A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

The Almanack by Martine Bailey

As someone who loves puzzles and word games of all kinds, I was captivated by Martine Bailey’s latest novel, The Almanack. Each chapter opens with a riddle, the answers to which are listed at the end of the book but are also carefully hidden somewhere within the relevant chapter. If, for example, the solution to a riddle is ‘cherry’, in the pages that follow you will see a character eating cherries. Sometimes the allusion is so brief you could easily miss it but in other cases it will form the theme for the whole chapter.

The story itself is a murder mystery set in Georgian England. It begins in 1752 with Tabitha Hart’s reluctant return from London to the village of Netherlea in Cheshire in answer to an urgent summons from her mother. Unfortunately she arrives too late; her mother has died under suspicious circumstances, the only clues to her fate being some cryptic notes scribbled in the margins of her almanack, in which she describes her terror of someone referred to only as ‘D’.

As Tabitha sets out to identify the mysterious D, she comes up against the hostility of the other villagers, who disapprove of the life she has been leading in London. However, she receives help in her search from an unlikely source: a troubled young writer called Nat Starling, a newcomer to Netherlea who may be hiding secrets of his own.

This is the first book I’ve read by Martine Bailey and I was very impressed by her recreation of 18th century village life. With her descriptions of ancient superstitions and beliefs, a community ruled by the seasons and the weather, and the conflict between the old ways of life and the new, I was often reminded of Thomas Hardy. The reluctance of the villagers to move forward and embrace change is illustrated particularly well when they discover that Britain is to switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, jumping forward by eleven days in September. They are confused and angry about the ‘stolen days’, with some of them believing their lifespan has somehow been shortened.

Time and calendars are important themes in this novel. First, there is the almanack in the story, which Tabitha’s mother had been using to plan her days and which holds some of the keys to the mystery. Then there’s the way in which the book itself is structured like an almanack, with each chapter headed by the date, some astrological information and a prophecy relating to something that will happen that day. Riddles, prophecies and predictions are woven throughout the text of the novel too, with the unknown villain using them to taunt and tease Tabitha and Nat.

I really enjoyed this book and its many layers. There were times, though, when all of the extra little features started to distract me from the story; I became too caught up in looking for clues to the riddles and for prophecies coming true and found myself losing track of the central mystery. Still, this was an unusual and entertaining read and I will now have to try Martine Bailey’s other two books, An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart, both of which sound intriguing too.

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

Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence

Having read Death of a Doll last year, my first novel by American crime writer Hilda Lawrence, I have been looking forward to more of her books being reissued so I would have the opportunity to read another one. Death of a Doll was the third of only three novels Lawrence wrote featuring the detective Mark East, so I was delighted to find that the first in the series, Blood Upon the Snow – originally published in 1944 – has now been made available again too.

The novel opens with Mark East’s arrival in the small town of Crestwood on a dark, snowy evening, having been hired by the elderly historian Joseph Stoneman who is staying with friends, the Moreys, in a remote country house in the mountains. After making his way up to the house to meet his new employer, Mark is surprised to find that Stoneman believes he is a private secretary, not a private detective. However, the old man’s shaking hands and uneasy manner tell Mark that Stoneman knows exactly who he is and what he does. Intrigued, Mark agrees to stay on in the role of secretary for a while, hoping that eventually Stoneman will tell him what is going on and why he has secretly summoned a detective.

As Mark gets to know the other people living and working in the house, he becomes even more convinced that something is not right. What – or who – are the servants so afraid of? What is wrong with the pale and nervous Laura Morey? And was Stoneman’s fall on the cellar stairs a few days before Mark’s arrival really an accident? Then a woman dies under suspicious circumstances and suddenly Mark’s skills as a detective are required after all.

I found this book quite different from Death of a Doll, but equally enjoyable. While Death of a Doll is set almost entirely within the walls of Hope House, a women’s refuge in New York, Blood Upon the Snow has a very different setting – one that I loved from the opening descriptions of a remote ‘one-lane town’, ‘lying at the foot of Big Bear Mountain and surrounded by a dark forest’.

The cold, snowy winter weather provides atmosphere and the portrayal of a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business increases the sense of suspense and danger as the people of Crestwood become aware that the killer must be someone they all know. I didn’t guess the solution and, to be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by it; it certainly wasn’t something the reader could be expected to work out from the clues we are given. Mark East tends to keep his thoughts to himself too and doesn’t give us a lot of hints as to how he is progressing with solving the mystery – although now and then he does confide in Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, two spinsters he meets in the town shortly after his arrival in Crestwood.

I remembered Beulah and Bessy appearing halfway through Death of a Doll and being a bit confused as to who they were and how they knew Mark, so it was good to see the beginnings of that relationship and to have my questions answered! The two women are fans of crime fiction and Beulah in particular likes to do some amateur detective work, which adds a bit of light-heartedness to the story even if it doesn’t do much to move the actual plot forward.

Now that I’ve read the first book in this series and the last, I will be looking out for the middle one, A Time To Die. What a shame Hilda Lawrence only wrote three of them.

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

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.

Dark Queen Rising by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is a very prolific author of historical mysteries; he has been writing since the 1980s and has written many series under several pseudonyms, set in a variety of periods including medieval England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. So far, my only experience of his work has been his standalone novel, Roseblood, which I really enjoyed, so when I came across Dark Queen Rising, the first in a new series set during my favourite period – the Wars of the Roses – I immediately wanted to read it.

The novel opens in 1471, just after the Battle of Tewkesbury, a battle which has ended in victory for the House of York and defeat for their rivals, the House of Lancaster. With the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI, held prisoner in the Tower of London, the victorious Yorkist army sets about destroying the other prominent noblemen who fought for Lancaster, including Henry’s heir, the young Prince of Wales. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, now sits securely on the throne of England – or does he? Margaret Beaufort, mother of one of the few remaining Lancastrian claimants, Henry Tudor, is making plans on behalf of her son, while Edward IV’s own brother – George, Duke of Clarence – is also gathering information that could bring about the king’s downfall.

Dark Queen Rising is described as the first in a series of ‘Margaret Beaufort mysteries’, which I think is slightly misleading – and looking at other reviews, it does seem that a lot of readers were expecting a different sort of book. There is a mystery, which develops when four men in the service of the Duke of Clarence are found dead in a tavern, but this doesn’t happen until the middle of the book and is never really the main focus of the novel. It’s more of a thriller, delving into the politics of the time and exploring some of the intrigue, plotting and controversy that makes this such a fascinating period of history.

Bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort is one of the main characters in this book, I was surprised when, early in the novel, I saw a reference to her husband, ‘Sir Humphrey Stafford’. Margaret’s husband, of course, was Henry Stafford. Henry did have a brother called Humphrey who, coincidentally, was also married to another Margaret Beaufort, so I can see where the confusion has come from, but there’s really no excuse for not knowing which Margaret your novel is about. I was even more disappointed when, later in the book, references were made to Margaret’s future husband, William Stanley. This should have been Thomas Stanley, William’s brother. As the names of not just one but two of Margaret’s husbands were wrong, this made me question the accuracy of everything else in the novel, which is a shame as I do love this period and really wanted to enjoy this book.

George, Duke of Clarence has clearly been cast as the villain in this series, which is fair enough as history certainly tells us that he wasn’t the most honourable or trustworthy of people, but the way he is depicted in this book made him feel more like a caricature than a real person. When I think of the much more nuanced portrayals in books like Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and Patrick Carleton’s Under the Hog, it’s disappointing. The character who did intrigue me in this book was Christopher Urswicke, who appears to be in Margaret’s employ but whose motives and true loyalties are not always very clear. I found the parts of the story written from Urswicke’s perspective much more interesting.

The second book in the series – Dark Queen Waiting – is out now, but because of the inaccuracies in this one, I’m not planning to read it, although I could possibly still be tempted by a sequel to Roseblood if one is ever written. Meanwhile, I’m now reading Thomas Penn’s new non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses, The Brothers York, so I should be posting my thoughts on that one soon.

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

The Long Farewell by Michael Innes

“Farewell, a long farewell!” This line from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is written on a piece of paper found next to the body of Lewis Packford, shot dead in his own library. The words are in Packford’s handwriting, but is this really suicide or is it a cleverly disguised murder? There’s certainly no shortage of suspects; the dead man had been hosting a house party and his home, a small country estate called Urchins, was full of guests at the time of the shooting. Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard is sent to investigate, but Sir John also has a personal involvement in the case – he had visited Packford earlier in the year at his Italian villa and got the impression even then that something wasn’t quite right…

I have read several of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby novels over the last few years and I’ve found them to be of very mixed quality. I’ve loved a few of them, but some have had such bizarre plots I haven’t enjoyed them much at all. I’m pleased to say that I think The Long Farewell is one of the better ones. In comparison to some of the others, it’s quite a conventional murder mystery with plenty of suspects, clues and red herrings. It’s also the type of mystery I prefer, concerned mainly with the motives of the characters and the relationships between them, rather than getting too caught up with alibis, times on clocks and layouts of rooms.

After a brief opening section in which Appleby visits Packford in Italy and they have a discussion about fraud, forgery and Shakespeare, we get straight to the murder and the investigation, so there’s no long build-up. It’s a short book, but I thought it was just the right length for the story that is being told. Although Packford’s home in England, the strangely named Urchins, is full of his fellow eccentric academics who have stayed on after his death to assist with the inquiries, with the exception of the opening chapter I’ve just mentioned there are very few of the scholarly, erudite conversations you often find in novels by Innes. No knowledge of Shakespeare is needed to be able to understand and enjoy the mystery either!

The Long Farewell was originally published in 1958 and I found the portrayal of the female characters in the book particularly interesting. There are two women amongst the guests at Urchins – Ruth and Alice – who come from very different walks of life and who both had different reasons for wanting to marry Lewis Packford. Without going into too much detail here and spoiling things, it occurred to me that had the book been written in the modern day, this part of the plot wouldn’t have worked at all.

Overall, this is an entertaining Appleby mystery (I loved the farcical scene which unfolds in the library late at night) and although it falls somewhere in the middle of the series I think it could be a good one to start with if you’re new to Michael Innes.

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

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

Last year I took part in the Read Christie 2019 challenge hosted by the Agatha Christie website. The idea was to read twelve Christie books – one per month – corresponding to twelve different categories. I didn’t manage to join in with all twelve, but I read eight of them and enjoyed them all, particularly The ABC Murders, Dumb Witness, and the book for December, The Pale Horse. There’s a new BBC adaptation of The Pale Horse coming soon (not sure of the exact dates, but sometime in 2020) so I’m pleased to have had a chance to read it first.

The Pale Horse is one of Christie’s standalones and doesn’t feature either of her famous detectives, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, although there are a few appearances from another recurring character, Ariadne Oliver. The story is narrated by Mark Easterbrook, not a detective but a writer and historian who is researching a book on Mughal architecture. At the beginning of the novel, Mark witnesses two young women fighting in a London coffee shop. A few days later, he is surprised to hear that one of the girls, Tommy Tuckerton, has died of what appear to be natural causes, unconnected with the fight. Presumably this is just a coincidence, but soon afterwards Mark learns of a list of names found in the shoe of a murdered priest – and one of those names is Tuckerton. When Mark recognises another of the names, that of his godmother Lady Hesketh-Dubois, who has also recently died, he becomes convinced that something sinister is happening.

With the help of his crime writer friend Ariadne Oliver and a young woman called Ginger Corrigan, Mark begins to investigate and finds a series of clues leading him to a former inn, The Pale Horse, which is now home to three witches. Not real witches, of course…or are they? Mark isn’t sure what to think, but it certainly seems that The Pale Horse is well known within the community as the place to go if you want to put a curse on somebody.

Christie’s novels are always entertaining, but this is one I particularly enjoyed. The plot intrigued me from the beginning; it seemed such an unusual set of circumstances and while I didn’t really believe that the three women of The Pale Horse were able to kill people through supernatural means, I couldn’t work out how else the murders were being committed. It was all quite unsettling, with a real sense that something evil was taking place. I had to avoid reading this book late at night!

It was good to see Ariadne Oliver again, who plays a small but important part in the solution of the mystery and in her role of crime novelist gives Christie an opportunity to put a little bit of herself into the story. There are plenty of other memorable characters too, though, from the three witches to Ginger Corrigan to Mr Osborne, a pharmacist who witnesses one of the murders and insists that he knows who the culprit is, despite all evidence to the contrary!

The Read Christie Challenge is happening again in 2020, with a new set of monthly categories. January’s theme is ‘a book that changed Christie’s life’ and we have been given a few suggestions to choose from. I have opted for Murder on the Orient Express!