27 January 2015

Review: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS, Sophie Hannah

Synopsis (publishers)

Hercule Poirot's quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered.  She is terrified – but begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done.

Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a fashionable London Hotel have been murdered, and a cufflink has been placed in each one’s mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim...

My Take

I feel pretty strongly about  what I have called elsewhere "coat-tails" writing. Nevertheless I was interested to see whether Sophie Hannah could capture anything like the spirit of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. I guess that is what a lot of Agatha Christie readers want to know, and I have decided to try to judge THE MONOGRAM MURDERS on its own merits, as far as I can.

The setting is February 1929 in London. According to the Hercule Poirot chronology, this is thirteen years after Poirot left Belgium and arrived in England as a refugee. In 1925 he "officially" retired, at the age of  about 61. So he is really at the height of his deductive powers, has been working privately, but has not been very satisfied with the kind of work he has managed to get.

Here are the stories set around this date.
    1926 MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD
    THE MURDER ON THE BLUE TRAIN
    1929 "The Third Floor Flat"
    "The Underdog"
    "Wasp's Nest"
    1930 BLACK COFFEE (play by Christie)
    "The Second Gong" (Expanded with new ending as "Dead Man's Mirror")
    "The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest" (expanded and updated as "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest" in the fifties)
The story is narrated by a young Scotland Yard detective,  Inspector Edward Catchpool. He and Poirot have rooms in a London lodging house belonging to Mrs Blanche Unsworth. From the lodging house Poirot can see his own apartment house, where he normally lives, but he has spread the rumour that he has gone on vacation out of London. The narration has been completed it seems some time after the events. I found the placement of the story in the Poirot chronology interesting and that probably worked better than later in Poirot's life.

I considered several things as I read this book: had the author captured Agatha Christie's style? Did I recognise this Hercule Poirot? Did the plot hold together?

Well, there were glimpses of the original Hercule Poirot - there was his faith in his own ability to solve the case logically, and his disparagement of others like Catchpool who could not match his abilities. He played his cards very close to his chest, not wanting to share his knowledge or conclusions.  But there was little description of Poirot's physical appearance, not much sense of his dapperness or fastidiousness.

The plot worked well enough but was rather more convoluted than an original Christie, resulting in a slightly longer book. There were passages that I could not envisage Christie having written. Christie had a sparer style than displayed in this novel. Some parts of the story seem almost theatrical particularly when Poirot gathers a large audience of the staff at the Bloxham hotel so that he can confront the guilty persons. During the story we hear different interpretations of what has happened, and much depends on the timing of when things happen. Red herrings abound. So it is very easy for Catchpool and the readers to become a little confused.

Worth the read? Yes, you really do want to know what actually happened and all is not revealed until the very end.  But I don't want to see another: I for one don't want THE MONOGRAM MURDERS to be beginning of a string of pseudo-Christies.

My rating: 4.3

While I read this for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, I have also read the following by Sophie Hannah.

23 January 2015

Review: HADES, Candice Fox

Synopsis (Random House Australia)

A dark, compelling and original thriller that will have you spellbound from its atmospheric opening pages to its shocking climax.

Hades Archer surrounds himself with the things others leave behind. Their trash becomes the twisted sculptures that line his junkyard. The bodies they want disposed of become his problem – for a fee.

Then one night a man arrives on his doorstep, clutching a small bundle that he wants ‘lost'. And Hades makes a decision that will change everything...

Twenty years later, homicide detective Frank Bennett feels like the luckiest man on the force when he meets his new partner, the dark and beautiful Eden Archer. But there's something strange about Eden and her brother, Eric. Something he can't quite put his finger on.

At first, as they race to catch a very different kind of serial killer, his partner's sharp instincts come in handy. But soon Frank's wondering if she's as dangerous as the man they hunt. -

My Take

This is a cleverly layered novel, superbly written, that flits between the past and the present, between the serial killer case the Sydney based police are currently focussing on, and Eden Archer's story.

Eden Archer and her brother have a secondary agenda, one which Hades, their adoptive father, has trained them for all their life. Those who get in the way, those who want to know too much and to get too close, are putting their own lives on the line.

My rating: 5.0

About the author
(from Random House Australia)
Candice Fox is the middle child of a large, eccentric family from Sydney's western suburbs composed of half-, adopted and pseudo siblings. The daughter of a parole officer and an enthusiastic foster-carer, Candice spent her childhood listening around corners to tales of violence, madness and evil as her father relayed his work stories to her mother and older brothers.

As a cynical and trouble-making teenager, her crime and gothic fiction writing was an escape from the calamity of her home life. She was constantly in trouble for reading Anne Rice in church and scaring her friends with tales from Australia's wealth of true crime writers.

Bankstown born and bred, she failed to conform to military life in a brief stint as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy at age eighteen. At twenty, she turned her hand to academia, and taught high school through two undergraduate and two postgraduate degrees. Candice lectures in writing at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, while undertaking a PhD in literary censorship and terrorism.

Hades is her first novel, and won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut in 2014. Eden, its sequel, is published in December.

See another review at AustCrime.

20 January 2015

Review: THE CORNISH COAST MURDER, John Bude

  • originally published 1935, this digital edition published 2014
  • foreword by Martin Edwards
  • File Size: 1753 KB
  • Print Length: 206 pages
  • Publisher: The British Library Publishing Division (February 19, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00IJYGJHM
  • I bought it
Synopsis (Amazon)

The Reverend Dodd, vicar of the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen, spends his evenings reading detective stories by the fireside – but heaven forbid that the shadow of any real crime should ever fall across his seaside parish. The vicar’s peace is shattered one stormy night when Julius Tregarthan, a secretive and ill-tempered magistrate, is found at his house in Boscawen with a bullet through his head.

The local police inspector is baffled by the complete absence of clues. Suspicion seems to fall on Tregarthan’s niece, Ruth – but surely that young woman lacks the motive to shoot her uncle dead in cold blood? Luckily for Inspector Bigswell, the Reverend Dodd is on hand, and ready to put his keen understanding of the criminal mind to the test.

This novel from the golden age of British crime fiction is set against the vividly described backdrop of a fishing village on Cornwall’s south coast.

My Take

Despite the fact that it was published in 1935, this is a delightful find for those who love cozies, with a brilliant foreword by Martin Edwards. Bude (a pseudonym used by Ernest Ellsmore) published over 30 detective novels, all stand alones, in just over 20 years, and this was his debut title in detective fiction.

A question that the Reverend Dodd asks himself early on is whether the methods he uses to solve the puzzles in the detective fiction would work as well if he were confronted by the real thing. And then he has the opportunity to assist Inspector Bigswell in the solving of a real life murder, and he knows he will never feel the same about crime fiction.

As I said, a delightful read.

My rating: 4.3

17 January 2015

Review: THE STEEL SPRING, Per Wahloo

  • This edition published 2013 by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
  • Originally published 1968
  • translated from Swedish into English by Sarah Death 2013
  • 200 pages
  • from my local library
  • ISBN 978-0-307-74446-3
  • Available from Amazon
Synopsis (Amazon)

Chief Inspector Jensen is a policeman in an unnamed European country where the government has criminalized being drunk, where newspapers are designed for reassurance, and where the city centers have been demolished to devote more space to gleaming new highways.

Recovering in a hospital room abroad after a liver transplant, Jensen receives a note instructing him to return home immediately, but when he reaches the airport he discovers that all flights home have been cancelled and all communication from within his homeland has ceased. One of the last messages sent requested urgent medical help from abroad. But what has happen? Has an epidemic taken hold? And why has the government fled the capital? To penetrate the silence and mystery that has fallen over the country and its people, Jensen returns only to discover the unthinkable.

My Take

This was the last novel that Per Wahloo wrote on his own. (see Fantastic Fiction) All the later ones, the last six in the ten title Martin Beck series, were written in partnership with Maj Sjowal.  THE STEEL SPRING is the only one of his stand-alone novels that I have read so far, although I have some more on my radar.

Although crimes have obviously been committed, the plot is not really crime fiction, but rather is dystopian, emerging from his Marxist-based vision of where Swedish society is headed. It is heavily infused with disillusionment and scary messages. In contrast to other dystopian novels that I have read, it is not a world apocalypse that will destroy Sweden, but rather it will self-combust.

He does not name Sweden in the novel, probably to escape some sort of prosecution, but every one who read the novel at the time would know which country he was referring to. Hakan Nesser uses a similar ploy in his novels set in an unnamed Scandinavian country, although I don't think his have the political overtones of THE STEEL SPRING (and perhaps others by Per Wahloo).

Although there is at least one mystery strand, the tone of the novel is polemic and didactic, and will not suit some readers. On the other hand it reminded me of FAHRENHEIT 451 (Ray Bradbury), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Cormac McCarthy), and Chris Womersley's THE LOW ROAD. And it is not unknown for crime fiction writers to convey social messages through their work (think about Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell and others).

My rating: 4.1


I've also reviewed - Sjowall, Maj & Wahloo, Per:
4.7, ROSEANNA
4.7, THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
4.5, THE FIRE ENGINE THAT DISAPPEARED
4.5, MURDER AT THE SAVOY
4.7, THE ABOMINABLE MAN

16 January 2015

Review: WEB OF DECEIT, Katherine Howell

  • first published by Pan Macmillan Australia 2013
  • #6 in the Ella Marconi series
  • ISBN 978-1-7426-1030-6
  • source: my TBR
Synopsis (Pan Macmillan Australia)

When paramedics Jane and Alex encounter a man refusing to get out of his crashed car with bystanders saying he deliberately drove into a pole, it looks like a desperate cry for help. His frantic claim that someone is out to get him adds to their thinking that he is delusional.

Later that day he is found dead under a train in what might be a suicide, but Jane is no longer so sure: she remembers the raw terror in his eyes.

Detective Ella Marconi shares Jane's doubts, which are only compounded when the case becomes increasingly tangled. The victim's boss tries to commit suicide when being questioned, a witness flees their attempt to interview her, and then to confuse matters further, a woman is beaten unconscious in front of Jane's house and Alex's daughter goes missing.

Ella is at a loss to know how all these clues add up, and feels the investigation is being held back by her budget-focused boss. Then, just when she thinks she's closing in on the right person, a shocking turn of events puts more people in danger and might just see the killer slip through her hands.

My Take

WEB OF DECEIT follows the same structure as Howell's earlier novels in the series: police investigations running in parallel with paramedics whose callout allows the reader to see another side of a victim. The result is four strong characters who are dedicated to the work that they are doing. But they all have more personal relationships on their minds as well, and I think that is what makes them seem so real. None of us operates in a vacuum. Our personal lives impinge on our work and vice versa.

Here is a well plotted novel written by an accomplished and established Australian author, the first to win two Davitt awards.

I have two novels in this series to catch up on: DESERVING DEATH published in 2014, and TELL THE TRUTH due out Feb 2015. I am looking forward to reading both of them!

My rating: 4.7

I've also reviewed
5.0, FRANTIC - #1 (mini review) - 2007
4.6, THE DARKEST HOUR - #2 - 2008
4.8, COLD JUSTICE - #3 -2010
4.8, VIOLENT EXPOSURE -#4 - 2010
4.8, SILENT FEAR -#5 - 2012

15 January 2015

Review: PUT ON BY CUNNING, Ruth Rendell - audio book

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

Sir Manuel Camargue, yesterday one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, today floats face down in the lake near his sprawling English country house. 

The consensus is accidental death -- but Inspector Wexford knows the stench of murder most foul when he smells it. Particularly in the company of two suspects -- one, the victim's fiancee, who is too young to be true, the other his daughter who may be no kin and even less kind . . . 

My Take

This made excellent listening. Charles Kay does a very good job of narration and particularly allows you to savour Ruth Rendell's wonderful writing. There are little bits of particularly British humour that come over very well.

The central story focuses on trying to prove whether the young woman who claims to be Sir Manuel Carmargue's only daughter, estranged from her father for 19 years, is who she is. Following threads from what is really an unofficial investigation, Wexford takes wife Dora to Los Angeles where he attempts to mix work with pleasure, and he and his offsider Burdon take a work trip to Paris to apprehend a murderer before he strikes again.

Highly recommendable.

My rating:  4.7

I've also reviewed
FROM DOON WITH DEATH
PORTOBELLO
4.7, THE MONSTER IN THE BOX
4.5, A NEW LEASE OF DEATH
4.6, THE VAULT
4.6, THE BEST MAN TO DIE
4.5, A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES
4.5, THE SAINT ZITA SOCIETY
4.6, THE MASTER OF THE MOOR
4.5, NO MAN'S NIGHTINGALE

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