Sunday, January 18, 2015

Currently Reading - Evil Under the Sun

image by Alejandro esCamilla via unsplash

I am a massive Agatha Christie fan. I own most if not all of her 80 something detective novels, mostly brought second hand for R10 or R20, somewhat the worse for wear. Well, actually it might be a bit unfair to single Agatha out - I basically love all of the classic murder mystery writers, with all their attendant bits and pieces. Murder mystery birthday party? Tick. Avid murder mystery series watcher? Tick. And look at that time I wrote a murder mystery novel inspired by (among others) Dame Aggie...

So although this one is another re-read, it also represents probably about 6-8 comforting bath and bed re-reads over the holiday period. Fair enough?

Evil Under the Sun, by Agatha Christie, was published in 1941. The battered Pan edition I read came out in 1963 and is graced with the following subtitle: "Hercule Poirot on holiday - with a strangler as a fellow guest". Also draped tastefully across the front cover are a pair of scissors, a broken pipe, a button, some green cardboard (or is it seaweed?) and some sea sand and pebbles. This of course follows the comforting and slightly coy habit in detective novels from a certain era of portraying a selection of "clues" on the cover, rather than a luridly tasteless corpse. Very charming, very mannered. Very misleading as well, if you fall into the trap of assuming that those depicted are the most important and least fishy of the myriad clues provided!


(I am laughing in the picture because of the antics of the photographer, not the contents of the novel!)

Anyway, this isn't one of Agatha Christie's most well known works, but it is a classic of its kind. Fluffy as a summer pudding, with absolutely no mention of the war which must have been dominating everyone's thoughts and efforts at the time of publication, you can see why it met with a largely positive reception when it came out. Although I don't think it's one of her absolute best, there is never a moment of doubt: you are in the hands of a master.

It takes place in a fancy seaside hotel, which is located - conveniently - on an kind of large promontory, which gets completely cut off from the mainland at high tide. Even a master needs some way of limiting the pool of suspects. That being said, she does cheat a little by introducing suspects in sailing boats and a whole *gasp* drug element (you'll see). Tsk, Agatha, tsk tsk. However, the main thrust of the novel remains classical, so don't worry.

The story revolves around Arlene Stuart/Marshall, that lovely but man-mad actress, at the Jolly Roger Hotel on holiday with her husband Kenneth Marshall and stepdaughter Linda. They meet Rosamund Darnley, Kenneth's childhood friend. They also, apparently by accident, find Patrick and Christine Redfern as fellow guests.

Unfortunately for someone, Hercules Poirot is also a guest at the Jolly Roger. He watches the progress of Patrick's infatuation over Arlena with grave apprehension, and agrees with nervous Reverend Lane: "don't you feel it in the air? All around you? The presence of Evil."

The novel is sprinkled with the usual cast of characters. Mrs Brewster, the mannish spinster. Major Barry, the boring teller of endless campaign stories. Mr and Mrs Gardeners, the pleasant Americans. Mr Blatt, the annoyingly jolly sailor. There are enough twists and turns to satisfy the most ardent red-herring hunter. Details of timing, mirror placement, bath water running out, the scents in a hidden cave... all the little touches which make a mystery so satisfactory and absorbing.

And no-one - least of all the discerning reader - is surprised when Arlena is found... murdered!

The novel is beautifully structured, with the first clues appearing - only in retrospect of course - from the very first chapter. A few dodgy moves, perhaps, in introducing new information very near the end, but generally the rule of "hide nothing" is observed. Hercules Poirot is on form, and the long denouement is comforting. As always, justice is fulfilled.

This one is definitely re-readable, even if you remember the plot. It will, unsurprisingly, go onto my Agatha Christie rotation for holidays and times when things get tough.


yours sleuthingly
jjr

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Currently Reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

image by Alejandro esCamilla via unsplash


I read a lot of books. Seriously, a lot. The school librarian allows me to take out as many as I can carry each week (teacher perks!). Kids give me funny looks when they see the weekend pile on my desk.

Now before you think I'm bragging, very few of the books I read are brainy books. Their authors probably didn't win any Nobel prizes. I've studied literature. Literature is okay. What I love is a rattling good story. One that I am eager to pick up and unwilling to put down.

But one of the things I realised, looking back on 2014, is that I can't actually remember all the books I've read. Some made a big impact, but I can't quite remember the name. Others had catchy titles but were boring on the inside. And I'd quite like to be able to look back and see some of them. Maybe even reread one or two.

So, here on Daydreaming, I am going to try keep an (incomplete) record of some of what I read, love and hate.

The first one is a bit of a cheat, because I actually read it for work (as you can see by all the sticky notes below: can anyone say #bookselfie?). However...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of those books which you read really quickly and then get stuck thinking about for the next few months. I read it first a few years ago, loved it, and recently revisited it when we decided to do it as a setwork with our grade 9s this year. It made a big splash when it first came out, and won lots of awards and things.

In the novel Mark Haddon has lovingly portrayed Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15 year old boy with a difference. Well, lots of differences really, some of which (like not eating anything brown or yellow, or really really not liking anyone to touch him) make it quite difficult for him to manage in ordinary society. But he likes animals - probably since their emotions are much easier to understand - which leads him onto his great Odyssey: solving the murder of Wellington the dog.

As numerous people have said, all over the internet, this is not a book about disability, but about difference. This is not just good publicity. It's true. Christopher's adventures might seem trivial when I just tell you about them (in one episode he succeeds, with enormous difficulty, in buying a train ticket), but from his point of view they are nothing short of heroic. I identify with that. Some mornings, it seems heroic to get out of bed. And if you have an aversion to people touching you, why shouldn't conquering the tube station be utterly valiant?

However, The Curious Incident isn't just a serious book. Although it is deeply sad at times (investigating Wellington's death leads Christopher to make all sorts of tragic discoveries), it is also profoundly funny. And not in the "one liner" way that makes you laugh and then forget about it. It is funny in a way which makes you laugh at yourself, at the weird things that we do so often that we forget they're weird. Christopher is one of the best "innocent" narrators I've ever read. He reports incidents with a deadpan, often uncomprehending exactitude, revealing absurdity after absurdity in modern life, some of which we are forced to recognize in spite of the fact that he doesn't understand them at all.

Also, I think Ed Boone is one of the most outstandingly realistic good fathers portrayed in fiction ever.

By the way, Christopher is happens to be extremely intelligent, in the mathsy-sciencey sense. How can a Maths teacher not love a novel with a mathematical proof in the appendix?

Okay, so I enjoyed this book. Perhaps too sad to get onto my "read every year" shelf, but one of those novels which you come out of... slightly different than you were before.

yours literately.
jjr