Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie’

I love a mystery

Let’s hear it for the old guys. No, not Brady and Gronk, although that was pretty super. I’m talking about venerable detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the stalwarts of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit in Christopher Fowler’s long-running series. May is the younger, more sauve one. Bryant looks like a tortoise and is brilliant. At the beginning of Bryant and May: Oranges and Lemons (Ballantine, digital galley), it appears  the long-threatened PCU has met its demise. The Kings Cross office has closed, the team disassembled. May is in hospital recovering from a bullet wound, while Bryant has gone walkabout. But then a government official is crushed by a delivery of fruit falling from a produce van, and the incident is bizarre enough to reunite everyone under the watchful eye of a Home Office spy. Also new on the scene is young Sydney, who wants to be the next Bryant. The original cannily connects the crime to the death of a bookseller and a familiar nursery rhyme about London church bells. More murders bear him out, but figuring out the identity of the killer is another thing altogether. Along with droll writing and endearingly eccentric characters, the series is known for the arcane bits of London history that Fowler enfolds in his convoluted plots. In Oranges and Lemons, excerpts of Bryant’s walking tours of the city provide entertaining and essential asides. 

Australian author Jane Harper whisks readers to Tasmania in her new stand-alone The Survivors (Flatiron Books, digital galley/purchased hardcover). When Kieran and his partner Mia return to their childhome home on Evelyn Bay to help his mother move house, they bring with them their baby daughter and conflicted memories of a decade-old family tragedy The discovery of the body of a young waitress on the beach also revives the town’s memory of the storm in which two men drowned and a local girl disappeared. The police soon discover that Kieran’s father, a former teacher now sliding into dementia, was the last person to see both girls. As in her last book, The Lost Man, Harper excels at detailing the complicated dynamics of family ties and friendships, of guilt and grief. Treacherous seaside cliffs and caves, as well as a submerged shipwreck,  provide the atmospheric backdrop for the involving story. 

A narrator with a head injury is about as unreliable as they come. Aarav Rai is that guy in Nalini Singh’s noirish Unquiet in Her Bones (Berkley, digital galley). At 26, the first-time mystery writer has just seen his book turned into a hit film when a car crash sends him back to live with his wealthy father in a New Zealand cul-de-sac. His beautiful mother Nina vanished 10 years ago with a suitcase of her husband’s cash, but even as Aarav nurses a broken foot and migraines with prescription drugs, her bones are discovered in a nearby forest. She’s still in her sleek Jaguar, now buried by lush undergrowth. But the money is missing. Aarav’s quest to discover who killed his mother — the suspects range from his domineering father to neighbors who may have been her lovers or rivals — is hindered both by his fragmented memories of the night she disappeared and his current messed-up mind and paranoia.  He remembers a scream in the night, a slamming door, chilling rain, tail lights. Or does he? 

On a snowy night in 1893 London, a seamstress carries out a mysterious task in an upstairs room and then steps out the high window, falling to her death. Reading this eerie prologue encouraged me to buy The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell (Tin House Books, purchased e-book). I got the Gothic I was expecting, but was surprised by the amusing entertainment that ensued, as if Edward Gorey and Charles Dickens invited Sherlock Holmes for drinks and war stories. The plot is a Victorian mash-up of missing girls and sinister secrets, eccentric aristocrats and unsettling seances. The memorable characters include smart, brusque Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard; his self-appointed sidekick, university student Gideon Bliss; plucky society reporter and reluctant heiress Octavia Hillingdon, who turns to a marquess nicknamed Elf for the latest gossip; and the elusive Lord Strythe, head of the Spiriters, who supposedly steal the souls of young working women. All in all, a clever winter’s tale that begs for a sequel.

Kelley Armstrong’s Rockton novels are an annual winter pleasure. The sixth in the series, A Stranger in Town (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) finds detective Casey Duncan and her sheriff boyfriend Eric Dalton rescuing a gravely wounded hiker in the Canadian Yukon. But bringing the stranger inside the borders of the off-the-grid settlement threatens Rockton’s existence as a sanctuary for people needing to escape from the outside world. Armstrong further explores the history of the nomadic “hostiles” who live in the nearby wilderness, their connection to Rockton’s past — and its future.

Former pro snowboarder Allie Reynolds brings her ski cred to her first novel, Shiver (Putnam, digital galley), which will appeal to fans of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and by extension, Ruth Ware’s excellent One by One and Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party. Milla accepts an invitation to a remote ski resort in the French Alps, but the expected reunion with four former snowboarder pals turns out to be rigged. No one will admit to stranding them atop the icy mountain where one of their gang was injured 10 years ago and another disappeared. Reynolds alternates the tense present-day narrative with flashbacks to the time when the frenemies were competing on the circuit, trading lovers and indulging in sabotaging pranks. Milla’s chief rival was the beautiful Saskia, whose body has never been found. Shiver…

In December of 1926, Agatha Christie, just beginning to make her name as a mystery writer, disappeared from her country house and was thought to be a suicide or victim of foul play. A nationwide search failed to find the missing woman until she reappeared 11 days later at a spa under an assumed name, alive and well and claiming amnesia. Author Marie Benedict uses this real-life incident as the springboard for her new novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie (Sourcebooks, library e-book) and proposes an intriguing and plausible scenario. Benedict shifts between the voices of Agatha and her husband Archie to chronicle their lives leading up to the disappearance and during Agatha’s absence. The two marry quickly on the eve of World War I, but Archie is changed by his battlefield experiences. Agatha does her best to keep her selfish husband happy but is hurt by their young daughter’s preference for her father and Archie’s caddish behavior. Archie is having a secret weekend with a girlfriend he plans to marry when his wife disappears. No wonder he’s the chief suspect in the case. It’s satisfying watching Archie protest his innocence, and even more satisfying when he gets his comeuppance. Agatha always was a masterful plotter.



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At 656 pages, the hardcover version of Lethal White could well be a lethal weapon. Happily, I bought the e-book of the fourth Cormoran Strike tale by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling, so it only robbed me of a weekend’s worth of reading. And I found it time well spent, similar to binge-watching the Cinemax mini-series of the first three books. Strike is still large, grouchy and damaged, but he has rehired his assistant, Robin Ellacott, and elevated her to partner in the London detective agency. The two pursue a complicated case of blackmail, murder and past secrets involving the dysfunctional family of government minister Jasper Chiswell (pronounced “Chizzle”), the pervy husband of another minister, and socialist rabble-rouser Jimmy Knight and his mentally ill brother Billy. The cast is Dickensian, the plot smartly tangled and digressive, the writing detailed and atmospheric. Throughout, Robin contends with panic attacks left over from her serial killer encounter, as well as her selfish jerk of a husband. Meanwhile Strike deals with girlfriends past and present, all the while mulling over his attraction to Robin. Just when you think they’re about to get sorted, something or someone intervenes, and there goes another hundred pages. Still, I hope it’s not another three years before the next book. Cormoran Strike is as addictive as Harry Potter.

There’s good news and sad news about Wild Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Ann Cleeves’ eighth entry in her stellar Shetland Island series. The sad news is that Cleeves says this is the last Shetland book, the good news being that police detective Jimmy Perez finishes strong. When the body of a nanny is found hanging in the Fleming family’s barn, suspicion falls on the Flemings, outsiders with an autistic son. But then designer Helena Fleming reveals that she has found disturbing sketches of a gallows, and the dead girl turns out to have a complicated past and local romantic entanglements. Speaking of which, Perez’s boss and occasional lover, Willow Reeves, arrives from Inverness to head the investigation. When another murder occurs, Cleeves crafts the village equivalent of an atmospheric locked-room mystery — the closed-community puzzle. The few suspects all have means and motives, and your guess is as good as mine. Oh, I’m going to miss Shetland.


A Forgotten Place (HarperCollins, digital galley) is a truly memorable installment of Charles Todd’s series about spirited British nursing sister Bess Crawford. World War I may be over, but many soldiers are still reliving the horrors of the trenches, including the Welsh vets Bess first meets at a hospital in France. Once hardworking miners, the amputees face such a bleak peacetime future that they prefer death. Hoping to help avert more suicides, Bess uses leave to check up on Capt. Hugh Williams, who is staying with his widowed sister-in-law in a back-of-beyond village in South Wales. She ends up stranded among hostile villagers when her driver takes off in his car in the middle of the night. The Gothic atmosphere is thick with suspicion and rumors, and Bess observes several mysterious events, including the secret burial of an unidentified body washed up on the beach. There’s a dark secret at the village’s heart, one that goes back decades, a secret some are willing to kill to keep.


Other recent crime novels worthy of recommendation vary widely in subject and style. In Karin Slaughter’s riveting stand-alone, Pieces of Her (HarperCollins, digital galley), Andrea Cooper discovers her mother Laura has been hiding her real identity for 30 years. Her desperate road trip to find the truth of her heritage alternates with flashbacks to Laura’s harrowing past that endangers them both. In Caz Frear’s assured first novel Sweet Little Lies (HarperCollins, digital galley), the spotlight’s on a father-daughter relationship. London DC Cat Kinsella is investigating the murder of a unidentified woman when DNA provides the link to the 1998 disappearance of an Irish teen. Cat has always known her charming, philandering father lied about his connection to the teen back then, but she now fears he may be lying about murder. She sifts through both family history and present-day evidence for the answers. Stephen Giles goes Gothic with his twisty psychological chiller The Boy at the Keyhole (Hanover Square Press, digital galley) set in 1961 Britain. In an old country house, 9-year-old Samuel worries that his widowed mother, who left on a business trip while he was asleep, has been gone too long and isn’t coming home. Despite assurances from housekeeper Ruth, imaginative Samuel begins to suspect that Ruth has murdered his mother and hidden her body. Creepy.  Agatha Christie fans should be pleased by Sophie Hannah’s third Hercule Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins, digital galley). The clever puzzle begins with someone pretending to be Hercule Poirot sending letters to four people accusing them of murder. But elderly Barnabas Pandy accidentally drowned in his bathtub, didn’t he? Or was it murder? Poirot’s little gray cells get quite the workout, as does his appetite for cake. On the even lighter side, actor Charles Paris plays sleuth again in The Deadly Habit (Severn House, digital galley). Alcoholic and middle-aged, Paris is surprised to get a part in a new West End production starring Justin Grover, an actor with whom he worked long ago but who has since become rich and famous. Although he’s trying not to drink so as to get back with his estranged wife Frances, Charles falls off the wagon at an inopportune moment, stumbling over a dead body backstage, then making a quick exit. Now he’s got to find a murderer before he becomes prime suspect or the next corpse.



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Did she fall or was she pushed? Did he fall or was he pushed? The first mystery concerns the death of the housekeeper of the manor house Pye Hall. The second refers to the author of the novel in which the housekeeper dies. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.  Readers get to don their sleuthing caps in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (HarperCollins, digital galley), a clever tale within a tale that pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing.

When London editor Susan Ryeland sits downs with best-selling author Alan Conway’s latest manuscript, she’s expecting another 1950s English village mystery a la Agatha Christie starring series detective Atticus Pund. But as she reads of the death of the Pye Hall housekeeper followed soon after by the decapitation of her employer Sir Magnus Pye, then Pund’s arrival to question the widow, the gardener, the vicar, the estranged sister and all the usual suspects, Susan begins to read between the lines. Then, suddenly and maddeningly, there are no more lines — the manuscript is incomplete. Even worse, the troublesome author is not around to answer questions, having fallen from the rooftop terrace of his country house, a presumed suicide. How very strange. Soon Susan’s search for the last chapters turns into a hunt for a killer. How entertaining!

Horowitz is an accomplished  literary ventriloquist, whose many credits include teleplays for Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, the Alex Ryder thrillers for young readers, the Holmes homages The House of Silk and Moriarty, and the James Bond pastiche Trigger Mortis. With Magpie Murders, he out-Christies Christie, constructing a classic puzzle of red herrings and dead-ends inside a witty modern mystery of misdirection. Keep up, people! The game’s afoot and tea is served. One lump or two?

Given its kind of cozy title, Matthew Sullivan’s first novel Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore (Scribner, digital galley) is darker than you might think. Denver bookstore clerk Lydia Smith is shocked when one of her favorite customers, troubled young ex-con Joey Molina, kills himself on the bookstore’s third floor. And she’s puzzled why Joey would leave her his few belongings, including a box of books from the store’s shelves, their pages defaced with tiny holes, and an old photograph. The latter is especially mystifying as it’s a picture of Lydia’s 10th birthday party, which occurred not long before the notorious Hammerman murders. The 20-year-old cold case cost a little girl and her parents their lives, but Lydia, spending the night at their house, survived by hiding under the kitchen sink.

Seeking connections between Joey’s past and her own, Lydia realizes Joey has left her coded messages among his books. She consults another homeless man, Lyle; her childhood friend Raj, who just happens to turn up again; and also the retired detective who worked the Hammerman case and always suspected Lydia’s eccentric dad of the crime.  So many questions. So many coincidences. But Sullivan, a former bookseller, knows the world he writes about, and his obvious love of books and his affection for his quirky characters shine off pages that practically turn themselves.

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is digging up old bones again in Elly Griffith’s The Chalk Pit (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), the ninth in this fascinating series. This time, the bones are found in one of the old chalk mining tunnels that wind underneath the city of Norwich, and the architect excavating the site hopes the remains won’t stop his next trendy restaurant. Ruth gets to deliver the bad news — the bones aren’t that old and, moreover, exhibit signs of cannibalism. Ick.

Meanwhile, DCI Nelson, the father of Ruth’s young daughter Kate, has been looking for a missing homeless woman at the behest of one of her homeless friends, later found stabbed on the steps of a church. The separate investigations are complicated when a local housewife also goes missing amid rumors of an underground community of homeless in the claustrophobic tunnels. Complicated, too, is the relationship between Ruth and Nelson, whose wife knows about Kate but has not told their teen-age daughters. Griffiths is a pro at weaving the various strands into a tightly plotted tale that foreshadows a change in Ruth’s life. Next book, please.

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I can’t decide what is my favorite part of Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the new mystery featuring 11-year-old amateur sleuth Flavia de Luce.

Is it when curious Flavia discovers the body in the middle of the night while prowling through Buckshaw, the dilapidated English estate where she lives with her father, the Colonel, and her irksome older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy)? Or is it right before this when the villagers gathered at Buckshaw to watch scenes from Shakespeare performed by a visiting film crew realize they’re snowed in by a Christmas Eve blizzard?

Possibly it’s when Flavia takes it upon herself to sneak back to the scene of the crime and investigate at her leisure, discovering important clues. Or maybe it’s when her plan to catch Father Christmas in the act goes awry on the snowy roof of Buckshaw when confronted by a killer. Or it could be when the fireworks Flavia has concocted in her laboratory finally detonate.

Oh, it’s all such fun. I’ve enjoyed precocious Flavia’s detecting adventures ever since Bradley introduced her in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, also set in post-WWII England. Think Agatha Christie meets Nancy Drew and Encylopedia Brown. The other two Flavia books — A Red Herring Without Mustard and The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag — are also entertaining, but I think this new one is my favorite.

Maybe it’s the relationship among the three sisters. Or maybe it’s because readers find out more about the Colonel and  his late wife Harriet. Maybe it’s the witty writing, the amusing characters, the neat plotting. Or all the literary references. . .

Really, the only thing I truly dislike is having to wait another year for a new Flavia book.

Open Book: I borrowed a hardcover copy of Alan Bradley’s I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Random House Publishing Group) from the Edisto Beach Public Library and read it the next-to-last-afternoon of the year.



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During the sweltering dog days of summer I wrote about some of my favorite cold-weather books in hopes all the snow and ice would make me forget the heat. Now I have another to add to that list, 1222, by Anne Holt, a best-selling Norwegian crime novelist.

Yes, baby, it’s cold outside, so I recommend you read this shivery, locked-in-with-a-killer tale next to a blazing fire and with a hot toddy at hand.

 A train derailment in northern Norway — 1222 feet above sea level — finds the 200 passengers seeking shelter in a nearby resort hotel, vacant except for the staff. The old lodge is well-stocked with fuel and food, which is a good thing seeing as how the fiercest blizzard in years is raging outside. Doctors who were on board tend to the wounded, including frosty Hanne Wilhelmson, a former police detective who is partially paralysed from a bullet in her spine. Hanne, anti-social to the extreme, reluctantly accepts help once her wheelchair is retrieved from the train wreck, and she proves to be an astute, albeit prickly, narrator.

She doesn’t think much of her fellow passengers, although she is intrigued by those she considers outsiders like herself, including a teenage boy traveling alone, a doctor undeterred by his dwarfish appearance, and the hotel’s brisk manager. Like everyone else, she wonders as to the identity of the travelers in the private railway car who are now ensconced in solitary splendor high in the hotel with a private, armed staff. But a more looming worry is the intensity of the storm, which is burying the hotel in snow to the point that windows shatter and an entranceway collapses.

Then there is a murder. A popular priest is found shot in the drifts right outside the door. Hanne can’t help but be drawn into the investigation, and when another murder soon follows, she  thinks of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

It’s an apt comparison, as is Christie’s The Mousetrap and Murder on the Orient Express, with the storm trapping victims, suspects and detectives in a confined space. Brrrr. . . .  If there’s such a thing as cozy Nordic noir, it’s 1222

Open Book: I read a digital advance of Anne Holt’s 1222 (Scribner) via NetGalley.

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During my recent malaise, I happened on Joan Acocella’s excellent story in the August 16th edition of The New Yorker, “Queen of Crime,” about how Agatha Christie created the modern murder mystery. It reminded me how I went straight from Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls to Christie’s whodunits and never looked back. She ushered me into the so-called golden age of detective fiction and the works of Sayers, Marsh, Tey, Allingham; nourished the Anglophile in me; and gave me an enduring affection for her tea-cozy, sherry-sipping, body-in-the-library puzzles. (I must say I was truly disappointed when I first tasted sherry; what sounded delicious was sweetly vile.)

Acocella also reminded me of my frustration at trying to figure out those puzzles, not only because of Christie’s use of red herrings and double bluffs but also because she withheld vital information  revealed only at the end, usually by the detective who had gathered all the suspects together. And, as Acocella writes, “Christie’s novels crawl with imposters. Letty is not really Letty; she’s Lotty, the sister of Letty. And Hattie isn’t Hattie. She’s a piece of trash from Trieste, who, with her husband, Sir George, killed Hattie (who was also married to him) and assumed her identity.”

I remembered this most recently while watching a rerun of PBS’s Mystery! and one of the latest reincarnations of Miss Marple (a very good Julia McKenzie). I almost immediately spotted the imposter and identified the culprit, but that may be because I remembered reading the book years ago.

I decided to see if rereading a Christie would arouse me from my languid lupus stupor. Only I wanted one where I couldn’t remember the ending. So I went for her very famous And Then There Were None because  while I knew the conceit — 10 people on an island bumped off one-by-one — I’d forgotten the details, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie.

Well, it’s still a corker! Clever, suspenseful, and carefully plotted with stereotypical Christie characters — the spinster, the old military gentleman, the young woman, the too-handsome young man, etc.) I had forgotten how funny she could be; also how racist and anti-Semitic (Acocella noted this as well). I also found quite lovely foreshadowing: “There was something magical about an island — the mere word suggested fantasy. You lost touch with the world — an island was a world of its own. A world, perhaps from which you might never return.”

After finishing Christie in one evening, I remembered that after reading The Franchise Affair earlier this summer, I was going to reread more Josephine Tey. Trying to decide which one I remembered the least about, I came upon the next best thing to a new  Tey mystery — Nicola Upson’s first two entries in a series set in 1930s Britain with Josephine Tey as the sleuth.

I devoured both An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces. They’re a well-written, atmospheric mix of fact and fiction — the real Tey was one of the pseudonyms of the very private Elizabeth Mackintosh (1890-1952), who also wrote popular plays as Gordon Daviot. Both books use the theater world as backdrop (the West End in 1934, Cornwall in 1935), and I’m eagerly awaiting a third installment. But right now, I seem to have worked up quite a thirst. I’m positively longing, dear, for a nice cup of tea.

Open Book: I couldn’t find a copy of And Then There Were None in my paperback Christie collection, so I down-loaded an e-book version to my nook. Its cover is not the one pictured here because the title on the internet image is And Then There Where None (!). I bought the trade paperback copies of Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder and Angel with Two Faces (Harper) because I want to share them with my mother.

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