A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

The Two Hundred Ghost by Henrietta Hamilton

I read my first Henrietta Hamilton novel, Answer in the Negative, earlier this year and wasn’t particularly impressed by it; I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read any more of her books, but I believe in giving an author a second chance and The Two Hundred Ghost sounded very tempting. I’m glad I gave it a try as I enjoyed it much more than Answer in the Negative.

The Two Hundred Ghost was first published in 1956 and is the first book in Hamilton’s Johnny and Sally Heldar mystery series. The unusual title refers to 200 Charing Cross Road, the address of the antiquarian bookshop in London which is owned by Johnny Heldar’s family and said to be haunted by a ghost. Sally Merton is one of the booksellers in the shop; she is not yet married to Johnny when we first meet her and has been attracting some unwelcome attention from one of the male employees, Victor Butcher. Mr Butcher is an unpleasant bully, disliked by everybody who knows him, so when he is found dead in his office with a knife in his back, there are plenty of suspects…including the ghost, which is sighted in the building shortly before the murder takes place!

This is a very short novel and the plot moves along at a steady pace, making it a quick and easy read; although, as with the other Hamilton novel I read, I felt that there was a bit of repetition surrounding discussions of alibis, timing of events and layouts of rooms, this one has a better balance between these technical aspects of mystery-solving and the more ‘human’ aspects, such as motives and personalities. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but I don’t think the author was unfairly holding back information from the reader and it may have been possible to solve the mystery if you were paying more attention than I was and didn’t miss any clues!

Henrietta Hamilton (a pseudonym of Hester Denne Shepherd) worked in a London bookshop in the years following World War II and had personal experience of selling antiquarian books, which gives the novel a feeling of authenticity. Bookselling is not just a background to the novel, but an important part of the plot, and the author’s knowledge and interest in ‘incunabula’ (early printed books) comes through very strongly.

I was pleased to find that Sally plays a bigger part in the investigations in this book than she did in Answer in the Negative and makes some important discoveries which prove to be turning points in the mystery – although, remembering that it was written in the 1950s, there’s always a sense that Johnny feels the need to protect her because she’s a woman. Still, both Johnny and Sally are characters who are easy to like and to care about; it was nice to get to know them before they were married and to see their relationship develop (although it does so quite subtly and their romance is only one small part of the story). Having enjoyed this book, I would like to meet the Heldars again – luckily, there are another two books in the series and I’m hoping they will be reissued soon too!

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

Dead March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs – #RIPXV

This is the third of George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn mysteries I’ve read. I enjoyed the other two (A Knife for Harry Dodd and Death in Room Five), but I think this one is the best so far.

First published in 1951, Dead March for Penelope Blow is set in the small English town of Nesbury, home to the Blow family who live in the big house adjoining the bank which used to be the family business. The novel opens with Penelope Blow, one of the two surviving daughters of old William Blow, the banker, calling at Scotland Yard in the hope of seeing Inspector Littlejohn. Littlejohn, however, is away attending a murder trial and Penelope is forced to return to Nesbury, leaving a message for the Inspector to call her as soon as possible. Unfortunately, before Littlejohn has time to contact her and find out what she had been so desperate to tell him, Penelope falls to her death from a window while leaning out to water flowers in a window box.

As Littlejohn, with the help of his assistant Cromwell, begins to investigate the circumstances of Penelope Blow’s death, an intricate mystery unfolds involving family secrets, wills and inheritances, forgeries and thefts, and a suspected case of poisoning. The novel is carefully plotted, with some clever red herrings, and various revelations coming at just the right points in the story. It’s not really a very original mystery, but I still found it intriguing and although I correctly guessed who did it, I didn’t manage to work everything out before Littlejohn and Cromwell did.

What makes this a particularly enjoyable novel, though, is the strong, almost Dickensian, characterisation (in fact, when Cromwell is listening to the housekeeper, Mrs Buckley, talking about her ‘umble home, he thinks of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield). From Mr Jelley, the frail, elderly butler, and John Slype, the cheerful little window cleaner, to the fierce and beautiful Lenore Blow and her father Captain Broome, whom Littlejohn describes as ‘like a character out of Kipling’, they are all very strongly drawn and each of them, however minor, adds something special to the story. In contrast, Littlejohn and Cromwell are quite ordinary, but I do like them both!

Another interesting thing about this book is that, although it’s set in the post-war period and there are a few references to this (we are reminded that food rationing is still in place, for example), the story feels as though it could have been taking place in a much earlier period. The Blow family almost seem to be frozen in time, with relationships between the male and female members of the household and between servants and employers as rigidly structured as they would have been in Victorian times. The social history aspect of the novel is almost as fascinating as the mystery.

Having enjoyed this one so much, I’m looking forward to reading more from the Littlejohn series!

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

This is my third and final book read for this year’s RIP Challenge.

Every Eye by Isobel English – #1956Club

This week Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their club events, where we all read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1956, which seems to have been a fantastic year for publishing! There were a lot of books that sounded very appealing to me, but there were only two already on my TBR and I decided on this one, Every Eye by Isobel English. This short novella, published by Persephone, has fewer than 150 pages (including the preface by Neville Braybrooke), so was perfect for me at the moment when I’m struggling to concentrate on longer books; my usual reading patterns seem to have been disrupted all year and I don’t know when they will get back to normal.

Anyway, Every Eye is narrated by Hatty, a woman in her thirties who is married to Stephen, a younger man. At the beginning of the book, she and Stephen are preparing to go on a belated honeymoon to Ibiza, when she receives the news that Cynthia has died. Who is Cynthia? Well, she’s the woman who married Hatty’s Uncle Otway many years earlier and who was to become one of the most influential figures in her young life. As Hatty and Stephen travel by train across France and Spain, the story moves back and forth between past and present as Hatty reflects on her childhood and her memories of Cynthia, Uncle Otway – and the older man, Jasper, with whom she had her first romantic relationship.

The book is structured in a way that I would often have found irritating; one continuous narrative with no chapter breaks and sudden jumps between past and present tense as Hatty alternates between telling the story of her trip to Ibiza and reminiscing about episodes from her past. Here, though, the structure works very well and, perhaps because the book is so short, it doesn’t have time to become annoying or confusing. And Isobel English writes beautifully! I am in the habit now of looking out for interesting, inspiring or thought-provoking passages to quote in my monthly Commonplace Book posts; with some books I struggle to find any, but with Every Eye there was a line or a paragraph worthy of being quoted on almost every page. There’s a lovely sense of place too; the descriptions of the scenery through which Hatty and Stephen pass on their journey across Europe are gorgeous and vivid:

Trailing banks of giant blue convolvulus, purple bougainvillea twisted into the formal intricacy of black wrought iron – all hang downward toward the sea. Lemons in the hotel garden, still green but ripening in patches, and below the shelving gardens, the wilder unfenced land parceled into small plots, sloping away to the sea’s edge: everywhere the stunted grey of the olive trees. With our small rationed vision we are like greedy children looking everywhere for more and more; we stare into the brilliance like seers, seeking an unsimple and deeper quality; when we do not find it, we call it surfeit.

The title of the book refers to Hatty’s ‘lazy eye’, which gives her the appearance of not looking straight ahead. She considers this to be a deformity – something that makes her unattractive and undesirable – and even after having an operation to correct it, it still has an impact on her self-confidence. Sight and vision are important themes in the novel, not just in the sense of Hatty having eye problems, but also in how we see other people and how they see us. For example:

After the first six months of our knowing each other, I found it impossible to carry within my mind a clear picture of myself in relation to Jasper. My vision was blurred, because I had outwardly accepted the state.

Or this:

I thought always before the operation on my eye that the source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision; I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of inward impediment.

Despite her problems with vision, or maybe because of them, it seems that by the end of the story Hatty can see things more clearly than anyone else. I had heard that this book had one of those amazing last lines that make you catch your breath, so I was expecting something special – and yes, it was worth waiting for (but not quite as powerful as the last sentence of another Persephone, Little Boy Lost). This is a beautiful, atmospheric book and although it’s not one of my absolute favourite Persephones, it’s certainly one I’m glad I read and a great choice for 1956 Club!

Here are some other books from 1956, previously reviewed here on my blog:

Death in Cyprus by MM Kaye
Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer
Death on a Quiet Day by Michael Innes
Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Murder to Music by Margaret Newman

The latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series is a book by an author I thought was new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few of her books under another of her pseudonyms, Anne Melville. This one, Murder to Music, was her first novel and was originally published in 1959 under the name Margaret Newman. It’s an excellent murder mystery and could have been the start of a great series had the author not moved on to other genres (such as the Anne Melville family sagas).

Delia Jones is on the managing committee of the Metropolitan Choir, who are preparing to give a performance of a new mass composed by their conductor, Evan Tredegar. At the beginning of the novel, we meet the other members of the committee, whom we quickly discover are not the happiest group of people. Below the surface, there are tensions, secrets and resentments, some of which we won’t be aware of or fully understand until later in the story. The assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is particularly unpopular with the rest of the choir, so when he is shot dead just as the performance draws to a close there is no shortage of suspects.

Detective Superintendent Simon Hudson is watching from the audience and is able to begin an immediate investigation. However, things are going to be slightly difficult for Simon…because Delia Jones happens to be his girlfriend. Can she be ruled out as a suspect? Then, just as Simon thinks he has uncovered the motive and is about to identify the murderer, a second death takes place and he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are strong, with some of them given interesting back stories, and the reasons behind the complex relationships and long-standing feuds between the members of the choir feel believable. I also liked the setting, which made a change from the country house or small village settings which are so common in this type of detective novel. I’m not sure whether Margaret Newman had a musical background, but I felt that she seemed to really understand what was involved in the staging of a musical performance and what it was like to be part of a choir.

As a mystery, I thought the plot worked well and I was surprised by some of the developments in the second half of the book, having been led in the wrong direction for most of the first half! I kept changing my mind between one suspect and another, but in the end I was happy just to let Simon Hudson solve the mystery for me. It’s a shame this seems to be the only book featuring Simon and Delia, but I will be reading more by this author, under her various pseudonyms, and have the third book in her Hardie trilogy lined up to read soon.

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

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!

Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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