For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

I fell in love with Agatha Christie and crime fiction back in junior high and read every one of her books available at our local public library.  I was captivated by her mastery of plot even then, and now, when I re-read her, I feel an even deeper sense of awe.  She was a superb story-teller, subtle and devious and delightful.  No wonder she’s been so wildly popular for nearly a century–only the Bible and Shakespeare have surpassed her in sales.

Just in time for Halloween, William Morrow has a sweet treat for Christie fans: a collection of almost two dozen creepy and ghostly tales.  It opens with a bang.  The title story revolves around Simone, an enervated medium in Paris fearful of her last séance before marriage.  Why do these séances make her so weary?  Why is she afraid of her client, a woman grieving for a lost child?  The answers are suitably shocking and grotesque.

There’s a wealth of fun reading after that.  Christie offers a neat twist on inheritance stories in “Wireless.”  “The Mystery of the Blue Jar” deftly deals with a WWI veteran’s shell-shock–or does it? “The Blue Geranium” is one of several stories where dreams play an unusual and possibly supernatural part.

Hercule Poirot uses his little gray cells to uncover a murder in “The Dream,” a story that veteran mystery readers might find a bit too easy to unravel.  But watching him amaze a room of suspects by his ratiocination is always a treat.  In “the Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” Miss Marple profits from decades of observing human nature under a microscope in her village.  She deftly explains that a ghost story she hears over dinner is actually a tale of murder.  And what a murder!  The planning is fiendishly clever.

That indomitable village sleuth also appears in “The Idol House of Astarte,” a classic story of the supernatural with a femme fatale at its center, and told by a clergyman.  It raises the age-old question of whether a place or home can be “imbued or saturated with good or evil influences which can make their power felt.”  Miss Marple handily dismisses the many bizarre possible solutions to a strange set of crimes at a house party, but doubts still linger.

In “The Fourth Man,” a nighttime conversation in a train compartment about a famous split personality case turns very dark when one of the four men in the compartment claims to have inside information about the people involved.  What he reveals shatters the complacency of the other three–a doctor, lawyer, and minister–who discover that their view of reality is more limited than they imagined.

Christie explores that idea in more than one story, as when a “doctor of the soul” says that he doesn’t believe that spirits can be earthbound and haunt a particular place, but he has more than once seen “a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end. . .”

Justice is served throughout the collection, most deliciously in my very favorite story, which is also one of the shortest.  “The Wife of the Kenite” follows a German veteran of WW I to his unexpected destiny in South Africa.  It’s chilling fiction, gorgeously written and perfectly wrought.

The shadow of that war looms over many of the tales. Even though they explore the supernatural and dark themes like avarice, jealousy, and revenge, they’re often quite funny. Poirot’s complaints when he gets to Egypt in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” are priceless.  And then there’s Christie’s satire of inarticulate English gentlemen “who dislike any form of emotion, and find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.”

Flashes of lovely character assessment like that and quickly evocative description are just some of the many delights in a collection that offers entertainment, suspense, deep human interest–and mystery, of course. Mystery of more than one kind, that is, since the eerie last story suggests that the “supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including nine Nick Hoffman mysteries, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Singapore Sapphire is Classic Crime Fiction

Memoirs can be difficult to write, and in Sir Oswald Newbold’s case in 1910 Singapore, writing a memoir turns deadly.  As befits a classic mystery, he’s found dead in the first chapter, and the hunt is on to track down the murderer and find out what Newbold could have written that guaranteed his savage murder.

Newbold retired in Singapore to escape England’s “miserable weather and miserable people.”  What secrets was he going to reveal in his book?  Whom would he expose, and why?

Taking the field to find out the truth are dashing Inspector Robert Curran and intrepid Harriet Gordon, a stenographer and typist who has left England under a cloud. Gordon has suffered deep personal loss and abuse.  Part of the enjoyment in this mystery is watching her rise above her grief to find new meaning in life.  We also experience the difficulties and beauties of living in a tropical climate mainly through her eyes, and the vision is never less than fascinating.

The cast of minor characters is as colorful as those you find in Christie’s Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  Like Christie, Stuart makes them all vivid and unique.

The author also has a terrific eye for detail.  Because she’s lived in southeast Asia and her father served there in the British army, Stuart can evoke last-century’s Singapore with great skill.  She makes you feel the heavy humidity and lashing rain, you smell the frangipani and mangroves, you can see the glorious heavy blooms of Bougainvillea.  This Singapore is truly “a place of extremes.”

But Stuart doesn’t just paint scenes to perfection, she honestly portrays a colonial society with its prejudices and blind spots.  It’s matched by an  England where women were denied the right to vote and suffragists in prison were tortured by being force fed during hunger strikes.  Bringing those two worlds together is part of what makes Singapore Sapphire so compelling.

Mysteries are sometimes derided as “escape fiction” or “escapist,” but all literature, from Tolstoy to P.D. James, helps you escape your own life and time to travel somewhere fascinating.  If it’s well executed, of course.

With just the right touch of romance, Stuart has written the ideal mystery for armchair travelers and for fans of the genre in its classic form.  Her heroine is bright, resourceful, compassionate; her hero a sterling and indomitable character; the villains are as devious as they should be.  But nobody is a caricature or paper thin.

Singapore Sapphire is clever, well-paced, complex, and deeply moving.  It has everything needed to make a splendid TV movie or even a miniseries.  This is a book to revel in for its local color and its crafty plotting.  No doubt there’ll be more Harriet Gordon adventures, and she’s a welcome addition to the current roster of sharp-eyed amateur sleuths.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  The former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, he’s the author of nine mysteries and fifteen other books in many genres.

 

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

Thinking man silhouette and red sunset on a ferryBut not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.