Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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