Friday, February 26, 2021

4. Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Like so many, I read much Agatha Christie in my younger years, I think as early as high school.  It has been a really long time.  I hadn't even thought of her that much, except for the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express and somewhere learning that quite a lot of young french readers also get into her.  I found this one in the free box on St-Viateur and though xmas is over, I thought it would be nice to check hour out again.  As it turned out, this is another nice entry to get my reading habits back up again. She is certainly most digestible.

The story takes place on a British estate in the holiday season.  Three sons (two of whom were long estranged) of the old, nasty lord as well as his newly-discovered half-Spanish grandaughter and the unexpected son of his old business partner all assemble at what later turns out to be his request.  We quickly learn that he was a big success in diamonds in South Africa, quite a wild young man and today a manipulative bastard who has nothing but contempt for all his sons.  He of course gets murdered inside his own locked study with all the guests downstairs and accounted for (at first).

Poirot, who is a friend of the Commisioner, just happens to be on the scene and he ends up supporting detective Sugden in the investigation.  Everything moves forward at a brisk pace. We meet the characters, learn quickly of their characters with several mysteries about their pasts sprinkled in.  Once the murder starts, we learn more about each of them as they are interviewed.  And then Hercule starts poking and detecting, with a pretty good reveal at the end.  These are classic mysteries with curious clues that scream "CLUE!" at the reader.  I was close to elements of it but definitely did not guess.

I guess compared to all the British mysteries I have since read, she feels somewhat blunt in her portrayals of the British Aristocracy and all its damaged progeny. The Spanish granddaughter was pretty bad in the cliches (she was beautiful and would cut the throat of her enemies).  The cozy element I quite enjoy and she does truly have a savage side, which makes it all work quite well.    

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

3. You Find Him -I'll Fix Him by James Hadley Chase

James Hadley Chase is a good author to help one get back into reading form.  This one started out solid got quite good, ended up a bit banal with a fun coda that made the mystery worthwhile.  Despite the pat ending, I have to give Chase his credit.  He is able to keep a story moving.  Ed Dawson is a newspaper man heading up the Rome office of an American paper.  He gets a call from the paper's owner asking him to watch over his daughter who is coming to Rome to take architecture classes.  Dawson meets her, finds her plain and basically drops the assignment.  A few weeks later, he runs into her again at a fancy party and this time she is a total babe.  Like any fool in one of these books, he starts to go around with her and then accepts her proposition that they spend a passionate weekend at a remote villa in Sorrento together.  Against his better judgement (basically because he has the total hots for her), he goes.  Of course it goes very badly when he gets there and discovers her body at the foot of a cliff.

This was all kind of straightforward and made even less interesting because the protagonist is not very smart.  He panics and puts himself in a worse situation.  Now I know we wouldn't have a book if he didn't get himself in a jam.  Fortunately, the jam itself gets more interesting for most of the middle of the book, as we learn more about the backstory of the daughter.  It's complex enough to keep you wanting to find out what goes on, though a few of the twists are quite obvious.  The ending, as I mentioned, is almost sappy, quite the opposite of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  However, there is a further reveal that reinforces the complexity of the backstory.  I apologize for speaking so vague, but I am pretty strict about spoilers.

The work of James Hadley Chase doesn't seem to merit a lot of analysis and maybe he was a bit of a journeyman.  I'll have to read more to know, but so far I have to appreciate his work.

Friday, February 19, 2021

2. Peel's England by J H B Peel

I can not even remember where I found this old hardback. I certainly didn't pay much money for it. I do remember my motivation for taking it. I felt that maybe a bit of non-fiction exploration of pastoral england in the 70s would help reinforce my appreciation of the context of a lot of the fictional books I read.  That goal was only somewhat achieved, not through any particular flaw in this book, but in my own inability to remain focus on facts and descriptions in text. 

I guess Peel was a well-known writer and commentator. He seems to be, at least in this book, one of those mild-mannered conservatives whose common-sense tone belies what we know today in post-Brexit england to be a pretty nasty jingoism.  Or maybe it was mild-mannered and has since evolved into the basic racism we see today.  In any case, the roots are there.  His real enemy, though, is progress and particularily the motor car and I am with him on that.  The entire book is him traipsing through all the regions of England, describing the scenery and a few specific locales like old churches or villages, adding tidbits of history, poetry and a few hints of the above mentioned politics.

Actually, as I think of it, it did give me a good broad sense of the various regions of England.  For instance, I finally get now that the legend of Arthur took place somewhere in the southwest, possibly even Wales.  I also think I know a bit about Cornwall, which is cool.  I knew a Cornish guy once and he had the black hair and an intensity of gaze, as Peel describes them.

Anyhow, that was perhaps not the best book to get my reading habits back up.  Now on to some fun fiction!

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

1. The Adventures of Ben Gunn by R.F. Delderfield

Past performance does not indicate future results.  Wow, after the last two years of consistent reading, I totally fell off in the end of 2020 and early 2021.  I gave myself a break after achieving my goal last year, played videogames, watched a lot of sports and too much twitter.  Somehow it turned into a pit of pleasant lassitude that is now catching up to me.  I did at least complete an entire videogame (Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and the expansions).  And the post-Trump insurrection social media world was entertaining enough to bring my addiction flaring back (at least when social media is stressful and depressing you are really motivated to get out of it).  I guess my struggle with laziness will last my entire life and I cannot ever let up my efforts.  Enough wanking, on to the review!

I am now a full fan of R.E. Delderfield and will pick up his books when I find them. This was a real score, a lovely Coronet paperback of his unofficial sequel to Treasure Island.  When I found it, I realized I needed to reread the original, which turned out to be a great pleasure.  The conceit of The Treasures of Ben Gunn is that James Hawkins, now a comfortable middle-aged landowner, became the employer of Ben Gunn, the castaway on Treasure Island.  Once the latter passed on, Hawkins felt he could tell his tale as Ben had told him.  This tale also tells the story of Long John Silver and the origin of the treasure. It's a great idea and most well executed, though one wonders if it is right to actually write down a tale that may have been better left for each reader's own speculation.  This applies not only to the backstory but also the fate of the characters.  I felt sort of sad at the end of this knowing that the rest of James Hawkins life, though a good one, did not lead to much more adventure.

Ben Gunn's story starts out on land, on an estate in England with a new Lord who is a tyrant about following the laws. His rigidity and his asshole, drunken loser son, make the lives of their tenants miserable.  Nick Allardyce, whose skeleton you may or may not recall, pointed to the treasure, was a young squire who runs afoul of the masters of the estate.  He and Ben Gunn, after an altercation where the son is killed, are forced to flee England.  Their paths in the oceans eventually lead them to Captain Flint, Long John Silver and a life of piracy.

The opening section feels very Delderfieldesque and brings the reader some righteousness at the injustice.  The middle part of the book, where we follow the adventures of the pirates, somehow lacked excitement for me. It was very historically accurate, rich in location and situation, but somehow there wasn't enough of a real foil or narrative through line to get me fired up the way Treasure Island did.  Once Ben Gunn gets marooned, we get a mini-Robinson Crusoe, which I always enjoy, as well as his redemption.  This development as it aligned with the Treasure Island narrative (when the pirates return) was quite fun to read.  So it does fill in the backstory nicely but somehow didn't grip me the way a good pirate story should.  I will have to read more Delderfield, but my sense is that his strength is in the long, slow narrative, punctuated with moments of satisfying character and Englishness rather than the flash bang of a true adventure novelist.  Still, very enjoyable and I am happy to have this on my too-full bookshelves.