Murder Mystery

Inspector Morse and Oxford, the Perfect Combination

Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that few other genres offer the immediate escapism that a good murder mystery does. I’d never really thought about why, but I’ve come to think that it’s because the setting plays such a huge part in a crime novel.

Whether it’s one of Agatha Christie’s books set in the English countryside, or a slice of noir decadence, the shady lanes and mean streets are another character in the book.

But the master isn’t one of the ones I’d read before. It’s one that came to me through the screen.

Like many people, I discovered Inspector Morse through the 90’s TV series. A wonderful creation, it is essentially the only non-sports or non-sitcom TV content I have any patience for. I watched the entire original series recently, and it’s an amazing piece of work, transporting the viewer to the pace and sights of Oxford.

But I’d never read any of Colin dexter’s Original books. This, it turns out, is a stupid omission.

I’ll assume The Daughters of Cain is a typical Morse book and say that… it’s absolutely wonderful. If the rest of the series is as good as this one, I’d say that Dexter was another of the worthy successors to Agatha Christie. In fact, I’ll say that, though the psychological complexity of the characters might not be at the level of others, these books are better.

Why? Because of what I said at the beginning. The setting becomes a character, and no setting is better suited to the role than the city of Oxford. It’s history, architecture and the interaction of town and gown is perfect to lose oneself in…

But it takes a special kind of writer to do it justice and Dexter fits the bill wonderfully. Erudite and knowledgeable, he brings the city and Morse’s fraught relationship with the university to vibrant life and you, as a reader, find yourself transported.

When the book finished, I wanted more, but not more of the characters, necessarily. I wanted more of the world they moved around in. And I think that’s the magic of these books.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His fast-paced thriller Timeless follows a journalist on the track of a big story only to find herself involved with international smugglers and East-European drug dealers. If she wants to survive, she’ll have to ally herself with a man who knows the ropes… and that means a criminal. You can check it out here.

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

Those following along will remember that the last two Agatha Christie novels we reviewed here were Tommy and Tuppence vehicles.  You can see my take here and here.

These are not the books that made Christie famous.  Not by a long shot.

But, like finding a glass of water in the desert, one appreciates her great work more by exposure to the arid wasteland.  And when Poirot returns, rejoicing ensues.

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it was the rebound effect, but I found Evil Under the Sun to be a near-perfect murder mystery.  It has everything you want from Agatha Christie: a secluded location, a group of people with motives for killing the victim, wonderful red herrings and a resolution that depends on the psychology of the victim.

It’s a simply beautiful piece of mystery fiction and blows away the boring image of the Tommy and Tuppence books.  I suppose the reason it works so well is that the setting is comfortable and familiar, and that the possibility of the reader guessing the murderer exists (though that is never necessarily Christie’s strongest suit in my experience).  The clues in this one exist… but you don’t necessarily manage to put them together until Poirot explains them.

So THIS is classic Queen of Crime, and if you’ve already read The Murder of Roger Akroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, this is a good choice for continued reading.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write whodunnits, but his book timeless is a sexy, fast-paced thriller.  You can check it out here.

Tommy and Tuppence Again

I recently reviewed an Agatha Christie book entitled Postern of Fate.  Its main characters are a married couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are serial Christie protagonists.  Unfortunately, they are not the most interesting of her creations.  Poirot, to take her most important protagonists as an example, they most certainly are not.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

The main problem is that she breaks her own formula (after decades, I imagine she was ready for a change).  Instead of giving us the characters and then murdering one of them and then sifting–with the reader watching over her shoulder–the nuggets of information from the red herrings, these stories involve long-buried mysteries and the criminal ends up being someone we don’t particularly care about.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs is better than Postern of Fate in that, unlike the latter, at least all the actors are involved in the book.  There aren’t any last-minute additions that make no sense.

But we don’t actually care about the resolution.  A murder mystery should involve the reader and this one doesn’t.  The only characters we care about are Tommy and Tuppence, while everyone else is just there to play a part, often a strangely twisted part that throws you off.  The resolution, though surprising, is not enough to raise this one to the Queen of Crime’s usual standards.

The contrast with Christie’s usual technique of doing nuanced psychological studies of the people surrounding the detective(s) is what makes this particular volume, though pleasant reading, one for Christie completists only.

There’s a reason Poirot and Marple are better known.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own thriller–most certainly NOT a cozy mystery–is called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

The Long Shadow of Coincidence

It’s unusual for me not to enjoy an Agatha Christie book.  Most of them are really good, and I’ve only found one that I really didn’t like.

Now, I can add one that wasn’t bad, just mediocre, to the list.

Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie

If this book is typical (it may not be) Tommy and Tuppence are certainly not among Christie’s greatest creation.  They certainly didn’t inspire me anywhere near as much as a Marple adventure would, and we can’t even begin to compare them to the great Poirot.

The one good thing you can say about this book is that Christie’s overarching mastery of both the craft of writing and literature itself comes to the fore and makes the act of reading pleasurable, kind of like digging for diamonds.  Had work, but ultimately profitable.

Unfortunately, the mystery itself is well-titled.  Fate intervenes when a house purchase leads the duo to an ancient mystery with ramifications that come to the present day (1974 in this particular case).

With the victim dead ages ago, the plot loses some of its immediacy, and the ending was ultimately unsatisfying.  There is no way for the reader to try to guess who the guilty parties are… because the shadowy people behind everything don’t appear and are never named.

Definitely one of her weaker books, albeit one that is extremely erudite.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own foray into crime fiction, Timeless is a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

A Flat Detective

It should have been a match made in heaven.  Murder mysteries are one of my favorite genres.  Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  And Sicily is just paradise if you happen to like the same kinds of places that I do.

And yet something failed to click.

The Age of Doubt - Inspector Montalbano - Andrea Camilleri.jpg

The Age of Doubt is a book by Andrea Camilleri in the Inspector Montalbano series.  I had seen the Montalbano series on TV a few years ago, and the series hadn’t really caught my attention (I’m much less of a series watcher than I am a series reader), but this was my first exposure to the author’s writing.

I was unimpressed, mainly because, unlike Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg, I found the inspector to be utterly annoying in his insecurity and strangely adolescent (or perhaps even pre-teen-girl-like) in his emotional responses to pretty much everything going on around him.

At first, I was tempted to blame the translator, as I wasn’t terribly impressed with the prose even before encountering the emotional issues, but once I saw how childishly emotions were rendered, I’m giving the translator a pass.  For all I know, this is a faithful rendering of the original Italian (I can read Italian, but not well enough to judge prose quality, unfortunately).

These are small irritants, of course.  The overall review of this book is that it’s an interesting murder mystery with a melodramatic ending.  I personally found the Inspector’s emotional inner monologue to be an irritant, but others obviously enjoy it.

This series can’t be dismissed, as the late Gardner Dozois famously did every year to the even later Martin H. Greenbergs’ anthologies, as “pleasant but minor”, as it is already a worldwide bestselling publishing phenomenon.  So I’ll limit myself to saying that I prefer my investigators to have different neuroses, treated differently, and leave it at that.  If you prefer a touch of overwrought melodrama, this might be just the series for you.

In my opinion, there are better crime novels among the millions of options out there.  Your mileage may vary.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime novel Timeless is a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can buy it here.

A Wonderfully Sordid Little Piece

I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to the books I grab off random bookstore shelves, but apart from classics I’d been meaning to read for ages, the stuff I’m most likely to grab are thrillers from the golden age of crime fiction (I have a pretty wide definition of when the golden age of crime was, but I’d generally say it starts somewhere in the 20’s and ends in either the late sixties or early seventies.  Your mileage may vary depending on taste, but that’s my wheelhouse.

The problem, of course, is that I’m no expert on the genre–I read it because I like it, so people like Lawrence Block are subject to curiosity (for those, like me before reading that one, who don’t know, he was a major figure in the crime genre).

Another one I had no idea about was John Creasey.  The Cover of my old Pan paperback copy of his book A Case for Inspector West claimed that his sales (in 1961) exceeded 20 million… but I hadn’t read a single word he wrote.

I will likely not commit that error again.  A Case for Inspector West is one of those books that goes so quickly and pleasantly that you end up wondering where the heck it went.  It’s short, but not that short; the speed is because it’s a fun, well-written work.

A Case for Inspector West - John Creasey

Fun, in this case, is a relative term.  You need to like to have people murdered in cold blood, front and center (no cozy-mystery off-camera murders for Mr. Creasey) to enjoy this one, and you also need to be rooting for the death penalty.  This one was written in England in a time where murderers were hung.

If you’re OK with all that, then yeah, this one is a blast.  It has everything you could want of a nice, ugly case of betrayal and counter-betrayal with a very satisfying body count.

One of the nice things about doing book reviews is that it’s one of the few instances in 21st century life in which you’re allowed to applaud violence and depravity without being criticized for it.

So yeah, Creasey gets two thumbs up from this former Creasey virgin, and I will be on the lookout for his stuff in the future.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose thriller Timeless is not lost in early sixties England, but is bang up-to-date and global in scope.  Also, you can get an ebook, so there’s no need to hunt down an old Pan paperback.  You can check it out here.

Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.