Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Best days of our lives…

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When Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George’s school, history teacher Barbara Covett finds herself fascinated by the younger woman – a fascination that borders on obsession. Sheba, we soon discover, is no stranger to obsession herself, only her obsession is more dangerous. She has developed a sexual passion for one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Barbara tells us the story – her version of it, at least – so we learn right from the beginning that Sheba’s affair has been discovered…

This is an intensely readable book, short and taut, and with a wonderful narrator in Barbara who is really the star of the show even though it’s Sheba’s story she’s ostensibly telling. In the early stages she tells us about the life of an inner-city school in a not particularly salubrious area of London, and the picture she paints is insightful and feels authentic, and is full of humour. It’s a kind of battle-ground – teachers vs. pupils, and also teachers vs. management. Barbara is nearing the end of her career and any idealism she may once have had is long gone – by her own account she is competent, but cynical, with low expectations of what any teacher can hope to achieve beyond maintaining discipline and getting through the day.

Sheba is the opposite. Although approaching middle-age this is her first job as a pottery teacher and she still believes she will be able to mould young minds to share her passion for art. She receives a rude awakening when her teenage pupils scent the weakness that comes with inexperience and set out to torment her. This provides an opening for Barbara to insert herself into Sheba’s life as a kind of wise mentor. But it also leaves Sheba vulnerable to the one pupil who shows a mild interest in art, and a much stronger interest in Sheba herself – Steven Connolly. As Sheba becomes ever more embroiled in this inappropriate relationship, Barbara becomes her only confidante.

I enjoyed Barbara’s twisted character very much. A single woman living alone with her cat (hmm… who does that remind me of? 👵😼), she is lonely and we gradually learn that she seems to have great talent for alienating friends who then become enemies. Is she a closeted lesbian? Perhaps. But if she is, it’s not clear whether she’s aware of it. Her obsession with Sheba borders on the sexual, and she certainly seems jealous of both Sheba’s husband and her youthful lover. But her own account is that she is simply looking for a friend. Barbara’s idea of friendship is extreme, however – she resents all other claims on Sheba’s time, and we see her attempt to manipulate herself into a position where she is the one person Sheba depends on. If Barbara wasn’t such an awful person, it would be easy to feel sorry for her. But I didn’t!

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I have to admit I didn’t find the rest of the characters quite as believable. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t see what would possibly have attracted attractive Sheba to this rather uncouth teenager. He doesn’t sound like a physical hunk, and he’s certainly not a smooth-talking flatterer. Is it simply that he shows his interest in her? But if Sheba is as attractive as Barbara leads us to believe she must be used to male flattery, and if she wanted an affair she could surely have found someone with more going for him than poor Steven! (Yes, I know these things happen in real life, but this one didn’t convince me.) Putting my disbelief to one side, however, it’s a wonderful depiction of self-delusion as Sheba convinces herself and tries to convince Barbara that this is more than sex – it’s love. Barbara’s cynicism on that point is equal to my own!

Sheba’s family are rather stock characters – the unsuspecting husband with a not-unchequered past of his own; the surly teenage daughter going off the rails; the son with Downs Syndrome who needs a lot of love and attention; the disapproving mother who feels her daughter has under-achieved in life. They exist, mostly, simply for the reader to feel that Sheba is betraying them – somehow her sin wouldn’t have seemed quite so sinful had she been free of family ties.

Zoë Heller

And on the subject of sin, that’s the book’s other deliciously twisted strength. I wonder if anyone would have the courage now to write a book suggesting that the boy was as manipulative as the woman? Of course we only see Steven through Barbara’s unreliable eyes, but it does seem as if he merely wants a bit of sexual experience with a “hot” teacher – there’s little of the victim about him. He’s a disgusting little oik, to be honest – or is he? Do I think that because Barbara thinks it? Is he really a male Lolita, preyed on by a paedophile? The law would certainly say so. Heller uses Barbara cleverly to show us only one side of the story – Barbara’s. This makes it an ambiguous read. Why really did Sheba become obsessed? What impact did it all have on Steven? By not telling us, Heller avoids preachiness and leaves each reader to make her own moral judgements.

A rather lighter read than the subject matter suggests, I’m not sure there’s really much profundity here or much depth of insight into what brings these situations about. However, the wonderful characterisation of Barbara carries it, and while perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as it might have been, I certainly enjoyed listening to it, especially since the audiobook narrator, Jilly Bond, did an excellent job of bringing Barbara’s voice to life.

Audible UK Link

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

An interesting character study…

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Mrs Scott is elderly now, living alone in her small cottage since her only son emigrated to Canada. One day a rider comes to visit her – Patrick Sellar, the factor of the local landowner, the Countess of Sutherland. He tells Mrs Scott she must leave her home and go to live by the sea where the crofters will have to learn to live by a new trade, fishing. The crofters’ land is wanted for sheep – a more profitable venture for the landlords. As Mrs Scott seeks help from her neighbours and the church, we learn about her past and see her gradually come to understand herself better than she had. And eventually we see how she faces up to an uncertain future…

The story is set in Sutherland in the early 1800s at the height of the Highland Clearances, which is one of those landmark events by which Scotland defines itself, and which still provides food for the sense of grievance that feeds the socialist aspirations of a large majority of the population and the nationalist aspirations of a large minority. Patrick Sellar is a real historical figure, though Mrs Scott is fictional. Unfortunately Crichton Smith’s grasp on historical facts is somewhat tenuous – not unusual in a nation where history is distorted too readily into a propaganda tool and where historical accuracy is rarely allowed to get in the way of the grievance mythology.

However, Crichton Smith’s glaring timeline errors irritated me so much that I found it distracting. For instance, he calls the landlord “the Duke” throughout. In fact, the Duke in question wasn’t a duke at that time – he was the Marquess of Stafford. The land belonged to his wife in her own right as the sole heir to the Sutherland Earldom, and her title at this time was the Countess of Sutherland. This, that the Countess of Sutherland was the most prominent of the landlords involved in the Clearances, is, I would have said, one of the best known facts about the whole era, so it both surprised and annoyed me that Crichton Smith consistently got the titles wrong.

Then there’s the question of Mrs Scott’s age. We are told that her husband left her and their very young son, joined the army, and died a few months later in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, so presumably sometime between 1808-14. Patrick Sellar’s career as factor ended in ignominy in 1817 after he was tried for some of his cruel actions while evicting the tenants. So how exactly did a woman young enough to have her first child after 1800 become an old woman before 1817? Crichton Smith claimed his purpose was not to write a historical novel – fair enough, but even if the Clearances are only background to Mrs Scott’s story, a little bit of historical credibility would have been good.

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Classics Club Spin #30

However, indeed the Clearances are not Crichton Smith’s main target. The story is mostly about another recurring theme of Scottish literature – the stranglehold of the reformed Church on the people and its abuses, and here he does a much better job. Mrs Scott naturally turns to her church in her trouble, but finds that church and landlords are in a symbiotic relationship, each upholding the other, and neither showing much concern for the poor and powerless. Circumstances lead her to take help from a local man, Donald Macleod, who is seen as a troublemaker by those in authority, as an atheist and as a man who stands up for what he sees as his rights. (Donald Macleod was apparently also a real person but not one familiar to me.) And as she spends time with him and his family, Mrs Scott comes to re-assess her own church-driven moral rigidity and stern humourlessness, and to realise that this may be what caused first her husband and then her son to leave her.

It is written in simple language, in third person but from Mrs Scott’s perspective. Her age and the circumstances in which she finds herself gain her sympathy from the beginning, but initially the reader too sees her as her son must have done, as a woman so determined to judge others by her strict moral code that she makes the lives of those around her miserable. As we learn her story, though, our sympathy grows – her life has been hard and perhaps her natural liveliness and humour were driven out by her early experiences. Abandoned by her feckless husband, she has devoted her life to her son, but her emotional repression means that she shows this devotion through nagging and criticism rather than through gestures of love and affection. And when he too abandons her, all she has left is her church – a church that preaches hell and damnation more than love and salvation, that rules through authoritarian fear. It is her final abandonment by the church that is the catalyst for her to re-assess her life. So there is a sense of hope in the end, not that life will be easier nor that eviction can be avoided, but that Mrs Scott may free herself of the shackles of misery in which the church has bound her, and learn a more open way of thinking even at her late age.

Iain Crichton Smith

After a very shaky start caused by the historical howlers, I eventually became absorbed in Mrs Scott’s story. It’s a short book and isn’t saying anything particularly new or profound – it is covering ground that has been well travelled in Scottish fiction, one might say trampled into a mire. But Crichton Smith keeps the story intentionally intimate by showing the effects of large events on one individual, and that makes it an emotional read, especially in the second half. I’m not convinced it really has the weight or quality to be considered a true classic, but it works well as a character study and an interesting, if slight, commentary on the way the church in Scotland has been used as a tool to keep the underlings under.

Amazon UK Link

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

A locked train carriage mystery…

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When Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a locked carriage in a train, it looks like it must have been suicide, for how could a murderer have got onto and then off a moving train? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard can find no evidence that Sir Wilfred had been suicidal, and those who know him find it impossible to believe. And there are one or two odd things – like the mysterious red light that caused the train driver to slow down while the train was passing through Blackdown Tunnel, or the fact that Sir Wilfred apparently used an unlicensed gun even though he owned several licensed ones. Arnold can make no sense of it, so consults his old friend Desmond Merrion, a man with a gift of imagination that sometimes enables him to make sense of the seemingly senseless…

Although there’s a slight whodunit aspect to this, mostly it’s a howdunit, with the mystery revolving around various aspects of how the crime could have been committed, and who had alibis and who didn’t. It starts out well – the point about the red light and slowing train is intriguing, and the solution to that aspect, which comes quite early on, is fun. But then it kind of collapses into a morass of ever more complicated, and ever less interesting, speculation as to how the unnamed murderer or murderers did the deed, with Arnold and Merrion each spouting theory after theory, only for the next fact to come along and change everything.

This felt very different in style to the only other Merrion book I’ve read, The Secret of High Eldersham. That one had a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and aspects of a thriller, in that Merrion and others were put in peril. Merrion also had an enjoyable sidekick in it. This one had none of that – it is a cerebral puzzle with no peril and therefore very little atmosphere. Whoever turned out to be the culprit, I feel I’d have met it with a mental shrug, since none of the suspects were developed in a way to make me care about them. Having said that, Merrion himself is likeable and not nearly as insufferable as some of these brilliant amateur ‘tecs, and Arnold too is quite fun, even if he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Miles Burton

Although it’s well written and will probably appeal to the puzzle-orientated reader, I gradually found myself losing interest. I had decided on the most likely suspect fairly early on, and found it odd that neither Merrion nor Arnold seemed to be spotting what seemed like fairly obvious indicators. But I had no idea why the crime had been committed, and was disappointed that when all was revealed it was clear that the reader had had no chance to work that out, since the required information was withheld until very close to the end.

Overall, then, I found the plotting rather dull despite its “impossible” cleverness, and felt too much emphasis was given to the puzzle aspect at the expense of developing any sense of atmosphere or tension. However, it’s redeemed a little by the quality of the writing and the likeability of the two leads, Merrion and Arnold.

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This was the People’s Choice for July, and it was more enjoyable than not, so we’ll call that a success, People! 😉

Amazon UK Link

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

A wartime comfort read…

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It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.

On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.

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Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.

Nevil Shute

This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.

I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.

Audible UK Link

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Drink and death…

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When Claude Margolis is found stabbed to death, suspicion falls not unnaturally on a woman who has been spending time with him recently, Virginia Barkeley, who is found wandering the streets nearby in a drunken state and covered in blood. Virginia’s husband hires lawyer Eric Meecham to defend her. However his lawyerly skills aren’t needed for too long, since although Virginia can’t remember the events of the evening, another witness has come forward whose evidence seems to clear her. But something doesn’t feel quite right about the whole thing to Meecham, and he finds himself trying to find out exactly what did happen to Margolis…

This is billed as noir, but although it has some noir elements I don’t think it sits fully in that genre. It’s closer to a traditional mystery in style with Meecham playing the role of the unofficial detective. None of the various women fulfils the requirements of the femme fatale, being considerably more realistic and well-rounded than those usually are. Meecham is a little cynical about human nature, but he’s not completely world-weary, he works within the law, and he treats women like real people even if he does display the occasional “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality typical of the time.

However, there are undoubtedly bleak aspects to the story that may be why some consider it noir. Drink plays a large part – not just Virginia’s blackout, but there’s another character, an elderly woman who, late in life, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of not drinking. As her son says of her “One drink, and she was a drunk. She’d been a drunk for maybe thirty years and didn’t find it out until then. For her the world vanished in that instant.” It’s a really excellent portrayal of the shame of alcoholism for an elderly, respectable woman – hiding and lying, trying to keep up appearances, and always desperately trying to find the money to buy the next bottle.

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Her son, Earl Loftus, is another interesting characterisation. Still a young man, he is dying of a then incurable condition – leukaemia – and Millar shows how this affects his thoughts and actions, and the people around him. I am deliberately avoiding saying how Earl fits into the story, since the plot is revealed slowly and steadily as the book progresses and almost any information about it could count as a spoiler. But I found the depiction of him as a dying man credible and quite moving, and his actions seemed to arise naturally out of his situation.

The pace is slow and steady throughout, perhaps a little too slow in the middle section where I found my interest dipping for a while. But Meecham is a likeable lead character who shows a lot of empathy and understanding for the weakness and frailties that lead the other characters to act as they do. I could have done without the instant “true love” he finds with a character with whom he has exchanged all of about six sentences, especially since I found the girl annoyingly keen to become his adoring, submissive slave. (Is it just me, or are female authors of this era often more sexist than their male counterparts? Seems to me male crime writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s like their female love interests to be strong, sexy and a bit dangerous, while female authors make them clingy and pathetic. Maybe I just notice it more when it’s a female author who annoys me in this way.)

Margaret Millar

Some aspects of the plot are fairly easy to work out, but enough is held back to allow for a surprise at the end – a surprise that in truth seemed to me to lessen the general credibility up to that point, although not enough to lose me completely. It’s very well written, with the strength lying more in the characterisation than the plot. Overall, I preferred the only other Millar I’ve read to date, The Listening Walls, but I enjoyed this one enough to cement her in her place as an author I’d like to investigate further.

Amazon UK Link

The Murder Rule by Dervla McTiernan

A question of guilt…

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Young law student Hannah Rokeby is desperate to get taken on by the Innocence Project, a group run by charismatic attorney Rob Parekh to fight to free prisoners they believe have been wrongly convicted. Places on the project are coveted by students, since it looks good on a new lawyer’s CV. But Hannah has deeper reasons for wanting to be part of it – personal reasons. The Project is trying to free Michael Dandridge, convicted of rape and murder, but long ago Hannah’s mother was a victim of Dandridge too and Hannah feels she must ensure Dandridge stays in prison for the sake of her mother’s mental health. So she tricks her way in, but then slowly begins to discover there may be things about Dandridge’s past that don’t quite fit with what she believes…

Written in the third person past tense, we see the story unfold from Hannah’s perspective so that we know what she knows – no more and no less. In the beginning, mostly what she knows comes from an old diary her mom kept back when she knew Dandridge and his friend Tom. This diary is given to the reader in short chapters between the present day story of Hannah settling in at the project. Happily, though, McTiernan is not playing the overused “that day” game – we know pretty quickly what happened to cause Hannah’s mother to fear Dandridge for all these years, and that lets us sympathise to some extent with the lies and tricks Hannah plays to get on the project, although some of them are rather cruel and make her hard to like.

Dervla McTiernan

It’s very well written and keeps up a good pace, avoiding any mid-book flab. In fact it comes in at under 300 pages, so quite short for a contemporary crime novel, but I felt it’s the perfect length for the story. It held my interest throughout and kept me turning the pages, so a successful read from the sheer enjoyability aspect. However, my credibility meter went into the red zone at a fairly early point and by the end was screeching out overload signals. The final courtroom scene was almost farcical – any last remnants of believability disappeared into the distance, never to be seen again. I don’t want to go into the plot in any detail, since it has so many twists and turns it would be hard to avoid spoilers. But oddly, it isn’t the basic plot that has the credibility issues – all of that I could believe reasonably easily. It’s the silly way it’s played out, with unnecessary drama, people being beaten to a pulp one day and then being back to being action-man the next day, Hannah brilliantly spotting things missed by all the qualified lawyers, the evil pantomime baddies, the aforesaid courtroom scene. I felt that had McTiernan written it as a straight mystery it could have been excellent, but trying to turn it into a thriller simply took it far too far from any sense of realism.

So although I enjoyed reading it for the most part, I was left with a slight feeling of disappointment that it could have been so much better than it was. However, I believe this is something of a departure for McTiernan, and I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another of her books to see if her usual style works better for me. Meantime, if you enjoy a fast-paced mystery/thriller and aren’t as picky about credibility issues as I am, this is a well-written and entertaining read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

A novel without a hero…

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Paul Dombey is a wealthy, proud and cold man, with only one desire – to have a son to bear his name and to carry on the business he has built. His downtrodden wife has already given him a daughter, Florence, but what use is a daughter? What good is she in business? However, finally the son arrives – young Paul, who within a few hours will be motherless as Mrs Dombey dies, almost unremarked by anyone except the broken-hearted Florence. This is the tale of young Paul’s life…

Well, at least so the title would suggest. And for the first third of the book we do indeed follow Paul, as he grows into a weakly child and is sent off to school in Brighton where it is hoped the sea air will restore his health. *spoiler alert* Alas! ‘Tis not to be. Our little hero dies and we are left with a huge gaping hole, possibly in our hearts (I certainly sobbed buckets!), and most definitely in the book!

Dickens quickly regroups and from then on Florence is our central character and she does her best, poor little lamb. But Dickens’ heroines are only allowed a little latitude for heroism. They must be sweet, pure, loving and put-upon, and they must rely on male friends and acquaintances, mostly, for help in their many woes. So Dickens promptly introduces a new hero – young Walter Gay, nephew of Solomon Gills who owns a shop dealing in ship’s instruments. Walter promptly falls in love with Florence (they are both still children at this stage) and sets out to be her chief support and defender. For alas, although she is now Dombey’s only child, this merely makes him resent her even more. So we, the readers, mop up our tears over Paul and get ready to take Walter to our hearts instead. And what does Dickens do then? Promptly sends Walter to Barbados on a sailing ship so that he disappears for years, and for most of the rest of the book! I love Dickens, but I must admit he annoys me sometimes!

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You’ll have gathered that I don’t think this is the best plotted of Dickens’ books. I had some other quibbles too – unlikely friendships, inconceivable romantic attachments, less humour than usual, especially in the first section. However, as always, there’s lots to love too. Florence, despite the restrictions placed on her, shows herself to be strong, resilient and intelligent. She is pathetic in her longing for her revolting father’s love, but that’s not an unreasonable thing for a child to be pathetic about. I’ll try to avoid more spoilers, but she does take control of her own future to a greater degree than most of Dickens’ heroines, and Dickens gives her a lovely dog, Diogenes, which allows her to have some love and cheerfulness in her lonely life.

In fact, there are a lot of rather good women in this one – good as characters, I mean, rather than morally good. I think they’re more interesting than the men for once. There’s Polly Toodles, young Paul’s wet nurse who is loved by both the children and has plenty of room in her generous heart for a couple of extra children despite her own large brood. Through her and her husband, we see the building of the railways in progress and Dickens is always excellent on the subject of industrialisation and the changes it brings to places and ways of life.

Then there’s Mrs Louisa Chick, Dombey’s sister, and her friend, Miss Lucretia Tox who is a beautifully tragic picture of faded gentility – a romantic heart with no one who wants the love she would so like to give. Although she’s a secondary character, I found her story quietly heart-breaking. Susan Nipper, Florence’s maid, is a bit of a comedy character, but again she is strong and resourceful, and loyal to her mistress, as indeed Florence is loyal to her. They provide an interesting picture of two women from very different classes and levels of education who nevertheless find themselves in solidarity against an unfair world. Mrs Pipchin, Paul’s landlady in Brighton, is not cruel to the children exactly, but she is cold and grasping – it’s all about the money with her.

A major character later in the book is Edith Granger, whom Dombey condescendingly decides to marry. She reminded me very much of Estella in Great Expectations, in that she had been brought up to fulfil a purpose not of her own choosing; in her case, to marry a rich man. Mostly her inward struggle is portrayed very well. However, some of her actions seemed not just illogical but frankly unbelievable, so that I found my sympathy for her waning over the course of the book. And possibly the strongest female character is Alice, whom, since she appears only quite late on and is central to the book’s climax, I can’t say much about at all without spoilers, except that she is righteously full of rage and out for revenge, and Dickens does vengeful women brilliantly!

Oh, there are some men in it too, but I’ve run out of space! Maybe I’ll talk about them the next time I read the book… 😉

Charles Dickens

Overall, I didn’t think this one worked as well as his very best in terms of plotting and structure, and I felt the absence of a hero for most of the book left it feeling a bit unfocused. But as always I loved the writing, and the huge cast of characters provide us with everything from comedy to cold-hearted cruelty, with a healthy dash of sentimental romance along the way. The oppressed position of women is a central theme – from Florence’s dismissal from her father’s love for the sin of being born female, through Edith being as good as sold into marriage, to Alice’s story and the reasons for her fury against one man in particular but also against the society that looks the other way or blames the woman when women are mistreated by men. I’d almost suggest Dickens was being a bit of a feminist here! Not one of my top favourites, but a very good one nevertheless, and as always, highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link

The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon

Race into danger…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Richard Temperley arrives at Euston station after an irritating journey on the night train. The man with whom he’d shared a carriage had snored loudly all night, keeping Richard awake. Now it’s three in the morning, and the porter suggests he should go to a nearby hotel where they will let him snooze in the smoking room until day properly breaks. Richard thinks this sounds like a good plan till he gets to the smoking room and discovers the snoring man has beaten him to it. But oddly the man is no longer snoring. Possibly because he’s been shot dead…

This is a thriller rather than a mystery, mostly involving long journeys across England by rail and road in pursuit of the mysterious villain who is bumping people off, apparently randomly, and leaving a small piece of enamelled metal in the shape of a Z as his calling card. The reader meets the villain long before Richard does, but although we know who he is and gradually what he’s doing, we still don’t know his motive until near the end. Richard’s motivation is much easier to understand – he caught sight of a beautiful young woman leaving the smoking room just as he went in, and he’s fearful that the police will assume she did the deed. So rather than helping the police with their enquiries like a good little citizen, he sets off to find the woman and, that achieved, to try to save her by finding out what’s going on. Meantime the police go about their business and it becomes a race as to whether the police or Richard and the woman, Sylvia Wynne, will arrive at the unknown destination first, and whether any of them will get there in time to stop the villain from fulfilling his mission.

Like a lot of thrillers, the story in this is well beyond the bounds of credibility and the villain is completely over the top in evilness. However, I really enjoyed Farjeon’s writing which in the descriptive passages is often quite literary, but in the action passages is fast-paced and propulsive. He’s very good at creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and several times he gets a real sense of creepy impending horror into the story. Richard’s exhaustion in the first chapters is very well done, leaving him a bit woozy and not thinking too clearly. Both Richard and the mysterious Sylvia are likeable characters and their dialogue is fun in that snappy style of the era, and this reader was happy to overlook Richard’s unlikely love at first sight and hope for their romance to blossom.

Challenge details:
Book:
71
Subject Heading:
Multiplying Murders
Publication Year: 19
32

As I said, the villain is over the top (Martin Edwards describes him perfectly as “lurid”), but that doesn’t prevent him from being scary! Farjeon gives the villain a disability to make him seem freakish – not unusual for that time, but not such comfortable reading now. However, it is effective even if it adds to the incredibility of his actions. He lacks all sympathy for others and in return it’s impossible for the reader to have any sympathy for him. A real baddie with no ambiguity in the characterisation, he made me shudder more than once!

J Jefferson Farjeon

Unfortunately Farjeon spoils it a bit at the end by having the villain and his accomplice reveal the motive, which has been the main mystery, through a conversation with each other, rather than either Richard or the police working it out. But the thriller aspect works well and I found the pages turning quickly as Richard and Sylvia raced towards danger. I’ve only read one Farjeon novel before, Thirteen Guests, and had a similar reaction – good writing and an interesting set-up, but let down a little by the way he resolves the mystery without the detective showing any particular brilliance. However, in this one I felt he developed a much more effective atmosphere of tension and danger that made me more willing to overlook any flaws. Overall I found it fast-paced and entertaining and, while it may not yet have made Farjeon one of my favourite vintage crime writers, I’ll certainly be happy to read more from him.

Amazon UK Link

Maigret and the Old Lady (Maigret 33) by Georges Simenon

Beside the seaside…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Valentine Besson is the old lady of the title, a still charming widow who lives in a small seaside town in Normandy. She comes to Paris to ask Maigret to investigate the death of her maid, Rose Trochu. Lest we should think this is because she cares about the girl’s death, Mme Besson makes it very clear that her real concern is that she believes the poison that killed Rose was meant for herself. Coincidentally, Mme Besson’s stepson has also approached Maigret’s boss to request that Maigret should help in the investigation, since he believes it’s beyond the abilities of the local force. So Maigret finds himself off to spend a few days at the seaside, trying to unravel the complicated family dynamics that seem to underlie the murder…

Valentine’s husband had been a rich man for a while, having developed a popular skincare lotion. But he had lost most of his money on wild speculations before he died, leaving Valentine comfortably provided for, but not wealthy. He also left two sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second marriage to Valentine. Had Valentine been rich, suspicion would naturally have fallen on these three, but they would gain little financially from her death so Maigret must look for another motive, and that proves elusive.

The setting of the small seaside town is done well, with Maigret reminiscing over holidays he has spent in similar places with his wife. The plot is also interesting, with the search for a motive being the major part of the mystery – once it is solved, the rest falls into place. Simenon shows the rather careless attitude of the Besson family to Rose, with the casual assumption that she was so unimportant that no one could have deliberately intended to kill her. It’s a strange kind of snobbery that suggests one must be a certain class to even be worthy of murder, or at least to have that murder be worthy of investigation by someone of the stature of Maigret. Even Maigret spends a good deal of time with the Bessons before he bothers to visit Rose’s family, which I must say didn’t endear him to me. The Trochus are conscious and resentful of this kind of dismissal of Rose’s death as merely being a fortuitous accident that got in the way of the more important intended murder of Valentine. Simenon shows this kind of class distinction quite subtly and the only characters who really come over sympathetically are Rose’s bereaved family.

Georges Simenon

However, even more than usual Maigret spends his time going from bar to bar drinking, or sitting with the old lady drinking. Everywhere he goes the thing that seems most on his mind is whether he’ll be offered a drink or not. At one point he actually falls asleep while talking to Valentine, not altogether surprising given that he’d already put away enough alcohol that day to sink the entire French fleet. This wouldn’t have been quite so annoying had it seemed as if he was getting anywhere with the investigation, or even trying. But he really just chats to people in an aimless way and allows events to unfold until the solution becomes unavoidably obvious. He does spot one or two things the local force had missed, but he doesn’t do anything with them – I’m being vague to avoid spoilers. I felt that when the local police detective questioned whether the great man was worthy of his reputation, he had a point! I certainly wouldn’t put this case down as a success, but Maigret seemed quite satisfied with his own performance.

So I have rather mixed feelings about this one. There’s enough in it to make it interesting, but I felt Simenon was to some extent simply going through the motions, keeping Maigret wandering around drinking and doing not much else till Simenon felt he could reasonably reveal the solution and bring the book to an end.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Gareth Armstrong who as usual did a fine job.

Audible UK Link

No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

The story of the Razor King…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Johnnie Stark is the son of a violent drunk who beats his wife so badly he nearly kills her and then dies in jail. Although Johnnie hated and feared his father, he is just like him, drunkenness and violence being the norm for the men, and often the women, living in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the depression years between the wars. This is the story of Johnnie’s rise to become the Razor King, a gang-leader and violent fighter, feared and admired in equal measure, and of his eventual fall.

The book was written by A McArthur, himself a Gorbals man, who wanted to show what life was like in the deprivation of one of the worst slum areas of Britain. The publisher Neville Spearman was interested in the story but thought it badly written, so brought in a journalist, H Kingsley Long, to work with McArthur to polish it up. It became a massive bestseller, reprinted many times over the decades. Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers, although it is in reality long out-dated and was in fact already becoming so when this book was first published in 1935. The book is also often credited with having turned things around – forcing those in authority to recognise the squalor in the slums, and the danger this represented to social order both in terms of violence and in the growth of Communism in these areas, and therefore to act to improve conditions for the slum-dwellers. Again, not quite true, though it did bring the question to a wider public. Gang violence peaked in Glasgow around 1929 and was declining somewhat by 1935, and the authors recognise this themselves in the final chapters when they talk about the changes that were already being put in place by a worried establishment, although it took many years to turn the situation, and the Gorbals, around. Although the book is specifically about the Gorbals, gang culture was a feature of the slums of most of the big urban centres of Britain at the time, making this Glaswegian a little annoyed that one book should have given Glasgow a reputation so much worse than other cities with just as serious problems.

A 1932 Weekly News article by Billy Fullerton,
head of the notorious Billy Boys gang

As a novel, it’s somewhat better than I was expecting. Again it has the reputation of not being very well written but, while it’s certainly no literary masterpiece, I found the writing quite acceptable and the dialect feels authentic throughout. It’s considerably before my time, of course, but I still recognised most of the language although there were some expressions that had disappeared by my childhood. Where the authors felt that pieces of dialect might not be comprehensible to a wider readership, they include an English translation in brackets, so despite all of the speech being in dialect it should still be accessible to most readers, I think. Overall it gave me the impression, in fact, of having been written for an outside audience rather than for Glaswegians – there is a feeling throughout of it being anthropological in style, and I couldn’t help feeling the characters were being displayed like animals in a zoo, a lower species than the likely readership, intended to amaze and terrify “decent” people.

Book 88 of 90

Johnnie’s story is one of violence throughout, but he is shown as merely being the most violent among a community where violence was the norm. Male unemployment was at record figures, and the men are shown as living off the meagre wages of their wives, drinking, whoring and fighting, while the women struggled to feed their children. There is an astonishing amount of violence towards women, and this is shown again as an accepted feature of life, with the women often admiring the violence of their men even when directed at them. Was this true? Possibly, though I felt it was (not surprisingly) a rather male view of how women viewed male violence towards them, if that makes sense. I wondered if the women were really quite so admiring, when the men weren’t around to hear them. Perhaps. (I was reminded of Their Eyes Were Watching God, about another poor and marginalised community far away, where Zora Neale Hurston also shows male violence towards women as something the women admired and even envied.) Certainly domestic violence continues to be at unacceptably high levels today in Glasgow, though to nothing like the same degree, and without the social acceptance of it shown here.

The general violence and gang-fighting I could readily believe in – I grew up just three miles from the Gorbals, though decades later than this, but the area still had a bad reputation in my time and was a place for “respectable” people to avoid. I had more of an issue with the portrayal of routine sexual promiscuity within marriages, which again is shown to be largely socially acceptable, even having its own set of rules. Call me sexist, but I easily believed in the promiscuity of the men, but had more difficulty in believing that married women openly had affairs and even children to men other than their husbands. Not because I feel the women would necessarily have been more “moral”, but because I would have expected their husbands to kill them, literally, if they’d been openly promiscuous. But again, it was before my time, and (without wishing to sound snobbish) considerably lower down the social scale than my own upbringing. However, I still have my doubts.

And now those of you of a certain age know where the inspiration
for the title song of
Taggart came from…

So the question is, would I recommend it? Hmm, not as a novel, really. But it’s certainly of interest to anyone who’d like to learn something about the slums and gangs of the era, or who would like to see the genesis of the reputation that has produced so much gang-obsessed Glaswegian fiction over the intervening decades. As a Glaswegian, it both interested me and irritated me – I don’t like people being displayed like animals in a zoo, and I don’t like how the book still adversely affects the reputation of my city, which in reality is neither significantly worse nor better than most other major urban centres. But the book is socially important in the history of Glasgow and as a record of the slums, and has influenced generations of writers for good or ill, so for those reasons I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link

The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Place your bets…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our naive young heroine, Sylvia Bailey, was married at nineteen to a man many years her elder. Now, still only in her twenty-fifth year, she is a widow – beautiful and wealthy, and keen to experience something of the world. So off she goes to Paris where she makes friends with another guest in the hotel – Anna Wolsky, slightly older than her and with a gambling habit that could easily be called an addiction. Anna introduces Sylvia to Lacville, a little town not far from Paris, the main attraction of which is its casino which draws all sorts of people, desirable and undesirable, to its gaming rooms. One of the desirables is the swoonworthy Count Paul de Virieu, who is staying at the same guesthouse as Sylvia. He has looks, a title, an aristocratic family, a sexy French accent – everything a girl could desire, in fact. Unfortunately he is also a gambling addict, having already lost the fortune he had inherited. Sylvia, of course, feels that she can change him. Meantime, various people warn Sylvia not to openly wear the ostentatious pearls she bought herself as a kind of symbol of her new-found freedom, since some of the undesirables around town may be tempted by them into nefarious deeds. Our Sylvia ignores all warnings, of course. And then Anna, having had a big win one evening, disappears…

This is quite fun, although it’s far too long for its content (proving it’s not only contemporary crime fiction that suffers from this problem). It’s pretty obvious from early on which characters are goodies and which are baddies, although it’s not obvious to our Sylvia who almost inevitably trusts the untrustworthy and dismisses the good people who are trying to warn her she’s putting herself in the way of danger. Still, it wouldn’t be much of a book if she’d listened to them, left Lacville and put her pearls in the bank, I suppose. Instead, she sets out to find out what happened to Anna, to cure Count Paul from his gambling fever, and to have a little fun along the way. But dark deeds are looming and Sylvia is soon in peril.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

Sylvia is so naive and trusting it’s almost painful to watch her, especially since the idea of her taking off to Paris on her own is delightfully liberated for the period – the book was published in 1912. She’s certainly strong-willed, but seems to lack any kind of judgement regarding other people or her own safety. Back home in England, William Chester, the young trustee of the legacy left her by her husband, is waiting patiently for her to sow her wild oats, so to speak, and then come back and settle down into the respectable role of being his wife. Eventually he follows her to France, and is frankly horrified to find her in a gambling town, flirting with a penniless, if sexy, Frenchman. Is Paul after her money, or is he truly in love? Will Sylvia abandon her home country to live a precarious (if exciting) existence with her gambling Count, or will she return to England and a life of safe (if dull) domesticity with sensible Charles? Will Anna ever re-appear? Will Sylvia’s pearls lead to tragedy? Or will it all end happily ever after?

Not a patch on the wonderful The Lodger, the only other of her novels that I’ve read, but enjoyable enough. I do wish someone had insisted on editing out about a third of it though – it would have been a better book as a result. It has a kind of dramatic denouement filled with danger when all is revealed, but it’s so slow getting there and is all too well signalled for there to be much tension. However young Sylvia is an entertainingly wilful heroine, even if I did spend most of the time wanting to knock some sense into her. And it’s probably an age thing, but I really found sensible Charles much more attractive than sexy Paul… hey ho!

Book 2 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for February (I’m late!) – an entertaining choice! Well picked, People!

Amazon UK Link

Christie Week: Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) by Agatha Christie

Elementary, my dear Tuppence…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Partners in CrimeAlthough very happily married to Tommy, Tuppence Beresford is finding life rather monotonous, so when their old friend Mr Carter of the Intelligence Services puts a proposition to them, the young couple jump at the chance. Mr Carter believes a private detective agency is being used to pass messages in some kind of shady espionage plot. The owner has been arrested and Mr Carter wants Tommy to impersonate him and pass on information about any odd contacts he gets. Thus Tommy becomes Mr Blunt of Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives and, having no intention of being left out, Tuppence is transformed into Miss Robinson, his confidential secretary. While they wait to be contacted by the spy ring, they investigate the various cases brought to them by troubled clients…

“I can look after her all right, sir,” said Tommy, at exactly the same minute as Tuppence said, “I can take care of myself.”

This is a bit of light-hearted fun from Christie, in which she shows her love for the mystery fiction world of which she was such a shining light. The book is in the form of short stories, each an individual case, with the background espionage plot only really appearing once or twice throughout. Tommy and Tuppence, having no experience of detecting, decide to learn the craft from the masters, so in each case they take on the personas of a different fictional detective and his sidekick.

I’m pretty sure when I first read this long, long ago, I’d have recognised a couple of the most famous, and assumed all the rest of the fictional ‘tecs were simply names made up by Christie. But after being steeped in Golden Age mysteries for the last few years, I now realise they’re all real – well, real in the sense that they are all based on fictional detectives or on the style of authors who would have been well known to Christie’s contemporary readers. Inspector French is there, and Inspector Hanaud, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, Roger Sheringham, Dr Thorndyke, Reggie Fortune, Edgar Wallace, and a few I still don’t recognise. Holmes, of course, and Christie even includes Poirot himself! She doesn’t go overboard with the references – she name-checks the ‘tecs and makes a few amusing observations about their style or mannerisms, but when the cases get underway Tommy and Tuppence revert to being themselves.

….As the visitor left the office, Tuppence grabbed the violin and putting it in the cupboard turned the key in the lock.
….“If you must be Sherlock Holmes,” she observed, “I’ll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labelled Cocaine, but for God’s sake leave that violin alone.”

agatha christie 2
Agatha Christie

The cases themselves are quite slight and vary in quality and style. Some are humorous, some more serious, up to and including murder. A couple have a slightly spooky edge – something Christie always does well. T&T are a great partnership, though the format of this tends to mean that Tommy gets to be the lead more often, since he’s playing Blunt and all of the fictional ‘tecs are men. But Tuppence uses her ingenuity and intuition, not to mention using her social skills to mingle with the people involved in the cases and pick up bits of gossip. Albert, their usual assistant, is in it too, but only makes a real contribution to a couple of the stories.

….“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”
….“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men. Women are so much more thorough.”
….“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.

Truthfully, I’m not sure how much appeal this collection would have to anyone who didn’t already know and love Tommy and Tuppence from their first appearance in The Secret Adversary, but for fans it’s an entertaining addition to the full-length T&T novels, and the references to the other Golden Age ‘tecs is an added bonus for vintage crime enthusiasts, giving an insight into Christie’s own reading tastes. Hugh Fraser’s narration is, as usual, wonderful, and the format of lots of short stories gives him the opportunity to portray a vast selection of characters, from society women to foreign spies, all of which he does with great gusto. Lots of fun!

* * * * *

The fictional ‘tecs I still haven’t come across are…

Malcolm Sage created by Herbert George Jenkins

Francis and Desmond Okewood created by Valentine Williams

Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan created by Isabel Ostrander

Thornley Colton created by Clinton H Stagg

A new challenge? Hmm… no!! Not another one!! Although it’s tempting… 😉 Have you read any of these? Are they worth hunting down?

Audible UK Link

Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Best days of our lives?

😀 😀 😀 😀

(These Christie audiobooks narrated by either Joan Hickson or Hugh Fraser have become my stress relievers, and as we all know, life has been pretty stressful recently! I usually hold my reviews of them back, to have something to post when I run out of other reviews. But that hasn’t happened for ages, and some of the unposted Christie reviews are getting so old they’re going yellow round the edges. So join me for Christie week! A whole week of posts about the unrivalled Queen of Crime! 😀 Just a word on star ratings: for favourite authors – Christie, Dickens, Austen, Hill – I only rate them against their own best work, not other people’s. So a four-star Christie is still head and shoulders above most five-stars from other people. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but there’s no law says it has to… 😉 )

Cat Among the PigeonsIt is the start of term and parents are arriving to drop their daughters off at the elite Meadowbank school, where the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, has built a reputation for excellence. There are several new girls: Jennifer and Julia who are destined to become best friends, and Princess Shaista, a member of the ruling family in Ramat, a middle-Eastern nation that has just undergone a coup. Flashback a few weeks to Ramat, and we meet Bob Rawlinson, friend to Prince Ali Yusuf, the soon to be deposed ruler. Ali, aware of his likely fate, entrusts something of immense value to Bob and asks him to get it out of the kingdom. These two very different scenarios will soon cross into each other, bringing murder to the ultra-respectable Meadowbank.

Although this has never been one of my top favourite Poirots, it has lots of good things that place it high in the second tier. When I was younger Meadowbank seemed like a wonderful place, though now I find I hate the elitism of it and see no real signs of why it should be considered so remarkable – the girls we get to know seem a rather mediocre bunch on the whole, and are there exclusively because of their parents’ wealth and social position. Christie does address this through a conversation between a couple of her characters, but not convincingly.

The characterisation of the teachers is very well done. Miss Bulstrode is an inspirational leader (though she doesn’t seem terribly good at selecting staff!) while her long-time friend, Miss Chadwick, is one of these rather pitiable characters Christie does so well – a little lonely, loyal to a fault, often overlooked by stronger personalities. She reminds me of Bunny in A Murder is Announced. Miss Vansittart is the one considered likely to succeed Miss Bulstrode when she retires, although Miss Bulstrode is having doubts about her suitability. There are some new members of staff this term, each of whom may or may not be what she seems. It is one of these, Miss Springer the gamesmistress, who turns up dead in the new Sports Pavilion.

(FF muses: Hugh Fraser pronounces Miss Vansittart with the emphasis on “sit”. In my head it’s always had the emphasis on ‘Van’ – to rhyme with Fancy Tart. Hmm, that should pile the views in from Google searches from men who will be very disappointed to discover that my Fancy Tart is not at all what they’re searching for… 😉 )

The two girls we get to know best are fun. Jennifer is an unimaginative and unobservant child, devoted to her tennis, while Julia is quite the reverse – sensible, but curious and with lots of intelligence and initiative. As happens often in Christie novels, the children are far less fazed by the murder and mayhem going on around them than the adults. She shows them as partly excited and partly too self-absorbed in their own affairs to be frightened. Personally I find this more credible than if they were all having screaming hysterics all the time.

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

There are a few reasons I don’t rate this quite as highly as some of the other Poirots, but none of these should be seen as major criticisms, simply observations. Poirot doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, and I miss him! Written quite late in Christie’s career, 1959, it shows a little of the weakness in plotting that became a feature of some of her final books. Well, perhaps not in plotting exactly, but in the presentation of the plot to the reader – I don’t think it could quite be classed as fair play, and Poirot seems to rather pluck the solution out of the air rather than build up to it by solid investigation. I’m never so keen on Christie’s occasional ventures into the world of international espionage – I don’t think she does it nearly as believably as her more domestic plots, and it does tend to mean there’s an awful lot of that British superciliousness towards foreigners that grates more with each passing year, although it’s clear from this one that Christie had herself moved on quite a bit from the worst of the colonial attitudes she showed in some of her earliest books.

(FF muses: One of the things I always remember about it from my first reading long, long ago is that, while all this is happening at Meadowbank, Julia’s mother is travelling to Anatolia on a bus, which seemed so exotic and adventurous to young FF, especially since I had no idea where Anatolia is. Now I know, and I also know we could get there in a few hours by plane and meet the 5 zillion other British tourists who’d all gone there too, and we could all pop out and have a Big Mac if we wanted, and I wonder if all our advances haven’t simply taken the romance out of life… but I digress!)

Despite my minor criticisms, this is a very enjoyable read, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent. A great way to spend a few hours!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

And then you go and spoil it all…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Emmett Watson has just been released from the juvenile work farm where he has spent eighteen months after accidentally killing another boy in a fight. While he was inside, Emmett’s father died and the bank has foreclosed on the mortgage on their Nebraskan farm, so now Emmett is left with only his car and $3,000 dollars his father has hidden for him away from the bank’s clutches, and his younger brother Billy to care for. Emmett was never keen on farming anyway, so he intends to take Billy to Texas and start a new life there. But Billy wants to go to California since he has found some postcards from their mother, suggesting that’s where she headed when she abandoned them long ago. And then two boys from the work farm show up, Duchess and Woolly, having hidden in the boot of the car that brought Emmett home. They have a different plan of where they want to go, and they want to persuade Emmett to come along. So the four boys set off on a journey, following the Lincoln Highway first east to New York, and then planning to drive from there west, all the way to the other coast…

I love Amor Towles’ writing. He has moments of beauty, moments of humour, occasional shafts of intriguing insight into history or literature or human nature, and he creates lovely characters. His characters rarely ring fully true, but they have that quality of the heroes and heroines of olden times, when we seemed able to accept people as wholly good in a way that feels rather out of place now in contemporary fiction. He gets away with this partly because of the quality of the writing, partly because he sets his novels in the past, and partly because he creates a kind of fairy tale atmosphere, where this reader at least can happily put her disbelief to one side for a while and simply enjoy the story.

Here, the three boys from the work farm are all good-hearted, kind and generous – the problems that led them there all arising as a result of useless, though not intentionally cruel, parenting. They all put each other above themselves, never behave inappropriately in front of eight-year-old Billy, and rarely do anything much that rises above the level of endearing naughtiness. The exception is Duchess, who is occasionally startlingly violent, but always for excellent, generous reasons. It’s all very Walton-esque – one can well imagine John-boy being just such a lad had he ever ended up in a work farm. Or perhaps like Alcott’s Little Men, where a little love is enough to wipe away the mostly deeply embedded trauma. Not believable, but reassuring to readers turning quiveringly away from real life in search of a bit of respite.

It’s a long and slow book – one to savour rather than to race through. Not much happens for most of it, just a series of minor incidents, most of them with a humorous edge though with an occasional moment of something a shade darker. The viewpoint jumps from boy to boy, sometimes first person, sometimes third, sometimes present tense, sometimes past, and along the way we gradually get to know each boy well, and learn about the history of their lives and what has brought them to this point. It took me a while to slow down to the book’s pace but once I had, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them all, even precociously annoying little Billy. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up each night to take me to a gentler, kinder world for a while…

***Despite my best efforts, what follows is mildly spoilerish, though of mood rather than incident, so if you intend to read the book soon, stop now! Suffice it to say, I disliked the way he ended it.***

Amor Towles

And then, as he has done before, Towles spoils it all with a completely jarring ending. Obviously I can’t go into detail, but I’ll just say that after all that goose-down soft relaxation, he metaphorically hit me over the head with a brick, and left me nursing my wounds. I still can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth – and bad taste pretty much describes those final few chapters. I don’t know what he was thinking. Was he playing games with the reader? Did it amuse him to calm us and soothe us and rock us gently and then set off a metaphorical bomb under us just when we least expected it? It certainly didn’t amuse me! Either write a sentimental piece of nostalgia for a non-existent time, Mr Towles, or write a hard-hitting novel – don’t swap genres in the last 5% of a book!

So, difficult to rate. I adored 95% of it and hated 5%, and that 5% ruined all that had come before. I’m going to give it four stars but that’s pretty arbitrary – I reckon I could justify any rating between one and five based on my conflicted and aggrieved feelings. Would I recommend it? Not sure – I’d like you to get as much enjoyment as I did out of the bulk of it, but I’d hate for you to end up feeling as I did when I turned the last pages…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

Wonderfully atmospheric…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Meg has just become engaged to Geoffrey Levett when she begins to receive photographs which appear to show her previous husband, Major Martin Elginbrodde, who was declared dead during World War One. Now the sender of the photographs has given her a time and place to meet, and Meg has asked family friend Albert Campion and Detective Chief Inspector Charles Luke of the police to accompany her. The police catch the man but he refuses to answer their questions and, having no grounds to hold him, they are forced to release him. Shortly afterwards he is found murdered, and the last person who was seen with him was Geoffrey. Meantime a violent prisoner has escaped from jail, a man named Jack Havoc, whom Luke’s boss, Superintendent Oates, says is one of the only three wholly evil people he has come across in his career. This would appear to be confirmed when three people are found brutally murdered in a lawyer’s office, showing all the signs of Havoc’s modus operandi.

This all takes place in the middle of one of London’s famous pea-souper fogs that sometimes lasted for days. Because of these fogs London was nicknamed the Smoke, hence the title of the book. While there is a mystery at the beginning as to the photographs of the Major and why Havoc has chosen this time to break out of prison, we find out the answers to these questions fairly early on, and most of the book is really in the form of a thriller. Allingham uses the fog and some great characterisation to create a wonderfully threatening atmosphere and some truly tense suspense which kept me turning the pages long into the night.

It soon becomes clear that a group of men are involved, who have turned themselves into a band to busk the streets in order to scrape a living, though again for a long time we don’t know exactly what their involvement is. Some of the men are ex-Army, each of them has some kind of disability or deformity, and they are all led by the rather terrifying Tiddy Doll, himself an albino. I doubt a modern writer could or would use disability in the way Allingham does, to create a really creepy atmosphere reminiscent of freak shows in horror novels, so a reader has to be prepared to make allowances for the time of writing. It is, however, very effective, and serves as a reminder of how many men came back from war damaged physically or mentally.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Albert Campion and therefore I was quite happy that he plays a rather low-key role in this one, mostly because the mystery element isn’t huge. This also means that his loyal henchman (aka dogsbody) Magersfontein Lugg has very little presence on the page, and for that I’m devoutly thankful. Allingham’s horribly snobbish portrayal of Lugg as the common working-class servant, complete with comedy name and accent, devoted to his upper-class owner master employer, is one of the major reasons Allingham and I don’t get along as well as I’d like.

Instead, in the first two thirds or so, we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new. Because of the air of horror, it reminded me a little of the atmosphere of decadence and Grand Guignol that John Dickson Carr creates in his early Bencolin novels.

Margery Allingham

The book was heading straight for the five-star bracket at this stage, but for me the main climax came too early, and the last section of the book felt needlessly long-drawn out. I haven’t mentioned Meg’s saintly father, Canon Avril, who has surrounded himself with various waifs and strays who form a kind of extended family (mostly of working-class people devoted to upper-class Canon Avril and Meg, but never mind). In the final section Allingham indulges in a, to me, rather tedious, lengthy theological discussion on what Havoc calls “the Science of Luck” and Avril refers to as “the Pursuit of Death”. Frankly I had no idea what it was about and cared even less. In practice it seemed to mean that Havoc felt luck comes to those who look for opportunities. Anyway it takes over in the final few chapters, dictating Havoc’s actions which become progressively unbelievable, as do Canon Avril’s. I’d rather authors stuck to showing good battling evil rather than pontificating about it, especially in religious terms.

I’ve swithered over a rating, and decided that sadly I can only give it four. Had it ended differently it would have been a five for sure, for the earlier excellently atmospheric thriller elements.

I downloaded this one from fadedpage.com – here’s the link.

The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell

Mocking the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Although life in the small fictional town of Krishnapur is currently peaceful for the British colonial community, the Collector fears trouble – he has been coming across small piles of chapattis left in odd places, and he’s sure he’s heard that this happened somewhere else, just before a native uprising against the representatives of the Raj. His fears are soon to be realised, and the British will be driven to take refuge in the Residency where they will have to withstand constant attacks, disease and starvation as they wait for the Army to come to their rescue…

Gosh, I don’t remember feeling quite so conflicted about a book for a while! On the one hand, it is written as a sort of farcical comedy which is totally at odds with the serious subject matter, especially as the siege progresses and the suffering and death of the British contingent grows. On the other hand, there’s no doubt it is quite funny in places. On the one hand, it is clearly mocking the whole concept of colonialism and the British attempts to force their culture onto another society. On the other hand, the natives are still shown as kind of comedy characters – none are fully characterised, they are mostly simply one agglomerated mass, and, unlike the Brits, they get no opportunity to redeem themselves through heroism before the end. On the one hand, Farrell mocks the position of colonial women – seen as useless but pretty ornamentation at best, or, should they fail to remain within the restrictive rules of the British society, disgraceful embarrassments at worst. On the other hand, for the most part this is exactly how Farrell treats them too, suggesting his egalitarianism wasn’t much more than skin deep.

The first section before the siege goes on way too long and there were times when I wasn’t sure whether to stick with it. At this stage, though, at least the humour feels in keeping with the rather light-hearted depiction of the fairly pointless existence of most of the Brits. However, it becomes much more interesting once the siege finally gets underway. There’s no doubt that Farrell has researched the period well and, while Krishnapur and his characters are fictional, much of the action is based on the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. The humour persists too long into the bleaker aspects of the story, but gradually style and content begin to match more and I began to find that at last I was beginning to care about some of the characters as people rather than seeing them solely as caricatures of colonial “types”.

As well as colonialism, Farrell plays with contrasting themes of faith and science, civilisation and materialism, and honour and reputation. It all feels quite light and superficial because of the overall humorous tone, but I found that after I had finished reading it was these questions that lingered in my mind, more than the specifics of what had happened to the characters.

As cholera strikes the besieged community, the two doctors argue bitterly over how it is spread – by miasma, as was then mostly accepted, or through contaminated water, as some were beginning to think. As the people are trying to decide which medical advice to follow, the clergyman is insisting that their troubles are all a judgement from God on their sins, and exhorting them to trust in prayer.

When the Brits retreat to the Residency they bring all their precious but useless valuables with them – exquisite china, beautiful paintings, even large items of furniture which they had paid a fortune to have shipped out from England. But as hunger and danger strike, some of them begin to see the futility of possessions and would cheerfully give up their priceless antiques for a square meal and an unbroken night of safety. Some however cling onto their goods as if they are the markers of what makes them superior to the marauding natives out there.

JG Farrell

But when the situation becomes one of life and death, some of the old moral and societal standards fall away, and people begin to behave in ways that would have been unthinkable in the safe days, the respectable and the disreputable finding that they may have to rely on each other after all. And, in the end many of the characters show true heroism, even the most unlikely of the men facing the fighting with all the courage and initiative they can muster, and some of the ornamental women turning their hands to the sordid, dirty and dangerous job of nursing the sick and wounded.

Although I had mixed feelings about a lot of it, I found that as it darkened my appreciation grew, and by the end I was glad I had stuck with it – the destination made what had felt like a long and sometimes tedious journey worthwhile. Perhaps it’s of its time – Farrell was clearly modern enough to be critical of colonialism, but perhaps not yet modern enough to prevent himself from falling into some of the attitudes he was mocking. Or perhaps he was so modern that he was mocking the attitudes of the people who were mocking the attitudes of the colonialists! I’ll quickly pull myself out before I get even more lost down that rabbit hole, give it four stars and add the other two books in his Empire trilogy, Troubles and The Singapore Grip, to my wishlist, which I suppose can be taken as some kind of a recommendation!

Book 1 of 12

This was The People’s Choice winner for January and started the year off well, so good choice, People!

Amazon UK Link

Murder in the Basement (Roger Sheringham 8) by Anthony Berkeley

Whowasdunin?

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a newlywed couple move into their new house, their happiness soon turns to dismay on discovering a body buried in the basement. Enter Chief Inspector Moresby, whose first task is to discover the identity of the victim – a young woman who has been dead for just a few months. His investigations lead him to a small preparatory school, Roland House, and he remembers that his friend, the novelist and occasional amateur detective Roger Sheringham, had worked at the school for a few weeks the year before to get some local colour for a novel he had been planning to write, So Moresby calls on Sheringham’s knowledge of the staff of Roland House, and soon decides who is the culprit. But now the task begins of trying to prove it – not easy when the assumed murderer has so carefully ensured there would be no evidence to link him to the crime…

This has an unusual structure for a mystery novel which is successful in parts and rather less so in others. The first section follows Moresby as he and his team carry out the painstaking work of identifying the victim. This is quite interesting and is short enough that it doesn’t have time to start dragging. By the end of it, Moresby knows who the victim was, but the reader is kept in the dark a little longer.

Sheringham, it turns out, has written the first few chapters of his planned novel, using the various staff members as models for his characters. He gives the manuscript to Moresby, and Moresby challenges him (and, therefore, the reader) to name the victim based on his knowledge of the people involved. So the second part is Sheringham’s manuscript, through which we learn about all the personalities involved and see the tensions that exist among the group in the rather claustrophobic setting of a boys’ boarding school. I enjoyed this section – Sheringham’s authorial “voice” has a tone of mild mockery which makes his depiction of the characters quite amusing. In fact, I think I’d have been quite happy if the whole story had been told by Sheringham as an insider at the school, rather than the more formal investigation by Moresby. Martin Edwards calls this section the first appearance of a “whowasdunin” element in a mystery novel, a technique that has been used often by other authors since. I must admit I didn’t think there was any real way to solve that aspect – any of the female characters could easily have been the victim, for any number of reasons.

Anthony Berkeley

At the end of section two, Moresby reveals the identity of the victim, and from that extrapolates who he thinks is the only possible murderer. So the third section is mostly of Moresby trying to get evidence to prove his theory, followed at the very end by Sheringham taking over to wrap up the case. This third section didn’t work so well for me. I felt it went on too long and became repetitive, and I wasn’t convinced that Moresby would so quickly have stopped considering other solutions. And when Sheringham did his stuff, it seemed abrupt and too pat – he leaps almost magically to the correct interpretation of events based on little more than guesswork, though he would no doubt say it was founded on his understanding of human psychology. I felt that the victim got rather forgotten in the end – it all became something of a game of cat and mouse between the men in the story, a battle of wills, and none of them seemed too bothered about getting justice for the murdered woman.

So a bit of a mixed bag, enjoyably and entertainingly written but not wholly satisfactory in terms of the mystery solving element. I was surprised by how little Sheringham appeared in it, and rather regretted that since I found him more interesting and amusing than the somewhat stolid and unimaginative Moresby. I enjoyed it overall, though, and certainly enough to want to read more of the Sheringham novels.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Old Applejoy’s Ghost by Frank R Stockton

The spirit of Christmas…

I know lots of you don’t like scary stories, but not all ghosts are bad. This tale, taken from the collection Chill Tidings, features a ghost who would surely be welcome at any Christmas party…

Old Applejoy’s Ghost
by Frank R Stockton

Frank R Stockton

For many years old Applejoy’s ghost had wandered freely about the grand old house and the fine estate of which he had once been the lord and master. But early in that spring a change had come over the household of his grandson, John Applejoy, an elderly man, a bachelor, and – for the later portion of his life – almost a recluse. His young niece, Bertha, had come to live with him, and it was since her arrival that old Applejoy’s ghost had confined himself to the upper portions of the house.

Old Applejoy’s ghost had had the freedom of the house because any time his grandson saw him, he dismissed him as a dream. The house has become dull indeed in the grandson’s time, but now young Bertha has brought youth and beauty back to the hall, and the ghost doesn’t want to inadvertently scare her away. However, one night the ghost realises Christmas is coming…

“Winter has come,” he said to himself. “And in two days it will be Christmas!” Suddenly he started to his feet. “Can it be,” he exclaimed, “that my close-fisted grandson John does not intend to celebrate Christmas! It has been years since he has done so, but now that Bertha is in the house, will he dare to pass over it as though it were but a common day? It is almost incredible that such a thing could happen, but so far there have been no signs of any preparations. I have seen nothing, heard nothing, smelt nothing. I will go this moment and investigate.”

He descends to the kitchen…

….“Let me see what the old curmudgeon has provided for Christmas.”
….So saying, old Applejoy’s ghost went around the spacious pantry, looking upon shelves and tables. “Emptiness! Emptiness! Emptiness!” he exclaimed. “A cold leg of mutton, a ham half gone, and cold boiled potatoes – it makes me shiver to look at them! Pies? there ought to be rows and rows of them, and there is not one! And Christmas two days off!”

Old Applejoy’s ghost is determined that Bertha shall have the Christmas she deserves, but how to achieve it? He wanders to his grandson’s room…

….There lay the old man, his eyelids as tightly closed as if there had been money underneath them. The ghost of old Applejoy stood by his bedside…
….“I can make him wake up and look at me,” he thought, “so that I might tell him what I think of him, but what impression could I expect my words to make upon a one-chicken man like John? Moreover, if I should be able to speak to him, he would persuade himself that he had been dreaming, and my words would be of no avail!”


He considers talking to the old housekeeper, but…

“It would be of no use,” he said. “She would never be able to induce old John to turn one inch aside from his parsimonious path. More than that, if she were to see me she would probably scream – die, for all I know – and that would be a pretty preparation for Christmas!”

He looks in on Bertha, sweetly dreaming in a room lit by moonlight, and quietly murmuring the name “Tom”. Then suddenly she wakes…

….The maiden did not move, but fixed her lovely blue eyes upon the apparition, who trembled for fear that she might scream or faint.
….“Am I asleep?” she murmured, and then, after turning her head from side to side to assure herself that she was in her own room, she looked full into the face of old Applejoy’s ghost, and boldly spoke to him. “Are you a spirit?”

Delighted that she seems unafraid, old Applejoy’s ghost promptly hatches a scheme that she should speak to her uncle…

“When you have told him all the events of this night, and when he sees that they must have happened, I want you to tell him that it is the wish and desire of his grandfather, to whom he owes everything, that there shall be worthy festivities in this house on Christmas Day and Night. Tell him to open his cellars and spend his money. Tell him to send for at least a dozen good friends and relatives to attend the great holiday celebration that is to be held in this house.”

And will Tom be one of those guests?

* * * * *

If you want to know the answer to that, you’ll need to read the story – here’s a link.

Charming and fun, bit of humour, bit of romance, lots of cakes and mince pies, wine and plum pudding – a sweet little Christmas story. Wish I had a ghost to arrange Christmas for me!

(The porpy wishes you all a Very Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Aura and Nick have left England and the thing that happened there behind to create an idyllic new life in France, in an old run-down château which they intend to renovate and run as a posh B&B, or chambres d’hôtes, as Aura likes to call it, proving she has mastered at least three words of French. With them they bring their not-at-all-pretentiously-named sons, Sorrel and Bay, and a film crew, consisting of Seb and Chloe, who are filming the family for inclusion in a fly-on-the-wall series about Brits making new lives as ex-pats in France. Joining the merry throng is Helen from HappyHelp, an organisation that matches up backpackers with families who give them bed and board in return for a few hours work each day (or as Chloe puts it, an unpaid au pair). But the thing that happened in London casts long shadows. Nick and Aura’s marriage is on a knife-edge, and the strange things that begin happening as soon as they arrive add to the tension. And then there’s a murder…

I’m so inconsistent about this kind of thriller that even I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes one work for me, when others quickly get thrown at the wall. This is written in present tense from a variety of first person viewpoints and has the dreaded “that day” aspect of something that happened in the past looming over the present but the reader being kept in the dark nearly the whole way through as to what exactly happened back then, and the plot crosses the credibility line about a hundred times. So I ought to have hated it. And yet…

I think it’s mainly because Aura and Nick are so awful that they become funny, and I felt that that was deliberate on the part of the author. Aura in particular is one of these dreadful types who prides herself on having all the right attitudes, while in fact being swayed by every ludicrous fad that hits her social media feed. And, of course, like the climate warriors who jet around from protest to protest, or the social justice warriors who campaign against victimisation by victimising strangers on Twitter, her attitudes are shallow, self-serving and optional. I loved the occasional line Cooper would throw into Aura’s monologues that showed both her superficiality and lack of self-awareness – some of them made me laugh out loud…

I felt a whoosh of relief – as a semi-vegetarian I don’t think I could cope with getting rid of a dead rabbit.

…or…

Bay is simply adorable dressed as a pumpkin – I try not to think about the poor kid who must have slaved over his costume in some godforsaken sweatshop, but sometimes needs must.

Nick is also pretty awful but in a different way, and honestly, while I try very hard not to blame women for the faults of their men, I couldn’t help having some sympathy for him. Being married to Aura would have tested any man to the limits. However, I can’t go into detail about what puts Nick into the awful bracket because that would impinge on the thing that happened back in England. Suffice it to say, my sympathy for him only went so far.

Although murder and some dark deeds form parts of the plot, the story is quite lightly told for the most part, surprisingly so at times. One plot strand in particular involves a teenager, and has an air almost of innocence around it, in comparison to the standard fare of most thrillers of today. While I got a little tired of the fact that sixteen-year-old Ella thinks of nothing but boys, ever, I felt she thought of them in a way that was pretty true to her age. In a sense, I felt it gave the book a Young Adult vibe – unusually for me with contemporary thrillers, I’d be quite comfortable with the idea of mid-teens reading this one. There is some swearing, but not too much, and some sex, but not graphic. The one thing Aura and I have in common is that we are both prudes and prefer to look away when people are getting up to hanky-panky!

Catherine Cooper

The other aspect that amused me (and I do hope it was supposed to) was the awful ex-pat community, all socialising with each other and having as little to do with actual French people as possible. Aura, of course, speaks no French at all but really doesn’t see it as essential when she can always get other people to do things for her. I laughed again when she said in the same sentence that she wanted Sorrel and Bay to grow up bi-lingual and that she intended to home school them. I guess the two languages would be English and Pretentious then!

It’s a quick read and not one that requires a great deal of concentration to keep on top of the storyline. So despite myself, I found it entertaining – a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a few lazy hours.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Amazon US Link