This novel, the world’s best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies, has recently been voted readers’ favourite Agatha Christie novel in a global poll. Though I’d probably struggle to name my own personal favourite Christie novel, I’m not inclined to argue with this honour. The book is a masterpiece of crime fiction whose power hasn’t diminished with years, and it’s said that Christie herself regarded it as her highest achievement.
It’s a testament to the Queen of Crime’s versatility that her best-loved novel doesn’t involve her best-loved fictional sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Instead the story focuses solely on a group of ten strangers who all get separate invitations to Soldier Island, an isolated spot off the coast in Devon. Once there and secretly puzzled by each other’s presence, their cosy dinner on the first night is interrupted in a startling manner by a recorded message accusing each one of them of murder, and soon after one of the guests drops dead. Meanwhile their mysterious host, Mr U.N. Owen, is nowhere to be seen. The next morning they discover yet another dead body, and find themselves cut off from the mainland.
This Miss Marple novel has a couple too many convenient coincidences for my liking, but remains one of the most fun Christie mysteries to re-visit.
It surely has one of her best openings. In a small village of Chipping Cleghorn, the locals settle comfortably into reading their favourite local Gazette when they spot a most peculiar notice announcing a murder that’s about to take place that day at 6.30pm, at a place called Little Paddocks. Nobody takes it seriously and all assume that it refers to some sort of murder mystery evening, but all agree that they should definitely show up and find out. The announcement comes as a total surprise to Miss Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, but being a practical woman she’s resigned to the mob of curious villagers showing up at her doorstep, and prepares drinks and suchlike. Things turn from frivolous to serious when the evening ends with gunshots and death of a stranger.
Our latest book club reading was this extraordinary, beautifully written memoir about growing up in rural Idaho in a family of Mormon survivalists.
One frequent comment in the discussions I had was that to many Educated felt like reading fiction rather than a memoir. This is in no way a swipe at its credibility, but rather a compliment to the quality of Westover’s writing, which is a few notches above your typical memoir or autobiography. The impression could also be partly due to the voice of the narrator, which is rather distanced, matter-of-fact and remarkably perceptive. Perhaps it comes from looking back at a life that feels like a different life altogether. In many ways, this memoir is a book about memory and its fragility, and trying to piece together a portrait of the family from the often contradictory recollections.
Now that I’m officially doing a Christie challenge I suspect I’m going to give preference to the novels that stuck in my head the most, and leave the least favourite or poorly remembered ones for last. This Poirot mystery is definitely up there with the best.
Our favourite Belgian detective is investigating a sixteen-year-old case on behalf of a young woman, Carla Lemarchant, whose mother Caroline was convicted for murdering her husband. Amyas Crale was a brilliant and egocentric painter with an appetite for affairs, and all evidence points to Caroline poisoning him when his latest passion turned serious enough for him to consider divorce. Years later, Carla receives a posthumous letter from her mother swearing her innocence, and now, her mind in turmoil, Carla wants Poirot to find the truth, whatever it might be.
Another quick re-read in between the book club. I’m actually thinking of doing an official Agatha Christie re-readathon challenge, where I read and review every novel by the Queen of Crime, yes all 66 of them. If I finish one each month, this should take me only five and a half years. Piece of cake.
Anyway, this novel is one of my favourite Miss Marple murder mysteries, partly for the mystery itself and partly for the observations of the social changes of the time. It takes place in Miss Marple’s home of St Mary Mead, but in this post-war era it’s no longer the same sleepy village. There’s a shiny new supermarket and a housing development referred to simply as the Development. Miss Marple, who was an old lady since her very first appearance, is now truly frail and has to put up with a live-in housekeeper, a capable yet annoyingly patronising woman who treats her charge as a feeble invalid. But of course Miss Marple’s mind is still as sharp as a tack.
This book left me with mixed feelings; though I found it mostly enjoyable and touching there were two big things that didn’t sit well with me and somewhat soured the reading experience.
One is the blatantly misleading cover and title. I haven’t watched the 2013 film Philomena starring Judi Dench, but I’ve heard enough to expect, as the front cover puts it, “the poignant true story of a mother and the son she had to give away”, or as the back cover puts it, “the touching story of a mother’s fifty-year search for her son”. At first Sixsmith’s book seems to back it up, opening in the 1950s Ireland with the story of Philomena Lee, a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and gets sent to a convent. After giving birth to a baby boy, she is forced to work at the Magdalene laundry to “pay for her sins”, and eventually give up her son for adoption, with no hope of ever contacting him again. A truly tragic story that makes your blood boil.
This psychological thriller left me with a question, can an average book be elevated by a brilliant, shocking last-minute twist that makes you look at the story and characters in a whole different light? Yes… to a degree.
The story centres on two sisters, Robin and Sarah, who despite being fraternal twins are pure chalk and cheese: Robin is wild, rebellious and outspoken, Sarah is a good girl, docile and eager to please. When a shy and sensitive boy called Callum Granger shows up at their school and becomes friends with the girls, none of them can predict the seismic shift that’s about to rock their families and leave Robin in the UK while Sarah moves to the States.