Cards On The Table by Agatha Christie

So, here we are with the next book in my Great Agatha Christie Challenge.  Cards On The Table is a Poirot mystery, which also features the fabulous Ariadne Oliver. Oliver is Christie's lovely character which pokes fun at mystery writers. 

Poirot meets Mr Shaitana, famous about town as a party host. He boasts to Poirot that he knows four people who have literally got away with murder. Poirot, is not too impressed, but still agrees to dinner with Mr Shaitana. 

When Poirot arrives for dinner he finds Ariadne Oliver there, along with another couple of gentlemen involved in crime fighting. Another four guests arrive and over dinner Mr Shaitana starts to drop not so thinly veiled hints that he knows that someone around the table has got way with bumping someone else off. This makes four of the guests somewhat jittery and the others rather curious. 

After dinner, Shaitana splits the crime fighters from the suspected murderers and gets them to play bridge in separate rooms. He sits by the fired in a chair, and sometime in the evening is stabbed through the heart. Nobody sees a thing, although it is clear that one of the suspicious four must have done it. 

So, our intrepid crime fighters set off to find out who has done what and start to uncover secrets left, right and centre. 

I delayed reading this for quite a while. I was put off by the cover, which I know is very superficial, and not a good way to go about ones reading, but there we have it. Once I did pick it up I was hooked. Mr Shaitana is an irritating know it all, although he probably didn't deserve to be murdered. The four suspects are really interesting characters in themselves, each with a clever backstory which casts long shadows over their potential guilt.

Poirot is as knowing as ever, and Ariadne Oliver completely bats, but rather loveable. Many of the clues revolve around the rules of bridge, which was unfortunate, as I don't have a clue about bridge. Or at least I didn't. I spent quite a lot of time on the internet learning the basic ideas, meaning I now know more about bridge that you would expect given I have never played a game in my life. 

I enjoyed this mystery very much, lack of bridge knowledge not withstanding, it is as easy read with a great series of revelations. 

 

Printer's Devil Court by Susan Hill

Published by Profile Books

As it is that creepy time of year, when well known supermarkets add to the obesity epidemic by selling two for one offers on sweets, I thought I would take the opportunity to review a ghost story.

This is the new book from Susan Hill. It is a rather lovely small hardback. Out of interest I Googled Printer's Devil and found this wikipedia page. Interesting stuff.

The story begins when a manuscript of the late Dr Hugh Meredith is sent to his step son from his executors. In it Dr Meredith tells how he was involved with medical experiments in his youth which have impacted his whole life. 

Dr Meredith lodged with three other young doctors, in Printer's Devil Court. Rafe, a rather sinister character reveals to his colleagues that he has worked out how to bring people back from the dead. Doesn't bode well does it? One of the four makes a hasty, and if I may say so, well judged exit at this point, but Hugh is intrigued and agrees to witness the experiment. He is taken down to a disused morgue in the hospital and sees what his flatmates have been up to in their spare time. 

As with all of Susan Hill's ghost stories, there is a fantastic sense of place, in this case, the dark backstreets of London, unchanged since Dickensian times, and an obsolete basement in a hospital. I found this story particularly effective in giving me the heebie jeebies, especially as the reason for the experiments undertaken is revealed early, and the reader can see that it can only end badly one way or another.

I read this in a single sitting one evening, and was very glad that the Delightful Mr F was around to stop my imagination running completely riot after I finished it. I am not a lover of being scared, I dislike horror films intensely, but a good ghost story, well that's a different matter. I think it is probably because I can stop reading if I want to (and had to for The Woman In Black).  Dolly was another of Hill's book which gave me the creeps for weeks, but then I was never a fan of dolls as a child, seeing them rather as some people see clowns, sinister beings out to get small children for minor mischief. Give me a teddy bear any day.

Getting back to the book, this is a fantastic ghost story, just right for a dark autumnal evening. Leave the lights on though.

Authors Bullying Their Characters

I suspect this may turn into a rather rambling post, but would be interested in what you all think. I am currently reading a book, which I won't name, where I am feeling more and more sorry for the characters, for a reason which hasn't happened to me before. I think I had better start at the very beginning*.

I started to read the book in question and within about 30 pages I was bored. The characters seemed wooden and stereotypical, and I almost gave up, but felt that a couple chapters wasn't really enough to judge, so bravely ploughed on.  By the time I got page 80 I was feeling outraged! The plot was still daft and rather dull, but the author seemed to be using the characters to bully certain types of people. 

Authors put their characters through all sorts of nasty things. They rob them, murder them, kidnap them, take all their money, have the love of their lives run off with the milkman and so on. I can accept all of that as part of the plot. Equally, flawed characters are a necessity as a reflection of real life, and a perfect person is probably very dull. What I really don't like about how this author is dealing with their characters is that the characters themselves are flawed, but not any more than the rest of us. They have a particular approach to life, whilst not my cup of tea, isn't inherently bad, or mean, and doesn't harm society. Yet, the prose seems to point at them and shout "Look at them! Look at how ridiculous they are! They are pointless and worthless human beings!".  It feels like playground bullying, and it is leaving a rather nasty taste. Having said that, I will now finish it as I feel as thought I want to guard these characters through to the end and make sure they are all OK. I am not sure that this was the author's intent. I suspect I am supposed to laugh at them too, but I just can't bring myself to feel anything other than sorry for them for having been created by such a mean person.  

I supposed if you squinted at it you could say it is satire, but it isn't very elegant if it is. So, what is everyone else's experience? Is this something you have come across?

 

*That would make an excellent first line for a song for a musical nun...

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

ISBN: 978-0007113804

It has been a good while since I have been on a Christie adventure, and this one sees Poirot out in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq.

The story is narrated by a nurse, Amy Leatheran, who is hired by an archaeologist to look after his wife, Louise who seems to be suffering from "nerves".

Louise is convinced someone is trying to kill her, and one day her fears become reality, and she is bludgeoned to death in her room on the dig camp.

The setting is very cleverly set up. Each character has their own room, with one door only and a barred window. There are a few other rooms such as a dining room and lab, all of which are organised around a quad in the desert, which itself has only one way in. Christie sets up a rather nice variation on the locked room scenario, with a solution which caught me out, even though about half way through the solution is basically given to the reader in such a way that you read straight through it!

There are a nice range of characters, the spiteful woman with a brow beaten husband, a strange French monk, and a rather barmy young man. Poirot is, as ever, rather a clever clogs.

Alongside the very clever mystery, there are some nice observations about how people really feel about those around them, and what they actually say. 

It took me a while to get into this, as it has rather a slow start, but it is great once it gets going. With the way the plot is constructed I would say it was one of her best, strange it isn't better known.

Where In The Literary World Are You Today?

Today I am with some medical students. We live in lodgings in a backstreet close to Fleet Street in London. Two of them seem to be dabbling in medical matters verging on the occult. I have a feeling the outcome of these experiments will haunt them for a long time to come. 

- Printer's Devil Court by Susan Hill

Paranoia... Or Is It?

Life is a rum old thing isn’t it? On the whole I do believe that things work out for the best in the end, but I do wonder sometimes why people behave so oddly. I am starting to see that for some a total lack of confidence leads to a type of paranoia which destroys not only themselves, but maliciously takes down those around them, who are just trying to do their best. 

Many very good pieces of literature are constructed around a flawed character and their paranoia.  When a character starts to suffer paranoia, it can be very difficult for the reader to determine what is real within the setting of the narrative, in other words, the character is right to be suspicious, and what is a messy construct within in the protagonist’s own mind. 

George Orwell’s 1984 is an obvious example of a paranoia-inducing read, as is much of Franz Kafka’s work. Having done a little research, there are some other great novels that delve into this murky mental state.

Ghost stories and horror also traditionally instill paranoia, and The Horla by Guy De Maupassant is a great example. Haunted by some unknown being, trying to suck the life from him, the narrator eventually cracks with devastating consequences.

Phillip K Dick suffered from hallucinations, which he used as a basis for his writing. A Scanner Darkly follows an undercover narcotics cop as he develops his own drug addiction whilst living with a group of addicts, and reporting back on their activities. He eventually starts to investigate himself.

I have been really hooked by Patricia Highsmith of late. Known for her Talented Mr Ripley books, she has written others which also carry her theme of, frankly, murderous heroes. Murder in itself doesn’t seem to worry her characters, but the deep dread of being found out drives them to ever more extreme behavior and paranoia. It is incredibly self destructive.

 It seems to me that paranoid characters fit broadly into two categories. Those who live in a world where paranoia is a probably a prerequisite to survival, and those who create paranoia in themselves by generating situations which lead them to have to hide the truth, and not face up to their own actions. There are both types in this world, and the second group is by far the most dangerous as there is neither rhyme nor reason for their actions, at least not to anybody other than themselves.

What other good examples are there in literature of paranoid states?

Walking Along...

Boots.jpg

I do like a good walk. I'm not alone either, according to this piece from Mark's Daily Apple. I find walking rather meditative, and I often find solutions to all manner of things whilst out on a meander. Now whilst I don't claim to be in the same league as Aristotle, Dickens and Wordsworth as a thinker, I definitely agree an amble around the local woods helps clarify things in my mind. 

I have been wandering far and wide of late, and started to wonder how far I was going. I plotted it on MapMyWalk, and discovered I was averaging 3 - 4 miles per day, albeit, not necessarily in one go.  I am lucky that very close to Fennell Towers we have some nice woods, a canal and what is called a pond, but is actually about 70 acres of water with some lovely wooded areas around it. Lots of good ambling locations to explore. 

Life has been quite gentle of late, and to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, my mind is wandering so far it is bringing back souvenirs, so I thought something to focus my attention would be fun. Walking is extremely good for MS, it helps keep everything moving, is good for balance and excelllent for wellbeing. Anything which keeps the MS MonSter in it's box is good in my book, especially if I enjoy it.  

I do have a pedometer, the accuracy of which I think is rather suspect, but it will be good enough for this. I thought I would take an imaginary walk to my favourite bookshop, Mr B's. It is about 100 miles from Fennell Towers, but I'm not walking back carrying all the imaginary books I will have bought. I'll take the imaginary literary train (4:50 from Paddington? Hogwarts Express?). 

If you fancy a longer and frankly more frightening literary walk, the folks over at Nerd Fitness have a "Walk to Mordor" Challenge. Not for the feint hearted for all sorts of reasons! Watch out for Orcs and giant spiders. 

So, I'll blog as I clock up the miles, and see if I can crowbar in as many literary references as possible. If anyone fancies coming along with me, you would me more than welcome. Bring a flask and some stout walking shoes. 

 

Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years by Sue Townsend

Published by Penguin

So here we are with a fourth instalment of Adrian's diaries. 

Now in his twenties, Adrian is working for the Department of the Environment, writing reports on the newt population of Newport Pagnell. He has moved away from home and is living in Pandora's box room in Oxford whilst Pandora runs around with her new lover. 

Adrian really hasn't changed. He is writing a novel, extracts of which he shares in his diary. It is truly awful stuff, but he believes wholeheartedly in it. 

A chance at happiness comes his way when he meets a girl who really is attracted to him, but of course, it all goes awry.

This is wonderful Adrian Mole stuff. The problem is I really can't help but like him. I suspect in real life I wouldn't feel the same way, but he is a lost soul, destined to annoy people wherever he goes, but oblivious to why. His arrogance is astounding, but I so want it to work out OK for him, knowing that it probably won't, in the long run. 

Of the four I have read so far, I liked this one the best. Adrian has some independence now, and a wider view on life. This diary covers 1991 and some of 1992, during the time of the Gulf War. Some of his comments on the political situation of the time, seem worryingly relevant to today's concerns. The Adrian Mole books are clearly  a comic creation, but by including the current affairs of the time, Townsend cleverly anchors them and also reminds of us of what has been before and how it impacts today.