Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling

jk-rowling-cuckoos-calling-reviewI’m not ashamed to admit that I purchased this book immediately after I heard the news that it was secretly written by JKR.  What on earth else would you expect of me?

I understand why she would publish a book without her name attached to it.  Imagine the incredible pressure she’s under every time she wants to publish a book. Every pseudo-intellectual wants to prove that she (and that Harry Potter) doesn’t deserve so much praise because it’s not Proust.  Every Harry Potter fan inevitably compares all her other work to Harry Potter.  For this book in particular, using not just a pen name, but the pen name of a male author, makes sense.  It’s a male dominated genre, and her protagonist is a pretty butch dude.  Reading 2 different reviews compare him to Hagrid and Alastor Moody (though I see absolutely no similarities) was enough to make me understand why she wanted to be anonymous.  I’m sort of glad she didn’t stay anonymous, though, because I want to read whatever she writes and I’m glad I got to read this.

This sort of mass market crime fiction isn’t really my genre of choice, I’ll say that first.  I’ve read a few Agatha Christie, some of Poe and Conan Doyle’s detective stories, but they are all firmly ensconced in the ‘period fiction’ world and have little in common with your average James Patterson or …I can’t even think of another one. Is Lillian Jackson Braun still putting out those Cat Who detective books?

So, I’m not up on the genre.  But if I look back to Harry Potter, there was a lot of mystery.  And I was almost always fooled.  I remember I spent a good time yelling at everyone while reading Chamber of Secrets, because obviously it was Percy all along!!! Oh wait… And there were always threats of undercover agents and false identities (Mad-Eye Moody, Peter Pettigrew), and just general turncoats (Quirrell, Pettigrew again).  I never saw any of it coming.  JKR is really great at red herrings and distractors, so this sort of book is right up her alley.

The plot of The Cuckoo’s Calling centers around Cormoran Strike, a private detective in London, who has just broken up with his fiance and has his last few dollars sunk into his failing business.  A second protagonist is Robin, his temporary assistant from Yorkshire, who has always wanted to solve mysteries.  Strike gets a case from John Bristow, who grew up in the same small town as Strike.  Bristow wants Strike to look into the apparent suicide of his adoptive sister Lula, who was an up-and-coming model and tabloid favorite before she jumped out of her apartment window to her death.  Bristow is convinced it was murder, despite Lula’s history of bipolar disorder and messy relationships with drug-users. Suspects include her drug-addicted on/off boyfriend, her fashion industry friends, family, her biological parents, her neighbors.

In many ways, it’s your typical mystery novel.  Private detective with personal and financial problems, a seedy and mysterious backstory, convenient police and street connections used to acquire delicate information.  He talks to everyone who knew Lula, he runs down small clues and keeps notebooks of information.  He doesn’t share much with the reader about his thought process.  We see him ask questions, but he keeps his thoughts to himself about their possible interpretations.  He shares no theories, even with Robin. Sometimes it’s a little too much–it’s as if the characters know they shouldn’t give away too much and ruin the fun for the reader–but it’s part of the genre.  The author has to give you just enough that you have a decent chance of guessing correctly, but not so much that you can actually figure out the solution.  I think while I was reading it, the correct villain did occur to me but every other possible combination of perpetrator and motive also occurred to me.

In the end, the ‘who’ and ‘why’ reveal both surprised me and didn’t.  The thought had occurred to me, but I had dismissed it because it made no sense.  I still feel it doesn’t make tons of sense, and that is a little irritating. But I often find that, after a killer is revealed, I don’t feel satisfied by the explanation given, so this may not be entirely the fault of the novelist.  I may just find it hard to accept that so little is required to kill someone.

JKR has already announced a sequel that is written and ready to be published next year.  I will continue to read whatever she writes; that’s a given.  If this was written by someone else, it’s unlikely I would have read it in the first place–I had certainly never heard of it before the day she was ‘outed’ on Twitter.  I enjoyed the book enough to say I will enjoy the sequel. It was certainly much less bleak than A Casual Vacancy. For its genre, the book is enjoyable and well done.  Even though the genre isn’t really my thing, I still liked reading it.

And yet.  As much as I understand why JKR would want feedback on her writing from a position of anonymity, and as much as I comprehend her desire to write different things as she matures as human and as writer…I can’t help but wish.  I liked A Casual Vacancy, and I’d venture to say I liked Cuckoo’s Calling a bit more, but…  I’ll just come out and say it.  It’s no Harry Potter.

One of the most spectacular things about JKR’s writing, and certainly the most important part of her talent for storytelling is her ability to imagine and build worlds full of wonder and beauty and fate and everything we wish was plentiful on Earth, but is somewhat scarce in reality.  She creates amazing worlds that I could spend the rest of my life occupying.  Give me a cottage in Hogsmeade and I’m set for life. I’ll work at Flourish & Blotts and have a wand with unicorn hair and I’ll be happy.

Having her eschew the work of imagination and the worlds of fantasy and magic, to exist in the grim and gray reality that we all occupy, is unsatisfying for me.  It’s unsatisfying because she’s not utilizing a large part of what made her incredibly successful.  Like watching Picasso give up paints and work with washable Crayola markers. Worse, it’s like watching Dali color only in the lines in a coloring book. One of the super-conservative Christian coloring books my grandmother used to give me.

It’s also unsatisfying because I, as a reader, would just rather spend my time at Hogwarts, or the Ministry of Magic, or 12 Grimmauld Place. I enjoyed this book.  But that enjoyment is about .000002% of the enjoyment I would get out of a new Harry Potter short story.  Even a poem.  Even a Haiku!  So it will always be a bit of a let-down, a bit unsaturated, comparatively.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Mysterious Affair at StylesMy second Agatha Christie.  I had a yen to read her again, because the books are quick and easy, like junk food.  Being written in the ’20s means they have a bit more sophistication than your average Stephen King novel, but in truth they are the same level of book.  Enjoyable, quick, but not life-changing.

This book was no exception.  It was engaging, unpretentious, and a pleasure to read.  That being said, I must start out my review by pointing out that Mr. Hastings, the narrator of this story, is the dumbest character I have ever had to read about.  What a clueless bland bag of flour.  And this guy apparently appears in 8 other Poirot stories?  I could barely deal with him once.  Agatha, I know you’re dead, and have no reason to change your books now, but I need to give you some advice.  You do not need to make a dunce accompany Poirot in order for us to see that he is intelligent. I know Watson isn’t as brilliant as Holmes, but he’s (in the books anyway) of average, if not slightly above average, intelligence).  Hastings, on the other hand, is one step above lake algae.

Hastings is like the fat friend who makes the other girls look thinner and prettier. I am not exaggerating; I think he has an IQ below 80.  Not only is he dumb compared to Poirot, he is dumb compared to every other character in the book. If Hastings is supposed to represent the ‘reader’ as we bumble along through the mystery, then Christie thought her readers were utter imbeciles.  I recently found a website titled ‘Shut the Fuck Up, Hastings!’ so I know I’m not alone in my irritation. But I’ve now said my piece, and can move on.

This book was Christie’s first published novel, and is also the first glance her readers got of Poirot, the odd Belgian detective who would feature in some of her biggest hits, like Murder on the Orient Express.  Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings, and DI Japp (apparently) all make many appearances in later novels.  Christie admitted that she based this trio on the Holmes-Watson-Lestrade relationship, and it shows.  Poirot is no Holmes, though.  He’s a short, older foppy gentleman with slight OCD and a paunchy belly. No girl is going to have a crush on Poirot, that’s for sure.

The book opens with the dimwitted Hastings home from WWI and visiting friends at Styles.  There’s his old friend John Cavendish, and his aloof and beautiful wife Mary.  The matriarch, Emily Inglethorp and her (new) second husband, Alfred. The younger brother Lawrence, the ‘ward’ Cynthia, and the secretary Evelyn. The poison expert, Dr. Bauerstein.

Within a few days, the matriarch of the household has been poisoned, and everyone suspects her new second husband.  This being a murder mystery, the action obviously does not end there. Poirot gets involved to help determine who committed the murder and how.  Was she murdered via the coffee? Her nightly cocoa?  The sleeping powders?  Who burned her newly-written will?

I thought it was a good mystery, and though not as smart as Poirot, I’m nowhere near as dumb as Hastings.  So I saw some of the twists coming beforehand, but didn’t anticipate the denouement.  I think that’s about the perfect experience for a murder mystery.  You feel smart enough since you saw some of the clues and drew correct conclusions, but you’re still surprised in the end.

I found this book, despite the lovely mystery, to be lacking in characterization.  I could see glimmerings of the truth about Mary Cavendish (who looked like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in my imagination) and Cynthia. I could picture the moody Lawrence or the no-nonsense Evelyn.  I could see a love story brewing here and there, but it was like looking through the haze. Hastings was stupid and dull, but as the narrator we see most of the action through his eyes.  It’s a bit like swimming through jello, trying to glean any information from his incompetent retelling. As such, I felt a bit impatient for the plot to zoom along, since characters alone were not sufficient to make this book worthwhile.

So I didn’t love it–characters are really important.  But I still enjoyed it, because Christie is really good at this murder mystery stuff.  I think next time, I just need to go for one of the stories without Hastings in it.

My previous foray into the works of Christie was soured by a lot of antisemitism.  I’m pleased that this book had…less.  A few unsavory mentions of so and so being ‘a Jew’, as if it were an insult.  A really and truly unfortunate tale of one of the people dressing up in blackface, using burned corks to color her hair dark, in order to put on what must have been an incredibly appalling skit. It’s a thin line when you read old fiction.  Shakespeare has a lot of mentions about jewish people, about black people (more than you would think anyway, given that it was the 16th century in England) and they can make a reasonable 21st century person feel a bit uncomfortable.  On the other hand, Shakespeare wrote Othello and The Merchant of Venice.  Christie’s tidbits of casual and horrifying racism/antisemitism are far more disturbing in their thoughtless inclusion where they are not needed.  They come from a place of undeniable privilege and ignorance, and betray a nonchalance that makes me a little sick.  A Telegraph article about Christie’s antisemitism had this quote: The stereotyping made me squirm. But would I erase it? Never: to see antisemitism so endemic in the works of a highly-respected and best-selling author is to understand a period of history – and its horrific consequences.

Like taking medicine, it’s important to look back and to be horrified. That’s the only way to avoid doing horrifying things again.  And judging by the comments from incensed Christie fans claiming there’s nothing antisemitic about her works, I’m guessing this sentiment is warranted.

But that article also compares Christie’s casual antisemitism to Mark Twain’s very purposeful discussion of the black experience in America during a time of slavery and abject destitution.  They are not the same.  Christie is not interested in examining these prejudices, any more than Jane Austen was interested in the plight of the lady’s maid. Her prejudices are just there, making it obvious that she thought them nothing to be ashamed of.  So my feelings of guilt at reading and enjoying Christie’s books continue.  But she seemed so nice in that Doctor Who episode…and there’s that picture of her surfing!  Disappointing.

agathachristiesurfing

 

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were NoneFirst of all, I should note that I got this really cool graphic from this blog. It’s not the official cover of the book, but I like it much better!

Okay, so a confession: This was my first Agatha Christie novel.  I’ve never been really attracted to the murder mystery genre, mostly because it seems to be a genre dominated by male protagonists being chauvinistic and old-fashioned.  Pass.  Agatha Christie is obviously an exception to the Sam Spade idea I’ve got in my head. One of her most famous repeating characters is Miss Marple, an elderly woman who solves most of her mysteries because people spill their guts to her without paying her much attention. Her lack of importance in society leaves her able to understand and see more than less disenfranchised (more enfranchised?) people would be able to. This isn’t a Marple mystery, nor is it one of her other popular characters taking the helm.  In fact, no one has the spot as main character in this. It is, though, the best selling of all of Christie’s (many) books.

The plot revolves around ten people who have been brought to an island with a few different tricks and guises. One thinks he is there to meet old soldier friends, another believes she is there to be a governess to young children for a temporary placement. They are all called to a large house on a secluded island where they expect to meet a host who never arrives. The entire plot revolves around a nursery rhyme, which occupies the first page of the book:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

As you might expect from a murder mystery, people start to be killed. And they are killed in the exact fashion described in the poem.  Being reasonably intelligent people, the remaining guests realize that someone is killing these people.  First, they search methodically for some kind of madman loose on the island.  It is a small enough place that they can search its entirety in one day. There is no one but themselves.  So, it must be one of their own.  They begin to suspect and mistrust each other, driven to the point of paranoia and mania from fear and tension.  One by one they are killed.  All of them.  They all die, as you might expect from the title.

Only in the last two-three pages is the killer revealed, and I’m happy to say I did not know who it would be. There isn’t really a good way to guess it. The only clue might be found in the last 6 or 7 pages, after everyone is already dead.

I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue while reading this, and firmly expected them all to be killing each other.  I didn’t see any way for it to have been just one person, because they all end up dead.

I really enjoyed the book, and it did keep me guessing to the end.  Some of the tropes involved in it are a little trite to a modern ear, but this book is about 80 years old. It’s possible this was one of the first examples of some of these tropes being used, so they didn’t particularly bother me. I liked the suspense, I liked the honest mystery, I liked the lack of a inveterate gumshoe in trench coat and fedora.  I really enjoyed Christie’s style and thought it was easy to read.  My only complaint was that it turned out to be very difficult to keep all of the characters straight off the bat. I had to keep a list with reminders, until they became solidified in my imagination.

My only complaint with the book is a very uneasy feeling I got when I learned the history of it.  I read a lot of stuff that is about 200 years old, sometimes older.  A lot of it contains very insensitive stuff about entire races of people, religions, and especially women. I’d say I’m mostly immune to it. But…I found out, upon looking this book up, that it was originally titled something else. The name obviously comes from the nursery rhyme I pasted above.  The original form of the nursery rhyme in the UK was actually Ten Little N****rs, a fact that makes my stomach twist just thinking about it. And it came with some truly horrifying artwork on the cover:

Ten Little N****rsExcuse me while I hold back my vomit.  That is atrocious. Apparently instead of ‘soldiers’ the nursery rhyme used the n-word.  This name was used in the UK until THE EIGHTIES!! What.

In a somewhat palliative move, the US edition changed the name to And Then There Were None. In an incomprehensible move, they changed the nursery rhyme to read Ten Little Indians.  Gee that’s so much better.  Oh wait, no it’s not.

The book more or less uses the nursery rhyme as a frame for the action, and it doesn’t have much to do with race at all–all of the characters are white.  But just having this sort of nonsense adjacent to the action makes me ill. I liked the book, but hoped to find others of Christie’s that don’t have the same associations.

But now that I really think about it,  it isn’t just Native Americans or people of African descent who are thought of in unpleasant terms. The prejudice is widespread and very nonchalant.  There is one character whose crimes against an entire group of Indians (sub-continent, not Native Americans) are especially nauseating.  All of the characters are guilty of wrongdoing–wrongdoing that resulted in death–but this one character is responsible for the death of something like twenty ‘natives’ and is totally unapologetic! I thought I might puke.  Add to that the fact that there were a few scenes of ludicrous anti-Semitism. One character describes someone as a sneaky, conniving ‘Jewboy’, exclaims that you can’t lie to Jews about money because ‘they know’ and talks about the man’s ‘thick Semitic lips’.  My actual, physical nausea continues.  Of course this is only one character, and every character in the book is fairly flawed (re: a murderer), so I thought perhaps it was more acceptable since we aren’t meant to like any of these people. Since then, I’ve read that many of Christie’s books have an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. And this book was published in 1939, just as World War II was starting…by someone living on the ‘good’ side.  Makes you realize some truly horrifying things about what it meant to be any sort of minority during this time period. So…despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading any more of hers.