The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (#20BooksofSummer book 5)

408478My aunt is the one who started me on Agatha Christie.  She gave me an anthology with five Hercule Poirot novels in one (Death on the Nile, Murder On the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Thirteen at Dinner) when I was about 12 or 13.  I read The ABC Murders first and I was hooked.  I fell in love with the way Christie constructed her puzzles and the way Poirot assembled all the clues to solve the murders.  I loved Poirot’s rather healthy self-esteem and his friend Hasting’s amusement at him.  Even back then I wasn’t one to binge-read an author, though, so I didn’t make it a point to read every Christie.  I’d read one here and there throughout the years, which is why it’s taken me until now, some 28 years later, to read the very first Poirot mystery published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. After enjoying this one so much, I think it’s high time I filled in the gaps in my Christie reading!

Set in the midst of World War One, the book is narrated by Captain Hastings, on leave from the war and at loose ends.  He meets an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites him to stay for a while with his family at Styles, their estate in Essex.  The reader knows from the beginning that something shocking has happened by Hasting’s opening narration:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.  Nevertheless, in view of the worldwide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story.    

140290Cavendish explains to Hastings that his stepmother, Mrs. Cavendish, who raised him and his brother Lawrence from the time they were young, has recently remarried.  Hastings is taken aback – a quick mental calculation tallies her age at about seventy (gasp!) John explains that everyone in the family, and even Mrs. Cavendish’s stalwart “factotum, companion, Jack of all trades” Evie Howard, disdains the marriage and the new husband, and thinks it’s nothing but a money grab. We are also told that both Cavendish brothers are hard up for money, even though their stepmother has always been generous to them through the years.  So immediately the reader is alerted that there is much tension in the house at Styles, and we are invited to dislike Mr. Inglethorp, “the rotten little bounder,” even before we meet him.  Christie ends the first chapter with a delicious bit of foreboding spookiness:

A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind.  Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.

Soon we are introduced the the inimitable Monsieur Poirot, who is staying in the village with some of his fellow countrymen – Belgians – who are refugees from the war.  Mrs. Cavendish’s generosity has allowed them a place of refuge.  We get a marvelous physical description of Poirot’s appearance and fastidiousness (“I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”) but all too soon he is gone and we are back at Styles with Hastings.  The very next night Mrs. Cavendish awakens everyone in the household with her strangled cries of distress, but the doors are all locked from the inside.  When the men break down the door they find her convulsing, apparently dying from some sort of poisoning.  With so many suspects and so much tension in the air, it is up to the famous Belgian detective Poirot to start assembling the facts.  When Hastings tells him of the events of the previous night, Poirot  humorously tells him, “You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully.  Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable!  But I make allowances – you are upset.”  I enjoyed a good chuckle at that one.

This was a smart, delightful beginning to Hercule Poirot’s mysteries, and I can’t believe it took me all this time to read it.  I have to say that I was once again bested by Christie’s brilliance and had no clue who was behind the murder.  Hastings and Poirot have a playful, light and easy rapport, with Hastings standing in for the clueless reader as Poirot sheds light on the case.  Poirot gently needles him throughout and Hastings exhibits a generous spirit while an easy target.  There was one glaring instance of casual racism that took this twenty-first century reader out of the narrative for a moment.  It involves the discovery of a chest of dress-up clothes and disguises that the Cavendish family use from time to time during a “dress-up night.”  Apparently it was great fun to put on wigs and costumes to impersonate people of other ethnicities.  I know that this was published in 1920, so I make allowances for that sort of thing, but it still jarred me for a moment.

Yet it was a minor detraction from an otherwise superb mystery, and a grand introduction to a classic detective and his straight man.  A glance at the Goodreads list of Poirot mysteries tells me that I’ve many more books yet to enjoy, and I’m thrilled at the prospect.  Just don’t expect me to read them all anytime soon!

So this was my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer.  I am starting to doubt that I’ll be able to complete all 20 by the beginning of September, and I’m certain that if I do, I won’t have reviewed them all by then.  My blogging pace this summer has been glacial.  (I’ve made my peace with that – I think.)  If you’re participating in Cathy’s annual tradition, how is it going for you?  Are you on pace to complete all 20 in time?

 

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (#20BooksofSummer Book #2)

I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water.  I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love.  I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days.  But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015.  But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go.  I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.

Basic premise:  Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters.  Or have they been victims of foul play?  Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets.  She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena.  Is there a connection between the two events?  Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims.  Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?

61OLegHQzvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret.  It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks.  Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in  when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.

Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women.  Were all of you troublesome?  Libby was, of course.  At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts.  Troublesome indeed.  Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer.  But what about you, Nel?  What had you done?  Who were you troubling?  

I liked the feminist tone of the book.  Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present.  In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps.  Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power.  I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book.  I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:

Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.

20-booksWith so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book.  It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes!  That makes sense!” feeling.  It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages.  I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are.  Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time.  So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit!  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR.  If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.

 

Mini Reviews: Ruth Rendell, Lauren Graham, Marlon James

416MKFJY97L._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter (Inspector Wexford #15) by Ruth Rendell:  Ah, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend, and after having read 14 previous Wexford mysteries, I consider the erudite Reg Wexford an old friend indeed.  It’s odd to say that murder mysteries are my comfort reading, but it’s true all the same.  This one starts out with a grisly (for Rendell) crime scene: three murder victims, including famed author Davina Flory, shot in the middle of dinner, with her teenage granddaughter, Daisy, the only survivor. Robbery gone wrong, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Wexford’s favorite daughter, Sheila, is seriously dating a self-important ass, and Wexford is trying navigate this tricky terrain, desperate to hold onto his good relationship with her while wanting her not to settle.  I liked this mystery, but at 378 pages it felt a bit too long for me.  And for the first time I started to figure out who was behind the murders before the Inspector did.  I could have used more Mike Burden, Wexford’s no-nonsense sidekick, but all in all this was an entertaining mystery.  I’ve got nine more of these books, according to Goodreads.  I don’t read series in quick succession like some people do, so I imagine that it will take me 2 or 3 more years to complete the series.

Talking As Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls And Everything In Between by Lauren Graham:  I listened to the audio book version, read by Lauren Graham herself, and it was delightful.  (It was also my first downloadable audio book checkout from my library system’s Overdrive catalog – go me!  Embracing “new” technology!)  If you’re not a fan of “Gilmore Girls,” you can skip this one.  But if you are, you MUST read or listen to it.  Ms. Graham writes about her unconventional childhood, her days in acting school programs, auditioning and trying to make it, and most pleasingly to this fan, goes into great detail about both of her times playing Lorelai Gilmore. Just a charming, self-deprecating woman letting us fans in on what it was like to be a part of such a magical show.  I especially liked her smartly done skewering of ridiculous Hollywood body standards for actresses.  Ms. Graham seems genuine and humble, and this was a fun, breezy, entertaining celebrity memoir.

512--x+XDfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James: So, how much do we owe our favorite authors?  If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I ADORED both of Marlon James’s other novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women.  Hopes for this one, his debut novel, were high, I admit.  At just over 200 pages, it was a total slog for me, I’m sorry to say.  It’s a story about two warring priests in 1950’s Jamaica, wrestling for control of the souls in a small village called Gibbeah.  Filled with biblical imagery and passages, it is also one of the most brutal, relentlessly violent books I’ve ever read.  However, there were some beautifully written passages, hinting at the mastery of his later works.

People had a way of carrying afflictions like possessions, thinking suffering was the evidence of life.

She hated him.  Her spirit rose and fell with his and she hated him.  Because of Bligh, the Widow’s heart was undoing her.  They had struck a deal, heart and mind, and now heart was cheating out.  It had begun by tricking her into doing things like adding more sugar to the limeade and looking at old dresses in red, yellow, blue.  She wished she could punch a hole in her chest and yank the frigging thing out.  The Widow has grown accustomed to death; the mossy, mothy grayness of it.  God had taken away every man who had unfroze her heart.

I made myself finish this because I loved James’s other novels so much.  If it hadn’t been him, or if this had been the first novel of his I’d read, it would probably have been a DNF. It was leaden, joyless, and his characterization was lacking.  I still don’t know what the point of the damn thing is, quite frankly.  Still, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because I just can’t give him less.  So I’m wondering, do we treat lesser books by our favorite authors differently?  Do we grade them on a curve?  Or am I just a big softie?

How about you?  Do you tend to devour series quickly, or do you parse them out sparingly?  What’s the last good audio book you listened to?  Have you ever made yourself finish a book out of loyalty to the author’s previous work? I’d love to read your thoughts.

The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life.  In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs.  There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot.  It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain.  My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school.  She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked.  This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple?  And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.

murder-at-the-vicarageIn any case, I’m glad I finally tried one.  This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead.  I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one.  The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.

It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work.  I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times.  The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny.  He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,

“My duty,” said Griselda.  “My duty as the Vicaress.  Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”

“Who is coming?”

Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.

“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”

“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said.  “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”

“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.

My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me.  It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long!  I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible.  Or perhaps it’s just this particular title.  Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?

Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it.  There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer.  The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed.  She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her.  As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot.  I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it.  There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read.  I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers.  No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.

 

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: a Mini-Review

29154543The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Michael Connelly’s twenty-first Harry Bosch book.  I’ve never before read a mystery series for this long.  Years ago I was into the Hamish Macbeth series by M.C. Beaton, but I think I stopped somewhere around the sixteenth book or so, because things just got too repetitive.  I used to read Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series but decided to quit, coincidentally, after the 16th, mostly for the same reason (boredom) but also because that one involved investigating a snuff film with kids (NOPE NOPE NOPE!)  I’m still digging Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, of which I’m on the fifteenth book.  But let’s face it, it’s Ruth freaking Rendell, the queen of smart psychological mysteries, and she’s a goddess in my book, so I think I’m safe there.   (Sadly, she passed away in 2015; I wrote a tribute to her here.)  The thing about series is, at some point they have to end, right?  I’m definitely hanging in with Detective Harry Bosch until the end, whenever that may be – and based on how much I enjoyed this one, I hope that’s not any time soon!

If you’ve never read a Bosch book before, let me get you up to speed.  They’re set in L.A. (with a few detours here and there to Vegas, Florida, and even once to China.)  Harry’s real name is Hieronymous (yes, like the 15th century painter!) His mom died when he was young, and he was put into foster care.  He’s a Vietnam vet, and flashbacks play a role in many of the novels.    He’s horrible at relationships, and as of this last book, he hasn’t found his one true love.  (I admit, the relationship plot lines are my least favorite and most cringe-worthy elements of the books.)  But he does have a daughter, and he manages to forge a pretty good relationship with her.  And his relationship with a half-brother, who he doesn’t discover until many books in, is really compelling (no spoilers!)

What I like about Harry is that he’s the guy fighting the system, fighting corrupt cops and politicians alike, always fighting for justice and the underdog.  He’s smart but he’s not perfect – he sometimes misses things and makes mistakes, and he’s got a bit of a hot temper.  He usually reads people well and is a good study of character.  I like how he will often think that something about a case is bothering him but he can’t quite make the connections, so he’ll let it sit and percolate, go about his business, and all of a sudden BAM! He’s cracked the case and it’s a mad race to see if he can save the next victim or catch the bad guy after all. Connelly’s plots are page-turners, but it’s really Bosch himself that keeps me coming back.

This one was a bit different because there were two cases being worked simultaneously.  Harry’s part-time now at the small San Fernando Police Department, since he’s no longer with the LAPD.  He’s also a private investigator on the side.  He’s working a serial rapist case for the department while also trying to find a potential heir to an ailing millionaire’s fortune. He gets so caught up in one case that he makes some crucial missteps in the other, possibly endangering someone he is close to.  It was a typically fast-paced Connelly thriller; I raced through it in two days, even willingly staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

518cjmm-dxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_If you’re thinking about trying one of these books, I’ll tell you that the first three were solid three-star books for me.  It wasn’t until the fourth book  (The Last Coyote) that I knew that I was invested in the series for a while.  Harry is a capable, complicated, tough, caring, haunted man, and he made me want to keep coming back. Mysteries make great, entertaining palate-cleansers in between heavier literary fare, so if you’re game, I say give Michael Connelly a try!

 

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

 They are about to head back inside when they hear the first scream, what sounds at first like a cat’s cry, shrill and desperate.  It’s coming from the north side of the bayou, high above them, from somewhere in the thick of trees and weeds lining the bank.  At first Jay thinks of an animal caught in the brush.  But then… he hears it again.  He looks at his wife.  She too is staring through the trees.  The old man in the baseball cap suddenly emerges from the captain’s cabin, a narrow slip of a room at the head of the boat, housing gears and controls.  “What the hell was that?” he asks, looking at Jay and Bernie.

This literary mystery novel begins with a pulse-pounding scene in which Jay Porter and his wife Bernie, pregnant with their first child, are supposed to be celebrating their anniversary on a private night-time bayou cruise.  It’s 1981, and Jay, an African American lawyer with a struggling practice, barters with a client whose cousin owns a barge. Instead of a romantic moonlit cruise, however, they hear screams and gunshots, and Jay finds himself rescuing a white woman from drowning in the river.IMG_3035

Jay doesn’t want to get involved with whatever she’s tangled up in, though, because he is a man haunted by his past.  After an arrest and harrowing trial as a college-aged Black Panther movement activist, he is understandably locked down by fear and paranoia.  He can’t let himself trust even Bernie.  She’s supposed to be the one person on his side, but he can’t let her in on his predicament.  Because he is indeed drawn in to the drowning woman’s intrigue, whether he likes it or not.  Big Oil, a looming labor strike breaking down along racial lines, and his former romantic relationship with the now-Mayor of Houston all play a part in this engrossing thriller.

Ms. Locke is good at nailing tension-filled action scenes, but she also has the nuance of a literary fiction writer.  Occasionally I found myself getting bogged down in some of the details of this complex story line, but overall I really enjoyed the suspense and the glimpse of early 1980s Houston.  The second half of the book has a particularly fast pace.  I also appreciated Locke’s delving into Jay’s past as a “radical” college civil rights activist.  Lots of complicated history there.  Locke is a talented writer, and she is a screenwriter for the Fox show Empire.  I’m definitely going to read her other books, Pleasantville, which also features Jay Porter, and The Cutting Season.  If you appreciate a smart thriller like I do, you should check out Black Water Rising.

 

 

Where Did The Week Go?

I don’t quite know where the last week has gone!  I posted my last review, finished Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love, began Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil, and finished my audio book (The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber) and POOF, suddenly it was another Sunday!  This has been a hectic week, what with work and doctor’s appointments for everyone in the family.  I’ve also joined a new gym (huzzah!) and have been working out more there and at home.  And Downton Abbey has started again (yay!)  So my focus for blogging has been divided lately.

But of course, I’m still reading!  This particular novel is not fulfilling the requirements of the Triple Dog Dare TBR Challenge, but it’s one of the exceptions I made at the outset.  I’ve been on hold for this one for a while at the library and it came in last week.  I’m glad to say that the third installment of Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike mystery series is the best one yet.  Career_of_Evil_Oct_2015If you’ve not read them, you probably should begin with the first.  Strike is a very appealing character, a P.I., ex-British military, gruff and imposing physically, but with a good heart.  He and his secretary/partner (her role in the agency is sort of undefined,) the younger, beautiful Robin Ellacott, have a sweet, complicated “will-they-or-won’t-they” relationship that I am rooting for.  The mystery in this outing is excellent, and totally grabbed me from the start.  Some sicko killer has sent Robin a HUMAN LEG, and is targeting Robin to get to Strike, not to mention ruin their business in the process.  Strike immediately thinks of four men who could be out to get him, all of them very unsavory characters.  Robin’s also about to get married and tensions between her and her fiance are high, so she’s dealing with that along with the stress of being in the sights of a psychopath.  I’m about 100 pages from the end and there’s SO MUCH yet to be resolved, so I’m sort of breathlessly turning the pages at this point.

My books for my book group count as another exception to the TBR challenge, and February’s book (discarded library copy) arrived in the mail this week   I belong to an awesome book group – smart, funny ladies who have a diverse range of interests.  Our pick for next month is Corey Feldman’s Coreyography!  IMG_2973I have a weakness for dishy celeb autobiographies, but this one was heavily lobbied for by another book group member.  I remember loving the movies that Corey Feldman and Corey Haim made in the last ’80s and early ’90s, Licence to Drive and Dream a Little Dream.  I didn’t harbor a crush for either guy, as many of my generation did, but I appreciated their work!  (Feldman was also in another campy favorite of mine, the underrated Tom Hanks movie The Burbs.)  Anyway, I think this memoir is going to be pretty heavy, with drugs, physical and sexual abuse, and family dysfunction in Feldman’s past.  It’s not our usual kind of book group choice, but I’ll let you know how it goes!  Anyone else have a weakness for celebrity memoirs?  I’d love to hear your picks.