Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory Dickory Dock (Audio) - Agatha Christie, Hugh Fraser

Hercule Poirot frowned. 

"Miss Lemon," he said.

"Yes, M. Poirot?"

"There are three mistakes in this letter."

His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes. She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate. For all practical purposes, that is to say, she was not a woman at all. She was a machine - the perfect secretary. She knew everything, she coped with everything. She ran Hercule Poirot's life for him, so that it, too, functioned like a machine.

Order and method had been Hercule Poirot's watchwords from many years ago. With George, his perfect manservant, and Miss Lemon, his perfect secretary, order and method ruled supreme in his life. Now that crumpets were baked square as well as round, he had nothing about which to complain.

Square crumpets?! Have I missed these so far?


Anyway, to the book... Hickory Dickory Dock was a fun read, in which Miss Lemon gets some page time. The story is set in 1955 in London and Miss Lemon is worried about her sister and the strange goings on at the hostel where her sister works: Things have gone missing.


In order to return to a life of normalcy and perfection, Poirot offers to help Miss Lemon's sister solve the mystery of the disappearing items.


Hickory Dickory Dock is a great story to note the differences in Christie's writing between the pre- and post-war periods. This story is set in the 50s, and the bright young things are now less decadent and more international. The youth comes across in Christie's dialogues reasonably well, but the international aspect made me cringe. 

Let's face it, despite her efforts, Christie just was not great at writing characters from non-English backgrounds.


Still, it was fun watching Poirot solve this, even if sometimes you just want to kick Poirot in the shins.

Hercule Poirot nodded understandingly. It seemed to him appropriate that Miss Lemon's sister should have spent most of her life in Singapore. That was what places like Singapore were for. The sisters of women like Miss Lemon married men in business in Singapore, so that the Miss Lemons of this world could devote themselves with machine-like efficiency to their employers' affairs (and of course to the invention of filing systems in their moments of relaxations).


Just because...

there were some doubters who maintained that the Weresheep was either the Baron or one of the Gang.


@ThemisAthena and @MurderbyDeath, here you go: Irrefutable proof that the Weresheep is a mysterious creature, evading even your combined efforts at identification:


A very recent group photo of the Baron and the Gang which was photobombed (evidently) by the mysterious Weresheep.



(And don't even think about starting to insinuate this may have been Photoshopped!)



Risiko: Roman - Steffen Kopetzky

I had the German audiobook of Risiko, and am not aware that this one has been translated, yet. I hope it will be because Kopetzky tells an interesting story, and he does it well.


Risiko (tr. "risk") tells the story of a real life event, the Niedermayer–Hentig Expedition, a German "diplomatic" (they were really more spies and insurgents than diplomats) expedition during the First World War that tried to destabilise the British Empire by causing the tribal leaders of the regions that are now Afghanistan and Pakistan to revolt against British rule. 


If this sounds similar to the plot of the film Lawrence of Arabia, it is because both stories are fairly similar, except, of course, that the efforts were led by opposing sides in the conflict that was WWI. 


Kopetzky tells the story through the eyes of a simple young man who joins the navy as a signaller and joins the expedition to satisfy his sense of adventure. During the trip, he grows up and starts to see the Great Game as both a strategic exercise and from the view of a man who is not that different from the people he meets, and who starts to care for more than his military career or the illusions of glory. 


Risiko was a well written work of historical fiction that investigated a story that is not all that well known, and by doing so managed to avoid stereotypes and cliches. It was a joy to read while also pondering about the real expedition and the effects of colonial history in that region - which ended in the creation of Pakistan as a buffer zone between Russian controlled territories to the west and British India to the east, and is another region which still continues to see conflict over the seemingly arbitrary drawing of a border. 


Anyway, this was a thrilling read, which provided a lot of historical context.

Reading progress update: Thallium

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

It's not that often that a book about murder makes me smile, but Emsley has bit of a "Battle of the Grand Dames of Mystery" going on here. (I have put the titles in spoiler tags in case the plot description provides spoilers...)


In the red corner, Dame Agatha:

Agatha Christie built one of her murder mysteries around thallium poisoning. In

1952 she wrote The Pale Horse

(show spoiler)

, in which the murderer used it to dispose of people’s unwanted relatives and disguised his activities as black magic curses. The plot involves a murdered priest and a pub owned by three modern-day witches.* Christie described the symptoms of thallium poisoning very well: lethargy, tingling, numbness of the hands and feet, blackouts, slurred speech, insomnia, and general debility, and she is sometimes blamed for bringing this poison to the attention of would-be poisoners. However, her book was responsible for saving the life of one young girl as we shall see.


In the blue corner, we have Ngaio Marsh also using Thallium:



Final Curtain, written in 1947

(show spoiler)

, the novelist Ngaio Marsh had her villain using it. The murder to be investigated was the death of

Sir Henry Ancred

(show spoiler)

who had been poisoned with thallium acetate which had been prescribed in the treatment of his granddaughter’s ringworm. Marsh clearly had no knowledge of how thallium worked in that she imagined that those poisoned with it would drop dead in minutes. Would-be murderers seeking to emulate her villain would have been very puzzled when their intended victims appeared to suffer no ill effects, although this disappointment might only have lasted a few days, and then they would have been fascinated at the many symptoms it produced.


I haven't read Marsh, yet, (something I intend to remedy someday) but one of the fun aspects in Dame Agatha's work is that she seldom gets the use of poisons wrong. Her training as a nurse and familiarity with pharmacy had much use, of course, but she also didn't slack on her research in that field.


This is the only instance in Emsley's book that cites crime writing. The rest of the book recounts real events and people.

Sunday Soup (?) ... but on a Monday

... because I forgot to post this yesterday. The benefit of posting the Sunday Soup post today, of course, is that I came home to find that I had received some books that I had ordered. Yay.


Anyway, we were supposed to get the remnants of hurricane Ophelia today. While it was very wet and incredibly dark all day (it was pitch black at around 2:30pm!), there was no wind. Thank goodness! I mean, it was unlikely that the predicted winds would hit this part any harder than the regular stiff breeze we get, but still... Unfortunately, it appears Ireland has seen some storm damage.


This whole topic of tropical storms and all gave me an appetite for chili yesterday. That is, veggie chili in my case, which for some reason I wanted to have in soft tortilla shells, and which made enough to have left over chili tonight (because it tastes even better on the second day).



In case you were wondering about the lack of cheese, there is some mozzarella at the bottom. 


The Muriel Spark book, which you can't really see, is Spark's Satire, which contains three novellas: RobinsonThe Abbess of Crewe, and Aiding and Abetting


Hope your Monday was not too bad either. ;D


Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Bohemia

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection -  Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman.


That is the opening line that still gives me goosebumps of delight even after decades of devoted reading of the Holmes stories.  


A Scandal in Bohemia is the first of the Holmes short stories and sets the structure and tone of many Homes stories to follow: Holmes and Watson are at 221B Baker Street when a new case presents itself. (There may be some spoilers from this point onwards.)


What may come as a surprise in this story - apart from the story line - is the construction of the story:


It is the first short story, so we have just gotten to know Holmes and Watson, yet, this story (despite being set in March 1888) is told from a point in time much, much later. 

Watson tells us this story with a lot of hindsight. One of the additional bits of information we get from Watson is that the story was told three years after the death of Irene Adler. 


I had not actually picked up on this on previous re-reads, but it does make sense that Watson would not have disclosed the story any earlier - not for the sake of keeping his promise of confidentiality to their client, but to allow Ms Adler to pursue her life without the public knowing knowing much about her past. While Watson and Holmes may have seen her brilliance and not judged her against the social mores of their late Victorian times, Watson readers may have disagreed. 


Ironically, of course, ACD did exactly this: He wrote a story that had the most brilliant mind and most anti-social of characters, show admiration - maybe even what may pass for affection - for not only another person, but one that beats him at his own game.

And that this person was a woman, may not have been that important to Holmes, but it may have been to many of ACD's readers. 

There is another quick jibe at Victorian society in this short story where Ms Adler writes to Holmes that

"Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives."

I have no idea what ACD's own view was on women's role in society, and he never has his characters elaborate on the standing of women other than when Holmes shows up the stupidity and arrogance of his client at the end of the story (another one of my favourite quotes!):

“What a woman--oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?” 

“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly.

I would love to find out more about ACD's views on this issue, so am looking forward to researching it a bit more. 


So, anyway, we have ACD pointing at some issues with Victorian society, even to poke fun at the aristocratic beliefs that breeding cannot be substituted by other qualities.  


We also have some fun banter between Holmes and Watson, Watson describing Holmes cocaine habit, we have high adventure with Holmes being Holmes or someone else, and we get more insight into Holmes' method:

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

(One day I will have this printed on a mug for the office!) 


However, what I probably love best in this story are the very subtle ways in which Holmes shows his affection for his adversary in this story:


“I was half-dragged up to the altar, and before I knew where I was I found myself mumbling responses which were whispered in my ear, and vouching for things of which I knew nothing, and generally assisting in the secure tying up of Irene Adler, spinster, to Godfrey Norton, bachelor. It was all done in an instant, and there was the gentleman thanking me on the one side and the lady on the other, while the clergyman beamed on me in front. It was the most preposterous position in which I ever found myself in my life, and it was the thought of it that started me laughing just now. It seems that there had been some informality about their license, that the clergyman absolutely refused to marry them without a witness of some sort, and that my lucky appearance saved the bridegroom from having to sally out into the streets in search of a best man. The bride gave me a sovereign, and I mean to wear it on my watch-chain in memory of the occasion.”



Halloween Bingo - Card & Books



Right, so this is my lovely Bingo Card for this year's Halloween Bingo, which I will update on this post as we go along - Baron Samedi covering squares I have read, and The Gang popping up on squares that have been called.


And I am also listing the books I plan to read / have read for each square - with () being planned reads, Italics being books in progress, and bold being books I have read:


Row # 1: 




Genre Horror: Gilded Needles - Malcolm McDowell

Serial Spree Killer: The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie

Murder Most Foul: Problem at Pollensa Bay - Agatha Christie

Terrifying Women: Eleven - Patricia Highsmith

Magical Realism: The Ghost Bride - Yangsze Choo



Row # 2:



Witches: Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett

Haunted House: Blithe Spirit - Noel Coward

Gothic: The Castle of Otrando - Horace Walpole

Terror in a Small Town: The Moving Finger - Agatha Christie

In the Dark, Dark Woods: The Green Archer - Edgar Wallace



Row # 3:



Classic Noir: Double Indemnity - James M. Cain

Ghost: Thin Air - Michelle Paver

Free Space: Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

Cozy Mystery: An Expert in Murder - Nicola Upson

Darkest London: The Man in the Queue - Josephine Tey



Row # 4:



Locked Room Mystery: The Sign of Four - Arthur Conan Doyle

Vampires: Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett

Supernatural: Cold Moon Over Babylon - Michael McDowell

Romantic Suspense: Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

80's Horror: Wicked Stepmother - Malcolm McDowell



Row # 5:


Amateur Sleuth: Death of an Airman - Christopher St. John Sprigg

Monsters: The Deceased Miss Blackwell and her Not-so-Imaginary Friends - K.N. Parker

Classic Horror: Sweetheart, Sweetheart - Bernard Taylor (1977)

Diverse Voices: Haiti Noir - Edwidge Danticat

Country House Mystery: Speedy Death - Gladys Mitchell


 While all the spaces have been filled in and the Baron is currently waiting for the rest of the Gang to pop up for bingo celebrations, I'll try and catch up on the review writing side of things. 




How did we even get to...

the middle of October already without even so much as a mention of the WereSheep???




Fret not, my friends. WereSheep is now properly on the loose and will be around for the Halloween season. 


Hello, I am new!

Reblogged from B├╝cher unter dem Mond:

Hello everybody! I am new here and I really hope I can make some friends here :) I am going to import my bookshelf from Goodreads, but I am going to use both of them. 


My name is Helena, I am 20 yo and I am living in Germany (currently)

Josephine Tey: A Life

Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

Ian Rankin is among the contemporary authors who cite Josephine Tey as an influence, and Tey is often cited as ‘Fifth’ after the ‘Big Four’ crime writers of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh – the essential exponents of crime fiction which all aficionados of the genre have at least a passing acquaintance with. Readers and critics talk about her books and recommend them to others.

And, yet, not much is generally known about Josephine Tey, or rather Elizabeth MacKintosh, because she was a very private person who kept her private affairs strictly separate from her work, and even in that she used several pen names to work in different genres. 


With all of these smoke and mirrors, it is even more enjoyable to read a biography that does not just regurgitate the little that has been known about MacKintosh but that evidently presents the results of new research and the authors efforts to really dig through the archives and interview the few remaining people who knew MacKintosh. 


Henderson also provides a wider view into the historical and literary background to MacKintosh's upbringing and the issues that influenced her writing - notably some of the hypocrisy of Inverness society. 


In an earlier review of Tey's novel The Man in the Queue, I wondered whether "Tey may actually have tried to dispel some of the stereotypes found in the pulp fiction of her time". 

Having read this biography, I believe that she indeed struggled with people's assumptions about other people of any difference to them, and that did use her books to dispel various assumptions. 


Her upbringing and training instilled in her a love for history and a propensity for researching and questioning accepted facts. Her love for England at a time of the rise of Scottish nationalism, for which her very own home town of Inverness at the centre, caused her to question the importance of national identity. Her friends included people of all walks of life and this together with her disdain for the snobbishness of her neighbours in Inverness, only supported her approach to meet people on the basis of their character, not their background. 


When I first picked up this biography, I had some concerns about whether Henderson, herself an Invernessian, would put forward a certain bias of town pride, but this concern was quickly abandoned. Henderson's description and analysis of the existing sources about MacKintosh, her writing, and the historical situation during MacKintosh's life quickly proved a fair and balanced assessment. And, let me say this again, Henderson's efforts in bringing up primary sources to back up her descriptions and statements about MacKintosh, has been really impressive.


This was a brick of a book and I loved every page, and I am now even more eager than before to investigate the works Elizabeth MacKintosh aka Gordon Daviot aka Josephine Tey.  

Halloween Bingo - Reading Blackout & 2nd Bingo

Having finished Henderson's biography of Josephine Tey, I have a books read blackout!

Also, the latest call of the Magical Realism square gave me a second bingo! (Top row)


I'll update the list of books read on Sunday!



Top row bingo:


Reading progress update: I've read 310 out of 426 pages.

Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson


In 2013, the dramatic discovery of Richard III’s remains under a Leicester car park was widely reported, with a documentary following the entire process broadcast on Channel 4. The documentary had to set the scene by doing what Tey achieved in The Daughter of Time: show the average viewer just why a group of people (the Richard III Society) cared so much about a dead king’s reputation that they were willing to put enormous time, effort and money into the seemingly impossible task of finding his body. The Richard III Society exists to promote the revisionist ideas about Richard which Tey puts across so forcefully. They more generally aim to promote balanced historical research, rather than allowing history to be written by the victors, an admirable aim which even the least Ricardian can understand.

The Richard III Society has been around since the 1920s. Josephine Tey was never a member, though, as The Daughter of Time shows, she was of course aware that other historians shared her view of Richard. Tey’s 1951 novel brought the views of the Society to a more general audience and increased their popularity so much that the Richard III Society website still dedicates a special section to Tey’s life and work for all enthusiasts who come to their society by that route. After Josephine Tey’s death she left the copyright to all her novels to the National Trust, who then had to field many queries about The Daughter of Time and its authenticity.

Coincidentally, the person who took those queries, volunteer Isolde Wigram, was also the secretary and a prime mover in the revival of the Richard III Society, and so was well able to answer any question on the topic, and took great joy and pride in doing so. Since the 2013 discovery of Richard III’s body, Josephine Tey’s novel has attracted attention again. The novel has never been out of print, and is a constant fixture on bookshop shelves and in lists of the best-ever crime novels, and, in 1990, was voted the number one crime novel of all time by the UK Crime Writers’ Association.

On a different note, I have about 45 pages left in the book. The sensible voice in my head is telling me to finish this tomorrow and get a good night's sleep. 

The other voices tell me that sleep is overrated when there is such a book to be finished.


Reading progress update: I've read 216 out of 426 pages.

Josephine Tey: A Life - Jennifer Morag Henderson

Still liking this book a lot, and the potential issue I expected I might have when I read the first few chapters has all but dissolved. 



The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - Martin Edwards

As a work of literature review, Martin Edwards has spared no effort and produced an excellent volume of work, and I look forward to consulting the book in future to read up on some of the works mentioned. Some of them. 


Overall tho, it is not a book that lends itself to reading to reading cover to cover: Edwards' descriptions do include spoilers of different books, which put me off reading certain entries, and some entries I felt could have done with a bit more depth to the discussion of themes and characters or to the comparison of titles.


But then, it is an extended literature review...   

Reading progress update: I've read 8 out of 421 pages.

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

I think this book is going to be fun, despite some clunky phrases:

The fact that Boyle had been an alchemist for most of his life was to prove an embarrassment to the scientific establishment in later years because of the need to present him as the first true chemist. His book The Sceptical Chymist is today regarded as the seminal work that severed the link between chemistry and alchemy but is not just an attack on alchemy. Indeed among Boyle’s papers when he died there was one he had partly written called Dialogue on Transmutation and Melioration of Metals in which he described a well-documented transformation of base metal into gold performed by a French alchemist, and which he said had been witnessed by several eminent people.

The content promises to make up for the odd writing:

Boyle himself published a paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions of 21 February 1676 entitled ‘On the Incalescence of Quicksilver with Gold’. This reports a ‘mercury’ which, when mixed with gold, causes it to react and evolve heat. Lord Brouncker, President of the Royal Society, attested to the efficacy of Boyle’s new ‘mercury’ in that when it was mixed with gold powder on the palm of his hand, he felt the heat it generated.

Really? He mixed this in his hand? That description made me shudder, but then, I guess it hasn't been that long since mercury-silver amalgams have been used in tooth fillings.




Monday Night Goals

As the evenings are getting dark again, there's nothing better than tea, book, and some awesome soundtrack.


Currently reading

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry
Progress: 15%
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 21/295pages