Category Archives: mystery

Evil Under the Sun

My annual attempt at reading “scary” stories in October actually worked out in 2017.

I actually read this book, and it was exciting because it was the first book I took out from the library in the town where I now live, so it was a big moment for me.

Anyway, Evil Under the Sun was one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, one of the lesser known ones that doesn’t get much attention. This one, unlike a couple of the other lesser known ones I’ve read, was quite enjoyable.

Hercule Poirot is on holiday at a secluded beach hotel in Devon when a beautiful, flirtatious red-headed actress named Arlena is murdered. Poirot and the police go through the full investigation and questioning of witnesses and about their alibis.

In this particular case, Arlena was a well known flirt who had many affairs after her first husband died under suspicious circumstances and she remarried an honorable military man, who was in love with someone else who happened to be at the hotel. He also had a daughter who hated her step mother.

Other suspects include a young man that Arlena appeared to be having an affair with, the young man’s wife, and several other vacation goers with means and motive.

As usual, Poirot’s reasoning was flawless, and as usual, there is a piece of information the reader isn’t privy to until Poirot reveals it – in this case, a similar murder – which means the reader can’t solve the mystery but doesn’t render it unenjoyable.

I might have liked this book a lot because, as I’ve mentioned before, I have an affinity for mysteries and stories where the isolated settings dictate a lot of what is possible for the characters. This book took place at a remote beach resort, and so there were a very specific set of suspects that must have committed the crime in a very specific set of circumstance.

This was an entirely satisfying mystery and a good one for Halloween.



Murder on the Orient Express

I first read Murder on the Orient Express in college, when I went through a phase where I read a loooot of Agatha Christie mysteries. I started with And Then There Were None (as it came highly recommended by one of my best friends’ mom, who was one of two sets of extra parents I was fortunate enough to have growing up), and then moved on to Murder on the Orient Express.

I revisited it in preparation for the movie that, at the time, was coming out in November. Spoiler alert: I never saw the film.

The book is considered one of Christie’s two best (along with And Then There Were None) and upon revisiting, it’s definitely one of my favorites.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I like limited settings. They require a lot of interesting dialogue and a clever plot. Murder on the Orient Express takes place on a train! A train that is caught in a snowstorm!

For those who don’t know, the Orient Express was a long distance passenger train that originally ran from Paris to Istanbul. The line made a lot of changes through the years and eventually was shut in 2009, the last version of the line running from Strasbourg to Vienna.

Our favorite Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who ends up on the train when his plans are changed, is called in to solve the murder of Samuel Ratchett, by his friend Bouc who operates the train line and who is on board. Ratchett, who believe his life was being threatened and tried to hire Poirot and was refused, is murdered on the second night of the trip when the train is caught in the snow near Vinkovci.

The story moves on from there. The story involves a kidnapping and a ransom and another murder. It was very reminiscent of the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 and may have inspired this part of the book.

I was glad I revisited this story. It really isn’t very long and was quite a nice break from the near constant stream of non-fiction books I usually involve myself in.

Christie’s murder mysteries aren’t usually solvable by the reader because of some piece of unknown information that the reader isn’t privy to until the big reveal towards the end. In this case it was details of the other murder relevant to the story. That said, you could guess at the ending better in this story than with many of Christie’s other stories.

Not being able to solve the mysteries doesn’t usually bother me. I never enjoy something I solve half way through…sometimes less than halfway through. Like the movie Fracture with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Solved it half way through. Knew how it would work out. Was psyched with my own cleverness but sad that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film.

While the mystery here isn’t solvable, exactly, the solution is particularly interesting. It’s cleverly done, and very satisfying.

One thing that always sticks out in Christie’s mysteries, though, is how dated they are. Not, necessarily, in a bad way. I’m obsessed with train travel, so the idea of a rail line that goes from Paris to Istanbul is fascinating to me. What is a little off-putting, but not book destroying, is how constantly stereotypes are adhered to in Christie’s writing. Poirot is Belgian, and constantly referred to as “foreign.” It’s done all over her works with regard to nationalities, ethnicities, and gender. It isn’t inherently negative, but to someone who isn’t used to these references, it’s a little bizarre. It’s done here.

As I said, it doesn’t ruin the story. It’s just a little off putting if you aren’t used to it. And the books are nearly 100 years old. It was a very different time.

I really loved revisiting Murder on the Orient Express. It isn’t a long read, so if you haven’t read it and are looking for a clever story, it’s a lot of fun.

The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

Another one of my weird interests: people who disappear. I don’t think I’m actually unique in this but I will admit it, which I think makes me unique. And kind of weird. But knowing you’re weird makes it ok, right?

Anyway, this is one of those cases.

Joseph Crater was a New York Supreme Court Justice who disappeared on August 6, 1930 and whose body was never found. There is no proof he was murdered, but most people of his stature who disappear without a trace and are never found are frequently murdered.

His disappearance was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine, a New York City political organization started in 1789 and dissolved in 1967. By the time of Crater’s disappearance, Tammany Hall was a thoroughly corrupt enterprise tied to organized crime. Its influence really began to wane not long after Crater went missing – they engaged in a losing battle with reformers looking to clean up the political process in the city. One of the reform leaders was Franklin D. Roosevelt, first governor of New York, then President of the United States.

Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress builds a mystery novel around the three major women in Crater’s life around the time Crater disappeared – his wife, Stella, his maid, Maria, and his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.

This was a very entertaining novel. Crater was presented as complete asshole, so his disappearance is really no loss. The characterizations of the three women, however, was a fascinating picture of three women, each who are unable to really exercise any agency in their roles in the early 20th century, taking control of something in their lives as they react and deal with the disappearance of this man they were all, in some way, dependent on.

The story moves between the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, where Mrs. Crater and Maria’s husband meet in a cafe. IIRC, Mrs. Crater is telling Maria’s husband, a non-corrupt NYC police detective who helped investigate her husband’s disappearance, exactly what happened in the months leading up to August 6, 1930.

I’m not going to give away the ending here, although it was an immensely satisfying explanation, because it’s never fun to read a mystery when you know the end. But the book itself, despite the dark subject matter, isn’t particularly dark, and is really more about these three women, their relationships with each other, and their efforts to improve their lives. The characterizations were fun and their relationships, particularly with each other, are so well developed.

I did this one via audiobook at work and in my car, which I very much enjoyed as I traveled all over two counties, working and apartment hunting. This a great book for the beach – an intelligent, not too dense, page turner.

Jamaica Inn

Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time before I finally picked it up late last year, and as usual I don’t know why I waited so long to get around to reading it. I think I ended up reading it this time because I recorded the movie off Turner Classic Movies and wanted to read the book first.

Jamaica Inn follows Mary Yellan, a very serious, stoic girl whose mother just died to the hotel of the title, where her Aunt Patience lives.

There is a real ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. It still exists, people still go, and it inspired DuMaurier’s novel, however, the book does mention that the fate of the inn in real life and in the book are not the same and the novel is merely something DuMaurier made up. Apparently it’s a touristy spot these days, but in the novel it’s old and nearly abandoned.

So Mary is dropped off in the middle of the night at a dark, cold inn that “honest people” now avoid. In fact, if I remember correctly, she wasn’t even dropped off at the inn, because the carriage driver wouldn’t get close enough. She was dropped off a few miles away, across a moor, and probably wouldn’t have made it to the inn at all without the help of a passing vicar.

Aunt Patience, who Mary remembers from her childhood as lively and bright, is now cowering and meek, married to Joss Merlyn, the inn’s proprietor, as well as a drunk and local bully.

Mary and her uncle clash routinely, and Mary can’t stand her uncle, but is trapped in Jamaica Inn because Mary can’t bear to ignore her mother’s last wish – which was to go live with and care for her Aunt Patience. Mary also figures out that something is off – the inn never has any guests and the bar/restaurant portion rarely has visitors.

As with DuMaurier’s other novels, this story is full of rich language that creates a dark, brooding atmosphere. Mary is a spunky heroine, if not a little grating. Yes, we get it, Mary has little sense of humor and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and is pure of heart and spirit. WE GET IT. The supporting characters are more interesting, with my favorite of them being the vicar. There is a pretty good mystery involved, and some twists you don’t see coming until the very last moment, which I always appreciate. I’ve solved several plots way before the end and it always makes the story less enjoyable.

While Jamaica Inn is classified as a book of “romantic suspense,” I wouldn’t label it as such. It’s a suspenseful novel, certainly a mystery novel, but there isn’t that much that’s typically “romantic” about it. Mary does meet a man named Jem, and his identity and his job are parts of the mystery, but they’re not the main parts, and not even the most interesting parts.

I would recommend the book as a pretty good read, with this added tip: when you come across a word you don’t know because it’s not the 1800s anymore, look it up. The story will make way more sense. Jamaica Inn isn’t as good as Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel, but it’s enjoyable anyway and fairly short. I think the whole thing was 300 pages, tops. Probably more like 270.

Finally, as I previously mentioned, there is a film version of this novel that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton. The movie was terrible. Supposedly it was hijacked by Laughton who would revise the script to make his role better or more appealing to the audience and what not. For whatever the reason, the film was really bad. And I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, so it’s not like me to dump on one of his films. He killed it adapting Rebecca, and I’ve really come to love and appreciate The Birds. But the screen adaptation of Jamaica Inn? It was bad. It was just bad. It didn’t follow the novel, it eliminated the most interesting character, it featured Charles Laughton as the world’s most obnoxious squire.

In this case, if deciding between the two, just go with the novel.

‘Murder on the Orient Express’ trailer

I first read Murder on the Orient Express back in college – I went through a huge Agatha Christie phase my freshman year and read at least 10 (probably more) of her mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express is frequently touted as one of her best, and I agree. The book has gotten several film treatments; a couple I’ve seen but none that I’ve loved. I must say, I’m really excited about the one coming out this November! Naturally, I’ll have to reread the story before then, but it’s a great cast and I’m really looking forward to seeing if they can get it right. Is anyone else?

Here’s the trailer:

Career of Evil

Well, I’m back. My family life took a sad turn in June, and since then I haven’t been doing very much of anything productive, but I’m trying to change that now.

And so we’ve arrived at Career of Evil, the last book I read in 2015. This is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) and I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Silkworm, but just as much as The Cuckoo’s Calling.

A lunatic sends Cormoran’s spunky sidekick (and growing love interest), Robin, a human leg. Just a leg. No body attached, like she had ordered a turkey drumstick. This was the first of several body parts delivered to Robin. Blue Oyster Cult lyrics also arrive with these body parts and feature heavily throughout the book. Strike figures out he knows the killer partially because the killer sends BOC lyrics his mom had as a tattooed on her.

This was a pretty weird mystery that took some pretty wild turns, where the suspect is one of three very shady blokes Cormoran knows from his past including an one of his old boxing adversaries from the army, a pedophile and some other really lousy human being.

They get the right guy at the end, but not before Robin breaks off her wedding, then un-breaks off her wedding, and gets herself fired for disobeying direct orders from her boss, who can barely manage without her because she takes care of all the detailed things he can’t be bothered to think about (like, the mail).

Anyway, after their big blowout, Strike finds himself being driven by one of his childhood friends in low places to Robin’s wedding, where he shows up just in time to see Robin get married, and knock over a big vase of flowers, drawing the attention of the whole church congregation, which makes Robin laugh.

We also find out during the book that Robin was raped in college, which is why she never completed it, and that Matthew, her boyfriend now fiance/husband, had a fling with a friend of his.

At the end of this story, Robin and Strike, while no longer actively arguing and rather glad to see each other, are not actually reconciled and Robin is still fired, so hopefully this is rectified in the next book, because Robin is my favorite character, and I prefer she not be absent for any long length of time.

Now that Robin is married it is also less clear in Robin and Strike are endgame, which is less important but still kind of what I’d like to see happen because Matthew is a douche. Robin needs to get rid of him at the very least.

As I said, I enjoyed this every bit as much as the first Galbraith book, not quite as much as the second, but definitely a lot.

I don’t know how many of these books Rowling Galbraith plans to write, but as long as they remain this good, I’ll keep reading them. She’s released one book a year 2013, 2014, and 2015 in the Strike series so far, but considering it’s nearly September and there’s no release date for the next one yet, it probably won’t be out until 2017 at the earliest, which isn’t the end of the world, but I’d still have liked to have gotten my hands on it this fall.

I’m going to try to update this more frequently again. I haven’t even started writing about my 2016 books yet and it’s getting on 2017. JEEZ.

Hallowe’en Party

As someone who occasionally likes to read books that match the season they’re in, I decided in October to read Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie. I don’t know why the apostrophe is in there, but it is.

I read this book mostly on flights to and from Utah, so it isn’t impossible that I missed some details as I read and as I dozed on and off over the course of a 5-6 hour flight.

This was a Hercule Poirot novel, so the Belgian detective with the immaculate mustache was called on to investigate the murder of a 13 year old girl, who was killed by drowning in a bobbing-for-apples bucket at – you guessed it – a Halloween party.

I never want to give away the ending to mysteries, because that’s – for lack of a better term – completely douchy, so I will just comment on how I felt about this particular mystery.

I went through a phase my freshman year of college where I read, easily, 15-20 of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and I found all of them entertaining, although some more clever than others.

I found this one dark, not so much because of the subject matter – murder is always dark – but the murder of a 13 year old has a particular blackness about it, and so does the motive. But what really got me was the way the characters in the book blamed the girl – Joyce – for her own death, because she wasn’t particularly likable. (Actually, in the telling of this tale, almost nobody was very likable.)

Joyce was 13, and a serial teller of tall tales. She adopted other people’s stories as her own, and exaggerated greatly many of her own roles in stories, and she was a showoff and sort of mouthy. She was also referred to as a bit dim.

Now, it would be quite understandable if other children disliked her. Children are children and I forgive them for judging their peers. They know each other in a way adults don’t, and have to deal with other children in the way adults don’t. But the adults in this book seem to really dislike her, and seem to think her mother may be slightly overreacting to her death.

There’s no hints that she’ll grow out of it or anything of the sort – as lots of kids do grow out of their most obnoxious traits as they grow up and mature. It’s just a bunch of adults saying stuff like, “Yeah, Joyce the liar, heh, no redeeming qualities, won’t miss her much, I don’t know why her mother is so upset.”

Ok, they didn’t exactly say that, but I got that definite sense reading the story.

I don’t know if this was time Agatha Christie was writing in, where children were not considered to be super special snowflakes and expected to be small adults who were never going to change as they grew up, or if this was done on purpose as some sort of story telling technique/plot device. I just didn’t love it.

I did enjoy visiting with Hercule Poirot again, as I hadn’t read a story of his in quite some time. And I did enjoy his friend, Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer (who called him in to investigate because, uh, nobody seemed to think it was odd a 13 year old drowned in a bobbing-for-apples tub?). She was the only adult in the story who seemed to be alarmed that a child was murdered and she definitely didn’t like murder outside of her stories. A self-insert by the author, maybe? Another likable character was Miranda, Joyce’s close friend, but she was under utilized.

As with all of Dame Christie’s books, I did enjoy it, it just wasn’t my favorite of her stories. The ending didn’t feel natural, the whole story felt a bit convoluted, and there were some loose ends. Plus, as I mentioned, almost nobody in the book was very likable.

Hallowe’en Party was a short book (a very redeeming quality), and not terrible, but overall, not Agatha’s best.

The Last Dickens

I’m a sucker for historical mysteries. I’m a bigger sucker for historical mysteries about lost manuscripts.

This started in college when I read Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. It followed protagonist and heroine Kate Stanley as she directed a Shakespeare play and chased the possibility of finding one of Shakespeare’s lost plays. She later wrote another one called Haunt Me Still.

Kate’s a bit of a Mary Sue but I really liked the premise of both stories so I was willing to overlook this.

I read another book, with the protagonist also chasing a lost Shakespeare play.  It was called The Book of Air and Shadows by (I think) Michael Gruber…and it was terrible. Too much about the protagonist’s screwed up life and not enough anything interesting.

There are probably more of these books out there, but I haven’t read them.

What I have read was another book by Matthew Pearl, his first one, called The Dante Club. This was also back in college (I had so much time to read in college. DAMN I MISS YOU, LEISURE TIME!) But The Dante Club wasn’t as much a mystery about a lost manuscript as it was a murder solved by real life historical characters (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, etc)…

I remember that I rather enjoyed that book at the time I was reading it…someone was committing murders in the fashion of atrocities against souls in Dante’s Inferno. But unlike other mysteries, I didn’t remember the end and had to look it up on Wikipedia. It was good, but it wasn’t THAT good.

But The Last Dickens IS about a missing manuscript…well, not missing, but incomplete.

Charles Dickens died of what was most likely a stroke before he completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which to this day remains one of literature’s greatest mysteries. Was Drood really dead, killed by his uncle? Or was he to triumphantly return?

In the story, Dickens’s American publisher, JT Fields, and Fields’ most capable assistant, Rebecca, go to England to try to track down the rest of the Drood story – if there is more.

The story alternates between the present day, where Fields and Rebecca are searching for answers, and Dickens’ farewell tour in the United States two or three years earlier. The stories intertwine, Fields is involved in both.

It’s an incredibly well researched story – a lot of the historical events really took place and the characters are based extensively on available records about them at the time. Dickens and his team for example, and Fields as well.

My favorite part of the book was probably Rebecca, who was smart and sophisticated and saved Fields a couple of times. Aside from trying to find the end of the last book Dickens wrote, there was a parallel mystery going on about who was following Fields and Rebecca and why. The book opens with Rebecca’s brother’s murder, and goes on from there.

Overall, I enjoyed The Last Dickens, just as I enjoyed The Dante Club. How good was it? I don’t know exactly, but considering that the details are already beginning to fade, it was probably just like the last one. Good, but not THAT good.

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