Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

April’s theme for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is poison, but I have read all of the suggested titles on the official challenge page, some quite recently. As I missed taking part last month, I decided to read the book I had planned to read in March instead – Christie’s 1939 novel Murder is Easy. There’s a new BBC adaptation coming later this year and I always prefer to read before watching, if possible!

Murder is Easy is one of the Christie novels that stars neither of her most famous detectives, Poirot or Miss Marple – although it does feature another of her recurring characters, Superintendent Battle. However, even he doesn’t appear until very near the end and plays no part in actually solving the mystery. Instead, almost the entire novel is written from the perspective of Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired police officer and amateur detective.

At the beginning of the novel, Luke has just returned to England from India and is taking a train to London, where he finds himself sharing a carriage with an old lady who introduces herself as Miss Pinkerton. She confides in him that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a serial killer in her village. Miss Pinkerton believes that this person – whom she doesn’t name – has murdered at least three people already and has chosen as their next victim the village doctor, Dr Humbleby. Luke assumes she has an overactive imagination, but the next day he reads in the newspaper that a Miss Pinkerton has been hit by a car and killed crossing the road outside Scotland Yard – and when news of the death of Dr Humbleby in the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe follows, he becomes convinced that she was telling the truth after all.

Determined to find out more, Luke heads for Wychwood, where he stays with a friend’s cousin, Bridget Conway, who happens to be engaged to the local lord of the manor. Luke is posing as an author researching a new book on witchcraft and superstition, but Bridget guesses the real reason for his visit and together they begin to investigate the recent deaths.

I really enjoyed this book and for once I correctly identified the murderer, though more through instinct than because I had spotted any particular clue. There are plenty of suspects ranging from the solicitor Mr Abbot and the late Dr Humbleby’s younger partner, Dr Thomas, to the widower Major Horton and the antiques dealer Mr Ellsworthy, who dabbles in black magic. We are told that the village of Wychwood has connections with witchcraft and the occult, but we don’t really explore that in any depth and the setting doesn’t have quite the same eerie atmosphere as the village in Christie’s The Pale Horse.

While Miss Marple doesn’t appear in this book, I found Miss Pinkerton a very Marple-ish character – an old lady with a shrewd mind and sharp observational skills – and was sorry she was killed so early in the story. Luke himself does very little detecting – despite interviewing all of the suspects, he doesn’t arrive at the right solution until somebody else reaches it first – but I still enjoyed following the progress of his investigations. And knowing that Christie often likes to work a nursery rhyme into the text or title of her novels, I was intrigued to come across the lines “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell; The reason why I cannot tell” – the same lines that are quoted in John Dickson Carr’s The Black Spectacles, which I coincidentally read just last week!

Although I didn’t choose Murder is Easy specifically to fit this month’s Read Christie theme, I was pleased to find that poison does feature in the plot, albeit in a small way. The May prompt is ‘betrayal’, if you want to take part.

The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr

This is only the second book I’ve read by the very prolific John Dickson Carr, who also wrote under several pseudonyms including Carter Dickson. The first one I read was It Walks By Night, one of his Henri Bencolin mysteries, and although I enjoyed it overall, I found the plot too far-fetched and I didn’t much like Bencolin himself. The Black Spectacles, first published in 1939 and recently reissued as a British Library Crime Classic, is from a different series, featuring a different detective – Dr Gideon Fell – so I hoped it would be more to my taste. And it was – I loved it!

The novel is set in the small English village of Sodbury Cross, where a child has died after eating poisoned chocolates. The culprit has not been found, but suspicion has fallen on Marjorie Wells, because she was the one who sent the little boy to the shop to buy chocolates that day. Marjorie’s uncle, Marcus Chesney, believes that most people see the world through ‘black spectacles’, unable to correctly observe what is right in front of their eyes. To prove his point, he decides to stage a performance showing exactly how the real chocolates were substituted with the poisoned ones – and invites Marjorie, her fiancé George Harding and a family friend, Professor Ingram, along to watch. The performance is being filmed with a cine-camera and Marcus has compiled a list of questions to test the observational skills of the three people watching. But when he is found dead, murdered in full view of both the camera and his audience, each of the three witnesses seems to have seen something completely different!

I’ve said that this is a Dr Gideon Fell mystery, but Fell himself doesn’t appear until halfway through the novel. Until that point, the investigations are handled by Inspector Elliot of Scotland Yard, who seems quite competent and thorough…until we discover that he is not being entirely honest with the reader. By the time Fell is brought into the story, most of the clues are in place, but Elliot and the local Sodbury Cross police have failed to interpret them correctly. I’m not surprised they were struggling, because this is a very clever mystery with lots of twists and turns and an ingenious solution. I certainly couldn’t solve it and had to wait for Fell to explain it all, which he does bit by bit as each piece of the puzzle falls into place. I was particularly impressed by a clue involving a clock, which I would never have worked out for myself.

There are so many other things I loved about this book. Carr does an excellent job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of a little English village where the people are trying to come to terms with the discovery that there’s a poisoner in their midst. Some references to real life crimes and poisoning cases are worked into the plot – in particular the case of Christiana Edmunds, who was known as the ‘Chocolate Cream Killer’. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of 1930s film and camera technology, with the recording made of Marcus Chesney’s dramatic scene playing a very important part in the solving of the mystery.

Having enjoyed The Black Spectacles so much, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of the Gideon Fell mysteries soon. You may want to note that this book has also been published in the US as The Problem of the Green Capsule, just in case anyone buys the same book twice!

Rivers of Treason by KJ Maitland

This is the third book in KJ Maitland’s 17th century mystery series and continues Daniel Pursglove’s search for the mysterious Spero Pettingar. If you haven’t read the first two (The Drowned City and Traitor in the Ice) I strongly recommend that you do so before starting this book. Even though I’ve read both of them, the plot is so complex I found it difficult to keep track of what was happening at times, so I think coming straight to this book could be quite confusing.

The series is set in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed attempt by Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the King (James I of England and VI of Scotland). In the first book, Daniel Pursglove was released from Newgate Prison by the King’s advisor, FitzAlan, on the condition that he would hunt down and identify one of the escaped conspirators, a man known only as Spero Pettingar. As Rivers of Treason opens, Daniel has still not caught Spero but the mystery surrounding his whereabouts continues to deepen.

It’s now 1607 and the Great Frost that has held England in its grip during the winter is beginning to thaw. Without FitzAlan’s permission, Daniel has headed north to his childhood home in Yorkshire, not on the King’s business this time, but hoping to find answers about his own past. When an old woman is found murdered, however, Daniel finds himself under suspicion and is forced to flee across the country, pursued by a sinister man with a distinctive black and white beard. Has Daniel stumbled upon the trail of Spero Pettingar at last or has he become caught up in another, even bigger conspiracy?

I enjoyed this book, despite feeling that there was too much going on, a criticism I’ve had of the first two books in the series as well. I would have preferred a tighter focus on the central mystery, which often seems to get lost under the numerous subplots Maitland throws into the story. Having said that, some of the subplots were quite fascinating, such as one involving a London apothecary commissioned by the King to make an antidote to poison. After narrowly avoiding death in the Gunpowder Plot, it’s understandable that James has developed a paranoia about further attempts on his life! During Daniel’s time in Yorkshire, meanwhile, we learn a little bit more about our protagonist’s past and although I still don’t feel that we know him very well, it was good to have some questions answered.

I also love the atmosphere Maitland creates in this series, making it easy to feel immersed in the early 17th century, particularly where she describes the lives of the ordinary people Daniel meets on his travels but also in her descriptions of the Jacobean court. In this book, we follow the preparations for an elaborate masque (play or entertainment) written by the playwright Ben Jonson, with the set and costumes designed by the architect Inigo Jones. Jonson and Jones really did collaborate on many court masques, but this is the first time I’ve read about their work together, so I found that aspect of the story interesting.

Rivers of Treason finishes on something of a cliffhanger, leaving us wondering what Daniel is going to do next. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next book so that we can find out!

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 13/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Shadows of London by Andrew Taylor

A new book in Andrew Taylor’s Marwood and Lovett series is always something to look forward to. This is the sixth in the series and another one I thoroughly enjoyed. If you’re new to these books they do all work as standalones, but I would recommend reading all of them in order if possible so you can watch the relationship develop between James Marwood and Cat Lovett.

The Shadows of London is set around six years after the devastation of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The city is continuing to rebuild and Cat Lovett – now the widowed Mistress Hakesby – is working on the restoration of an ancient almshouse. Having taken over the running of her late husband’s architecture business, Cat is establishing a reputation for herself as a talented architect in her own right, and she and her partner, Brennan, have received a commission to rebuild the almshouse and construct new brick houses on the adjoining land. When a dead body is found on the site, bringing the project to a halt, Cat approaches her friend James Marwood to ask for his help in speeding up the investigations so that work can continue.

Marwood is now working as private secretary to the powerful statesman Lord Arlington. When it emerges that the dead man could be a clerk employed at the Council of Foreign Plantations, Arlington instructs Marwood to find out all he can about the murder. As he and Cat begin to investigate, however, they begin to uncover a trail that seems to be leading to the royal court and to Marwood’s old enemy, the Duke of Buckingham.

The investigation also has implications for another young lady, Louise de Kéroualle, formerly a maid of honour to Charles II’s sister, Minette. The King has his eye on Louise and she has been brought to England to serve as lady-in-waiting to his queen, Catherine of Braganza. It will suit certain people in both England and France to have a Frenchwoman in the King’s bed, but Louise has other things on her mind. Her lover, a French tutor, has gone missing – could he be involved in the almshouse murder?

As with the other five books in this series, Andrew Taylor blends fact and fiction together perfectly. Although the story of the dead man on the building site is fictional, it weaves in and out of the government intrigues and court conspiracies in a way that almost convinces you it could really have happened. While it was good to meet Cat and Marwood again, as well as some of the recurring characters I’ve become quite fond of, such as Marwood’s servants Sam and Margaret Witherdine, I also enjoyed getting to know Louise de Kéroualle. It was interesting to read Taylor’s author’s note where he discusses the politics behind Louise’s seduction by Charles II – with letters from the period as evidence – and why his interpretation of her story is more sympathetic than some.

Long-term readers of the series will be wondering whether this is the book where Cat and Marwood finally get together after what has been a bit of a love-hate relationship. Well, I’m not going to tell you that, but I do think you’ll be pleased to know that, unlike in some of the previous novels, there are plenty of interactions between the two of them and they work closely with each other to solve the mystery. I found the ending of the book quite satisfying, but I’m hoping there will be a book seven as I would love to see what’s in store next for Marwood and Lovett!

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

This is book 8/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie

February’s prompt for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is a murder method – the use of a blunt object. A lot of Christie’s novels involve murders carried out in this way and there were plenty of suggestions on the official challenge page this month. I chose a book I hadn’t read, Hickory Dickory Dock, which is a Poirot mystery first published in 1955.

The novel begins with the unthinkable – Poirot’s very efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, has made a mistake! Several mistakes, in fact, in a letter she has been typing. When Poirot asks her if something is wrong, she confesses that she’s worried about her sister, Mrs Hubbard, who has recently begun working at a student hostel on Hickory Road. Strange things have been happening at the hostel, Miss Lemon explains – a number of items have been stolen, but there seems to be no logic behind the thefts. A diamond ring, light bulbs, a stethoscope, lipstick, one shoe…what can be the connection? Finding an excuse to visit Hickory Road for himself, Poirot begins to investigate. At first it seems that there could be a fairly innocent explanation, but as these little incidents begin to take a more malicious turn, Poirot needs to discover the truth before somebody is killed.

This is one of several Christie novels that uses part of a children’s rhyme as its title, but apart from the name of the street, it doesn’t have any significance to the plot this time – unlike, for example, A Pocket Full of Rye or Five Little Pigs. That was a bit disappointing (surely a mouse or a clock could have been worked into the plot somehow!) but otherwise I enjoyed this book. I don’t think it’s one of the very best Poirot novels, but even a slightly weaker one is still fun to read. Although the crimes being committed seem quite trivial at the beginning, it gradually becomes clear that something more serious is going on in the background and once the murder takes place, the plot becomes much more compelling.

Setting the novel in a house full of students gives it a busy, bustling feel and means there’s a large cast of characters to provide both victims and suspects. The students are of all nationalities, some British, some French, with others from Africa, Jamaica, India and a whole range of other places. As the book was written in the 1950s, you can probably guess that the way these characters are portrayed is not always politically correct; there’s some racist language and some attitudes that aren’t considered acceptable today. However, for the most part, the students seem to mix together across racial and class boundaries, forming the usual friendships and rivalries you would find in any large group of young people.

I can’t really claim to have solved the mystery, as I worked out part of it but not all of it, but I don’t think it was one of Christie’s cleverest plots and the solution wasn’t as surprising as some of her others. Still, it was entertaining, as all of her books are, and I’m looking forward to reading more as Read Christie 2023 progresses. The March prompt is a motive – anger. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be joining in with that one, but will see if I can fit it into my March reading.

The Murder Game by Tom Hindle

I loved Tom Hindle’s first novel, A Fatal Crossing, a mystery set on a cruise ship in the 1930s, so I was excited about his new book, The Murder Game. I was expecting something similar – another historical mystery written in the style of the Golden Age – but was surprised to find that this one has a contemporary setting, although still with many of the tropes of a classic crime novel.

In The Murder Game, a group of people have assembled for a New Year’s Eve murder mystery evening at Hamlet Hall, a hotel in the small seaside town of Hamlet Wick. The arrangements are all in place – a fictional murder has been invented, roles have been assigned to each of the guests and actors have been brought in to play the supporting characters – but before the game can even begin, a real murder takes place at Hamlet Hall.

There’s no shortage of suspects; the victim was not a popular person and most of the others have a motive for the murder. PC Fay arrives on the scene and begins to investigate, hoping to solve the mystery herself to further her career, but her progress is slow and in the meantime tensions are increasing between the guests, actors and hotel staff. The atmosphere grows more hostile as they argue about a controversial project to renovate the local lighthouse – the site of a tragic accident several years earlier – and with no phone signal and everyone forbidden to leave the hotel, the residents of Hamlet Hall could find themselves in danger if the killer decides to strike again.

The Murder Game got off to a good start, but it didn’t really sustain my interest all the way through and I found it less enjoyable than A Fatal Crossing. I had loved the idea of a novel set during a murder mystery evening and was disappointed that the game never had time to begin before the real murder took place! The group of people gathered at the hotel for the evening are an unpleasant bunch, but that’s nothing unusual in this sort of novel – however, I felt that the story moved from one character’s perspective to another so often that I didn’t have a chance to get to know any of them very well.

The plot is quite complex and centres around two previous cases of people being killed under suspicious circumstances in Hamlet Wick. After we unravel the truth about those two deaths, which took place years before the novel begins, the events of the present day begin to make more sense – although I had already guessed who the culprit was, having picked up on one or two clues. I don’t often solve mysteries correctly, so it was nice to see that I had got it right for once! I couldn’t really see the point of the police officer character, though, as she seemed to have little impact on the story and we aren’t given much insight into her thought processes so can’t try to solve the murder along with her.

I found parts of the novel entertaining but my expectations were probably too high after enjoying A Fatal Crossing so much. I’ll still be looking out for a third novel from Tom Hindle and will be interested to see what setting he chooses next.

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

The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo

Translated by Yumiko Yamazaki

My choice for this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge (hosted by Dolce Bellezza) was easy as I only had one unread Japanese novel on my TBR. The Inugami Curse is one of a series of detective novels by Yokomizo that I’ve been enjoying over the last few years since discovering that they were being released in English translations by Pushkin Vertigo. This book was originally published in 1951 and features the private detective Kosuke Kindaichi. It’s the fourth in the series that I’ve read and one of my favourites – it’s certainly stronger than Death on Gokumon Island and The Village of Eight Graves and maybe even better than The Honjin Murders.

The Inugami Curse is set in the 1940s in post-war Japan. Kosuke Kindaichi, our unassuming, stuttering, head-scratching detective, has been summoned to the lakeside town of Nasu by the lawyer of a wealthy businessman who has recently died. The will is about to be read and the lawyer is afraid that it will cause trouble amongst the heirs. Already one of the young women who is set to benefit has been the target of several suspicious ‘accidents’ and things seem likely to get worse once the full conditions of the will become clear.

The dead man, Sahei, was the head of the Inugami family and as his children, grandchildren and other members of the household gather at the family home for the reading of the will, Kindaichi discovers that Mr Wakabayashi, the lawyer who had requested his presence, has been found dead after smoking a poisoned cigarette. This is only the first of several murders because, as Wakabayashi had predicted, Sahei’s fiendishly clever will sets the family members against each other. But which of them is prepared to kill to get what they think they deserve? There is one obvious suspect – Sahei’s eldest grandson, Kiyo, was repatriated from Burma just a few days earlier and has returned to the Inugami home with his face hidden by a mask, having been severely wounded in the war. Is it really Kiyo behind the mask? Kindaichi is sure that if he can establish the identity of the masked man, he will hold the key to the mystery.

This is a very enjoyable novel and unlike some of the other Japanese mysteries I’ve read, which are excessively puzzle-orientated, this one focuses as much on characters, motives and family secrets as it does on the methods behind the crimes. However, those methods are still very clever. Yokomizo is quite fair with the reader – the clues are there and it’s possible to work out parts of the solution – but I doubt anybody would be able to deduce exactly how each of the murders were committed. I was happy to wait for Kosuke Kindaichi to explain everything at the end! The murders themselves are bizarre and often gruesome – this book is definitely more graphic and more macabre than most British detective novels from that period – but also dramatic and filled with symbolism.

As well as the entertaining plot, the book touches on various aspects of Japanese culture and history, portraying a country in the aftermath of war, with many families like the Inugamis awaiting the repatriation of the Japanese soldiers. There are also descriptions of koto (zither) music and displays of chrysanthemum dolls. With each book in this series I feel I’m learning a little bit more about Japan. I can’t wait to read The Devil’s Flute Murders, another Kindaichi mystery being published in English later this year.