Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set by the seaside’, which seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up an unread Poirot novel, Evil Under the Sun. It’s set on an island off the coast of Devon, where Hercule Poirot is on holiday at the exclusive Jolly Roger Hotel.

Christie begins by introducing us to all of the people staying at the hotel, including Arlena Stuart, a beautiful former actress. Arlena is described by one of the other characters as ‘the personification of evil’ – and she certainly seems to be causing plenty of trouble. Fellow guest Patrick Redfern can’t take his eyes off her and Arlena appears to be encouraging his attentions, regardless of how hurtful this is to Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Arlena’s own husband, Captain Marshall, claims he hasn’t noticed her behaviour, but is he telling the truth? Meanwhile, Marshall’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage hates her stepmother and resents the way she has come into the family home, bringing scandal and unhappiness with her.

When Arlena’s dead body is found at Pixy Cove, a secluded part of the island, almost everyone becomes a suspect. It’s fortunate that Poirot is already on the scene and can begin investigating immediately! In fact, as he later tells his friend, Captain Hastings, he had begun even before the murder took place…

Hastings said, staring: “But the murder hadn’t happened, then.”

Hercule Poirot sighed. He said: “But already, mon cher, it was very clearly indicated.”

“Then why didn’t you stop it?”

And Hercule Poirot, with a sigh, said as he had said once before in Egypt, that if a person is determined to commit murder it is not easy to prevent them. He does not blame himself for what happened. It was, according to him, inevitable.

Having just read three Miss Marple novels in a row for Read Christie, it made a nice change to get back to Poirot for this month’s read. I usually prefer the Poirots to the Marples and Evil Under the Sun – first published in 1941 – is another good one. Setting the story on a private island, for the use of the hotel guests only, is not just an atmospheric setting but also a clever one as it immediately limits the suspects to those already on the island at the beginning of the book. With his understanding of the kind of person Arlena was, Poirot is quickly able to pick out one suspect as the most likely culprit, but due to timings and alibis it seems impossible that this person could have committed the crime. As the novel progresses, more clues emerge, along with the usual red herrings and misdirections Christie likes to throw in our way!

I didn’t manage to solve the mystery, but once the solution was revealed I could see how perfectly all of the clues fitted together – like a jigsaw puzzle, as Poirot describes it. It did seem that the way in which the crime was carried out depended on a lot of good luck and on people behaving in a certain manner, but I still think Christie was fair with the reader and I have no complaints. I’m now looking forward to September’s book, which will be Crooked House.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

First published in 1941, this is the third book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series. Although I’ve been reading the books in order so far, it’s really not necessary and you could start anywhere. I think the first one, Dance of Death, is still my favourite but this one comes close.

The Deadly Truth begins with biochemist Roger Slater being visited in his laboratory by the glamorous Claudia Bethune and telling her about a new drug he is developing: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. After Claudia departs, Roger discovers that one of the tubes containing the drug has disappeared; aware of Claudia’s love of practical jokes and of the drug’s dangerous properties, he sets off in pursuit but, by the time he catches up with her, it’s too late. Guests are arriving at Claudia’s house for a dinner party – and are about to be served a very special cocktail.

Later that night, Dr Basil Willing, who is renting a beach hut on Claudia’s land, thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethunes’ house and decides to investigate. It turns out there is no fire, but what he does find inside the house is just as shocking – Claudia, slumped at the table, strangled by her own emerald necklace. As the details of the dinner party begin to emerge, Basil learns that, having had their drinks spiked with the truth serum, each guest had revealed truths about themselves that they would have preferred to keep secret. Now that the effects of the drug have worn off, can Basil separate the truth from the lies and identify the murderer?

Helen McCloy’s novels all have such unusual and intriguing plots! They may seem far-fetched and unlikely at first, but really the murder in each one is just a starting point for McCloy to introduce some fascinating psychological and scientific themes and ideas; in this book, as well as the discussions of truth and lies, there’s also an interesting exploration of sound and deafness. As a New York psychiatrist, Basil Willing solves the crimes through his understanding of the human mind, looking at personalities and motives rather than spending too much time on technicalities such as alibis, and this is the kind of mystery novel I prefer. Basil does have some specialist knowledge which plays an important part in the solution of this particular mystery, but even without this knowledge the clues are there for an observant reader to pick up on. Unfortunately, I was not observant enough and allowed the red herrings McCloy drops into the story to lead me away from the correct suspect!

I think Helen McCloy is one of the best of the ‘forgotten’ crime authors I’ve discovered recently. She also seems to have been quite prolific; there are ten other Basil Willing novels and lots of standalones, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

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

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.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – #1944Club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs for which bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. This time the year is 1944 – an interesting one, as not only are there lots of intriguing books to choose from, but it’s also the first wartime year to be featured. I had a few options on my TBR and decided to start with this one, Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, which has been reissued by Persephone.

The novel is set in Canada during World War II and, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser, explores some of the prejudices, inequalities and divisions which existed at that time. Erica is a twenty-eight-year-old journalist working for the Montreal Post, while Marc is a lawyer in his early thirties. The two are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a cocktail party – it’s literally love at first sight and Erica is sure her parents will like him too. But when she attempts to introduce him to her father, Charles, she is horrified and embarrassed when Charles refuses to even look at Marc, let alone speak to him.

Erica struggles to understand her father’s reaction, but Marc is not at all surprised. The Reisers are a Jewish family whereas the Drakes are English-Canadians and these two groups – along with another major group in Montreal society, the French-Canadians – simply don’t mix with each other. However, Erica’s brother has recently married a French-Canadian and despite Charles Drake’s initial disapproval, he has accepted Tony and Madeleine’s relationship. Erica is sure that, in time, he will come to accept Marc too. To her disappointment and frustration, though, her parents don’t want to get to know Marc and aren’t interested in what he is like as a person – all that matters is that he is a Jew. Charles explains that he doesn’t want “a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives”.

Despite having grown up in Montreal, Erica has never given much thought to the level of division in society as it’s not something which has ever affected her directly. Marc, on the other hand, is under no illusions; he has been encountering attitudes like Charles Drake’s all his life and he knows exactly what he and Erica can expect if they get married. He tries to make Erica see what their lives would be like, but she is determined to stand by him no matter what.

Marc is very likeable from the beginning, which makes Charles’ attitude towards him all the more upsetting, while Erica is also easy to like and admire. Although we do see things occasionally from Marc’s point of view, it is through Erica’s eyes that most of the story unfolds and Erica who has the most to learn. Her relationship with her father is as much a part of the story as her relationship with Marc; she has always considered him a friend as well as a father and so it comes as a shock to her to find that he is so determined to oppose her wishes. At the same time, she becomes uncomfortably aware that she herself has prejudices of her own.

Earth and High Heaven is a fascinating novel; as so much of the story consists of various characters discussing their views on racism, prejudice and intolerance, it could easily have felt like nothing more than a polemic, but that never happens, which I think is largely due to the two main characters being so appealing and sympathetic. I cared about both of them from their first meeting in the opening chapter and I felt that the issues explored throughout the story arose naturally from the situations in which they found themselves.

This was a great read for the 1944 Club – and one which is still important and relevant today. I loved following Marc and Erica through all their ordeals, hoping and wondering whether they would find a way to be together in the end.

~

I should have another 1944 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few reviews I have previously posted of books published in that year:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
Towards Zero by Agatha Christie
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This, the second in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, continues the story begun in The Light Years, taking us through the early stages of the Second World War. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read the first book, but I found that I could still remember the characters and storylines and jump straight back into the story. If I’d needed a reminder, though, the book opens with a useful family tree, character list and summary of the previous novel.

Marking Time begins just as Britain declares war on Germany in September 1939 and ends just two years later, in 1941. The Cazalet family – who include ‘the Brig’ and his wife ‘the Duchy’; their daughter, Rachel; their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, with their wives and children; and an assortment of other relations, friends and servants – are gathered again at Home Place in the Sussex countryside and this is where most of them will be based during the two years the novel covers. As an upper middle class family, they are sheltered from some of the worst deprivations of the war, but eventually it does begin to affect each of their lives in all sorts of ways.

One of my criticisms of The Light Years was that the number of characters was overwhelming and the constant changes from one perspective to another made it difficult to focus. Marking Time has a slightly different format. There are still several chapters which deal with the whole family, spending a few pages with one family member, then a few pages with another, but there are also some longer sections which concentrate on one character at a time.

The characters who are given their own chapters are the three teenage girls – Louise, Polly and Clarissa (Clary) – who happen to be three of the characters I singled out as favourites in my review of The Light Years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to spend a more substantial period of time with each of the girls, getting to know them better. Louise, the eldest child of Edward and Villy, is an intriguing mixture of sophistication and innocence. In Marking Time, we see her leave home to become an actress, fall in love for the first time, and make an unwelcome discovery about another family member. Clary’s chapters are written partly in the form of diary entries and this gives her a particularly strong and distinctive voice. Clary receives some bad news quite early in the war – although we don’t yet know exactly how bad – but there are some positives to come out of this, such as an improvement in her relationship with her stepmother, Zoe. Meanwhile, Polly – Hugh and Sybil’s daughter – overhears a private conversation which throws her life into turmoil.

Despite all the problems various family members are experiencing, the novel isn’t entirely depressing; there are some funny scenes too, mainly involving the younger children, Neville and Lydia, and we see the beginnings of a touching romance between two of the Cazalet servants. Although the lifestyle of the Cazalet family is entirely different from my own – partly because of the time period in which they live, but also because of their class – I still feel that they are people I understand and care about. I enjoyed this book much more than the first and am pleased I still have another three Cazalet novels to read. The next one is Confusion and I’m looking forward to finding out how the family fare throughout the rest of the war.

This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Appleby’s End by Michael Innes

I’ve read quite a few of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby mysteries now; I think this is my sixth, and although I enjoyed it more than my last one, The Daffodil Affair, it doesn’t compare to my two favourites, Hamlet, Revenge! and Lament for a Maker. While I love the imaginativeness of his plots, some of them are a bit too bizarre and outlandish for me, and this is one of them.

The novel opens with Inspector John Appleby falling into conversation with a man sitting opposite on the train. His name is Everard Raven, an eccentric lawyer and writer of encyclopedias who is on his way home to his family’s country estate, Long Dream Manor. When Appleby discovers that he has made a mistake with the train timetable and won’t be able to reach his own destination until the following day, Everard offers to give him a room for the night at Long Dream. Meanwhile, they have been joined by the other members of the Raven family – Everard’s brothers, Luke and Robert, and two younger cousins, Judith and Mark – who are also returning home. They all disembark from the train together at a station which, to Appleby’s surprise, happens to be called Appleby’s End.

The eventful journey is not over yet, however. The horse-drawn carriage which has been sent to transport them from the station to Long Dream Manor gets stuck crossing a river and Appleby and Judith Raven find themselves separated from the rest of the party. Making their own way back to the house, they make a gruesome discovery – the head of one of the family servants half-buried in a snowdrift. When Appleby begins to investigate, he uncovers a possible connection between the servant’s death and a series of strange happenings in a nearby village. Strangest of all is the fact that these occurrences closely resemble plots from the long-forgotten works of Ranulph Raven, the late father of Everard, Luke and Robert. Can Ranulph’s novels really be starting to come true?

The story quickly becomes more and more surreal, as Appleby encounters a woman who believes she is a cow, animals turning into marble statues and rumours of witchcraft and magic. There are characters with names like Heyhoe and Rainbird and villages called Snarl, Drool, Sneak and Linger. At the heart of the novel there is an interesting and clever mystery taking place, but, for me, it gets lost beneath the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I’m sure it was intended to be a parody of rural life, and I could see some similarities with Cold Comfort Farm at times, but the humour didn’t really work for me. The only other notable thing to say about this book is that Appleby falls in love – I think. It’s not a particularly romantic romance – although he and his love interest do spend a night in a haystack together, which leads to a proposal of marriage.

Based on what I’ve read so far, all of Michael Innes’ novels do seem to be a bit quirky, but I prefer the ones that are slightly more serious. I’ll continue to read his books but I hope the next one I pick up will be a better choice for me.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

Having read several of Margery Allingham’s detective novels, I was intrigued to come across The Oaken Heart, an account of life in her small English village during the Second World War. Originally published in 1941, it was apparently based on letters written to some American friends and expanded into a book at the suggestion of her publisher. It’s interesting to think that she was writing this while the war was still taking place and when nobody knew how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be.

Allingham’s village was Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex, but she refers to it in the book as ‘Auburn’ after a line from the poem The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith. She is obviously very proud of Auburn and the way the people who live there work together to cope with whatever the war throws at them; it’s true that all towns and villages have their own unique characteristics, but I think it’s also true that the wartime experiences of the residents of Auburn will have been similar to the experiences of people in other parts of Britain.

Like many other villages, Auburn, in 1938 when the book opens, is still suffering from the effects of the previous war which ended just twenty years earlier. There’s a sense that Allingham and her friends are putting all their faith in Neville Chamberlain, not really believing or wanting to believe that war could possibly happen again. Of course, it does happen again – after a year of preparations, gas mask distributions and discussions of who should take in how many evacuees. The subject of evacuees is an important one to the people of Auburn; at first they are excited at the thought of groups of little schoolchildren from London arriving in the village (since the First World War there has been a shortage of young people in Auburn), but the reality is very different – hundreds of young mothers and babies! Allingham’s descriptions of the newcomers, the culture differences and how the villagers dealt with all of this are quite funny to read about.

I have never read anything about Margery Allingham as a person before, so I don’t know what she was supposed to be like or what impression the people who knew her had of her, but based on her own words in The Oaken Heart, she seems very likeable and down-to-earth. She makes a few references to her writing career now and then (she was working on Traitor’s Purse at the time), but there is never any sense of self-importance or superiority over anyone else in the village. Her writing style is warm, conversational and, as you would expect, very readable.

This is a wonderful book, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys reading about life during the war. The fact that it is a first-hand account written in 1941 rather than a memoir written years later gives it another layer of interest. As we reach the final page, there is still no end to the war in sight and nobody has any idea if or when it’s all going to stop. I was sorry that the book ended when it did, as I would have liked to have continued reading about the people of Auburn and to find out how they fared later in the war.