28 November 2014

Agatha Christie and Reflections on the effects of World War One.

Although Agatha Christie's first novel THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was published post war in 1920, it is true to say that nearly all of the novels set prior to the outbreak of World War Two has a plot stemming from the days of the war, or contains reflections on the impact of the war either on the sleuths, or the British economy, English society, or subsequent world politics.

When you read the early novels for their murder mysteries, these observations are often missed.
Let us look at just a few of the early titles.

For example THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was the first featuring Hercule Poirot. He was a Belgian refugee, and had in fact already retired as the head of Belgium's police force when the Germans
invaded Belgium and he was forced to flee to Britain.
This account of the Styles Case is penned by Captain Hastings, a war hero invalided home from the Front. He is invited down to Styles Court by his friend John Cavendish to spend some of his convalescent leave. In the village Hastings runs across his old friend Hercules Poirot, an elderly Belgian, once one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police, but now a refugee assisted by John Cavendish's mother Mrs Inglethorpe.

This novel is set towards the end of World War One, and Christie makes a number of observations about the privations of life in England during the war, rationing, and shortages, and a style of living that is fast disappearing. The house at Styles for example once had a much larger domestic, household and garden staff, but is now "making do". The Cavendish brothers have inherited money, John lives the life of a country squire, and Lawrence, the younger brother is delicate and follows literary pursuits. Other members of the family are working in "acceptable" occupations, for war time that is, a nurse, the land army, and a companion.

THE SECRET ADVERSARY was published in 1922, and saw the creation of Tommy and Tuppence.
In early May 1915 the British luxury liner Lusitania was struck by two German torpedoes and quickly sank 15km off the western coast of Ireland. The prologue of THE SECRET ADVERSARY begins with an American on the Lusitania who is carrying important papers for the American ambassador in London handing these over to a young American girl to complete his mission. Her name is Jane Finn.

The story then jumps to a chance meeting near Picadilly in London early in 1919 between Miss Prudence Cowley (Tuppence) and Major Thomas Beresford (Tommy). Both have been involved in the war effort, but the war ended in late 1918 and so did gainful employment.
Tuppence and Tommy were childhood friends and met up briefly in 1916 when Tommy was hospitalised and Tuppence was working as a nurse. Over afternoon tea they decide to form a business partnership trading under the name of the Young Adventurers.

The First World War is still very fresh in people's minds. And now in the political mix is the Russian Revolution in late 1917, the Tsar and his family executed, and the Communist Party came into power. Russia was amongst the victors of the war, and a party to the peace negotiations. The British Labour Party has a lot of sympathy with the Russian communists and is looking for anything to discredit the government. There are strikes in Britain at the end of 1918 and threats of strikes in 1919, problems with Ireland too, the period during which THE SECRET ADVERSARY is set.

In THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT published in1924, you can see Christie experimenting with a different style of murder mystery.

In the Prologue, in the dressing room of a Russian dancer in Paris, through a meeting she has with another Russian, we learn 3 things. Firstly neither of them are Russian. Secondly they have both been working for an arch criminal who is on the point of retirement. The "Colonel" has, even during the First World War, organised a series of "stupendous" coups including jewel robberies, forgery, espionage, assassination, and sabotage. Thirdly we learn the story of the theft of some South American diamonds before the war. The dancer knows where these diamonds are and intends to exchange them for some of the "Colonel's" accumulated wealth.

I think Agatha Christie tried to move from a murder mystery to a thriller with connections to the world of organised crime, unionism, espionage and romance. The novel introduces another sleuth in the form of Colonel Race.

So you can see where I am going with this idea. When you read the early Christie's, look for the mentions of the first World War.

Now, I'm not going to leave Miss Marple out, even though her first case is not published until 1930: THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE.
Look for mentions of the impact of the war on village society, the inability to finance the big country houses, the difficulties in getting staff, the damage to England's social structure etc.

Somewhere in the Marple titles - you might remember where, but I can't - there is mention of the personal impact of the war on Jane Marple - she had an affair with an officer who was married, but he did not come back from the war, and so she remained a spinster all her life, like so many other young women at the time who similarly lost their men in the trenches.

24 November 2014

Review: THE ENGLISH LADY MURDERERS' SOCIETY, Jim Williams

  • first published 2011 by Quartet Books, London
  • ISBN 978-0-70437-251-1
  • 302 pages
  • Source: My local library
Synopsis (author website)

Janet Bretherton, a widow at 60, suspected of her husband's murder and involvement in the fraud which brought his company down, exiles herself to Puybrun, a small village in a picturesque corner of south-west France, where she nurses her grief and tries to rebuild her shattered world. She meets six other Englishwomen who live the expatriate life. Earthy has fled from a hippy camp in a damp corner of Wales. Carol claims to have slept with every man in the world called Dave. Belle has a husband, Charlie, who may or may not be real because no one has ever seen him. Joy is married to the appalling Arnold. And Veronica and Poppy try to discover the basis for the love they have for each other. The women form a group in which they take turns to teach each other the lessons life has taught them. At the same time, they grow more confident and gradually reveal the secrets of their pasts.

When Janet finds she has attracted the attention of Léon, thirty years younger than she is, yet seems to find her still sexually desirable as he invites her to go dancing with him, she asks herself: What are his real motives? And does she care? In the end, the process of discovery reveals a terrible secret which forces the women to decide how much they love each other: how far they can rely upon each other... even when the question is one of murder.

The English Lady Murderers' Society is a humorous and affectionate description of the solidarity of women in the face of the idiocy and unreliability of men. It celebrates the courage and beauty of older women. The author is familiar with the subject because he is married to one of them.

My Take

This is a cleverly plotted novel that brings together a group of expat English women who all have something to hide in one way or another, and who are mostly without husbands. Janet's husband has recently died, and she appears to be suspected of his murder. She left England without telling her daughter Helen where she was going and the phone calls they have are full of recriminations. It is Helen who tells Janet that the police want to talk to her, and who gives the police her phone number. Janet has a series of quite strange conversations with the detective in charge of the investigation into her husband's death.

Meanwhile the small group of expat Englishwomen in the small French village of Puybrun form a society and explore each other's company. They go bushwalking, learn painting, and play poker rather like many other retired women do.  Meanwhile the investigation into Janet's husband's death continues and Janet works out what really happened to him.

My Rating: 4.5

About the author
Jim Williams first hit the news when his early novels had the uncanny knack of coming true. The Hitler Diaries was published nine months before the celebrated forgery came out. Farewell to Russia dealt with a nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union months before the Chernobyl incident. Lara's Child, his sequel to Doctor Zhivago, provoked an international literary scandal and led to his being a guest speaker at the Cheltenham Festival. Scherzo, a witty and elegant mystery set in eighteenth century Venice, was nominated for the Booker Prize. All of his fiction has been published internationally. The English Lady Murderers' Society is his tenth novel.

21 November 2014

900 Reviews on this blog

When I began this blog in January 2008, I did so thinking it would be primarily a place to post reviews of the books I have read. I also thought it would help me remember plots and titles.

Now after 2915 posts, I have reached the 900th review. This year I have published fewer non-review posts but even so about 30 % of my posts have been reviews.

I am still maintaining an "All Reviews" page, sorted by author, and in addition I post my reviews on Library Thing (where I have 1068 books listed) and on NetGalley.
Reviews of Australian authors also appear on Fair Dinkum Crime.

20 November 2014

Review: THE SOUL OF DISCRETION, Susan Hill

  • source: review copy, e-book format from Randhom House UK (Vintage Publishing) via NetGalley
  • #8 in in the Simon Serrailler series
  • published 2014
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

The cathedral town of Lafferton seems idyllic, but in many ways it is just like any other place. As part of the same rapidly changing world, it shares the same hopes and fears, and the same kinds of crime, as any number of towns up and down the land.

When one day DC Simon Serrailler is called in by Lafferton's new Chief Constable, Kieron Bright, he is met by four plainclothes officers. He is asked to take the lead role in a complex, potentially dangerous undercover operation and must leave town immediately, without telling anyone - not even his girlfriend Rachel, who has only just moved in with him.

Meanwhile, Simon's sister Cat is facing difficult choices at work that will test her dedication to the NHS. But an urgent call about her and Simon's father, Richard, soon presents her with a far greater challenge much closer to home.

To complete his special op, Simon must inhabit the mind of the worst kind of criminal. As the op unfolds, Lafferton is dragged into the sort of case every town dreads. And Simon faces the fight of his life.

My Take

I was once an assiduous follower of this series, but as you can see from my list below, it is about six years since I've read one. A few things have obviously happened in Simon Serrailler's life since then.

There are really four major scenarios explored in the novel: Simon Serrailler's undercover mission to identify men both detestable and dangerous;  dying with dignity as it applies to terminally patients; Rachel's search for work to give meaning to her life; and how women fare when they cry "rape". As in the earlier novels that I've read the human interest aspects are cleverly interwoven with the criminal investigation. And the ending really leaves no doubt that there will be another in the series.

There were times when I felt as though the author was using the novel to promote her own strong viewpoints, but I guess that happens in most novels, if a little less blatantly.

The plot did leave me wondering whether police authorities would ever mount an undercover operation like the one that Serrailler becomes involved in, but the narration carries with it a great feeling of authenticity.

My rating: 4.6

I've also reviewed
VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN
THE PURE IN HEART
THE RISK OF DARKNESS
THE VOWS OF SILENCE

Simon Serrailler series
1. The Various Haunts of Men (2004)
2. The Pure in Heart (2005)
3. The Risk of Darkness (2006)
4. The Vows of Silence (2008)
5. The Shadows in the Street (2010)
6. The Betrayal of Trust (2011)
7. A Question of Identity (2012)
8. The Soul of Discretion (2014)

16 November 2014

Review: COUNSEL OF CHOICE, Stuart Littlemore

  • source: my local library
  • #1 title in Omnibus titled THE HARRY CURRY COLLECTION
  • first published by Harper Collins in 2011
  • ISBN 978-0-7322-9786-2
  • 296 pages
Synopsis (publisher)

UGLY. IRASCIBLE. CLEVER. INTOLERANT.
From one of our sharpest legal minds comes a brilliant new character, Harry Curry - scion of the establishment and criminal defender extraordinaire. A class traitor, some say.

When Harry's robust advocacy leads to his suspension for professional misconduct, he teams up reluctantly with Arabella Engineer, an English barrister of Indian descent, struggling for a foothold at the Sydney bar. Together, they wreak havoc in criminal trials involving drug-dealing, terrorism, murder and more. But can their professional relationship survive when personal matters intervene? Is Harry truly fated to live and work alone?

Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice is an insightful - and always engaging- romp through a fascinating segment of society, and an exciting debut by a talented insider. 

My Take

I have known of Stuart Littlemore for many years because of his media and journalistic work, but did not really know that he is QC, nor that he is a crime fiction author.

Harry Curry reminds me a little of Horace Rumpole, and I suppose comparisons like that are inevitable.

COUNSEL OF CHOICE begins when Harry manages to get himself disbarred for appearing to refer to a judge with an obscenity. Although the case against him is eventually dismissed, Harry has to re-apply to be admitted back to the bar and he is not sure he wants to do that. In the meantime he is approached by a female barrister who has admired him from afar and who believes they would make a good team. Harry is well known as a strategist, so he develops court defence strategies for Arabella to follow, and they are generally a successful team.

The five chapters of COUNSEL OF CHOICE seem to me to be fictionalisations of mainly rural cases Littlemore has come across in his working life. This tends to make the book a collection of long short stories rather than a novel, although, as the reader progresses from one story to the next, Harry's past is fleshed out and his relationship with Arabella Engineer, an English barrister of Indian descent, develops.

The settings of the stories give the writing an Australian background and flavour, and also a chance for Littlemore to demonstrate a rather quirky style of humour, imparting some light-heartedness to the narration. The stories indicate clearly the variety of cases an Australian barrister may be required to handle. I found them enjoyable reading.

My rating: 4.4

About the author - see Wikipedia

Stuart Littlemore QC is an Australian barrister and former journalist and television presenter.

He is best known for his time as writer and host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Media Watch program, which he conceived and presented from its inception in 1989 to 1997. His broadcasting experience began in the late 1960s when he worked as a television current affairs journalist for the BBC in London, and then the ABC, firstly on This Day Tonight and then on Four Corners.
 In the 1970s and 1980s, he played a television reporter in the film "The Money Movers" and the TV series "The Dismissal"' and made guest appearances in the 1990s on the comedy series, Frontline, playing himself as the host of Media Watch. Following Media Watch, he had a short-running discussion program, Littlemore (2001).
 He published a book about his media experiences entitled The Media and Me in 1996. In 2011 he published his first novel, Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice and in 2012 the second book in the trilogy, "Harry Curry: the Murder Book" appeared

13 November 2014

Review: STAR FALL, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

  • source: review copy e-book provided by publisher Severn House on NetGalley
  • US publication date March 2015
  • ISBN 9780727884602
  • #17 in the Bill Slider series
Synopsis (NetGalley)

‘It’s quiet out there,’ says DS Atherton, at Bill Slider’s office window. ‘Too quiet.’

Right on cue, the phone rings. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ says Slider. It’s a homicide. The post-Christmas lull is officially over.

The deceased is antiques expert Rowland Egerton, the darling of daytime TV, stabbed to death in his luxurious West London home. The press are going to be all over this one like a nasty rash: the pressure’s on Slider for a result, and soon. Egerton’s partner, the bulky, granite-faced John Lavender, found the body; did he also do the deed? Or was it a burglary gone wrong? A missing Fabergé box and Impressionist painting point that way.

But as Slider and his team investigate, none of the facts seem to fit. And it soon becomes clear that the much-loved, charming Mr Egerton wasn’t as universally loved, or perhaps as charming, as Slider was first led to believe . .

My Take

I have been intending to read a title by this author for some time, even years. The Bill Slider series began with ORCHESTRATED DEATH published in 1991, and STAR FALL is #17 so I have plenty to catch up on.

The style of this police procedural set in London is very similar to Ruth Rendell's Wexford series. From what I can see in STAR FALL Bill Slider is the central sleuth but he begins the series as a Detective Inspector and hasn't really progressed much up the ladder in nearly 25 years. The blurb for the first in the series describes him as "middle-aged and menopausal", so I am not sure that he has actually aged 25 years in that time.

There is plenty of "human background" on both Slider and the rest of his team in STAR FALL and the main plot of this cozy is carefully planned out. I found the plot of interest because I enjoy the various television shows that deal with antiques and the story seemed very plausible.

Certainly if you like cozies you might consider giving this series, or just this title, a try.

My rating: 4.4

7 November 2014

Review: THE SON, Jo Nesbo

Synopsis (NetGalley)

SONNY’S ON THE RUN Sonny is a model prisoner. He listens to the confessions of other inmates, and absolves them of their sins.

HE’S BEEN LIED TO HIS WHOLE LIFE

But then one prisoner’s confession changes everything. He knows something about Sonny’s disgraced father.

SONNY WANTS REVENGE

He needs to break out of prison and make those responsible pay for their crimes.

WHATEVER THE COST


My Take

Jo Nesbo really proves in this book that he is the master storyteller.

A prison inmate, a heroin addict, serving time for two murders, has so far been in prison for twelve years. Another brutal murder occurs while he is on day release supervised by a prison officer.  When he is questioned by the police Sonny immediately confesses to the murder and they decide they have to look no further.

But then Sonny learns something from a fellow prisoner that leads to him retracting his confession and then escaping from a prison that is thought to be impossible to break out of.

To be honest the story that Nesbo develops strains the bounds of credibility but that doesn't seem to matter as he reels you in page after page. You can't help wanting to know how it all turns out. And all the way through there are little mysteries that keep you guessing. 

It is a fairly black book, with widespread corruption, a number of gruesome murders, and shattered dreams.

One of the best books I've read this year.

My Rating: 5.0

I've also reviewed
NEMESIS
THE REDEEMER
5.0, THE SNOWMAN
4.8, THE LEOPARD
4.7, HEADHUNTERS
4.7, PHANTOM
4.7, THE BAT
4.7, POLICE

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