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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.