A Spot of Folly

A Spot of Folly (Profile Books, 2017) by Ruth Rendell – Ten and a Quarter New Tales of Murder and Mayhem.
I loved this posthumously published collection. Ruth Rendell (Baroness Rendell of Babergh since her life peerage in 1977) is one of my favourite writers. The stories are mostly psychological domestic crime but a couple have supernatural themes (the chilling Haunting of Shawley Rectory equals M.R.James) and there is even a dystopian story describing the bleak effects of a nuclear war. The ‘Quarter’ story of the title (Never Sleep in a Bed Facing a Mirror) has only three sentences, but every word is a sinister whisper in your brain.
Ruth Rendell in 1978. Image credit: Kenneth Saunders

Ruth Rendell in 1978. Image credit: Kenneth Saunders

Sophie Hannah provides an entertaining and interesting introduction, detailing how her appreciation of Ruth Rendell began.
Ruth Rendell vintage cover
As Sophie Hannah says in her intro: Ruth always knew how imperative it is to hook your reader with a strong opening line. Ruth is famous for her opening line of her 1977 novel, A Judgement in Stone: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It takes a confident writer to begin a crime novel with all their cards exposed. A Judgment in Stone remains gripping throughout and is ultimately poignant and believable.
Ruth Rendell quote
Considers these hooks from opening lines of stories in  A Spot of Folly:
‘You won’t believe this, but last week I tried to murder my wife.’   – A Drop Too Much
‘I don’t believe in the supernatural, but just the same, I wouldn’t live in Shawley Rectory.’  – The Haunting of Shawley Rectory
‘I murdered Brenda Goring for what I suppose is the most unusual of motives. She came between me and my wife.’ – The Irony of Hate
Not a word is wasted in A Spot of Folly. For any writer wanting a master class in crafting suspense and crime short stories, this is a perfect book to study. The characters are chilling, or heartbreakingly vulnerable to their fates, but Rendell always creates believable flawed characters. Ruth began writing short stories in the 1950s and admitted a lot of her early attempts were pretty bad but she soon found her power lay in suspense writing.
The stories were published previously in various formats over a long period of time. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it was a treat to connect with Ruth’s work again. I only wish another manuscript of hers would turn up in some attic. Meanwhile I shall continue to hunt down out-of-print copies of her books to re-read and marvel over her skill.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

This is a ‘must’ book for the library of any lover of this talented crime writer. As with a lot of Rendell’s work, the stories seem to bury themselves like a deadly creeper vine into your brain, making you reflect upon them for a long time afterwards.
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Her skill in creating broken, dysfunctional people capable of the most cruel acts is unparalleled. You won’t find shock twists here, as the current publishing trend dictates, but rather more elegant haunting stories that bring some cohesion to the darkness within humanity.

CROOKED HOUSE

I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but I either blocked Crooked House from my mind – or I’d never read it.
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A Christie I haven’t read? Scandalous! It’s hard to believe I could’ve forgotten this chiller. Crooked House was the Agatha Christie Book of the Month for November. There are no spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t read it, I vow to Keep the Secret.
CROOKED HOUSE PAN EDITION
Crooked House (1949) was one of Agatha’s personal favourites and I can see why. I always enjoy her standalone novels, like Endless Night – see review HERE. Free of Poirot and Marple, her work enters interesting shadows. I love both detectives, but it must have been refreshing for Agatha to write without them. She claimed Crooked House was pure pleasure to create. She mused over it for years and felt it one of her best. It is also pure pleasure to read.
Agatha Christie Life Magazine 1940

Agatha Christie Life Magazine 1940

The novel is set just after WW2 in 1947. Narrator Charles Hayward returns to England to marry his fiancée Sophia, whom he met in Egypt where she was working for the Foreign Office .
Sophia’s grandfather Aristides Leonides presides over The Three Gables (the Crooked House) where several generations of the family live. But he’s murdered when his insulin medication for diabetes is swapped with his eserine eye medicine. It’s a perfect set up for lots of simmering tensions and family secrets. Everyone, from Sophia herself to 12-year-old Josephine is a suspect, and everyone appears to have a motive. Classic Christie!
Crooked House signed copy image via Pinterest

Crooked House signed copy image via Pinterest

Here’s an extract from when Charles asks ‘The Old Man’ (his father) what murderers are like:
‘But some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse… And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ – murder is wrong – but not for them – for them it is necessary – the victim has ‘asked for it,’ it was ‘the only way.’
CROOKED HOUSE SHOES
Charles’s father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, so Charles is allowed to unofficially investigate under the eye of Chief Inspector Taverner.
I really enjoyed the characters in this novel. Their flaws are shown but there is depth to every person Christie has created. An example is Laurence Brown, the tutor looked down upon by the family for being a conscientious objector. He was, as he admits to Charles, afraid to go to war, afraid to have to pull the trigger on what might appear to be a Nazi but is actually just a decent German village boy swept up in the conflict. Laurence believes war is wrong but is despised for his beliefs. Now he is under suspicion of murder along with the rest of the household. Laurence tries hard to do the decent thing and is always failing. He rushes into a burning building to save a woman but became unconscious with the fumes, earning the scorn of the fire-department when they have to rescue him as well.
CROOKED HOUSE NEEDLE
Christie doesn’t have a lot of time to let us get to know characters, but is skilled at giving us a full person in a few strokes. It is obvious that Christie, like Miss Marple is a keen observer and can pass a shrewd eye over people without judgement.
Also enjoyable is the goblin-like, horrible child Josephine. She enjoys playing detective, listening at doors and lives in ghoulish expectation for the ‘second murder to occur’. As we do – knowing it is coming. For as  Josephine points out: ‘Someone who knows something is bumped off before they can tell what they know.’ And – ‘Sometimes it’s something that they don’t know that they know.’
This book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: “One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself – I’ll begin it. 

Agatha Christie

The tension really escalates at the end. I had a sense of dread of what was coming:
‘Because this is just what a nightmare is. Walking about among people you know, looking in their faces – and suddenly the faces change – and it’s not someone you know any longer – it’s a stranger – a cruel stranger.’ – Sophia, Crooked House.
The denouement (which I didn’t see coming but my husband did pick) was one that her publishers wanted her to change the ending. Thankfully, she refused and had enough clout that they conceded to her will.
Crooked House reminds me of some of Barbara Vine’s/Ruth Rendell’s work and is a wonderful forerunner for the twisty, psychological genre.
crooked house nursery rhyme
The title is taken from the nursery rhyme Crooked House, which is a trope that Agatha used in several of her novels. Yes, nearly everyone in the novel and that strange, rambling mansion is crooked in a psychological way. And it refers Aristides not permitting his family to grow independent and rise or fall on their own merits. By his over-control of their lives, the family members have grown crooked, under the crooked man, in his crooked, strangely proportioned mansion on the outskirts of London.
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Have you read it? If so, please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. And if you know any fan of mysteries, or psychological thrillers, please share this post. I think Crooked House has become one of my new favourite Christie’s.
#keepthesecret.

Endless Night

I recently re-read Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (1967), for the Instagram Agatha Christie bookclub Maidens of Murder.
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Agatha wrote Endless Night in her seventies, and it’s one of her most chilling and accomplished books. It was one of her personal favourites, and her grandson Mathew Prichard recently voted it his favourite in a survey to mark the 125th anniversary of Agatha’s birth.
ENDLESS NIGHT ONE
Endless Night received some of the Queen of Crime’s best reviews and I wish she had written more standalones, as it is as strong as anything by Daphne du Maurier or Ruth Rendell.
From the film Endless Night

From the film Endless Night

It’s a psychological thriller, with no iconic detective or whodunnit, a beautifully crafted examination of evil and madness with a shocker of a twist. Even though I already knew the denouement, I was still hooked into the story. The prose is tight, the characters intriguing and it demonstrates how Agatha, in her later years was still able to pull off an accomplished piece. This is a crime writer on top of her game!
ENDLESS NIGHT THREE
I finished the book at 3am in the morning with a storm outside – appropriate for the menacing Third Act.
endless night seven
The narrator is a young working-class man Michael Rogers, who marries the fabulously wealthy Ellie. He first sees Ellie at Gipsy’s Acre, where a house, originally known as the Towers, is up for auction. Michael knows his dream of living at Gipsy’s Acre is impossible, but he fantasies about his terminally ill architect friend, Rudolph Santonix, building a modern house on the site. However, the land is cursed by gypsies and it’s said anyone who moves there will have bad luck.
ENDLESS NIGHT SIX
When Michael and Ellie fall in love, the impossible dream of owning Gipsy’s Acre is within reach. But Michael has to learn the rules of the privileged world he has now joined – and deal with a cast of characters who threaten his happiness, including the capable and controlling Scandinavian beauty, Greta. Then there’s the suspicion of Ellie’s family, who see Michael as a fortune hunter. Ellie’s guardian and trustee Andrew Lipincott is one of my favourites, but there are many well-written characters including Michael’s mother, Mrs Rogers, who doesn’t appear a lot, but is realistically drawn.
endless night eight
The Gypsy curse is always shadowing their new home and life. Neither Michael or Ellie are superstitious, until the local village gypsy, Esther Lee, begins predicting Ellie’s death.
The Endless Night of the title is taken from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake, and is suitably sombre, haunting and mystical.
ENDLESS NIGHT TWO
In the Youtube clip Mathew Prichard made announcing his choice for the World’s Favourite Christie, he explained how his friends would visit Agatha with him and how she was always curious about their lives and choices. Through his friends, Agatha became familiar with the mood and tone of the 60s and he believes she gleaned influences from her conversations with those young people that went into the book.
agatha christie ten
A movie of Endless Night, released in 1972, starred Hayley Mills, Britt Ekland, Per Oscarsson, Hywel Bennett, and George Sanders. I have the DVD and really enjoy it. It has recently been turned into a Miss Marple adaptation, which I think is disappointing as the book doesn’t feature Marple. I’m a huge Miss Marple fan, but she doesn’t belong in Endless Night.
For readers who love psychological thrillers, domestic noir and the awful sounding grip-lit – if you haven’t read Endless Night, I highly recommend it!
endless night nine
Endless Night has gothic overtones and, as with several of Agatha’s books, a nod to the supernatural. But the haunting in this isn’t from any wraith within the pages, but from how the book plays with your mind afterwards. It is one of my favourite Agatha Christies and a perfectly suitable book choice for the October Spooky season.