It’s the first day of Advent today! I hope you all opened your windows and received something nice. It seems like the ideal opportunity to kick off Jingle All the Slay. These are my Christmas Crime and Christie posts where I’ll choose one of my ten favourite Agatha Christie books alongside one of my ten favourite crime books of this year. The full list will be here on my website at the end.
So without further ado – Agatha Christie first, of course. I’m going for a stand alone as my first choice.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
At the end of this novel, a message is found in a bottle. It says, ‘It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.’ And that is exactly what Agatha Christie achieves with this book. This is an excercise in not only testing the reader’s little grey cells this time, but also an examination of punishment and retribution. It is a perfectly crafted book where the tension does not let up from page one. Agatha Christie pits herself against her audience and challenges them to solve the puzzle. I will not give it away, but I’m yet to meet anyone who solved it. Each character is beautifully drawn and they form a unique structure, a hierarchy of sins. This is the ultimate murder mystery and yet there is no detective. It is a ‘whodunnit’ but an examination of the nature of justice itself, an examination of the darker sides of humanity. Abandoned on an isolated island, the claustrophobic atmosphere and nervous tension begin immediately. This is not just one of Agatha Christie’s best, this is one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. It’s also based on my favourite place in the world, Burgh Island. So it’s another excuse for a picture. If you’d like to read a little more about this book and it’s various adaptations, including the most recent Sarah Phelps’ version, there is a full article on the blog section here. But beware, there are spoilers there!
And now for one of my favourite crime books of the year, that no crime writer should be without.
A DICTIONARY OF CRIME by AMANDA LEES
This is an essential book for all writers and lovers of crime. The detail and research that has gone into so many entries is unbelievably good. There are murderers aplenty, including Ted Bundy and Denis Rader; snippets of police jargon like BINGO seat (I’ll leave you to find out what that is); poisons; gun stats; drugs info; forensics information such as lividity details; and even a lock-down entry (in reference to prison jargon). What more could anyone want under their Christmas tree? This book is so invaluable I have it in both paperback and kindle (which is very useful if you need to highlight something or if I ever go out!)
Thank you very much for reading. Do let me know your favourites too as I’m always on the look out for new crime books! And come back for the next post – it’s a close run thing between And Then There Were None and the next Agatha Christie book as to which is my favourite!
The Christmas cake is baked, the fairy lights are up so time to push on with Day 2 of my Christmas crime selection box. Agatha Christie first as usual.
And this time I’m going for one of my all time favourite books,
Murder on the Orient Express.
It’s definitely time for Hercule Poirot. At the beginning of a train journey across Europe, M Bouc says Poirot, ‘All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.’ Poirot responds, ‘let us just for one moment suppose… all these here are linked together – by death.’ It is the beginning of one of the greatest settings of all time for a murder mystery and inspired by Agatha Christie’s own experiences on the train. A group of strangers, trapped together in very close proximity and then there is a murder. A vicious murder of a terrible man. Again, vengeance and retribution are strong themes in this book. The claustrophobia and tension never drops once. Add to this, one of the greatest denouements in crime fiction and it’s no wonder this book has been the subject of so many notable adaptations – not least of all the recent Kenneth Branagh film which stands alongside David Suchet’s and, of course, the Albert Finney film. I’ll leave you to decide who was the best Poirot? If you’d like to read more about the book and it’s various adaptations there is a full article on my website Adapting Agatha – Part 1 Murder on the Orient Express. – Victoria Dowd
With the subject of isolation and claustrophobia in mind, I move on to my second crime book of 2020.
The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost.
This was an incredibly tense, psychological thriller. Seven guests are lured to an isolated country guesthouse in Ireland and the murders begin. There is that constant underlying sense of fear running through every page. I was so gripped I had to buy it on audio book as well as paperback so I could listen to it in the car as well. The atmosphere is beautifully dark and creepy inside the old hotel. The characters are all strange and mysterious, each with their own secrets. The perfect book for by the fire on a dark and stormy Christmas night!
Things are taking a slightly darker turn today. These are two books for a bitter cold, winter night to send a chill to the bone and send you closer to the fire. Two magnificent books, written by amazing crime writers at the very top of their game. One of my favourite Agatha Christie’s and one of my favourite crime books of 2020.
The A.B.C. Murders
This is a Poirot, but a Poirot with a difference. It’s as close as Agatha Christie comes to giving us a serial killer and, as readers, she draws us down a path that she knows we will so readily embrace. The murderer leaves a copy of the ABC (a rail guide for the younger readers!) with each of his victims. The victims seem to be murdered to an alphabetical pattern, and yet there appears to be no further rhyme or reason. But there is always reason where Hercule Poirot is concerned. Agatha Christie takes us very easily by the hand, only for us to realise we’ve passed the point of no return when it is too late. She knows our weakness as readers and she exploits it so beautifully. The TLS said, ‘If Mrs Christie ever deserts fiction for crime, she will be very dangerous: no one but Poirot will catch her.’
Having personally deserted the world of crime for fiction, that leads me on very neatly to my next crime book of 2020.
Darkness Falls by Margaret Murphy.
Clara Pascal is a lawyer. When she is kidnapped on the school run, a dark, tense thriller begins. This is psychological crime fiction at its very best. We’re drawn in immediately to an anxious world that quickly turns into a frightening, page-turner. This is the kind of book you cannot stop reading even though you know it’s way past bedtime and you’re going to feel utterly exhausted the next day. It’s incredibly tense and tightly plotted. As Val McDermid says of this book, ‘Darkness Falls is a model of what the modern suspense thriller should be.’ And you can’t argue with that.
Time for a little sunshine on this dark winter day. Let’s head of to Egypt first on a Nile Cruise with Agatha Christie.
Death on the Nile
This is exactly what we expect from an Agatha Christie novel. It’s incredibly glamorous, with a wealthy couple taking their honeymoon on a Nile Cruise. A group of people are in close proximity, their lives subtly interlinked, each with their own grudge against the victim. And, of course, there is Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie changed it from Parker Pyne who was in the short story.) Like many, I was first introduced to this novel as a child by way of the excellent Peter Ustinov film of 1978. We are all eagerly awaiting the Kenneth Branagh version which hopefully will be released next year. The complex conclusion is beautifully plotted and I defy anyone to work it out before the end!
A Quiet Death in Italy by Tom Benjamin
We’re off to Bologna for this debut novel by Tom Benjamin. The depiction of the city alone is captivating. In these times of such limited travel, it was an utter joy to be transported to the busy Italian streets. But against this beauty, the author sets a very dark, tense thriller that explores the politics and corruption that is thriving in the city’s underbelly. The intricate plotting and twists were utterly gripping. The private detective, Daniel Leicester, is very well observed and returns in the next book in the series, The Hunting Season, which I cannot wait to read.
An old country house and a seance are perfect for a Christmas read. Agatha Christie often wrote about spiritualism and the supernatural. Both these novels embrace that tradition in classic mystery books. Both also make mention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a firm believer in spiritualism and famously took part in seances – one even to locate the missing Mrs Christie.
The Sittaford Mystery
This book is a marvellous read for by the fire. But if on a winter’s night, you should meet a traveller, beware. A fantastic collection of characters gather in a Dartmoor village and then the snow comes, isolating them. Country house novels often present us with this wonderful microcosm of the world. And it’s a perfect setting for a dark seance that foretells death. This is a classic Agatha Christie and features one of my favourite characters – Emily Trefusis. But unlike the television series, Marple, the book has no Miss Marple.
The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward
This was one of my favourite books of 2020. Written by Rhiannon Ward, who crime readers also know as Sarah Ward, this is high Gothic at it’s very best. A pregnant, female photographer is commissioned to photograph a crumbling old mansion with a past. Clewer Hall played host to an infamous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seance and it is about to be recreated for this book. This is a very clever, creepy novel that is beautifully written. It subtly weaves a mystery that is utterly chilling. I’m not going to say anything about the hands, but I challenge anyone to read this without a shiver.
Today I’m looking at two very beautiful books that have a deep sense of melancholy at the same times as a constant nervous tension. Both are fabulous books.
Endless Night by Agatha Christie
This is a very different Agatha Christie book. The narrator is a young, working class man who has plans for his life, particularly involving where he wants to live. He marries a wealthy heiress and has a house built for them at Gipsy’s Acre. His life seems idyllic until an old local woman tells them to leave as they are cursed. They should have listened to her. There is a constant sense of sinister tension in this book that is genuinely very disturbing. There is none of the ‘cosy murder mystery’ that one finds in the Miss Marple books which does make a little surprising that the TV series Marple adapted it when she doesn’t appear in the book. The title is taken from a Blake poem Auguries of Innocence:
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
Perdition’s Child by Anne Coates
This is the 4th book in the Hannah Weybridge series. Hannah is a journalist who is drawn into the investigation of the murders of Australian men who are trying to trace their British families. She discovers children born after the Second World War went missing. This is a deeply moving murder investigation into those who died because they were not born to sweet delight. Anne Coates writes with beautiful sensitivity whilst maintaining a constant feeling of tension. A brilliant book!
Today we’re looking at the more psychological aspects of crime novels. Agatha Christie’s work is full of characters twisted by terrible experiences. Indeed, much has been written about her famous disappearance for eleven days. Recently it has been suggested by many commentators that she was perhaps in some form of fugue state, a period of amnesia brought on by stress or trauma. Much more is understood now about mental trauma and PTSD. But Agatha Christie was writing about its effects long ago.
Appointment with Death
This is a perfect study in the psychological impact a sadistic tyrant can inflict on those around her. Mrs Boynton, an ex-prison warden, is a vile, controlling woman and everyone on the trip to Petra has a reason to kill her. Poirot is faced with a dark, twisted tale of a woman who found pleasure in mentally torturing her next victim. The plot is fiendishly good and the tension never lifts. There is a malignant atmosphere surrounding Mrs Boynton from the very beginning. Written in 1938, this is a very clever book and Poirot is at the top of his game – even referencing previous cases the reader knows well. A fabulously dark, psychological crime book.
Which brings me on to my choice from 2020.
The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood
This book deservedly won the John Creasey New Blood Dagger this year and introduces a fantastic new character to the crime genre. Jimmy is homeless, a veteran suffering from PTSD. He is written with such a sympathetic eye that you are invested in this man’s life from the very beginning. He’s a very complicated, traumatised man who inspires an enormous amount of compassion. It’s an enormously sensitive and believable examination of a man no one will believe, particularly anyone in authority. When he tries to explain what he has witnessed he is over-looked and dismissed. The book is so tightly plotted that you are immediately immersed in this very real man’s difficult existence and his quest to find himself and an answer. A marvellous book that makes you grateful it’s a series!
It’s a very grim, dark day today so I thought we should be whisked away to more exotic climes. Crime novels often take us to far away locations and incorporate all the familiar tropes of character and plotting but in very unfamiliar circumstances. Agatha Christie did this many times. Her love of travel, and particularly for archaeology, led her to write some of her best novels set on location. And one of the very best is
Murder in Mesopotamia
On a dig site in Iraq, amongst the ruins of Tell Yarimjah, Hercule Poirot discovers a complicated world of intrigue surrounding this murder. Precious artefacts are going missing; threatening letters are again employed by Agatha Christie to raise suspicion; identities are in doubt; no one seems to be above suspicion; and there’s an ingenious murder at the very heart of it. This is all set against the magnificent backdrop of an archaelogical dig which Agatha Christie captures beautifully.
Blood Business by Barbara Nadel
One of the best modern crime writers who transports us to another world is Silver Dagger winner Barbara Nadel. This series, featuring Inspector Ikmen, takes us to the streets of Istanbul. The sheer intricacy of the author’s knowledge means that the reader instantly feels utterly immersed in the sights and sounds of the city. We experience the underbelly of the modern day Istanbul and all its exotic atmosphere. Alongside that is a fiendishly good plot and a wonderful detective, who has been described as the Morse of Instanbul. It’s an utterly gripping read written by a crime writer who is one of the very best. This is the perfect book to transport you to another world and forget a dark winter day.
Today I’m looking at two magnificent books. Both of which place children at the centre of unnerving family mysteries.
This is one of Agatha Christie’s standalone books and is one of her best. It also happens to be the book with its own mystery around it as to why no one was initially allowed to adapt it. Agatha Christie was famously never very keen on her work being adapted for television. But there is a suggestion that an adaptation of Crooked House was refused on the basis that there was a ‘family jinx’ on the book. Whether that is true or not, this is a very dark tale of the Leonides family. Each member is twisted round the family structure with Aristide controlling all from his patriarchal position. Sisters, brothers, aunts and their children’s lives are so interwoven, right down to the little girl obsessed with detective novels who makes it clear from the beginning she knows who did it and she’s written all her observations down in a secret book – not a smart boast when the murderer is on the loose! The whole family lives together at Three Gables (the Crooked House) each member capable of the murder, each having grown up in this unhealthy, dysfunctional family. The narrator is Charles Hayward who is the outsider struggling to understand this bizarre and frightening family dynamic. It was finally adapted into a film starring Glenn Close, Max Irons, Gillian Anderson and Terence Stamp in 2017. It’s one of my favourite adaptations and captures that sense of claustrophobic darkness that runs through the entire book.
Little White Lies by Philippa East
This deals with another family dynamic that is twisted – this time by the loss of a child. Abigail White goes missing at the age of eight on a trip to London. It’s every mother’s nightmare. She only looked away for a second and the child is gone. The devastation this unleashes on the family is beautifully observed in this taut thriller. Every aspect of the effect this has on their world is sensitively written, from the initial searching to the preservation of her memory and the loss of hope. Then Abigail is suddenly found seven years later. The Point of View shifts around creating a tense atmosphere of increasing distrust. Who is lying? This is the sort of book where you find yourself holding your breath for pages! Absolutely thrilling writing and well deserved of its short listing for the CWA New Blood Dagger.
Today is all about unlikely double acts in crime.
The Mysterious Mr Quin
This is a collection of marvellous short stories which involve two very unlikely amateur detectives. Mr Satterthwaite is a socialite so the stories involve classic locations such as country house parties or Monte Carlo, where Mr Satterthwaite takes a holiday. Helping Mr Satterthwaite, however, is the character of Mr Quin. This is a very strange invention. He appears at unusual but necessary times and has more than a little of the bizarrely magical about him. He’s a wonderful, beguiling character with very little explanation as to his strange insight or his timely appearances. It’s a very unusual collection of tales. One of my favourites is The Dead Harlequin involving a strange painting, blood stains and a wonderful twist which I won’t spoil here! This is a fabulous collection of short stories and perfect for reading over the Christmas period.
The Guilty Man by Helen Durrant
This is the start of a new series from best selling author Helen Durrant. Far from being a socialite, the lead character Detective Harry Lenox lives in a campervan on a friends driveway. But it’s his pairing with the wonderful Jess Wilde that really drives the story. She’s a young woman keen to progress and living a very different life. They make a fantastic, unlikely pair and bring very different perspectives to the story. It’s beautifully written as well which allows all these subtle layers to really flow through an intricate and gripping story. I’ll be looking out for the next in the series!
It’s almost Christmas so here are two books set in the depths of winter that are incredibly chilling!
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
This is one of the best Poirot stories. It has everything. At a vast country mansion, the vile but wealthy owner Simeon Lee gathers his family around him at Christmas and proceeds to make it very clear he intends to change his will. Everyone has a motive. Many have secrets. Agatha Christie perfectly captures that sense of claustrophobia in the family house. There is a real malevolence eminating from Simeon Lee. You’re immediately plunged into this isolated, tense world where nothing is as it seems and no on is trustworth. Poirot’s working out of the solution is utterly magnificent. The end is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious. This is Poirot at the height of his powers. I re-read this book every Christmas and still find the denouement utterly breathtaking.
The Ice Daughter’s by D.E. White
I read this very recently and was completely gripped. It’s a fantastic modern whodunit with a brilliant twist. The set up grabs you from the very beginning – a body in the snow, frozen in a foetal position; two young girls on their own and their mother is missing; and two small ice sculpted chess pieces have been left at the scene. There is also a second narrative voice running alongside the action which is mysteriously unexplained for a large part of the book and a historical aspect that brings another really intelligent layer to this book. There is so much to unpack in this book. It’s brilliantly paced and keeps you guessing until the very end. A perfect Christmas read!