This odd, endearing and weirdly tricky book is a meta meditation on the traditional detective story. Playing off of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, author Sulari Gentill yanks this classic into the present. In Christie’s Body the corpse of an apparently unknown young woman appears in the library of a private home. In Gentill’s update, four young people are sitting near each other in the Boston Public library. The main character, Freddie (or Winifred), a mystery writer, is working on a new book and she’s observed the others sitting near her, giving them nicknames as she slots them into a possible book. Freud girl, Heroic Chin and Handsome Man have all invaded her imagination, when their real iterations hear a blood-curdling scream.
Agatha Christie’s first Miss Marple book, The Murder at the Vicarage, was published by Collins Crime Club in the UK in October of 1930. It’s one of my very favorite books – with its clever plot, humor, beautifully rendered characters and of course, the introduction in novel form of the subversive Miss Marple, it stands the test of time and has never been out of print. For that reason, it’s fun to look at covers through the years.
The US first edition of Vicarage was published by Dodd, Mead and is what I would think of as a “prestige” cover, with its old English font and decorous arrangement of text. There’s no art to speak of, no interpretation of the plot.
The most towering figure in mystery fiction is Agatha Christie. She created and influenced countless plots and tropes, and invented iconic detectives. Surely no mystery writer can set a pen to paper without feeling in her debt. Re-paying this debt with her impressionistic Death at Greenway is Lori Rader-Day, a writer known for multiple point of view novels and indirect storytelling. Her style could not be further from Agatha’s, but – there’s still that debt to be paid.
The book is set during WWII at Mrs. Christie’s summer home, Greenway, in Devon. During the war the Mallowans (for that was Agatha’s married name) lent their house to a war nursery – or to children evacuated from London, cared for by nurses. Rader-Day has chosen to focus her story on Bridget Kelly, a failed nurse in training, who takes up the war nursery job out of desperation.
Golden age detectives are the perfect characters to provide a continuation of a series. Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot – all have such well established character traits, and yet do not especially develop or change – that they can be taken by another writer and made fresh. Sophie Hannah is obviously familiar with Poirot and obviously loves him, as every reader does, despite his quirks.
Hannah also manages the feat of showing, not telling, Poirot’s cleverness and intelligence as he unravels a tricky case. Like the great queen of crime herself, Hannah’s unraveling is only tricky from a certain angle, from another (Poirot’s) it’s more straightforward. The telling is all in the angles. This is a feat of sheer storytelling power.
While Alex Pavesi’s concept in The Eighth Detective isn’t entirely new, it’s still entirely welcome and ingenious. John Dickson Carr, in his novel The Three Coffins (1935), presented a locked room mystery while at the same time breaking away to analyze and discuss the mechanics of detective fiction to his readers. Carr’s hero, Dr. Gideon Fell, takes on the job of explaining the different plot variations. Pavesi has taken it a step further even than the ingenious Carr, however.
Pavesi’s central character in the novel, Grant McCallister, lives a hermit’s life on a remote island. Twenty years ago, he’d written a book called The White Murders, published in the early 1940’s. The book in our hands is a series of short murder mystery stories, interspersed with McCallister’s mathematical analysis of the murder mystery. There are a certain number of required elements and within this structure – and, as mystery readers everywhere already know – there are endless variations.
Erica Ruth Neubauer’s debut novel is lots of fun, much in the vein of Kerry Greenwood’s delightful Phryne Fisher books. It’s 1926 and Jane Wunderly is on vacation with her slightly prickly Aunt Millie, from her dead husband’s side of the family. Aunt Millie has selected the exclusive Mena House in Cairo for their trip, a place nearly at the foot of the Great Pyramids. (It’s also the spot where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile).
While this novel is steeped in all things Egyptian – camel races, pyramids, the sphinx, stolen and found artifacts, along with a visit to the museum – it is not about an archeologist or archaeology. I thought this was an interesting choice given the time and place, but a sensible one. It allowed Neubauer to tell a full on traditional golden age style detective story.
If you enjoyed the new film Knives Out, and are craving a bit more fun, check out some of these great titles that have a similar dysfunctional family stuck in a big house vibe, often with a sidebar of humor or satire (or both).
A Fatal Winter, G.M. Malliet. In Malliet’s second novel, the delicious sleuthing vicar, Max Tudor, is dispatched to the home of Lord Footrustle to assist with funeral arrangements, but by virtue of a snowstorm, gets stuck in the middle of a dysfunctional family, all of whom seem to have had a reason for desiring the death of their patriarch. And it’s all the dead man’s fault, really, as the lonely Lord had invited his far flung family members to join him for Christmas. While this novel was written in 2012, it hews closely to the golden age parameters established so long ago, and so enjoyably, by Agatha Christie. While definitely tongue in cheek, Malliet breaths true life into her characters and her stories are wickedly clever.
From Nurse Matilda to Nanny McPhee to Mary Poppins to Jane Eyre, the governess or nanny has proved to be a fascinating character in literature, and mystery fiction has it’s share of them. Interestingly, both Nurse Matilda and Nanny McPhee where created by mystery writer Christianna Brand (1907-1988), beloved by mystery readers for her Inspector Cockrill novels. Here are a few of my “nanny” favorites.
Patricia Wentworth’s sleuth, Miss Sliver, is a former governess, so the lions’ share of governesses come from her pen. While Miss Silver is now a comfortably employed inquiry agent, she retains some of her governessy characteristics and appearance, a great advantage when she aspires to invisibility within a household where a murder has taken place. Two of my favorites are Wicked Uncle (a.k.a. Spotlight, 1947) where penniless Dorinda Brown takes a job as governess to a spoilt little boy. It’s rare to have the governess be the main protagonist, and this is one of the few examples. The suspense is provided by Dorinda’s fear of her “wicked uncle” who turns out to be her new employer’s neighbor. He is so unpleasant he is of course murdered, but this is one of the most charming of Wentworth’s books.
When we closed the store and no longer felt Amazon breathing down our necks, we went ahead and subscribed to Amazon Prime so we could catch up on things like Bosch, which customers had been telling us frequently they enjoyed. (And Bosch is excellent, very true to the books though not an exact replica).
Prime’s The ABC Murders is not an exact replica of Christie’s enjoyable, early serial killer novel either. First there’s the casting of John Malkovich as Poirot. He doesn’t look like everyone’s mental picture of Poirot – that would be David Suchet – he’s instead an older, defeated Poirot, scraping along without his faithful valet, George, and his nightly hot chocolate.
Duck the Halls, Donna Andrews (2013). Skunks loose in the choir loft a few days before Christmas, a missing boa constrictor – do I need to say more? Donna Andrews at her witty best, which is saying a LOT.
The 12 Clues of Christmas, Rhys Bowen (2012). The body count is high as Lady Georgie hosts a holiday party in tiny Tiddleton-under-Lovey. While Bowen herself denies any resemblance to And Then There Were None, there are really far fewer people in Tiddleton by the end of the book than there were at the beginning – and the deaths are so creative! Delightfully, Bowen includes a guide of English Christmas traditions at the end.