Book Review

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The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie

It seems almost unnecessary to review one of what must, surely, be a classic series of murder mystery thrillers, but there must be a few people [more? including me] out there who haven’t read all of Christie’s thrillers: there are plenty to go at, after all! These days, one is more likely to be able to watch the most popular stories in the Marple & Poirot canons on television or ‘the big screen’, than to ‘go old school’ and actually take a book out of a library, or buy one to keep and to cherish: it is also eminently possible to do both, of course. I have seen at least one version of this story on television, but thanks to my Swiss-cheese memory, I had forgotten who the murderer/s was/were, and it can be instructive to compare the source material with the transmogrified, scripted version. One obstacle one sometimes has to overcome when reading ‘classic’ fiction is the difference in the language, idioms used, etc., but thankfully, Christie’s usage isn’t overly dated; although, having said that, I did have to scratch my head a few times over something, but I was prepared to accept it in the context of its period—eighty years, in the case of this story!

Of course, Christie’s version of English life was somewhat idealised, even when it was published; especially given that it was published right in the middle of a testing & depressive world war, so in my own humble opinion, she could be forgiven for using rose-tinted glasses in her portrayal, and it is generally recognised that she was subtly lampooning the upper classes who were generally, although not always, on the receiving end of the worst treatment, either as victims, or perpetrators, who would have been subject to the ultimate sanction when convicted. From the few Marple stories I have read hitherto, her involvement has been written as to be somewhat in the background, while the official crime fighters operate with varying degrees of success in the foreground. Here, she is invited by a well-to-do friend to offer solace, and implicitly, her amateur expertise, in the solution of the riddle of why the dead body of a young woman should have been dumped in the library of her friend’s country house, just outside Jane Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. It is never made completely clear how Marple has acquired her somewhat cynical & world-weary outlook on her fellow human beings, but she seems to be more than ready to assume the worst of a possible perpetrator in any given situation; and in her view, picturesque English villages are all hotbeds of hypocrisy and back-stabbing, both literal & metaphorical.

Her friends categorically deny any involvement in the crime; more vehemently by the husband, Colonel Bantry, given that the victim is a moderately [although not stunningly] attractive young blond woman, but Marple notices some odd points about the body which, of course, the official investigators miss. There are quite a few characters associated with the victim and, therefore, several potential suspects; the motive is guessed at but, as ever, Marple doesn’t jump to conclusions, preferring to take her time to observe, and inwardly digest, the different way the characters respond to the events. Although the twist is one which must, by now, have been used again by other authors subsequently, it is quite possible that Christie was the first author in modern times to use it; suffice to say that the official investigators don’t arrive at it at all, and Marple only reveals it very near the end: ‘keep ‘em guessing until the end’ could very easily have been her motto: or one of them, anyway!

Notwithstanding the culture differences, Christie is always a good read, for those of us who enjoy murder mysteries and, even if her characters are, by now, somewhat fixed in aspic, they are still enjoyable in their historical context, and the plotting is always clever, even by our now oh-so-sophisticated fiction standards. The paperback I read was published in 2016 [1942] by HarperCollinsPublishers, London [Collins, The Crime Club], ISBN 978-0-0081-9653-0.

Book Review

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The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, by Sophie Hannah

This isn’t the first of Sophie Hannah’s homages to Agatha Christie’s Poirot canon [it is actually the fourth], with full permission & endorsement from the Christie estate, but it is the first I have reviewed. In view of that, it must be said that any of my comments about the similarity between Hannah’s & Christie’s writing & plotting styles, aside from the relative merits of this book’s plot, should be considered within the context of my knowledge of Christie’s writing in general, and the Poirot stories specifically, which isn’t encyclopaedic: I have read several of both, but by no means all. After reading the first few chapters of this one, I was initially minded to observe that the setup seemed rather laborious, but by the time I reached the end, it was obvious that the slow pace was essential to provide the details necessary to the complex plot: entirely appropriate for one of Christie’s characters, and I am happy to admit that Point is one of my favourites.

Kingfisher Hill is a private estate, near Haslemere in Surrey, to which Poirot and his by-now [early 1931] regular Scotland Yard associate, Inspector Edward Catchpool [Chief Inspector Japp presumably having retired] have been invited; specifically to one of the substantial homes on the estate, Little Key, by one of the sons, Richard, of the owner, Sidney Devonport, to ascertain whether Richard’s fiancée, Helen Acton did, indeed, murder his brother, Frank, who also happened to be Helen’s fiancé at the time. The invitation is necessarily surreptitious, because the paterfamilias Sidney, who is notoriously brusque & controlling, and his wife, Lilian, both see no reason to disbelieve Helen’s admission of guilt, made immediately after Frank’s fatal fall from an upstairs landing, and are perfectly happy and, indeed, willing, to see Helen hanged in retribution for the crime. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Helen doesn’t actually love Richard, despite claiming that she fell in love with him at first sight, while she was still affianced with Frank, whom she really did love.

On the way to the Devonports’ home, at which the two guests are invited to stay, on the pretext of being sufficiently interested in, enough to potentially facilitate an investment, a board game [claimed to be better than the recently extremely popular new game Monopoly, or The Landlord’s Game] called Peepers, developed by Sidney Devonport and his friend & business partner, the American Godfrey Laviolette, a very strange incident occurs. A female passenger on the motor coach, on which Poirot & Catchpool are scheduled to travel, makes a scene in which she claims that she has been told she will die if she sits in a certain seat on the coach; needless to say, by the time she boards the coach, the sole remaining seat is the doom-laden one; Poirot manages to persuade her that she will be safe, by the expedient of changing seats, so that he occupies the threatening one, and the woman travels adjacent Catchpool. This is the setup which, at first, I felt was unnecessarily long-winded, but as the narrative progresses, the connections to the main plot are revealed, which is why it had to be related so carefully.

Hannah has certainly captured Poirot’s character & mannerisms quite well: there is rather more to a good homage to a very well-known & -loved character in fiction than merely describing him as being self-satisfied, and possessing extravagant moustaches & an egg-shaped head. Notwithstanding the complexity of the plot, I was slightly concerned, at least two-thirds of the way into the narrative, when Poirot gives Catchpool a list of seven tasks which he should achieve to advance their investigation, when Poirot has previously declared on at least one occasion that he has virtually solved the case! Aside from that, the plot is very cleverly worked out, and the investigation exposes secrets, lies, deliberate misdirection & character flaws, which would distract and inhibit any other investigator of a lesser intellect from arriving at a motive and exposing the perpetrator. The book was first published by HarperCollinsPublishers, London, in 2020; the paperback version which I read was published in 2021 ISBN, 978-0-00-826455-0.

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The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz

If you recognise this author’s name at all, it is probably from the credits of a television programme such as Foyle’s War, but he is also a respected published author, having written stories in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes canon, but also young adult spy stories featuring the Alex Rider character. This book, published in 2018 by Century, London, in hardback; ISBN 978-1-78089-709-7, is a bit of an oddity: it purports to be a true story, the second of a three-book deal undertaken apparently under some duress from his new publisher, detailing the work of an ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, who is currently working as a technical consultant to film & television companies, after having been fired from the Police Service for assaulting a suspect in a child pornography case. The question that is uppermost in my mind when reading this story is: “how true can this actually be?” Horowitz does make it very clear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book that “some of [the people who actually appear in the book] made my life very difficult while others have demanded that I change their names or remove them altogether: one of them has even gone so far as to threaten me with lawyers, although I would say my depiction of her is entirely accurate.” For obvious reasons, he doesn’t specify which character this is.

The first chapter was all the more enjoyable for me for several reasons; I have enjoyed watching Foyle’s War, not least for its period setting, and the vicissitudes of location film & television work are quite well known to me from another life; but also because the director of the episode, The Eternity Ring, which is featured in the story, albeit in parallel with the main plot, was Stuart Orme, with whom I have worked on two occasions, the more memorable of which was Ghostboat in 2005, and I have many happy memories of location work in Rome (at Cinecittá studios) and Malta, all expenses paid, which for a lowly supporting artist (and credit to Horowitz for using that term, rather than ‘extra’, which I dislike), albeit a featured one, which I was in that production, was very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime gig. The story is something of a cross between a biography and a diary, and the entrance of its subject is right at the end of the first chapter, when he blithely blunders onto the set in a real, modern taxi, thereby ruining the take in progress, which certainly stretched my credibility: Horowitz does write “It was impossible of course. The police should have blocked off the traffic. We had our own people at the end of the street, keeping back pedestrians. There was no way any vehicle could have come through.” It obviously did, though, so the only conclusion we can draw, if the event did actually happen, is that Daniel Hawthorne, the interloper, had sweet-talked both the actual policemen (as opposed to the background artists in period uniform) and the crew who had been charged with preventing interruptions to the shoot, to allow him to cause mayhem with his inconsiderate arrival: I would say that the evidently lax crew runners or third ADs would have been lucky to escape summary dismissal for such a transgression, given that Stuart Orme, “usually a pleasant, easy-going man” (which I can endorse), but who had been under tremendous pressure to finish this shoot successfully, displayed a face that “was thunderous as he looked up from his monitor to see what had happened”, and he was not amused when Hawthorne picked out Horowitz as his intended contact.

However, after that fraught beginning, the story proper can commence when Hawthorne, who is occasionally also called in by the police to assist with cases referred to as a ‘sticker’: “that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start.” comes to Horowitz, albeit with blithe disregard for the mayhem he has caused, with a real murder which could be the subject-matter of their next shared book. Again, I have to say that this stretches my credibility, given that it has echoes of the “consulting detective”; the best-known of whom are Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; but, having said that, I am not very familiar with real-life police procedures, so I suppose I have to accept that it must be possible. The officers with whom Hawthorne & Horowitz have to liaise on this case are eminently dislikable, and if detectives such as Inspector Cara Grunshaw (surely a pseudonym) really exist, it would be very difficult to have much faith in the integrity of the current London police. She makes it her business to make life near impossible for the author, even going so far as to physically assault him to frighten him into informing her of Hawthorne’s progress, to ensure she ‘cracks’ the case before he does: she is mostly successful with this intimidation, although Horowitz does rebel occasionally, even if only in his own mind; Hawthorne seems to maintain swan-like serenity through all this intimidation. The murder of a high-profile divorce lawyer, known professionally as “the blunt razor”, because of his scrupulous integrity, has taken place in Hampstead, and initially the police are baffled, hence Hawthorne’s importation. Initially, there is one obvious suspect, but surely the reason for this is so obvious that she wouldn’t be so stupid? Especially giver her reputation for erudition; also, she has an alibi for the time of the murder.

After this, more potential suspects can be considered after being interviewed by the detective & the author; I must also confess to being somewhat dubious that potential suspects would consent to an author being present at their interviews, although only one suspect objects to this, and potentially violently; also, the author’s identity & occupation is not always revealed to the interviewee, if at all. Throughout the investigation, Hawthorne is fairly unforthcoming to Horowitz with his theories, and he discourages the author from asking his own questions in interviews, for fear that his inexperience in these matters might prejudice the investigation. Nevertheless, Horowitz tries his best to arrive at a sensible solution to the conundrum, partly to spite Hawthorne for not trusting him further, although his theories change quite frequently as new information becomes available; he also has to contend with the ongoing tribulations of the Foyle’s War shoot, not least because his (presumably real) wife, Jill Green, was the producer of the series. The reader is kept guessing until very late in the book as to who the murderer was and, as is often the case, historical events prove to be crucial in unravelling why this murder occurred. Overall, and notwithstanding my scepticism about the veracity of the facts of the case as presented, I found this an enjoyable book, and can happily recommend it, especially if insights into the real world of television are enticing to the unconnected reader, and I would happily read the other two in the series, albeit with the first book I read being out of sequence, but that is a minor reservation.