Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge 2012

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

In the Fog (1901) is a mystery novella by Richard Harding Davis. Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was an American journalist and popular fiction writer at the turn of the century.

At the exclusive Grill Club, five strangers have gathered. In order to prevent the mystery loving Sir Andrew from making a speech in the parliament, the other four hatch an ingenious plan. They will give Sir Andrew a real life mystery to deal with, a mystery that has even the Scotland Yard baffled. Each member will provide a piece of the puzzle, the final piece of which will ultimately lead to the solution.

In the Fog, quite obviously, reminded me of the Arabian Nights. The aim of the stories is to keep Sir Andrew occupied much like it was Scheherazade’s intention to keep King Shahryār occupied. Also, a lot of the tales from the Arabian Nights are framed like this where one person tells one part of the story with another one filling in with another part.

I am kind of surprised with how much I have enjoyed this. I usually do not enjoy early detective fiction. Most of them feel disjointed to me but In the Fog has a definite structure to it. The story managed to keep me engrossed.

The description of a house where most of the occupants lay dead as an impenetrable fog engulfs the entire city was creepy. If you are lost in the fog and accidentally find yourself in such a house keeping your nerve steady must be one of the toughest things ever!

The end also did not disappoint me. The final twist worked for me.

The novella is really short and as I was totally gripped by the narrative, it took me under an hour to finish it.

On the whole, I can say that I enjoyed reading In the fog much more than I thought I would. Recommended for all mystery buffs.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

4.50 from Paddington is a detective novel written by Agatha Christie. It was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in 1957 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year under the title of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! A paperback edition by Pocket Books in 1963 changed the title to Murder, She Said to tie in with the feature film release of the same name.

Elspeth McGillicuddy, on her way to visit her old friend Miss Marple, has been having a rather uneventful journey. But that changes when she looks out the window of her train carriage and sees a woman being strangled in a passing train. The problem is no one believes her. Only Miss Marple does. But if there has been a murder where is the body? It’s up to Miss Marple to find that out.

The unusual way in which Mrs. McGillicuddy witnesses the crime has long been one of my favorites in detective fiction. I’m yet to discover a better way in which the commencement a crime is seen through the eyes of the witness.

One of the main characters of this mystery (and Miss Marple’s right hand woman) is Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She is a professional housekeeper and a very unusual woman. She is efficient and organized. The way she handles the investigation and all the household duties at the same time dealing with her own inner emotional confusion, is remarkable. She is definitely not a damsel in distress.

In fact, all of the female characters in this story are unusually strong. For example, another female character, Emma Crackenthorpe, is not a push over and holds her own pretty well against a pack of scowling brothers and a cantankerous father.

Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock reappears in this book after A Murder Is Announced. He is the godson of Sir Henry Clithering, who is an old friend of Miss Marple. In fact, the case from A Murder Is Announced is discussed at least on two separate occasions in this book.

Also, reappearing is the Vicar and his family from The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library. I love how all of these familiar character grow old as time goes by in Miss Marple’s universe, makes the reader feel like as if s/he has known them all their lives.

Among the other characters Luther Crackenthorpe, the Crackenthorpe family patriarch is a nasty old man who relishes the thought of out living all of his children. He is one strange man. All of Luther’s sons, Cedric, Harold and Alfred, are greedy, unpleasant and definitely unlikable. Christie is much more sympathetic in her portrayal of Luther’s only surviving daughter, Emma Crackenthorpe.

Luther’s son-in-law, his deceased daughter Edith’s husband, Brian Eastley, is like so many of other Christie creations. Christie definitely had a theory about war time heroes not being fit for day to day life. Peace time doesn’t suit them. They find real life too tame and become restless. This theme reoccurs in many of her stories. For example, Pat Fortescue’s first husband in A Pocketful of Rye.

The relationship between Brian Eastley and his son Alexander was touching and the interaction between Alexander and Lucy was fun to read. The characters of Alexander Eastley and his friend James Stoddard-West definitely brighten up the narrative.

Miss Marple and her unlimited stock of ‛village parallels’ are as fresh as ever. One might say that Miss Marple does not do all the sleuthing herself and it’s not fair but the story is so nicely paced that I hardly felt her absence at all. She is, as she herself says in the book, old and physically weak. It is impossible for her to physically do what Lucy Eyelesbarrow does.

I always talk about Agatha Christie’s little insights about psychology of murderers. Here is an interesting one,

“Yes, of course ______ was a little peculiar, as they say, but I never see myself that that’s any real excuse. I mean you can be a little peculiar in so many different ways. Sometimes you just go about giving all your possessions away and writing cheques on bank accounts that don’t exist, just so as to benefit people. It shows, you see, that behind being peculiar you have quite a nice disposition. But of course if you’re peculiar and behind it you have a bad disposition…”

I was surprised by the identity of the killer. I really didn’t think (after having read way too many Christie mysteries) that the person was the murdering type at all.

One little thing I’ve always wanted to know is ‘Who does Lucy Eyelesbarrow end up with?’ Miss Marple says she knows but we the poor readers are left very much in the dark. I’m still wondering.

The central mystery of 4.50 from Paddington is rather a common one. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Because I don’t expect uncommon stories from Christie. What I expect is a feeling of satisfaction, the comfort of having read a good cozy mystery. I always come back to Christie for comfort and am never disappointed.

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in 1942.

Agatha Christie, in the foreword of the present book, explained how she always wanted to write a detective novel featuring the cliché of the body in the library, making the library a highly conventional one and the body a highly implausible one. She did just that and wove an engaging mystery with the unparalleled Miss Marple around the classic theme of an exotic blond woman, dead in a drab and highly respectable library in The Body in the Library.

The book features the recurring characters of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry, the former head of the Scotland Yard Sir Henry Clithering, Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack. The Bantrys and Sir Henry had previously been seen in the Miss Marple short story collection, The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack appeared in The Murder at the Vicarage. The vicar and his wife from The Murder at the Vicarage make a cameo appearance.

The theme of class difference plays a prominent role in The Body in the Library. For example statements like,

“…-well, to put it bluntly-… wasn’t  a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best cloths however unsuitable to the occasion…”

(to be fair the character does admit to not wanting to sound snobbish but says that it couldn’t be avoided) are made frequently in the book.

Miss Marple’s experiences with young girls comes in very handy during the course of the investigation. Also her being a woman gives her an advantage over the male detectives as they know nothing about dresses, make up and fashion- all of which play a crucial role in solving the mystery. The police represented by Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, Superintendent Harper and also Sir Henry Clithering do provide a lot of information but the solution ultimately hinges on Miss Marple, who presents the link that unravels the whole mystery.

None of the characters really stand out. Everyone seemed uniformly bland to me.

Among all the recurring characters Mrs. Bantry is as usual delightful. The teasing way Sir Henry interacts with Miss Marple is funny.

The identity of the criminal is not really that surprising but the twists that take the story there are surprising. The confusing, twisted clues does leave one’s head reeling a bit. I must confess that although I wasn’t surprised by the identity of the criminal I never saw the fundamental, big point of the mystery till Miss Marple explains it at the very end.

In the end, Christie did manage to put a very interesting spin on the cliché of the body in the library. The plot is very clever and Miss Marple is as good as ever. Very much recommended.

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

Miss Jane Marple is arguably one of the most famous characters Agatha Christie ever created. An elderly spinster living in the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, she acts as an amateur detective.

The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Lab in 1932. In the US it was called The Tuesday Club Murders and was published by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1933. Even though Miss Marple made her first appearance in The Murder at the Vicarage published in 1930, these were the earliest stories of Miss Marple ever written.

The Thirteen Problems contains thirteen short stories featuring Miss Marple. The first twelve have loosely connected narratives.

The first six stories are told by six people who are guests at Miss Marple’s house, calling themselves The Tuesday Night Club. Each Tuesday one of the guests, including the ex-commissioner of Scotland Yard Sir Henry Clithering, narrates a mystery, the solution to which is only known to the narrator of the story. And each time much to everyone’s surprise Miss Marple manages to unravel the mystery before anyone else. The guests are left stunned as they all envision her as a gentle old lady who has very limited if any worldly knowledge at all.

The first set of stories are, The Tuesday Night Club, The Idol House of Astarte, Ingots of Gold, The Blood-Stained Pavement, Motive v. Opportunity and The Thumb Mark of St. Peter.

In the first story, The Tuesday Night Club, the death of a diner is blamed on a can of bad lobsters. But when all the other diners are very much alive could the truth lie somewhere else?

In The Idol House of Astarte, when the host of a party unceremoniously drops dead right in front of his guests on a moonlit night the atmosphere becomes tainted with the fear of the unknown and the supernatural.

Ingots of Gold tells the story of a lost Spanish treasure.

In The Blood-Stained Pavement, artist Joyce Lempriere observes the encounter between a newly wed couple and the husband’s exotic female friend and feels increasingly uneasy about it all.

An elderly man’s last will and testament turns out to be nothing more than a blank piece of paper in Motive v. Opportunity.

And finally in The Thumb Mark of St. Peter, Miss Marple goes to visit her temperamental niece Mabel after she’s suspected of doing away with her equally volatile husband.

The next six stories are told at a dinner party held at the house of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry where Miss Marple is invited at the request of Sir Henry Clithering. Here too six unsolved mysteries are narrated and once again Miss Marple manages to solve them without batting an eyelid.

The second set of stories are The Blue Geranium, The Companion, The Four Suspects, A Christmas Tragedy, The Herb of Death and The Affair at the Bungalow.

In the The Blue Geranium, a bed ridden woman with a hysterical streak becomes convinced by a fortune teller that the blue flower means death to her.

In The Companion, a rich employer is suspected of murdering her paid companion. But what could her motive be behind killing a lowly, poor companion?

The Four Suspects is the story of a renowned man who is marked for death. With only four trustworthy people having access to him can anything go wrong?

In A Christmas Tragedy, Miss Marple is convinced that a young woman is about to be murdered.

In The Herb of Death, the young ward of a courtly old gentleman is accidentally poisoned at the dinner table.

And in The Affair at the Bungalow, an actress is mixed up with a case of robbery and impersonation.

Finally in the thirteenth tale, Death by Drowning, Sir Henry Clithering teams up with Miss Marple to solve the death of a local girl.

Among these my favourites are, The Tuesday Night Club, The Idol House of Astarte,The Blood-Stained Pavement, The Blue Geranium, The Companion, The Four Suspects and The Herb of Death.

The Thirteen Problems is where we first meet the inimitable Miss Marple. With her gentle blue eyes and fussy, old spinsterish manner she seems like such a dear, old, harmless lady. But under that gentle demeanor lies a shrewd judge of character. And the habit of believing the worst of everyone and being very frighteningly correct in her assumptions. She’s not afraid to deal with death and unpleasantness and is not easily intimidated. In fact most of the time her assumptions and solutions are far more shocking than anything envisioned by the more ‘so called’ modern and enlightened generation.

Christie based the character of Miss Marple partially on her own grandmother. Another one of Christie’s fictional characters, Caroline Sheppard from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is said to have been an earlier incarnation of Miss Marple.

All of Miss Marple’s solutions are based on her observations of the village life. Her unrivaled understanding of the Human Nature always gives her a deeper insight in to the true nature of crimes. She always maintains that Human Nature is very much the same everywhere and certain types of persons will always act in certain ways.

I always feel immediately drawn in by the cozy and comfortable atmosphere of the stories. Miss Marple’s home and that of the Bantry’s are surely the perfect place for narrating such mystery yarns!

I love reading short stories and these are undoubtedly some of my favourites. I love Agatha Christie and this book is an all time favourite. Whenever I feel low or need something quick to read I go back to this book.

Any mystery lover will surely enjoy these little gems of detective fiction. Highly recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Behind That Curtain by Earl Derr Biggers

As a mystery addict and a movie buff, I have always known of the Charlie Chan mysteries. I have heard much about the 1930’s series of Charlie Chan movies and Warner Oland’s legendary portrayal of the detective. As a result, I was quite curious about this detective series.

Behind That Curtain by Earl Derr Biggers is the third book in the Charlie Chan series. It was published in 1928.

Sir Frederic Bruce, the former head of Scotland Yard, is a man obsessed with the past. For fifteen years he has been searching for the answers to only two questions, “Why was Hilary Galt wearing a pair of Chinese slippers when he was found murdered in his own office?” and “How did young Eve Durand vanish without a trace from the hills of Peshawar?”. But before he can finally reveal the answers to these questions he is found dead and the Chinese slippers he was last seen wearing have mysteriously disappeared.

I loved the way Biggers manages to create a sinister picture of the past crimes. The description of Eve Durand’s disappearance was particularly creepy. It is easy to understand how Sir Frederic Bruce can become so obsessed with the unsolved murder and mysterious disappearances.

I liked Charlie Chan, despite him being portrayed as the stereotypical calm Buddha like ‘oriental’ man. I would like to read more of his adventures.

The character of Barry Kirk irritated me. The romance between Barry Kirk and June Morrow was boring and unnecessary.

I found Biggers’s treatment of his characters to be a bit strange. He makes Charlie Chan his main detective at the height of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Chan is portrayed as a gentleman and as a force of good. Of course, Chan is a stereotype who keeps spewing ancient Eastern adages but that’s not a major irritant. He had also made a deputy in the district attorney’s office, June Morrow, a woman, quite unusual for the novel’s era.

However at the same time, many of the book’s characters keep insulting them. Charlie Chan is called names and is belittled. I guess he tries to show how deeply racist people of that era were and how Chan rises above all of that. Miss Morrow is frequently lectured (a lot of the times by Charlie Chan himself) on the ‘proper’ place of a woman and of her ‘womanly’ duties. Barry Kirk and Kirk’s grandmother at first refuse to believe that a pretty girl could be a lawyer,

“Calm yourself. Miss Morrow is a very intelligent young woman.”

“She couldn’t be. She’s too good-looking.”

Everyone laments how she is ‘wasting’ her youth.  It is indicated at the end that she would give up her ‘wicked’ ways and settle down. It is kind of like if someone wrote a book on differently abled people and used derogatory terms to describe them.  Or if someone wrote a book on racism but used the ‘N’ word throughout the book. Why do all of the characters constantly have to remind the readers that Charlie Chan is a man of Chinese origin and that Miss Morrow is a woman? This undermines whatever good Biggers may have done by creating Charlie Chan and Miss June Morrow.

The actual solution is a bit disappointing. The link between the mysteries is weak to say the least. Why would anyone go to such great lengths to protect a rather lame secret is beyond me. Thankfully, at least one of the happy conclusions appealed to me. Otherwise it would have been a total bust.

Behind That Curtain has a great build-up that ends up disappointing a tad bit but overall the book is enjoyable.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.