4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story featuring train travel’. I had already read most of the possibilities – The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express and The ABC Murders – but hadn’t yet read the Miss Marple novel 4.50 from Paddington, so that was my choice for this month.

The ‘train travel’ element of the story appears in the very first chapter, with the elderly Elspeth McGillicuddy taking a train to the village of St Mary Mead to visit her friend, Miss Jane Marple. Mrs McGillicuddy happens to glance out of the window just as her train passes another train running parallel in the same direction. At that moment, a blind flies open in the window of the other train and she is horrified to witness a man standing with his back to her strangling a woman. She reports the incident to the ticket collector and the police are informed, but when no dead body is found on the train Mrs McGillicuddy is dismissed as an old woman with an overactive imagination. Miss Marple, however, knows her friend is telling the truth and is determined not to let the matter drop.

Convinced that the body may have been thrown from the train as it passed the grounds of Rutherford Hall, Miss Marple enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young woman she knows who has established a reputation for herself as a professional and efficient cook and housekeeper. Lucy’s skills mean she is very much in demand and never short of work, but Miss Marple persuades her to take a position at Rutherford Hall for a few weeks so that she can search for the body while she’s there. Settling into her new job, Lucy begins to get to know the residents of Rutherford Hall – the family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe, his sons, daughter, in-laws and grandchildren – and begins to wonder whether their connection to the murder on the train really was a coincidence after all.

I found this a particularly enjoyable Miss Marple novel – probably in my top two or three. It seems that it has had some criticism due to the lack of clues and logical deductions and I do understand that complaint because we never find out exactly what leads Miss Marple to identify the correct suspect. However, I didn’t have a problem with this. The solution does make sense, even if we don’t know how she arrived at it, and the culprit was actually the person I suspected myself (again, not based on any real evidence – just a hunch!).

Although Miss Marple is the one who solves the mystery, we don’t really see very much of her in this book. Unable to infiltrate the Crackenthorpe household herself, she sends Lucy Eyelesbarrow in her place, which means a lot of the story is written from Lucy’s perspective. Luckily, Lucy is a great character – independent, intelligent and courageous. Several of the male Crackenthorpes are drawn to her and there’s a hint at the end of the book that she’s going to marry one of them. Which one she chooses is left for the reader to decide – although I’ve since discovered that Christie reveals Lucy’s choice in her Secret Notebooks, published in 2009.

There’s only one month left in this year’s Read Christie challenge and the December theme will be ‘a story containing precious jewels’. However, plans for Read Christie 2023 have already been announced and you can register your interest here: https://linktr.ee/OfficialAgathaChristie

Blue Postcards by Douglas Bruton – #NovNov22

This little book published by Fairlight Moderns came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize earlier this year. I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book but it sounded intriguing and at only 160 pages I knew it would be perfect for Novellas in November.

The book opens in the present day with our unnamed narrator buying a postcard from a Parisian market stall beside the Eiffel Tower. The postcard is completely blue on one side and date stamped 1957. The young woman who sells it to him has no idea of its significance, but the narrator knows exactly what it is: an invitation to an exhibition of the French artist Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings which was held in that year. He takes the card away with him but is drawn back to the stall again and again hoping to find more blue postcards and slowly a relationship begins to develop between the narrator and Michelle, the postcard seller.

Two other narratives are woven into the story. In one, we follow the career of Yves Klein, who becomes famous as the creator of International Klein Blue (IKB), an intense shade of aquamarine. In the other we meet Henri, a Jewish tailor – the only one left on what was once called the Street of Tailors. Henri also has a connection with blue: he sews a blue thread, in a shade known as ‘tekhelet’ in Hebrew, into the leg of every suit he makes in the belief that it will bring good luck to the wearer. One day, Yves Klein visits the tailor to order a suit and so the three separate parts of the novel fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

There was something to interest me in each of the three storylines. In the modern day one it was the unreliability of the narrator who admits that some of the things he is telling us didn’t necessarily happen and that memories can change over the years. The most compelling parts of Henri’s story involve his memories of the 1930s when he and his family were victims of the Night of Broken Windows. And I was struck by the descriptions of Klein’s monochrome exhibition where he displayed eleven identical blue (IKB) squares, placed at different angles and priced differently because he argued that the experience of viewing each one was different. I knew nothing about Klein before reading this book and his art is not really the kind I like, but it was good to learn a little bit about him.

What makes this book unusual, however, is the structure – and as I suspected, it wasn’t entirely successful with me! There are five chapters and each chapter is made up of one hundred numbered paragraphs, some only one or two sentences long but all what you could describe as ‘postcard-sized’. The three narratives alternate rapidly throughout the book, so we have one or two paragraphs telling the narrator’s story then one or two telling Henri’s or Yves Klein’s. I found it easy enough to follow but it does feel fragmented and meant I didn’t have time to become invested in one story before switching back to another.

Bruton has also set himself the challenge of including the word ‘blue’ at least once in every single paragraph, so we have characters with blue eyes, clothes with blue ink stains, mussels with blue shells, memories lost in the blue mists of time, and so on. Add to this the narrator’s obsession with finding blue postcards, Klein’s obsession with creating blue artworks and Henri’s obsession with blue threads and I started to feel overwhelmed with blue. There’s no doubt that it’s all very cleverly done and can’t have been an easy book to write, but I personally prefer books that allow me to become fully absorbed in the story without any distractions. I wasn’t the ideal reader for this book, but I knew that before I started and wanted to try it anyway, so I don’t have any complaints!

Have you read anything by Douglas Bruton – or any of the other books in the Fairlight Moderns collection?

I’m counting this book towards Novellas in November hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck.

Book #59 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story set in a hot climate’, so the recommended title, Destination Unknown, which is set in North Africa, was the perfect choice. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this one because it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews and it’s certainly not one of Christie’s better known novels (in fact it’s one of only four of her books never to have been adapted for TV or film), but I found it entertaining enough.

We first meet our heroine, Hilary Craven, in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her daughter has died, her marriage has broken down and she feels she has nothing to live for. Before she can go through with her plans, however, she is interrupted by Jessop, a British secret agent. Jessop has noticed a resemblance between Hilary and another woman, Olive Betterton, who has been fatally injured in a plane crash, and he has an interesting suggestion to make…

It is believed that Olive was on her way to Morocco to join her husband, Thomas Betterton, a renowned nuclear physicist who recently went missing in Paris. Betterton is one of several scientists from around the world who have all disappeared without trace. Jessop wants Hilary Craven to impersonate the dying woman in the hope that she will be able to locate Betterton and the other missing scientists. With nothing to lose, Hilary agrees.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis of the plot, this is not a murder mystery like most of Christie’s other books and it does not feature any of her famous characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. It’s much more of a thriller, with elements of spy/espionage fiction. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel – although the plot is undoubtedly a bit far-fetched and unlikely, I do like a good impersonation story and was interested to see how Hilary would cope with her task and where following Betterton’s trail would lead her to. I also loved the descriptions of Morocco and wished we could have spent more time in Casablanca and Fez before Hilary’s adventures took her off into the High Atlas mountains:

All about her were the walls of old Fez. Narrow winding streets, high walls, and occasionally, through a doorway, a glimpse of an interior or a courtyard, and moving all around her were laden donkeys, men with their burdens, boys, women veiled and unveiled, the whole busy secret life of this Moorish city. Wandering through the narrow streets she forgot everything else, her mission, the past tragedy of herself, even her life.

As is typical of Christie, the plot takes lots of twists and turns, there are some surprises and we are never sure which of the many characters Hilary meets can and cannot be trusted. However, later in the book, when we discover what has happened to the missing scientists, it all becomes quite bizarre and I felt that the motive behind the disappearances was quite weak and implausible. Remembering that the book was published in 1954, though, the world war which ended less than ten years earlier must have been on Christie’s mind, as well as post-war politics and the Cold War; there are references to creating a ‘new world order’ and a mysterious figure whose charisma and power of oration makes Hilary think of Hitler.

Hilary herself is less engaging than the heroines of some of Christie’s other thrillers, such as Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit and Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad, and the book overall is not as much fun as those two. I find the thrillers a nice change from the mysteries, though, and I did enjoy this one despite finding the first half much stronger than the second. I’m not sure whether I’ll take part in Read Christie in September – the theme is ‘a story with a female adventurer’ and the group read is They Came to Baghdad which, as I’ve just mentioned, I’ve already read (and loved, but don’t want to read again just yet). I might see if there’s an alternative title I could read to fit that theme instead, or maybe I’ll wait and join in again in October.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

The next book I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list is Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The Fortune Men. I enjoyed her previous book, The Orchard of Lost Souls, and was looking forward to this one, particularly as it has been so highly acclaimed, being shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It’s based on a true story – the trial of a Somali man accused of murder in 1950s Wales. If you don’t already know all the details of the trial and its outcome, I would recommend not looking them up until you’ve finished the book. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this review!

I found the opening chapters of the novel slightly overwhelming, as we are introduced to a large number of characters of various nationalities and backgrounds, switching quickly from one viewpoint to another, but in hindsight I think this was probably intentional, designed to throw the reader straight into the bustling, multicultural heart of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay as it would have been in 1952. After a while, the focus tightens to concentrate on two main characters: the murder victim and the man accused of the murder. His name is Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor who has settled in the dockland area of Tiger Bay.

Things are not going well for Mahmood at the beginning of the novel – he has separated from his wife, Laura, a Welsh woman who lives nearby with their three sons, and he is staying in a boarding house with several other men, none of whom make him feel very welcome. He’s struggling to find work and is drifting into a life of petty crime and theft, with any money he does have being spent on gambling. However, when Violet Volacki is found dead on the floor of her shop, her throat slit and a large sum of money missing from the safe, Mahmood is blamed just because the victim’s sister and young niece – Diana and Grace – reported seeing a Somali man standing in the shop doorway just before the murder took place. Even when Diana and Grace say that Mahmood was not the man they saw, the police are adamant that they’ve caught the right man and that he will hang for what he’s done.

Although we know Mahmood is not a murderer, he is not a particularly easy character to like either. He’s a thief, a gambler and often his own worst enemy, as we see during his arrest and trial, when his attitude rubs everyone up the wrong way and makes things worse for himself. But he’s also a loving husband and father and despite feeling that she couldn’t go on living with him, Laura has not given up on their relationship and vows to help him in any way she can. In the middle of the book, we are given Mahmood’s backstory, with some insights into his childhood in British Somaliland (as it was known then), his days working as a ship’s stoker, and how he came to live in Wales and to marry Laura. While I think this information could have been worked into the story more gradually, it was good to learn more about Mahmood’s past and to discover what made him into the man he became.

We also get to know Violet Volacki and her widowed sister Diana – but I’m not sure how much of this part of the novel was based on fact and how much was fictional, because Violet Volacki was not the real name of the murder victim (it was Lily Volpert, apparently changed at the request of a family member). Still, it was interesting to see some of the story from a different perspective, although I thought Diana disappeared from the novel too soon after Violet’s death – I would have liked to have seen more of how she was coping in the aftermath of the murder and how she felt about Mahmood being blamed.

This is a powerful novel and becomes quite emotional as the full scale of this terrible miscarriage of justice is revealed. I can’t really say that it’s a book I loved, but it’s one that I’m glad I’ve read.

This is book 9/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 37/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

‘Once you’ve lived in this valley, you’ll never be free of it. Its uncanny beauty gets inside you, right into the marrow. It has its own climate, its own peculiar character. In the same way as people can draw you in and repel you at the same time; both beguile and frighten you.’

I love Jane Johnson’s books; they always have such fascinating settings – 17th century Morocco in The Sultan’s Wife, 15th century Spain in The Court of Lions, and the author’s native Cornwall in The Tenth Gift. She returns to Cornwall again for her new novel, The White Hare, a book steeped in the myths and legends of that region of England.

The novel begins in 1954, with Mila Prusik, her mother Magda and five-year-old daughter Janey arriving at White Cove near Eglosberyan on the Cornish coast. Having left Poland for England during World War II, the family had been settled in London until a disastrous relationship with a married man left Mila desperate to make a fresh start. She and Magda have bought a neglected old house in the Cornish countryside and are planning to restore it to its former glory and turn it into a guest house. However, not everyone is happy to see the house under new ownership and the Prusiks receive a hostile welcome.

As Mila and her mother begin their restoration work, they hear hints from their neighbours that the house has a sinister past and should be left alone. The two women think this is nonsense and continue with their plans, but Mila becomes increasingly concerned about the changes in Janey’s behaviour – particularly her obsession with Rabbit, a stuffed toy that seems to have a mind of its own. How is all of this related to sightings of the legendary White Hare and to the strange symbols and carvings Mila finds all over the house and its grounds?

The White Hare is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for a while, not just because of the supernatural aspects – which are subtle, ambiguous and unsettling – but also because of the way the setting is so beautifully described. As Jane Johnson explains in her author’s note, the town of Eglosberyan and its valley are not real but are inspired by several real places. I could picture the white house surrounded by dark woodland, the stream tumbling between mossy rocks, the lonely beach framed by granite cliffs – they are all brought so vividly to life.

I also found it interesting to follow the relationship between Mila and Magda. When they first arrive in Cornwall, Mila is timid and submissive, allowing herself and Janey to be bullied by the hard and domineering Magda, but both characters do grow and change throughout the novel as the valley works its magic on them. There’s also a love interest for Mila, but although I did like him I felt that this part of the story took too much of a dramatic turn towards the end. Still, this is a very enjoyable novel and, while it’s quite different from the other Jane Johnson books I’ve read, being set entirely in one period and not as far into the past, I liked it just as much.

I still have three novels by Jane Johnson left to read: The Sea Gate, The Salt Road and Pillars of Light. If you’ve read any of them, please help me decide which I should read next!

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

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer – #1954Club

This is the first of two reviews I’ll be posting this week for Simon and Karen’s 1954 Club, one of their twice-yearly events where we all read and review books published in the same year. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific author I find there’s usually a book of hers to read for any year that is chosen! The Toll-Gate is her 1954 novel and one I hadn’t read before.

Like many of Heyer’s novels, this one is set in the Regency period. Our hero, the ‘overpoweringly-large’ Captain John Staple, has just returned from the Peninsular War and is finding it difficult to settle back into the monotony of civilian life. During a particularly tedious dinner party celebrating his cousin’s engagement, John decides to escape the next day and travel north to visit an old friend. Setting off alone on horseback, he becomes lost in the dark and rain and stumbles upon an isolated toll-gate somewhere in the Peak District. A frightened ten-year-old boy is collecting the tolls in the absence of his father, who has disappeared without explanation, so John decides to stay overnight to keep the boy company in the hope that his father will be back in the morning.

When the gatekeeper fails to return the next day, John finds himself helping to man the toll-gate for much longer than he’d expected, encountering highwaymen, thieves and Bow Street Runners. This is so much more exciting than one of cousin Saltash’s boring parties and John soon discovers that he’s in no hurry to leave, particularly when he meets Nell Stornaway, attractive, intelligent and, most importantly, tall – nearly as tall as John himself! Nell lives with her dying grandfather at nearby Kellands Manor and the old man’s heir has recently arrived, accompanied by a disreputable friend. But is it just the inheritance that has drawn them to Kellands or could they be mixed up in the disappearance of the gatekeeper?

Like The Quiet Gentleman, this is a Heyer novel where the focus is on the mystery rather than the romance. The romance is still there, but in a more understated way than usual. However, even though it’s love at first sight, it’s a romance I could believe in, because the hero and heroine seemed perfect for each other. I liked both of them – they are two of Heyer’s more sensible and mature characters, despite John’s love of adventure. And he certainly finds plenty of adventure when he chooses to spend the night at the toll-gate! The opening chapter set at Lord Saltash’s engagement party really doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel at all – it feels as though Heyer is setting up an Austen-style comedy of manners in that chapter, but once John sets out on his journey that aspect of the novel is abandoned and none of the characters we’ve met appear again. I was interested to learn that Heyer wrote the first chapter before deciding on the rest of the plot and had originally intended John’s family background to play a bigger part than it eventually did.

The dialogue is peppered with Heyer’s usual Regency slang, as well as the thieves’ cant used by characters such as Chirk the highwayman, and this adds colour and authenticity to the story. However, although I did enjoy this novel, it hasn’t become a favourite by Heyer; it seemed to lack her usual humour and I do tend to prefer her funnier books! Still, it was an entertaining read and a good choice for me for 1954 Club.


Other books from 1954 previously reviewed on my blog:

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier


This is also book 17/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story Agatha wrote abroad’. After the Funeral, a Hercule Poirot mystery first published in 1953, doesn’t include any travel and is set entirely in England, but it was written while Christie was away on an archaeological dig with her husband Max.

After the Funeral begins, as the title suggests, just after the funeral of the wealthy Richard Abernethie with the family assembling to hear the reading of the will by his lawyer, Mr Entwhistle. As he has no surviving children of his own, it seems that Richard’s fortune is to be divided between his brother and sister, two of his sisters-in-law, and several of his nieces and nephews and their spouses. After hearing the terms of the will, Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s sister, remarks that her brother was murdered. This is not something that has occurred to anyone else, as they have all accepted that Richard died of natural causes, so Cora’s comments are not taken seriously. The next day, however, Cora herself is found dead, having been brutally murdered in her bed.

Mr Entwhistle, the lawyer, is convinced there must be a connection between the two deaths and begins to interview the family members, hoping that they will all be able to prove themselves innocent and avoid bringing shame on the family. As the mystery deepens, he decides that he needs to call in an expert – and so he contacts his friend, Hercule Poirot, who listens to the facts and agrees that an investigation is required…

This is maybe not one of the better known Poirot novels, but it’s one that I particularly enjoyed. After a confusing start – Christie throws a huge number of characters into the opening chapters and it takes a while to straighten out their relationships and remember who they all are – I became completely absorbed in this fascinating mystery, having a few guesses at the identity of the culprit and getting it wrong every time! It’s one of those mysteries where literally any of the characters (apart from Poirot, of course) could have been the murderer and the solution relies on a wonderful twist, which I don’t think many readers will have seen coming. Well done if you did, but I certainly didn’t.

Poirot himself doesn’t have a large part to play in the novel until the second half; before that, it’s actually Mr Entwhistle who is trying to investigate the deaths, by questioning suspects, speaking to doctors and establishing alibis. During that first half of the novel, I couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t really essential for Poirot to appear in the story at all as Mr Entwhistle seemed to be doing such a good job! However, it’s Poirot’s ‘little grey cells’ that are necessary to spot that final crucial clue and solve the mystery.

Next month’s theme for the Read Christie challenge is ‘a story featuring adventure’. There are plenty of those to choose from!