fiction

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.

The ABC Murders was an exception in that I’ve only ever read it once more than twenty years ago, and subsequently forgot all about the story, thus giving me a rare chance to read a Christie novel as if for the first time. It’s one of the later Hercule Poirot mysteries, in which Poirot is retired and Captain Hastings, his old loyal friend, is losing his hair, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two friends.

The plot kicks off with an anonymous letter addressed to Poirot, which states that a murder will take place on a certain day in the town of Andover, and challenges Poirot to do something about it. At first no one around Poirot is convinced that the letter is something more than a sick joke, until, surprise, a murder does happen, with a couple of macabre details: the victim’s name also begins with letter A, and the ABC Railway Guide is left by the body as a calling card. When a second taunting letter arrives, it looks like a crazed serial killer is working his way through the alphabet. It also appears that the novel is handing the reader the murderer on a silver platter, with the narration switching from the usual Hastings first-person perspective to a third person view in the chapters about a certain Mr Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who might as well have been named Mr Red Herring.

Unfortunately for me, I figured out the culprit long before the end, because of a Jo Nesbo crime thriller involving a serial killer I read a while ago which had exactly the same (undeniably clever) twist. Even disregarding that, I didn’t think that The ABC Murders was a top-shelf Christie, and it’s not surprising that it hadn’t left much of a trace in my memory. Granted, it’s unusual in her oeuvre in that it deals with a serial killer, but, without spoiling things too much, I didn’t think that it delivered on that novelty, while also missing the strengths of her usual “small circle of suspects” setup. The supporting cast of characters isn’t one of Christie’s most memorable, and the experiment with the point of view feels largely pointless. A detective novel needs misdirection and red herrings like bread needs flour, but a red herring that lasts an entire novel while also being so bleeding obvious is just annoying. But I also wouldn’t call the book a failure, as it’s still fairly engaging and fast-paced, and the dynamic between Poirot and Hastings is endearing as always. Fact: I still can’t bear to re-read Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, where the duo is parted forever.

The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The finale to Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels chronicling the lives and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila didn’t disappoint and it’s hard to think of a series equally as rewarding and consistently fantastic. It’s impossible to convey, in a review, what makes Ferrante’s writing so extraordinary. On the surface, if you tried to describe the story, it sounds just like any domestic drama – lives of two women as they mature from girlhood into adulthood, going through various highs and lows, grappling with motherhood, making ends meet, becoming successful, growing old. But their experiences and everyday lives are just so incredibly well-drawn, with such degree of richness, texture and psychological insight, in prose that’s so crystal and powerful.

Because I left a bigger gap between reading this book and the rest, I actually forgot the premise of the first novel, where, in the present day, Elena decides to write the story of her 60-year-old friendship with Lila after Lila herself disappears without a trace. And there’s a sense of the story coming full circle, in a few respects. After years of trying to escape her old neighbourhood in Naples, in this novel Elena comes back to the city with her two young daughters after the break-up of her marriage, and eventually moves into an apartment directly above Lila’s. Her writing career is thriving, while Lila and her partner Enzo have a successful business and Lila becomes entangled in the murky underworld politics of the neighbourhood. The two friends become pregnant at the same time, and Elena observes the traits and dynamics in the relationship between their daughters that strangely resemble her own and Lila’s (Lila’s daughter is bright and precocious, while Elena’s Imma is more ordinary and submissive). Other long-running story strands, like Elena’s obsession with Nino, her love since childhood, thankfully come to an end (Nino has become one of my least favourite fictional characters and it’s a relief when Elena finally gets over him).

While Elena is a character who breaks with the traditions that bind the women of her time, becoming an academic and a writer, getting involved in feminism, leaving behind Naples and her family in both geographical and emotional sense, the story of her rebellion is still a fairly conventional one. Lila however defies any easy categorisation and, in the end, remains one of the great literary enigmas. After reading the first novel, I felt that Lila’s opaqueness made her a somewhat unsatisfying character, but after finishing the series it’s clear that mystery is at the core of her character, and that Elena puts their story in writing partly in order to figure out her friend who has shadowed her life for decades and never really left despite the long stretches of separation.

In this book, Lila remains the same fascinating figure, the “terrible, dazzling girl”: cruel yet kind, manipulative yet honest, charismatic, capricious, submissive to no one, a constant source of feelings of inferiority in Elena despite the success she’s achieved. Her presence in Elena’s life is both toxic and indispensable. At the same time, Elena comes to realise that Lila lacks the solid centre she herself possesses, particularly when her friend, in a rare unguarded moment, talks about the terrifying episodes of dissociation she describes as “dissolving boundaries”. One of the things Ferrante captures really well is the way any strong emotion in her characters has an underbelly and nothing can be described as simply love, hate, happiness, envy etc. My own feelings about the two main characters are similarly divided: while Lila is a much more compelling character, Elena with her frank admissions and insecurities is easier to identify with.

Some of the descriptions can get old over the course of the series – how many times can Lila narrow her eyes, already? But in the end, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of a complicated female friendship so intricately and intimately portrayed.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Another novel I’ve read for our book club at work, this time a follow-up to Hannah Kent’s best-selling debut, Burial Rites, which I didn’t love anywhere as much as others did and found rather over-praised. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but I ended up enjoying this one much better. Kent seems to have a penchant for the grim northern settings and harsh landscapes; Burial Rites was set in an isolated Icelandic community and this book moves the action just a bit further south, to a remote valley in the 1820s Ireland. The subject matter however is entirely different: The Good People concerns itself with the Irish folklore and superstitions, particularly the fairies, or the Good People, who according to the traditional beliefs belong to neither God nor Devil but exist on their own, mischievous and unpredictable terms.

The novel opens with a sudden and inexplicable death of Martin Leahy, a husband to Nóra Leahy, who receives this blow soon after the death of her only daughter. The immediate aftermath then introduces the rest of the characters, Nóra’s family and neighbours, a chief standout among them being Nance, a local wise woman who arrives at the wake to offer her keening (lamenting) services. Nance occupies a shaky ground in the community where she’s both a social outcast and yet is sought out for her knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the ways of the fairies. A new local priest however is not willing to be as tolerant about these pagan matters as the old one and could spell out trouble for Nance.

Nóra is also burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál, once healthy boy who can no longer talk, walk or put on weight, and wails relentlessly through the night. Neither the priest nor the doctor can offer any help or remedies, and though Nóra hires a teenage girl, Mary, to help her with the child, taking care of Micheál is an ordeal and an emotional drain. So it’s with some sense of relief that Nóra accepts Nance’s diagnosis that Micheál is a changeling, a false fairy child swapped with the real healthy Micheál by the Good People.

To be honest, I thought that the main narrative of the novel – Nóra and Nance’s quest to recover the boy from the grasp of the fairies – felt too stretched out and maybe didn’t warrant an almost 400-page novel. Where this impeccably researched book really excels though is in immersing the reader into its claustrophobic setting, and vividly evoking the life in a poor 19-century Irish village. The freezing dirt floors, the diet of potatoes and poitín, the smells and textures, the tactile quality of life far removed from our modern world, the evocative language peppered with the Irish vernacular, all weave together to transport the reader. In Nóra’s world, there are no coincidences or meaningless incidents, if something bad happens to an individual or a village, someone is to blame – either for deliberate malice or failure to follow a ritual.

As for the fairies, I wasn’t sure until the end what sort of book I was reading – is this a strictly historical novel about the way desperate, powerless people cling to the superstition in order to deal with the misery of their lives? Or was there going to be a genuine supernatural element after all? I’ve been caught out too many times with gotcha! endings, so I wasn’t certain. Without going into specifics, the ending of the book did provide me with a certain jolt.

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

I’ve always loved short stories and this collection certainly has a unique premise. Each of the ten short stories is narrated by a soul of a different animal caught up in the human conflicts of the last century, and ends with the tale of their deaths. Among them is a female cat surviving in the trenches of World War I, who reminisces about her life with her bohemian actress owner; a bear slowly starving to death in the zoo of the war-torn Sarajevo; a tortoise who crosses paths with several literary geniuses and dreams of travelling to space; a young mussel who goes on a road trip Kerouac-style.

I confess, it took me some time to get used to the concept of the book and read it on the author’s terms, because initially the idea struck me as painfully contrived. I’ve read a few from-the-animal’s-point-of-view books before, but Dovey’s stories ask you to accept her animals as incredibly self-aware, articulate and literate creatures who care about the beauty of a piano and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. As such they felt to me more like human consciousness forced into an animal shape, and the words coming out of their mouths came off as very unnatural. It’s not really a book to make me think about the humans’ treatment of the real-life animals when they’re anthropomorphised beyond recognition.

However, once I finished a couple more stories and got over this contrivance, Only the Animals turned out to be a beautifully written, original, inventive and empathetic treasure trove of a book that’s completely devoid of excessive sentimentality or cutesiness animal stories can sometimes fall into. The book is also not preachy in some sort of overt “animals = good humans = baaaaad” kind of way. The animals remark on the humans around them in a frank, matter-of-fact manner; sometimes they’re bemused by them, sometimes they’re horrified, and quite often they’re sympathetic.

Since every story ends with the death of its main character, they’re inevitably poignant and tragic, but they also can be quite playful and witty; the story of the mussel in particular comes closest to the outright parody and feels slightly different in tone to the others, in a good way. What binds the stories, other than the themes of violence and human cruelty, is the literary connections: famous writers like Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell sometimes appear in a story as the background figures, or it’s their work that has inspired the animals in some way; or the author uses an existing work (such as Kafka’s A Report to an Academy) as a jumping off point for her own story. I’ve probably missed out on some of the references and homages to past writers, but I don’t think this knowledge is necessary to enjoy the stories on their own.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first paragraph of the novel, its narrator singles out what he believes to be his ‘fatal flaw’: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. If you can relate to this in any way, at least when it comes to fiction, and can enjoy appalling yet fascinating characters who are not likeable or relatable, The Secret History is a treat, a rather unconventional and mesmerising blend of intellectual ideas and a murder mystery.

The murder mystery is not so much of a mystery: right in the prologue, you learn that the narrator, Richard, and four of his friends kill another friend. The tension in the book then is not about who, but why the five college students came to commit this terrible act, and what happens to them and the wider community in the aftermath. It goes all the way back to when Richard, an unhappy Californian native with blue-collar parents, gets a scholarship and a chance to attend the exclusive and prestigious Hampden College in New England. There, he falls in with a small, close-knit group of ancient Greek students and Julian, their charismatic teacher. These kids are privileged, aloof, self-absorbed, snobby, eccentric, and utterly alluring to Richard, partly because they seem to be so out of step with the rest of the students and the modern world in general. Their dedication to the ancient Greece strikes a chord with Richard, who, despite being far from a sexless creature, seems to be obsessed more with the ideals of beauty. In fact, this otherworldly, unmodern quality of the characters gives The Secret History a timeless feel, where this could have easily been a 19th century novel if not for the mentions of phones, hippies and The Grateful Dead (and quite a bit of drugs).

Of course, Richard’s new friends hide a gruesome secret, foreshadowed in one of my favourite parts of the book where Julian talks eloquently about the ancient Greeks and their fascination with the loss of self, religious ecstasy, and the dark, irrational part of human nature. It’s to Tartt’s credit that the details of the secret, which could have come off as ridiculous and melodramatic, seem totally plausible, even when they’re tinged with a touch of supernatural. Perhaps predictably, after pages of building up suspense and apprehension, the book loses some of its power once the central murder happens and one of its most vivid characters exits the stage. Which is not to say that the aftermath, with its further revelations about the characters, is not compelling, and the book also gets rather satirical in its depiction of the mass hysteria that sweeps the campus post-murder.

The novel has some great descriptive passages and fantastically drawn characters, particularly Henry, the unofficial leader of the group who is highly intelligent, erudite, cold, manipulative and whose motivations you’re never completely sure about. Some other characters fare less well, especially Camilla, the sole female member of the gang, who mostly floats in and out like an ethereal ghost and whose main purpose seems to be a subject of infatuation. Overall though, this is a haunting, beautifully written, confidently constructed book that’s definitely a re-read material.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the-heart-goes-lastI love me a good dystopia and I enjoyed this futuristic satire despite the slightly jarring shifts in tone, especially towards the end when it seemingly abandons all restraint and dives into (still very entertaining) surreal silliness.

The beginning of the book is fairly grounded: in the near future, a financial crisis has reduced a large part of the USA to an unemployed wasteland. Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck, are living in their car, getting by on tips Charmaine makes working at a seedy bar, scavenging for food, always on guard from the roaming bandits. They’re in fact prime candidates for a socioeconomic experiment called the Positron Project, which they see advertised one day. It is located in the town of Consilience, and provides the lucky applicants with jobs and roof over their heads. The catch? One, every other month, they have to swap the occupancy of their house with the Alternates – a couple just like them they’re never supposed to meet – and spend a whole month in the on-site prison. Two, the project is for life and you can never ever leave Consilience for the outside world.

Sure enough, Charmaine and Stan promptly sign up and at first things are ok, even though the happy-happy 50s aesthetic of the town, down to the selection of music you’re allowed to listen to, is rather dull and antiseptic (no rock music or anything else deemed overly stimulating). Charmaine seems happy in her new surrounds, but Stan begins to find their marriage stale and sex too vanilla. His imagination is set on fire when, one day, he finds a love note under the fridge, presumably written by the female Alternate who shares their house, hinting at the kind of sexual abandon he craves. Unable to stop fantasising about the woman, Stan is determined to meet her, even though such contact is against the rules. Little does he know what massive shocks expect him.

Of course there’s much more going on than a tale of marital infidelities, and soon enough the story dives into – surprise – the dark side of the Positron Project, getting increasingly sinister and absurd and involving sexbots, knitted blue teddy bears, gay Elvis impersonators… among other things. At times it gets almost too silly, yet its bleak view of humanity and the scary places future technology and corporate greed might take us to don’t feel all that far-fetched, sadly. The novel is perhaps more uneven than some of the other Atwood books, but her imagination and caustic wit are a delight as always.