother, Eve, who is intensely attached to their home. When Eve is arrested for murder, Liza goes to live with her secret boyfriend, their gardener, and tells him, Scheherazade-style, stories of Eve’s many crimes. Unable to see her mother, who has killed several men, as a monster, Liza is able to view with fresh eyes the horrors of patriarchy and the brainwashing that comes, not from a sequestered life, but from a mainstream one. This is Rendell at her misanthropic best.

 

Unsolved Case Files: Banks, Jamie (2019)

A wonderfully thoughtful birthday present from Alan, who has many times been forced to hear all about how much I enjoyed the Usborne Mystery Files as a child. This is a similar thing: pieces of evidence presented as a cold case, which you work through to solve. We both enjoyed it thoroughly. Of course it’s very easy to crack, and the storytelling isn’t exactly stellar – but I assume it’s aimed at children, families, or drunk people house-partying. We loved going through newspaper clippings, photographs, and transcripts with a magnifying glass. Perhaps it’s just as well we didn’t discover this series during lockdown – nothing else would have got done!

 

Five Strangers (2021) by E.V. Adamson

There is a strong Patricia Highsmith influence in Andrew Wilson’s first psychological thriller written as E.V. Adamson. We follow Jen, a likeable but oblivious young professional with an unnaturally attentive best friend, who witnesses a murder-suicide in central London. As she starts to appear more and more paranoid, and we learn more about her past, the secrets behind the deaths she witnessed emerge.