Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

It’s good to see so many forgotten authors of crime fiction being brought back into print by various publishers recently. Henrietta Hamilton is another one I had never heard of until I came across Answer in the Negative, originally published in 1959 and now available as part of Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Set in the world of 1950s journalism, the novel follows husband and wife detective team Johnny and Sally Heldar, who are called in by their friend, Toby Lorn, to investigate a case of poison pen letters and practical jokes. Toby runs a newspaper cuttings agency in London’s Fleet Street, providing archived photographs to writers and publishers, and it is one of his assistants, Frank Morningside, who is the target of the nasty letters. Johnny and Sally quickly discover that there is no shortage of suspects as Morningside is disliked by so many of the other archive workers, but before they have time to identify the culprit, Morningside is found dead in the doorway of his office, having been hit on the head by a box of heavy glass negatives. Suddenly the Heldars find themselves investigating a murder case, but can they stop the murderer before he or she kills again?

Answer in the Negative is a short book and kept me entertained for a day or two, but it’s not one of the better ‘forgotten crime novels’ I’ve been reading lately. It got off to a promising start, but quickly became bogged down with repetitive discussions of alibis and lists of who was where at what time. I know other readers enjoy that sort of mystery more than I do, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. The characterisation didn’t seem very strong either, which is a problem in a book where so many characters are introduced in a short space of time. Johnny and Sally themselves are likeable enough but they are no Tommy and Tuppence and I found the dialogue between them quite wooden. Their partnership is not a very equal one and it’s quite clear that Johnny is regarded as the detective and Sally as just his helper, but I was pleased to see that she does occasionally go off and have adventures of her own – even if Johnny isn’t very happy about it!

I did find the setting interesting and enjoyed the little insights we are given into 1950s life; it was particularly fascinating to see what was involved in archiving and the use of photographs in books and newspapers in an era before computers and digital images made everything available at our fingertips. For some reason, though, the constant references to ‘pix’ and ‘negs’ really irritated me! I know it’s realistic that the characters would have used that terminology for pictures and negatives, but it was so grating. Again, not something that will bother everyone, of course.

I don’t think Henrietta Hamilton is an author I would want to read again, but other reviews of this book are more positive than mine so I hope Agora will continue to publish her other titles for those who are enjoying them.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The January theme for the Read Christie 2020 challenge is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’. The challenge is hosted by agathachristie.com and their selection for this month was Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but that would be a re-read for me so I chose a different title from their list of alternative suggestions: Murder on the Orient Express!

Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s best known books and has been adapted several times for television, film and stage, but this is precisely why I’ve been putting off reading it for so long – I already knew the solution to the mystery and thought that might affect my enjoyment of the book. Of course, no adaptation is going to be exactly the same as the written version, and once I started reading I could see that some parts of the story were familiar but not all of it.

At the beginning of the novel, Hercule Poirot is in Turkey when he receives a telegram requesting him to return to London. He attempts to book a first-class berth on the Orient Express which is leaving Istanbul that night, but is told that the train is unusually full. It is only with the assistance of Monsieur Bouc, the director of the railway company, who happens to be an old friend of Poirot’s, that he manages to obtain a space in a second-class compartment. Once on board the train, Poirot observes that his fellow passengers are a very diverse group of people of different nationalities, backgrounds and classes. Among them are an American businessman and his secretary, a Russian princess and her German maid, a British Colonel, a Hungarian Count and Countess and several others.

It is the American businessman, Mr Ratchett, who is found stabbed to death in his compartment just after the train comes to a stop in heavy snow near Vinkovci (in what was then part of Yugoslavia). It seems clear that the murderer must be one of the other passengers on the train, but which one? As Poirot begins to investigate, he uncovers clues that, rather than revealing the truth, seem to complicate things further – and the statements he takes from the passengers appear to contradict each other, making the situation even more confusing. Armed with only his ‘little grey cells’, can Poirot solve the mystery?

Yes, of course he can…and for once, so could I, thanks to already knowing the basic outline of the story before I began. It would certainly have been a better – or at least a different – experience to have read the book with no idea of who was responsible for the murder, but as that wasn’t possible, I still enjoyed watching Poirot sort through the evidence and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think Christie does give us all the information we need, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have been able to guess the solution anyway. Probably not, as I usually don’t.

As well as the mystery, I loved the atmosphere of the book and the claustrophobic feel Christie creates with the simple idea of a train stuck in snow and a murderer onboard. The characterisation is interesting too, although some of the assumptions made about the actions and behaviour of the various suspects based on their nationality feel very dated – for example, M. Bouc’s theory that the murderer must be Italian because the knife is an Italian weapon and Poirot’s reply that he disagrees because the careful, long-term planning requires an ‘Anglo-Saxon brain’. It seems that every passenger on the train has formed a stereotypical view of each of the others and this gives us some insights into attitudes of the time (the book was published in 1934).

Going back to the theme of this month’s Read Christie 2020, I wondered how this book in particular was one that had ‘changed Christie’s life’. Well, it seems that the Orient Express itself did, as she travelled on the train in 1928 to attend an archaeological dig in Syria and it was during this trip that she met the man who would become her second husband. That can certainly be considered a life-changing experience! Anyway, I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to February’s selection.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

This weekend Jessie of Dwell in Possibility has been hosting another Mini Persephone Readathon and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read The Expendable Man, one of the thrillers published by Persephone and a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It turned out to be a great choice.

Published in 1963, the novel opens with a young doctor, Hugh Densmore, driving from Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the way, he spots a teenage girl standing alone at the side of the road. Hugh doesn’t usually stop for hitchhikers but this time he finds himself slowing down…

He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Hugh quickly begins to regret this impulsive act of kindness. The girl is rude, ungrateful and, when he questions her about who she is and where she is going, it is clear that she is telling lies. When they arrive in Phoenix, Hugh leaves his hitchhiker at a bus station and doesn’t expect to see her again, but that night the girl tracks him down at his hotel, setting in motion a series of events that could ruin the life and career he has built up so carefully for himself.

There’s really not much more I can say about the plot or the characters. If you think you might want to read this book, it’s best that you know as little as possible before you begin. And I do highly recommend reading it! I was completely gripped from beginning to end; when I first picked it up on Friday and started reading, I didn’t expect to actually finish it before the Readathon was over, but as it happened that wasn’t a problem at all. I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh.

There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but The Expendable Man is much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done and provided answers to some of the things I’d been wondering about as I read those earlier chapters.

I also loved the author’s beautifully written descriptions of the landscape, particularly near the beginning when Hugh is driving into Arizona. This is the first book I’ve read by Dorothy B Hughes and I was very impressed with every aspect of it! I would like to read more of her books, so if there’s one you would recommend please let me know.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Having finally caught up with the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series last year (Started Early, Took My Dog), I have now been able to move on to the new one, Big Sky. For those people who have been reading each book in the series as it was published, there has been a nine year wait between books four and five!

In Big Sky, private investigator Jackson is on the trail of a client’s cheating husband, while also trying, without much success, to keep his teenage son, Nathan, entertained. Nathan’s mother – Jackson’s ex-partner Julia – is busy filming the latest episodes of the TV police drama in which she has a starring role, so thirteen-year-old Nathan has been entrusted to Jackson for the summer, along with Julia’s ageing Labrador, Dido.

Meanwhile, we meet Vince, a man for whom everything seems to be going wrong all at once. First he lost his job, then he split up with his wife and had to move out of the family home, and to make matters worse, he feels that he no longer fits in with his group of friends – they are ‘golfing friends, not friend friends’. Depressed and desperate, Vince finds himself standing on the edge of a cliff and it is here that his path crosses with Jackson’s as both men are drawn into a case involving a ring of crime with its roots going back decades.

Beginning with Jackson and his son watching a recreation of a naval battle on the lake in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park and then moving on to Whitby and Bridlington, the story takes place in and around the seaside towns of the North Yorkshire coast, an area I know well from my own childhood summer holidays. The characters in this novel are not having an idyllic summer by any stretch of the imagination, however, as this is a particularly dark Brodie novel with themes including online paedophilia, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Sadly, it’s all very current and topical.

Like the other books in this series, the plot at first seems to consist of several random, unconnected threads. It takes a while for them to start coming together, but of course they do, linked in traditional Kate Atkinson fashion by a series of coincidences and unusual circumstances. Characters who, at the beginning of the book, appear to have no relation to each other, turn out to be connected in the most unexpected ways. Jackson is at the heart of the story and I always enjoy spending time inside his thoughts (I love his dry, cynical sense of humour), but we also see things from the perspectives of many other characters, all of whom are equally important to the plot.

I particularly liked Crystal, the wife of one of Vince’s golfing friends, who at first appears shallow and artificial, but gradually proves to be a brave and compassionate woman trying to overcome her difficult past and protect her little girl Candy and sixteen-year-old stepson Harry (who is another great character – ‘young for his age but also old for his age’). I also became quite fond of Bunny, the kind-hearted elderly drag queen at the theatre where Harry works, and it was good to be reacquainted with Reggie Chase, the teenage girl from When Will There Be Good News? who is now a police officer tasked with investigating historic allegations of sex abuse.

The Jackson Brodie novels are not my favourites of Kate Atkinson’s books, but I have enjoyed them all, including this one. I still have a few of her standalone books left to read and am hoping to get round to reading Transcription soon, as it has been on my TBR since shortly after it was published!

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!

Left-Handed Death by Richard Hull

I loved Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt – it was one of the best books I read last year – but when I tried another of his classic crime novels, And Death Came Too, I was disappointed to find that it was a much more conventional murder mystery without the humour and originality I had expected based on my first experience. Left-Handed Death is my third Hull novel and I’m pleased to report that it’s another good one – not in the same class as The Murder of My Aunt, but much better than And Death Came Too.

This book was published in 1946, but is set slightly earlier, just before the end of World War II. It begins with Guy Reeves, one of the two directors of the Shergold Engineering Company, returning to his office after lunch and making a shocking confession to his co-director, Arthur Shergold: he has just murdered Barry Foster, a civil servant who has been investigating the company’s finances. Foster may have been on the point of revealing corruption within the company, something which matters to the Ministry he works for because the Shergold Company have been supplying government contracts throughout the war.

Reeves describes his actions of the afternoon to his partner, finishing with a detailed account of how he carried out the murder, then he heads to Scotland Yard where he repeats his confession to the police. Inspector Hardwick doesn’t believe him – why would somebody voluntarily admit to murder? – but he sends his men to Foster’s home where they discover that Foster is indeed dead and that it’s entirely possible that the murder could have taken place exactly as Reeves has described it. There seems little reason to investigate further, but Hardwick still has his doubts and sets out to prove that Reeves is innocent.

All of this happens in the first chapter of the book and I was immediately intrigued. Why would Reeves confess to a murder that he hadn’t committed? On the other hand, why would he confess to a murder that he had committed? And if he didn’t kill Foster, then who did? As Inspector Hardwick himself points out:

“I like my murders to start at the beginning with the corpse and go on to the end with the conviction. But when you start in the middle with the confession – well, all I can say is that it’s all wrong!”

As I continued to read, I started to form my own theory about what was happening and I was able to predict the solution before it was revealed, but I still enjoyed watching Hardwick and his fellow detectives sorting through the clues, looking for alibis, speaking to witnesses and gathering medical evidence. I thought the ending did let the rest of the book down slightly, though – surely there was room for one or two more twists!

As well as being an entertaining murder mystery, I found this book interesting because of the time period in which it is set. The story takes place right at the end of the war and that has an impact on the lives of the characters and on just about everything that happens in the novel. Guy Reeves’ description of the lavish meal he and Foster ate on the day of the murder, for example, provokes disapproval at a time when rationing is in place; the war makes it difficult to get hold of a doctor to examine the murdered man; Cynthia Trent, who works as a secretary at the Shergold Company, takes a walk in the countryside past an Italian prisoner-of-war camp; and Reeves himself has suffered an injury while serving in the army which has implications for the way in which the murder is carried out.

I will continue to read Richard Hull’s books in the hope that the others will be at least as good as this one, if not as good as The Murder of My Aunt. I suspect I probably started with his best book, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t worth reading!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. For some reason, after reading the first three in quick succession in 2015, I never moved on to this one and it was only with the publication of the fifth book, Big Sky, earlier this year that I remembered I still needed to read it. Fortunately, the Jackson Brodie novels all stand alone very well so I found that it didn’t matter at all that I had left such a long gap between books three and four.

The plot of Started Early, Took My Dog is actually quite difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best. A good place to start is probably with Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent now working as head of security at the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds. Tracy is lonely and bored – she has no family, no friends and no social life; she gets up in the morning, goes to work, then comes home to spend every evening alone eating chocolate in front of the television. Then, one day, as she patrols the Merrion Centre, she sees a little girl being mistreated by Kelly Cross, a prostitute and drug addict whom Tracy recognises from her police days. She makes the decision to intervene and suddenly life becomes much more eventful!

While Tracy is trying to help an abused child, in a parallel storyline the novel’s other main protagonist, private investigator Jackson Brodie, is carrying out a good deed of his own. With a series of failed relationships behind him, Jackson is almost as lonely as Tracy, and when he witnesses a dog being kicked by its owner, he steps in and rescues it. The dog then becomes his inseparable companion as he embarks on his latest case – trying to trace the biological parents of Hope McMaster, a woman who was adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, because as soon as he starts asking questions it becomes obvious that those who do know the truth about Hope’s parentage will do anything to cover it up.

Jackson’s story quickly begins to intertwine with Tracy’s when he discovers that the murder of a woman in 1975 – a murder scene at which Tracy, then a young police officer, had been present – may have had something to do with the mystery of Hope’s origins. The novel moves backwards and forwards between the 1970s and 2010, showing how the events of the past have had an impact on the events of the present. Some of Tracy’s actions and choices following her encounter with the little girl in the Merrion Centre, for example, seem implausible at first but make more sense once you gain a deeper understanding of her background and her earlier experiences.

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, I found that the crime element of this one took second place to the characters. I thought Tracy was a great character and I loved her relationship with little Courtney, and, similarly, I enjoyed watching Jackson bonding with his new canine companion. The other character who stood out for me was Tilly, an elderly actress who is in the early stages of dementia; the way Kate Atkinson portrays Tilly’s fear and confusion over what is happening felt, to me, very convincing and very moving.

While the characters I’ve mentioned above were excellent, however, there were too many others whom I struggled to distinguish from each other; in particular, the other police officers involved in the 1975 storyline all seemed to blend into one which made that part of the book difficult to follow. There were also some subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere and some important questions that remained unanswered at the end. Compared with the first three books in the series, I thought this one was disappointing. I’m sure I will still read Big Sky, but there are also a few other Kate Atkinson books I haven’t read yet: Transcription, Emotionally Weird and Not the End of the World. Have you read any of those and is there one you would particularly recommend?