owned

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House by Charles Dickens was published as a serial during 1852-1853 and as a book in 1853.

Bleak House is the story of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a cripplingly long case running at the Court of Chancery. Young lives wither away, people lose themselves and their lives but Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on. It is also the story of Esther Summerson and the secret behind her birth that ultimately brings about the ruin of a noble family.

I love Charles Dickens and I really wanted to read Bleak House for a long time. But I kept putting it off because I was afraid of lugging around this mammoth of a book. At over 1036 pages, this is now officially the longest book I have ever read. But the book didn’t feel long. I enjoyed reading it and didn’t notice how long it was taking me to finish it.

Dickens’ biting satire on the futility of the British judiciary system especially the system of Chancery is simply brilliant! At times the senselessness of it all made me burst out in laughter and at times it made me sad.

After finishing Bleak House, I realized how dark the book actually is. It has the typical Dickensian comic moments (for example, the antics of the Jellyby family and the Smallweed family, Mr and Mrs. Snagsby’s married life, Mr. Guppy’s romantic adventures; etc) but all of them have darker undertones. The Jellyby children are dreadfully neglected and some of that neglect borders on child abuse. The Smallweeds are grasping and cruel people. Mr. Snagsby is an unhappy man. Mr. Guppy is pompous and greedy.

Bleak House is essentially a character driven novel. All of the characters, even the minor ones, play an important part. I would have loved to discuss all of the characters of the book but of course that’s not entirely possible.

Esther Summerson is one of Bleak House’s main narrators and central characters. She is the archetypal ‘good’ Victorian woman, dutiful, ever understanding, uncomplaining and patient. She is so angelically good that she is awfully bland. However, I liked Esther. She is better than those whimpering, fainting and naive heroines that were so widespread in Victorian fiction. Esther’s romance with Allan Woodcourt reminded me of Jane Austen’s stories.

And once again Dickens’ love for curly, golden haired but dim-witted young women comes to the fore! Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities and Dora Spenlow from David Copperfield are other sterling examples of this species. This time the gold haired young woman is named Ada Clare. Esther serves as a mouth piece for Dickens and remains unnaturally attached to Ada. We are told innumerable times how pretty Ada is, how golden her hair is, how angelic she is; etc, etc. The good news is Ada is less insufferable than Dora Spenlow(Oh how I hated her!) and a bit more proactive than Lucie Manette.

Richard Carstone is the average inept, short-sighted man who ruins not only himself but also his family. Even though Dickens paints him in a sympathetic light there is not much to like about him in my opinion.

The lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn is an opportunistic and often cruel man who barely flinches while blackmailing and ruining people’s lives. He is one of the best literary villains I have ever come across. Dickens certainly shows no love towards lawyers as Mr Tulkinghorn along with Mr. Vholes are two of the most despicable characters of Bleak House (although Grandpa Smallweed and family certainly give them a run for their money).

Harold Skimpole is an irritating character. Every time he came into the pages with his constant refrain “I am a child…” I felt a strong urge to smack him!

Sir Leicester Dedlock started out as an old aristocratic man without much depth but his behaviour near the end of the book surprised me. Lady Dedlock’s secret past life is a major plot point but I felt her character lacked depth.

Dickens, as usual, creates vividly alive settings for his story. The ugly squalidness of Krook’s shop and lodging, the miserable existence at Tom-All-Alone‘s and of course the eponymous Bleak House, all create the perfect background for his long, multithreaded tale. I could actually see those places with my mind’s eye. That is one of the reasons I love reading Dickens’ books so much.

Bleak House was a long but worthwhile reading experience. It is now definitely among my top three books by Dickens.

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The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

A desperate group of men want to eliminate one of the most influential leaders of the world. An elusive killer waits for one last big hit before retiring from his dark calling. When their paths cross disaster is undoubtedly around the corner.

Published in 1971, The Day of the Jackal’s heady mix of fact and fiction makes it a pioneer of the thriller genre.

It took me quite a while to get into the story. Some parts of the book are really boring which is not a good sign for a thriller. In addition, the book at times feels kind of dated. This feeling comes not so much from the story (which is innovative for its time) but rather from the way Forsyth ‘tells’ it.

The most interesting parts of the book were those focusing on the inexorable Jackal’s swift movements through France.

Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel’s patient, unexciting routine investigation provides a good balance against the equally patient but cold-blooded preparations of Jackal.

I liked how the changes in the Jackal’s appearances are detailed. It was like I was watching it all unfold right in front of me. Forsyth focuses quite a bit of attention on how the colour of the Jackal’s eyes change with changes in his moods. It is kind of the only ‘sign of life’ his character ever shows. I found that to be rather intriguing.

In my mind there weren’t much difference between the good and the bad in The Day of the Jackal. The good guys are almost as ruthless as the bad guys. They kidnap, torture and murder without batting an eyelid. A torture scene in the first part, Anatomy of a Plot, I found to be particularly nauseating!

The twist at the end is in keeping with the mood of the rest of the story. I liked it. I guess the twist is nothing novel nowadays but it must have been so when the book was originally published.

Overall, The Day of the Jackal is a good thriller. Recommended as a classic of the thriller genre.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie gets its title from a verse by Omar Khayyám,

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

The Moving Finger was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1942 and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in 1943.

A sudden spate of hate mail disturbs the peace of the little town of Lymstock. No body is willing to discuss it though until an inhabitant of the town commits suicide, apparently as a result of receiving one such letter.

The title of the book, The Moving Finger, is significant as the poison pen points his/her accusing finger towards the people of the town one after another through the letters.

One big grouse I have with The Moving Finger is the extremely late entry of Miss Marple. She comes in on the last 50 or so pages. It almost seems like she was added to the book sort of as an afterthought. But her appearance makes a difference for me at least. It manages to add a calming effect to the rather disturbing town of Lymstock. I’d very much prefer Lymstock with her as opposed to without her.

One thing that makes this book a good read for me is the appearance of Mrs. Dane Calthrop. Not many people may find her interesting but I do. Her abrupt way of coming and going from one place to another, the way she talks to people, the way people find her and conversations and observations alarming, makes her an unique creation. She appears in only one other Christie book,  The Pale Horse.

Christie gives the reader’s a chance to solve the mystery midway through the story. She gives us a few clues through the narrator Jerry Barton’s subconscious in one of the more intriguing scenes of the book. He fails to solve it but a clever reader may spot a thing or two.

I like the atmosphere of the story. On one hand I savoured the perpetually lazy feeling of holiday the story seems to have. But on the other hand the story also has a sinister undercurrent. The whole town seems to be wearing the mask of well mannered, gentle people. One is never quite sure what lurks beneath their benign surfaces.

Among the characters of the story, I liked Megan. She seemed to have more depth and a far more interesting character than many of the more beautiful and feminine but dumb as doll heroines I’ve come across in mystery fictions. I found the narrator of the story, Jerry Barton to be quite dull. He and his sister, who are prominent characters in the story, are not that interesting.

The identity of the killer is rather startling. The ruthlessness of the killer’s character is surprising considering his/her exterior. But it seems so plausible once Miss Marple explains all.

The Moving Finger does make an interesting read. The sense of evil under the appearance of serenity makes Lymstock an uncomfortable place to visit, even if one does so only in one’s imagination.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing;

Wasn’t that a dainty dish,

To set before the king?

The king was in his counting house,

Counting out his money;

The queen was in the parlour,

Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,

Hanging out the clothes;

When down came a blackbird

And pecked off her nose.

This, in short, is the plot of A Pocketful of Rye.

Agatha Christie had a real affinity for nursery rhymes. Many of her novels and short stories are named after nursery rhymes. A Pocketful of Rye gets its name from the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in 1953 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year.

The setting of the story is classic Christie. A large household filled with unpleasant people were everyone has a motive and any of them might have been the killer.

The bodies pile up amazingly quickly which is unusual for a Marple mystery.

Among the characters, I found the character of the chief investigator Inspector Neele to be kind of different. He is quite young and not portrayed in the usual way the police are portrayed in detective books. He kind of reminds me of Inspector Craddock, another young detective from the Marple stories. I felt sorry for Jennifer Fortescue. Getting what you want may not always be a good thing.

In this novel, Miss Marple is much sterner and much more eager to catch the killer. She had known one of the victims and it is her death that makes Miss Marple angrier than I’ve ever seen her before. Inspector Neele calls her ‘avenging fury’ (though he admits she does not look like the popular idea of it).

Miss Marple deduces the identity of the killer once again through her infinite knowledge of the ‘Human Nature’. I was kind of surprised by the identity of the killer. Because it is not the usual type Christie goes with (not that there hasn’t been one or two exceptions to this rule in some of Agatha Christie’s books).

The narrative is crisp and enjoyable. The book almost reads itself.

A Pocket Full of Rye is a very entertaining Miss Marple novel. Mystery buffs will definitely enjoy this engaging little problem. Recommended.

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.