The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I have been an Agatha Christie fan (specifically her Poirot stories) for a long time now. I’ve spent many evenings reading her crime novels, trying my best to work out ‘whodunnit’ before the true culprit is revealed at the end.

There is something about Christie’s novels that gives them an enduring appeal to readers, even in a world so far removed from the world in which they are set. Perhaps it is exactly because they are so far removed from reality that makes them so enjoyable. Like a fantasy or sci-fi novel, to most modern readers the world of wealthy country houses, dressing for dinner,  and old-fashioned etiquette is something we have never experienced nor are ever likely to. This means that the murder mysteries become fun; we don’t worry about the grief caused or feel morally outraged. We just want to explore the hidden motives and secrets that are inevitably held by the suspects.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Christie’s first novel, the first time we meet the Belgian detective and contains so many of the elements that I personally love in her books: the country house setting; a range of deceptions from almost every member of the family and friends; red herrings, and, most – importantly, the drawing room exposition and revelation of the guilty party at the climax of the novel.

The story is narrated by Captain Hastings, and tells of the events when he is staying with the Cavendish/Inglethorp family at Styles. One night Mrs Inglethorp dies in dramatic circumstances and the suspicion of murder by strychnine poisoning is soon established. Luckily for the family and Captain Hastings, retired Belgian detective Poirot is staying in the village, a refugee of World War 1, and he is happy to put his mind to use in trying to solve the case. After many twists and turns, he finally reveals the true killer.

This really is a fantastic novel. At times some elements seemed almost cliché but then I had to remind myself that this novel was where it all started – this is where Christie established some of the patterns that she would use in her future books. It is storytelling at its best and (as I have said before about Christie’s novels) she keeps it short enough to be enjoyed in one or two sittings. She establishes the characters so well – Poirot’s infuriating intelligence and ability to see what the other characters (and the reader) can’t within the evidence; Captain Hasting’s inability to recognise his own stupidity and blind trusting nature (and his soft spot for young pretty women – I love his impetuous proposal to Cecilia – which has become a running joke within my family whenever we watch the ITV series of adaptations!).

A brilliant introduction to the characters for anyone who hasn’t read any of Christie’s Poirot novels, but also a wonderful reminder of why she is so brilliant for those who have read and enjoyed her other books. Definitely a must-read.

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Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe

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When I am looking for a light, summer read I often turn to Milly Johnson. Her books are easy page – turners, often about women needing second chances at love and/or life. This is what I enjoy do much about them – it’s not always just about the romance; often her books are much more focused on women making female friendships and establishing careers and paths in life following controlling relationships.

Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe follows this tradition. Connie is married to Jimmy Diamond who runs his own successful cleaning company. The trouble is that he hasn’t told her exactly how successful it is; or that the profits are funding his series of affairs with younger women. When Connie does discover this she has one goal in mind: to destroy Jimmy’s successful business by establishing her own and stealing his staff and customers. Will she succeed and create a rival cleaning firm to be proud of?

Now, to be honest, the idea of revenge by destroying a business doesn’t sit that we’ll with me, but since this is fiction we’ll let that slide. Also, if you’re familiar with Milly Johnson’s other books, the characters and plots do become a little formulaic at times (plain, downtrodden woman who loses weight: check; cheating husband: check; charming new man: check).

What you do have in the end though is a light, easy book that is perfect for reading on the beach or on holiday. Somehow you can’t end it without feeling happy that things turn out right for underdogs eventually.

Liane Moriarty – ‘Big Little Lies’

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I came to this book via a twitter conversation about how much I hate the term ‘play date’ (on a side note, I really hate it!). It’s a term that comes up in ‘Big Little Lies’ and this is the focus of the novel: the big impact of those ‘little’ lies in a world of mums, playground politics and (I shudder as I write this) play dates.

‘Big Little Lies’ tells the story of three women in the suburban Sydney town of Pirriwee and how the little lies that affect their individual lives end in murder. Madeline is a gossip, who has to come to terms with her ex – husband suddenly taking an interest in their teenage daughter’s life after abandoning them when she was a baby. Celeste is rich and beautiful and shares her gorgeous home with her husband and their twin boys – she has the perfect life, so why is she always so withdrawn? Jane is a young single mother with a son who is the result of a one – night – stand with a stranger. She knows very little about her son’s father but what she does know worries her, especially when she thinks her son may have inherited some of her father’s traits.

On the kindergarten orientation day at Pirriwee Public School there is an incident of bullying that sets into place a chain of events that affect the playground dynamics and ultimately end in a disastrous event at the school trivia night.

Moriarty builds tension from the very start, drawing the reader in with snippets of interviews after the trivia night, interspersed with the story told from the beginning. It is a real page – turner and just like in ‘The Husband’s Secret’, Moriarty manages to show the drama that can be hidden within lives that seem boring, unimportant or even perfect. The playground politics seem slightly exaggerated at times but are all too believable – the cliques, the petitions, the ‘blonde bobs’ who seem to run everything – anyone who has ever stood in a primary school playground on the school run can recognise at least elements of truth in this.

Ultimately though, whilst the story is entertaining and fun to read, it has a serious message too, about the very real nature of domestic violence. The novel ends with the words “This can happen to anyone”. Just because people’s lives appear to be perfect does not mean they are not suffering.

This book is a real must – read: a summer page – turner which also has a more serious side too. What more could you want?

Agatha Christie – ‘The Secret Adversary’

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“To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second – hand the delights and dangers of adventure. Agatha Christie.”

This is the dedication inside Agatha Christie’s 1920s spy adventure, featuring Tommy and Tuppence. Personally I can’t think of any better summary of why anyone would want to read an adventure or thriller.

I have long been a fan of Christie’s Poirot novels (not Marple though – can’t quite put my finger on why!) so decided to give one of her very different stories a try.

‘The Secret Adversary’ tells the story of childhood friends Tommy and Tuppence who find themselves out of work and ‘flat broke’ in the early 1920s. They decide to set up a business where they can earn money and experience adventure and by an amazing act of coincidence end up embroiled in the mysterious case of Jane Finn. Jane has been missing for over 5 years and, along with her, have disappeared important political papers that would cause all sorts of difficulties if they got into the wrong hands. Tommy and Tuppence not only manage to track down the elusive Jane Finn but also uncover a criminal mastermind while they are at it.

Let’s be honest here, the story hasn’t aged well. The dialogue along with the references to Bolsheviks and dangerous socialists are pretty dated. Also, you really have to stretch your disbelief. Tommy and Tuppence are at best very lucky to end up with the few leads that they do have and it is impossible to believe Mr Carter (their link to the authorities) would actually put any kind of trust into two people with no experience and nothing to recommend them.

But (and this is what I love about Agatha Christie) I didn’t care! The story at times was completely absurd and we soon left any sense of realism behind. However, I turned the pages faster and faster, racing towards the end of the novel, eager to discover how it ended. This is the real joy of Christie’s writing – she draws you in so subtly that before you know it you’re hooked.

As a child I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories; they really drew me into reading and I spent many summer holidays reading and re-reading the tales of children solving mysteries and having adventures. ‘The Secret Adversary’ is like the Famous Five for grown – ups. Equally as unrealistic and dated but equally as charming and engrossing. That comparison, coming from me, is the highest form of compliment.