Tuesday, August 03, 2010

In July the sun is hot...

Is it shining? No, it's not. Here's the monthly book blog.

Jack of Fables, vols 4, 5 & 6, Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges
More Fables spin-offery. It passes the time.

The Seven Per Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyer
Some while ago, Jo and I rented the film based on this book, and we agreed it was excellent. The one-line plot summary – Sherlock Holmes Meets Sigmund Freud! - might suggest the worst, but in fact the screenplay treated its two stars with the utmost believability and respect, and the story managed to tie in very nicely with the Conan Doyle canon, even while demolishing bits of it.
I'm delighted to say the book has all the content and flavour of the film, narrated convincingly in Dr Watson's voice to boot. In a foreword, “Watson” not only explains how he covered up the events of this story with the entirely fictitious “The Final Problem” and “The Empty House”, but goes so far as to debunk several other of the later (not very good) canonical Holmes stories – cheeky, but very tempting. This is easily the best apocryphal/mash-up Holmes story I've read.

The Book of Lost Books, Stuart Kelly
A nice little book for dipping into. This is a collection of literary biographies with an emphasis on works lost or not completed; there's naturally a heavy lean towards classical and medieval authors. Kelly's prose style is a little much in places, but it's always engaging and readable.

Towards Zero, Agatha Christie
The recent ITV Marple series has adapted quite a few of Christie's non-Marple (and so far, non-Poirot) stories in order to prolong the series' life expectancy. Naturally this has outraged some Christie fans, although I think the real crime isn't shoehorning Miss Marple into these stories per se, but doing it before they'd even got halfway through adapting the stories that do have her in. Still, it's prompted me to take a look at some of the less prominent Christie novels I'd previously overlooked.
Towards Zero is probably the most solid of the five I've picked out – solid in the sense of workmanship, like a wooden cabinet, or like its hero, Superintendent Battle. Nobody's killed until halfway through, but the character work and prose are good enough to do the work of maintaining the reader's attention. The central idea of the story is one that's been used elsewhere, but it's presented in an original way. My one real gripe is that the resolution of the crime relies pretty heavily on the coincidental involvement of someone outside the main group of characters – Battle ends up not doing a whole lot of detecting after all. But it's certainly a good 'un.

Ordeal by Innocence, Agatha Christie
Bit of a letdown. Once the basic premise has been laid out – and it takes several chapters, because the hero's a bit slow on the uptake – the book settles down to a hundred or so pages of bugger all happening. We might expect Christie to spend this part of the book revealing her characters, throwing them together in different combinations and gradually uncovering telling facts about them; in fact the same groups of characters sit around and repeat the same arguments over and over while they wait for the plot to kick in. When it finally does, around page 150, it's just too late.
There's nothing wrong with the idea, but the execution is off. This is one that I would say has benefited from being adapted for the telly.

The Pale Horse, Agatha Christie
A very pleasant surprise! This is a stand-out among Christie's novels in a number of ways. It's unique among the five I've read this month in that the murder isn't attributable to a character's childish vanity, but is – as advertised up front – committed on a contract basis. Interested parties apply to “The Pale Horse”, and by apparently supernatural means their intended victims fall ill and drop dead. The whole set-up is, I think, unique in Christie's work, and unusually blends the scientific in with the supernatural as a cover for murder.
The book is stuffed with unusually colourful characters too, most prominently the trio of self-professed witches who front “The Pale Horse”. I did also particularly like the dodgy geezer who works as their commissioning agent, and his suggestion that the murder contract be considered as a perfectly legitimate bet on whether or not the victim will live past the end of the month.
As a sidenote, it's worth pointing out the large number of minor/cameo characters who reappear from other novels. The vicar and his wife from The Moving Finger and Rhoda Despard (née Dawes) and her husband from Cards on the Table have coincidentally retired to the very village that houses “The Pale Horse”; also present is Ariadne Oliver, whose previous appearances significantly include Cards on the Table, and a comedy cameo character from By the Pricking of My Thumbs. Yet unusually for Christie (and strangely, given the history between Mrs Oliver and the Despards), no mention is made of these previous murders. Not that I'm complaining about that.

Murder is Easy, Agatha Christie
This one is surprisingly comedic. (I assume it was unintentional, but who knows?) People are dropping like flies in a small English village, but the villagers just shrug and say “Accidents will happen”. You could probably trace nine out of ten murder mystery sketches and parodies back to this book.
The Bill Bixby film version carries the line “Murder is easy, if no one knows it's murder!”, which is perhaps rather obvious but has a certain ring to it; I was surprised to find the book instead has the less zingy and even more trite “It's easy to kill if nobody suspects you!”. Why not bring a checklist and mark off the stock character types as they appear: the buffoonish landowner, the Major and his dogs, the (barely) secret Satanist... And the red herring is so thickly larded, it's almost a surprise to find it wasn't a massive double bluff on Christie's part. Despite all this, it's quite an enjoyable read.

Crooked House, Agatha Christie
There's a multi-functional hero in this one: he happens to be romantically involved with one of the murder victim's household, but also happens to be the son of the chief of police, who's asked him to work as their “man on the inside”. This potential conflict isn't played out as much as it might have been, and creates the problem that every few chapters, the hero is summoned away from the house in mid-snoop to report on what's going on. (His father then blames him for not keeping an eye on a character who's attacked in his absence, which is extremely rich.)
The other problem I have with this book is that the theatrical mother and clumsy uncle are caricatured well beyond credibility. But by and large, this is a well written and strongly plotted story, and although there's a pretty large giveaway clue about halfway in, the ending is still a tour de force. I can see why Christie thought it one of her very best.

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