Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the murder victim takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is a lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)

Review: Eli Marks, Books 1-3

the-ambitious-card_coverThis is my first time combining reviews and I don’t plan to do this often. I saw a tempting review a while back by FictionFan for The Miser’s Dream, the third Eli Marks mystery by John Gaspard. Books 1 & 2 aren’t strictly required to understand the third, but they sounded fun so I started at the beginning. The general premise of the series is that a magician, Eli Marks, helps solve crimes between performances and shifts at his uncle’s magic shop. I love this angle. When I was a kid, I bought every magic set and trick deck I could find; I’d have enjoyed these books even if Eli never left Uncle Harry’s magic shop. Their strengths and weaknesses are fairly consistent so it made sense to write a single review to spare you all the repetition. [Note: The books aren’t repetitive.]

the-bullet-catch_cover

All three books, The Ambitious Card, The Bullet Catch, and The Miser’s Dream are named for magic tricks. The murder mystery in each book ties in with the titular trick. Eli is pulled into investigations via his proximity to the murder and/or victim, but this doesn’t feel overly contrived. Eli’s experience in showmanship and sleight of hand offers him a unique perspective. The professionals are willing to indulge him on this account, but it surely helps that his ex-wife is an Assistant District Attorney and her new husband is Homicide Detective Fred Hutton. Eli always refers to Homicide Detective Fred Hutton by his full name and title to annoy him. (There was overlap between Eli and Homicide Detective Fred Hutton in the affections of ADA Deirdre Sutton-Hutton so Eli finds little ways of injecting pettiness into their interactions.)

I like Eli’s sense of humor—his inner monologue is a big part of each book—but it occasionally works against him.

“This is not a social visit,” he said, stepping into the shop. Another man—another detective I assumed—followed him in.
“Well, that’s too bad,” I said. “Because personally I don’t think we socialize nearly enough.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, recognizing my subtle sarcasm and returning it in kind. (AC, 59)

Even out of context, it’s perfectly plain that these last two lines of dialogue are sarcastic. Gaspard has laid plenty of groundwork in creating Eli’s sense of humor and his relationship to HDFH, but in this (and in similar exchanges), it seems he doesn’t trust the reader to pick up on the interplay. Nothing kills subtlety like pointing it out. While writing, I worry that a reader will misunderstand or overlook sarcasm, but then I remind myself how much I dislike over-explained dialogue and force myself to strip out these clarifications. This is one of my biggest pet peeves with dialogue… and yet I kept reading. Why?

the-misers-dream_cover

Because the mysteries are legitimately fun! Bodies had a funny habit of turning up just when I thought I’d worked out the means/motive/opportunity for the original crime. For such lighthearted and humorous books, these pack a surprising body count. There are plenty of mysteries out now in which the mystery is unraveled by a uniquely placed Regular Guy, but the magician angle is well-used and allows Eli to endear himself to the reader. Who doesn’t love a good magic show? (No one, that’s who.) I really admire the way Gaspard preserves the magic for the reader—Eli uses thinking and techniques from his act to construct a theory of the crime, but doesn’t pull the curtain back too far, not even to solve a crime. There’s no moment when he says, “The woman is in the box the whole time and there’s a trapdoor and that’s how I know who the killer is.” The Ambitious Card rides this line best: the book begins with Eli debunking a psychic in his capacity as a skeptic. He doesn’t spoil the psychic’s act, but performs a similar routine of his own and makes it clear that his performance is only a trick, not genuine magic. Some broad strokes from this act frame the action going forward. It’s a brilliant plot device and as much as I’d like to know how some of the tricks are performed, I’m in agreement with Eli: It’s more fun not to know.

I preferred The Ambitious Card and The Miser’s Dream to the second book, The Bullet Catch. While it had a great premise, the mystery’s solution was less satisfying because the otherwise great technique of hiding magical mechanics rendered The Big Reveal a trifle flat. I liked the funny/serious balance best in The Ambitious Card if for no other reason than that I adored Franny, a phone psychic who can only read your fortune over the phone (if you’re in her house, she’ll have you go into another room and call on your cell). She’s emblematic of the great cast around Eli: everyone is a bit quirky and entirely lovable.

Overall: 4.6 I’ve been reading more mystery books lately and these are the most fun. Also, I’ve been watching YouTube videos for simple card tricks, so they’re having a positive effect on my imagination.

Translation: Read them. All three! 🙂

Semi-related a.k.a. I need to unburden myself:
When I was a kid, I saw one of those magic worms (a fluffy, neon pipe cleaner with googly eyes) doing tricks with some guy in the mall. The worm was crawling around his hand, up his arm, and into and out of a glass. I spent all my money to learn that the magic was a bit of fishing line. You were supposed to tie the worm to a belt loop with the invisible line and then, between hip manipulations and moving your arm, you could make the worm look like it was moving. I was a twitchy kid, but I couldn’t make the hula-hooping look natural. If I extended my hand without moving my hips and the worm crawled up my arm (sorry, he’s shy!) it was really obvious the worm was attached. The worst moment was when I dropped him and he “landed” a few inches above the floor. The only creature entertained by my act was the cat who wasn’t allowed to play with the worm. This is how I learned the meaning of the word DISILLUSIONMENT.

Review: And Then There Were None

and-then-there-were-none_coverI’m too new to Agatha Christie to have an opinion on her “best” story, but I prefer And Then There Were None to Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a standalone mystery that doesn’t require previous knowledge of Poirot or Miss Marple which makes it immediately accessible to a new reader. I wasn’t left to wonder if I was missing something by starting in the middle with an established character. [Note: This book was previously titled Ten Little Indians and set on Indian Island. Later editions, like mine, are titled And Then There Were None and set on Soldier Island.]

Despite the name change, the story is the same: Ten strangers are lured to an island and picked off one at a time. If you want more info, then read the book. I’m providing no more plot information than is already suggested by the title.

The tone is more ominous than Murder on the Orient Express without Poirot’s calm and thoughtful demeanor to frame the investigation. And Then There Were None features a group of increasingly paranoid people trying to work out why they were sent invitations to the island. They’re all shady, which means they all believe they’re in particular danger; further, no one wants to divulge their past because they don’t know whom to trust. It’s a great setup that doesn’t go in for cheap mood setters. For example, you might imagine that these people have been lured to a big, creaky house in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not the case:

If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels—it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it. (68)

My favorite complaint among the low-star reviews is that the cast is too large. The entire premise is that a large group of people is rapidly becoming a small group. It may be overwhelming when you encounter the initial wall of characters and backstories, but the confusion is temporary. With so many details flying around, an impatient reader might be tempted to work out commonalities or potential motives for the impending murders. Don’t be impatient. As the cast shrinks, character details are recapped or recast in light of the changing situation. As I read, I was surprised by my ability to remember who was who and who had which backstory. Christie’s control over the story is masterful. She’s able to refresh the reader’s memory, tease, and drop red herrings in a single pass.

Only one aspect of this book gives me pause: The mystery is explained in the epilogue. I detest epilogues. They typically contain unnecessary information/closure, or details that belonged in the story itself but couldn’t be included for whatever reason. The epilogue here verges on the latter flaw. A few scenes are obfuscated so the reader won’t catch on, thus necessitating the epilogue. It’s one thing for characters to fib and deceive, but when an author does it… There’s a line here that Christie flirts with, but ultimately the book gets a pass because it’s so well constructed in every other respect. It’s like having a puzzle box in which each part slides and fits appropriately, except that one piece has a bit of hardened glue that makes the fit suboptimal, and you can’t remove it.

By the time I reached the end, I was so curious to know every detail of the mystery that reading an epilogue was an acceptable cost.

Overall: 4.9

Translation: Read it.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

murder-on-the-orient-express_coverI made it to my 30s before reading a book by Agatha Christie. Why did I wait? No idea. My high-school self would have loved Murder on the Orient Express. As much as I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, I resented when a case was solved via clues that weren’t accessible to the reader. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie lets the reader play along.

From the back cover:
Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

This book not only introduced me to Christie, but also to her detective, Hercule Poirot. He’s more personable than Sherlock and the way he summarizes each development in the case made it easy for me to keep track of the long list of suspects. The characters are identified by their country of origin as often as by name (which feels dated), but it’s easier to recall a list of countries than a list of names. Some countries come with stereotypes, but I’ve always found the loud, nosy, demonstrative American hilarious when penned by a British author. When Mrs. Hubbard goes on about “Amurrican methods” (decades before the ‘Murica! memes), she’s “vurry” memorable. Oh, and:

His tone expressed professional disapproval.
“There is a large American on the train,” said M. Bouc, pursuing his idea—“a common looking man with terrible clothes. He chews the gum which I believe is not done in good circles. You know whom I mean?” (45-46)

Poirot is on the case by page 42 after a series of well-chosen introductory details. He takes the case because it intrigues him, but also because the train has come to a stop in the snow and there’s little else to pass the time. I like the practical way he works through the mystery point-by-point, but Part 2 hits a rut. Take a look at the Table of Contents:

The Evidence of the Wagon Lit Conductor
The Evidence of the Secretary
The Evidence of the Valet
The Evidence of the American Lady
The Evidence of the Swedish Lady
The Evidence of the Russian Princess
The Evidence of Count and Countess Andrenyi
The Evidence of Colonel Arbuthnot
The Evidence of Mr. Hardman
The Evidence of the Italian
The Evidence of Miss Debenham
The Evidence of the German Lady’s Maid
Summary of the Passengers’ Evidence
The Evidence of the Weapon
The Evidence of the Passengers’ Luggage

Each of these chapters recounts an interview with Poirot. The first few are most interesting since they present new information, but there are only so many ways to narrate events from the night of the murder. Poirot’s eye for detail and a liberal sprinkling of red herrings keep things fresh, but the momentum can’t help but flag. Poirot brings some outside knowledge to the case, and at first I feared this would deny me a chance to play along, but it is possible to work out the broad outlines of the mystery as a reader. Hurrah! So it’s like Sherlock, but more fun. I suppose I should say that “fun” is relative; this is a murder mystery after all.

This is one review that must be kept short since I don’t want to talk my way into dropping hints/spoilers. I’m not quite sure what I expected when I picked it up, but the warm tone and accessibility of the case drew me in. I like Poirot’s method and look forward to reading many more:

“And suppose I do not solve it?”
“Ah! mon cher.” M. Bouc’s voice became positively caressing. “I know your reputation. I know something of your methods. This is the ideal case for you. To look up the antecedents of all these people, to discover their bona fides—all that takes time and endless inconvenience. But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think? Do that. Interview the passengers on the train, view the body, examine what clues there are and then—well, I have faith in you! I am assured that it is no idle boast of yours. Lie back and think—use (as I have heard you say so often) the little grey cells of the mind—and you will know!” (47)

So that’s what all those mentions of “little grey cells” allude to on lit sites. It’s nice to finally get the joke.

Overall: 4.7 I’m excited to read more books by Agatha Christie. I found a deal on the complete collection of Miss Marple stories so it may be some time before I return to Poirot, but I’ll be reading plenty of Christie in 2017. If it ever gets cold here, I hope to curl up with a mug of hot coffee and book some Saturday morning.

Translation: Read it.