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) 

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.
 Crooked_House_First_Edition_Cover_1949
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.