THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE AND DEAR OLD TABBIES

There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’ 
Even before Coronavirus stopped the world, I had begun re-reading my Miss Marple collection. I always find Marple a tonic in tough times, and her shrewd no-nonsense appraisal of people a great comfort.
I began in January with the first Marple novel, The Murder At The Vicarage (1930). The elderly spinster first appeared in short stories, later collated into The Thirteen Problems (1932). Miss Marple obviously wasn’t content with just being in short stories, and thankfully for those of us who love her, managed to break through into a full-length novel.
Nothing, I believe, is so full of life under the microscope as a drop of water from a stagnant pool.’
The Murder At The Vicarage introduces us to the world of St Mary Mead, an idyllic, seemingly sleepy English village in south-east England. It has a pub, vicarage, shops and Gossington Hall Estate. Miss Marple’s cottage is Danemead Cottage in Old Pasture Lane.
Colonel Lucius Protheroe, the much disliked church warden, is found shot through the head in the vicarage study. Everybody believes they know who’s responsible, including Miss Marple, one of the ‘old cats’ of the village, who sees everything, hears everything and knows everything! Miss Marple goes as far to declare there are at least 7 suspects who would want the Colonel out of the way.
Just before the unfortunate man’s death, Leonard Clement, the local vicar who narrates the story – and is one of the Seven Suspects – makes the tactless remark that ‘anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service’.
Some of the other suspects include the vicar’s wife, Griselda, a flamboyant character who is a lot of fun. She reminds me of Tuppence Beresfold. I suspect Christie enjoys these young and spirited characters – perhaps reflecting her young and spirited side. She was, after all, one of the first British women to surf standing up in Australia during her Grand Tour in 1924.
Agatha must have been fond of Leonard and Griselda as they also appear in The Body In The Library (1942) and 4.50 From Paddington ( 1957).
The Colonel’s second wife, Anne and her seemingly scatty daughter, Lettice.
Mr Dawes, the new rector under suspicion of stealing from the church collection plate.
Lawrence Redding, the rakish artist and ex-war veteran.
The mysterious Mrs Lestrange, a newcomer to the village.
‘Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.’
The Murder At The Vicarage is filled with red herrings and twists. It also has a lot of humour and some really fun characters and observations on village life. Even in my Australian Blue Mountains village so many decades later, I can recognise some of the personalities Christie has so much fun with.  A Miss Hartnell is described as ‘weatherbeaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor.’ Agatha can sum up so much in so few words.
Inspirations for Miss Marple included the spinster sister, Caroline Sheppard from The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends.
I love Miss Marple because I appreciate that an elderly woman is given such power. Dismissed and overlooked by so many to their cost, Miss Marple is always observing and noticing. Nothing appears to unduly shock her.
At my time of life, one knows the worst is usually true.’ – Miss Marple
I enjoyed revisiting The Murder At The Vicarage. I love Vicar Leonard and Griselda and of course, I will always love Miss Marple. The plot is slightly convoluted and it’s not my favourite of Agatha’s books but it’s a classic Agatha mystery. I am now about to re-read The Thirteen Problems where Miss Marple first appeared in short story form.
Agatha Christie, reflecting on The Murder At The Vicarage, found it sound but thought it was filled with too many characters and sub-plots.
Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid has cited The Murder At The Vicarage as being the novel that inspired her to write detective novels.
Dorothy L. Sayers was so taken by The Murder At the Vicarage and Miss Marple, she wrote the following to Agatha Christie:
‘Dear Old Tabbies are the only possible right kind of female detective and Miss M is lovely… I think this is the best you have done – almost.’

Agatha Christie – The Duchess of Death

THREE HOURS

And You? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?
Rumi (1207-1273)
I’m superstitious when it comes to Rosamund Lupton. Not only is she one of my favourite writers, but after reading Sister, her 2011 bestselling debut thriller, I won The Scarlet Stiletto Award. And so, in true writerly superstitious style, I always re-read one of her enthralling stories when I’m working on a book. A new Rosamund Lupton book is always cause for celebration. She is one author I’ll buy the paperback and then end up purchasing the hardcover as soon as I finish it.
Her current book Three Hours is highly lauded and concerns a school shooting set in rural, snowy Somerset. It sounded like a book I’d love, so on the perfect rainy weekend, I opened it with great anticipation.
Like her previous books, Three Hours is a page-turner, clever and stylishly executed. It filled in my rainy weekend admirably.
And this is what evil does, Neil thinks. It exposes your fear and cowardice, your vulnerability and your fragility, makes you confront your mortality; but it also finds courage and selflessness that amaze Neil. He thinks of white type of a white screen, the poem’s beauty invisible until the background screen is turned black.’
A progressive private school in Somerset in England is besieged by two masked gunmen. Children and staff are barricaded inside classrooms, the library and theatre. In a symbolic scene, books are piled against a door to keep the gunmen out. The identity of the gunmen become known, but the question of whether there is a third gunman remains. The multiple characters are given their separate viewpoints in parallel strands.
They include:
The liberal Headmaster, Matthew Marr, who is critically shot in the beginning of the book, and who recognises the voice of the gunman but is unable to voice who it is.
His heroic Deputy Head, Neil Forbright.
Daphne Epelsteiner, the drama teacher.
Two Syrian Refugees taken in at the school, Rafi, and his younger brother, Basi Bukfari. Both suffer from PTSD. Alone and vulnerable outdoors in the snow seeking his brother, with killers on the loose,  Basi is unable to determine what is real and what is genuine. Rafi and Bafi’s journey to England is memorable it its poignant detail such as Bafi’s shame over bedwetting. The brothers cling to the memory of the kindness of strangers and they are unable to trust the normal authority figures.
Not enough money for her, just him and Basi; ten thousand euros each to go via Italy, the safest route, the people smugglers, said. And oh for fuck’s sake, people are bored of this story, all that tugging misery, and you get fed up with desperate people and he gets that, he really gets that, because he’d rather binge-watch a series on Netflix, or listen to Spotify, or play Xbox or hang out with his friends too, who wouldn’t?’  
Detective Inspector Rose Polstein, a pregnant forensic psychologist whose role it is is to get inside the head of the gunmen in order to prevent the tragedy unfolding rapidly.
Beth Alton, an increasing desperate mother trying to get in touch with her son, Jamie, and her mental communications to him. I really enjoyed this character. Whether her action right at the end is something I could relate or believe in, I’m still thinking about.
Hannah, Rafi’s girlfriend who is left caring for the Headmaster, while trying to locate Rafi.
The book rises in intensity as social media picks up the school crisis and the police try to contain the rippling of it via social media to the world as different countries begin to wake up to the drama. Some of these scenes are fascinating for the research on technology and the experts having to encrypt messages and clues from computers with little time to do so.
There are several issues explored in Three Hours: hate crime, white supremacy, radicalisation, teenage alienation, extremism and refugees. The overriding theme of the book is Love.
‘Love is the most powerful thing there is,’ the headmaster tells his student. ‘The only thing that really matters.’
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse…’
The plot device of using Macbeth (the Syrian refugees have a copy of it from their father, and the school is staging it) works well although I’m still wondering if rehearsals would continue with gunmen at their school. The finale (no spoilers) with the trees, didn’t fully convince me, but visually it’s a spectacular scene.
‘Rafi told her once that for him it isn’t Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are the frightening characters, but First Murderer, Second Murderer, Third Murderer, men without names; unknown killers in the darkness.’
FIRST WITCH Here I have a pilot’s thumb,
Wrecked as homeward he did come.
THIRD WITCH A drum, a drum;
Macbeth doth come.
‘Oh hellfire, Daphne thinks, the tedious Norwegians have finished and the violence is about to start; a spreading evil that leads to children being murdered and men not being able to walk at night, and the world turning dark even in daylight.’
Like The Quality of Silence, some beautifully evocative writing comes from the poetic description of the landscape adding to the melancholy tension. The landscape becomes its own character:
‘A gust of wind batters the police Range Rover. Out of the window, the snowflakes are thick and frenzied, each one an insubstantial feather, weightless, but massed together they are piling on to trees, fences, hills of grass and ploughed fields. Everything weighted down and smothered; the landscape being suffocated.’
Three Hours is a stylish and absorbing read. It has remained with me after I finished the book and I know I will return to it. It’s a call for tolerance and love. I’d love to see it on the Reading List of all schools as well as on the big screen.  I can’t wait to see what Rosamund Lupton offers next.

author photo: Vicki Knights Photography

‘To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden
The moment in the arbour when the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.’
T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’ . Four Quarters (1936) 

MONSTER

As I write this, Australia is on fire. My family had to evacuate from our Blackheath, Blue Mountains home just before Christmas.

 

In a long string of unfortunate events, we were left without a working car and it was safer for us to leave with the great fire they call The Monster having entered the Grose Valley frighteningly close to our house.

Locals being advised by our incredible RFS as the fire approached

 

The Fire Captain at the local station said at an information evening we attended that he’s never seen a fire like this in his decades of fighting fires. The size of two trees combined, it crowns in places and it doesn’t obey the ‘normal’ rules of any fire. A fire christened The Monster by locals.

 

Like countless others we were packed and prepared to go for days. When you live in bushfire country you prepare early with a suitcase by the door. My daughter’s clothes took up half the suitcase. My own packing (somewhat less glamorous than Joan Didion’s famed packing list):

 

Tarot Cards,

Reiki Symbols

A notebook, pens

Books – The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (review to come), The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Initiated by Amanda Yates Garcia

Photographs of baby Daisy

Ancestor photos

My mother’s wedding ring

Family documents such as Daisy’s medical folders, passports

Daisy’s diabetic equipment and medication

Sunhat

Cosmetics

Toiletries

Bach Flower Essences

Change of clothes for a couple of days

Hanako mist spray

Letters my father wrote to me before he died

The dog’s supplies and lead

The dog carrier

A lock of my father’s hair cut from his head when he died

 

Christmas plans had to be abandoned. We became addicted checkers of the Fires Near Me app and worried over elderly neighbours and our home.

We felt heartbroken for those who lost their homes. We wept over images of children whose heroic firefighting fathers had died.

 

We are enraged by a Prime Minister who chose to holiday in Hawaii with his family, and only returned because of public pressure. Then he partied on New Year’s Eve with fireworks in polluted Sydney skies and hosted a garden party with cricketers as people died and Australia was ablaze. The Emergency Minister, David Elliot, also shockingly chose his family holiday during this time of severe crisis. I’ve avoided ever posting anything political before but their actions went beyond political. This country will not forget easily the betrayal of the climate-change denying Liberal Party.

LISMORE ROSE our adopted Koala from the incredible Koala Hospital Port Macquarie

Heartbreakingly, our already fragile Koala population was decimated at the time of writing by thirty per cent. And a HORRENDOUS over a BILLION animals killed. 28 people have died. Over 2000 houses destroyed. An area four times the size of the Amazon Rainforest burnt.

The heavy plume of smoke choking Sydney for weeks caused record spikes in hospital admissions. When I travelled down to Sydney with my daughter, I was shocked by how polluted the air was. Sydneysiders in facemasks. An oppressive feeling in city streets. It felt as if I’d entered a science fiction novel, so terribly wrong and tilted.

Brighton Le Sands

Near where we were staying, the beach was packed with thankfully no smoke in the air. We walked the beach twice daily, feeling like aliens in this culture of bronzed people on jet-skis.

 

 

Women in hijabs ran on beaches with their small children. Palm trees waved their fronds against an unnatural salmon-coloured sky. We collected bag after bag of plastic and rubbish, hoping it would inspire others to do the same.

At night I listened to hoons in their cars. I constantly checked the Fires Near Me app before falling into a restless sleep. I would wake at 3am and check the app again to see if the flames had reached our street.

 

It was not the Christmas we had planned but we had a roof over our heads and a beach a short walk away.

I followed images of exhausted RFS service people. Blackened faces, their endurance stretched to the limit. Unforgettable images of wild koalas allowing Firies to give them water. A devastated farmer forced to shoot his scorched stock. A kangaroo found in a swimming pool, desperate for water. A Firie describing koalas screaming as their trees burned. Friends on social media begged for people not to share images of burnt koalas but I couldn’t let those last screams go unheard. I couldn’t look away.

 

The Firies, who sacrificed employment to fight fires unpaid. Several lost their own home while they fought to save a stranger’s. Some even had to take out loans to cover their mortgages. I marvelled over the goodness and the valiant nobility of these warriors who face fires bigger than two tall trees.

Australia feels tilted, shaking. White ash blazing us into a scorching and volatile dead world. It feels as if a doorway has closed.

broken koala image via #kassiissac

 

 

SUMMER STORMS AND STEPHEN KING

Hello,

Australia has been experiencing a summer of record-breaking heatwaves. As I write this post, my home state of Tasmania is suffering bushfires that firefighters have been battling since before Christmas.

 

In the Blue Mountains we’ve sweltered under high temperatures combined with dramatic summer thunderstorms with heavy hail, causing widespread damage to cars and technical equipment.

 

Summer is never my favourite season – more snakes, more spiders. I tend to hibernate under a fan, preferably with an engrossing book.

 

January passed in a pleasant haze of culling papers in my office, spending time with my daughter and reading. I’d yearned for a summer like the summers of my youth, lounging around the local swimming pool and reading. Vinegar splashed over my body in the hope of burning. Book smeared with coconut suntan oil, droplets from the pool and choc wedge smears.

 

I went through a big Stephen King stage as a teenager. I’d also read James Herbert but King, with his ballsy storytelling voice, was my favourite.

His quirky but realistic characters with their drawling Maine accents were a world away from my dozy Tasmanian village life, but I believed in them as I believed in the evil they faced.

 

 

Somehow his stories made my problems disappear as I fell into darkness filled with rabid dogs, school bullies, rampaging obsessive fans, haunted hotels, dysfunctional families and pet cemeteries. I even cherished a fantasy to become one of the characters in his book – journalist Ben Mears who returns to his small town in Salem’s Lot.

 

But as I grew older, Stephen King followed other paths with his pseudonym Richard Bachman and his Dark Tower series. I began reading more widely from a range of authors.

His massive doorstopper books with their gaudy vintage covers were given away by my parents decluttering their house, although I later returned to his excellent memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

My thirteen-year-old daughter, obviously inheriting my macabre bent, also became fascinated with horror. This summer I borrowed her copy of Stephen King’s It (1986), which was inspired by a Norwegian fairytale and devoured by millions.

 

A summer from long ago came flooding back to me as I was pulled into the sewers and nightmare truth of Derry, a normal-enough town on the outside, but with a dark energy permeating it which takes the shape of people’s fears.

I loved It. I enjoyed the weight of the hefty tome and hearing Stephen’s voice again emanating from the pages with his sly unveilings and gutsy storytelling. I cheered for the Losers Club, willing them to take on the town bullies and the monster in the drains they feel morally obliged to destroy, because It kills children.

Every January is going to be reserved for submerging myself in a Stephen King book as I catch up on his backlist. Sometimes in summer’s blazing heat we need to retreat into the darkness.

Further Links connected to this story:

Richard Flanagan article via Guardian: Tasmania is Burning https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/05/tasmania-is-burning-the-climate-disaster-future-has-arrived-while-those-in-power-laugh-at-us

Stephen King It inspiration https://www.stephenking.com/library/novel/it_inspiration.html

images used via Pinterest.

Carried Her So Far

Happy Birthday to Kate Bush and Emily Bronte.  Both born on this day, 30th July. Two unique women who made my world more magical, strange and burning bright.

 

 

photographer John Carder Bush from Cathy

I love the synchronicity of not only both women sharing the same birthdate but also their brothers iconic images: Branwell Bronte painting Emily and John Carder Bush photographing Kate for his beautiful books, Cathy and Inside the Rainbow.

 

Kate Bush’s poem to Emily inscribed on stone in West Riding.

Emily, by Kate Bush
She stands outside
A book in her hands
“Her name is Cathy”, she says
“I have carried her so far, so far
Along the unmarked road from our graves
I cannot reach this window
Open it, I pray.”
But his window is a door to a lonely world
That longs to play.
Ah Emily. Come in, come in and stay.

photographer: Gered Mankowitz

CHANGE

2018 has been a year of transformation. Although it has had its
challenges, it has also been a year of stronger focus for me. One of the really
wonderful happenings is that I have just signed with agent/director Oli Munson
at A.M. Heath literary agency in London.
I could not have envisaged a better agency to
represent me, with its  prestigious pedigree and the fact it is celebrating its
centenary next year.  A.M. Heath has been one of the UK’s top agencies since
1919. Its esteemed catalogue of authors include George Orwell, Shirley Jackson,
Joan Aiken and Noel Streatfeild, along with present-day luminaries such as
Hilary  Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell. I feel really honoured to be a part of such
an impressive agency.  For years UK friends have asked when my books will
be published there. Hopefully that day will be soon!
The leaves are turning to golden autumn colours in the upper mountains in
Australia. Because of the delayed summer heat, the trees have been slower to
turn colour this year and aren’t as stunning in their display. The streets
aren’t as choked with the tourists who arrive annually to photograph the trees.
When I’m watching the sulphur-crested cockatoos cracking their seeds among the
golden russet leaves, London seems another world. It has been roughly a year
since we were in the UK and we all miss it. My daughter can’t wait to grow up
and move either to London or New York!

Everything changes. Children grow up. Good news turns to bad and bad to
good. The merciless summer yields to transitional, mellow autumn. We make new
connections, but lose treasured friends. One thing that stays consistent in my
life is writing. I am roughly half-way through the first draft of my new crime
novel.
In other good news my writer partner David
Levell has just completed his latest non-fiction book. It is gripping,
intelligent and with its original research, a fabulous read (totally unbiased
opinion). I’m  always in awe of how David can take really dense historical
material and transform it into a page-turning read. It is his gift.
Wishing you peace, resilience and dreams come true.

 

Protection Owl and Keats for Autumn Equinox

 Because it’s World Poetry Day and the Autumn Equinox, here is one of my favourite poems and a protective, mystical Joshua Yeldham owl. I love this artist’s work, which captures the mysterious power and spiritual energy of the Australian bush.

 

To Autumn

John Keats

 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Surfing and the Duchess of Death

Honouring International Women’s Day with Agatha Christie. Here she is in 1922 on a global tour where in Africa and Honolulu she became one of the first Britons to learn to surf.

A real achievement for the 20’s when surfing wasn’t considered a sport for ladies and particularly a lady from Agatha’s class. This social more didn’t deter the plucky novelist who wrote in her memoir, ‘Surfing looks perfectly easy. It isn’t. I say no more.’

 

 

And later she said despite the physical pain that surfing was one of the most perfect physical pleasures she had known. May we all challenge our own social mores. 📸 via The Christie Archives and  The Official Agatha Christie Instagram 

#amreading 2017

2017 was a challenging year. It had some shining moments: our January trip to Heron Island and our Easter break in England, but overall it was a frustrating year on several levels for my family. And politically and environmentally everything was bleak.
But even in the bleakest of years, books always provide solace and soul medicine.
Below are the books I read in 2017. They are mainly crime and psychological thrillers – not surprising as I’ve always found crime and mystery to be the ultimate comfort reading. Tana French’s books came in for some re-reading.
I tried to review books as I read them but it wasn’t always possible due to my own writing schedule.

This is not a complete list; I’ve omitted some that I forgot to record at the time.
I really enjoyed all the books below with the exception of one twisty psychological thriller that had the world’s most ridiculous ending – WTFthatending indeed.
I wish you a prosperous and joyous 2018 with books that keep you turning pages way past the witching hour.
Books read in 2017:
1/ The Grown Up by Gillian Flynn
2/ The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple by Anne Hart
3/ Re-read The Secret Place by Tana French
4/ The Locksmiths Daughter by Karen Brooks
5/  The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel
6/ The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
7/ Re-read In the Woods by Tana French
8/ Behind Her Eyes by Sara Pinborough
9/ The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman
10/ Hourglass by Dani Shapiro
11/ Re-read The Likeness by Tana French
12/  Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
13/ Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary
14/ Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
15/ After by Nikki Gemmell
16/ The Good People by Hannah Kent
17/ The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
18/ Wimmera by Mark Brandi
19/ The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
20/ The Golden Child by Wendy James
21/ The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer
22/ You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
23/ Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott
24/ Arrowood by Laura McHugh
25/ The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
26/ The Cunning Man by Celia Rees
27/ Re-read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
28/ Hunted by Amanda Holohan
29/ Goodwood by Holly Throsby
30/ Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
31/ Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth
32/ The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase
33/ Re-read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
34/ Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah
35/ No Picnic at Hanging Rock by Helen Golic
36/ Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the Mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Janelle McCulloch
37/ The Secrets she Keeps by Michael Robotham
38/ Crooked House by Agatha Christie
39/ A Spot of Folly: Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem by Ruth Rendell
40/ Sleep No More : Six Murderous Tales by P.D James
41/ Re-read The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
42/ Re-read 4.50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie
43/ Re-read Endless Night by Agatha Christie
44/ he said she said by Erin Kelly
45/ Re-read  My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
46/ The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox
47/ Dart by Alice Oswald
48/  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens