Halloween Bingo is still dominating my reading and this will continue until the end of the game, or at least until I complete reading books for all of my squares. No bingo yet but things are coming together. I have updated my bingo card here.
This week I managed to read four books: Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie was a re-read in audiobook format. I really like this book and it is a joy to revisit it whenever I need to in the course of Halloween Bingo.
One thing that stands out in this book – apart from the force of nature that is Ariadne Oliver (Dame Agatha’s alter ego) – is that the actual story, the mystery, is rather a pedestrian affair.
The main aspect I enjoyed on this particular re-read was something that was also brought up in a discussion with fellow Agathytes the other day: that Christie was also a chronicler of her time. In her time, this is probably unintentional, but it does happen, I’m under the impression that her older characters bemoaning the modern times and hankering back to the old days is a way of dealing with the changes brought on by time passing. Some characters deal with it better than others, but they are all of their time.
What stands out in this one is the repeated observation about the changes in the criminal justice system and the abolition of capital punishment in Britain (it had been suspended in 1965 but was abolished in 1969 – when this book was published).
This is one of the books where the mystery is fairly predictable, but I think the context provided by the characters – be it social commentary or Shakespearean atmosphere (The Tempest drips off the page for me in this one) is marvellous.
And as I mentioned above, Ariadne Oliver is on top form:
Mrs Oliver, removing herself from the main group, leant against a vacant background of wall and held up a large yellow pumpkin, looking at it critically—’The last time I saw one of these,’ she said, sweeping back her grey hair from her prominent forehead, ‘was in the United States last year—hundreds of them. All over the house. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins. As a matter of fact,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘I’ve never really known the difference between a pumpkin and a vegetable marrow. What’s this one?’
What is it with Christie and vegetable marrows? Anyway, …
My second book this week was another slow read: Benighted by J.B. Priestly was advertised as a haunted house story, but having read the book, I feel this is underselling the story. It is a spooky haunted house story but it also is novel about psychology, trauma, personal conflict, and other life issues that that the characters in this book are trying to deal with as best they can. I was very much reminded of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House when reading Benighted, but I have to say that I ultimately prefer Priestley’s work.
Whichever way I look at it tho, both books are somewhat sold short by their respective screen and tv adaptations.
5* (out of 5*)
The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.
Written in 1947, this was one of the most unusual Crime Noir stories that I have read, and probably one of the best because it was so different. Crime Noir is not a genre I enjoy much. The books I have tried in the genre seemed to have been full of macho dumbassery and ridiculous plots that I found hard to get invested in, and where I did make it through the books, I mostly remember wishing the that main characters would come to a bad end, and soon.
While The Blank Wall also included a very ridiculous plot, the more I read of the book, the more it became clear that the actual events that set the story off were merely a catalyst for the other, more important, part of the book: the character development of our “housewife” MC Lucia and her family. I was thrilled to read passages that contemplated Lucia’s own life such as this one:
“Why is it “housewife”? What should I call myself if we lived in a hotel? Nobody ever just puts down “wife,” or even just “mother.” If you haven’t got a job, and you don’t keep house, then you aren’t anything apparently. I wish I was something else. I mean, besides keeping house, I wish I was a designer, for instance. The children would think a lot more of me, if I was a designer. Maybe Tom would, too.”
These are depths of thought that I have not seen in any of the book’s contemporaries, and I loved how Sanxay Holding used the crime story to subversively introduce the opportunity for the reader to choose a completely different way of reading the book – it works as a crime caper, but it also works as a character study in a specific social context.
What also made me laugh at the end of the book is that the whole premise of the crime caper is something that truly only took off because Lucia behaves just as her teenage daughter predicts. To say more would be a spoiler, but I would say that the ending in all its subtlety shifts the focus of the book from the very question that starts off the story and this made me laugh.
(4* out of 5*)
Lastly, I read a first book in a new-to-me series by a new-to-me author: The Religious Body by Catherine Aird. This is a pretty straight-forward mystery story telling of the murder of a nun in a convent. The book was written in 1966 but it very much reads like a like a modernised version of a Golden Age murder mystery and I loved it for this.
There was a lot of humour in this story, not least in the characters of the nuns and the police officers, and I already look forward to reading more in this series – The Calleshire Chronicles.
(4* out of 5*)
Other reviews posted this week: