The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

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3. Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia

As a novel, Murder in Mesopotamia is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s one of the few Christie’s to use first-person narration: the Hasting novels have it, back when Christie was more consciously mimicking Conan Doyle. As does The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the first-person narration is rather crucial to the plot.

Murder in Mesopotamia would be the same book if it were not narrated. Amy Leatheran, a gentle and practical middle-aged nurse, is no Hastings: we know that she is not staying around for more than one book, nor do we learn anything more about Poirot from her eyes. There really seems no reason for an observer to narrate, other than that it gives a slightly more personal feel to the book than the other, paint-by-numbers Poirots.

Amy Leatheran is asked to join a dig in Mesopotamia by archaeologist Dr Leidner, who is worried about his wife and wants her to be observed by a trained nurse. This is a cue for a lovely array of background details about life on a dig in Mesopotamia: something Christie was familiar with through her second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan. It’s all very realistic and moderately interesting. In the background, we find out about Mrs Leidner’s first husband, a German spy. A week after Amy Leatheran arrives, Mrs Leidner is found dead. Whodunnit?

Her first husband, long thought dead. It then turns out that he was at the dig, in disguise, and Mrs Leidner didn’t recognise him. It stretches belief, but is just about plausible.

And then we find out that his alter-ego was….drumroll…Dr Leidner. Mrs Leidner’s first husband was in disguise as her second and she didn’t recognise him.

Yeah.

 

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Spot the Mistake #2

The Cuckoo’s Calling is about the death of a model, Lula Landry. A good part of the subplot concerns her life in the public eye, which the photo manages to convey brilliantly: the cameras surrounding her, above her head; the set of her shoulders; the vulnerability in depicting her in nightwear.

A slightly smaller part of the subplot concerns her attempt to find her own identity: as a young woman growing up, working in an isolated profession; as an adopted child; as someone of mixed race heritage trying to get in touch with black culture, struggling against the family who had tried to wash her identity white.

The Cuckoos Calling

Yes…about that last one…

What We Learn About Robin: A Defence

Spoilers! Please do not read on if you haven’t read Career of Evil. 

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Throughout the three Cormoran Strike books, we’ve been learning steadily more about Robin Ellacott, his golden-haired secretary. In A Cuckoo’s Calling, she is a fairly bland character. A nice girl, with a nice house, nice family, and a boring fiancée. Working as a temp, she wanders into Strike’s office and stays.

In The Silkworm, Robin grows as a character a little bit more. We see layers that we didn’t know were there, and that she had forgotten about completely. She turns out to be a naturally good investigator, an adept driver, amateur psychologist…slowly, Strike comes to give more of his work over to Robin, until she steadily becomes his partner. We find out that Robin was studying at university, with dreams of working for the police, before mysteriously dropping out. The tensions between her and her accountant fiancée, Matthew, become greater as Robin grows away from him and spends more and more time at the office. 

Matthew’s theory is that Robin is in love with Strike. The hours spent at work, the new light in her eyes…We, the reader, don’t see an affair. We see that Robin is simply in love with her job. And, by Career of Evil, she is taking on cases as well as, if not better than, her boss.

Ah, yes. Career of Evil.

Midway through the book, there is a ‘revelation’: a ‘revelation’ that seeks to explain Robin’s claustrophobic relationship with Matthew, why she left university, why such an intelligent, driven woman is working as a temp…

We find out that she was raped as a teenager.

This leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Almost certainly Rowling’s intention. Career of Evil is intentionally a darker book than its predecessors. We go beyond cartoonish violence into seeing the impact of crime on real life: fair enough that it should involve our main characters.

But with that said, sexual violence has become a cliche in detective fiction: a cheap, easy, gratuitous way to make a story dark or adult.  As we are repeatedly told by Strike’s internal narration, it makes Robin into someone whose life has been defined by those twenty minutes.

What Rowling is doing is admirable, but some of the implications are a bit unsavoury.

But, leaving all of this aside, there is an alternative explanation.

We are far from the sunlit, uncomplicated days of Poirot and Marple. To be a detective nowadays, you need some kind of backstory, some kind of motivating trauma. It’s probably quicker to name those who don’t have this, but to give a flavour:

Adam Dagliesh, Tony Hill, Thomas Lynley, Quirke, John RebusLisbeth Salander, Scott and Bailey, Vera Stanhope, Kurt Wallander….Strike himself has his father, his mother, his leg and Charlotte.

When we met Robin originally, she was an archetype: the nice girl with the nice job and boring fiancée, who discovers another, more exciting life and runs headlong into it. The nearest parallel in popular culture is probably a Dr Who companion: it’s a typical ‘gate to another world’ story, except that the world Robin discovers exists (sort of) in real life. The cliche of past trauma actually gives Robin more independence, because it takes her away from the archetype and back to one character, with one story, making one specific set of decisions.

Which mirrors, quite nicely, Robin’s transition from secretary to detective. In the first book, we know nothing about her character; she mainly makes the tea. In the second, as she goes out investigating we learn more about her life with Matthew. It is in the third, when she finally gets a full backstory, that we see her following up her own leads and detecting in her own right.

The increasing emphasis on Robin’s character, her family woes and her multi-layered backstory come 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 subtle point: perhaps 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.

 

 

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.

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*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.

The Big Four (Flaws in Christie)

Detective fiction plots are a little bit like clockwork. Sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot whirrs into sub-plot into Resolution, intuition into clue into deduction, multiple cogs spinning and clicking to produce one final resounding tick.

Only sometimes they get it wrong. Only a little bit wrong, but a little bit of dust in the machine that clogs up the mechanism and then it all suddenly doesn’t make any sense. One thought of ‘hmm…’ springs into the reader’s mind and the entire edifice comes crashing down.

Reading a writer such as Christie, these are pretty rare; to take a lesser writer to task for common mistakes would be a little unsporting. For this reason, these posts will deal exclusively with the good works of Christie in her heyday: the ones we remember and cherish, not the ones we prefer to forget or just think ‘eh?’ For all their inconsistencies, Elephants Can Remember or Passenger to Frankfurt will not be dealt with here; as will cases such as Peril At End House where an ‘inconsistency’ is acknowledged and dealt with in the text.* And so, Five Minute Mysteries is tackling the greatest of them all at the height of her powers to show one thing: how damn difficult writing a good detective story is.

Obviously, spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

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COUNTDOWN

4: After the Funeral

After the Funeral

 

After the Funeral is one of the lesser known but most underappreciated Christies. Written fairly late, it has the darker tone of late Christie in its setting, a Britain ravaged by the wars and idyllic dreams of teashops and old family houses lost for good, yet keeps the whip-sharp characterisation and plot of the best. It’s rare, perhaps unique, in being a country-house murder that knows that age of the country-house is long-gone.

We begin the story with our introduction to the Abernethie family, before the war self-made millionaires with a big house and children playing in the garden. Fast-forward thirty years, and all but one of the Abernethie children is dead and their grandchildren have moved on. The family gather one last time for the funeral of the head of the Abernethie family, Richard, who died peacefully in his sleep…we assume, until his sister Cora, the last of the original Abernethie children, perks up her head and speaks:

“But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’

Cora Lansquenet, nee Abernethie, was a gawky child who always spoke at the wrong moment, now grown into an overweight, ungraceful woman who always speaks at the wrong moment, so no-one at the gathering pays her too much attention until, a few days later, she is found by her companion, her head smashed and very dead. Enter Poirot.

At first, the case seems impenetrable. There would be reasons to kill Richard Abernethie, but no-one can find any evidence to prove murder. If Richard Abernethie was not murdered, then why kill Cora, a batty old lady who lived alone with a companion and spent her days buying old paintings at charity sales? The answer is one of Christie’s most ingenious.

1. Cora was killed, not for her money, but for something valuable in her possession: an unrecognised Vermeer, bought at a charity sale and left as a gift to her paid companion, Miss Gilchrist, who battered in her employer’s head in order to get enough money to found a genteel tea-shop. (It is one of the more darkly amusing Christies).

2. The Cora who made the comment at the funeral of Richard Abernethie, the comment that began the suspicion that Richard Abernthie was murdered and so threw suspicion away from the murder of Cora Lansquenet, was…not in fact Cora Lansquenet but her companion, Miss Gilchrist, dressed up.

This in itself is not too implausible (and there’s a far more egregious use of this device in Christie yet to come). None of those present at the funeral were close relatives, all close relatives being dead; Cora had changed from a skinny girl into a heavy woman, and only her easily-mimickable mannerisms were the same. Miss Gilchrist being able to pass herself off as Cora makes sense, but what she says while in disguise does not.

By suggesting that Richard Abernethie was murdered and then allowing Cora’s body to be discovered, Miss Gilchrist essentially begins a murder investigation. This is exactly the sort of thing that a sensible murderer does not want. Either they convict the wrong man, and someone, somewhere keeps looking. Or, more likely, without a plausible culprit, the case remains open and, as Miss Gilchrist admits, she remains under suspicion for the rest of her life. The big burning question is this: Why allow Cora’s murder to be discovered at all?

Option 1: Kill Cora, apologise for not being able to make the funeral by letter, wander about dressed as Cora for a few weeks, then move. Steal the painting and open a teashop somewhere far away. Characters use this device successfully in A Murder Is Announced.

Option 2: Kill Cora. Attend the funeral, and any few-and-far between family functions, in disguise as Cora. Whilst there, explain that you’re moving to, say, the North of Scotland to paint and open a teashop but will keep in touch. Move to Scotland, steal the painting, open a teashop and maintain a double identity as Miss Gilchrist and her seldom-seen employer, the eccentric Cora Lansquenet. After a while, fake Cora’s disappearance to the South of France and remain in Scotland as Miss Gilchrist, whilst attending family functions on Cora’s behalf. Characters use devices such as these – impersonation and a hidden life in a foreign country – in Parker Pyne Investigates and After the Funeral itself.

Option 3: Kill Cora. Go to the funeral and launch a murder investigation. Then allow Cora’s body to be discovered and find that, once the case is taken over by detectives, that you are under scrutiny and not allowed to leave. Result?

It’s remarked in various Poirots, most explicitly Cards on the Table, that the most successful murderer is the one that is never caught. In all Christies the murderer makes a mistake in some shape or form, but in this one we are reminded of the lament of Mrs Oliver, Christie’s crime-writing alter ego: that, when thinking up the best crimes, the criminal has to be made to do something really stupid to allow the detective to catch him.

 

"Merci!"

“Merci!”

 

*SPOILERS!

The ‘flaw’ in Peril at End House is in fact the same as that in The Cuckoo’s Calling, except that the former acknowledges it where the latter doesn’t: when trying to cover up a murder, it is a really really stupid move to hire someone you know to be a competent detective to investigate it. It is particularly egregious in The Cuckoo’s Calling, where the murder is considered to be a suicide until the murderer himself hires a detective to investigate. The points this gains for an unexpected ending are unfortunately cancelled out by the sheer stupidity that no amount of “he’s just a really arrogant character” can ever justify.

 

 

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