REVIEW: And Then There Were None, Part Three

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC

First shown 27 December 2015

We open, again, with Vera. As the cold draws in on the island, we see her by another beach, playing with her lover Hugo and a little boy. The story of Then verses Now is told entirely through the colours of each.

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Watching Wallander, Vera, Luther or any other deliberately nihilistic series, it can be difficult to care about the characters. When every day is shot in cold greys, browns, or muddy greens, we know that every day in their world contains the same gloom, so why care? Similarly, in Poirot, Midsummer Murders or Marple, everything is bright or shot in pastels, so you never really feel any sense of threat. And Then There Were None makes us feel the terror of the central characters because we know what they have lost, we have a sense of the world they have been taken away from and consequently the horror they are dealing with now.

It can’t be a coincidence that, once inside the house, the decorations are Nouveau moving towards modern and, other than Mrs Roger’s glasses, nobody is dressed in a way that would look out of place on a modern high street. Unlike in Christie’s original, characters take drugs, have (extra-marital) sex. Some are gay. “Shit the bed,” mutters Blore. We see, through Mrs Rogers, that being working class in this age was tough. We see, through Vera, that being a woman was tough. Flashback-Hugh and flashback-Cyril are dressed in standard Christie get-up and pipe away in RP, seconds away from shouting ‘crumbs’, but in the house, we see characters with concerns and values similar to our own. And so we emphasise with them far more.

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This has good points and bad points.

Lily James, before playing Natasha Rostova in War and Peace, pointed out that from a 21st century perspective it is difficult to understand a relationship, much less an engagement, where neither party would see or be in contact with the other for months on end, possibly after only having met a few weeks previously. Values change. Would Hugo and Vera really have slept together before marriage, much less outdoors?! Probably not: but showing this on screen does make their relationship into one that is familiar to the audience. All we need to take away from this is that there was a significant relationship in Vera’s past, and precisely how this is shown doesn’t really impact on the main plot.

The Lombard / Vera flirtation is rather more difficult to justify. The taking cocaine makes sense: the theme of Christie is that people are the same, throughout time, everywhere – it fits with the theme of the original. However, with four survivors left, two going into a room with each other…it means that they have decided to trust each other. That is unsubtle.

Talking of unsubtle, we come to Blore. Whilst it is amusing to have him be wearing a woman’s sunhat and cosying up to Armstrong when Lombard and Vera are dancing, the character as written in the script veers too close to parody. Unlike with the scripted Emily Brent, where the character arc at least makes logical sense, it is difficult to see exactly what about his repressed sexuality made him want to beat an innocent teenager to a pulp.

The saving grace is Burn Gorman. We see Blore, in flashback, sitting in a cell with an almost offensively effete young man. Blore, the friendly neighbourhood bobby, tells the lad off and says not to do it again, because “it’s no fun for you lot in the nick”. His soon-to-be victim, who is all leg, ears, and looks all of about sixteen, is frozen in relieved shock before he says “thank you”.  We’re in the flashback world of Christie-land sterotypes, and everything is going to be okay.

And then Blore’s hand slams into the boy’s chest, and he looks him in the eye and hisses

“That is what I should have done. That is what I should have done.”

Then he looks around, and closes the door of the cell, shutting out the camera, which sees no more. Shortly afterwards, he dies and, thanks to Burn Gorman, chills go up the spine.

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And then, with only Lombard and Vera left, they go down to the beach and discover Armstrong’s body. Logically, this makes one of them the murderer.

It really is a pity that the adaptation succumbed to the convention of forcing a romance between Lombard and Vera. In the book, their lines after the discovery of Armstrong’s body make clear that they know that they are the only two left on the island. They know that everyone else is dead. They both think the other is the murderer – but they both know that it is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said outright. Their spoken lines are ambiguous, and Vera gets her shot in first.

But the way it’s played on screen – unavoidably to a degree, because printed lines can be read a number of ways but spoken lines only one – is that Vera, having gone to pieces entirely, waves the gun at Lombard because she thinks he might have done it. Lombard holds his nerve and thinks that something else is going on and is trying to reason with Vera. Vera, who by now doesn’t know what to believe or which way is up, shoots once as a warning, almost by accident. Horrified by what she has done, she then fires again. Lombard dies a hero, and we feel sorry for the emotional wreck that is Vera:  it makes both characters too sympathetic at this stage in the game.

Interestingly, out of all the inhabitants of the island, only Lombard and Wargrave accept their true nature as amoral psycopaths. Lombard doesn’t care if he kills someone for his own gain, but there is an honest humanity to him that the other characters lack. There is genuine compassion in his lines when he looks down at Blore’s body – impossible to imagine from Vera or Armstrong, who only care about themselves. This compassion to someone not in his way is entirely believable. Trying to reason with someone who logic dictates is the murderess? Less believable. And he dies.

And then Vera returns to the house, to be met by…Wargrave. Even knowing the outcome, this is still shocking.

The clinical dispassion of Wargrave in the book turns far nastier here. They show Vera, desperately, pleading for her life. The writers are trying the same trick as they did with Vera and Lombard on the beach as somehow, despite everything, the audience are still hoping that someone will get out alive.

“Stands the church clock at ten to three?

And is there arsenic still for tea?”

What makes And Then There Were None interesting is the darkness, the fact that everything is not okay in the end. Unlike the rest of the works of Christie, it’s a forerunner of nihilistic crime – the stories where there is no detective to arrive on the scene and make everything okay. People do not die cleanly, but are raped, beaten, trussed up in body bags or, like Blore’s victim, beaten to a bloody pulp before our eyes. The genius of the adaption is to show the world of traditional Christie through Vera’s flashbacks, the sunlight, sparkly sunglasses, bright red lipstick, contrasting always to the torture the characters are undergoing on the island.

And, unlike the type of Christie that rests on the same-ness of human nature, despite the common values that the adaption forces on them, all of the characters in And Then There Were None are products of their time. Lombard murdered 21 men and got away with it because they were not white. Blore is repressed, Lombard a sexist. Vera kills because there is no other way to be with the person she loves.

And this is just the murderers. Emily Brent’s maid dies because she was poor, powerless, cast out by society. General MacArthur’s wife: be left on the shelf, a social outcast, or marry a dull old man she did not love. Blore’s victim is killed because he was gay. Wargrave hangs men and women because he can. Mrs Rogers is forced by her husband to abet murder. Dr Armstrong’s victim dies because a nurse cannot contradict a doctor.

Again and again the point is hammered home: if you were working class, female, gay in 1920s England it was a bloody raw deal.

If every Christie were like And Then There Were None then Christie would not be an ensuring success nowadays. It would not be escapism, just raw reality. The story is unlike anything else that Christie ever wrote, barring the less than successful Endless Night, and that is a good thing.

What makes And Then There Were None different to modern viewers is not the darkness of the story: we’re all used to gore and horror. Instead, the chill comes from the bloody, visceral terror seeping in to a setting that we know as safe. It’s like seeing torture and rape in an episode of Midsommer Murders.

And it works.

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REVIEW: And Then There Were None, Part 2

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC

First shown 27 December 2015

As the ‘Previously On’ teaser begins, we come back to Soldier Island as the victims do. We’re left in no doubt of the adaptation’s status as ‘thriller’: the sinister music, the quickly cut scenes, the final shot of death.

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The adaptation in many ways brings out elements that in the book were under the
surface. To put it bluntly, everyone on television is a lot nastier. Armstrong’s sneering
dismissal of Vera is unpleasant to watch as he spits out the line:

“Miss Claythorne, I warned you against becoming hysterical”

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– but it’s utterly believable as extension of the weak, overly defensive character we see in the book.

This has good and bad aspects. It’s part of the medium that television forces interpretations onto the viewer, whereas reading the book we can make up our own minds.

“Rogers, did you take away any of these figures?” is a very simple line but can be anything in print: investigatory, quizzical, conversational, interrogatory, aggressive. On television, an actress can only play it one way – and the way chosen this time is near-panic. It’s a valid interpretation, but does make everything more black and white.

But there are good sides to this. The 20s attitude to women, the working class, is unspoken in the book. An adaption made in the 21st century lets us see quite how nasty this could be – worth remembering next time we snuggle up to a cosy rerun of Poirot.

“Who the hell do you think you are? I’m a doctor, and you’re just a secretary” snaps Armstrong. “It was dreadful news about Mrs Rogers,” Miss Brent says briskly to the recently widowed husband, “she was a wonderful cook”. Everyone looks on to injustice, and says nothing.

The bad side is that putting all of these extra interpretations into the mix, and making quite a lot of subtexts into text, only mostly works. For one thing, the removal of the shades of grey from many of the characters makes it difficult to get emotionally involved with the fate of anyone: they’re all so unappealing. Even General MacArthur, the most at ease with his fate and least malevolent, is still defined by his selfishness: he doesn’t mind death because he doesn’t have anything to live for. It never crosses his mind that whilst heis done with life, the same might not be true of the others, especially the far-younger Vera, Blore and Lombard. For another, both MacArthur’s and Lombard’s
treatment of Vera, the former patronising, the latter predatory, means that she starts the story already two steps away from hysteria. Tension has to slowly build or rise and fall. If it maintains the same pitch for too long the audience get bored.

Additionally, the sad fact is that both Rogers and Mrs Rogers aren’t very successful characters. Through them, we learn that it’s a cruel world and the cast are cruel people by the way the rich characters treat their social inferiors. It doesn’t leave very much room for
either Rogers or Mrs Rogers as people. Arguably there’s not much the adaptation could have done about this as they’re both offed pretty early on, but then the same could be said of Marston yet Douglas Booth crams a lot into about five minutes. It’s unfortunate that, after making some much of their lot as servants, they are ultimately in the adaptation only to serve a dramatic function.

And then we come to Miss Brent.

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It’s been mentioned earlier that the original version of the character won’t wash here, simply because Miranda Richardson is far too attractive to play the character as written in the book. So instead we have to have a different motive. And the one we get is that she’s a repressed lesbian.

It’s not that it isn’t a valid interpretation, and it is good when adaptations do new things. It’s slightly disappointing that, for more than one character, what was a complex set of motives in Christie’s original boils down to ‘sex’ when adapted for TV.

This is also true for the Lombard and Vera story. And it was probably inevitable that Aiden Turner was going to take his top off at some point. The problem is that, as we’ve seen, the script has gone all this way to emphasise how the social barriers of class and gender remain in place despite everyone dying left right and centre. We see Rogers
making the breakfast after the death of his wife, then Vera being the one to deal
with lunch as the only woman left alive, and we’ve seen how the expectations are so built-in to this society that no-one for one moment questions this.

And then we also have Lombard wandering around shirtless in front of the ladies. Not that the character is really one to care, but you would expect someone to say something at this point because the rest of the characters have not yet broken down completely.

[An aside: Philip Lombard, let’s remember, is on the island because he killed a group of men, 21 in all. When Vera asks him about it, we get this exchange.

“Did you really kill all those men?” “Yes, Miss Claythorne, I did. And more.”

…and then he keeps going on about wanting to kill his host and make U N Owen number 22. Was he lying or can’t he count?]

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In a sort-of defence, the whole thing is not exactly sexed-up. Other than Lombard and
Marston, for whom it is in character, nobody looks good. Wargrave, Armstrong and MacArthur are nondescript, Vera is downright dowdy. We see characters greasy-haried, in dressing gowns. There is nothing sexy about watching a panic-stricken, half-naked Lombard realise that the gun has gone missing: it just shows us that he is in disarray both
emotionally and physically. And you would certainly not get the line ‘Now, let’s wash the guts off the stairs’ in Poirot.

So when, as the characters search all the bedrooms following the disappearance
of the gun, we get a Romantic Moment between a dressing-gown clad Vera and Lombard – who, slightly less explicably, still hasn’t put a shirt on – we can rest easy in the
knowledge that there’s definitely Dramatic Justification.

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REVIEW: And Then There Were None – Part 1

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Adapted by Sarah Phelps for the BBC

First shown 26 December 2015

The nation sits back on Boxing Day, stuffed full of turkey and chocolate, to
watch nasty, brutal murder. Classic stuff.

And Then There Were None is a rarity. It does not take place in cosy Christie-land, where the church clock chimes three as arsenic is served for tea. There are no glamorous parties, no girls with shingled hair. The key to Christie’s enduring appeal is partly escapism. The reader wants to be part of the settings of Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, or The Body in the Library – seeing the pyramids, drinking cocktails in the dining car, having afternoon tea with the Bantrys. And there is an essential safety to Poirot or Marple, or to any of the novels with a one-off hero or heroic young couple. It’s the same logic as Shakespearian tragedy, and the detectives play the same role as Fortinbras in Hamlet or Albany in Lear. There is disturbance (the murder), followed by uncertainity and chaos. Then our heroes turn up and order is restored: the murderer is caught, possibly the Young Lovers get together, and things carry on as they always have been.

And Then There Were None closes with everyone dead and a houseful of bodies.

Any adaptors set themselves a challenge. An inferior story can be rescued by nice costumes, a few minor rewrites and some featured guest stars. And Then There Were None is already a good story, but a fundamentally unpalatable one: it’s a nasty tale about nasty people, but one that ramps up the tension and sends chills up the spine on every re-reading. To make it more audience-friendly, Christie herself injected a Young Lovers subplot into the first theatre version: a decision that is justifiable to make a feel-good play, but one that hasn’t stood the test of time*. An adaption doesn’t just have to stay true to the appeal of the original, it also has to find something new to say, to do something in its chosen medium (TV, film, play, e.t.c) that couldn’t be done on paper.

So, does it work?

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We begin artistically. Shots of waving corn, followed by a close-up of
somebody’s eye. Quick, thrilling cuts introduce us to the characters.
Including the intro, it takes two minutes before we hear a line of dialogue.

For a moment, it seems like classic Christie: sunlight, a beach, a glamorous young girl with vermilion lips. Then we switch to the present day: dark colours, rain, and a thin, haggard girl standing in front of a window, sucking on a cigarette. It’s honestly a shock to find it’s the same person and we  know, immediately, that this is not going to be a nice story. This shows us in a matter of seconds what would have taken pages on paper. Even before she enters a grotty office to take the post of secretary on Soldier Island, we already know how far Vera Claythorne has fallen.

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Television can show us things that we can only infer from paper. Actors can bring new aspects to characters, aspects that were only implied in the original. Aside from a few clever visual gags – a close-up of the blind pull on the train makes it look like a hangman’s noose – we get to see things that there wasn’t space for us to be told in the novel. Our introductions to the characters are in little, telling vignettes, with an imperious Wargrave getting Blore to carry his suitcase as they arrive on the island, Lombard’s predatory eyes forcing Vera to move seats on the train, Marston’s car running Dr Armstrong off the road.

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Quite sweetly, we also see a couple of sympathetic moments from General
MacArthur. He’s quite thinly-sketched in the book, but Sam Neill gives him a humanity with his shy, earnest, pompous smile and the quietly chivalric way he chats to Vera after the boatman is rude to her. He even gets a small moment of heroism, staying calm while the others lose their heads as the action heats up.

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Anthony Marston is another cipher-in-the-book who becomes real on screen. Douglas Booth combines boyish good looks with charming, ruthless narcissim and is easily the most enthralling character in a scene.

Marston ran over two children and didn’t stop. When this is revealed, he asks ‘Who on earth are John and Lucy Coombes?’ with an air of pure bewilderment. A two-dimensional cut-out on paper is transformed into a glossy, arrogant rich boy who talks of ‘simpatico’ great chums, flings himself down on the chairs, leers at Vera, yet through all this maintains an air of childish innocence. His delivery of ‘Let’s be pals‘ as part of his ‘apology’ for running Armstrong off the road is BAFTA-worthy.

It’s an exceptional piece of casting. The same must also be said of Aiden
Turner as Lombard, who somehow manages to be dashing and sleazy at the same time. Lombard is clearly, unapologetically evil but enrapturingly so. Not once but twice we get a male-gaze from his angle directed at Vera. She shrugs it off, but it’s deeply threatening. The narrative makes it clear from the off that everyone on the island is guilty and every action, scene, shot and expression makes us feel part of the unsettling atmosphere.The lighting is cold, as are the big, empty rooms of the house. We see the bloodied bodies of children run over by a car. Wide camera angles mean the large house is made to look tiny against the expanse of the
island, the characters are small on the screen. Lines like “She’s been dead
about 14 hours…tell the others not to expect too much in the way of
breakfast” speak volumes in 19 words.

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That said, there are some missteps. Anna Maxwell Martin is a lovely looking woman with a rare, aristocratic, almost ethereal beauty. No amount of shaking hands and unflattering glasses will make her suitable for the role of browbeaten, meek, grotty skivvy Mrs Rogers. Emily Brent in the novel is a bitter, sexually frustruated, plain woman with a religious mania.

The unstated backstory in the novel is that Emily Brent found solace in
religious mania and self-righteousness because she was an ugly woman, inside and out, who was unable to attract friends or family: someone who lashed out at the world because the world did not want her. And in this role they cast Miranda Richardson.

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With all the acting in the world this doesn’t ring true.

Somehow, Richardson carries the portrayal off – it isn’t the Miss
Brent from the book, but the imperious, high-strung Lady of the Empire is a new and fascinating character in her own right. The same sadly cannot be said of Mrs Rogers. Bowed and scuttling, this portrayal is capital-A Acting and would work on stage. On screen, in close-up, it’s far too unsubtle and quite frankly unbelievable. There isn’t dramatic tension if a character starts the story so close to a nervous breakdown as Mrs Rogers clearly is; there’s nowhere to take the character. Both Mr and Mrs Rogers are too near parody, and you never forget for a moment that these are actors playing parts.

Fortunately, everyone else is so good that, for the moment, it doesn’t really matter.

*The flip side of this is that turning a ‘cuddly’ Christie into a cold story
doesn’t work either. The David Suchet Murder on the Orient Express is a case in point. The novel is the high point of cosy Christie: it has a genuinely
moral heart to it and takes place amongst fur coats and cocktails. The
adaption has the cast huddle shivering in a freezing train carriage while sympathetic characters break down and threaten murder, ending with a crisis of faith from Poirot of all people. None of these are inherently bad ideas, they just don’t fit with the theme of the original.

REVIEW: Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Career of Evil

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2015

Things are going well for Cormoran Strike, private investigator. And then someone posts a severed leg to his office. Robin, his beguiling and innocent secretary, asks hypothetically how many people could possibly want to do such a thing. We’re off to a flying start when Strike simply replies “four”.

Career of Evil takes a very different tone to the previous novels. There was nothing dark about The Cuckoo’s Calling – the deaths were clean in Christie-fashion. In The Silkworm, the gore took on a gothic, macabre quality and we never quite believed in it.

In Career of Evil, we have…domestic violence, multiple instances of child abuse, multiple instances of rape, dismemberment and a sequence where a prostitute gets stabbed in the stomach before her fingers are cut off. It’s less a detective story and more a police procedural, as we travel round with Strike and Robin as they investigate the four suspects: thug Terenence Malley, Strike’s abusive ex-stepfather Whittaker, domestic abuser and psycopath Donald Laing, and domestic abuser and pedophile Noel Brockbank. It’s a merry crowd.

To give light relief, we briefly meet two people with BIID, or Body Integrity Indentity Disorder – the desire to amputate a specific (healthy) body part.* Their meeting takes place in an art gallery cafe. It’s an intentionally humorous scene that gives us observations like this:

Robin suddenly found that she could not look at Strike and pretended to be contemplating a curious painting of a hand holding a shoe. At least, she thought it was a hand holding a shoe. It might equally have been a brown plant pot with a pink cactus growing out of it.

It’s a repeated, and rather boring, criticism of Rowling that her success is thanks to plot not writing. Reading the Cormoran Strike books tells a different story: that maybe the Harry Potter books are written simplistically because this fits their fairytale quality, not because this is Rowling’s only style. In Career of Evil, we don’t so much read about but feel the small Scottish town of Melrose or a military base on Cyprus.

And for all the gore, Rowling is a master of understatement. Early on in the book, we meet the parents of a suspect’s former wife: a woman he terrorised, abused, and made infertile by ‘sticking a knife up her’. All the pent-up pain that this lack causes, the children and grandchildren stolen away, is made viscerally real by her mother’s way of making the best of things:

“But she and Ben have lovely holidays,’ she whispered frantically, dabbing repeatedly at her hollow cheeks, lifting her glasses to reach her eyes. “And they breed – they breed German – German shepherds”.

As the books progress, so Rowling peels back her characters layer by layer. Strike’s ex-fiancee Charlotte is barely mentioned: he has moved on, and so have we. We do see more of his mother Leda, and what was originally a few lines about the ‘supergroupie’ becomes a picture of a complex character: a woman who will take an abusive psycopath into her squalid home without a thought for her children, but also a woman for whom it would have been impossible “to walk past a boy of her son’s age while he lay bleeding in the gutter…the fact that the boy was clutching a bloody knife…made no difference at all”. Here we meet Shanker, Strike’s nefarious contact with the underworld and Leda’s adopted son.

We see a lot more of Strike’s military past too. It’s impossible to stress how deeply refreshing Rowling’s take on the Army is. It’s an organisation that contains heroes like Strike and psycopaths like Laing and Brockbank, and no comment is made on this. For *once* an author shows us both sides instead of total glorification or condemnation.
What we learn about Robin is fairly divisive. It adds a small amount of depth to the character, but takes away quite a lot of her status as Everywoman; this may have been Rowling’s intention. And it may be no coincidence that the increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory comes as Robin grows from secretary to detective. The fashion is for our investigators to come with a traumatic past and family trouble. Robin-as-secretary had none of these things, Robin-as-detective does. It’s a very subtle point, and a kinder interpretation than that Rowling is dwelling on something that perhaps should have been mentioned and then let alone – but ours not to judge.

There are some bad points. It’s not clear why Strike was certain it was someone he knew who had sent him the leg – surely he’s made a lot of unknown enemies in his time. The segments throughout the book written from the killer’s perspective are a bit overdone and detract from the tension rather than add to it. The scene-setting that worked so well in The Cuckoos Calling seems to flag a bit here – all the geographic elements are there, but the culture of London takes a bit of a back seat apart from a couple of mentions about house prices.

But these are very, very minor quibbles. Against this, we see moments like when Rowling’s evocation, humour and dramatic tension all come together in one glorious sentence as Shanker shields an abused girl with one hand and raises his knife with the other. We read about his “gold tooth glinting in the sun falling slowly beind the houses opposite”.

Worth twenty quid to read that alone.

***

*BIID.org.uk contains the following sentence in the introductory section on their website: “Therefore, to become a better person, they feel that a certain limb or appendage will have to be amputated. Unfortunately, there are no known surgeons that will carry out this type of amputation without a medical reason to perform the operation[!]” It’s almost impossible to judge whether this is a real disorder and a very subtle parody.

When you come across the quote from an “eminent neuroscientist” named Dick Swaab, you may assume the latter. Uncertainty returns on the discovery that he’s a real person.

REVIEW: The Silkworm

The Silkworm

The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith

Sphere, 2014

For veteran and detective Cormoran Strike, things are looking up. After his debut in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, penniless and sleeping in his office, we meet him as he turns away clients, sleeping above his office. Strike roams around London, flirting with his secretary and drinking London Pride and Doombar, and all is good in the world.

Soon, however, Strike gets a call from a Leonara Quine, the long-suffering wife of author Owen Quine. Quine is a one-hit-wonder who has been sinking into obscurity for years. His latest manuscript is a vitrolic attack on anyone who has ever rejected him*, and is widely considered unpublishable. It tells the story of Bombyx, a thinly-veiled representation of Quine himself, who goes on a journey where nobody appreciates his talents and nobody understands him. Bombyx’s namesake is Bombyx Mori, the Latin name for the silkworm: a creature that has its insides boiled out to make something beautiful.

Bombyx Mori

Pictured: literary brilliance

To nobody’s surprise but Leonora’s, Quine ends up dead. Who dunnit?

The detective plot is solid but, as in The Cuckoo’s Calling and Harry Potter, the great joy is the world Rowling creates. This time we are taken us into the land of the literati, of champagne dinners and monstrous egos. You never get far from a moral element in Rowling’s work, and the satire that ran through The Cuckoo’s Calling like a stick of rock is here still. Within the first ten pages, we meet a corrupt peer, a nasty CEO, an entitled rich journalists and a stream of “wives who found post-crash city husbands a lot less appealing”. In Harry Potter the moral element was universal, children’s fiction-like: the good verses the evil. In Rowling’s other work we tip into class commentary, which doesn’t always come across as well: the page long rant about the Conservative legal aid reforms will doubtless be fascinating for American readers.

But when it is related to character and plot, Rowling is brilliant. There is a glorious satire on amateur authors with the introduction of Quine’s mistress, ‘erotic fantasist’ Kathryn Kent: but she is also a victim, a sympathetic character, and relevant to the plot. We also see a lot more of Charlotte, Strike’s erstwhile fiancee. In The Cuckoo’s Calling she was a spectre fleeing down a staircase: here, her character flickers into view as Rowling attacks the social mores of the upper classes. The portrayal of mental illness is raw and real, but it never gets too heavy-handed. The revelation about Charlotte’s attempted suicide comes as Strike reads the fake Tatler article detailing her marriage to the caddish Jago Ross. It’s both upsetting and absolutely hilarious.

Strike himself remains no angel. Throughout the book, we see him through other people’s eyes as well as his own, most particularly his secretary and sidekick Robin, and we see a man we admire but also who makes mistakes. We also get to see a bit more of Robin herself, who gets steadily more and more appealing as the book goes on. Little details build up steadily: we learn that ‘Cormoran’ comes from the name of a Cornish giant, we meet Robin’s small-town family. In typical Rowling style, we have great fun with the significance of character names: a stuck up writer named ‘Fancourt’ and ‘Quine’ itself which, according to Google, is a computer programme that prints nothing but its own programming. Quine is defended by his proud and courageous wife Leonora.

There is a much longer review in quite how good The Silkworm is, but what it hopefully boils down to how Rowling’s world and writing are rich and endlessly interesting. Coupled with a solid plot and some really good revelations in quick succession, this is a must-read. Strike is going up in the world and Rowling climbs with him, going from strength to strength.

J K Rowling

Magic!

*i.e. everyone

REVIEW: Murder Yet to Come

Untitled

Murder Yet to Come

Isabel Briggs-Myers

Center for Applications of Psychological Type (republished)

For those not in the know, the Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI) is a way to classify personalities. According to Myers-Briggs, there are 16 types of personalities, each made up of four different traits: whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we sense or intuit, think or feel, judge or percieve*. Its critics are vocal; its popularity is legendary; its accuracy is frightening.

And Isabel Briggs-Myers, the co-creater of the test, once wrote murder mysteries.

IBM

It’s easy to get a little too excited before picking up Murder Yet To Come. Myers-Briggs theorises that humanity only comes in 16 different flavours, but is fundamentally the same: Marple uses the same idea to great effect. The idea of a murder mystery written according to Myers-Briggs types is thrilling.

And this is what we are promised on the cover of the recently-republished copy, thanks to the “Centre for Applications of Psychological Type”.

What we get when we actually read the book, is a classic Golden Age romp that takes in locked rooms, hypnotism, the Wrath of Kali, a stolen cursed jewel and, disappointingly, Yellow Peril. Both the victim and the murderer are captial E-Evil. The victim is an eccentric millionaire who lives in an isolated castle and revels in the name of “Malachi Trent”.

diamond

That’s not to say that the book is bad. It isn’t, and was popular in its day. It’s just slightly odd that the murder mystery written by one of the most promient figures of popular psychology relies so heavily on locked rooms and an assortment of some of the worst traits of the Golden Age. The mysterious evil Oriental butler is a particular low point.

“Your feeling judgement is correct this time”

But, for the MBTI enthusiast, there is still a lot here. The above quote gives a misleading picture of the book as a whole, but is interesting in context. Unlike the normal set-up of detective along / detective plus Watson, Briggs-Myers opts for *three* protagonists: brilliant playwright Peter Jermingham, his trusty sidekick Mac, stolid policeman Nielsson. It’s in these characters that Briggs-Myers really shines, and here that Murder Yet To Come stands out from the crowd.

Jermingham is a genius led by intuition, following hunches that he can’t explain. He is wrong a good bit of the time, but then brilliantly, sparklingly right. Nielsson faithfully collects clues, finds evidence. Mac is content to follow Jermingham around like a loyal puppy.

The cast of victim and suspects are all dully two-dimensional. Yet the detectives themselves are prounced versions of MBTI types: INT, IST, ISF**. You get the sense that Briggs-Myers isn’t really interested in the mystery, but *is* interested in how her characters relate to each other and interpret information. All three characters are given their ‘moment’; all three compliment each other; all three *need* each other to solve the case. It’s an interesting study of personality, and refreshing compared to the omnipotence we see from characters like Poirot or even Wimsey.

As a murder mystery it’s sub-par. As an exploration of character it disappoints. As a look at how people work together and an understanding of gifts differing? Go for it.
*The theory behind Myers-Briggs is long and complicated and would be out-of-place explained here. Go here or here to find out more.

**There is an interesting lack of extroverted characters in the novel.

REVIEW: A Vicar, Crucified

Parke

A Vicar, Crucified

Simon Parke

Darton, Longman and Todd, 2013

Some books are shy. They have nondescript titles in small fonts and sit on the side-lines, patiently waiting to be picked out and asked to dance. Detective stories, on the other hand, jump out at you from your bookshelves screaming ‘Murder!’ ‘Mystery!’ ‘Death!’.

A Vicar, Crucified is one of these. The plot of the story is simple. The parish council of the windswept seaside village of Stormhaven get dissatisfied and crucify their village priest. Literally.

So far, so conventional. Brutality in detective stories is par for the course, barbarity isn’t shocking any more. Yet the murder, or even the mystery, isn’t the most intriguing part of A Vicar, Crucified.

Unusually for a book with such a dramatic title, A Vicar, Crucified is firmly a character piece. Every page oozes sarcasm, bite, and chilling observation of the world. The author, once a supermarket worker, once a comedy writer, once a vicar, knows his stuff: the descriptions of life in the church and parish community are golden.  We meet the Bishop of Lewes – ‘No-one can criticise anyone with a cross from Africa!’ – giving a firm telling-off to a mouthy overweight alcoholic priest, a figure whom we’ve all met before, in an aside designed purely to showcase these characters, before we even get to the crucified vicar himself, an arrogant unlikeable man who sums up his calling as ‘why the hell not?’.

And then we come to the book’s detective, solitary contemplative Abbot Peter.

Peter is the former Abbot of a desert monastery.  A thoughtful, bookish, introverted man, he cares little for possessions and his one desire in life is to be left alone. We can all sympathise. But his character doesn’t end here: like all introverted detectives, his great genius is people. He’s the son of a wandering Russian mystic (George Gurdjieff, the real-life inventor of the Enneagram; despite the moustaches, not in fact Poirot), and is an expert on the Enneagram personality system and its applications in his spare time.

He has to be wise with moustaches like that

For those unfamiliar, the Enneagram suggests that there are nine personality types, each with their own specific way of failing and healthy or unhealthy ways for these traits to manifest. Type Two needs to be needed, Type Three needs to succeed, Type Five needs detachment; read up more here.  And it is this, not the comparatively small manner of the crucified vicar, that makes the novel unique: the novel uses the Enneagram as a way to understand a murder mystery.

Good murder mystery books tend to be either based on logical puzzles (the dropped cigarette = suspect A, a la Holmes) or on human interaction, a la Marple and Poirot. But A Vicar, Crucified does it in an enjoyably blatant way: in Simon Parkes’s head, the murder is not about the clues but only about the people, and the murder is only a tool to see how these people interact. It’s an incredibly intriguing concept, and how the very best murder mysteries are done.

This is not to say that the novel succeeds entirely: it’s a first novel, oddly edited in places, and doesn’t quite focus enough on the murder and suspects to use the Enneagram concept as much as it could. There’s a reason why the main focus of Golden Age detectives is the murderer and victim; however interesting the detective, we have to spend less time with them than we do with the murder to follow the plot. In A Vicar, Crucified we spend a great deal of the time in Abbot Peter’s head. It’s an interesting place to be, but the novel does lose something for it, and sometimes we spend so much time exploring the character of Peter that we end up only being told, not shown, about the other suspects, and when the solution is revealed after all the time spent with the Enneagram it still feels a bit out-of-the-hat as we haven’t spent enough time with the character in question. And there is one big, great, socking flaw in the crime, which a keen reader may spot on the second reading. So…

It comes down to what you read detective stories for. If you read detective stories solely for the clues and the puzzle, perhaps avoid. But if you read them for the portrayals of life, human beings, human frailty and human satire, snap this one up now.

Your answer will likely depend on your Enneagram type.

Clear as mud

Clear as mud

The Bitter Taste of ‘Black Coffee’

Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee

Bill Kenwright Ltd, starring Robert Powell

UK Tour 2014

It is somewhat dispiriting to arrive at the theatre having spent months arguing the case for the multi-generational appeal of Christie, only to find the entire theatre full of over-65s.

Not pictured: hyoscine

Not pictured: hyoscine

We need little explanation as to why Black Coffee comes on tour now: with the end of the fourteen-year run of ITV’s Poirot, the release of Suchet’s Poirot and Me and the announcement of a new Poirot novel by thriller writer Sophie Hannah, the Belgian detective is currently in vogue. But there is one insurmountable problem with the touring production: Black Coffee is not a very good play.

It was Christie’s first, and the learning curve is obvious. As with a lot of early Christie, the plot includes spies and international intrigue despite the fact that Christie simply isn’t very good at writing about spies or international intrigue. And what she is good at – subtle foreshadowing, surprising the audience – doesn’t really come into play here. Sir Claud Amory, amoral scientist (see what she did there) is working on a mysterious and dangerous formula which – gasp! – is quickly stolen. Meanwhile, beautiful young girls are being threatened and shady Italians turn up on the scene for no apparent reason. This is best exemplified in the manner of the murder itself.  About ten minutes in, the characters take down a black briefcase from the top of a bookshelf, which transpires to be medical supplies from back in the war. They open it, and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ wide-eyed over the glass bottles inside. One character asks if these are at all dangerous; Mysterious Foreigner Dr Carelli laughs mysteriously, with a line that can only be rendered as:

 “Ahaha. This alone can kill ten men. Ahahaha.”

It’s not so much Chekhov’s gun as Chekhov’s howitzer. The only way the manner of Sir Claud’s death could possibly come as a surprise after this is if he were killed by being hit over the head with the damn case.  The entirety of Act One is spent bringing the characters up to speed with what the audience have guessed in the first five minutes, with its savvier members spending the time wondering if they’ve gone to the wrong theatre and this is actually the Christie play where the audience know who killed ’em and have to watch the characters guess.

Note that this is not a criticism of Christie, rather a criticism of the production company who decided that this was the best play to stage. Yet there is one, slightly unexpected, beacon in the dark. And that beacon is Poirot himself.

When we think of our favourite Belgian, the image that springs into mind is that of David Suchet, for fourteen years the face of Poirot. Suchet owns the role, and at the beginning Black Coffee doesn’t seem too keen to disassociate itself, with the chords that accompany the curtain-up sounding a little familiar. And then Poirot arrives with the face of Robert Powell.

It’s initially amusing to see Poirot played by an actor who, in the immortal words of Wikipedia, is best known for playing “Jesus and Richard Hannay” but then he’s also an actor who boasts of not having read a single Christie bar The Mysterious Affair At Styles and describes it as “not my thing, really”. Should this man step into the shoes of Suchet, the man who practiced walking with a coin between the buttocks to get the mince right?

“Suppose, Hastings…just suppose…”

Yet this ignorance, if it is ignorance, can only have been a good thing. Powell acts Poirot completely differently but, like Suchet, he takes him a step in the right direction. Powell does not play Poirot as cosy, comforting, comedic but with ice. Watching Powell on stage you get the feeling, that you never quite got with Suchet, that this is a man five times cleverer than everyone else in the room and knows it, a man eagerly manipulating, even toying with, the emotions of the suspects until he finds the answer, a man who almost seems not to care that a man is dead because it’s all a feature in his puzzle. Everyone else in the cast is playing for Sunday evening comfort television, with clichéd characters, easy jokes, and dear God we didn’t need to see the fifty-something Hastings smitten with a twenty-year old girl. Everyone but Powell, who plays Poirot like the puppet-master he is, with a remoteness that even Suchet never quite gave to the character.

And it is this that makes the whole worth watching. After the death of Sir Claud the audience sigh as his sister, Caroline Amory, patiently waits her turn to scream and mourn; but then everything is saved as she turns to Poirot and says that at least Cook had prepared his favourite dinner that night. “I am sure that will be a great comfort to you, Madam,” Poirot replies with crushing condescension, and the world is okay again. His reaction when both the Young Lovers confess their involvement in the crime is worth the price of admission alone, and the change from the icy, almost cruel Poirot we see in the first few scenes to the compassionate father figure defending the young is all Powell, not Christie, but it is wonderful to behold nonetheless.

It’s paint-by-numbers Christie, and she can be so much more. But, that said, it’s a lovely evening and a damn good Poirot.

Who cares that he doesn’t mince right?

 

A Review in Honour of National Poetry Month

Happy April

Death and the Dancing Footman

 

Death and the Dancing Footman

Ngaio Marsh

Collins, 1942

A splendid setting, dark and dramatic,
The guests all murderous, the host erratic;
Motives abound, the snow falls in,
A glorious house-party, steeped deep in sin.

It’s Cards on the Table, only far better,
As somewhere about, there’s a murder-abbetter;
The characters are interesting, the dilemmas seem tough,
Could have been a good read; but it’s not quite enough.

As the difficulty of being brought up on Christie,
Is that you’ll get the twist around page fifty,
Marsh can’t compare, and the reader rages,
Left very bored for the rest of the pages.

We All Have to Review It Sometime: ‘Strong Poison’

Strong Poison

Strong Poison

Dorothy L Sayers

Gollancz, 1930

Philip Boyes is dead, killed by arsenic poisoning. His former lover, Harriet Vane, takes the stand. She has motive, means and opportunity; the whole country believe her guilty. All but one man: Lord Peter Wimsey.

Strong Poison is a much-reviewed novel, especially on the blogosphere, and it’s one where everyone wants their say. It is best-well known, perhaps the greatest, of the detective love stories. It is almost certainly the first where the author has a thinly-veiled substitute of herself take the stand for the murder of a thinly-veiled substitute of her former lover. For the Wimsey books, it’s a watershed: marking the turn from slightly better-than normal whodunnits to some of the best literary fiction of their age.

‘There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.’

But all this overlooks one thing: Strong Poison is a damn good read.

At her very worst, Sayers is prentious, unreadable, and plotless. At her very best, she has a joie de vivre that’s at the heart of the Golden Age, and all the better for its utter irrelevancy to the plot:

‘This person we are going to see – has he a name?’
‘Now that you mention it, I believe he has, but he’s never called by it. It’s Rumm.’
‘Not very, perhaps, if he gives lessons in lock-picking.’
‘I mean his name’s Rumm.’
‘Oh; what is his name?’
‘Dash it! I mean, Rumm is his name.’

Quotes like these can seem irrelevant, but when you think closer you realise that they tell us the one great thing about the Golden-Age detective story:  its complete and unshakeable belief that the world is a place within which bizarre things happen. ‘Strong Poison’ does this more than most and it revels in it. Sayers’ comedic skills are far too underrated, and her great strength is her ability to laugh straight-faced. In her hands we get scenes that would be farce in Crispin and unthinkable in Christie, and the novel sparkles for its incidental characters. The evangelical Christian reformed cockney burglar is a particular treat; also in for a kicking are spiritualism, modern art, and bigoted people in general. Sayers is criminally uncredited as a satirist, and is all the better for targeting her guns on friendly sides:

‘A person who can believe all the articles of the Christian faith is not going to boggle over a trifle of adverse evidence’*

[On the reading of immoral books that everyone is mysteriously aware of the content of]:‘The paragraphs he quoted were filthy. Positively fithy’. ‘Well, it’s a good thing we’ve all read them,’ said Wimsey. ‘Forewarned is forearmed’.”

But then, we digress.

There is one other thing that people know about Strong Poison; or rather, one character. Harriet Vane; Oxford-educated crime writer, betrayed by her lover, early feminist.   It is very, very rare, almost unique, for a character so flamboyantly based on an author to work at all, let alone as well as she does in this, and it may be for one reason. Harriet Vane is not introduced as a particularly likeable figure.  She’s introverted, stubbon and distant, and she is going to die within one month unless Wimsey can clear her name. It’s the seriousness of this that gives ‘Strong Poison’ its strength. And yet, for all the soppy reputation Harriet’s romance with Wimsey has, for all the clichéd nature of her saviour riding in on a white horse, the actual human relationship is played with incredible bathos:

Wimsey: ‘What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that’

Harriet: ‘Oh, are you another of them? That makes forty-seven’.

Undoubtedly, the story of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane has many faults. It forces both characters to compromise, it is based entirely on unlikely coincidence; both characters are entirely realistic about their feelings for each other and know that, really, their lives shouldn’t fit together. It’s one of the best romances in all fiction. According to this site Strong Poison was written to wind up the Wimsey books, with marriage as an ending once Dorothy had earned enough from them. Wimsey would propose; Harriet would accept; the series would end. Only, as in the best cases, the characters got out of hand. It’s an intriguing theory.
[Let’s get this one out of the way: we know that Sayers is writing at best what she knows, at worst wish-fulfilment. Like Harriet, Sayers had an affair with a writer who persuaded her to live with him on the grounds that he did not believe in marriage; she rejected her own principles for this, then he offered to marry her after all. She refused, eloquently. The (many, varied) references to what an untalented, pretentious git Philip Boyes was have a certain sting to them in consequence.]

‘But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’
‘Oh yes. So have I, if it comes to that. In fact, several. It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody’.

So, we know that Sayers is writing wish-fulfillment, but the more interesting question is how she does it. Sayers, to put it bluntly, didn’t particularly care about sex or give much significance to it. She had a husband, a lover, and a father of her son, and all of these men were different: but she never found a partner her intellectual equal. And this gives us the strength of the fantasy, if you like, in Strong Poison. Because, at its heart, the romance of Vane and Wimsey is a romance of two minds. In Strong Poison, the protagonists share barely three scenes together and it’s a triumph to Sayers’s writing that the stories, and the characters, are so real for all this.

We can blame Strong Poison for a lot. The ‘should-the-detective-have-family’ issue comes up a lot, and on the whole the answer is ‘no’; what you end up with is novels not detective stories. This is ultimately true of most of the stories featuring Harriet Vane, the apex being ‘Gaudy Night’; Sayers gets so interested in her characters she forgets her plot. And the classic Sayers works of detective fiction – ‘Whose Body’, ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’ and ‘Murder Must Advertise’ are all straight-up detective stories with a characterless lead. And ‘Strong Poison’ is the only good work of Sayers that combines romance with a very good detective story.

But then, the truly terrible works of Sayers, the unreadable or anodyne – Five Red Herrings,  Clouds of Witness, The Nine Tailors** – don’t feature Harriet Vane at all. Sayers’ strength, in all honesty, was not always detective fiction and she could become very pretentious at times and / or go off on a bit of a polemical tangent.

‘Harriet Vane’s got the bug all these damned women have, fancy they can do things’

This is particularly true in the portrayal of Philip Boyes here: not only a bounder and a cad, but also a prig and a hypocrite, a pretentious prat who thought he was a genius but really was mediocre, lives off his relatives, resents the success of his more talented partner, and generally would deserve a kick up the backside were he still alive. This is not to say that all this was not true of the real-life John Cournos, it’s not really possible to comment, but while authors putting people who have wronged them into fiction might well be cathartic, it seldom leads to a balanced portrayal of character.

But then, Sayers’s strength never was detective fiction; she wrote exceptionally good detective novels, with emphasis on the novel side.  So, how does ‘Strong Poison’ stand up as a detective novel? Not too badly. It essentially has one suspect, but somehow you never do read it fully knowing which is the guilty party, even though all is revealed four full chapters from the end. Because it doesn’t matter, because you care enough for Wimsey’s quest to save Harriet.  For all that, it is more of a howdunnit than a who, and more of a psychological exploration than anything else. Yet, unlike her successors, Sayers does this, and polemicism, very, very, well.

‘Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have’

Because, quite often, Sayers’s observations of people and the world were entirely right. And Strong Poison, despite all the praises and the criticism, retains one undisputable characteristic: it’s a marvellous read.

 _

* Sayers, a woman of many talents, moonlighted as a theologian and Christian apologist.

** De gustibus non est disputandum.